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: – 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.