Tyler Clementi’s suicide is not an isolated incident

Tyler Clementi, the New Jersey student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his university room mates secretly taped him having sex with another man then broadcast it on the internet, is the latest tragic case of its kind. Teenagers and young adults tormented to suicide is by no means a problem unique to the United States. Iain McKenzie from the BBC writes that Clementi’s story “brings together two contentious issues – gay rights, and cyber bullying.” (Not to mention the magnitude of the issues surrounding personal privacy in the internet age.)

The social worries of young people are all too often treated as trivia, until it’s too late. This is an emotional issue but all I want to do is share a handful of facts.

UK Charity Depression Alliance says there are 19,000 suicide attempts every year by adolescents – that’s one per hour. Experts claim bullying is the cause of at least half of them.

Suicide is the number one cause of death for men between 18-24.

At least 2,100 teenagers killed themselves in the past eight years because of bullying; the actual number is thought by experts to be much higher, because there are so many cases where suicide victims do not specifically declare the reason out of shame or fear.

Experts Neil Marr and Tim Field (co-authors of ‘Bullycide: Death at Playtime’) say that 50% of adults who were bullied as children or teenagers now suffer from a related mental health problem in adulthood.

Brain scans have shown that post-traumatic stress disorder is experienced by around one third of ex-victims, who experience symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, phobias, headaches, blackouts, involuntary sickness, anger management problems, insomnia, memory irregularities, anxiety, panic attacks, self-loathing, depression and suicidal tendencies.

3 in 5 victims and ex-victims say they find the experience so shameful that the idea of suffering indefinitely is less painful than actually telling anyone.

82 people on Facebook ‘like’ the page “People who kill themselves because of cyber-bullying are stupid.”

Labour won’t seduce yellow voters until they understand them

Labour have been eyeing up the disheartened yellow vote. But the party base fundamentally fails to understand why people vote for the Liberal Democrats.

As the saga that Simon Hoggart at the Guardian dubbed a ‘geek tragedy’ crunches to a close – with David Miliband demonstrating that unattractive combination of arrogance, petulance and self-interest that very likely lost him the Labour leadership in the first place – Ed Miliband will be dutifully studying the electoral mathematics of Britain.

Much touted is the opportunity for Labour to win votes from anti-coalition Liberal Democrats, who feel more and more disgruntled, quite frankly, every time George Osborne opens his mouth.

Such an opportunity no doubt exists, but there is a very real danger of Ed Miliband spectacularly missing the pitch.

Despite them both campaigning on an anti-cuts manifesto, and despite being painted by the media as two centre-left parties, people simply do not vote Liberal Democrat for the same reasons they vote Labour. If left-wing Lib Dem voters were of the pro-union, pro-tax, pro-state stripe of leftism, they would already be Labour voters. They also don’t necessarily dislike the Tories for the same reasons that traditional Labour voters do. While they might not support social engineering in the form of tax breaks for married people, for example, they also tend not to be keen on it in the form of targets, quotas, and anti-free speech laws.

In hoping to reclaim and redefine the centre left of British politics, Labour have an earnestly difficult task ahead of them: they have to seduce the often contradictory yellow vote and the red vote at the same time. ‘Red Ed’ might be able to gain back left-wing Labour voters lost by the Blair years, and yes, there is a great chance to win votes from Lib Dems who feel the cuts are targeting the wrong people and that the Tories are generally getting a bit too gung-ho with the deficit axe. The danger is that he will forget about, or worse, fail to understand in the first place, the Liberal Democrats’ initial reasons for not being Labour voters already.

Many in the Labour party suggest an unfortunate tendency to believe that voters are either Labour voters, or, as Gordon Brown put it, bigots.

To win over the whole spectrum of the anti-Tory vote, Ed Miliband needs to both understand, and communicate to the electorate, that anyone who is not a Tory – whether or not they necessarily agree with certain big Labour figures about industrial action or a rise in national insurance – are not despised, and can even be made room for (with a little shuffling) in the Labour folds.

Otherwise, in failing to understand that someone can be pro-business, anti-state, and anti-tax, but also be against policies that target (or at best, fail to protect) the poor, the sick, and the old, the left wing of the Labour party fails to understand the very demographic that they intend to win over.

2 MINUTE RANT: Why do you hate fat people?

It’s disgusting. The selfishness, the greed, the lack of self-awareness. Just the thought of it makes my skin cringe. No, not people with obesity problems. I am talking about the self-styled fat haters. Following recent discussions about whether obese people who manage to lose weight should be rewarded with taxpayers money, they are out in full, monstrous force.

You know who I mean. They say things like “why can’t they just eat less?” (Good idea. They probably hadn’t thought of that.) Then they twist their judgemental, uninformed minds into what they think sound like logical positions of common sense.

“They’re a strain on NHS resources,” is a common one. “They’re consuming more than they need to. They’re being greedy.”

Sometimes fat haters even try to dress up their concern as a genuine worry for the health of larger people, despite having no regard for their feelings or self-respect. This kind consideration gets spat out at strangers they’ve never spoken to, towards overweight celebrities in magazines, about their own friends and family behind their backs, the charmers, but is never constructive or compassionate.

Well, aside from the question of medical truth about how easy it is to lose weight (let’s face it, if it was directly linked to how much you eat, I’d be four times the size of Dawn French by now, when in fact I am pushing it to fill up a size ten pair of jeans), the truth is, very, very few of these fat haters have any problem with beer-drinkers, smokers, coffee drinkers, sunbed-users, car-drivers, athletics trainers, boxers, golfers, swimmers, cyclists, mobile phone users – or, indeed, people who eat all the junk under the sun but don’t display the effects of it. Which, as any doctor will tell you, does not mean you aren’t feeling the health ramifications.

NHS resources? Over-consumption? Give me a break. None of the above bother fat haters because they are slaves to fashion, and don’t think any deeper than what everybody else in their circle happens to find acceptable and attractive.

We only have to look at models from the past to see how ridiculous it is to use contemporary fashion as a benchmark for anything whatsoever: being full-figured used to be the sexiest thing in the world. To some people, incidentally, it blinking well still is.

Being fat has just become an acceptable scapegoat for empathy-challenged losers to shove all their natural judgemental instincts on.

Let’s be clear about this. Whether their health is at risk, big people, even medically obese people, do not need to hear from tabloid columns, fashion magazine fascists, or the obnoxious fat hating minority. They have doctors to explain health risks to them, and to advise them – if appropriate – about behaviour habits. Unless you are a health expert, and your own lifestyle is freckle-for-freckle perfect to boot, then please, for the sake of everyone, fat haters: leave it to the professionals.

Besides, the brain and the heart are the most important organs anyway. If you’re failing on such a spectacular scale to utilise both of those properly, how dare you get all head-over-heels in disgust because someone’s body is bigger than yours?

Melanie Phillips misses the point of free speech

In the blog column ‘I think therefore I am guilty,’ Melanie Phillips equates the Jan Moir debacle (which everyone else had surely all but forgotten by now) with anti-gay protestors at rallies. But there are a number of glaring differences.

Phillips is absolutely correct when she argues that tackling religious protestors like Harry Hammond (arresting for holding up a placard that read ‘Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord’) and Christine Howe (who apparently got a visit from the police after complaining to the council about a gay pride march, although she wasn’t charged with any crime – something Phillips’ article does not really make explicit) is probably not the best use of police time. As someone who isn’t heterosexual, I suspect I have a bit less sympathy for their views as the proudly conversative Melanie does. But that’s irrelevant to the preservation of their rights. None of these people about have violated anybody else’s freedoms; they have simply exercised their own. What’s more, it’s extremely important to me that they can: the only way I can be certain my right to free speech is preserved is if theirs is, too.

But I cannot agree with Phillps that a member of the public getting a visit from the police for complaining privately to the council about a street party in aid of a cause they don’t support is the same as a professional journalist who chooses to write for a controversial national newspaper receiving angry letters when she prints things which aren’t true.

There’s no need to reheat the mouldy old drama surrounding Moir’s article, but the salient points are these: firstly, she claimed to know more about Gately’s cause of death than the qualified coroner. Secondly, she prints that the death of someone who happens to be in a civil partnership casts aspersions over every civil partnership (because straight people live forever, presumably). And thirdly, of course, she published all of this in a national paper while his death was still painfully raw for his loved ones.

There is a difference between free speech and libel, which Moir comes very close to in her article, and that is why Moir was “investigated” – not for being homophobic or “tasteless” as Phillips claims.

There is also a difference between free speech, and free speech without consequence. Having a legal right to be homophobic is one thing – but Jan, Melanie and Rod: don’t dish it out if you can’t handle people disagreeing with you in their millions.

2 MINUTE RANT: If the best the Daily Mail can come up with is ‘he’s not married!’, maybe Ed really is the right choice for Labour

Is the Mail serious? They’ve had a while to plan this headline. This is what they stayed up all night writing?

Britain is a country in which the Royal Family don’t even stay married to each other. Where senior Conservative politicians have affairs and sell books about it. Even Tiger Woods is frequently described, within my hearing, as ‘legendary’ by otherwise conservative-minded young men (men who have no interest in golf whatsoever), and is, perhaps incidentally, still being paid $90million by Nike to wear hats made in less-than-favourable conditions. (Still waiting for the moral outrage from the Mail about that.)

Yet they think people won’t vote for Ed Miliband because he’s not married to his partner? They think people will believe that because they’re not married, he should be forced to confirm paternity of his own kid?

Ironically, the Milibands are wonderful example how couples can be happy, successful and family-oriented without signing a piece of paper to prove it in law. This is not going to put him in the shade with the British public. They have plenty of reasons to feel Labour are out of touch with their mood but this isn’t one of them.

On the other hand, it might just make a few more people notice just how out of touch the Daily Mail is.

IN THE DOCK: Vince Cable

The charge: that Vince Cable has been deliberately talking empty anti-capitalist rhetoric, rather than implementing practical policies, to please the audience at the conference so that he can distract them from the party’s alleged failure to meet the expectations of the people who voted for them.

The Liberal Democrat conference was always going to be an uneasy affair this year, and it was always likely that left-wing rhetoric, in some form or another, would be dropped into the mix. The bankers are not a controversial group to attack, and by calling them ‘spivs’, whilst calling for greater regulation, he got the not entirely unjustified applause he sought.

None of this is anything other than predictable. More strange is Vince Cable’s choice of language about capitalism itself: i.e., that it “kills competition.”

Of course, capitalism without true meritocracy, which is what the banks have been enjoying, does kill competition. It is surely as much of an aspiration-killer to reward failure as it is to fail to reward success. But capitalism in itself cannot possibly kill competition.

This was not what Vince Cable meant. His principles about what makes good business management are actually very clear. He praises companies like Vauxhall and John Lewis for “forward thinking,” for keeping their training programmes going during the recession, for respecting both their staff and their customers equally, and – crucially – for working alongside the unions.

Vince Cable is, in fact, more genuinely pro-capitalist and pro-business than many in the Conservative party. He certainly denies holding any principles of socialism quite vociferously. He used the reference to ‘capitalism’ in the speech for the same reason he released a ‘teaser’ to the press before giving it: he wanted to make himself seem tough on the injustices in our financial system, and win the approval of disgruntled Liberal Democrat supporters.

So, do those disgruntled Lib Dems have a point?

The charge against Cable is twofold. The first charge is whether his policies hold up to scrutiny. The second is whether he has a legitimate electoral mandate for them.

The Coalition’s handling of the economic crisis has been fairly mixed. The ‘bonus levy,’ for example, has been criticised by the International Monetary Fund as much too low, and hiring the tax avoider Philip Green to advise them, as well as the reappointments of Stephen Green and Bob Diamond, have all also attracted criticisms. On the other hand, Cable actually insists that in spite of the IMF’s comments, the bonus levy is “higher than anywhere in the western world,” and points out the fairly widespread support for his plan to separate out the ‘casino’ corporate banks from the retail banks, a policy which is backed by experts like Mervyn King.

The second charge against Cable and his party is the perhaps more fundamental one that they have campaigned on one set of promises, then used the votes garnered to help another party implement something very different. Irrelevant to such complaints are the claims that the cuts necessary to fix the deficit, or that Cable’s approach is the correct one, because the question is one of electoral accountability, not economic policy.

The main offending financial policies are these: a VAT rise of 20% (which will not only hit the poorest disproportionately but is a ‘tax on spending’ just as the Labour National Insurance Tax rise was essentially a ‘tax on jobs’), cuts to Housing Benefits and threats of cuts to those on Unemployment Benefit, the axing of the UK Film Council, further restrictions (because there are already quite strict ones in place) on eligibility for Disability Living Allowance (a work supplement, of course, not a full-time benefit), and, of course, non-economic policies which have knock-on economic effects, like the cap on immigration which may hurt businesses reliant on outside talent, according to Boris Johnson, (not to mention those reliant on flexible low-cost labour), and cuts to the ‘Schools for the Future’ programme which Labour leader Ed Miliband says will “devastate” the UK construction industry.

These are all being pushed through by the Coalition, and they are given credibilty by Cable’s support. (“You’re an expert in this [economics], aren’t you?” Jeremy Paxman once said to Cable during an interview, without even a shadow of a sneer on his lips. “Everyone knows it.”) Crucially, the Conservatives were unable convince the electorate of the argument for these policies in their election camaign: they did not win a parliamentary majority. Their democratic mandate, under our current system (a system championed by the Conservatives), is based on the assumption that Liberal Democrat voters now back them just because the Lib Dem party leadership does. But 40% of Liberal Democrat voters say they would have voted differently if they’d known what the electoral outcome would be.

So have the voters been mislead? And would they have got what they wanted under a minority Tory government (or indeed a Labour one), with the Liberal Democrats in opposition?

Liberal Democrat voters unhappy with the electoral mandate of the Coalition can’t seriously believe that the government should adopt more Lib Dem manifesto pledges. If the Conservative party failed to get a mandate, the Liberal Democrats failed even more spectacularly. They have 8% of the seats in Parliament; 23% of the vote.Nick Clegg was absolutely correct when he said that David Cameron had the greatest mandate to lead. He would have been a shameful spokesperson for democracy indeed if he had supported anyone else.

Whether the Liberal Democrats best served their voters by joining the Coalition themselves is less certain. David Cameron could have tried to form a minority government, and the Liberal Democrats could have formed a parliamentary alliance with Labour, and other parties, giving a powerful opposition voice to the nastier of the cuts (such as Disability Living Allowance), whilst still allowing the government to get on with making reasonable cuts (such as the Housing Benefit cap, and cuts to government arts spending), and implement their management of the economic crisis.

Would that have been better ‘value for votes’ for Liberal Democrat supporters? Wouldn’t the parliamentary party have been able to block the badly-timed cuts to Inheritance Tax, and the illiberal piece of social engineering in the form of tax breaks for married people, from the benches? Wouldn’t they have been able to vote down the VAT rise, put forward proposals for genine electoral reform – perhaps with Labour’s support – and thus do much more for their own voters by being in opposition than by being in government?

Yet had they done so Vince Cable’s plans to separate corporate banking from retail banking, his respect for both unions and the bosses, his refreshing economic literacy, would all be absent from government.

So we end up with a curious contradiction. The Liberal Democrats are over-represented in government, yet a significant number of their voters say they don’t feel the benefit. The wider electorate did not vote Liberal Democrat, yet they may benefit from Vince Cable’s talent.

To whom do they owe the more pressing democratic responsibility: their own voters, or the country itself? A complicated democratic paradox all of its own. Their answer seems to be to the country itself.

Verdict? Innocent on the first charge; guilty on the second.

Why the Labour Leadership Matters

Why the Labour Leadership Matters

In the 1990s, when the Conservatives were ‘unelectable,’ Britain became the Labour party’s oyster. Tony Blair was able to manipulate not just his own campaign for the premiership, but the future landscape of British politics. By May 2010, David Cameron, a young, energetic, reasonably popular Conservative politician, fighting against an exhausted and – for the most part – despised Labour Prime Minster was still forced to campaign on the issues dictated by Labour over a decade ago. Cameron made promises to protect, even increase, NHS and education spending. He even refused to make specific commitments on tax cuts to pay for it. Gay rights, a minority issue of relative obscurity in the 1990s, had become so important to the public by 2010 that it cost Chris Grayling his job.

Due to lack of opposition, Tony Blair was able to transform not just his own party, but everyone else’s, too. So much so, that the Conservative Party’s elected leader now has more in common with Nick Clegg than with many members of his own party.

On Question Time, when being fingered about the ‘dodgy dossier’ debacle, Alistair Campbell justified himself by saying: “Remember, we won an election after that.” Well they, did, but several million of their voters deserted them, and voted for no-one else instead. Lifelong Labour supporters cancelled their membership. Even loyal party members like Robin Cook – not to mention less loyal party members, like Clare Short – resigned from their posts. One million people marched through London to demonstrate their outrage at the war. Yet the thunderous outrage of the public did not translate into votes for the Tories, nor, on any significant scale, for the Liberal Democrats. In other words, because there was no effective, credible opposition government, Alistair Campbell is able to claim a democratic mandate for a decision when there clearly was not one.

Governments, in order to govern well, need good opposition. It is because Labour were not afraid of the electorate, not because they were universally popular, that they have been able to knuckledust their way through policy-making over the past thirteen years.

Which raises the depressing question: what will Britain look like if we have five years of a Conservative government without any credible opposition at all?

For opposition to be credible, the government has to fear it. Only if David Cameron believes people will actually vote for the Labour leader will he govern to the best of his ability. Only then will he not be able to take the public for granted. If, on the other hand, the Labour leader is seen as ‘unelectable’, as unelectable as William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard all were, David Cameron and George Osborne will be able to claim – even as a minority government, who did not even win the election – a democratic mandate for anything they please. Just as Alistair Campbell is able to do.