2 MINUTE RANT: Immigration turns me into an honorary Marxist

I am not a Marxist, but…

There is a myth that groups like the EDL and the BNP have ‘left-wing’ concerns. But as far as terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ can be applied with any accuracy nowadays, the difference is not in the groups of people they claim to represent or the issues they choose to care about, but rather, what they identify as the cause of those problems, and what they identify as the solution.

It’s easy to see how the EDL are portraying themselves as defenders of liberalism, with their gay rights wing, and other Muslim-hating individuals popping up from various other minorities. And it’s easy to see how the BNP could be confused with a left-wing party, given their love of nationalisation and constant talk of things like housing, and supporting British workers.

But caring about gay rights, homelessness, or lack of jobs isn’t necessarily left-wing in itself (no matter how many times conservative-minded folk who don’t care about those things insist that me caring about them makes me a left-winger) any more than making the link between those problems and immigration automatically makes someone a racist. Of course it’s true, for example, that if illegal immigrants can and will work without basic rights for £3 an hour, they have an unfair advantage in the labour market. Of course legal British citizens can’t and won’t compete with that. Anyone with any sense can see that. It doesn’t make you left-wing (or racist) to acknowledge it, and see it as a problem.

However, the difference is that a left-winger would surely identify the problem as two workers being exploited. And although I don’t agree with the government redistributing wealth as being a viable solution, whenever I see workers being paid £5.93 an hour, or workers stuck in a benefits trap, getting violently angry with workers who have the audacity to be paid £3 an hour and not bother with any rights, while all groups of workers get blamed for their own situation by groups who get rich whatever happens, I can’t help but feel that whatever they say, an awful lot of right-wingers must love immigration, especially the illegal kind. It provides both an ever-compliant, ever-expanding workforce, and a perfect scapegoat for any social problems. And I can’t help but feel that Karl Marx was actually right about this one: people really do seem to be divided by social class more than anything else, including nationality or race. And an awful lot of energy seems to go into making sure we never realise it, too.

The Welfare Reform Bill and the employability gap

Being classed as ‘able’ or ‘unable’ to work is almost irrelevant if you’re still seen as a potential liability to employers.

Campaigning on getting people ‘off benefits and into work’ is not radical, and it’s certainly not a ‘tough decision.’ It’s the ultimate political safeground. Who could argue with it? The idea of anyone being trapped in a cycle of dependency on the state is grim and depressing; for the dependents themselves as well as everybody else, surely? I’m not sure if even the most rabid socialists I know like to see people dependent on the state. (And I know some extremely rabid socialists.) Tightening up the criteria which qualifies a citizen for an out of work benefit, or even a benefit like Disability Living Allowance, which just helps cover the inevitable cost of living with a disability, is not something to be automatically dismissed as a cruel policy – although it certainly deserves much heavier, more expert, more medical-based scrutiny than it’s getting at present.

But just saying that people should ‘support themselves’ and be ‘self-sufficient’, and that ‘work should pay’ is about as meaningful as saying ‘it would be nice if there were no wars or murders.’ Well, it would be. But there are quite a few problems with getting there.

And the biggest problem with moving more people off state support in the hope of driving them into work faster, based on the (largely correct) assumption that most claimants do actually want to work, is this: it is a solution which considers the desires of state, and of the claimant. The potential employer, a pretty important part of the triangle, is completely absent from the equation.

The job market is an uphill ice slope right now, even for people who’ve consistently stayed in long-term employment, have great qualifications, and who generally have no particular hindrances to a normal working life.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 2.49million unemployed in Britain. There are 466,000 vacancies. Assuming that all of these jobs are suitable for all of the candidates, which of course they’re not, that still leaves employers with rather a lot of applicants for each position.

Employers are not just going to pick the ‘best’ candidate for every job. They are usually going to pick the easiest, most cost efficient, most likeable, most experienced, most low maintenance person for every job – and rightly so. We shouldn’t force them to do otherwise (and let’s face it, the Conservatives are probably more likely to declare French as the national language than pass any laws to bind employers in terms of who they can and can’t hire or fire). But where does that leave the people who just can’t compete?

For example if an individual suffers from clinical depression, and is able to get through the day without killing themselves, is physically able and can talk, type, stack or carry, their assessor may well deduce – accurately – that such a candidate could reasonably manage a job in, say, a bookshop, a warehouse, or an office. But how much chance will they have of excelling in an interview against outgoing, confident, super-happy candidates with no unexplained breaks in their CV, explanatory notes from the doctor, scars on their wrists, or blue bags around their eyes? The system of assessing ability to work, in short, is not taking into account the realities of the job market, and whether it is practical , in the real world, that you be expected to find work.

With so much emphasis on getting people back into work – a great idea that we pretty much all applaud – perhaps there should be just a little bit more of a conversation about how to help and incentivise employers in accommodating varying states of disability? Could there not be greater discussion about the stigmatisation of mental health in the workplace, and during the recruitment process, for example? Could employers, sometimes shamefully ignorant in their assumptions about who and who isn’t employable, perhaps be asked to take some small share in the responsibility for why so many people who ‘could’ work are stuck on JSA?

Yes, it would be great if no-one had to be dependent on the state, just like yes, it would be great if there were no wars or murders. It would be great if we could get that to happen without asking employers to ever compromise on their own independent selection processes, or without hurting anyone vulnerable, or without spending any money. But we can’t. Dogmatic removal of government because we don’t like the size of the state, without taking any responsibility for replacing its nobler and more necessary activities – like supporting the sick and the vulnerable – is just as naive as being a left-wing hippy who thinks it would be nice if there were no wars (and surely far more damaging). I believe in giving people a ‘hand up instead of a hand out’ (to quote the last of the annoying platitudes). But when you give someone a hand up, it’s only fair to make sure there’s actually somewhere for them to land at the top once you let go, isn’t it?

Feminists are not sure what to make of Rihanna – but who are we to judge anyway?

When women suffer violence they are supposed to become angry feminists, or timid little victims. They are not supposed to carry on letting themselves be sexualised, and sing songs about S&M. Why? Because it makes people like Hannah Pool feel like “bad feminists,” apparently.

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely something unnerving about the way Rihanna is being marketed. Sexualised hurt sells records, and sexualised hurt from someone we know has suffered from domestic violence sells records in multitudes. As much as it gets on my nerves when media cuts and pastes women into tits and bum cheeks for the cameras, do I really have the right to assert that because one of those women in particular has been beaten by her partner, it somehow obligates them to behave in a particular way, just to make everybody else less uncomfortable?

Anyone who worries about marketing pros parading Rihanna around on a leash as part of a broader, slightly sickening narrative, where the media sexualises violence against women until no-one can quite remember what is supposed to entertain and what is supposed to disgust, may have a point. But feminists like Hannah Pool, who are fine with a video of Rihanna dancing in the rain in spandex, fine with Rihanna becoming famous largely by being talked up as a romantic threat to Beyonce, but want her to suddenly behave differently after finding out she has been violently abused, are surely a tiny bit patronising?

If we want women to be more than just sex symbols, surely by the same logic, women who have been unfortunate enough to be victims of domestic violence deserve to be more than just victims of domestic violence? Hannah Pool writes in the Guardian that she’s uncomfortable with seeing “a woman who became the overnight face of domestic violence” singing lyrics about S&M. Apart from the fact that consensual S&M play is clearly different to non-consensual violence, far too many survivors of all kinds of abuse are shamed into modifying their behaviour afterwards. Rape victims who feel guilty about enjoying sex or dressing provocatively again, for example, are not uncommon. Far too many women let these nasty experiences dictate their lives and desires afterwards – and all too often, it is actually expected of them that they do so. Not so Rihanna. Hannah Pool no doubt means well, and makes some good points in her article. But there is a cultural assumption that victims of domestic or sexual violence are supposed to fall to pieces, and it’s somehow either audacious or a sign of exploitation somewhere if they don’t. The idea that we might all have those expectations to a certain extent actually makes me an awful lot more nervous than the sight of Rihanna eating a banana.

If Andrew Lansley had the courage of Justin Bieber…

Abortion is the political football that no adult wants to touch. In America, a fifteen year old pop singer has polarised himself with his predominantly female fan base over it, yet our Secretary of State for Health is ducking the whole conversation by ignoring the fact that he has the power to change the laws – or else a responsibility to justify them.

In 2008, while he was Shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lanlsey pledged that as Health Secretary in a Conservative government, he would make it easier for women to obtain abortions earlier. By amending the ‘two doctor’ rule as well as reducing the time limit to 22 weeks, Lansley wanted to help more women terminate their pregnancies in a way that was “earlier and medical” instead of “later and surgical.” Despite the British Pregnancy Advisory Service arguing at the time that such a law wouldn’t actually achieve this aim anyway, since late term abortions usually occur as a result of other factors rather than the ‘two doctor’ rule, this was still Lansley’s officially stated position whilst campaigning for the office he now holds, and – it seems – he has never retracted it.

This week, the high court ruled (against the BPAS and in favour of Lansley) that the 1967 Abortion Act couldn’t be reinterpreted to allow ‘home abortion’ without elected representatives of the public indicating that it should be so. Justice Supperstone did, however, make a point of clarifying that Lansley could definitely amend the law to this end, if he wanted to.

Before Lansley gets into a catfight about whether he was lying back in 2008 when he said he wanted to make it easier for women to get early abortions (pro-choice groups are already starting to talk of lobbying him), he needs to explain, properly, why he is opposed to the specific procedure of abortion at home.

Perhaps ironically, the high court ruling comes the same week that teenybopper Justin Bieber caused a small storm when he told Rolling Stone magazine that he “doesn’t really agree with abortion,” and that he thinks people should save sex for someone they love. When you consider some of the messages, both blatant and subliminal, being sent out to kids every time they turn on MTV, it’s almost worrying to think how much controversy Bieber’s comments, which were surely naive at worst, have caused. The only potentially offensive part of his interview is when he is asked if his view of abortion alters for rape victims; he says such situations are “sad” but that “everything happens for a reason.” If Bieber actually meant that he believes rape happens for a “reason,” rather than every life is conceived for a reason, which is how some people are interpreting it, he obviously warrants a shoe or other similar object chucking at his head next time he’s on stage. But that’s probably not what he meant.

Either way, is there not room for some small sense of admiration for the kid, whether you agree with him or not? He said something unfashionable and polarising, which will almost certainly narrow his fan base, because he felt it to be morally true (although in America being ardently pro-life is no doubt a rather less unconventional opinion than it is here in Britain).

Meanwhile, Andrew Lansley can barely muster the courage to admit that the medical process of abortion is even something that falls under his job description, relying on the courts to state what the law is, rather than take responsibility for amending or defending it. And since it seems Lansley doesn’t actually want the law to be interpreted differently, even if it could be, he should say why, loud and clear, he thinks so. Justice Supperstone left the decision in his hands because he is a democratic representative of the public: the public have a right to know what he really thinks about abortion, and why he thinks it.

After all, despite the many problems with the current system, abortion at home is not necessarily the only, or even the best, solution to all of them. One alternative to the undoubtedly awful scenario where a woman ends up miscarrying her child during her journey home, for example – which is said to be the main reason why home abortions are being considered as preferable – would be for her to remain in the clinic after taking the second pill, and receive proper care until the whole ordeal is over. After all, going through a miscarriage – whether deliberately induced or otherwise – doesn’t sound like something women should feel pressured into doing at home, possibly alone, when they could be receiving expert care and advice.

Some critics have also warned there could be a danger of pills being taken away and sold or used for underhand purposes – such as being given to someone other than the intended recipient. So perhaps the 1967 Abortion Act just needs some better safeguards against such dangers – unlikely though they are – before being amended to better fit modern medical flexibilities.

Or perhaps none of this would matter; perhaps it’s all been worked out already. Justice Supperstone did say, after all, that from a medical perspective, no-one could identify any problems with home abortions. The stumbling block was always one of legality – and democracy.

In any case, whatever Andrew Lansley’s reasoning is, and whatever the specific nuances of his actual views turn out to be, he should either seek to amend the law, or else he should clearly explain why he hasn’t done so. Just proving what the law already says isn’t really what politicians are elected to do. We have judges (and teenage pop stars) for that.

Pupils ‘bullied to death’ like Natasha Macbryde deserve honesty, not damage control

All the people who knew Natasha Macbryde best – family, friends, classmates, and even parents of classmates – say Natasha Macbryde was ‘bullied to death.’ But no-one will be surprised to see that Royal Grammar School is reluctant to believe them. Ignoring the impossible problem staring everyone in the face seems to have become standard procedure for schools.

Royal Grammar School in Tything has questioned the truth of the bullying claims (claims which are all over Facebook, claims which are coming from the dead girl’s father, and even claims from parents of other pupils at the school) on the basis that Royal Grammar School have a ‘strong anti-bullying policy.’ They are naive at best if they don’t know that in practice there no such thing.

No-one is saying schools like Royal Grammar School should be held totally accountable, legally or even morally, for what happens to children on their property, and under their care – although in most other situations where an adult is entirely responsible for a child, it probably wouldn’t be considered as ridiculous an idea as it somehow sounds when we talk about schools. After all, in the workplace, adults are expected to take legal responsibility for the safety of their employees (other adults) to an extent. The reason it becomes impractical with schools, of course, is that most people know the impossible, uncomfortable truth: that there isn’t much that any school can do about bullying.

So no, of course they can’t seriously be expected to actually stop it happening. But the least schools could do is be honest about that impossible, uncomfortable truth. When 13 year old Kelly Yeoman killed herself because of bullying in 1997, her sister Sarah claimed that “the teachers would just say ‘Sit down Kelly, don’t be a tittle-tattle’” if her sister tried to report any abuse. After Thomas Thompson, aged 11, killed himself because of bullying, his headmaster Martin Pope argued that there were “no reports” of any bullying in his school. Holly Stuckey killed herself this year, and despite writing a suicide note which stated that bullying was the reason she committed suicide, and despite other parents at the school coming forward since her death to claim their own kids were also experiencing abuse, the school simply insisted: “We employ a zero-tolerance approach to bullying.” Perhaps Kelly Yeoman, Thomas Thompson, Holly Stuckey, and the seemingly endless list of similar cases were all mistaken or lying about what was happening to them. Or perhaps all our schools are in denial about what is and isn’t within their control – and what happens on their property, under their control, on under their noses.

Is it fair to treat deaths like these as if they were caused by some kind of negligence on the part of the school? No. Should schools like Royal Grammar School in Tything be more concerned with preventing assault and harassment (and isn’t it funny how calling things what they actually are can suddenly change how seriously we take them?) than they are with their own immediate reputation? Yes, of course they should. If they won’t be honest about the scale of the problem in order to actually try and start addressing it, then perhaps they could just do it out of respect for kids like Natasha Macbryde and their families.

Lies, damn lies, and more damn lies: ‘Curveball’ admits he lied about Iraqi weapons

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi (Curveball) has officially told the Guardian that he ‘fabricated’ his claims that Iraq had biological weapons. His own motivation was surely honourable, and his actions brave. Not so those who chose to believe him.

After escaping Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1995, Janabi explains that he decided to give information about Saddam to foreign governments because he realised that he “had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime.” He also says that he is “proud” of himself for taking that chance. He told the Guardian: “I tell you something when I hear anybody – not just in Iraq but in any war – [is] killed, I am very sad. But give me another solution. Can you give me another solution?

“Believe me, there was no other way to bring about freedom to Iraq. There were no other possibilities.”

It’s extremely difficult to pass judgement on someone who has fled persecution; someone who knows the horrors a dictatorship like Saddam Hussein’s can bring. That someone who actually lived under the regime would go to such lengths as lying to the German secret service, with the deliberate hope of prompting military action against their home country, shouldn’t be entirely forgotten next time we think about whether there was a moral case for war, with or without WMD. (Although neither should it be forgotten that Tony Blair doesn’t get to claim any prizes for making that moral case, seeing as how he said Saddam could stay in power if he got rid of his WMD.)

No, Janabi’s decision to lie about Saddam’s weapons capability was an understandable, human reaction to living under a dictatorship. Much more alarming is the way those lies were used – and to what end.

According to the Guardian, Colin Powell’s speech eight years ago “relied heavily” on Janabi’s lies. Colin Powell, being a very clever man indeed, would surely (even had there been no particular cause for suspicion) have thought to question whether a source as obviously biased as Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi might be lying when he gave information about a dictator he’d previously lived under. That’s before considering that in this case, there actually was cause for suspicion: previous claims made by Janabi, such as his claims that the son of Dr Bassil Latif, the former boss of the Military Industries Commission in Iraq, was helping Saddam obtain certain weapons in violation of sanctions, are said to have been proved false as early as 2000.

Once upon a time – and it seems very long ago indeed now – I have to admit that I actually had some degree of faith in the moral case for the war in Iraq. It doesn’t look, now, as if the American government ever had that faith. If the moral case for war needed weapons of mass destruction to be convincing; if it needed to use evidence from a clearly biased source allegedly proven already to be untrustworthy; if our recent memories need to be so obviously fiddled with every time a new revelation comes out, how can anyone – even the most passionate anti-Saddam campaigners around the world – have faith in the reasoning of Blair and Bush, or indeed, in the legality behind that reasoning, which led up to the war?

Here is the Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/15/defector-admits-wmd-lies-iraq-war

Michael Gove should get more credit from the unions for protecting teachers

Sue Caldwell has been suspended from her teaching job at Friern Barnet School for allegedly encouraging pupils to skip class and join the anti-cuts protests. Even though she denies the allegation, and the investigation is ongoing, she’s been suspended and her name is all over the papers. The unions are understandably rather miffed – yet the very Education Bill they are protesting against would have prevented this whole mess.

Don’t mistake this for an argument condoning what she’s accused of. If it is found that Ms Caldwell did actually encourage pupils to skip school, then of course she should be held to account. Teachers are responsible, both legally and morally, while pupils are in their care, and if they encourage kids to break the law by truanting, without parental consent, in order to go to a protest where they may or may not be kettled by the police and/or hit by flying fire extinguishers, they are failing badly in that responsibility. Parents of a child in such circumstances have every right to be annoyed. The law cannot be that you are required to be in school unless your teacher happens to agree with your reasons for skiving off. It would be random and inconsistent, with different kids being allowed to skip school for different reasons, and, perhaps more importantly, with parents being completely unable to guess where their kids might be during the day.

So if the accusation is correct, Ms Caldwell definitely has a case to answer. But until then, her name shouldn’t be in the paper. Michael Gove is, perhaps ironically, seeing to it that in future, teachers like Sue Caldwell would be better protected by the system. His Education Bill, on this occasion, is doing exactly what the teaching unions have been campaigning for: it will speed up investigations (the NUT and Unison are complaining that the investigation has gone on too long), and stop teachers being automatically suspended when an accusation is made (they are complaining that a suspension is an overreaction, and disproportionate to the accusation). Both of these authoritarian measures are relics from the last Labour government.

Like Hannah McIntye, Teresa Mackenzie, Judi Sunderland, Robert King, Rebecca Poole, Bridgette Tarwala, Jane Watts and any of the other two-in-three teachers who are cleared of all charges when an accusation has been made, Sue Caldwell would have benefited from reforms like this particular one of Gove’s being implemented a long time ago.