Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Labour Shame

It's no revelation that politicians try to strike a balance between doing what they believe in and doing what will win them votes, the old see-saw between gaining power and being able to do something worthwhile with it. We've heard a lot lately about the 'comforts of opposition' and the 'responsibility of government', as if power were just about being considered important and not about actually doing things that matter. But in all my long years in and around politics, I have rarely seen so blatant or misjudged a bit of vote chasing as Johann Lamont's speech today. It's no wonder lifelong Labour supporters are shredding their membership cards in response. If Lamont's words are what the Labour Party has come to represent, there doesn't seem a lot of point, really.

So it is that, despite having spent all day working on conference planning and consultations, I feel I must return to the fray tonight, because certain things are being said that have been let go for far too long. Excuse me if I don't pull my punches. I'm quite miffed that Labour's policy people can't figure this stuff out by themselves.

Let's start with something for nothing. This is a slogan we've heard a lot lately, a favourite of certain red top newspapers and government ministers looking for scapegoats. The idea is that those of us in work will feel righteous fury at the notion that people who're not working should still be able to get by. It's easy to feel, on first hearing this slogan, that it makes a lot of sense. Why should those who do nothing deserve something?

The answer is this: everybody deserves something, because they are human. Everybody deserves to be safe from starvation, to have shelter, to be warm enough in winter, to have at least a basic level of health care. These truths should be self-evident. What's more, the truth is that they don't cost very much at all. Looked at over the long term, they can save us money, by safeguarding the investment we make in every citizen whilst they are growing up. Spending tens of thousands of pounds to educate somebody and then just letting them die would be stupid, wouldn't it?

There are actually not very many long term unemployed people in this country. There are a fair number of disabled people who are unable to work or can only work part time. There are other people who face unemployment in the short term during economic slumps like the one we're going through at present (when you hear Westminster Tories complain about a rising welfare bill, bear in mind how much unemployment has risen on their watch). But the vast majority of those in receipt of benefits are working. They are contributing to society. They receive supplementary assistance because what they earn is simply not enough to live on. That's not something they should be ashamed of. That's something society should be ashamed of. A legacy of bad policy-making and failure to regulate, by successive governments, has allowed too much money to accumulate in the hands of the rich at the expense of people like these. That's what we need to fix. When you're being stabbed you get rid of the knife rather than angrily discarding bandages because they fail to soak up all the blood.

So let's come to another one. Tough decisions. That's an interesting phrase, coming as it inevitably does between people who've never had to choose between eating and keeping warm enough to stop their toes turning blue. Let's get real, shall we? Taking money from poor people isn't a tough decision. It's easy - like taking candy from a baby (literally, in some cases). Poor people are an easy target because they're generally too desperate and exhausted to fight back. Mentally ill people having their disability benefits taken away often struggle just to fill out the paperwork they need to appeal - they're not exactly a political threat. Politicians know this and, sadly, some of them are not ashamed to exploit it. Perhaps they comfort themselves with the notion that families or charities will step in to fill the gap (I'll be talking about that one in an upcoming post - the short version is, we know it often fails to work). It is perhaps difficult for some middle class people to understand that poverty means having nothing to fall back on. When there's no money for food, you go hungry. When there's no money for rent, you're on the street. There's no-one you can call who will make it all go away.

In times gone by, we used to talk about the haves and the have-nots. Now we talk about the givers and the give-nots. It's insipid. 47% of American don't pay income tax, says Romney, so they can be written off as scroungers, and people are quick to buy into that idea in the UK too. It's bollocks, of course. That 47% includes pensioners who have worked all their lives and are enjoying a well-earned retirement. It includes children whom we almost universally decided, a few decades back, we ought to refrain from sending to the mills. And it includes an awful lot of people who are not paying income tax because they don't earn enough yet without whose hard work society would collapse. It's all very well to pretend that everybody who makes the effort can be saved through the miracle of social mobility. That's no substitute for social justice. It doesn't help the poor and it doesn't help society at large. In this faux utopia, party whips belittle police officers and presidential candidates pay so little heed to their staff they don't notice when they're being filmed. We blame the refuse collectors, the teachers, the nurses and the retail workers for being poor, as if they could ever escape that in those jobs, and as if those in the jobs we esteem could survive without the work they do. Day in, day out, it is the working poor, including those in receipt of benefits, who are the backbone of our society. They give more than many of our politicians will in their whole lives. They deserve our respect.

They do not deserve to be told we all have to give up something. There's another slogan that sounds fair on first hearing, but what does it mean? What has the recession cost you? A tenner is a tenner, you might say, no matter who gives it away. But the value of that tenner is very different depending on your general economic circumstances. If you're on benefits, the loss of a tenner a week means giving up at least two family meals or five days' heating. If you're earning a comfortable wage, it might mean you don't drink as much at the weekend. If you're earning a parliamentary politician's wage, you're unlikely to notice it (unless you can claim it on expenses). So let's stop pretending that we're taking from the poor, the ordinary and the rich on an equal basis. We're nowhere close to that. No politician who insinuates that we are should be trusted with any aspect of the nation's finances, since it is largely a failure to understand the relationship between money and value that has go the world into this particular economic mess.

Labour, one would think, would get to grips with these issues, stand up for the people who have long depended on them. Don't whine that there's no money left. We are a wealthy country. The problem we have is that the wealth is unevenly distributed. Sorting that out requires tough decisions. Labour do have to give up something, but it doesn't have to be their raison d'être. If they want support, they're going to have to get their act together, because the electorate won't give them something for nothing.

Get your house in order, Labour. Don't make me come down there.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Rock Me Asmodeus

Kate Middleton has breasts. Prince Harry sometimes takes his clothes off in private. Oh, those royals! How fortunate we are that we have a free press which, though it (mostly) has the decency not to show us those intrusive pictures, will tell us about them so we can be sure power is not abused. At least not by naked people.

Today, accidental pornographer and erstwhile drummer boy Richard Desmond, who has pounded the percussion for free speech everywhere but the libel courts, has declared himself so disgusted by The Irish Daily Star's publication of pictures of the topless princess that he's considering closing it down. One might suggest that it would be more proportionate for him to sack the editor on duty - or even to reconsider his own policy of encouraging staff to push boundaries in order to make sales - but perhaps in these post-News of the World days he thinks it'll look positively heroic to make a hundred people redundant. After all, whilst a lot of people read tabloids, everybody hates, them, don't they? From phone hacking to the Hillsborough revelations, they've hardly been making friends this year.

In ancient times the story went that there was a demon called Asmodeus, and this particular demon's hobby was lifting up the roofs of people's houses to peer at what was going on within. Whilst everybody agreed that it was important the public sphere be monitored and politicians held to account, the idea of intruding into the private lives of citizens was considered outright evil. It's important to bear in mind, of course, that not everybody was a citizen. That attitude still lingers in the present day. As long as the more prurient sections of the press are careful to restrict their focus to already stigmatised groups - criminals, benefit claimants, Muslims, transgender people - they can get away with a great deal. It's only when they trouble the powerful that they find themselves at risk - which illustrates both the reason why we need them to be troubling and the fact that they're passing off as trouble what is merely smut.

As Chair of Trans Media Watch, I spend a good part of my time standing up for ordinary people whose lives are sensationalised in the press. By and large, those members of the wider public who are educated about transgender issues are supportive of this. I get rather less support when I raise my voice in defence of the privacy of the royal family. They have no right to privacy, people tell me, because they're public figures. But what does this mean? That their very flesh is public? That, by virtue of their special status, they should not be treated as human? Whilst I cannot help but note that making royals afraid to undress in private might at least decrease the chances of the situation continuing, I don't think any amount of wealth could justify them being, in effect, treated as mere objects. Besides, when we buy into attacks made against them as private individuals we are doing the very opposite of holding them to account. We are allowing ourselves to be distracted from the real questions that need to be asked about the power they wield. It is notable that the recent story about Prince Charles being consulted on a wide range of government policies, and asked to approve them before they became law, received substantially less coverage. One pair of breasts is much like another but to fiddle with soft porn whilst our democracy burns takes a special kind of tit.

It takes, in fact, the kind of person who has no interest in journalism at all but sees owning newspapers merely as a route to personal wealth and power; just the kind of person to whom sacking a hundred journalists means nothing. When people like this are making the big decisions at our major newspapers we need to ask ourselves not why journalists are letting us down but, rather, why journalists are not being heard at all. When we talk about press ethics we need to remember that most journalists - as reflected by the NUJ - have sincere concerns about ethical practice. At certain papers, however, it is only the unethical few who can climb to the top - or stay in a job at all. And when it comes to public redress, the Press Complaints Commission often finds itself hamstrung by a code of practice controlled by a small group of editors whose influence on the industry should be every bit as suspect as that of the politicians everyone fears may take control.

There are other options, of course. My charity has made a series of recommendations to the Leveson Inquiry, as have others, and it is shortly due to report. It's possible that the recent right royal scandals represent a jockeying for position before this happens. We already saw something of that cynicism when transgender exposés briefly disappeared from the papers during the submission period for the inquiry, only to reappear afterwards, as we were invited to document in a second submission later on. Our position is certainly not that control of the press should be given to the government, as any sensible person can see the risks this entails - rather, we would support the establishment of a truly independent body. The problem that I perceive is that a body controlled by a handful of men isn't so very far from a government-controlled organ anyway - it may be that the power base is divided but it is still very much in the hands of the establishment. It lacks the inherent vitality and diversity that journalism needs in order to thrive - in order to do its job.

What is that job? Sometimes it does involve peering into the private domain. There will inevitably be some cases where this is genuinely in the public interest - a little poison, as they say, to cure the greater ill. But we must not assume that because something is prurient it is also, in any meaningful sense, revealing. I suspect most of us - David Icke and friends aside - had a pretty good idea what Prince Harry would look like naked before we were offered the option of seeing it.

We've seen a lot of weak apologies this week. Kelvin MacKenzie saying that he regrets calling Liverpool football fans thieves responsible for their own suffering, but doing nothing to explain why he was so ready to believe it, even whilst he blames others for misinforming him. Richard Desmond thinking that by getting rid of assorted staff members, most of whom will have had nothing to do with the boobs boob, he can enjoy the publicity those pictures have brought to his papers whilst dodging the fallout. I'm not going to add to that - I'll say, straight out, that I wouldn't cry for any of his papers if they were closed tomorrow. That said, my feelings about their staff are another matter. Likewise my feelings about the newspaper industry, which depends on its plurality and is already suffering because so much of that is meaningless. I'm dubious about the idea of restricting ownership because there are practical issues there around how broadsheets can be kept afloat, but there's plenty of room for change in the nitty gritty of how papers are managed and run. Let's stop pretending our press is free in its current form, and start fighting for it.