Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Myleene Klass, Ed Miliband and the sorry state of political debate

Well, that was a sorry sight. We witnessed Ed Miliband supposedly being "owned" by Myleene Klass on ITV's "The Agenda", a programme I hadn't heard of until my Facebook news feed erupted this morning with people on either #TeamMyleene or #TeamEd. From what I can tell, the programme is an attempt by ITV, albeit not a particularly good one, to foster political debate.

Instead, we had the unedifying spectacle of Miliband calmly trying to explain the rationale behind the so-called "mansion tax" as a means of funding the NHS, while Klass kept talking over the top of him, using the phrase "fiscal drag" so everyone thinks she knows what she is talking about, claiming to speak out on behalf of grannies in £2 million pound houses, claiming £2 million will only get you a garage in London even though a cursory glance at Rightmove will reveal that she is talking bunkum, and using the non-analogy of "You may as well just tax me on this glass of water" even though that doesn't make any sense.

But in the midst of her spiel, she made a good point - or at least she gestated the embryo of a good point. It is unclear how much money a mansion tax will bring in for the NHS. Miliband says £1.2 billion. He may be right. He may not. Klass claimed the tax might only raise £300,000 but this figure wasn't attributed to a person or a group. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the mansion tax, whatever sum of money it might raise, it quite simply will not be enough to sort out the funding crisis in the NHS.

Miliband said that the NHS has gone backwards under this government. That is true, although it has been going backwards under successive governments. It was then that Klass asked: "But why? But what are the other options?" and asked Miliband why the NHS is in this mess in the first place.

That is a good question. So naturally the cloth-eared dolt of a presenter decided to wind up the NHS discussion there and then. The whole discussion lasted all of two minutes. Two minutes. One-hundred-and-twenty seconds devoted to discussing one of the biggest issues facing this country, an issue that elections can be won and lost on. And it was a mere two minutes that caused social media to lose its shit today.

And Klass's embryonic good point was lost forever.

The two biggest reasons for cost pressures on the NHS are crippling PFI debts - paying back loans taken out to build or redevelop hospitals across the country will end up costing us around £300 billion with repayments expected to peak at £10.1 billion per year by 2017-18 - and the cost of the marketised NHS. The administration alone on the tender process for NHS contracts costs billions and that is before a single contract has been signed or any service has actually found its way to a patient.

But this is never really discussed properly. There may be some tinkering around the edges with Labour Party NHS policy but no major party is actually tackling these two issues head on. And any discussion about NHS finances is completely meaningless without discussing these two factors. Any party that has a clear plan to sort out the waste of our money created by both these scandals deserves to win the next election.

Similarly, this morning on Sky News, the red sofa of inexplicable guests was filled with Tony Blackburn and Michelle Dewbury, neither of whom appeared to have any real clue about the NHS. This didn't stop them discussing it anyway with Stephen Dixon, surely the most intellectually mild news presenter in the country right now. It was another ill-informed discussion full of the usual wailing about how we all need the NHS, and what can be done about it but nobody ever being particularly clear on what "it" is. And given that "it" is PFI debt, it's NHS marketisation costs, it's Clinical Commissioning Groups created by the rancid Health and Social Care Act of 2012, it is all too hard to be summed up in the Sky News breakfast news programme or on a lame attempt at serious journalism on ITV. Meanwhile, debate in the House of Commons is generally a petty schoolyard rabble.

And as a result, we are all the poorer and less informed for it.

Photography by Petr Kratochvil

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

UKIP and the man behind the green door: The sequel

Last week, I wrote about the man down the road from my house. The man who has a UKIP poster in his window. About how I wondered who might live in that house. And then I wondered no more when I found him collapsed in his doorway, a 91-year-old man who immigrated to the UK from Poland after WWII. I didn't demand to know why he had a UKIP poster. I called an ambulance while two visiting builders helped him to the sofa. He is still in hospital - the bump on the head was as serious as it looked and he was rattling with multiple medications for multiple conditions. It is a sad situation but he is in good hands at St Helier Hospital.

I was forced to confront my own prejudices and assumptions. I admit I was fully expecting a middle-aged man, born in the UK, to be living there. I could not have been more wrong and I acknowledged that. The man's need for medical care was far greater than my need to ask why he plans to vote UKIP next May. There is nothing to be gained by me picking an argument with a vulnerable widower.

Yet still assorted UKIP supporters appeared in my Twitter feed and called me an ageist lefty bigot. They are entitled to form that view of me. What was ironic was a few of them then proceeded to make assumptions about me - they all assumed I get all my news from the Guardian. I do not. And they all assumed I was a Labour party supporter. I am not. I seriously have no idea where my cross will go at next year's election. One genius decided to include Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in the tweets he sent at me.

But what was interesting about the Twitter conversations was the bizarre way UKIP supporters try to defend UKIP's NHS policy.

They were all keen to tell me that UKIP is all about keeping the NHS free at point of use. This would be fine if one of UKIP's policies wasn't compulsory, government-approved private health insurance for all immigrants for the first five years of their time in the UK. Only once an immigrant has paid both tax and private health insurance for five years would they then have the same standing in the NHS as a British-born person who has never had a job or a British-born convicted criminal, neither of whom are under any obligation to contribute to the system for any period of time.

There was no real answer from anyone from UKIP on this one. And as soon as I point out that scapegoating immigrants won't save the NHS when the system is buckling under the pressures of PFI loans and the outrageous cost of the tender process within the NHS - estimates vary between £3b and £10b per year but Jeremy Hunt isn't going to give us exact figures - then they disappear from the conversation. UKIP has no policies on reforming the marketised NHS and its policy on buying back PFI loans is entirely uncosted.

And while every political party right now will tell you they want to keep the NHS free at the point of use, it is important to then discuss whether the services will be provided publicly, by the private sector or as a mixture of the two, and what is the most responsible path to take. "We want to keep the NHS free at the point of use" is a meaningless statement without this additional debate. It's the kind of glib statement I got from a Lib Dem today but that does not surprise me in the least. It is the useless party of glibness and faded principles and it is populated by MPs as self-serving as any other party.

But what is even more curious about discussing the NHS with UKIP supporters is how they are quick to acknowledge the NHS policy is flawed. I even had one agree with me that their NHS policy is full of holes. And another one was moved to blog about my blog post last week and admitted that "UKIP doesn't have a particularly strong policy on the NHS, other than to keep it free at point of use, whatever that takes." See the three paragraphs above as to why that is a pretty pitiful excuse for healthcare policy and one that does not move me to vote UKIP.

And curiouser and curiouser, I've never had a UKIP supporter quote their Dear Leader, Nigel Farage, when it comes to the NHS. This is hardly surprising. Farage did not do a damn thing when his deputy, Paul Nuttall, congratulating the current government for bringing a "whiff of privatisation" to the NHS and has been caught on camera supporting an insurance-based system. Are his supporters embarrassed by him or do they know they are not going to convince anyone by quoting their leader?

We should not be surprised by any of this. In the past four years, there have been so many changes to their NHS policy, it is hard to keep up. And some of their policies, such as the duty on all NHS staff to report low standards of care and the requirement for foreign health service professionals to speak an acceptable standard of English, are already in place. But they are policies that sound good to people who don't know any better and aren't about to do any research.

It is a party of cheap populism, of blowing with the wind, of making it up as they go along depending on what they think might garner support and make headlines. It has nothing to do with what is good for the country and its people. UKIP is a party that once had compulsory uniforms for taxi drivers as a policy on its website. People rightly mocked that one. It vanished. If anything that is currently on the UKIP website is mocked too loudly, that will probably vanish from cyberspace too.

The funny thing is I have met UKIP supporters in person and they were pleasant, friendly people. I met four last Friday night at a screening of Sell-Off, a film about the threats to the NHS such as PFI, vested interests, TTIP and the cost of the tender process. They were stunned into silence and I can only hope they came away from the screening knowing that immigrants are not the problem here. But whether UKIP policy will reflect that is another matter entirely.

Monday, 3 November 2014

UKIP and the man behind the green door

It is a house I walk past every time I walk to the tube station. Like my own house, it's a 1930s semi with bay windows at the front. Unlike my house, it still has the lovely original front door. And unlike my house, there is a poster stuck to the front window telling people not to deliver leaflets from any other political party because the occupant is voting UKIP.

I'd often wonder as I walked past who might live there. If I ever spotted the occupant in the front garden, would I have the nerve to ask them about the poster, to tell me what particular policies of UKIP they like so much? Would they eloquently defend UKIP? Would they end up telling me I'm OK, that I'm one of the immigrants "we like", which is always code for "white, native English speaker, not wearing a hijab"?

Today I got to find out who lives at the house with the cute green door. It was a humbling lesson.

I was doing my usual walk to the tube station, my attempt to keep vaguely fit and save Oyster card credit by foregoing a five-minute bus ride for a 15-minute walk, when I noticed the green door was open. I am a chronic sticky-beak so I took a peek. There were two builders standing in the doorway. Lying on the floor was an elderly man. He was pale, he was incoherent, he seemed agitated, he didn't appear to have all his clothes on even though it was a chilly morning.

The old man was clearly in trouble and the builders were desperately trying to get him on his feet. I asked if everything was OK. They told me they'd come over to remove his old conservatory, he'd struggled to answer the door and now he was on the ground. There was a nasty bruise on his forehead caked with dried blood.

I called the ambulance while the builders slowly got him on his feet, carried him to the sofa and covered him with a blanket, an attempt to restore some of the man's dignity. As I explained the situation to 999, I saw the house was a mess, it smelled of urine, soiled underwear was discarded on the kitchen floor, the peeling living room wallpaper was smeared with a large streak of dried blood, possibly from when he hit his head.

The paramedics arrived quickly and a neighbour who regularly checks on him turned up. More was revealed about the old man's life. The lovely neighbour said he is still quite active. The food in the fridge was still in date. His wife died last year at the age of 96. He is 91. There was a note from the council from a social services visitor who tried to see him last week because she was concerned about his welfare but there was no answer at the door. His family had visited him over the weekend. I wondered to myself why they didn't try and tidy up, maybe run a Hoover over the place or wipe down a few surfaces. Just as I'd made assumptions about the identity of the UKIP voter, I found myself judging people I'd never met.

By this time, there were four paramedics, two builders, the neighbour, the elderly man and myself at the house. We all tried to talk him into going to hospital to get the bump on the head checked out. He was not keen on the idea but in the end, he agreed to it. The paramedics did a spectacular job - caring, professional, patient - exactly the kind of people you'd want to treat you or your own elderly relatives.

And so, apart from popping into the council building before I got on the tube to update the social services department on the situation, my work was done. I'd like to think that anyone would have called the ambulance if they were confronted with the situation of an old man slumped in his own doorway. Please tell me society has not crumbled to such a point that walking on by would be the norm.

And my terrible curiosity about the identity of the UKIP voter was extinguished. The 91-year-old man came to the UK from Poland after WWII. Obviously, I did not choose that vulnerable, fragile moment in his life to ask him why he loves UKIP so much he put a poster in the front window.

I could have pointed out to him that if he arrived in the UK from Poland under a UKIP government, he would be forced to take out private health insurance and not be entitled to NHS care until he'd paid National Insurance for five years. I could have pointed out that there is nothing in UKIP's NHS policy that would prevent further marketisation of NHS services, which may one day result in us getting billed for ambulance journeys. Indeed, at St Helier Hospital, where he was taken, the non-emergency ambulances are already run by the stratospherically incompetent G4S and have caused a needless death.

But of course I did not do this. That would have been a dick move of gargantuan proportions. Instead, we should all be grateful we live in a country where he was treated promptly by highly trained, compassionate medical professionals and he did not receive a hideous bill for his trouble.

Unlike me, they had not spent any time wondering about the UKIP poster, or fighting an urge to knock on his door and ask him hard policy questions, or rolling their eyes at the thought of someone so keen on UKIP, they told the whole street about it via their front window.

They did none of these things. They simply treated him, without fear or favour, without making snap judgements about his politics, as they would any other patient who comes their way in the course of their working day. For that, I am humbled. We should all be vigilant in ensuring we can maintain this level of excellent care. I want to remain living in a country where medical treatment is not determined by wealth, immigration status or political persuasion.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Eternally seeking the perfect victim...

In the past few weeks, two cases have been in the news and these two cases shine a rather horrible light on our notions of victimhood. Monica Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton and the subsequent legal and political ramifications again made headlines when Lewinsky started a Twitter account and was, predictably, faced with assorted trolls. And in the UK, Ched Evans, a convicted rapist, has won a fast-tracked inquiry into his conviction - and regardless of the outcome of this, Twitter and the court of public opinion - which led to the inquiry being fast-tracked in the first place - will ensure the woman at the centre of the awful incident will still be living in the shadow of that night in a hotel room.

What is disturbing about both these cases is the rush to condemn the women largely because neither one fits the narrow, demure image of a victim that guarantees sympathy or, at the very least, stops a mob of keyboard warriors from behaving like anonymous, irrationally angry vultures.

In the case of Monica Lewinsky, it really didn't matter how she chose to live her life and conduct herself in public after the story broke, she was never going to win. Being open about what happened in the Oval Office all those years ago and trying to make the most of her accidental fame with money-making ventures such as a line of handbags, has led to inevitable slut-shaming and a desire to silence her. I had a bizarre Twitter exchange this week in which a conservative American woman was disappointed that she hasn't been more critical of Bill Clinton and, as such, she is a poor role model who is not serving other women well.

Really? Why does Monica Lewinsky have to be a role model for anyone? Why is it up to her to serve other women over an incident that she did not intend to become public? The woman I argued with on Twitter agreed that Lewinsky was indeed a victim but she was not behaving like the kind of victim she wanted her to be. As if Lewinsky owes it to Random Conservative Internet Woman to behave in a certain way.

If Linda Tripp had not betrayed Lewinsky on such an enormous scale, we may never have known about any of this.

If Lewinsky just wanted to confide in someone about her relationship with the President and move on without pressing harassment charges, that should have been her choice to make.

If Bill Clinton hadn't hung her out to dry with the infamous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" quote, an inevitable statement to make in an often puritanical society, it might have been a different story all round. But it is Lewinsky who has come out of this worse, lost so much more, and been fed to the wolves on a far more regular basis than Clinton ever will be.

If Lewinsky decided to slink away quietly after the voracious news cycle had moved on and Clinton completed his presidency relatively unscathed, that would be perfectly understandable but she would probably then have been accused of letting Clinton get away with it, of letting herself be silenced and so on. And, frankly, it'd be naive to think that even if she did exile herself in some rural backwater and open a five-and-dime, the scandal would still cast a long shadow over her life, such was the global notoriety she achieved. She still might not have settled down with a nice lad and led a quiet, anonymous existence - and who is to say that is even what she wants out of life?

Lewinsky was in an extraordinary situation, one that she could never have imagined when she started her White House internship, and there are any number of ways she could have reacted. If 100 different women were in that exact same situation, there would probably be 100 different responses.

As a victim, Lewinsky was only ever going to be acceptable if she was either silent and absent from public life or she was demure and contrite. Instead, she told government lawyers to go fuck themselves when she was questioned and threatened with 27 years in prison. Good for her and bad luck if that offends anyone.

In the Ched Evans rape case, again we have a victim who does not fit the mould of a victim that is acceptable to the hordes on the interwebs. It is astounding how quickly people have gone straight to the "she is clearly a slag" defence on behalf of Evans.

As it stands at the time of writing, Evans is a convicted rapist. A jury found that the victim was too drunk to consent and the fact that she consented to sex with one of his friends before Evans joined in was deemed to be irrelevant. Consent to sex with one man does not equal consent to sex with his mate.

So what if she was not a virgin when Evans let himself into the hotel room. So what that this is not a rape that fits the "man jumping out of an alleyway" image that many seem to associate with this awful crime. So what if Natasha Massey, his girlfriend, is standing by her man. Even if Evans' conviction is overturned, I have no idea why you'd stay with him - but that is Massey's choice, just as Hillary Clinton stayed with Bill, even though she is bright and qualified enough to hold high office on her own merits.

But, I repeat, as I write this, Ched Evans is still a convicted rapist. And his victim, who was only 19 at the time, is still trying to rebuild her life.

The morons on the internet who have named the victim and then named her new identity, forcing her to change her name and location yet again, are absolutely disgraceful excuses for human beings. Just as the events of 1998 will always be with Monica Lewinsky, the events of May 2011 will always be with this woman.

She deserves privacy and the right to get on with her life, regardless of the outcome of the inquiry into the conviction. She is not seeking to be a public figure and that choice should not be denied her just as Lewinsky should not have to be forced into exile. You can disagree with anything Lewinsky might have to say about the events of 16 years ago but if you seek to silence her, or any woman who might not fit the mould of demure contrition, you are part of the problem.

If Sheffield United want him to play for them, that is their choice. If people want to support a club and pay for tickets to watch Evans play, that is their choice too. But the club's managers or fans or the #JusticeForChed zealots cannot expect others to be silent. If Evans returns to top level football, nobody should be stunned if others use their right to free speech and peaceful protest to picket the Bramall Lane stadium. If people refuse to watch Ched Evans play and refuse to renew their season tickets on that basis, that is also a choice that must be respected.

The conservative woman on Twitter believes that Lewinsky's unwillingness to condemn Bill Clinton is a great disservice to all women. But the bigger disservice to women is to force them to conform to the prejudices of others, and to want them to only behave in a certain way when they are confronted with awful situations where there is no one correct way to react.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

IS and the Turkish conundrum

Is Turkey our friend or our foe in the battle against IS? Unsurprisingly, there is no simple answer to this question.

At the time of writing, IS fighters are still besieging the Syrian town of Kobane near the Turkish border. It is still unclear what level of military support the Turkish government is prepared to give the allied forces who have made a piffling start to an already uncertain campaign with airstrikes. We're at war now and boots on the ground are the inevitable next step.

But Turkey's position is a conundrum. While it is easy to criticise the lack of military action by Turkey thus far, the country has taken in more than one million refugees, in particular Kurds. Given their noisy neighbours, Turkey's unfortunate geographic position made this situation inevitable but they are doing their best with this situation. Sadly, their best is not enough and international help will be required to ensure refugee camps in Turkey do not descend into disease-ridden disaster areas.

As well as 22 refugee camps, refugees escaping the horrors of IS are also living in temporary accommodation,  such as schools, mosques and parks. Turkey has only received 25% of the funding it requested as part of the 2014 Syria Regional Refugee Response Plan. Something has to give.

Turkey's reluctance to jump into bed with the US is the inevitable result of the country's delicate balancing act between secularism and Islamism. When the modern day Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, as president, it was created as a secular state. It was, and still is, a country where the majority of people are Muslim, either nominally or observant, but other religions are free to exist. You can see mosques, churches and synagogues in the same street in Istanbul, and constitutionally there is no state religion.

However, in recent years, the tide has been turning towards a state that favours conservative Islam over the official secularism and, as such, Turkey's leaders have been reluctant to offend neighbouring Muslim countries. Yet, at the same time, there has been an element of desperation for Turkey to join the EU. For those who would like to see Turkey join the EU, the bad news is that I cannot see that being feasible any time soon.

In the 11 years since I first visited Turkey, much has changed. When I first visited, the currency had recently changed from the Lire to the New Turkish Lire. A whole bunch of zeroes were knocked off the denominations so it stopped being one of those confusing currencies whereby western tourists go to ATMs and are unsure whether they are withdrawing enough cash for lunch or to buy a house. This helped give the currency credibility and some shops started accepting Euros as well - all good if a country wants to be a serious contender for EU membership.

During my first visit, our hire car was pulled over by corrupt police and Stuart, the friend who was driving at the time, was given a speeding fine even though he was not speeding. He was, by far, the most sensible driver of the four of us. The whole situation was bent, I was threatened by a police officer when he caught me trying to sneak a photograph of the situation, and because Turkey was on an anti-corruption drive at the time, we made a complaint when we returned home to Australia. It was dealt with quickly and efficiently and the officers responsible were suspended. This was also promising stuff for an EU aspirant.

But on the same trip, Lorraine, another of my travelling companions, and I went shopping in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Our outing was interrupted by a student protest - nothing unusual in that in many a major city - but what was disturbing was the posse of snipers on top of a tall building, rifles trained on the marchers. The locals took it in their stride but a peaceful protest overseen by snipers is not a hallmark of a country that has completely matured.

The last time I visited Turkey, it was 2009. My then-boyfriend-now-husband and I were taking a long weekend break away from the restrictions of Ramadan in Abu Dhabi, and we enjoyed being able to eat and drink beer in public in broad daylight. We could hold hands in public, it was a nice respite from Ramadan in an officially Muslim country. And Turkey is still a fun place to visit but there are many reports that suggest that under the current government, the temperature has changed and it does not feel like the same secular state that rightly filled many Turks with immense pride.

But within the EU, Turkey's dark side has emerged with the occupation of Cyprus. This has gone on since 1974. About one-third of the country has been annexed by Turkey after a military invasion. It is absolutely astounding that this situation has not been reversed in 40 years. The photo at the top of this blog post is of me looking out to Famagusta, in the occupied part of Cyprus. It was once a popular holiday resort town of about 40,000 people. Like unoccupied Cyprus, Greek Cypriots formed a majority but Turkisk Cypriots lived alongside them.

Since 1974, Greek Cypriots were driven out of their homes, people went missing, journalists have been killed and Famagusta has been left to rot. Byzantine churches which should be protected for their historical significance are in ruins, the only new buildings are mosques but even they are largely empty. As I looked out to Famagusta from a cultural centre rooftop, I did not see another living soul through my binoculars. There were Turkish military checkpoints and buildings, a UN checkpoint that looked about as useful as a fishnet condom, and the rest of the buildings were the homes and businesses that have been left to decay.

Just as the UN High Commission on Refugees has been embarrassingly ineffective in helping Turkey manage an increasingly overwhelming displaced persons situation, the UN peacekeepers and negotiators have not really done much to ensure Turkey stops their absurd occupation of a sovereign nation. And it's not as if all of occupied northern Cyprus has become some sort of IS-endorsed Islamic wonderland - a lot of money is being made there via casinos. It is a tragic farce.

I understand Turkey feeling caught between a rock and a hard place with the looming threat of IS, an awful refugee situation and a growing anti-American element. But if they are at all serious about having any credibility as a major international power, they need to get the hell out of Cyprus. Their soldiers have far greater battles to fight closer to home and they are not just of the military variety.

Monday, 6 October 2014

We're at war with IS. So what now?

We are at war again. Gulf War Three. Because nothing much was really made better with Gulf Wars One and Two. But here we are again, starting with air strikes because they are more palatable to the public. Air strikes are very good at killing innocent people but don't worry your pretty little heads about that. After all, Bush and Obama have both been pretty prolific with their drone attacks over the last 13 years. This is nothing new. What are a few more planes between allies, eh? You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and all that.

But the reality is that there will be boots on the ground. We can share pictures on social media all we like of the Emirati woman who pilots a fighter jet, we can rejoice in the poetic justice of a woman dropping bombs on vile excuses for men whose attitude to women is stuck in the Dark Ages, we feel comfortable with air strikes as a sanitised form of warfare. It is just like a computer game, isn't it? The fighter pilots don't look into the eyes of the people they kill. But air strikes are just the start in the war on IS.

If you have an appetite for this war, you need an appetite for the realities of ground offensives, of deadly foot patrols, hand-to-hand combat, guerilla tactics, of soldiers playing the awful balancing act of gaining trust among terrified communities while not trusting those who seek to destroy and maim us. This is what we are signing up for when we join this war.

The war against IS will not be quick and it will not be pretty. Given that air strikes did not root out Saddam Hussein from a pitiful hole in the ground or see off Osama bin Laden in a house in Pakistan, this latest conflict is bound to be more than a few planes dropping bombs. It could be argued that killing Saddam and bin Laden was a mistake as we will never know what intelligence died with them, but it's too late to reverse those decisions now.

Do we trust that this time things will somehow be different and the allies will be able to eliminate IS leaders and completely disable this latest evil? I don't know and I don't think our leaders do either. With the Syrian situation muddying the waters, it will make the job of determining who to trust and who to eliminate even tougher.

But in the meantime, we need to be far more reasonable closer to home. If I was a Muslim who had no desire to kill people - and I would include every Muslim I know in that category, both observant and nominal - I would be sick and tired of the constant calls for "moderate Muslims to speak out against the violence." As a religion of 72 sects, no one Muslim can speak out for all Muslims any more than one Roman Catholic or one Presbyterian speaks for all Christians.

And, secondly, here in the UK more than 100 Muslim leaders issued a statement to the Independent newspaper calling on IS to release Alan Henning, who we now know has been beheaded, as well as condemning the previous executions and challenging the IS interpretation of jihad.

So if any newspaper, TV or radio programme wants to interview someone who can offer a moderate perspective from the Islamic community, you have a list of more than 100 to choose from. Knock yourselves out. Get your underpaid researcher to find their contact details. Surely one of them will be available for your time slot.

Do not instead trot out Anjem Choudary yet again. I am starting to think both Choudary and Nigel Farage have their own dressing rooms at the BBC.

Choudary's hateful views get a ridiculous, unbalanced level of airplay and he is a very effective radicaliser of young people, a fine recruiter for IS. This is because he is charismatic, articulate and smart. You may not agree with any of his awful opinions but he is not an idiot. He knows exactly what he is doing and he does it well. He makes extreme views sound reasonable to vulnerable minds. He remains calm, he smiles, he gives politician's answers to simple questions, he answers questions with more questions, he lets the interviewers become agitated. He appeals to disenfranchised young people who feel they have nothing to lose and, equally, he appeals to privileged young people seeking to rebel.

He exercises his right to free speech at public demonstrations all the time. If other Muslim leaders were allowed his level of exposure, we might have a sporting chance at a more balanced dialogue here. Anjem Choudary is a troll, a warped Islamic version of Ann Coulter. They are two sides of the same extremist coin and they are effectively silencing other voices.

And while this noise carries on, remember, we are still at war. This will be our reality for a long time yet. And if it comes with the soundtrack of Anjem Choudary's analysis, the end will really be nowhere in sight.

Photography by William Morris.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Brooks Newmark and the paisley penis panic

I can't lie. The breaking news about Conservative MP Brooks Newmark sending a rather revealing photo of himself to an undercover reporter posing as a lust-struck woman made me laugh. The story was ripe for insta-parody on Twitter - his name sounds like either a recruitment agency ("I always hire my accountants through Brooks Newmark...") or a posh menswear shop ("I decided to push the boat out and bought myself new socks from Brooks Newmark rather than Asda...), he was another Tory caught with his pants down, he was wearing paisley pyjamas. Paisley. I ask you.

As a result, Newmark has resigned from his post as Minister for Civil Society. At least he is still an MP so the taxpayer doesn't have to fund another by-election hot on the heels of Mark Reckless defecting to UKIP over the weekend. It will be up to his constituents to decide whether getting caught in a sting is a sacking offence.

Christ knows what the atmosphere is like at Newmark's house at the moment. Is his wife furious? Are the kids angry or just mortified? Frankly, this is none of our business just as Brooks Newmark sending a rude picture to someone he naively thought might fancy him is none of our business.

The outrage is a fauxrage.

What about the time Newmark said: "The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others." when his job encompassed responsibility for charities? That was way more outrageous than a moment of silly human frailty.

Don't even start with the "he was quoted out of context" defence. It was a smarmy, arrogant, patronising way of saying he didn't want any bothersome charities pestering him with their advocacy. Never mind that certain government policies might have led to the charities being busier than ever... Even the ones the Tories traditionally like such as Help For Heroes... Awkward.

Newmark's comments came in the midst of political wrangling over the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill - better known as the Gagging Bill - which became law in January 2014. That rotten, censoring, anti-freedom law is far more outrageous than a ministerial penis poking out of paisley pyjamas.

But what is very telling here is that Newmark got away with a pitiful attempt at a clarification after his mindless knitting comment, saying what he really meant to say was that charities "absolutely have the right to campaign" but should "stay out of the realm of party politics". So why didn't he simply say so in the first place? Also, it can be a bit hard for a charity to campaign against something a government has done without mentioning the people in government the charity deems responsible for the grievance. Anyone who doesn't think the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is about censorship and silencing certain voices is kidding themselves.

So a patronising, dismissive comment about the very organisations with which he is meant to try and cooperate is fine under this government but a man has to resign for something that some may find immoral or distasteful but is certainly not illegal? This is not Saudi Arabia and for that we should be very thankful.

In the meantime, the Sunday Mirror has been under fire for running this story based on a sting after they broke the news. The whole thing does smack of a Sunday papers Tory sex scandal outrage from the 1980s. Retro. But this story exposes more than an errant wang. It exposes the true values of this government, and in particular the Conservative Party. I have no idea what the outcome would have been if an MP from any other party was caught in such a sting. Perhaps it would have been the same panic-stricken resignation rather than simply weathering the storm and moving on.

But weathering the storm and moving on would surely be the more grown-up way to deal with this pathetic excuse for a sex scandal. We do have much bigger fish to fry at the moment. In case you hadn't noticed, we're at war again.

This sorry story has exposed the Tories as the party that tries to win cheap political points with cheap jibes at charities in the name of stifled public debate. It is the party where doing something silly but legal is worse than passing a terrible law which goes against the freedoms it claims to stand for. On that count, well played to the Sunday Mirror for giving us that insight. It is now up to the people of Britain as to what they do with that information.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

An open letter to the Prime Minister of Thailand

Dear General Prayuth,

Thank you for your helpful travel advice to women planning a trip to your beautiful country. I have visited Thailand in the past and I would love to do so again so it is reassuring to know you are concerned about the safety of female travellers.

It is handy to know that I will not be safe in a bikini in Thailand unless I am, to quote your words, "not beautiful." This may explain an incident that happened to me last time I was in your country.

Let me elaborate. I was in Phuket for a week on my own when a man who was also staying at my hotel broke into my room in the middle of the night, crawled into my bed and pressed his erection against my back. I had been out with him and his friend at a bar that evening but I decided to go home early - the combination of cheap whisky and a bad Bon Jovi cover band wasn't really doing it for me, so I put myself in a tuk-tuk and returned to my hotel room - although not before the tuk-tuk driver grabbed my face and tried to kiss me as I paid, and not before the bellboy with the suspiciously long little fingernail asked me to join him on "motorbike to go to discotheque". 

The tuk-tuk driver was told where to go in no uncertain terms and the bellboy's offer was politely declined. I went to bed alone only to wake up a few hours later with the aforementioned penis rubbing against me. I said: "If you don't get out of my room right now, I will scream so fucking loud, the whole hotel will hear me." He left swiftly and went back to his own room. 

The worst consequence of all this was much awkwardness over the hotel breakfast buffet for the rest of the week. I did not end up being raped or murdered and I appreciate that the situation could have been far more terrible. But I still wasn't safe in your country. I realise that I am not 100% safe from violence in any country but at least you have offered me an explanation as to why this might have happened to me in Thailand.

Clearly, I am beautiful. 

And I wore a bikini by the pool and on the beach in Phuket. 

This powerful combination of my beauty and my bikini - even though it was one of those more modest ones with the big pants - made me a clear target for my fellow hotel guest and the halitosis-ridden tuk-tuk driver.

In order for me to ascertain whether I'd be safe in your country today, General Prayuth, I have included a recent photo of myself in a bikini. My holiday in Thailand was 16 years and a few kilograms ago so it could be that these days I fall short of your standards of assault-causing beauty.

Can I come to your country and wear a bikini with impunity at the ripe old age of 38 or will I still risk being attacked? Am I still looking OK for someone pushing 40? Your opinion on this matter is very important to me. 

Perhaps you can start posting notices at beaches and by hotel pools to specify the maximum standard of beauty a woman can possess before she must put on a neck-to-knee swimsuit and shield her gorgeous face with a large parasol. On what criteria will you create these standards? After all, ideals of beauty vary between cultures, vary over time, vary according to individual opinion, and are not universal. You may have to create a whole new government department to work on this one or a new branch of the police department at the very least. 

Alternatively, General Prayuth, you could give the victim-blaming horseshit a rest and acknowledge that acts of sexual violence can happen to any woman, regardless of whose standard of beauty she does or does not meet. You could show some respect to Hannah Witheridge, who died along with David Miller this week (who has not been accused of being handsome while wearing swimming trunks), and do whatever you can to ensure whoever is responsible is caught. For the person or people who attacked Ms Witheridge and Mr Miller are the ones to blame for these terrible crimes, not bikinis or pulchritude. 

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A draft speech by Jeremy Hunt that *might* have been found on the Cloud...

Good afternoon, everyone. Good to see you all looking so well in spite of it all.

I am here to announce a revamped NHS. In this age of the internet [NOTE TO ASSISTANT: DO WE STILL CALL IT THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY OR WILL THAT MAKE ME TREND ON TWITTER FOR THE WRONG REASONS???], we need to harness all the technology we can to save money [NOTE TO ASSISTANT: SHOULD I SAY "IMPROVE PATIENT CARE" HERE???].


I am sure you have all heard about our cutting-edge plans for GPs to do more consultations via email and Skype. This country is the birthplace of the English language, of fine literature that has influenced the world over the centuries, so I know everyone will be able to describe their symptoms to their GPs over email with an almost lyrical level of descriptiveness. Indeed, I fully expect that one day an enterprising GP will compile his or her most eloquent patient emails for a most entertaining book. [NOTE TO ASSISTANT: WOULD THIS REPRESENT AN ENORMOUS BREACH OF PATIENT CONFIDENTIALITY???]

So I am fully confident that the people of this country will be able to describe such complex conditions as motor neurone disease and cardiac dysrhythmia with effortless ease!

And what could be better than only going as far as your webcam for a cheeky Skype consultation. In keeping with our fine tradition of saucy comedy, I am sure everyone is as excited as I am at the hilarious prospect of a friend or family member walking in just as you are bent over the iPad showing your doctor a particularly tricky anal boil or a booming yeast infection. Benny Hill would be so proud.

But, make no mistake, we are not stopping at email and Skype with the National Health Syberspace.

We will save millions of pounds [IMPROVE PATIENT CARE???] by launching a hashtag. Why should you be limited to seeing just one trained medical professional at a time when you can ask the opinion of millions of Twitter users across the world. Yes, tomorrow we will get #WhatIsWrongWithMe trending worldwide. This way, it will be easy to send your symptoms out to the whole world for easy diagnosis. Be sure to attach a photo for maximum retweets.

Send your photos of irritating rashes out to the Twitterverse! You will know in no time if it is a heat rash, measles, acne, chicken pox or shingles.

And who doesn't love a good Facebook video? The ice bucket challenge has been a jolly jape and we can't get enough of videos of someone else's kids dancing on the kitchen table to a middle-of-the-road radio station. So we will also be saving millions of pounds [IMPROVING PATIENT CARE??? HELP!] by simply urging you all to post videos of yourself, your family and your ailments.

We know there are some things that cannot be properly captured in a photograph or email so if you have a wheezy cough, a weeping sore or you are having a suspected heart attack or bipolar episode, just video it, post it on Facebook and tag the friends whose opinions you value the most. I am pleased to report this has already been happening to a certain extent, whether it is a clueless parent updating their status to inform the world their baby is running a temperature of 39ยบ rather than going to straight to one of the A&E departments we have closed down, or an attention-seeking idiot posting something about a terrible headache in the hope of getting a lot of "u ok hun?" comments.

So why not go one step further and share fun videos of your symptoms on your Facebook page? Your friends and family care about you so they are best placed to advise on whether you really need to see a GP or go to hospital.

We want to embrace the internet as the NHS's main diagnostic tool. After all, who hasn't turned to Doctor Google in the middle of the night to self-diagnose a potentially life-threatening condition? And we can save even more money [DO I MEAN TO SAY "IMPROVE PATIENT CARE" AGAIN HERE? THIS IS TRICKY] by hoping and praying that more people's health-related Googling leads them to homeopathy websites where they will simply spend loads of money on insecure websites buying useless potions or discovering the healing power of rainbows.

It is an exciting new future for the new, improved National Health Syberspace. If you have any questions about this state-of-the-art initiative, please tweet me and I will not bother to respond because, frankly, I am too busy tweeting patronising bunkum about how I spent an afternoon with the "hardworking staff" of an A&E department in a safe Tory seat at its least busiest time.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The great NHS game of whack-a-mole...

Yesterday was a somewhat astounding day. I'd been interviewed by the Sutton Guardian as part of a campaign I am involved in to keep the services of St Helier Hospital, a hospital which has been serving my community since 1938. A local Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, blocked the Twitter account, @Save_St_Helier, which I manage as part of the campaign. Apparently, this strategy seemed like a more reasonable course of action for Brake in lieu of answering our questions about his online petition and his voting record in the House of Commons.

The media loves a good Twitter spat these days and the Sutton Guardian ran an article with a rather unfortunate headline - a throwaway line I'd uttered in which I likened Brake's behaviour to that of a schoolgirl became the lead. Cue an angry mob who clearly wanted to burn me as a sexist witch. Sigh... Thankfully, there are enough sensible people out there who joined in the comments at the end of the article and were able to steer the discussion back to real issues about Brake's lack of accountability.

I spent a lot of yesterday regretting that I'd put my mouth into gear before engaging my brain but I certainly do not regret calling out Tom Brake on his avoidance of perfectly reasonable questions. And, frankly, if me likening him to a schoolgirl is enough to get open, uncensored conversations happening about the questions he refuses to answer properly and publicly then so be it.

Brake has been running his online save-the-hospital petition for such a long time now that it is addressed to a group that now has a new name but he hasn't updated it. Brake has not answered our questions about exactly who will receive the petition, when this might happen, where it might happen or what he does with the data of people who have signed in good faith.

Likewise, he has not explained why he believes voting for the Health and Social Care Act 2012 or Clause 119, both of which have led to St Helier Hospital's services being under threat as part of the top-down reorganisation of the NHS which represents yet another broken election promise by David Cameron.

If you truly believe that a Conservative-led coalition is a win for smaller government and less bureaucracy, you are deluded - the NHS is now more bureaucratic than ever and, as a result, my tireless but tired band of campaigners in South West London are fighting to make people aware of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), because they hold the aces here when it comes to closing or downgrading services such as A&E, maternity, renal and children's intensive care.

It is really damn hard to make people concerned about CCGs and the powers they have.

And trying to get straight answers out of CCGs, not to mention hospital trusts, about our services and how they are spending/wasting our money is frequently akin to getting blood from a stone. And then there is the challenge of trying to distill the information they put out into plain English so we can raise awareness as to what is going on.

Then there is the narrative of austerity - that the only way we can afford the NHS is to make cuts - and, in the meantime, hospitals are being run into the ground. Your local hospital may not be cleaned as often or as thoroughly as it was before because cleaning contracts have been outsourced to companies that are more concerned with making a profit than preventing MRSA outbreaks. You may not be served by nurses who work full-time at your local hospital because they may have been supplied by agencies. And, even when staff are working hard and trying their best, they may be overstretched.

And then people complain. They don't necessarily complain via the official channels because these days many people would much rather just whine on social media instead. And in the meantime, it creates a public appetite for closing hospitals. Or merely apathy. And apathy is all that is required for essential services to be slashed without resistance.

You might not notice at first. But the system is being chipped away. The easiest way to do this - and for government to wash their hands of accountability - is to outsource services to the private sector. This has led to the awful G4S - the company whose attempt to run security at the 2012 Olympics was embarrassing and led to thousands of British Army soldiers being drafted - nabbing millions of pounds worth of NHS contracts. After the G4S Olympics debacle, I have no idea why this company would be trusted to run a pub raffle, let alone anything as important as healthcare services. Indeed, G4S is running the non-emergency ambulance service at St Helier Hospital and this has already led to an unnecessary death.

And private companies are exempt from Freedom of Information requests, so this adds another brick wall for anyone trying to find out how our money is being spent.

The CCGs in my end of London used the services 20/20 Delivery, a consultancy firm, when they were involved in the wasteful Better Service, Better Value (BSBV) review of local healthcare provision. BSBV cost taxpayers at least £8m and more than £1m went to 20/20 Delivery but when I tried to find out exactly what 20/20 Delivery did that cost so much public money, I could not get any answers.

Congratulations if you've read this far. Are you wondering why I am telling you all this if you don't live anywhere near St Helier Hospital? It is because the same story of CCGs proposing cuts and downgrades is probably happening near you too.

I have been in touch with other campaigning groups across the country and the same stories keep cropping up - unaccountable CCGs, childish Twitter blocking, very real threats to cut A&E and maternity services, cuts that will result in people spending longer in ambulances, cuts that will result in women in labour having to travel further to give birth, services being outsourced to substandard private companies, private companies that make political donations winning contracts, private companies in which either politicians or CCG members have vested interests winning contracts...

Across the country, campaigners are dealing with the same convoluted mountain of nonsense - it is deliberately convoluted because the powers-that-be do not want people to be aware of what is happening. It can be hard to know where to direct your wrath when the Health Secretary is a remote figure in Whitehall, unless the failed marmalade entrepreneur decides to activate Clause 119 and close your local hospital within 40 days.

It is a giant game of whack-a-mole and it is being played with our health services.

Then there is the big distraction of health tourism outrage. It makes for lovely Daily Mail headlines even though it only costs 0.06% of the total NHS budget. Sure, there is a case for ensuring people who are not entitled to NHS care pay for it but some perspective is needed.

And as long as the health tourism drum is beaten on front pages as if there is a queue of illegal immigrants demanding free breast implants at every hospital, that takes the focus off the real financial drain on the NHS - PFI contracts. These Private Finance Initiative contracts were introduced under John Major, their inking went nuclear under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the current government is in no rush to stop them being signed. These result in the public footing the bill for one hospital for the price of many, over and over again, across the country. This, in turn, renders PFI hospitals too big to fail and other nearby hospitals end up facing cuts.  A full public inquiry into these rotten contracts is the only way forward here. Do we dare to dream of this appearing in the manifesto of any of the major parties?

But I suspect the powers-that-be know that it is hard to maintain the energy for campaigners to fight for their local services while maintaining the rage about the bigger, wider issues, such as expensive PFI contracts. The little battle going on in my backyard is one of many across the country and those who are still raging that I likened Tom Brake to a schoolgirl need to get a grip. There are bigger fish to fry and if Tom Brake's apologists cannot see that he is trying to stop the fish even making it to the pan in the first place, we are going to lose vital services.

Photography by George Hodan