Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Panic on the streets of fucking everywhere.

Gloom. It's literally given me a headache just thinking about the amount of individual horror stories in the aftermath of the riots, and I very much doubt it's over yet. I'm tucked away in a quiet corner of Wales. Lucky me. Many friends of mine, and members of my family, are not so fortunate. And fuck that line of selfish thinking, many people I've never met too, but why should that make them less valuable? Homes destroyed, family pets trapped in blazes, jobs lost because businesses have been burned to the ground - apparently it's not enough to steal, the kids are angry enough and caught up on such a rush of adrenaline that they have to torch every place on their route of destruction. "We're showing the police and the rich people who've got businesses that we can do what we want" is the message.

Not that commentators are getting that message. The cuts, the cuts! Bullshit. The girls in that clip aren't even sure who the government is right now. They couldn't give a toss either. Why should they? This isn't the rioting of the angry, these kids don't have a cause, or aims. All they do have is a whole life of nothing better to aspire to than owning more clothes and phones and consoles, having a sesh and getting off their faces - all the better when you can get it all for free.

You don't fix that by sending in the army. Those are people who work literally fighting for their lives. The incendiary effect that it would have if some of these poor powerless little bastards, suddenly drunk on the attention of the world's media and the realisation that the police can't stop them, were killed by soldiers... it doesn't bear thinking about. Water cannons? Well. Water seems perfectly harmless until someone loses an eye. To be honest, and I do wish the talking heads on my tv would be honest about how little control they have, there isn't much more that can be done without getting far too heavy handed. The police are doing their best - hundreds arrested. It will calm down. In the meantime, the #riotcleanup hastag on twitter should give you some hope and some direction if you live somewhere that is affected. Take some responsibility and show love where it's needed. At the risk of being labelled a clueless hippy, I'm hearing far too much vitriol being levelled in every direction in all this and it's going to help nobody.

So what about after it has calmed down? How do we address the issues? You can't really fix the underlying causes by just throwing money at it, even if we had any. Sure, you need programs to train kids, give them some skills so that they can make an honest living. We have some of those, probably not enough. But you need something else. You need to remove the alternative. What we are dealing with is a society in which for a couple of generations now the most attractive option for those growing up with fuck all is criminality. Looking around me, all my life it's seemed the easiest, most lucrative thing for those on a low income to improve their situation is to start dealing drugs. The risk of a criminal record isn't enough to stop people tearing the streets apart by now, and I reckon it's at least partly because it hasn't been enough of a deterrent so far to stop them using drugs and/or the money they can get from dealing. It's understandable enough. Wouldn't you? Any attempt to escape the incredible stress of having no money to pay off bills and spiralling debts, while living in areas populated by people who are just as fucked up, and reacting in fucked up ways. Something our dear Prime Minister is probably never going to get his head around. I doubt he has a friend who spent a year struggling with addiction, running scared and refusing to get help because the illegality brings stigma and the possibility of losing their child. I bet he's never lived somewhere he has to work twice as hard as the cunts next door who seem to be having some kind of rave-up marathon, because they're dealing while he's feeling like more and more of a schmuck for getting a job.

So, let's do it. Let's make addicts patients, and dealers irrelevant and priced out of the market, so that criminality isn't the obvious option out of the hole people are in. Welsh Lib Dem policy is already to decriminalise drugs, for exactly these reasons. I probably won't be at federal conference this year because I can't afford it, but I think Ewan Hoyle is a brilliant man, and I am pretty psyched about his motion calling for a government backed inquiry. He's a lot more measured and succinct in his discussion than I am to boot: today he's said "It is important not only to examine the opportunities we haven't given youth, but also the hugely lucrative criminal opportunities we have. Removing the drug trade from criminal gangs would force many young people to seek legitimate employment elsewhere and be less likely to see criminal behaviour as acceptable or attractive. The culture of criminality likely stems from this massive market we have handed to criminal gangs that recruit footsoldiers, dealers and runners from the ranks of kids who should be studying, training, or practising skills."

It wouldn't do our looming economic crisis any harm, either. These figures I've seen come from Tom Lloyd, the former chief constable of Cambridgeshire police: "It's estimated that we spend about £10 billion a year on enforcing the drugs laws and that criminals make up to £6 billion profit a year. It is also estimated that up to 70% of acquisitive crime is committed by users seeking to fund their habits (ca. £16 billion)." If those are accurate, there should be more than enough to spare for rehabilitation projects and training schemes.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


You know, if the NUS pledge was that much of a priority for you, the time to mobilise yourselves, campaign and demonstrate was six months ago when the programme for government was being drawn up. As I recall, you were all more interested in dressing in purple and shouting for fair votes.

Right now, the Lib Dems are in no position to vote against the government on this issue. Would that they were. The coalition agreement and ensuing programme for government are effectively a contract, and supercede our own policies and promises because to break the agreement is to bring down the government and return to square one at worst, or at best a license for the tories to vote against any lib dem measures they don't like the look of, which makes the whole agreement a farce. It was a tough decision to enter into coalition, but I still believe, as do the majority of party members, that it was the right one. The ONLY alternative was a minority tory government. If we had said no, the country would have had six months of sweeties and inducements, followed by an election last week where Cameron got himself a tidy majority. This week, you would be staring down an emergency budget that would make the measures we've got, however harsh they are, look like manna from heaven. And if our MPs vote against any bill on top-up fees, that's what we'll face over the following six months. Rock and a hard place.

In the coalition agreement, the only concession regarding tuition fees was that Lib Dem MPs may abstain if they couldn't accept the recommendations of the Browne report. We knew at the time that abstaining on any vote won't stop it from going through - the opposition MPs total 279. The tories have 304. THIS HAS BEEN ON THE CARDS FOR MONTHS. Under the harrowing circumstances, the Lib Dems have been instrumental in thrashing out an arrangement that will be as fair as possible. There is no sense in which the poorest students will be stopped from attending university, and in fact the salary level at which graduates will be asked to start paying back student loans will be raised. Jo Swinson has written an excellent defence of our position and summary of the proposals. As she says: We could have left it to the Conservatives to present plans for unlimited fees, with no regard for a progressive repayment system, and no requirements for top universities to do better on access for poorer students. Instead, we got involved to make a Liberal Democrat difference, and create a fairer system.

You know something else? If self-interest wasn't the only guiding concern of students, if the critical liberal-humanist tendencies of the academic elite were really still alive and well, this would not be the top priority. The worst iniquities wrought by this government are those which affect the poorest and the disabled - in the changes to housing benefit and time-limiting Employment and Support Allowance. Visit those links and decide whether it's more important, as horrible as it is, that you don't swallow the cost of a degree rising from that of a Polo to that of a Porsche; or whether it's more worth your energy and your anger campaigning for those who will have nowhere to live or not enough to eat. I know which is my major concern.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Not Cricket.

I just re-read Fever Pitch. Two thoughts: first, holy crap 1992 was actually a really long time ago now; second, I know something else these days that engenders almost identical tribal devotion. Yes, some of my friends in the Liberal Democrats have a kind of dogged loyalty to the party that makes the way Nick Hornby feels about Arsenal look positively capricious. And with this political version of club pride comes the equivalent type of gut loathing for the adversary. Every election is a derby match between your guys and all your old enemies... and this is where sound political thinkers lose the plot.

The name calling (of which Thom Oliver wrote a brilliant summary this week) from the soi-disant 'progressive left' is just par for the course, and most of the time you just laugh it off. Easy to laugh to be honest, when this breast-beating and baying is going on and the point of the Liberal Democrats has been missed entirely. What is a shame though, is when this we-hate-the-others mentality gets in the way of giving praise where it's due, on the issues that matter.

It seems to be too easy to forget sometimes that everyone who gets involved in politics does so initially because they feel that things ought to be fairer. Everyone is in it for what they perceive to be the right reasons and the good of all. I don't believe in the big (brother) state ideal of Labour for example, or the dog-eat-dog self-determination of the tories, but I can see where both and more are coming from and just occasionally I allow myself a beatific smile in the direction of a politician from a different party who gets something very important addressed. Nobody has a monopoly on moral fibre. Whether we view politics from the left, right or centre, we should all be able to agree that some of the things we can see are horrible and need action to change them.

Here's a cast-iron example of something that needs to be changed: we need to stop being confronted everywhere we go with unattainable ideals of female beauty, particularly when those ideals include being drastically underweight. Everyone agreed? Thought so.

So why is Laurie Penny, one of the most fantastic feminist writers of her generation, so angry with Lib Dem Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone? Apparently, in naming Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks as a woman whose body made a refreshing change in the limelight from the constant parade of stick insects:
"Lynne Featherstone MP has given the impression that young women should aspire to look like saucy secretaries with accommodating attitudes to sexual harassment."

Please! Deliberately conflating character with actress just so you have a stick to beat Lynne with? Can't we stop with the hate and the lazy sensationalist Lib-Dems-are-all-swine "journalism" when it comes to something as important as this? So you have an article to write. What would have been so wrong with maybe agreeing with Lynne that Christina Hendricks has a healthy shape and is a more sane physical ideal than Kate Moss for the majority of girls, and going on to say it's a shame that because she's an attractive woman she is cast in a role where in your opinion she seems to be nothing but a sex-object? Or is the New Statesman paying people according to how much bile they can spout at either coalition partner these days? Sad. Some of the left have changed their pitch - they think it's all over. If they're going to start screaming hate at people who are doing good for commonly held causes, it is now.

For balance, if you did read Laurie's piece today, you might be interested to know that on Lynne Featherstone's own blog, she had this to say about the matter a whole eleven days ago:
"In that interview – because I was asked what I thought of Christina Hendricks (the MadMen star) and said I thought she was absolutely fabulous – as was Marilyn Monroe - echoes of that interview have been bouncing around the media ever since. Not surprisingly – I was not advocating that women should aspire to replicate Ms Hendricks’ figure – simply saying that it was nice to see an alternative to ultra thin models."

You can't score points over us there, much as you might have wanted to. I'm sure there's a phrase for football fans who have to watch a team they hate play beautiful games and come out on top, while their own side are in a mire of ugly infighting and recriminations, and going nowhere. Oh aye, that was it - sick as a parrot. Laurie want a cracker?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Breast is best, unless it's someone utterly witless beating theirs...

I've been pointed at a story about the "last great supermodel", Gisele, and her bizarre proclamation that people should be banned by law from bottle-feeding their children.

Here we have a woman who is world-famous for having a pretty face and a great body. Nothing up with making the most of those free assets in a world where they can make you rich and famous, I guess. But it hardly gives you the right to start telling everyone else what to do.

If you are a celebrity, what you say publicly has an impact. By all means use your influence to advocate for a good cause! Support for breastfeeding is one I fully endorse too. But if you're going to get involved in politics, please don't do it by clamouring for bans of everything you don't approve of! It's lazy, and it does more harm than good.

There seems to be a myth in the minds of certain anti-formula campaigners that it's easy for all women to breastfeed. Let me tell you, even for those of us who are blessed with fully-functional adequate mammary glands, it's never easy. It's painful at times, it can be psychologically arduous, it affects hormones and therefore mental health the whole time you do it, not to mention the fact that appropriate places to semi-disrobe and start feeding are too few and far between. And that's those of us who *can* do it. Plenty of women find that much as they'd like to give it a go, they can't. One of those things that is affected by genetic variation, I guess. Some women are very fertile, others have to try for years before they can have a baby. In much the same way, some women produce enough milk and some to spare for their babies and have no problem getting the baby to latch on, and some just aren't that lucky. Imagine how you would feel if that were you and you started using formula milk.. possibly some combination of misplaced guilt and reduced self-esteem, hormonal blues and worry.

To my mind, there's nothing wrong with choosing to feed your child formula even if you can breastfeed, either. Scientific advancements to make our lives easier, in action! Once upon a time, the only way a busy woman with a life of her own outside raising babies could continue to be busy after giving birth was to find a wet-nurse. Nowadays researchers and companies have laboured for years to bring us balanced nutrition for infants. Brilliant! OK, so it's not the ideal but for some parents the advantages make it the best way for them to make sure their children are properly fed. Again though, the option comes with a burden of misplaced guilt, thanks to the ever-vocal 'breast is best' lobby.

If you're a new mum feeling hormonal, low and guilty... I think pretty much the last thing you need is the approbation of a perfect supermodel, who was allegedly making pancakes the morning after giving birth, and back into superhuman shape within weeks - amazing how that seems to be so much easier for people with endless pots of money at their disposal, isn't it?

There are positive measures that I believe we should take as a society, to encourage women who want to, to breastfeed. Basically, I agree with Sue Jacob of the Royal College of Midwives, who is quoted in the BBC article linked above:

"We need to have a debate about how to create a society which is going to accept breast feeding wherever women want to do it - in cafes, parks, public spaces and at work, if that's what they choose"

Couldn't have put it better myself.

Instead of using the blunt tool of legislation to restrict women's choices, can't we start by using it to enshrine new rights, so that women can breastfeed in public whenever they need to? Why always the banning? Please, Gisele, next time you want to help, try thinking first. Thinking is so important.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Cameron to Clean Up Thatcher's Mess?

There's a huge problem in this country, that pervades pretty much all counties, rural and urban. It leads to fear, depression, and misery. It's something that the Conservatives of the 1980s made much worse, bizarrely making themselves popular with a quite significant section of society in the process.. and then Labour did nothing to ameliorate in their 13 years of power.

It's not foxes running riot in town centres.

It's a widespread lack of social housing. Yeah sorry, housing. That least sexy of all departments. I'd imagine the Housing Department is quite a doss to work at, actually. Especially since we don't need stupid HIPs any more. Seriously, HIPs were a stupid plan though, weren't they? Did Labour just invent those to give the Housing Department something to do and maybe take their minds off the fact that a supposedly progressive party seemingly had a big fat blind spot right where thousands of homeless people were living in B&Bs up and down the country? No council housing you say? Well sorry we're terribly busy starting wars over here, and simultaneously making sure more poor people go to university while ensuring that all poor people who *do* go to uni will be straddled with thousands in debt afterwards. No, we haven't got time to fix this most basic of human needs, tell you what, why don't you pop along and do some state meddling in an already well-regulated sector to make sure nobody can even buy or sell houses without an extra layer of bureacracy to pay for. Marvellous!

So, Thatcher ran this perfect scam when I was a kid called 'Homes for Votes'. Genius really - the tories and their iron lady were really quite unpopular after the whole wanton destruction of British industry and mining, and the thing with selling off the country's assets in a baby-after-bathwater sort of way when the privatisation of BT went well.. how did they stay in power when they should have been voted off in anger by the working classes? Remember the ethos of the time: "Greed is Good". People would always be happiest when they felt they were doing well for themselves. So with that in mind the Right to Buy Scheme for council tenants had been born right after Thatcher took power - with every passing election, there were more families who would vote Conservative because "we never would have owned our own home if it wasn't for them". And even better - there was the added bonus of making all that money from the house sales. Nobody ever said it had to be reinvested in new housing stock. Laughing all the way to the bank! Homes For Votes. Breathtaking large-scale gerrymandering. I call it the same thing as the 1990 scandal in Westminster purposely. The logical next step for that plan to make it even more dastardly is to make sure you really do only sell homes to designated people who would vote tory. It's one of those things though, that the Electoral Commission would draw the line at. Thatcher knew how to dance up to the line. Major got his feet tangled up in it and fell over.

So, what does all this have to do with today? Well. Seems Cameron's been let loose at a press conference again and just made up some policy from out of his arse when he's asked a question he can't answer. Honestly, trying to keep him in check is like having that annoying toddler-dressed-as-a-boss from out of the toilet roll adverts as Prime Minister. But dash it if this time he didn't talk some sense! I guess you know, monkeys and typewriters and all that, it had to happen at least once.. still. Cameron talking sense. Who'd have thought it?

He does it in a totally Bertie Wooster way though. He's asked what he's going to do about the lack of social housing and he blinks and almost stutters as he mumbles something about council tenancies no longer being for life - fixed term tenancies, maybe? Oh gosh this will cause such a row. He's so incoherent that somehow the measure gets translated as something to do with spending cuts (How does that even work? How could anyone expect to save money by complicating a process?). So now we've got this problem of Labour activists on twitter (tiresome losers) shouting and baying about the bloody idiot wanting to put people out on the streets... presumably to save money. Somehow. All of which rather harms the publicity of a quite wonderful idea which is this:

At present, I am a single mum and I struggle a bit, and so I live in a two-bedroom housing association property. This means I have a comfortable well-maintained home for a rent I can afford. One less thing to worry about! Hurrah! Need met by society in a time of hardship, I am a lucky young lady. Thing is though, I don't intend to stay penniless. I work hard, I move myself forward, and I'm fairly certain by the time I hit middle age I'll be doing quite alright for myself. But the tenancy in this place is assured to me for life. I could, if I possessed of less moral fibre, live in this place with its rock-bottom rent even if I had a bank balance that would finance buying four other houses. After my daughter left home I wouldn't have to move to a smaller place - as far as the contract is concerned, this is my home and I have a right to stay in it until I die. Regardless of the homeless young mums that will be in dire need of the place when I no longer depend on it. I think that's pretty sick, actually. As soon as I feel confident that I can afford to be out of here, I'll be gone.

But thousands don't think that way, like I do. They think of themselves. Even the ones who don't buy their council or housing association home to pass on as an inheritance to their kids, will stay in them long after their needs have adjusted without a thought to whether they are affecting someone else's life. So maybe they need a push to do the right thing. Whether that is giving parents a fixed term tenancy until their child is eighteen, and reviewing their case at that point to assess the parent and child's needs; or undertaking a rolling assessment scheme to give tenants a questionnaire every few years to check their level of need; or using electoral roll data to check whether only two people live in that house with six bedrooms, or all of these, I'm all in favour.

Damn it. I bloody agree with Cameron about something. Even if he said it in the manner of a bewildered animal in a suit who is scared of the poor, instead of like a reasoning human being.


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Monday, 2 August 2010

Sarah's Law Is A Backward Step For Society.

Jonathan Calder has written a lovely little observation on Sarah's Law this morning. I agree wholeheartedly when he says the idea that every contact between adult and child needs to be licensed or policed by the state seems to me a totalitarian fantasy.

I adore my seven-year-old daughter, I would obviously hate for her to come to harm. But to expect to monitor every movement she makes and every person she meets is clearly nothing short of ludicrous, and doesn't actually do her any favours. She's growing up and learning, and there's no lesson learned more powerfully than by direct experience. I'm gutted that kids playing out is no longer the norm. It was only 22 years ago I was her age, and had a range of a couple of streets to roam with my friends after school, and went to the corner shop for sweets on my own, as they were all within sight of my home. Nowadays if you let your seven-year-old have that much free rein you'll be getting a visit from Social Services before long for having them 'inappropriately supervised'.

Childhood in the new millennium is all about sitting indoors and getting obese, scared to set foot out of the house because the world is full of paedophiles who lurk round every corner like slavering wolves. GET A GRIP, BREEDERS. The world is no more dangerous in that sense than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. You're doing your offspring far more harm filling their heads with patriarchal sex-obsessed brainwashing from cartoons and their tummies with junk food than you would letting them have some fresh air, exercise, sound instruction from you and a bit of responsibility for themselves!

While I'm trying to get certain things through the heads of hysterical parents here -'Innocent' does not mean 'pure and holy', it means' blank canvas'. Human beings are not born as special angels who can do no harm, to then grow into worthless hooded figures of hate at around age 15. Shocker, I know! Your precious little princes and princesses are just very young people with a lot to learn, and your job as parents is to filter down as much as possible in the way of examples of reasonable behaviour and how to live a good life as you can while they're in your care, so that when they leave it as young adults, the world will be a better place for having them in it. The world is not going to be a better place for your children, and your childrens' children, if we're all raising this generation to think that everyone who isn't government approved is a rapist-in-waiting. By the time a child is in junior school, you can explain to them perfectly straightforwardly in an age-appropriate manner what sex is, why adults do it, and how puberty comes about and why it's not a good idea for them to be involved in sex before their bodies and minds are ready. If your experience as a parent is anything like mine, you'll need to as images of sex are everywhere, and your kids will be drawing their own conclusions if you don't give them an explanation. Information is power. Limiting the information your kids have is leaving them powerless.

I am so sick to death of the hysteria. Serial rapists? Not as bad as paedophiles. People who maim, torture, commit arson, murder, armed robbery, abuse of the elderly? Not as bad as paedophiles. Let's decide that every other criminal, regardless of their propensity for reoffending, is considered to have paid their debt to society once they get out of prison, and left anonymous to give them a chance to make a good life for themselves. Not anyone who has touched a child though. They're different. Because children aren't resilient, they can't cope with the wind blowing on them. They're to be kept immune from bad things happening to them, unlike grown men and women.

Guess what else? Sarah's Law won't even guarantee your child doesn't ever meet a child abuser. All it will do is make you aware of all the poor bastards in your neighbourhood who ever got convicted. The ones who haven't ever been caught and convicted are safe from your fearful, hateful attitude. They might even be people you've known and trusted for years. They might even be living in your house. After all, in 2007, one or both parents were responsible for 69.9 percent of child abuse or neglect fatalities [source].

So, Sarah's Law is warped from my point of view, because it feeds into this growing culture where children are taught to mistrust and fear everyone they don't know well. This sad, sick culture where men are afraid to make eye contact and smile at children. The country I live in is one where everyone is considered a guiding light and a precious angel until they go through puberty, at which point they become second class citizens.

What is even more warped though, is the idea that party colleagues of mine are part of a government whose Home Office will put out an official supporting statement when they roll out Sarah's Law, which is repeated on the BBC evening news and even in the broadsheet press, saying "more than 60 children were protected from abuse during the pilot scheme which started in four areas of the UK in September 2008". I'm sorry, what kind of farcical NONSENSE is that? Can you name these 60 children that would have surely have been abused had there not been a register of previous child abuse offenders available for parents to view? I don't think you can. I think that's a fucked up thing to say, in that case.

Friday, 30 July 2010

You know when Nick Clegg said that this was going to be the most radical, reforming government since 1911?

Well, now I believe him. Wow.

The 'Citizen's Income' model of benefits is something I've idly talked about as a lovely, lovely theory with politically-minded friends on more than one occasion.

Did you know there are 58 benefits an out-of-work person might claim, each one requiring its own mammoth form-filling task, and the presenting of various proofs of entitlement? Can you imagine what a complete and total arse-ache that is if you find yourself out of work and broke?

Now imagine that every person of working age gets a single benefit. In a similar way to the tax credits helpline, there's a number to call to inform of any change in your circumstances, and the amount of benefit you get rises according to various needs, such as disability or dependent children. If you work, your taxed wages are in addition to your benefit, making benefit fraud hotlines a thing of the past. If you are out of work, you know you won't have a lengthy wait to be assessed for eligibility for benefit, as you already receive it and will continue to do so. No stigma, less stress.

Pretty cool, huh?

Looks like we might really see it happen in this parliament!


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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Scoring Points From Suicide. How Low Can You Go?

This article in The Scotsman has been doing the rounds on twitter this evening. It's the tragic story of a talented writer who has been having a savage time, and killed himself because his benefits were to be cut.

As a left liberal, the progress of the parliament is troubling me. I am finding the cuts in housing benefit, and rise in VAT (for example) hard to swallow even if I try to justify it with pointing out the compromises we've managed to lever out of our coalition partners like the 10% rise in capital gains tax. I do think it's the job of the opposition and the press to hold the government to account on these issues and judge them by results. I think this very important as public opinion and strong enough pressure may strengthen the case of those in the coalition who would like to see policy remain as fair as possible in the face of some damn ugly ideology coming from the right.

However, this story does nothing to help that case as it's pure screaming hyperbole. Life on benefits is brutal, and the bureaucracy and hoop-jumping involved in justifying your uselessness enough to get helped to survive when you can't support yourself is depressing even for the strongest of souls. But that's nothing new. It has been ever thus. This guy's death can't be linked to any action of the current government as reforms don't come into force yet, and weren't even announced until the day of the funeral.

Paul Reekie's death was horrible, and it's certainly a sobering reminder of the responsibility the government has to protect and support the most vulnerable. In my view though, it's nothing short of cynically disingenuous to suggest (as the deceased's social circle, this journalist, and the left-activists who have been reposting the link have done) that the current administration is directly to blame. To really believe that this "wouldn't have happened under Labour", you'd have to be quite astoundingly unaware of life at the sharp end over the last few years when the supposed progressives were running the show. In case you need reminding, the gap between rich and poor in this country, in terms of education (education education), health, and income disparity, WIDENED in the thirteen years the last government held power.

It's pretty sick to use someone's death as a means of political pointscoring, and will turn people off listening and taking it seriously when *fair* and damning commentary is made.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Cameron vs Facebook: A Moat Point?

So the Prime Minister is seemingly furious about the public sympathy for Raoul Moat, as expressed on a facebook group. I can't believe he could think ordering facebook to remove the group (as requested by Chris Heaton-Harris MP, unsurprisingly a keen brand new Tory safe-seat occupying backbencher) is any kind of answer to his problem.

There are those who are publicly sympathising with, lauding and mourning Moat. That fascination will only increase with time is the Krays or the Yorkshire Ripper are anything to go by. As much as David Cameron might not like that, the cult of celebrity killers far predates facebook. He claims to be a Morrissey fan - he probably needs to have a good listen to 'Last of the Famous International Playboys'. And then sit down and have a think about chickens and eggs. Social networking sites don't produce or manipulate public reactions, they merely provide a space for them.

Here's a thought. Maybe if you don't want the people's imagination to be caught by a tragic, horrific incident what needs addressing is the behaviour of the media. If you feel a public discussion of all possible points of view to be tasteless, why allow The Sun to publish a picture of Raoul Moat's mother with the headline "YOU'RE BETTER OFF DEAD, SON" - or is that different? What do we think caused more grief to the victims and their families? Interminable hours of rolling news channel footage that consisted of packs of reporters harassing every passer by and breathlessly repeating a heady mix of eyewitness reports and pure conjecture to camera, *live from the scene as police attempted to negotiate with the gunman*; or a few thousand idiots who are so short of a viable candidate for a hero, or the sense to distinguish real life from the movies, that they've decided to talk shit to each other on the Internet about how praiseworthy the gunman was, after he's dead and gone and the whole episode is over with? It's a horrible time for the victims and their families. But you know what's worse? Speaking for them, deciding what they should be allowed to hear. Stop bloody nannying them. There are idiots out there that have shitty opinions. You can't stop them talking shit down the pub, facebook is really no different except in the respect that if you don't like it, you can click a little 'x' in the corner of your screen and stop being subjected to it, making it that much easier than physically walking away.

You know what the saddest part of all this is? The lack of a sense of humour. I've had a look at the facebook group Heaton-Whatsit got so het up about. I'm fairly sure it's a parody - deliberately badly typed [EG "I DONT GET SUM PEOPLE :/ IF YOU ARE SOO AGAINST THIS GROUP Y DID U JOIN IT!?"], designed to garner the nowtrage expressed about everything by all the Daily Fail readers out there with a stick up their arses. And whoever put it together is probably rolling about laughing right now, not only at the Daily Fail lunatics but at the man who is supposed to be running the country jumping on their righteous raging bandwagon. For all their efforts to be the government of web 2.0, the coalition are hampered by the inclusion of the party that brought us the hilariously misconceived #cashgordon site and ensuing debacle a few weeks back. The thing about the Internet, and Brits on the Internet in particular, is that NOTHING is sacred, everything is up for being taken the piss out of and taken apart, all opinions are given an equal platform for expression and for ridicule. And that's exactly the way it should be. Sadly I don't think the tories are ever going to get it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Excuse me while I bend over, I'm just being screwed by Swalec.

I don't know how many people in the UK currently or have ever used prepayment electricity meters. It's not like it's something people will readily admit as it carries a certain amount of shame. It's a dirty secret, being poor. I have one. I have it because it's the default state of things in social housing. I'm in a housing association place, it was fitted when I moved in. I was informed, when I enquired, that there would be a significant charge if I wanted to change the way I paid for my electricity supply, so I have had to put up with paying a higher price for my energy than those who can afford to pay more. And that's just financially. There's a small cost to my soul every time I have to hand over my little plastic key to be charged at the newsagent, too. I feel utterly stigmatised by it, just like the period I was unemployed when my daughter was small, and I had milk tokens to pay for part of my shopping. But I digress.. where was I? Oh yes, little plastic keys.

I'm not a particularly organised girl. My mum and dad used to go crazy about the cost of all my lost keys when I was growing up. I forget to have the toll ready when I drive over the Cleddau Bridge to work. I leave my phone at home at least once a week and get home to text messages that I'm too late to answer in any useful way. But somehow, miraculously, I have managed over five years without losing my stupid little plastic electric meter key. So I didn't know what to do when I reached for my keys as the credit ran out and the lights went off at my house after work tonight, only to find the damn thing had fallen off somewhere. I hunted through my handbag and the car and didn't find it. Boo. I felt thankful for the luck I had in at least having a functioning fully-charged phone and laptop, and set about finding a number for Swalec to ask them for a replacement key before the end of office hours. Because I've never lost a key before, I didn't know what happens next.

Apparently what happens next is you get shafted by the company who own your meter.

I was given the choice between waiting for a replacement key to arrive in the post, or having one of their engineers come and deliver me one the same day. Evidently, with a six-year-old in the house and a freezer full of food, getting an electricity supply back on would be best not left for three days, so as I said to the lady on the phone, I was faced with no choice really. She chirpily clued me in that there would be a £66 charge for a replacement to be delivered. As if £66 was not very much money for a three inch piece of plastic. Of course, in the greater scheme of things, like for example when weighed against a balance sheet like that of a company their size, £66 really isn't very much money. But for a single mum on a low wage, it's well.. I have £2.50 in my bank account right now. When I told her I wouldn't be able to pay the charge, she maintained her breezy oh-that's-cool tone of voice as she told me that they would generously allow me to spread the cost by applying a charge of £3 per week to my meter (for what would be about five months, I pointed out to her, listening to her count on her fingers so see if I was correct). Er, I already pay over the odds for the electric I need every week, I really can't afford for that cost to go up. "I'm sure you won't really notice the cost;" she blithely continued, "it is added daily not weekly in fact, so you only pay by pennies at a time". Well fuck me, I hadn't thought of it like that. You're only taking about 43p a day from me for the privilege of owning a piece of plastic that entitles me to buy something from you when I need to. That's fair. I get it. That's just like someone taking some of my lunch money for the privilege of not being beaten up.

She attempted to justify the cost. "If you could wait for a replacement key to arrive in the post, that would of course be free. We can get one of our area engineers to come out to you, but they would charge us for booking that appointment". I'm sorry, run that by me again? The Swalec guy, being paid by the hour to drive the Swalec van full of tools and bits to fix your shit, including a box full of meter keys, yes? HE will charge YOU. The Swalec lady on the telephone. OK then. So you both work for the same company, but the charge isn't one from your company to me, but me covering the cost to your department of hiring your company's own engineer. I see. With perfect clarity.

She then offered me the secret difficult-caller third bonus option -- for me to drive to pick up a new key instead. From their centre in Cardiff, a mere 90 miles from where I live.

I give up. An extra £3 a week expense for nothing it is then. "Sod the expense, feed the cat another goldfish" as my mum would say. It's not like I can't afford it, right?

Edited 14/07/10 21.52 to add:

After posting this account of my problem, and contacting Swalec on Twitter, I received a phone call this afternoon during which the following points were raised in reply to the above:

  • Although the engineers who deliver replacement meter keys drive Swalec vans, I'm told they work for Western Power Distribution, who charge Swalec £66 for each callout and this was the cost passed on to me.
  • Charges for changing from a key to a credit meter are a thing of the past as Swalec reviewed some of their procedures a couple of years ago.
  • While they were growing a small amount of social responsibility, they also reviewed tariffs and set the prepayment tariff at somewhere around the median of the rates paid by credit meter customers, with no standing charge.
  • In view of the fact I had never lost or damaged my key in five years, £66 seems unnecessarily punitive, so they are going to waive half of the replacement fee.

All in all I'd say if you want to talk to Swalec and get any sense out of them, best thing you can do is skip the callcentre and contact @YourSWALEC on Twitter. Thanks guys.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Look, it takes me til this time of day to properly wake up, ok?

I was half asleep as usual when the Today programme was mumbling on at me out of my radio alarm clock today... they were talking about food labelling. I'm quite sure I wasn't dreaming when I heard someone try to make a case for a traffic light food labelling protocol by saying that tables of nutritional information are too hard for 'housewives' to understand. What? I'm sorry... what century is this?

So we're still giving airtime to ultra-patriarchal, out-of-touch misogynists are we? Oh. And here was me thinking Radio 4 was some bastion of intellectual decency as far as media outlets go in this country. Shame.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Second Hand Smoke Quiz

Taken from the comments on this page of Nick Clegg's frankly AWESOME 'Your Freedom' government website, where members of the public are invited to suggest which draconian, unnecessary laws they want to see scrapped. I hope this one makes it onto the bill, and if it doesn't I might well see about a motion to conference next year - I've long argued that it's disgusting to tell owners of pubs they can't allow a legal activity on their own premises!

Test Your SHS (Second Hand Smoke) IQ

1. Who was the first European politician to implement comprehensive smoking bans?

a) Adolf Hitler

b) Bertie Aherne

c) Patricia Hewitt

2. In the government's own survey by the ONS in 2006 what % of the public did NOT want a complete smoking ban in pubs?

a) 67%

b) 37%

c) 17%

3. Which of the following has been linked to the highest increased risk of lung cancer?

a) drinking 3+ pints of milk a day

b) drinking 4+ cups of coffee a day

c) SHS

4. In 1998 a World Health Organisation study found what link between parents smoking & the risk of their children later developing lung cancer?

a) 20% reduced risk

b) no change

c) 20% increased risk

5. What’s the minimum no. of cigarettes that would need to be smoked in a sealed 20x22x9ft room in one hour for chemicals in SHS to become toxic?


b) 120

c) 12

6. In 2006 the NHS spent £31 million on advertising campaigns, inc. new nurses, blood donation, drugs, immunisation, sexual health, etc. What type of advertising made up 73% of the total spending?


b) recruiting new nurses

c) blood donation

7. Following a single complaint to OFCOM, what scenes from Tom & Jerry did TV channel Boomerang have to cut out?

a) Tom smoking

b) Tom hitting Jerry with an axe

c) Jerry plugging Tom’s tail into an electricity socket

How did you score?

Mostly a) Congratulations, you already know a lot about the SHS myth!

Mostly b) There’s hope for you yet but the truth is still out there.

Mostly c) Oh dear, you appear to have been brainwashed by the anti-smoking lobbyists :)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Anyone fancy a sing-along?

In the leaders' debate, Clegg's performance was gold
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
In agreeing with Nick, both the others seemed bland
With warmth and with valour he spoke to the land

No Ashcroft had he, and no press on his side
Just fair honest policies gave him his pride
But then at election time, victory for dread -
Labservative scare tactics pulled them ahead

Keep your faith in Lib Dems for the change that we need
Nick is still about fairness, and never for greed
He'll fight to enact with the power of truth
Fair taxes, green futures and a fair polling booth

(with apologies to Jan Struther)

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Nasty Nadine

Nadine Dorries. The name is known to many. She's the Conservative MP who cheated on the Channel 4 programme Tower Block of Commons, which aimed to give MPs a taste of living in the same conditions as the poorest of their electorate, by hiding £50 in her bra. But her repulsiveness doesn't end there.

Like many politicians, she used twitter to boost her profile and communicate with people during her campaign for re-election. I like twitter. It's a great leveller, a place where celebrities, politicians, and big-shot journalists mix with anyone else who feels like having a say on an equal playing field. I really appreciate those politicians who take the time to update us on their thoughts directly in this way, it is inclusive and empowering. Evidently Nads didn't have quite the same idea, and saw it, much like divorcing her husband of 23 years when he developed MS, as a means to an end, a way of advancing her career, helping to ensure her re-election and hence begin in earnest the work of getting her fundamentalist Christian agenda influencing the statute book. If she really wanted to use social networking to connect with ordinary people, why would she delete her account immediately after her success in the election? Here, for reference (and with a hat-tip to Tim at Bloggerheads for providing it on twitter) is what her final few tweets looked like:

That last tweet she posted before her disappearance just demonstrates what a nasty piece of work she is. She's referring to our own Dr Evan Harris, who is not only alongside George Monbiot in my own pantheon of personal heroes, but is beloved nationwide for his tireless campaigning for equal rights and rational evidence-based policy (he was described by Stephen Fry in his marvellous post on which way he intended to vote thusly: "far and away the most persuasive and impressive parliamentarian in the cause of good and open science and enquiry that we have had in the past decade. He has been central to mould-breaking and inspirational multiparty cooperation in issues of scientific concern since 1997. It seems to me (almost!) that he should be elected unopposed like the Speaker"). There was a cross-party outpouring of sadness on twitter at the moment he lost his seat. I don't mind admitting I was crying my eyes out. And Nadine Dorries was making triumphalist slurs.

I have a queasy feeling about the next few years. This woman is heavily funded and backed by pro-life lobbyists, and considered a 'rising star' in the Conservative party. Much like her fellow fundamentalist Philippa Stroud, whose startling history as head of a church which aimed to cure gay people by exorcism thankfully stopped her becoming an MP, she's been named as a key influencer of David Cameron and tory party policy. And with only 58 Liberal Democrat MPs, and no Evan, the bill she is bound to put before parliament for a second time on reducing the time limit for abortion is going to be that much harder to oppose. And I have a feeling that's not the half of what horror she's going to try to force on us. Damn.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Resounding Lib Dem Victory!

Is Dave the new Dizzy?

Sure none of you remember 1867, but I'm willing to bet a few of you know what happened then, when Benjamin 'Dizzy' Disraeli was running scared at the helm of a minority conservative government and bowed to pressure from the Whigs to introduce reform and enfranchise more people than ever, hoping that the gratitude of new voters would keep him in government at the next election. I find it one of the most exciting moments in British political history. And I'm really hoping we're about to get an action replay for the 21st century.

Don't Panic!

My friends are sending me frantic messages. Those same friends who have had their interest piqued by this election, who have suddenly for the first time become interested in politics and have been asking me questions since the election campaign began, or at least since those television debates that seem so long ago now. Those friends who have in many cases voted for the first time, only to wake up next day to the news I've been watching develop all night - a hung parliament! Oh noes! Nobody can form a majority so there is no clear 'winner' for the first time in my generation's memory. So what happens next?

If you learned anything by supporting the Lib Dems this year, you learned not to trust the media.

Well, friends of mine, they're listening to god-knows-what guff coming out of their media outlets and believing "announcements" that Nick Clegg is going to take the Lib Dems into coalition with the Conservatives. Hold your horses, guys, that's NOT what he's said. I was listening to his speech on the radio just now and what he ACTUALLY said was that David Cameron has the most votes, the most seats of any party and it is therefore up to him to prove he can govern. At no point did he say the Lib Dems would form a government in partnership with the tories. Indeed, he's not allowed by the party constitution to make that kind of a decision alone ANYWAY.

Do you know what he is saying? He's saying "go on Dave, take your *best* shot". Even with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party as the Conservatives often have, Cameron's tories will form a minority government. And a minority government is a far more obedient one to its people than a so-called 'strong' one, because all the time it clings to power it must be moderate enough to keep from getting itself thrown out on a vote of no confidence.

Here it comes..

I'm really excited. The atmosphere in this country right now, the howls of the people who in some cases even had their votes taken away from them by the chaos at the polling stations, the massive surge in turnout from 61% in 2005 to somewhere a rumoured 76% this time around, the people noticing that with only a small percentage more of the vote the Labour party have five times as many MPs as the Lib Dems... the appetite for change *is* delivering exactly the change you want. Stop, think, don't be scared. The election was not the end of your responsibility and your involvement, as elections have been for the last 35 years. This is what politics looks like. This is living in interesting times.

Minority government is weak government. Weak government is fearful government. It's weak where you're powerful. It has to give you what you want. So demand reform! I'm damn sure the Lib Dems will be doing the same from the opposition benches. We can take back our votes. We can overturn a rotten system that sees a party with 25% of the vote get 10% of the seats in parliament. This election could have been the last one where your vote counted according to your postcode instead of your true opinion. You've done yourselves proud, people, you hung your parliament and now you can get the fairness you want out of them.

Last night, like many Lib Dems, I was in tears over the friends and colleagues, the good people who were losing their seats. I was desperately disappointed, and I couldn't see the wood for the oh-so-emotive trees. Right now, I may be exhausted but I'm more optimistic and fired up than ever. It's a GOOD THING we didn't get those 120+ seats we expected and wanted. It highlights the iniquity of the system just beautifully. And it means nobody can look to us for some phony 'progressive coalition' with a Labour party who turned its back on the rule of law and respect for human rights many years ago. Off the hook nicely there, then: it's not possible so we don't even have to fall out with each other about it.

Ahaha we haven't lost. Far far from it. We're just about to start winning. Victory! Amber revolution!