Sunday, 26 June 2016

Tories versus Labour: The battle of the imploding parties

As the wheels fall off the Conservative and Labour Party clown cars after the referendum, it is too close to call as to which of the two major parties will come out of this debacle stronger. Let's take a look at both teams, shall we?

In the blue corner...

The Conservatives have been caught with their pants down. Nobody seriously expected the Vote Leave campaign to actually succeed. Hell, there were people who voted for Brexit who are surprised that the thing they voted for actually happened.

As such, there is precisely no plan for what to do next. David Cameron should have called an emergency Cobra meeting and there should be an emergency sitting of parliament tomorrow but instead, Dave resigned and hasn't been seen since. What a leader! What a statesman! He looked distraught as he resigned with Samantha tearfully looking on but this is a crisis that he created himself.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, not only has his pants down but he has probably done a panic-poo in them too. Since the referendum, he hasn't been quite the public gloater everyone thought he'd be if Brexit happened. I'm pretty sure things didn't go according to plan.

For Johnson, a narrow Remain win would have served him well. He could still claim to speak for the "silent majority" and, knowing that David Cameron was going to step aside before the 2020 election, he could make his bid for leadership without being distracted by all that pesky work that needs to be done to extricate Britain from the EU. He shamelessly used the referendum campaign as the start of his leadership bid and was making promises about how Britain would be a land of unicorns for all if we voted to leave and even combing his hair once in a while. Of course, all his promises were smoke and mirrors because he never thought he'd need to come up with a plan to implement them.

Now the man, who as an incompetent mayor couldn't negotiate with tube drivers, is the favourite to be the next Prime Minister and thus, he's meant to lead the way as we negotiate with an entire continent that he has spent the last couple of months slagging off. That can only go well...

The other leadership contended is probably going to be Theresa May, the current Home Secretary. She was pro-remain, she certainly has more gravitas than Boris Johnson and she is largely seen as moderate and sensible. In April, she did call for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights regardless of the referendum result but this is what passes for moderation in the modern Conservative Party. With that in mind, she may be keener to invoke Article 50, which is what the British government needs to do to kickstart divorce proceedings with the EU.

Johnson probably never planned to release the hounds of Article 50 and under his drunk-uncle-trying-to-walk-the-dog-after-Christmas-dinner guidance, he is bound to stall and faff and blunder about. This will only extend the uncertainty and instability and endear us less and less to the EU. Hey presto, we'll have a trade deal with the EU so pathetic, the British export market will be reduced to some obscure Welsh cheese and stuff left over from car boot sales.

In the hour, the BBC has reported that Johnson has said the UK will "intensify" cooperation with the EU (does the EU know this?) and said the 52%-48% result was "not entirely overwhelming". Jesus, Boris, don't bowl us over with your enthusiasm.

He also said that "the only change" will be to free Britain from the EU's "extraordinary and opaque" law (but doesn't seem to have specified which law) and says this "will not come in any great rush".

They are the words of a man who cannot be arsed to negotiate hard with the EU any time soon. Hell, nobody should be surprised if Johnson decides to outsource the negotiations to G4S after the stellar job they did with the 2012 Olympics security.

The one thing the Tories are good at, even when they are in utter disarray behind the scenes, is give the impression that everything is fine. Hence, as soon as the referendum results were in, 84 Conservative MPs, some Brexiters, some remainers, signed the "save Dave" letter. Dave decided to fall on his sword instead, but the letter, as cynical and self-serving as the signatories may have been, is a great way to tell the world they're not going to carve each other up with bitter factional in-fighting.

Which brings us to Labour.

In the red corner...

In the time that I've been writing this post, I've heard the news from the telly downstairs that yet another Labour cabinet minister has resigned from Jeremy Corbyn's front bench. Corbyn is refusing to step down as Opposition Leader and Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell has vowed to manage his campaign to keep his job.

On one hand, we have calls for Jeremy Corbyn to step down in the wake of the referendum results, blaming him for an unenthusiastic campaign for Remain. Given that his Euroscepticism is hardly a state secret, at every campaign event he looked like he'd rather be having root canal work, and with a BBC report that he may have deliberately sabotaged the campaign, this seems like a fair assessment. Of course, it can also be said that there was a lack of passion among many leading Labour Remainers, with the notable exceptions of London Mayor, Sadiq Khan and Ben Bradshaw, the MP for Exeter, but there was an overwhelming feeling that voters didn't really know what Labour stood for on the referendum.

And it is hard to ignore the numbers, as much as the most devoted Corbynistas try. In the referendum and in the local elections, Labour has lost Scotland. Labour took Scotland for granted for too long and the SNP swooped in. The local elections should have been a gift for Labour but the best that can be said about the results is that they were not as bad as they could have been. In a climate of economic austerity with an unpopular Tory government, that isn't enough.

The mandate for Corbyn's leadership is based largely on the new members of the Labour Party, those who paid their three quid to join up after Ed Miliband stepped down. But the problem is that most of these members don't live in the areas where Labour needs to regain ground. In January, the Guardian received internal Labour Party data which revealed that a disproportionate number of new members are city dwellers, many with high paying jobs.

The party is struggling to attract new members among the elderly, in rural areas, in deprived areas, and among the working class. These are the people the Labour Party needs to connect with if they are ever to form government again. And these are the groups who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The issue of immigration is the elephant in the room - Labour needs to have intelligent conversations without patronising people if they are going break through here. All the rise in Labour Party membership proves is that people who would probably vote Labour anyway, and are not struggling financially, can spare £3.

The Rant Mistress predicts...

I predict that out of a Boris Johnson-Theresa May leadership race, Boris will win it to become the next PM.

I predict that Jeremy Corbyn is toast as leader of the Labour Party. I suspect Dan Jarvis will be the new leader of the Labour Party.

I predict that in the inevitable general election that will happen before Christmas, the Tories will win but with a reduced majority. Therefore, it would be political suicide for Labour to ditch whomever their new leader will be. If they are to have a hope in 2020, they need to sail a steady ship, work really hard in Scotland and not be afraid of doing a deal with the SNP and possibly a resurgent Liberal Democrat party to form a coalition government.

And if nobody has invoked Article 50 by the time we have this year's next trip to the ballot box, the election will basically be a referendum do-over.

I'll check back on these tips and see just how wrong I was...

Photo by Alex Proimos

Friday, 24 June 2016

Waking up to Brexit Britain...

It was like that awkward moment when you wake up and realise you've shagged the office creep. You remember him at the party, saying things you wanted to hear, and you believed them, whether they were true or not. And then the alarm goes off on a new day, you look across the bed and there he is, in your bed, and you can't quite believe that you went there.

He may be the owner of a radioactively blonde barnet and a drooling leer. Or, possibly, he reeks of beer and fags and is gazing at you with a rictus grin. Either way, he is now refusing to leave and you start to worry that he may take up permanent residence at your flat.

This is how it felt to wake up to a Vote Leave win in the referendum.

And the pound crashed, and the FTSE crashed, wobbled back up again like a drunk kitten and flatlined, exactly as the experts predicted. They were the experts people ignored in favour of wanting a "victory for commonsense". Whatever the hell that means today.

Then Nigel Farage, fresh from despicably trying to claim victim status after Jo Cox was murdered, showed all the sensitivity of a hessian condom, by gloating that "we won it without a single bullet being fired". And then he shut the gate after the horse had bolted by helpfully telling us the pledge that a vote to leave would mean £350m a week for the NHS was "a mistake". Never mind that a cornerstone of the catastrophically dishonest leave campaign was that a Brexit would somehow mean a massive infusion of funds for healthcare.

Another cornerstone of the leave campaign was that "taking back control" of our borders and deciding who we let into the UK would relieve pressures on public services. Plenty of people called bullshit on this before the referendum - we will have to agree to freedom of movement to trade with the EU, same as Norway and Switzerland, and the Vienna Convention means there won't be an instant exodus of EU citizens - but this was ignored by every voter who cited immigration as their main concern.

Daniel Hannan, a Tory Eurosceptic MEP, has essentially told the "piss off, we're full" brigade to prepare to be disappointed. "All we're asking for is some control over roughly who comes in," he said this morning, watering down the tough border control rhetoric of the last few weeks.

In short, the British public has been sold a massive lemon with the leave campaign. The desire to ignore experts has been especially depressing. It is typical of an increasing race-to-the-bottom mentality that seems to be growing like a pitiful fungus. There is a disdain for the educated, as if getting an education and developing experience and expertise in a field is something on which to look down. Would these same anti-experts submit to a tailor for major surgery? After all, it's just a bit of cutting and stitching. Who needs years of medical training for that?

Educated people are being criticised for voting remain on the basis of analysing evidence and reading widely and considering a range of views. This apparently amounts to hatred of the working class. For some, voting with your heart rather than your head was a better methodology for the biggest political decision of our lifetimes.

Nigel Farage was arrogant enough to say that GDP doesn't matter if quality of life improves, except that the two concepts are connected. But nobody really challenged him on that or any of the nonsense he spouted during what was an appalling, unedifying campaign.

Areas of low immigration and high unemployment voted heavily to leave. The leave campaign was obsessed with the job-stealing ways of Polish car washers, as if they were all desperate to wash cars for a living, or somehow felt that in a free market economy, they would be unable to start their own car-washing business in competition. Never mind that there are so many educated EU citizens making amazing contributions to the country or that educated Brits work in professional jobs across Europe. Schrodinger's Immigrant was stealing all our jobs while claiming jobseekers' allowance.

Of course, there is also an element of jealousy, of tall poppy syndrome in regard to British people working in the EU. These are, by and large, the British people who have taken the time to learn other languages and, as a result, enjoy incredible professional opportunities. Like Australians, British people are often shamefully monolingual. But resenting those who have taken their language skills to Europe is simply pathetic.

And then there are the cries of "Sore loser!". With all due respect, grow up. This is not some kids' football game where a wailing six-year-old refuses to accept the offside rule. This is extremely bloody serious and the implications deserve serious discussion and analysis. If we are to come out of this unnecessarily divisive period of British political history equipped with the information and a credible plan to minimise the inevitable hit the economy will take, we need to break it down, to work out how we can find a way to move forward and prosper.

How will we make up the shortfall from losing EU funding and a possibly reduced tax and consumer-spending base? There will be job losses? Do we have a plan to create more jobs? Will the welfare state be an effective safety net in the meantime? What will the role of the public and private sectors be in this vague new world in which we now live? What will our trade relationship with the EU look like? These are all serious economic questions that need to be discussed as a matter of urgency and constructive solutions need to be found.

We also need to discuss racism. Not every Brexiter is a racist. There are people I am proud to call friends and family who voted out. But it is naive to say that racism didn't motivate some voters. We need to be prepared to look into that grim underbelly of British society and deal with the bile and hatred before it eats society alive.

All this because David Cameron was scared of losing voters to UKIP in the last general election.

The campaign turned into Boris Johnson's personal crusade to become Prime Minister. His speeches, while generally bollocks if anyone bothered to analyse them, were carefully designed to set him up as looking more statesmanlike. He made promises he had no business making about what post-Brexit Britain will look like. Right now, he is not the party leader, he is merely the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Bad luck if any of his constituents want a surgery any time soon. Pish tosh! He is way too busy for such trifles of democracy!

I genuinely thought I'd wake up this morning with a sense of relief, with the realisation that the country didn't metaphorically shag the office creep. I was hoping we would have thought better of being seduced by one-liners and lame Facebook memes and outright lies about everything from Turkey to how laws are made, and decided to give the creep the number of a taxi company instead.

Thanks, Dave. You bet the house on this referendum and the whole debacle has been a lesson in unintended consequences that defies parody. Next time you want to pander to UKIP, meet Nigel down the pub, buy him a few pints and give him a light. After all, you have plenty in common. You are both the establishment that in no way has been defeated.

Photo by Davide D'Amico

Thursday, 16 June 2016


It is just too horrific. This is not the Britain that I know and love. This is not the compassionate, creative, diverse, amazing, funny, inclusive, welcoming Britain that I have loved for almost all my life. This is not the optimistic Britain that I returned to in 2011 with my British husband.

Today's events - the murder, nay, the assassination, of Jo Cox MP - in no way reflect my experience of Britain. Since 2011, I have lived and worked here and, as an Australian, felt nothing but positivity about my presence here.

And yet today Jo Cox was murdered in cold blood in the country I love, in the country I have loved since I first came here as a wide-eyed toddler in 1979.

This is disgusting, appalling, disgraceful, vile. Someone who genuinely wanted the best for Britain was murdered today as she went about her duties an MP.

Jo Cox cared. Jo Cox was a proper constituency MP. She was available to the people she represented. Even in the midst of the EU debate, she was still concerned about the issues affecting the people she represented.

That is democracy in action. That is why we have MPs.

And today, at the age of 41, Jo Cox was taken from us.

There is a melee of innuendo about why she was stabbed and shot. But, based in available information, there was a political motivation to her death.

But now I am speculating based on what the news channels have told me. In any case, an MP stabbed and shot outside a library is not the Britain that I love.

I am still in shock. She was one year older than me, yet she achieved more than I probably ever will.

Tonight, she should be hugging her kids and embracing her husband.  But that will never happen again.

A man has been arrested for her murder. We may know more in the coming days about the motivation behind killing an innocent woman. If this is a politically motivated killing, we should view it as an act of terrorism, a political assassination. The killer may be mentally ill and, if that is the case, he deserves compassion. But he also deserves the full weight of the law for this is an unspeakable atrocity, an assault on our democracy and on the basic decency that I still believe is a strong vein running through Britain and its people.

But all this is currently speculation. In any event, it is bloody awful, it is inexcusable, it is not the sort of thing we should ever expect to happen here.

Whatever the case, this is not the Britain I know and love. We are better than this. We do not stab and shoot people with whom we disagree. We talk we engage, we get to know the people with whom we share our neighbourhoods in this brilliantly diverse nation.

And above all, in honour of Jo Cox, we never let hate win.

Photo by Flickr/The Bees

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Running away from Omar Mateen's homophobia

"It's like every time you read something about this asshole, he becomes a bigger asshole."

My friend Dana summed up Orlando murderer Omar Mateen perfectly. He is an onion of assholery. Layer upon layer of assholery interspersed with self-loathing, loneliness and the bitterest of bile.

It is important to talk about his homophobia. When Owen Jones walked off the Sky News set on Monday night it was because he felt Julia Hartley-Brewer and Mark Longhurst were deflecting the discussion away from the homophobic element to the massacre. Jones was visibly distressed throughout the discussion, tensions rose and the tipping point came when Longhurst, the presenter, said the crime was against "human beings" who were "trying to enjoy themselves, whatever their sexuality".

Well, yeah, up to a point, but to downplay the homophobic element of what happened at the Pulse nightclub on the weekend is to run away from something that is clearly still a problem across multiple societies, even the ones that are supposedly progressive.

In its simplest terms, a man who had espoused homophobic views shot up a gay club and killed lots of LGBT people. It now transpires that he'd been in the club before with people recounting that he'd tried to pick up other men, had got drunk there, and behaved belligerently. Some are saying he was a self-loathing gay man. Others are saying he was simply scoping the place out and his attack was entirely premeditated. Either way, this is a man with a deeply disturbed view of homosexuality and a man who had the means to act on this view in the most despicable way possible.

When Mark Longhurst seemed keen to play down the homophobic aspect of Mateen's crime on Sky News, it was part of a bigger reluctance to look homophobia in the eye and admit that it is still a problem. It is brilliant that same-sex marriage is legal here in the UK, but David Cameron had to fight hard to pass it, the main opponents in Parliament were invariably religious, and it did not mean an end to homophobia here any more than Barack Obama's presidency ended all racism or a probably Hillary Clinton presidency will end all sexism in the US.

The investigation into the murder of 49 innocent people in Orlando has, so far, not revealed any direct links to IS. In his 911 call during his heinous rampage, he pledged allegiance to IS and was known to have made remarks in support of armed Islamic extremist movements. Anyone with an internet connection can learn about IS. Anyone who consumes most mainstream western media outlets can learn about IS that way. You don't need to communicate with them directly to spout off a load of hateful shit in support of those losers.

And naturally, the dickheads of Daesh claimed responsibility for the murders. Of course they did. Mateen is just the kind of pathetic useful idiot Daesh depends on for oxygen.

Young, messed-up, bitter men do the dirty work for IS both in the territories they occupy in the Middle East and in the west. And giving the toxic views of IS airplay in the media also helps their fucked-up cause.

And Mateen was certainly messed up. His first wife shared stories of his abuse towards her. Owen Jones deserves kudos for raising this unsavoury aspect of Mateen's character before he walked off the Sky News set. Domestic violence is yet another awful aspect to Mateen's dark character. His father, Seddique Mateen, gave a bizarre interview to CNN in which he disputed his first wife's claims about mental health issues, said the club needed better security, and said Mateen expressed disgust at the sight of two men kissing. Seddique Mateen also said he believed people should be in heterosexual relationships but that it was up to God to judge.

This is a view on homosexuality that echoes the words of many a conservative Christian - to love the sinner but hate the sin. I have seen similar views on homosexuality expressed by Muslims, as well as Christians, since the shooting. It is indeed a relief that religious people across the board are not interested in shooting LGBT people dead in cold blood but pushing the "hate the sin" rhetoric is something all conservative religious people need to think on, especially when there are still countries in the world where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, lashes and death.

The notion of hating the "sin" of homosexual activity is certainly alive and well. But anyone's sexual activity should fall squarely in the category of nobody's damn business but your own. As soon as  the "love the sinner, hate the sin" narrative gains traction, self-loathing and closeting is quick to follow.

Homophobic rhetoric frequently obsesses over sexual acts, reducing gay people to whatever they might do to get off. There just aren't the same derogatory terms for heterosexuals, based on what they do in bed, compared to the sex act-focused abuse frequently hurled at the LGBT community. Nobody has ever seen a heterosexual couple holding hands and called the man a "cervix-thumper" or the woman a "penis-clencher". But the insults aimed at LGBT people are frequently reductive and focus on inaccurate assumptions about what every LGBT person does whenever they have sex.

It would behoove religious conservatives, regardless of faith, to think about what they are doing to the next generation when they focus on hating the sin. Interestingly, in today's Evening Standard, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) said that "the most important thing Islam preserves is the privacy of one's sexual activity" and that "it's up to you how you behave behind closed doors or in the privacy of your own bedroom". If only the countries where gay people are beheaded or shot or hung from cranes embraced this attitude towards sex. Iran, Saudi Arabia, I'm looking at you in particular.

But if gay-bashing still happens in our own countries, if marriage equality is still a fight in western countries, if homophobic insults are considered harmless banter, if dickheads publicly congratulate Mateen's actions, the LGBT community will not be truly equal and horrific crimes will continue all over the world. Some of these crimes may have an element of religious extremism, some may not. None are justifiable. It is important to fight the homophobia as well as the vile aspects of religious extremism. This is not an either/or. It is possible to be concerned about both problems and for a world without homophobic bigotry to start at home.

Refusing to acknowledge the role homophobia played in the Orlando shooting will do nothing to move any society forward in any positive way.

Photo: Flickr/Aivas14

Sunday, 5 June 2016

"Lifestyle choices" - a term of belittlement

The angry online mob tore down the pregnant woman like a pack of anonymous wolves in need of a life. All she did was criticise fellow commuters for being reluctant to give up their seat for her. The way people turned on her, you'd think she had demanded to be personally chauffeured to work in a mink-lined Bentley at taxpayer expense.

She identified herself only as Lauren, a 31-year-old pregnant woman who was eight months pregnant and commuting between Crawley and London. On the Evening Standard Facebook page, the comments were a trip back in time, and not in a good way. Some morons asked what the hell she was doing going to work while she was pregnant, as if being knocked up means you automatically become incapable of working, suddenly lose the desire to go to work, or magically don't need the income any more. "My mother didn't work when she was pregnant!" was a common retort.

And then there were the people who said they shouldn't have to give up their seat because of her "lifestyle choice". True, there is no law in the UK that compels people to give up their seats on trains and buses for pregnant women, but it'd be nice to think we live in a society where good manners are still a thing.

But to merely describe pregnancy is a "lifestyle choice" is reductive. It is an insulting way to shut down debate, to demean pregnant women who are asking for just a little consideration as they gestate the next generation.

As someone who is militantly pro-choice, I support whatever decision a woman makes when she pees on the stick and it comes up positive. And when a woman chooses to carry to term, whether the pregnancy was planned or not, I stand by her and understand that sometimes accommodations need to be made, such as giving up my seat on the tube or being understanding if a pregnant colleague is late for work because she has a scan. It's called not being an arsehole.

Yes, I am talking about choices here, but I would not describe going through pregnancy and childbirth as a "lifestyle choice". That puts the rigours of maternity into the same box as buying a sports car or taking a skiing holiday. Someone fighting for the rights of people in sports cars to drive at whatever the hell speed they like would be met with ridicule, just as a petition to lengthen the opening hours of a bar in Klosters during the ski season would be roundly lampooned.

But a pregnant woman asking for a little common courtesy, for us to not degenerate into brutes, is not in the same category. To the people refusing to give her a seat because getting pregnant is apparently a "lifestyle choice", would it make any difference to you if she conceived through rape or if she had suffered multiple miscarriages and this was her last chance at motherhood? Would you parse her circumstances through your tiny mind before getting off your bum or are all pregnant women simply birthing babies for a lark, giving it the same seriousness that they'd give a trip to the seaside?

And would these same stubborn sitters give up their seat for someone on crutches on the train or bus? I'm guessing plenty of people would do so. What if that person was on crutches because they broke their leg on a skiiing holiday? Or is that "lifestyle choice" acceptable?

It's the same idiocy that leads people to talk about the "gay lifestyle". These people generally don't want gay couples to get married or have equal rights to heterosexual couples because they see it as condoning the "gay lifestyle".

Frankly, even if being gay was a lifestyle choice, so what? Why would anyone care if sexuality was a lifestyle choice and this led to two people falling in love and wanting to get married or having equal inheritance rights or end-of-life decision rights as a heterosexual couple? Why do bigots never talk about the "heterosexual lifestyle"? It is because they don't seek to diminish that of which they approve.

I suspect the "gay lifestyle" mentality gained traction because of stereotypes, such as gay male couples always having fabulous apartments (having cleaned the apartment of a gay friends while helping another friend house-sit for them, I can assure you they are not all living in spotless, minimalist abodes that belong in magazines...) or lesbian couples always being yurt-dwelling vegans (again, utter bullshit).

Once the word "lifestyle" is tagged on, there is a sense that it is silly, flippant, nonsensical, whimsical.

As such, it makes it easy to reduce gay couples to superficialities rather than growing up and recognising that a civilised society lets people marry whoever makes them happy, regardless of sexuality. And this same society also offers their seats when pregnant women board trains. That's the one I want to live in.

Image by Richard Davis

Sunday, 22 May 2016

"The Turks are coming! Let's be more like Norway!" The latest Brexit campaign panic...

Today, the Brexit campaign is warning us that if we vote to stay in the EU next month, we'll be overrun with Turks. It all exploded this morning on The Andrew Marr Show (BBC One) when Penny Mordaunt, a vote leave campaigner, incorrectly said that the UK would be powerless to stop Turkey joining the EU. Next up, on Peston's Politics (ITV), David Cameron correctly said that the UK has the power of veto over any Turkish bid for EU membership and that it will be "literally decades" before the prospect of Turkey joining the EU is realistic.

Turkey's ambitions for EU membership never really got out of first gear, since applying for European Community membership back in 1987. As long as Turkey continues to illegally occupy the northern third of Cyprus, they're not going to be allowed in. Cyprus too has a veto and Turkey won't even recognise Cyprus. And over the years, genuine concerns about security, human rights and economic reform have further stalled their campaign.

If we vote to leave the EU, we won't ever get the opportunity to veto Turkey's membership.

But why would this matter if we left the EU and had full control of our borders? ask the Brexiters. Because, dear Brexiters, leaving the EU does not automatically guarantee this utopian border control of which you so frequently speak.

If you are a Brexiter who constantly points to Norway as an example of why we'd be just fine out of the EU, you are especially culpable in a bad narrative.

Norway has twice voted to remain out of the EU, first in 1972 and again in 1994, with the out vote narrowly winning each time. But in order to trade with the EU (and anyone who thinks we can simply not bother trading with the EU or negotiate a mutually beneficial trade deal quickly is utterly deluded), Norway must retain all EU financial regulations, employment regulations and product standards and contribute to the EU budget, all while having no say in any of these regulations, standards or contributions. Do you really think the EU will treat the UK like a special snowflake in this regard if we vote to leave? Please. Do not be so naive.

On top of that, free movement of people, as per EU rules, is central to Norway's relationship with the EU. Yet Norway has no say in the making of these rules. This has resulted in a higher inward migration of EU citizens into Norway than the UK when measured as a percentage of total population. So, in decades to come, if we vote to leave, we'd have no say in Turkey's EU membership and, in order to keep trading with the EU so the economy doesn't completely tank, we'd have to give Turks freedom of movement into the UK if they ended up joining.

In short, if you think leaving the UK will mean less people in the country, and therefore less pressure on the NHS, schools and social services, you are wrong.

The Vienna Convention of 1969 would give EU citizens already living in the UK legal protections post-Brexit because of individual acquired rights. The convention says that the termination of a treaty "does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination".

Bang goes the Brexit arguments that leaving the EU would mean we could trade with the EU without letting in EU citizens or that we'd instantly be able to pull a drawbridge up on EU citizens coming to work here.

Additionally, plenty of businesses would struggle if they had to sponsor the visas of EU citizens, as is the case with non-EU staff. This would be crippling particularly for many businesses which rely on staff who can speak European languages. As long as the average Brit remains embarrassingly monolingual, plenty of employers will require the services of EU citizens.

On top of all this, the Norwegian example is particularly ridiculous especially when spouted by conservative Brexiters. The simplistic moronomics of the Brexit campaign, as encapsulated in the stupid campaign bus (made in Poland and Germany...) goes along the lines of "If we leave the EU, we will have £350 million per week to put into the NHS". Except the bus slogan neglects the money we get back as a result of being in the EU, such as the billions invested in the European Regional Development Fund, money made in trade and contributions by EU citizens who are resident here and are paying taxes and being economically active consumers.

If anyone seriously thinks the government,  particularly the current one, will match the funding we receive from the EU, especially for infrastructure projects and especially in the north of England, think again.

"But Norway is doing alright without all this EU funding!" comes a howl from the Brexit peanut gallery.

Again, if you are a conservative Brexiter and you think this is a good argument, you are being absurd. Norway is one of the highest taxed nations in the world. This is how it funds things. While this may appeal to left-leaning Brexiters, you cannot be taken seriously for a nanosecond if you are a low-tax conservative Brexiter using Norway as an example. VAT is at 25%. Corporation tax is 25%, the top rate of income tax is 46.9% and ordinary income is flat-taxed at 27%. Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is consistently above 40%, as opposed to just above 30% in the UK. All tax rates for Norway are well above the OECD average - this would be a massive vote loser for the UK, regardless of who is in power. The Norwegians might well be perfectly happy with this tax burden but it is naive to think this will fly in the UK.

But the sad truth is that this whole EU referendum debate is degenerating into an unedifying Dave versus Boris spectacle along with people trying to win the argument with internet memes. If the standard of debate improves over the next month, I will be amazed.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Does the PwC high heel row matter?

There are plenty of reasons why people might have a problem with PwC, the professional services and consultancy firm that was caught up in this week's row over receptionists being compelled to wearing high heels, but forcing women into high heels issue is not one of them.

Sure, they have private healthcare clients and the government has used our money to commission reports about healthcare from PwC, but that is another rant for another day...

When news broke about a receptionist, Nicola Thorp, being fired for apparently breaching a PwC dress code that compelled female employees to wear shoes with heels between two and four inches high, the internet debates raged thick and fast. I plead guilty to being involved in such an exchange of views.

But since then, a crucial fact has come to light. The high heel policy was not that of PwC. It was actually the frankly ridiculous and dated policy of a company called Portico, which supplies staff to PwC. On Friday, the Fawcett Society, a gender equality campaigning charity, started #fawcettflatsFriday trending on Twitter and female members of PwC merrily tweeted their flat shoe-clad feet, saying the pictures could have been taken on any day of the week, not just Friday, a day commonly associated with dressing down for the office in the corporate world.

So women have been going to work at PwC day in, day out, wearing whatever the hell shoes they like. Good.

Since the row, Portico has announced it has dropped the two-to-four-inch heel policy and is reviewing its dress code guidelines. Good. The power of negative PR is not to be underestimated.

In the meantime, Nicola Thorp started an online petition entitled "Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work". The petition is on the UK Government and Parliament petitions website and, at the time of writing, the petition had passed the 134,000 signatures mark, meaning Parliament would consider it for debate in the House of Commons.

But the petition is somewhat pointless. It is already illegal under anti-discrimination law to discriminate on the grounds of gender, disability or pregnancy.

In an unfair dismissal case, it would not take a genius lawyer to argue that compelling women - or people who are physically incapable of wearing high heels or pregnant women - to wear such shoes is discrimination on any of these three grounds. This would set a precedent and companies would have to consider whether it is worth the risk of compelling women to wear high heels when they cannot demonstrate that this would have any bearing on their ability to do the job. And unless it can be proven that receptionists are somehow more effective if they transfer calls using the heel of their shoe, a receptionist fired for no other reason than rocking up to work in a pair of flats would, in all likelihood, win the case.

Additionally, there are limited cases where a woman (and in certain cases, men...) may have to wear high heels to work, such as women performing on stage or in film and television productions, adult entertainment, and modelling and promotion work. A woman like me (very short, 40 years old, the owner of two club feet, an arthritic ankle, arthritic knees and a dodgy lower back) would not take such jobs but it would be ridiculous if I was excluded from a receptionist job all because I cannot straighten my knees, let alone walk in heels.

And reception work is an area where women dominate so it's a bit shitty to demand high heels and, as a result, exclude women from workplaces where men walk around in flat shoes with impunity.

Freedom for employees versus freedom for companies

In the case of office jobs, I support the right of a woman to wear flat shoes if she so chooses. Or she can wear heels too. There is nothing wrong with a company dress code - it is not unreasonable to expect staff to turn up to work looking professional, well-groomed and to look at their watch rather than a calendar when asked when they last took a shower. But compelling a certain heel height, when this is not practical or comfortable or even possible for every woman, and when it has no bearing on how the job is done, is a bit stupid.

If a company can demonstrate to me that compelling the receptionist to wear heels has a positive impact on their profits and effectiveness, do get in touch. I'm waiting.

We are veering into the territory on which America frequently treads when the issue of providing birth control on company health insurance plans rears its head. Is a company the same as a person if the boss does not agree with proving birth control? Is the woman's right to birth control as part of her healthcare plan more important than the religious or moral beliefs of the boss? Here in the UK, should the right of an employer to demand high heels of female employees in offices trump the right of a woman to choose her heel height?

What the Portico/PwC case does achieve is to shine a light on the treatment of agency staff in corporate Britain. Many a temp can attest that it is very easy to get fired or simply no longer required all of a sudden, with limited legal recourse. And the life of a temp can be a tenuous one. While the hourly rate may be better than a zero hours contract worker at a supermarket or fast food outlet, the financial uncertainty is still there. Yes, it is true that plenty of people like the flexibility a zero hours contract can offer, but there are plenty who would just like to be made permanent so they can be more economically active, plan ahead and do things many of us take for granted, such as take out a mortgage or a car loan.

Bogus defences of compulsory heels

Other spurious arguments came out of the woodwork over the high heel row. Someone compared it to compelling men to wear neckties and claimed her father could not wear a tie because it was too constrictive around his neck and this resulted in medical problems. Fair enough. If there really was a genuine medical reason for not wearing a tie, it would not be unreasonable for his employer to allow him to loosen his tie or wear neat, tidy corporate attire minus a tie.

But overall, more podiatrists and orthopaedic surgeons are routinely warning women about the health risks of wearing high heels than there are doctors writing notes for male employees so they can get out of wearing a tie to work. However, if enough men want to rise up and ditch ties, they are more than welcome to start a campaign. Nobody is stopping you, guys. Off you go. Fight the power.

Then there was the pathetic argument that went along the lines of "Well, if women can wear flat shoes as long as they are hygienic, surely nurses can come to work in jeans and a T-shirt if it's clean". Except that a nurse's uniform serves other purposes - as well as being a hygienic outfit for work, it is pretty important, especially in a busy A&E department, for example, for members of staff to be easily identified. I am still stunned that someone would attempt such a stupid argument but that happened. Indeed, any "But what about uniforms?" argument is stupid. Nobody sensible is calling for a ban on uniforms or a ban on safety attire for work, such as steel-capped boots on building sites. There are no picket lines of builders on construction sites in open-toed shoes and mankinis.

Then there was the argument that surely men can now wear heels to work too. They can if they want to, I guess. Is there a groundswell of men out there champing at the bit to ditch their comfy brogues and rock up to work in a pair of teetering Jimmy Choos? I very much doubt it.

It's about sexism, stupid

And this brings us back to why Portico's now-abandoned high heel rule is sexist. The simple test is to ask yourself if it would be absurd to make the same requirement of a man.

And the deeper test to ask yourself why high heels would be considered important for a woman. What is to be achieved by compelling women into shoes that change the way they walk, make it harder to run away, and are associated with sex appeal? Ties for men are not in the same league when it comes to making them vulnerable or to morph them into office eye candy.

Historically, high heels for men have always been a fad - Regency dandies, Louis XVI of France, the platforms for men debacle of the 1970s, glam rockers - none of these trends lasted or became truly mainstream across social classes. Men have always reverted to more comfortable shoes. They do not feel compelled to wear uncomfortable shoes to increase their sex appeal or their employment prospects. They are not subjected to dress codes that insist on shoes that not everyone can walk in.

If you want to wear high heels, that is your choice. If you can genuinely walk in them and feel comfortable in them, good for you. If you find them uncomfortable but wear them anyway, that is also your choice. Men don't put up with such discomfort but sometimes they can be silly in other ways. Such as demanding the receptionist wear high heels...

Photography by 10 Mix

Monday, 2 May 2016

Politics: It's all about perception

What a total shower last week was for British politics, and in particular for the Labour Party. It didn't have to be quite so embarrassing. Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, was suspended over a Facebook post from 2014 that suggested Israel should be moved to the United States. She gave a classy and dignified apology and we may not have heard quite so much about whether or not Labour has an anti-semitism problem if Ken Livingstone hadn't happened.

It was just one of many examples of how utterly incompetent the media management is in the Labour Party. Yes, yes, I know all about right-wing media bias, but even with the might of the Murdoch press, the Telegraph and the Mail, there is no excuse for the pitiful media management that is going on in the Labour Party at the moment.

If Seumas Milne had anything resembling a clue, he would not let Ken Livingstone on the telly. Censorship? Maybe. Self-preservation of the party by reining in a loose cannon? Definitely.

It does not really matter whether you think Livingstone's comments this week were anti-semitic or not. What does matter is how it is perceived beyond the Labour Party echo chamber. And Livingstone was perceived as coming across like a drunken uncle at a wedding. Why anyone thought it would be a good idea to trot him out to defend Naz Shah is anyone's guess. Why he thought it'd be prudent to describe Hitler as a Zionist while attempting to defend Naz Shah is equally astounding.

Livingstone picked up the Godwin's Law ball, ran with it, crossed the try line, did a victory lap, and then ran out of the stadium. And kept running as if he was Forrest Gump.

This week's farce, complete with Livingstone hiding in a disabled loo while journalists barked questions about Hitler at him through the door, created a ridiculous paradox.

On one hand, the Livingstone debacle and subsequent inquiry into anti-semitism in the Labour Party dominated the news cycle at the expense of all manner of important stories. Labour did not come out of this looking particularly good, even though the Tories could benefit from their own inquiry into racism, after Boris Johnson's awful comments about Barack Obama and a London mayoral campaign from Zac Goldsmith that has enough dog whistles to summon all 101 dalmatians.

But on the other hand, elections in the UK are not won and lost on foreign policy in relation to Israel and Palestine. This may come as a shock to the chattering classes on both sides of the debate, but it's the brutal truth.

With this week's local elections, we will soon find out whether the damage has been done.

Despite this week's often highly staged drama, it is pretty likely that Sadiq Khan will be the next mayor of London. Naturally, he is being slammed in certain quarters for criticising Livingstone. But what else did people expect him to do? A man who describes Hitler as a Zionist "before he went mad" is an electoral liability. And Labour needs to be elected to make any impact.

While a Khan victory will be good news for the beleaguered Labour Party, it will be interesting to see if the predicted decimation of Labour happens in local elections outside of London. London is not the rest of Britain and it is not a litmus test for broader election results. It could well be the case that voters will punish a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party outside of London, given that outside of the Labour Party, he is not polling well. Or maybe people will simply vote on local issues. Weirder things have happened in British politics.

The other brutal truth is that elections in the UK are won on the middle ground. Or on what is perceived to be the middle ground.

At the last election, the Conservative Party did an excellent job of convincing people that they represented the middle ground. Plenty of people now regret voting Conservative, but plenty of people voted that way in good faith. It is churlish for the left to slag off regretful Tory voters now. It is just another way to create divisions when people should be coming together.

Right now, there is so much going on with this wretched government that should be a gift for Labour.

This week, during Prime Minister's Questions, there was a junior doctors' strike going on. But this had all but vanished from the news cycle by Thursday afternoon. This should have been how Corbyn kicked off his questions, with an excoriation of David Cameron for losing control of his failed marmalade mogul health secretary, a robust defence of junior doctors, and evidence of every Labour MP supporting junior doctors on picket lines this week (if indeed they did this or was Heidi Alexander too busy faffing on with the daft pilot idea?). Instead, he led with a question on the forced academisation of schools - it is a very important issue, don't misunderstand me here, and it deserved a hard question -  but Corbyn should have kicked things off with the junior doctors and the NHS.

The Labour Party currently has a terrible tin ear for public opinion, an embarrassing inability to capture the news cycle.

And none of this is helped by Corbyn constantly storming away from journalists instead of answering questions. Even though politicians of all stripes do this, it makes Corbyn in particular look like a grumpy old man who can't be bothered to engage with the media and therefore the wider public. And then the media coverage grows ever more hostile. The coverage is frequently unfair or just plain absurd, but it will keep happening as long as Labour's media strategy is so poor.

Like I said, it is all about perception. Sadiq Khan understands this, but neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Seumas Milne do. And as long as they maintain their tin ears and only listen to advice they want to hear, the much-needed middle ground will be out of their reach. Its easy to say that they don't want the middle ground, but they cannot do a damn thing from the sidelines apart from wave at Ken Livingstone as he runs past.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Pearl-clutching prudery and John Whittingdale

Would you like some pearls to clutch while you carry on about the culture secretary, John Whittingdale's long-finished relationship with a sex worker?

For this story is not about press regulation, or blackmail, or Leveson. It is about prudery and the inability of people to mind their own damn business. It may also be about the Tories and a complicit press merrily throwing one of their own under a bus to stop people talking about piddly little things like tax reform, but most of all, it is about prudery.

There have been some rather unsavoury suggestions that Whittingdale was blackmailing journalists who knew of his past relationship with a sex worker. Something along the lines of: "If you run that story about my personal life, I'll tighten the screws on press regulation!". But nobody has been able to produce any evidence of this being the case.

If this is what happened, we have a problem. It would be a serious compromise to the office of Culture Secretary if Whittingdale was holding journalists over a barrel in such a manner. If any journalist has any evidence of such outrageous behaviour by a member of the cabinet, please speak now or forever hold your peace.

There are loud howls from the peanut gallery as to why journalists who knew about Whittingdale's relationship with a sex worker held off on publishing such a supposedly embarrassing story.

If it was the case that Whittingdale was blackmailing journalists, he should resign, and the blackmailed journalists would surely be calling for his resignation on those grounds.

But what if the story simply failed the "So what?" test. What if the journalists who were fed the information by another sex worker out to make a quick quid decided that a relationship between two single people that has long since ended was not newsworthy? What if it was decided that there was no news value in reporting on a past relationship that happened well before Whittingdale was Culture Secretary and involved a woman who is not and does not seek to be a public figure?

What exactly are people shocked about here? That sex workers exist? That an MP might, quite legally despite other outdated laws, pay for sex? Or that a sex worker would have the temerity to join a dating website and seek to have a personal life?

Is British society so whore-phobic that collectively a dim view is taken of a sex worker seeking a relationship outside of work, something the rest of us in supposedly respectable jobs take for granted?

Whittingdale's relationship did not break any laws. He has not attempted as an MP to pass punitive legislation in relation to sex workers nor has he ever put himself forward as a "family values" spokesman. As such, he is not a hypocrite.

The only way I can see to move forward from this fiasco is for Britain to finally grow up and quit being shocked by sex workers or by the sex lives of consenting adults. We need to get over our appetite for non-news stories about stuff that affects nobody outside of the relationship. This current debacle is pathetic. John Whittingdale's long defunct relationship is not news. Can we please move on and discuss things that are actually important?

Picture by FergalFam007

Sunday, 10 April 2016

An open letter to The Agenda Beirut

Dear members of staff of The Agenda Beirut,

This letter is directed in particular to senior management, for that is where the buck stops when an organisation says or does something stupid or unprofessional, and to one Issam T. Eid, who is responsible for writing, quite frankly, a sexist load of tripe.

I refer to Mr Eid's embarrassing attempt to promote his Automotive Journalism course. Here, Mr Eid rattles off the eight ways he can teach people to become automotive journalists.

Firstly, the writing is sloppy and there is a blatant disregard for paragraph spacing. This is somewhat ironic given that one of his tips is: "Even if you like what you wrote, have someone else read your articles". Did anyone else cast their eye over this tragic sales pitch before it was posted?

Then there is a spot of encouragement for race-to-the-bottom journalism with the advice: "Nowadays if you believe you're a good automotive journalist, you can write articles and post them online". The problem is that plenty of people with an internet connection believe they are good journalists and post reams of bullshit online.

Hell, I can believe I am Wonder Woman, but when I look in the mirror, I see more Helena Bonham Carter than Lynda Carter. Belief does not always translate into reality. It is one thing to motivate your students to believe they can achieve great things. It is quite another to urge anyone who "believes" they are a good journalist, automotive or otherwise, to fill the internet with unedited rubbish.

And then, at the end, perhaps most offensive and ridiculous of all is the advice under point #8. This is, apparently, the "life cycle of an automotive journalist (Pros vs. Cons)".

Mr Eid says "Everyone envies you for your fancy life as you're on the go all year long".

Sure, there are some nice travel perks, but anyone who is serious about the job cares little for the fancy hotel, does not bugger off in the middle of dinner with senior execs from automotive companies because hookers await (I have witnessed this in my time working as an automotive journalist in the Middle East), does not throw a tantrum because a 45-minute flight on a work trip is economy class (I have also witnessed this in my time working as an automotive journalist in the Middle East), does not refuse to go to the airport once they realise the flight is economy class and only calls the PR back three days later with a pathetic excuse (Surprise, surprise, I have witnessed this too...), and often has to file copy from hotel rooms and airports.

But I suspect basic etiquette will be conspicuous by its absence in Mr Eid's course.

And then he concludes his sales pitch for his course in the most startling and unprofessional way imaginable, with this gem:

"It affects your private life. No girlfriend will tolerate you being away most of the time. Wife. That's another bad story too."

Wow. Really? Given you are charging $450 for this course, I assume you are trying to make money, so why the hell would you include in your sales pitch a sexist load of bunkum that excludes half the population? Do you not want to make any money out of women who are interested in becoming automotive journalists? Or did you simply assume that no woman wants to bother her pretty little head with an automotive journalism course?

Do you have any evidence for wives and girlfriends of automotive journalists being unsupportive partners or is it easier to stereotype all women as nagging shrews who don't understand men and their big engines?

Sure, being a journalist, any sort of journalist, can be demanding on personal relationships. We are not necessarily brilliant marriage prospects. We can be grumpy, deadline-driven, obsessive and alcoholic. But there are plenty of jobs that impede on private lives. Doctors, emergency services workers, any job involving anti-social hours...

Is Mr Eid trying to give students a reality check with this advice? Or is it a lame attempt at boys' club comedy? Whatever the hell he was trying to do here, he just comes across as a sexist jerk rather than a professional from whom aspiring automotive journalists can learn great things.

Seriously, it's 2016. Do better.

Your sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, happily married journalist, automotive correspondent for Elite Living Africa and woman.

Picture: Thomas Hawk/Flickr