Thursday, 24 May 2018

Equal Power, and how you can make it happen

First published on LibDemVoice, 24th May 2018.

I think Equal Power is the first book I have ever pre-ordered. I started reading it the day it came out. When I tweeted about that, Jo Swinson replied, and I promised her I would review it as soon as I finished reading it.

Several months later…..

My post hoc justification for my tardiness is that, to coin a phrase, a review is something best tasted cold. And I find that my opinions about the book have not changed since I first read it.

I found “Equal Power, and how you can make it happen” very powerful indeed. Not because the material was new to me – most of it was not – but because of the way Swinson treats it. She combines statistics and research evidence, other people’s stories and her own experience in a compelling way. The trick with such material is always in the way the combination is made. Statistics are devoid of life and stories lack width in applicability. Swinson combines the two admirably well in a very readable style. She then delivers much of the punch in the book through recounting her own personal experience. And, very importantly, every chapter ends with a summary of actions that everyone can take to improve gender equality.

She gives herself the space to lay out more than simple arguments. She discusses some of the underlying ideas and languages behind many of our attitudes. She notes in particular (around p31) the use of the word “illiberal”, something I have experienced myself, particularly in discussions about gender issues, being used with the evident purpose of closing an argument. “I’m against all women shortlists because they are illiberal.” Of course they are, but you cannot end it there. You have to show why they are more illiberal than the current system which routinely and significantly discriminates in favour of people like me.*  (Jo does not favour all women shortlists, but for better reasons.)

The stories bring life to the pages. Some of them are familiar, some are not, and some are immensely powerful. Shirley Williams’ anecdote of her experience as a junior minister in the 1960s is a corker. If you don’t know it, it’s almost worth buying the book for that story alone.

For much of the time I read the book, I was listening to the music of another articulate, energetic Scot, Amy MacDonald. We have come a long way, a very long way since the times of Shirley Williams’ anecdote, but there is still a very long way to go. “Don’t tell me that it’s over, it’s only just begun.” The practical suggestions for action at the end of each chapter outline some very good ways of taking us further along the road towards gender equality.

This review is quite short. I don’t want to waste more of your time reading it when you should be reading the book, available here or here, and then doing something about the inequities it catalogues.

(*Old white git in case you hadn’t noticed. I also have the beard and sandals, but for this purpose those are optional.)

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Windrush, how they suddenly became “good” immigrants

If anybody should resign over the Windrush scandal, it is Theresa May. It was her determination over a long period as Home Secretary to foster what she called a hostile environment for illegal immigrants, and her determination to produce one regardless of the cost to others that has created the tragedies that we see unfolding almost daily. This is not a flash in the pan, it is the result of years of hard work on her part. Any claim she has to be a Christian is negated by the evidence of years of consistently pushing hard line vicious rhetoric and action about immigrants.

It is not just the Windrush immigrants who have been harmed by this, to a tragic extent in many cases. Refugee Action’s report about asylum seekers “highlights the issues that occur at multiple points in the asylum process and alleges that “systemic failures” in the Home Office’s approach to asylum claims “dehumanises, disempowers and damages” those who have come to the UK fleeing persecution or war.” Other completely legal migrants regularly face harassment and persecution.

Such action does not occur in a vacuum. It does not occur without the support or at least the acquiescence of a large proportion of the population. Such support, if not forthcoming naturally, is usually nurtured by media misrepresentation of numbers, intentions and effects.

The circumstances of the Windrush generation have improved from the days when they were turned away from boarding houses at the drop of a hat, or routinely refused jobs when their ethnicity became clear. Nevertheless they are still too often treated as second class citizens and routinely suffer the daily slights of casual racism. That is, until the last few weeks. The sudden transformation of the Windrush generation from bad immigrants to good immigrants is a very interesting phenomenon, both academically and politically.

Politically it makes sense. Because of Brexit, the right wing wants to tilt away from Europe and uses the Commonwealth as one of the places from which our mythical salvation will come. (Issues like India wanting free movement to be part of any trade deal are ignored – logic is not an issue when it comes to constructing others.)  So, all of a sudden the Windrush immigrants become the kind of immigrants we want, unlike the Europeans.

They are also newsworthy because they are being hard done by. This is not enough on its own to be newsworthy – the steady increase since 2010 in the hounding of immigrants, minorities of all kinds, disabled people and many others has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press. But human interest makes suffering much more publishable.

There may be another factor behind the ability of the right wing press and its supporters to turn on a sixpence with regard to the Windrush generation. Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, (see also "Ingroups and Outgroups".) did a great deal of work on social identity theory. He started with the basic building blocks of identity, our capacity to categorise everything, and to assimilate categories. In the crudest terms, we categorise e.g. white and black, and good and bad. Then we assimilate, so white and good go together, black and bad go together. It is a fundamental way of enabling ourselves to function in a world of constant information (it always has been, since forever, not just in the digital age).

From that develops a way of creating identity. We categorise the world into “ingroups” and “outgroups”. Ingroups are people we are like and outgroups are people we are not like. One of his most distinctive assertions was that outgroups are just as important for our identity as ingroups – we define ourselves by saying who we are not as much as by saying who we are.

It is but a short step for powerful groups to discriminate against those who they perceive as outgroups. “Not us” becomes assimilated with “worse than us”.

Tajfel’s theories have been subsequently developed, not least in Critcher et al Race in the Provincial Press. (available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/history/cccs/stencilled-occasional-papers/1to8and11to24and38to48/SOP39.pdfhttps://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/history/cccs/stencilled-occasional-papers/1to8and11to24and38to48/SOP39.pdf – 250MB - I found it quite difficult to download; might have been just a bad day at the server.) A study of five newspapers in the Midlands revealed expected levels of racial stereotyping and treatment in all cases but one, the Walsall Observer. On re-examining the Walsall Observer, the researchers discovered that that paper had travellers as its main outgroup, and said pretty much the same things about travellers as the other papers said about black people. This led to a theory that we prefer to deal with one outgroup at a time. Having more than one is not necessary for purposes of self identification, and may also lead to unwelcome feelings of being threatened by having so many people that we are not like. Note that this is always about perception and about construction, not about any supposedly objective reality.

I found a piquant example in my own research, based on Critcher et al. I examined the Leicester Mercury for a year in the 1970s, and found, as they did, the expected levels of stereotyping and treatment of back and brown people, including those now known as the Windrush generation. But at one point a local vicar made a statement about sex work. He declared that it should be made legal. Sex workers could be respected, disease treatment would be more effective, they and their clients would be safer, they could be taxed, etc. This was not what the Leicester Mercury wanted to hear. For nearly a month after this hit the news, black and brown people disappeared almost entirely from its pages, as it focused on sex work. And it said about the sex workers exactly what it usually said about immigrants – would you want to live next door to one? Would you like your daughter to be one / marry one? (Seriously). After about four weeks the prostitutes faded out and the black and brown people faded back in, and business as usual was restored.

This way of dealing with outgroups may explain the shift in treatment of the set of black and brown immigrants known as the Windrush generation. We have subcategorised immigrants according to the focus of our latest political dilemma. We have created a subcategory of “European immigrants” and quite deliberately separated them from other immigrants. Now, the theory does not require that other categories of outgroup are well treated. Usually they are ignored, submerged.

But, being submerged, they then become available for other treatment as appropriate. So the fact that the Windrush generation is not our outgroup du jour means that they are available to be treated as a human interest story of the type that sells newspapers and enables (some of) us to feel good about ourselves, without (probably) actually changing anything.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Sheep's clothing


I have lived in the diocese of Chichester for nearly 35 years. For far too much of that time I have watched with increasing distress the gradual revelation of the cycle of crime and cover up in the abuse scandal that has persistently bedevilled the diocese. This diocese believes in the warmth and comfort of the gospels. This diocese painted itself as a place of refuge for religious souls cast adrift by the sea of change in the modern world. And for more than a generation this diocese has responded to the needs of the souls in its care with brutal corruption.

The abuse and the cover up have been well documented for some years now, but often in a haphazard way. During March the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) focussed on Chichester as one of its case studies, and pulled all the evidence together in one place. The transcripts of the fifteen days of hearings, and the dozens of documents which back them up, make for harrowing reading.

The events of both the abuses and the cover up were quite effectively summarised by Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent on March 25th. He portrays the various abusers, and outlines the failure of attempts to improve safeguarding, the actions of various protectors of the perpetrators and the culture within which they were allowed not just to survive but to flourish. He calls it “normalising”. In the latter part of the article he focuses on Peter Ball, and he ends with the words of the current bishop, Martin Warner.

The evidence given to the IICSA makes clear that, despite the charging and sentencing of (some of?) the perpetrators, the diocese is still in immense difficulties. There will no doubt be continuing attempts to assert that the slate has been wiped clean. There will still be some who belittle or disbelieve the brutality that has been practised. There are still some who allow themselves to be duped by the obvious niceness of Bishop Peter among others. There are many who will know that they should have taken action. And there will be many who do not know how to conduct themselves to ensure that safeguarding is done properly in the future. The slate is not clean because there is still so much to do.

Responsibility falls at two levels, the perpetrators and those around them. The perpetrators that we know of are rightly being punished and must make their own amends. For some of those around them, who actively ignored guilt and encouraged the continuing commission of brutal crimes, perhaps punishment is appropriate too. I make no apology for using the word “brutal” despite litte evidence of violence in the crimes committed. Brutality can be practised in a caress. The fact that it is done with a velvet glove makes it no less violent, no less domineering, no less brutal. The diocese has to face up to that reality, that it was covering up not just a minor sin but a series of deplorable crimes.

And there is a particular problem for Chichester diocese that requires a particular depth of soul searching. This evidence to the IICSA (near the end of page 2) makes an uncomfortable connection between the perpetration of these offences and opposition to the ordination of women. It does not have to be that way, but there must be a different construction, a different way of thinking and a different way of being if the diocese is to get back to fulfilling its Christian mission.

I paused, as Andreas Whittam Smith obviously did, at Martin Warner’s final words to the inquiry. (Here, pages 93-94)

While apologies can begin to sound formulaic, I do want to register my sorrow and apology for the sexual abuse of children that has taken place in the diocese of Chichester, and for the ways in which it has been mishandled in the past.

This comes from the bottom of my heart as a human being, but also more formally from me as the bishop of this diocese. I also grieve for the loss of access to faith that this has often resulted in: a terrible realisation, and it is that which has sustained my efforts in ensuring that the diocese of Chichester reforms.”

The words that made me pause were the last sentence. The bishop says he is primarily motivated by the loss of access to faith suffered by the victims. In my view this is far too narrow a focus. Faith has an inestimable position in the minds of Christians. But a misguided emphasis on the primacy of faith is part of what led to Chichester falling into this pit in the first place. Abuse damages the bodies and minds as well as the souls of the victims. Souls may be mended in the afterlife, but bodies and minds can only be cared for on this earth. If the victims of these abuses get to the end of their lives, and we have not healed their souls, then healing awaits them in the life beyond. If they get to the end of their lives and we have not at least attempted to heal their bodies and minds, then we have failed. Reparation must apply to the scars carried by body and mind, or it is meaningless. And efforts at reform must focus on producing a church that heals and nurtures bodies and minds as well as souls. Without an emphasis on the current physical reality of the victims and their lives, any repentance and reform will be meaningless. Until there is widespread recognition of the brutality done to bodies and minds as well as souls, that was permitted and protected by the diocese, there will be no moving forward and no peace, however much people think there is.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Headlights

I have always thought that high intensity headlights are a pestilence. Now I find I am part of a massive majority. 80% of drivers surveyed by the RAC think that there should be better regulation for modern headlights.

“The headlights of some newer cars are so bright they are causing a road safety hazard for drivers with as many as two-thirds (65%) of motorists saying they regularly get dazzled by oncoming headlights even though they are dipped.

“Fifteen per cent of motorists surveyed by the RAC claim they have suffered a near-miss as a result of being dazzled by modern headlights that they believe are too bright.”

This is clearly a safety issue, but I was worried by the tone of some of the RAC’s press release. First of all, they see brighter lights as an improvement in technology. “the new designs of headlights are brighter, making it easier for drivers to see and therefore potentially safer for them...”; “Headlight technology has advanced considerably in recent years, but while that may be better for the drivers of those particular vehicles, it is presenting an unwanted, new road safety risk for anyone driving towards them...”. I doubt that it is safer for them. And it is only “better” if you accept the dominant view that people should be able to drive as fast as they want regardless of road, traffic, weather or light conditions. It is not better if one person’s ability to drive carelessly is bought at the expense of another’s difficulty.

We would not need brighter headlights if we drove a little more slowly. We might also reduce the 1800 deaths and 23000 serious injuries we cause on the roads every year.

Friday, 23 March 2018

In which I once again blame Jonathan Agnew unfairly

I refer to my previous post on the failures of the England cricket set up.

England's latest embarrassment has that sinking feeling of predictability about it. The only consistent thing about England's batting is its magnificent inconsistency. I would not bet against them scoring either 50 or 500 in their second innings, if the weather lets the game get that far.

I have given up being frustrated by England's performances. I remain frustrated, however, by the level of analysis of what goes wrong when it goes wrong. I have named Jonathan Agnew, which is unfair to him, excellent commentator that he is. He is merely an example of the direction of analysis of England's failure in the first innings against New Zealand. I agree that the preparation provided for visiting teams is unfair, but to blame that for what happened yesterday is to mistake a symptom for a cause. A test cricketer should be able to come out of six months in the freezer and keep their wicket. Much of the other commentary I have seen (not an exhaustive trawl) focuses on individual technical failures, listing the individual mistakes in detail, some with a sense of schadenfreude. There is a larger, and I would argue, more important issue, which is how do we get to the point where nine experienced, talented, skilled, highly coached, competitive individuals all make such school child errors at the same time. Why was there not one single batter (until Craig Overton) who, seeing what the others were up to, went in determined to sell his wicket as dearly as possible? The answer, I believe, lies in the culture of the England set up, management and teams, and can only be dealt with by reform that starts from the top and reaches very widely.

Trevor Bayliss skirted round the edge of what's going on. "When one person sneezes it seems that we all catch a cold. It’s not good enough."  I relied on Cricket Badger for this quote, so it may not be entirely accurate. If it is, then Bayliss has put his finger on, or at least somewhere near, a major issue for the England set up that nobody otherwise seems to be talking about. As I noted in my previous blog, there is a major question about the system and the culture that produces so many collective failures. Dealing with the batting failures at an individual level will never solve that problem.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

Save the coffee cup!!


This is my thermos flask. I have been a home worker for quite a few years. For a lot of that time, I have broken up the day by walking up to the village bakery at lunchtime, and buying a roll and a coffee. The coffee always used to come in a disposable cup. About five years ago I bought this thermos, and the bakery now fill it with my coffee. Since starting to use it, I have saved well over a thousand coffee cups. Simple actions can make a big difference.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The final deal: what would we say?

First published in LibDemVoice on 12th February.

If there is a referendum on the final deal about leaving the European Union, what would we say? Here is my starter:

Background

We recognise that the vote to leave the EU was fuelled (in part) by dissatisfaction with growing levels of inequality, and felt pressure on cultural values and identity. So we need to address a) the reasons why staying in the EU is better than leaving, as well as b) how we are going to address inequality in the UK and the identity issues tied up with some of our suspicion of foreigners. I think it is also important to make the point that staying in the EU is not the goal. It is a step towards our goal of ensuring that this country works for everyone, and not just the élite.

This is not just about the EU, it is about how we run this country, and about the fact that we can run this country better for the benefit of everybody in the EU rather than out of the EU.
1) The EU is not perfect, but neither is the UK. Leaving the EU would not take back control for us, it would take back control for the elites who want to rule us unfettered by considerations like human rights. An example is discussions within the EU about measures to combat tax avoidance by multinationals and the super rich, measures which have consistently been resisted by the UK government. Staying in the EU is actually more likely to help us make our own country work for everyone.
2) As the EU is not perfect, we need to work with other countries on securing reforms which are in the interests not just of British people, but of ordinary people all over the EU. These would include rules on tax avoidance, which we should embrace rather than resist; making rules of agricultural production and fishing more sustainable and fairer throughout the EU; ensuring that the single market works better for everyone.
3) While we work more closely with the EU, we will not allow that to be a distraction from solving the problems caused by selfishness within this country, for many of which the EU has been wrongly held to blame:
  • We will rebalance funding to reduce regional inequalities throughout the UK.
  • We will build more houses where they are needed, including a significant expansion of genuinely affordable housing
  • We will reverse policies that have plunged millions into poverty or misery, and particularly the punitive policies being directed at unemployed, sick and disabled people
  • We will end the deliberate underfunding and the creeping privatisation of the NHS
  • We will change educational policy so that teachers can teach rather than constantly attending to targets
  • We will work with the EU and with every other country in the world to reduce tax avoidance
  • We will amend employment law to bring security and minimum standards to the gig economy
  • We will attend to the pressures caused by immigration, including organising a fairer and more responsive system for funding local services put under strain by population growth
These policies reflect the standards and the approach we have always brought to our policies, as exemplified in our constitution:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
Our relations with the other members of the EU and our commitment to work for the people of this country are not in opposition to each other.
They are part and parcel of the same thing.