Monday, 29 October 2012

Thoughts on feminism from Labourites

So, following the decision of Labour MP Austin Mitchell to tweet Louise Mensch the message that "a good wife doesn't disagree with her master in public", something of a row has erupted. And my personal view is that anyone who says something like that, even if they later claim it was an "ironic joke" (adding an inability to understand the meaning of irony to Mitchell's list of flaws), is being disgustingly misogynist and has no place in parliament let alone in a Labour party which claims to be committed to equality.

Anyway, this prompted the usual groundswell of party tribalists rushing in to excuse what Mitchell said or handwave it away as not being a big deal because he was on there team rather than on the tory team. I vocally disagreed with hypocrisy of some of these people whom I happened to be following on twitter and an interesting conversation ensued.

Here are a few highlights from that conversation whichh I found particularly noteworthy from this charming gentleman who blogs under the name Denis Donovan:

He began with handwaving...
Then quickly moved on to this:
(Because obviously men can't believe in feminism for any reason other than as a ploy to slake their uncontrollable lust)

And continued in that vein...

Before moving on to a bit of ageism...

And then finishing off with:
It was only when I pointed out that my mother died of cancer when I was seven that this charming individual decided to finally move on from sexist remarks and insults:

And, while it's nice he decided to offer sympathy for that, it's a shame that a Member of Parliament telling a woman that her husband is her master and she must obey him apparently isn't something he objects to.

Now, aside from him, there was also another Labourite, who I'd actually followed on twitter for quite a long time, who seemed to get very confused about the concept that I could be both a man and a feminist:
Given that we'd spoken on several occasions before and that my twitter name is quite clearly George Potter, I suspected that this was an attempt to belittle me by calling me by a woman's name - a fairly common example of sexism itself. He however denied this:

I was unimpressed...

But this chap just kept on missing the point:

Before again, finishing up with some ageism. Yay!

So, to summarise: according to these two, being a feminist means that I must either a) using the label to try and trick women into having sex with me or b) actually be a woman.

And both of these two men are so-called progressive sorts who, in name at least, are in favour of equality.

To which all I can say is: #facepalm

Oh, and just to finish up, I'd just like to present an example from people's experiences on the Everyday Sexism project as a reminder of why I'm a feminist in the first place:
Katie 2012-10-28 21:04 
Year 7 French homeowork about my family. 
I write "mon pere cuisine le diner" (my father cooks dinner). French teacher corrects it to "ma mere" and tells me off for getting such a basic thing wrong. When I tell her that my Dad does the cooking at home she initially thought I was lying to hide my mistake, then eventually decided my dad must be some poor suppressed husband married to some sort of tyrant. 
All this at an all girls grammar school that prided itself in turning out strong independent women.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Proof that the DWP work programme has failed

So, here's an interesting fact:

The DWP paid the private company A4Ee a total of £41 million between June 2011 and June 2012. This money was for the DWP's work programme where various organisations are paid to find jobs for unemployed people.

But, as reported by Channel 4 FactCheck, out of the 93,000 people A4e was paid to find work for, only 3,400 of them actually found sustained work. That means the taxpayer is paying out something to the tune of £12,000 for every unemployed person got into work.

Now, I'm pretty sure that that is most definitely not what would be considered value for money. And the really shocking thing is that, to comply with the DWP contract, A4e would only need to have found jobs for 5,115 of the 93,000 on its books. So, to put it another way, the DWP is quite happy to pay a private company £8,000 per person to get them into work through the work programme.

Well, here's an idea, how about we spend that money on more staff at job centres and better training for them so they actually have the time and skills to help people find work. Or how about we pay a tiny fraction of that money to unemployed people in the form of vouchers to help them train and get qualifications which would make them more employable?

But we're not, of course, because, while the tories running the DWP love the idea of stripping benefits from those who can't find jobs in a time when there are more unemployed people than jobs available in order to save money, they clearly don't see anything wrong with paying exorbitant sums of money to the private sector to do fuck all to get unemployed people jobs.

Seriously, did no one in the DWP at any point sit down and do the maths on the contracts? Is no one there bothered by the manifest failure of the work programme to achieve anything worthwhile?

The mind just boggles at this kind of waste of taxpayer money.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Why are tory ministers so incompetent?

Here's something that's puzzling me. The Tories have 304 MPs in parliament. The Liberal Democrats have 57. Therefore the Tories have a much larger pool of talent to call upon than the Lib Dems.

The Cabinet has 22 members of whom 5 are Liberal Democrats - so therefore roughly 9% of Lib Dem MPs are Cabinet members. On the other hand, the 18 Tory Cabinet members represent just under 6% of Tory MPs.

So why is it then, with this larger pool of talent and proportionally less Cabinet members, that of the 34 policy u-turns the government has made so far, only one of them has been a u-turn by Lib Dem ministers and, given that the u-turn in question was Lords reform being blocked by tory backbenchers, it doesn't really count.

The remaining u-turns - all thirty three of them - have been by Tory ministers on Tory policy initiatives. And invariably, such as with the pasty tax or selling off the nation's forests, these have been u-turns made due to a lack of someone with the competence to sit down and notice the blindingly obvious political pitfalls of the latest wheeze.

Which, as Mark Thompson points out, begs the question: Why is it that the tory party, with a much larger pool of talent than the Lib Dems, has managed to make a pretty much unprecedented number of u-turns and mistakes while Lib Dem ministers haven't made any?

Now, obviously I'm discounting the coalition negotiations where the Lib Dems, as we all know, gave up on several of their policies. What I'm focusing on here is people being actually capable of competently enacting policies in government. I might not agree with Margaret Thatcher on selling off council houses but you can't deny that the policy itself was capably implemented with very few problems, for example.

But the modern day tory party it seems, is incapable of going more than a couple of weeks without making some sort of a cock-up or other. And I'd dearly love to know the reason why. Personally my prejudices tell me it's because the kind of people who succeed in the tory party are usually exactly the same kind of arrogant, ignorant and incompetent berks that we have passing for tory ministers at the moment but perhaps there's another reason.

Either way, the tory incompetence in government, not to mention the recent suggestions that Theresa May, a woman who's stupid and incompetent enough to let thousands of people travel through immigration without recording or checking them, who's credulous enough to believe a totally mythical story about a cat preventing an asylum seeker from being deported, is now being suggested by some tory MPs as a possible future Prime Minister, does rather tend to suggest that the tory party is facing a truly dire lack of talent.

So, despite all the oft-repeated refrain in the 2010 general election campaign that the Lib Dems were utterly inexperienced and unprepared for the challenges of governing competently, it does rather seem that, if anything, Lib Dem MPs tend to be fairly capable people while the tories, the self-imagined "natural party of government" couldn't even manage to organise a piss-up in a brewery.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Osborne and the "culture of entitlement"

So, in case you missed it, George Osborne, our beloved Chancellor of the Exchequer, was caught in first class on a train with a standard class ticket and refusing to move to standard class because, as his aide put it, Osborne 'couldn't possibly sit in standard class'.

But the ticket collector wouldn't budge and, depending on which newspaper you read, Osborne either ended up moving to standard class or stumping up the £160 extra for a first class ticket.

Now apparently the excuse being put round the Westminster village by George Osborne now is that it's his aide's fault for not having the Crown Pass with them.

For those who don't know, the Crown Pass (otherwise known as the silver badge) is a special badge which all important members of the government carry. It's basically their passport to get round roadblocks, and various other traffic obstacles which might impede ministers from getting somewhere they need to be on government business. Which is fair enough as, if you've got a checkpoint searching for a suspect, said suspect isn't likely to be found by searching a minister's car.

But a silver badge is not meant for allowing arrogant prats with a superiority complex to avoid paying £160 for a first class train ticket. So this being Osborne's excuse is even more disgusting than his insistence on sitting in first class without a ticket in the first place.

And the thing is, it's not that long ago that David Cameron was talking about a "culture of entitlement" amongst welfare recipients. How there are these evil, wicked parasites who think they are entitled to a life of ease while everyone else has to work hard to get by and pay their way.

And of course, people thinking they are "entitled" to things is an old tory complaint. Why, the year before I was born Margaret Thatcher said that there were young people in the nation's schools who thought that they were entitled to an inalienable right to be gay.

Well, I hate to break it to the tories but gay people have a right to be gay. And people who've lost their job and can't find another one because there aren't enough jobs to go around do have a right not to be left to go cold or hungry and be abandoned by society and the state.

On the other hand, George Osborne is not entitled to demand freebies and special treatment just because he thinks he is. Does he need special treatment on occasion for the purposes of his job? Yes. Does he need or deserve to be able to use his job to try to avoid paying the £160 that you and I would have to pay for a first class ticket? No.

But in many ways, David Cameron is right. There are people in our society who think they are entitled to a free ride, who belong to a "culture of entitlement". But those people are his own colleagues and best friends in the tory party. And when those people go around demanding to be treated as above and better than everyone else then they are being part of that culture of entitlement.

And when they criticise families working every hour that they can get just to hold their heads above water for thinking themselves "entitled" then that just makes them disgusting hypocrites of the worst kind as well.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The fundamental unfairness in our society

So, here's the thing. I'm a student at a good university. I'm studying Electronics with Satellite Engineering and have every chance of graduating with a 2:1 or better MEng. I'm able to do this because, well, I'm fairly smart and well educated.

But the thing is, I know that my raw ability isn't that good compared to others. At best I can only claim to be average or slightly better than average. There are people far, far more talented than I am. And there are lots of people who work harder at their studies than I do.

But, because I went to good schools, had good teachers, had parents who encouraged me to do well, because I had a fairly stable home life, and because I generally grew up in an environment where it was easy to learn, I was able to do well in my GCSEs, do well in my A Levels and do well at university because of the education and support I received. My own ability helped but most of what I'm able to do comes not from my own ability but from being taught well.

As an example, maths is something I've never been naturally talented at. But I've had teachers who explained things well and who put the effort in to make sure that everyone in their classes understood the material. And, because there were small class sizes, they had the time to help out everyone who was struggling.

And that's the problem.

I've got a promising future ahead of me and I have every chance of having a successful career when I graduate. And, while that's partly down to my own work, it's mostly down to being born into a family and background where I was able to get a good education and support to help me learn and educate myself.

But the thing is, demographics tell me that there are plenty of people the same age as me who have far more raw talent than I do. Some of them are geniuses. But, because they weren't born into a moderately well-off background, because they were born into poverty, by the time I entered primary school I was already pretty much guaranteed to come out the education system somewhere in the top and they were guaranteed to come out somewhere in the bottom.

That's because the fundamental thing in our society which determines how well you do in school is not your natural ability but how rich or poor you are. If, like many people the same age as me, I'd gone to a deprived state school with crumbling facilities, out of date equipment, overworked teachers and massive class sizes I can guarantee that I'd have been lucky to have scraped a pass in five GCSES - let alone get the 9 A grades I got in real life. And, if the people who went to those schools had gone to my schools, had access to top class facilities and resources, been in small classes, and generally had a much better educational advantage, then they probably would have done much better than I did.

But, because our society is so unequal, because how well you do is determined by the lottery of birth, I, despite being less talented, have access to top quality education and opportunities and brilliant life chances while honest-to-god geniuses, Einsteins and Newtons, have come out of the education system with little to no qualifications and the best they can ever hope for is a life of minimum-wage jobs scraping by just on the poverty line.

And yet the people who end up with that kind of future include people who, if they had been born into a wealthier background, could have been visionaries, pioneers and intellectual revolutionaries. We have a truly massive pool of talent being wasted because, primarily as a result of inequality and deprivation, not even half the children in this country manage to meet the minimum standard of five pass grades at GCSE level.

How can we compete in the modern world when half the population have their life chances written off due to circumstance at birth? How can we progress and prosper as a country when we let so much talent and ability go squandered and unnurtured?

The answer is we can't.

I was born into relative privilege and as a result I have thrived. Meanwhile people far better and more talented than I were born into poverty and will remain trapped in poverty for the rest of their lives.

And because of this monumental waste of talent, because of the way our society is riven with unequal opportunity at birth, this country will never punch it's full weight. We will never be able to compete with more educated countries. Yet if every child had access to the opportunities and education I had then we'd have a 100% literacy rate and a workforce educated and equipped to be the most efficient and productive in the entire world and we'd be much wealthier, more crime free and happier as a society as a result.

It's the failure to tackle at inequality, the fail to give every child a fair chance, that is dooming this country to mediocrity, that is the cause of so many of our social problems, and we'll never progress properly until we do tackle it.

This government won't do it and neither has any government before it. Yet education is the silver bullet that could tackle most of our problems all in one go. We need to, no, we must, grasp that lesson. I don't want my children to grow up in a world as unequal and unfair as the world I've grown up in. But so far we're not doing anything to change that. And, until we do, our society will remain fundamentally rotten and tainted by injustice at it's very core.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Great Britain's future must lie within a federal Europe

On Monday night I went to the LSE to attend an absolutely fascinating event. It was the launch of a new book (in every major European language) entitled FOR EUROPE: A Manifesto for a Post-National and Federal Europe.

The authors and speakers at the event were Daniel Cohn-Bendit MEP, Co-Chair of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and a former Parisian student leader, and Guy Verhofstadt MEP, a Thatcherite and former Prime Minister of Belgium.

It'd be impossible for me to recount the full detail of what they said but I will say that, coming as they did from two very different political perspectives, they ended up utterly convincing me of the need for European federalism.

And here's why. There were two key arguments that were made which spoke to me.

The political and financial crises facing Europe

The first was that it's the only solution to the political and financial crisis facing Europe. Guy Verhofstadt pointed out that when the United States first came into being the national government had no financial powers at all and that this then gradually moved to federal government gaining the power to issue treasury certificates, then the establishment of the Federal Treasury in 1790 (seven years after the end of the American War of Independence), with a national currency not being introduced until 1792.

He then compared this to the way in which the Euro was brought in without the existence of any kind of treasury or central taxation or other essential financial instruments to back it up and explained that this was the origin of the eurozone crisis - monetary integration without economic or financial integration. And, what's more, he pointed out that the USA has a national debt of 102% of GDP and has to pay interest rates of 2% on that debt and that Japan has a national debt of 226% of GDP but pays just 1% while the eurozone has an average debt of 88% but has to pay average interest rates of 5% and that this is the consequence of a currency without any reliable financial instruments to back it up.

To put it another way, the American dollar is backed by a federal government with a budget of 24% of GDP. The EU has a budget of 1%.

And this lack of financial substance, and the eurozone crisis it has produced is compounded, both Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit said by a political failure of European leaders to tackle the problem and the way in which they always delay decisions for too long and only ever adopt half measures at the last possible moment leading to a lack of confidence which is the real cause of the eurozone crisis. And the cause of this political crisis was that the EU operates on a principle of unanimity - where every country has to agree to a solution before it can be adopted, leaving the entire stability of the EU dependent on what they termed as the "tyranny of the one".

The argument they made, quite convincingly, that the only solution to this could be through federalism to provide a democratic European government, with two chambers, the mutualisation of Europe's debt, a European treasury and a single European currency. Verhofstadt described the only options for the future are either forwards to a United States of Europe or backwards to the divided nations of Europe.

But there are plenty of people who would be perfectly happy to return to the different nations of Europe, to see the eurozone breakup and to see the EU return to it's earlier form of nothing more than an economic trading agreement between the countries of Europe. And, given that that could feasibly happen as well, then obviously this means that federalism is not the only solution to the financial and political crisis within the EU.

We need a federal Europe to survive the new age of empires

But this is where I found their second argument much more important and convincing.

Put simply, in thirty years not a single European country will be a member of the G8 anymore. They will be overtaken by Brazil, India, China and the rest of the industrialising world and it will be these nations, along with the United States that decide the future of the world and disunited European nations will lose the influence they currently have.

So the simple question facing everyone in Europe is whether we want to make the decisions ourselves or whether we want these other nations to decide for us.

With the globalisation of the economy, markets have grown bigger and more powerful than the nation state, eroding national sovereignty. And, just as with climate change, these kind of problems require global solutions and global regulations to tackle them and it simply will not be possible for individual nations to achieve this.

The nation states of Europe emerged out of the need for the political power to regulate and control the emergence of national economies and the same is needed now to give us the power to regulate and control the new global and regional markets. And so a reformed European Union is the only way for us to safeguard ourselves against the power of the global markets.

We're entering a new age of empires. Not the old kind of empire but a new kind. Empires not of countries but of entire civilisations. China and India aren't just countries, they're also entire civilisations - each containing many ethnicities, languages and religion but all united by a shared culture and civilisation. The same applies to America - the original melting pot and a country where different ethnicities and religions and languages have always been melded together to form an overarching American identity. And the world of the future will be dominated by these new empires.

So the only way that the people of the nations of Europe can avoid being powerless bystanders in a world shaped by other cultures and other civilisations is to put a measure of our national sovereignty together to defend our civilisation and to defend our culture.

After all, despite our differences, the nations of Europe have much more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the world. A commitment to human rights and liberty and tolerance unseen in China or India. A commitment to social protection for the vulnerable of a kind lacking in America. A culture of political pluralism and compromise very different to the partisan feuding of America. And our culture and civilisation is every bit as worthy of promoting and defending as the cultures of China and India and America.

An example of how sharing sovereignty makes us stronger is defence. Between them the nations of Europe have 1.5 million soldiers - a military larger than that of the USA. But Europe's soldiers, as a whole, operate with less than 10% of the efficiency of that of the USA. During the Libyan intervention, after two days France and Great Britain ran out of ammunition and had to buy more from the Americans. So, despite Europe having a military larger than that of the most powerful nation on Earth, it is many, many times weaker due to each nation having it's own army, duplicating the work of every other nation rather than pooling resources together to provide economies of scale and to provide much better security at a much lower cost. A federal Europe could well have a military with a fraction of the numbers Europe has at the moment at a lower cost but one which actually provided much more security than the individual armies of Europe have at the moment. After all, Britain and France currently both struggle to fund even one aircraft carrier each when a pooling of European resources could afford more aircraft carriers at a lower cost to the taxpayers of each individual nation.

And, looking at things another way, why do we need 27 European embassies in Kuala Lumpur? We could have one single European embassy with a lobby for each European nation at a fraction of the cost.

Ultimately, working together with other people makes us stronger than working alone. And that's the key element of a federal Europe that I myself can believe in. In the 21st century the 19th and 20th century notion of the nation state simply cannot defend us nationally, culturally or financially. It will take a new model of a federation of the nations of Europe to do that in our modern world.

How it could happen

Cohn-Bendit  and Verhofstadt weren't just there with a vision of what could happen though, they were also there with a blueprint of how we could move to a federal Europe. They also pointed out that for it to work it will take politicians to stand up and lay out the new vision of Europe and to convince people of it - instead of following the method of the French revolutionary who said "I must find out where my people are going so that I may lead them!".

The first step they suggested would be the 2014 European elections. Ideally it should be a break from the previous squabbles on national issues between national parties in each country and instead a switch to a proper debate on the future of Europe between transnational European parties. But, since that is unlikely, a very minor change to the EU's electoral law could allow a candidacy for the existing European presidency to stand in every single country. However, the ideal solution should be the introduction of two ballot papers for voters - one to elect MEPs and one to elect the President of the European Commission.

And if the President of the Commission were directly elected, instead of being rotated between different nations as it is at the moment, then the president would have the legitimacy to challenge the nations on an equal footing and to move away from the current system of horse trading by national governments behind closed doors without any democratic input.

The next step would be to call a constitutional convention on the European level which should produce a constitution, no more than 20 pages long, laying out the raison d'etre of Europe, establishing how it would work, making the Euro the currency of Europe, establishing a self-financing federal government and including fundamental human rights.

This should then be put to the people of Europe in a referendum because it is the people who have the right and the responsibility to decide the shape of their future.

And, if the majority of people and the majority of states say yes to the constitution then it should be implemented. Those countries which reject the constitution would have to choose between staying in the EU and accepting the democratic will of the majority or leaving the EU completely. A Europe fragmented on different lines on every policy area (currency, trade, agriculture, etc) with some nations in and some nations out simply won't work.

So, for example, us in Great Britain would have to decide whether we want to be part of the new EU or whether we wanted to become the 51st state of the USA. What can't continue is people like David Cameron saying to the rest of Europe that he'll veto the European budget necessary to tackle the financial crisis because it will cost the UK money but that he also wants all the benefits of EU membership. Each country should have to decide whether we want to be in or out.

Both Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt both freely admitted that there would be many difficulties in putting together the different political and governmental cultures of Europe which is why they advocated a policy of convergence: a federal Europe shouldn't take over from national governments and say pensions have to be this much, taxes have to be that much, welfare has to be this other amount because it simply won't work with all the national variations throughout Europe.

Instead, the federal government should specify minimum and maximum boundaries for each policy area - for example a minimum standard of social provision - as well as promoting best practice across Europe. And, where states can't match those minimum standards (such as Greece at the moment) the rest of Europe should show solidarity with them and the federal government should step in to provide that minimum standard while helping the nation get to the state where it was capable of providing that minimum standard itself once more.

This, I think, is the crucial thing about a federal Europe. It should not be about a massive, undemocratic, unaccountable superstate trying to force uniformity on everybody. Because, in many ways, that's the problem we have with the partial democracy of the EU at the moment. Instead it should be about making the EU properly democratic and accountable and controlled by the people of Europe through proper democratic systems and through sharing sovereignty where, and only where, doing so makes us stronger.

As Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt said:

"To us a federal Europe is democratic and accountable. It does not mean the nation state disappears but it does mean you have a new balance of serenity."

And that is a vision which speaks to me. And it's one I am convinced of and which I will support from now on. The time has come for a new Britain and a new Europe and I'm going to go out and fight for it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

George Potter for the FCC

I'm going to be standing for the Lib Dem Federal Conference Committee in the upcoming internal elections. This is manifesto I'm standing on:

Who I Am 
I'm George Potter, member of Liberal Youth, member of the Social Liberal Forum and member of the Lib Dem Disability Association. I'm also a student of engineering at the University of Surrey and a disability rights campaigner.

What I Stand For
There are various issues which have motivated me to stand for the FCC but my main motive is that I feel that conference is good but could be much better. And my aim in standing is to try to tackle issues which I feel have not been adequately addressed so far. In particular, I'm concerned with two key issues:

Stopping Accreditation - It is utterly illiberal that all our members are required to have their privacy invaded by the police if they want to attend conference - especially as there has not been one shred of evidence provided to suggest it would make anyone safer. With some members not coming to conference because of accreditation we need to find a way to stop it.

Unfortunately, I do not think the current FCC has done enough to find a way to avoid accreditation and, if elected, I will push strongly to try and stop it. And, crucially, I will be open about the process so that everyone can know what solutions have been attempted and what options the FCC has looked at.

Widening Access to Conference - In Brighton, 350 voting reps made policy decisions for a party of 45,000 people. We might be a democratic party but a situation like this cannot be right when we all know that many local parties are unable to send their full quota of reps to conference.

One of the major reasons for this is the cost of attending conference and the lack of suitable accommodation and facilities at conference locations also excludes many disabled people. In a party like ours that should not be acceptable.

Therefore, if elected, I will look hard at finding solutions to allow more people to take part in conference even if they’re unable to physically attend. One option might be allowing voting reps to watch the conference debates and vote online if they’re unable to attend in person, for example.

Conference shouldn’t be for the few - it should be for the many. Accreditation and lack of accessibility prevent that which is why I pledge to work to resolve both those issues if I am elected.

Any questions? Please feel free to contact me in the comments below if you have any.