Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The myth of strike-busting driverless tubes

As soon as #tubestrike starts trending on Twitter, the calls for the London Underground network to switch to driverless trains reach fever pitch. People carry on as if the network can switch to driverless trains in a matter of moments and that it will instantly end tube strikes.

Regardless of your views on London tube strikes, it is important to know that switching to driverless trains can't happen overnight and it won't necessarily stop strikes, even if we woke up tomorrow to find the switch had somehow magically happened.

There are 11 London tube lines, as well as the Overground and the already-driverless Docklands Light Rail (or DLR, but more on that in a moment...). In February 2014, when Mayor of London Boris Johnson, approved plans for driverless trains. But not even Boris would have such a rush of blood to the head that he'd sign off on a project that would be unfeasible on a practical level and astronomically expensive.

Boris signed off on procurement for 100 driverless trains for the Piccadilly Line. Just the Piccadilly Line. This is the start of a project that will cover only four of the network's lines between now and 2034 and it will cost £10 billion.

Every month, my bank account takes a direct hit thanks to Boris' love of raising public transport fares, but not even he would hike fares to the point where the upgrades and new trains required for a driverless tube could be implemented in lightning-fast time.

To implement driverless trains across infrastructure that is more than 100 years old in many parts is not a small or cheap undertaking.

On top of this, there ain't no whinger like the average London underground passenger. Especially when lines are closed for essential engineering work. Apparently, there are people out there who would rather travel on a poorly maintained railway system all the time instead of sucking it up and dealing with the occasional replacement bus service while travelling on a safe, well-maintained service the rest of the time.

And the average London underground whinger would complain at a rate last seen at Fawlty Towers if entire lines were closed for months at a time to do the upgrades required for driverless trains. Transport For London (TFL) needs to strike a balance between getting work done and minimising inconvenience for paying passengers.

Not that any of this stopped Richard Holloway, a Conservative councillor for the London borough of Westminster, from setting up an ill-informed and predictably briefly popular petition on change.org. The petition calls on Boris Johnson to "begin operating completely driverless trains on the entire London underground as soon as possible."

I tweeted Richard to ask him about this and he said that the Paris Metro went driverless over a period of five years. "Are we going to let the French beat us?" he asked without a trace of irony, given the French culture of strikes, and despite the fact it's not 1793.

Facts are pesky for Richard - the Paris Metro has not yet gone entirely driverless. I have no idea where he got his five-year figure from - Paris opened its first driverless line in 1998, a second in 2012 and a third is due by 2020. So that means two out of the 14 Paris Metro lines have gone driverless in the last 17 years.

When I asked Richard for costings, he tweeted a link to a BBC news story. I pointed out that this is not a costings document and he asked me if I frequent change.org and ask every petition for a full breakdown of costs for their proposal? Of course I don't. Most petitions on change.org are started by people who are not elected representatives. But if you are an elected representative publicly putting forward a proposal, you are effectively making a policy statement and it is entirely reasonable to be expected to provide costings. Especially when public money is involved.

Richard clearly didn't want to discuss this matter any further and asked if I'd demanded costings on a petition about the UK providing medical care to migrants at Calais.

He had no real answers to my questions and today, he is still on Twitter banging on about driverless trains as a panacea for all strikes. Such as the DLR, I suppose?

But the DLR - the line that is always cited as an example for how the tube should be by the "LET'S GO DRIVERLESS TOMORROW!" brigade - is not entirely without staff nor is it strike-free.

The DLR has more than 500 people on staff, such as cleaners, security staff, station staff and train captains. The captains move around the carriages while the trains are in motion and they have to manually operate the train if something goes wrong. If the rest of the tube network, went "driverless", the tube drivers would be the first people to be offered these train captain jobs - they are already trained to deal with a range of mechanical problems so they'd be obvious candidates.

And, sorry to break it you, Richard, but DLR staff have gone on strike. In May this year, DLR cleaning and security staff went on strike. If there are working people involved in an endeavour and striking has not been outlawed, strikes will probably still happen.

Get mad about tube strikes if you like. That is your right. But don't kid yourself that driverless trains can happen overnight or would be an instant strike-buster.

Photography by Svetlana Tikhonova

Smoke, fire and campus rape

Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, has been in the news this week after some douchey signs were hung up outside a frat house.

Delightfully, these signs contained the following tempting invitations:

"Rowdy and fun, hope your baby girl is ready for a good time."

(Frankly, guys, if you're referring to your female classmates as "baby girls", you haven't grown up enough to be trusted with your own erect penis near other people. And "rowdy"? Really? That's the kind of cute-but-lame word your mother uses when you're being a little boisterous on the front lawn as in: "Enough with the rowdy shenanigans, you little scamps!".)

"Freshman Daughter Drop Off."

(Young women: Just another delivery along with the beer and pizza!)

and, finally:

"Go ahead and drop off Mom too".

(Yeah! What grown-ass woman wouldn't want to indulge in some MILFy fun with these fine, young men!) 

The fraternity has been suspended pending an investigation before classes even start for the year.

If I saw these signs on my own university campus back in 1994, my initial reaction would be an eyeroll so hard that I'd be able to see out of my own ears. Perhaps the young women at this university should thank the members of the Sigma Nu fraternity for advertising themselves as weapons grade dickheads who should be avoided at all costs. That's what I'd tell any daughter of mine if that was the warm welcome she received on her first day of higher education.

And, hey, this is America! Land of the free! And that includes freedom of speech. If these crazy kids want to exercise that right by outing themselves as cretins, so be it.

But let's not be naive. Anyone who has ever gone to university knows that sex will happen. And not all sex that happens on college campuses is consensual. Statistics on rape in colleges are never going to be 100% accurate and this is partly down to under-reporting and poor notions of consent among young men and women.

For example, the young woman who wakes up after passing our drunk to discover a fellow student having sex with her is being raped but she might be unsure, just as her rapist might think his behaviour is perfectly acceptable and that her passing out in his room is the same as consent. Hint: It's not.

This is not a problem unique to the US. In the UK, Cambridge University introduced talks and workshops on consent in response to a survey of 2,100 female students in which almost half the respondents reported being "pinched, groped or grabbed" and more than 100 reported experiencing "serious sexual assault".

Just because someone was accepted into one of the world's best universities, that does not necessarily mean they are equipped with the life skills to be sexually responsible and respectful adults. Education about consent is important and, ideally, it should start when the kids are still at school. Because that is when people start to have sex. If we can set "enthusiastic consent" as a benchmark for sexual activity, we might start seeing campus sexual assault statistics fall and entertaining the notion of consent forms for sex at universities would become absurd.

If you seriously believe that all the kids responsible for the idiotic Sigma Nu frat house signs have sophisticated notions of consent, I've got a bridge to sell you. Given the fragmented nature of sex education across the US, any campus is going to have students joining the party with different levels of comprehension about everything from consent to homosexuality to birth control. The members of Sigma Nu won't necessarily all end up raping their classmates but it's naive to think that they're all on track to graduating as men who respect women if those signs are their idea of a welcoming gesture.

Sure, let the douchebros of Sigma Nu have their freedom of speech with their signs. And ensuring the freedom of people to go about their lives, especially at institutions of education, without being sexually assaulted is essential if we are as civilised as we claim to be.

Photography by Linnea Mallette

Monday, 24 August 2015

Abortion, adoption and the reality of choice

The story only received scant media coverage when it broke last month. Anti-abortion protesters forced a London abortion clinic to shut down. The clinic's name has not been made public but it is also rumoured that a second clinic is under threat thanks to protesters harassing women. It is suspected that Blackfriars Medical Centre, a longtime target of protest groups such as Abort67, is the second clinic under threat.

Never mind that apart from abortion being legal here in the UK, the Blackfriars clinic also provides ante- and post-natal checks, smear tests, minor surgery, counselling, men's health services, travel vaccines, cardiac health promotion, asthma and diabetes health promotion, dermatology and counselling. But for supposedly prolife people, these life-saving services might get thrown under a bus as long as they can limit access to safe, legal abortion by harassing women whose medical appointments are none of their damn business.

The only politician to stick her head above the parapet is Labour leadership contender, Yvette Cooper, and for that, she deserves respect. She has called for buffer zones around abortion clinics, as has happened in the US, Canada and France. This means the protesters can still exercise their right to free speech and women can still exercise their right to access medical services.

If you want to shout in public about why you believe abortion is wrong, that is your choice - but you have to remember that free speech is not the same as it being compulsory for anyone to listen to you. And free speech means that anyone who disagrees has the right to put forward their case.

Will the UK end up going down the US track of clinics requiring volunteer escorts to usher girls and women safely past protesters? Will the UK ever see its first example of abortion clinic staff being murdered? I really hope that is not the path on which we are travelling. Yvette Cooper should be commended for taking a stand on behalf of girls and women across the country.

Yes, girls as well as women...

The world has been reeling from the knowledge that in Paraguay, an 11-year-old girl, who was allegedly raped by her step-father at the age of 10, has just given birth. Her mother, the person who should be able to make medical decisions on behalf of her daughter, was denied the opportunity to let her daughter have a safe abortion just as she was not taken seriously when she tried to report her husband to the police. Everyone should be relieved that the girl survived the pregnancy and the c-section delivery, but every time she sees her c-section scar, she will be reminded of her rape. She is living in a family stricken by poverty in a country where around 600 girls aged 14 or under become pregnant every year. How has forcing her to give birth improved anything?

What is left of that girl's childhood? Is this the sort of awful story that we want to see replicated in the UK? It is the sort of awful story that should not happen anywhere ever.

Pregnancy is the world's biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide and it would be appalling if the UK's abortion laws changed so that girls here joined that terrible, inexcusable death toll in ever-increasing numbers.

But wait! There's always adoption! Well, sort of.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing, giving hope to children who might otherwise face a terrible childhood. But where are the Abort67 activists when it comes to making adoption easier for people who are able to given babies and children loving, safe homes? Such activists tend to sell adoption as a simple solution, a panacea for every unplanned, unwanted pregnancy but why are they not lobbying local authorities when ridiculous criteria make it impossible for potentially great parents to adopt?

Obviously, it would be irresponsible to simply let anyone who wandered in off the streets adopt children without any checks. After all, we are talking about kids who may have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused, kids who have witnessed violence in the home, kids with serious medical problems and kids who were born addicted to drugs or suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome.

It is important to remember that adoption isn't always sunshine and rainbows. It can be very hard on everyone concerned. Potential adopters have to be realistic, to be aware that they probably won't end up with an angelic newborn.

But when local authorities impose conditions such as requiring at least one parent to take a year off work and, for adoption of sibling groups, one bedroom per child, children will linger in foster care. I recently came across the sad case of five siblings who are awaiting a forever family while being separated in the foster care system. Tragically, they will probably remain in the system for a long time yet unless there is someone out there with a six-bedroom house and the ability to take a year off work.

Why isn't Abort67 focusing on these cases? Why isn't Abort67 advocating the use of birth control and ensuring that every school student in the country receives broad-based effective sex education? Why is Abort67 more concerned with sitting outside clinics?

Because that is easier than doing anything that would actually contribute to reducing abortion or helping children that have already been born.

May Abort67 remain a fringe group. Yvette Cooper was dead right when she said that we do not need US-style abortion wars here.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The hypocrisy of the royal paparazzi outrage

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have done the very British equivalent of hanging their heads out the window and yelling at the top of their lungs: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!". They wrote a strongly worded letter.

Essentially, it was a plea to paparazzi photographers for the same sort of privacy non-royal parents enjoy. It was a call for control over what photographs of their kids are shared widely. Just as it is up to parents to decide what pictures of their little darlings end up on Facebook, on mantelpieces and on naff Christmas cards, William and Kate would only like official photographs and photographs taken at official photo calls to be published.

Of course, if they truly want to raise their kids in a normal environment, a republic would solve that problem. They could live as private citizens and get jobs and everything. Yes, I know Prince William works as a part-time air ambulance pilot and donates his salary to charity, but he can afford to have the luxury of such altruistic principles. He could always give up the tax-free money his dad gives him from the Duchy of Cornwall and pay tax like the rest of us.

But to suggest a British republic is still, for many, as absurd as suggesting we all wear shoes made of tofu and hats made of argon. So that leaves us with the letter from the here-to-stay-for-now Duke and Duchess, which was dutifully published in full across multiple newspapers, including the Daily Mail.

It was nice of the Mail to do this, accompanied by official pictures of Prince George and Princess Charlotte. No seedy pap pics taken from the boots of cars. But on the Mail's website, right alongside this reverential reprinting of the letter were paparazzi pics of Brooklyn Beckham, aged 16. And this was just days after the non-story of four-year-old Harper Beckham photographed sucking on a dummy was considered front page-worthy.

A quick click on the Mail's homepage as I write this reveals, along with the usual papped shots of grown-ass adult celebrities, the following kiddie-based crap in the sidebar of shame: the Beckham kids again (this time, Romeo, Cruz and Harper but no Brooklyn, who was clearly too cool to attend his baby's sister's recital), a video filmed from across the street of David Beckham and all four of his kids performing the fascinating act of getting into the car, Kylie Jenner's boyfriend's two-year-old son, 17-year-old Elle Fanning trying to eat a frozen yoghurt in peace, Reese Witherspoon and her sons, aged 12 and two, Kourtney Kardashian and her kids, aged five, three and 18 months, and Kim Kardashian and her two-year-old daughter, North West.

They were all paparazzi shots. None of them were pictures the celebrity parents volunteered to the world's media. They are dull pictures of famous people and their kids going about their business, doing the same boring things the rest of us do. How come in Daily Fail-Land, papped shots of underage celebrities and underage celebrity kids are OK but papped shots of royal kids are a crime against media ethics? Prince George and Princess Charlotte can't help who their parents are but neither can the kids of David and Victoria Beckham, assorted Kardashians or Reese Witherspoon.

Which leads us to the bigger question here: Why the hell does anyone care at all about photos of celebrity kids?

If you are so pleased William and Kate took a stand against those evil paps, but you read the Daily Mail, especially the website, you are part of the problem. If you blush a little, giggle coyly, and admit the sidebar of shame is your "guilty pleasure", you are part of the problem. Hell, if you buy any magazine that uses pap shots, you are part of the problem. The editors know people want to see pictures of celebrity kids, they know it makes them money through copy sales, ad revenue and clicks.

You are creating the market for pictures of celebrity kids. If you feel a bit creepy about this, that is a good thing.

You should be embarrassed if you regularly pore over photos of children you will never meet. It is not the same as looking at photos of your nieces and nephews or your friends' kids on Facebook. It's an invasion of privacy and those pictures online will live on forever for the kids of celebrities, usually with nasty comments at the end.

A free press is a wonderful thing and it should be defended. But when we feed the market for the journalist equivalent of sniffing bicycle seats, for bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping non-news, we end up with the media landscape we deserve.

Photography by Anna Langova

Monday, 10 August 2015

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, a buffoon for each side of the pond

Could Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be the same person? Evil clown twins separated at birth perhaps? Whatever the case, they are two sides of the same awful coin and if we end up with President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson in five years time, two nations will be ruled by two spiteful, fiscally irresponsible men who are not nearly as funny as they want you to believe.

Superficially, both men are known for amusing hair. But in the pantheon of comedy, the hair on these two men is about as funny as burning orphans. Trump's flammable nylon skull pet and Johnson's deliberately unkempt head of straw serve as distractions from their real agendas, from them being properly scrutinised for the policies, for what they really stand for.

Both enjoy playing up their clownish personae. If you really think Boris Johnson's stammering, eye-popping schtick and his constant use of swallow-the-thesaurus words is spontaneous and genuine, you've been fooled. As you giggle while his head lolls about like a bladder on a stick, he wants you to think of him as a loveable buffoon. He loves it if you to think he is "good comedy value" because he'd rather you didn't question him on his abject failure to be the eco-friendly Tory mayor we were apparently all crying out for, on ever-increasing public transport fares, on the contractually dubious white elephant that is the Emirates cable car, on his vanity projects, on the money has has wasted on useless buses, on gluing pollution to roads, on trying to convince us his airport idea was a good one, on his complete failure to be present for TFL-union night tube negotiations despite happily plastering "Mayor of London" on TFL propaganda posters...

Likewise, Trump knows full well the internet contains more jokes about his hair, his orange face, his marriages and his tacky ostentation than any real scrutiny about policy. This week, he was placed under scrutiny by Megyn Kelly - I am no fan of Fox News but she did well at the debate this week. Trump's response to her perfectly reasonable questioning was to make a grotesque menstruation analogy. He knew the outrage would dominate the news cycle. His apologists won't care that he is a sexist and once the news cycle moves on, any policy-related questions Kelly asked will be largely forgotten.

Johnson and Trump use these idiot personae as distractions and we let ourselves get distracted. They are both as fiscally sensible as a spoilt teenager let loose with Daddy's credit card but that doesn't seem to stop people from hoping they achieve the highest office in their respective countries.

Both men love a vanity project. Trump Tower stands as a phallic edifice to Donald Trump's supposed throbbing, masculine success. He puts his name on everything he touches. Likewise, Boris Johnson loves that London has Boris bikes, Boris buses (even though they are crap) and he is most likely tickled that people still refer to his dead-in-the-water Thames Estuary airport idea as "Boris Island". And while bikes, daft buses and a failed airport idea seem lame in comparison to Trump's tower, plane and golf courses, it means that we all refer to Mr Johnson as "Boris". As if he is a man of the people, one of us, the kind of chap we'd go down the pub with for a night of top banter.

Both men have advocated policies that would not be out of place under the Stasi's awful regime. Trump is mad about a great big damn wall to keep Mexicans out while Johnson would simply love to see the secondhand German water cannon available for use on the streets of London. Kudos to Home Secretary, Theresa May, for not letting Johnson have his toys, even though he already wasted our money on them. Zero respect to Johnson for his complete lack of grace in the face of what he sees as a personal disappointment, as the act of a colleague who is out to get him, to stop the BoJo juggernaut.

If you seriously think either one of these men would be a good president/prime minister, you have been conned.

Monday, 3 August 2015

A rant about pants

A friend of mine asked me for my thoughts on a new invention. Special underpants, with a multi-layer gusset, that can be worn instead of a pad or tampon during menstruation, to be precise. They're called Thinx.

Clearly I am the go-to girl if you’re not sure what to think about periods. Obviously.

Anything that advances the lives of women, makes menstruation more comfortable, and helps women to study, live and work on an equal footing with men, unencumbered by the monthly annoyance that is getting your period gets my full support. Anything that helps stop periods being taboo, anything that stops girls and women from being shut away, out of sight, out of mind, rendered unproductive for a week or so each month has got to be a good thing. Obviously.

So I read up on these special period pants. I’d probably give them a go if I spotted them in Boots, I thought to myself. And then I started mentally placing a few qualifiers on my desire to try them out. I wouldn’t dare try them while wearing tight trousers, I thought to myself. What about with light-coloured summer dresses? Out of the question! They’d be a handy back-up plan while using a tampon, I told myself. And I’d consider them for the annoying times at each end of a period – when your period is due and you’re not sure when the Red Sea will start flowing, and at the pitiful end when you’re not entirely sure if the crimson tide has ebbed for the month. A nice substitute for a panty liner!

It is easy for me from my place of privilege, where I can see two shops where I can buy feminine hygiene products from my desk, to view these pants as a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have. With my bathroom cupboard a veritable treasure trove of products of varying degrees of absorbency, I have the luxury of tailoring my sanitary protection needs to suit my lifestyle, my wardrobe and my flow. For girls and women who aren’t as fortunate as to live in a developed country, these pants could be their only hope for a hygienic period each month.

And then another friend mentioned the rinsing. Oh good Lord, the rinsing, the rinsing, the goddamn rinsing. Ideally, you’d own a few pairs of these pants, but you’d still want to rinse them separately before throwing them in the washing machine. Rinsing and wringing! And to do this, you need access to clean water and decent laundry facilities.

For this product to truly be a success in developing countries, an obvious market for such pants, access to clean water is essential. Nobody wants to rinse their period pants in a dirty river or a stagnant puddle. Nobody wants to queue at a village standpipe for a miserable dribble of water, hiding blood-stained pants under the less embarrassing dirty washing.

Also, they are retailing online at $24 for the thong, up to $34 for the hip-hugger brief - for the affluent woman in the developed world, it makes sense to buy a few pairs. Spending $100 on knickers is nothing compared to a lifetime's pad and tampon expenditure, if you are not poor. It'd be a harder sell for poor women, especially if they cannot simply jump online with a Visa card and order a few pairs with effortless ease.

By all means, donate these pants by the truckload to Oxfam. Be entrepreneurial and sell them to distributors across developing countries - although at present Thinx are only sold online. Do what you can to help girls and women have a happier time each month.

I wish the developers of Thinx well, I really do. From what I can tell, the company is an ethical, female-friendly employer. They employ women in Sri Lanka. The company also supports the AFRIPads charity. This is all good.

But it is important to think about the practicalities too. Access to clean water is essential for communities across the world to flourish, to be productive, to succeed, for good sanitation to finally prevail. It’s not as simple as imposing pants on impoverished girls and women - the period issue is part of a much bigger picture. Make a regular donation to Water Aid. Call on your government to dedicate some of its foreign aid budget to clean water projects. Call on corporations to consider access to water as a CSR project. Clean water projects benefit everyone and have positive knock-on effects for local economies.

And, besides, girls and women in the developing word deserve better than to merely have underwear or pads thrown at them.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Glamour: Offering relationship advice for the terminally stupid, the chronically immature and the eternal doormats...

Ah, Glamour magazine. How cute of you to try and outdo Cosmo for truly stupid relationship advice. Click here to see the original or read below if you're worried you might be fooled by such idiocy...

1. Stocking the fridge with his favorite drinks. Bonus points: Bring him back to his fraternity days by handing him a cold one as he steps out of the shower.

Yes! Get him drunk before work! Render him unemployed! Superb!

2. Making him a snack after sex. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal—a simple grilled cheese or milk and cookies will do.

Or sleep. Sleep will do too.

3. Emailing him the latest online gossip about his favorite TV show. You don’t have to have a BFF at HBO. Just share applicable links from your Twitter feed and pat yourself on the back.

And wait for the "Why are you spamming me with this shit?" email in return.

4. Bragging about him to your friends, family, the stranger on the street corner—whomever. Proclamations of pride will make his chest puff out and his heart swell.

Yes, that random person at the bus stop is simply dying to hear about how he has been promoted to second in charge of the accounts department.

5. Answering the door in a negligee—or, better yet, naked.

Ideal if your front door opens directly on to a busy street!

6. Being open to what he wants to try in the bedroom and out. An open mind is attractive no matter your playground.

Try that in the playground and end up on the sex offenders' register.

7. Letting him solve your petty work problem. Many men don’t do gossip, but they do like to fix things.

Alternatively, do your job yourself like a grown-ass woman.

8. Spitting out sports stats for his favorite team. Showing an interest in his favorite players will earn you points on and off the field.

Oh yes! Faking interest in something will always win a man over!

9. Making a big deal out of his favorite meal. Does he like hot dogs cut up into his boxed mac-and-cheese? Serve it on a silver platter to really see him smile.

If he likes hot dogs cut up into boxed mac-and-cheese, call a cardiologist.

10. Treating his friends as well as you treat your own. If you win their affections, you’ll win his heart.

Er, this is just a good rule for life in general.

11. Sitting side-by-side while he vegs out to the TV. It may not feel like quality time to you, but it’s the best time to him.

Even if it's a programme you have zero interest in and you'd rather be elsewhere in the house doing something productive.

12. Giving him a massage—happy ending completely optional. In fact, a foot rub works just fine.

Or flick his earlobe. Or run your finger down the length of his nose in an alluring manner. These are good too...

13. Taking him back to third grade with a gentle tease over anything from how you’ll dominate him on the basketball court to the weird way he just styled his hair.

Nothing says "Sexy!" like behaving like a child. If this does say "Sexy!" to the man in question, call yourself a taxi.

Photography by Vojko Kalan

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Why the Ashley Madison hacking matters

"These lying cheats look like they'll get some of their own medicine now." (Daily Telegraph reader)

"I didn't used [sic] to believe in karma, but this, honestly is making me question my doubts. This totally made my Monday. I hope they totally out everyone on that site. ;)" (Huffington Post reader)

"I think the hackers should publish the whole damn lot, regardless of whether the site is taken down." (Guardian reader)

And so on... It was inevitable that the hack on Ashley Madison, a website aimed at people who want to discreetly cheat on their partners, was not going to generate much sympathy for the victims. But the pearl-clutching outrage and sanctimonious gloating over the unfaithful masks the bigger problem here.

Melanie McDonagh, Moral Guardian in Chief for the Evening Standard drearily, predictably wrote yesterday that she would be "even more inclined to cackle if the Impact Team was a group of evangelical Christians anxious to put people out of the way of temptation."

Sadly for St Melanie of the Marital Bed, the real story was not a moral crusade with the potential to destroy millions of lives and provide a bonanza for divorce lawyers. Instead, it seems the Impact Team hacked Ashley Madison as disgruntled customers - they were outraged that the company would only permanently delete details of membership from its servers for a £15 fee. Given the nature of the site and the desperation of people not to be found out if they decided Ashley Madison's human smorgasbord was not to their taste, this would be an easy money-spinner. Welcome to free market capitalism, cheaters!

But it is the fact that such a devastating hack can happen on websites that claim to have the very best security that is the real worry for everyone. How many websites have your personal details? How would you feel if someone wasn't happy with waiting all day for an Argos delivery, hacked into their database and threatened to release the information? Obviously, being outed as an Argos customer is marginally less embarrassing than being outed as an Ashley Madison customer, but the breach of privacy is still completely unacceptable.

What if the government decided that a website you'd signed up to was not to their liking and they wanted to find out the details of everyone involved? David Cameron's speech this week about dealing with radical Islam is a case in point. Maybe you signed up to a website for some information about Islam for any number of reasons, none of which involved terrorism. But this is a government that is becoming less and less libertarian about your online privacy - do you trust this government to not obtain personal information from sites they deem to be "of interest"?

How relaxed and comfortable would you feel if you discovered you ended up on a watch list for no good reason? Maybe you'll get stopped from boarding that flight to Turkey, even though you were simply hoping for a Kate Moss-style rampage on a beach in Bodrum and weren't using the trip to enter Syria and join IS.

But, hey, it is far easier to moralise about the lives of people you don't know. Never mind that with 70% of Ashley Madison members being men, the chances of feckless husbands actually getting laid via that site are not brilliant. Never mind that it's the kind of site that plenty of people probably join for a bit of a nosy around before logging off and never logging back on again. Never mind that there might be people on that site desperate for some attention because they are in an abusive relationship or a relationship they don't feel they can leave for any number of reasons.

No, let's just get the pitchforks out instead and affect an attitude that leads to execution in Saudi Arabia! Yeah! Well played, people!

Nobody is denying that infidelity can destroy relationships and that it usually ends up being deeply unpleasant for all concerned. But if all you're getting out of the Ashley Madison story is an excuse to get on your high horse about other people's sex lives, you're not paying attention.

Photography by Circe Denyer. Picture posed by models in no way connected to this blog post.

What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader?

The Honourable Member for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, could end up as the leader of the Labour Party in September. If this happens, delight and horror will ring out around the country, possibly in equal measure.

This week's vote on the welfare bill may well be the nail in the coffin for the leadership campaigns of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, all of whom abstained with the hope that a bunch of amendments will get through. It's a risky strategy because, aside from the amendments not dealing with some of the more awful aspects of the welfare bill, Labour will be left in an awkward spot if some but not all of the amendments are passed. What then? Do they go ahead and vote for a bill with a few tweaks or vote the whole thing down if they can't get all the amendments passed?

If the majority of Labour's MPs let a slightly tweaked bill become law, that is not going to placate the people, both in and out of the party, who are siding firmly with the 48 MPs who voted against the bill this week. Corbyn was among the 48 rebels and this has given his campaign for the party leadership new vigour.

Nobody seems more surprised than Corbyn himself that he is now a realistic contender for the Labour Party leadership. By his own admission, he threw his hat into the ring to reinvigorate debate rather than with any real hopes of winning the damn thing outright.

The fragmentation of Labour and the resulting arguments the leadership contest has spawned has led to much speculation over whether the party can ever win again if it shifts too far to the left or the right. Tony Blair was a master at finding the middle ground. He then took the party possibly further to the right than it had ever been before, but he is still hailed as an electoral hero by many.

But since Blair's time in office ended, there have been growing murmurings about whether there is an appetite for a centre-left party to govern the UK. Some will say the Green Party is the obvious choice and will despair that more people don't vote Green, while others find aspects of Green policy, such as their war on air and road travel, to be a leap too far to the left but they would rather like to vote for a party that preserves things like the NHS, the BBC, state education and housing benefit for under-25s. Some would deride these people as champagne socialists, although they are more likely to simply be realists who happen to own a car and like to take a holiday abroad once in a while.

A sober analysis of this year's election results is needed. The numbers reveal that 36.9% of all votes went to the Conservative Party. Of these, there would be lifelong Tory voters, people who figured there was no point voting LibDem, swing voters, voters genuinely convinced that the Conservatives can manage the economy properly, and UKIP supporters who thought better of it in the privacy of the polling booth. Labour trailed in second place with 30.4% of the vote.

It is the rest of the results that make for interesting reading. UKIP were a distant third with 12.6% of the vote - as well as the stereotypical UKIP voters, plenty of disillusioned Labour voters went purple this year. Some are Eurosceptics - and this is a significant element of the population that Labour will need to consider if they are serious about winning the 2020 election - and some ex-Labour-now-UKIP voters genuinely think Nigel Farage's party supports working class people in a way they feel Labour does not.

Meanwhile, the hapless Liberal Democrats managed 7.9% of the vote and the Greens 3.8% - if Labour were able to better appeal to these left-of-centre voters, they probably could have won the election, albeit by a tiny margin given the first-past-the-post system. But seriously, the craven pandering to the Tories by the LibDems in the last Parliament should have been a gift for Labour.

Then there is the loss of Scotland, formerly safe Labour, to the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon led a highly effective campaign to appeal not just to Scottish nationalism but also to sell the party as a way more credible, anti-austerity opposite than Labour. Now Parliament is back in session, it is hard to deny that it is the SNP that looks like the strong, coherent opposition party right now.

On top of all this, while the 66.1% voter turnout was considered high, that means 33.9% of eligible voters didn't vote. This can be arrogantly dismissed as an acceptance of the status quo or it can be a sign that a large proportion of adults in Britain did not see the point in voting. Would anything change, regardless of how they voted? Was there any real difference between the major parties?

On balance, it appears there is a not-insignificant number of people in Britain who don't want to see the country resemble East Germany but would welcome a credible centre-left alternative to the current government.

The NHS is a good case in point for a desire for sensible centre-left policies. Poll after poll shows that people from across the political spectrum are keen to keep the NHS free at the point of use. The need for reform in the NHS is also widely acknowledged and accepted, but Labour has done an appalling job of showing people how the ongoing reforms of the NHS by the Tory-LibDem coalition and now the Tory majority government are doing more harm than good and have made the NHS less cost-effective and more bureaucratic than ever. Like the LibDem failings, this should have been a gift for Labour at the last election. Hell, ex-Tory leadership prospect Michael Portillo is on the record back in 2011 as saying that David Cameron and Tories lied to the people of Great Britain about their intentions for the NHS because they knew it'd be electoral suicide.

If Corbyn can provide a compassionate and cost-effective alternative to the destructive Health and Social Care Act of 2012, that alone would make him a very popular Labour leader. And the same goes for the welfare bill - it is one thing to take a stand with 47 rebel MPs against what is largely terrible legislation but it is quite another to put forward a bold new proposal that doesn't throw the vulnerable under a bus, doesn't penalise the millions of people in work who rely on benefits, and shows a genuine commitment to job creation.

Would it be so terrible if Corbyn led the Labour Party? Or would it be like Michael Foot all over again?

What I do know is that the left can be easily disappointed in their leaders. There is a tendency to place heroes on pedestals - so ironically anti-egalitarian - and this gives them a long way to fall for even the slightest transgression. Barack Obama, Ed Milliband and Julia Gillard are examples of heroes of the left who, despite varying degrees of success, have invoked serious disappointment among some of their supporters. If Corbyn, as Labour Party leader, shows any signs of compromising with the centre-right factions of the party - even if this means preserving his leadership - I predict he will face a barrage of criticism from people who hitherto supported him, just as surely as he would be crucified if he released a manifesto that the mainstream media deemed to be too socialist.

Corbyn will face a delicate balancing act if he becomes leader of the Labour Party. How he manages to walk this tightrope might ultimately depend on how much he wants to lead the party more than how much his party want him to win an election in 2020.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Queen is probably not a Nazi but I am still a republican...

For The Sun, it was mission accomplished.

Step 1: Stoke up outrage over photographs and a film from 1933 featuring the Queen Mother and Uncle Edward apparently teaching the Queen and Princess Margaret how to do a Nazi salute. Put said photo on the front page with a Nazi-pun headline.

Step 2: Wait for the inevitable media outcry whereby other news outlets, both within the Murdoch stable and outside it, won't stop banging on about it so the front page gets a ridiculous amount of free publicity. No need to pay an ad agency this week.

Step 3: Weather the storm of criticism about The Sun being a republican newspaper that just wants to cut down "hardworking royals" and piss on British traditions.

Step 4: Bask in the increased sales and website clicks safe in the knowledge that, if anything, running an 82-year-old photo as "news" has probably increased support for the monarchy.

The Sun loves the royals and would be lost without them. They love a good royal scandal because they love the revenue but they will always join in the media forelock-tugging whenever there is a royal wedding or birth that demands pages and pages of fawning coverage. If you don't like it, don't buy it.

Firstly, the Queen probably isn't a Nazi. She probably isn't a rampant lefty either, but I am pretty sure she found the wholesale slaughter of millions of people by the Nazis in WWII as abhorrent as any reasonable person would.

However, that's not to say the photograph is not newsworthy. It's not newsworthy as an exposé of Her Maj as a fan of Hitler but it is newsworthy from a historical viewpoint. It's a story that would be better placed in a history magazine rather than The Sun's front page but it is still interesting to consider how close Britain came to having a serious Nazi sympathiser on the throne before Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a woman whose support for Hitler is hardly a state secret. The British monarch is meant to be apolitical but only the seriously naive believe that royals have no opinions and have never tried to influence the government of the day.

The Queen was six years old when the photo was taken so it is ridiculous to think she'd have any idea what the Nazi salute stood for any more than I knew what I was talking about when, aged four, my party piece was to inform houseguests that the Australian Prime Minister of the time had a face like a bum. I've since revised my views on Malcolm Fraser just as the Queen, in all likelihood, didn't cheer on Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939.

But it is certainly absurd to think that the Queen Mother had no idea about Nazi ideology in 1933. Mein Kampf was published in 1925 and by 1933, it had been translated in English and The Times ran excerpts to expose Hitler's racist agenda. She was not living in a vacuum. An ivory tower, yes, but not a vacuum. It would be unbelievable to think she was in blissful ignorance about Hitler's ideologies. She would not have been aware of the full horror of the concentration camps as those horrific places were in their nascent stages in 1933 but she must have had some inkling about his views on race.

The Sun probably knew that running this story on the front page was not going to damage the monarchy - and that people would indeed rush to the defence of the Queen. I am an avowed republican but I do not think this story is necessarily the best way to argue for a British republic. There are plenty of great arguments for a British republic and it would behoove British republicans to share them rather than feeding the troll that is The Sun.

Picture by Karen Arnold.