Monday, 28 October 2013

Sexism in the Lib Dems

Something which is really pissing me off at the moment is the way that overt sexism can continue to get a free pass in the Liberal Democrats.

I mean, the vast majority of liberals would say they're against sexism and would claim that they wouldn't tolerate it but actions speak louder than words. And when it comes to actions, things are pretty disappointing. Of course, this isn't unique to the Lib Dems as sexist double standards and hypocrisy are par for the course in every political party and across society as a whole but it still sticks in the craw when the Lib Dems are a party meant to be founded on the principle of the fundamental equality of every human being.

What's triggered this rant is a report in the Independent that Nick Clegg is considering supporting introducing All Women Shortlists (AWS) if the proportion of female Lib Dem MPs (currently 7 out of 57) doesn't improve significantly in 2015.

(As a quick explanation, an all women shortlist is where only women are allowed to be considered as candidates for a particular seats in order to guarantee that a woman is selected).

Now, whether or not people support AWS is one thing. Personally I tend to support the introduction of them (or preferably, all diversity shortlists). But what is clear to everyone is that the party has a big problem with gender balance at a parliamentary level - and also in fact at every other level apart from a European one where positive action was taken in the first election in order to obtain a gender balance which has maintained itself ever since.

So that's why comments like this underneath the Lib Dem Voice article on the story are so frustrating:
I would suggest that most women are far too sensible and considerate to their families to put themselves and their loved ones through the terrible strains required by the prolonged self-exploitation required to be a Lib Dem candidate in anything other than a ‘safe’ held succession seat. This doesn’t leave many seats for them to ‘go for’. Not all men are basically more selfish and inconsiderate but more than enough are.
Now what this is is a spectacular example of "benevolent", paternalistic, patronising sexism. It's basically saying that women are much "nicer" and more "gentle" (subtext: weaker) than men and that's why not so many women don't stand as candidates. Or, basically, it's saying that women are too weak compared to rough and tough men to get involved in politics and this is the source of the problem rather than sexism within the party which prevents and discourages women from standing to be elected.

Yes, sure, benevolent sexism like this can sound friendly, and even complimentary - after all, this guy is just saying that women aren't selfish and inconsiderate, what's wrong with that?

Except this is the exact problem with benevolent sexism. It sounds friendly so it tends to get less scrutiny and yet the underlying assumptions of it, that women are all have families and are focused mainly on them, that women are weaker and less interested in involvement in "tough" subjects like politics, are just as awful and harmful as run-of-the-mill sexism.

And the guy who said this is a Lib Dem councillor in Southport. His name is Tony Dawson.

Cllr Tony Dawson
So here we have someone in a position of authority in local government, who is an elected office holder representing the Lib Dems and who, by virtue of being a councillor, will have significant authority in his local party compared to an ordinary member.

Yet this kind of comment by him gets a free pass. I'm the only person who bothered to challenge him in the thread on his sexism. And when I did I got this comment from another person who rushed into defend Tony Dawson:
George, 
You can put silly words into Tony’s mouth if you want to, but when you have been around as long has he has, and have seen what it involves, you will realise he is telling the truth. You may not like it, but there it is. 
P.S. You can call us ageist if you wish, but the one place you get experience from is having seen your own and others’ youthful naivety fail before. You may not like that either …
Yup, you heard it here first ladies and gents. Saying that women are "far too sensible" and "considerate to their families" to get involved in politics is just a statement of fact about reality. And only naive, silly young people would think otherwise.

Well bollocks to that kind of sexism and bollocks to that kind of ageism. I've been an active party member for four years, I sit on a regional executive, I'm policy officer for the Lib Dem Disability Association, I've stood twice as a council candidate, I'm secretary of my local party and I'm a member of my local party's campaign committee as well as chairing our membership development and events committee.

And in all of those four years I've had first Sue Doughty and then Kelly-Marie Blundell as my local Lib Dem parliamentary candidate. Both of them women. Both of them fantastic, amazing candidates. Both of them considerate and sensible people who care about their families. And both of whom have been fantastic standard bearers for the Lib Dems and as good as any a candidate a local party could ever ask for.

So, I'm sorry to the benevolent sexists and ageists out there but women are just as good as men, just as capable as men and the fact that we have so few women MPs is a problem with sexism in the party - not with women being innately too shy and passive to stand for election in the same numbers as men.

And, while I'm at it, any twazzock who thinks that just because I'm under the age of 25 my opinions can't be valid can go fornicate themselves given that the likes of them seem perfectly happy to exploit young people as leaflet deliverers and general campaigning canon fodder whenever they need us but can't stand the idea of us having opinions of our own and being entitled to the same respect for them that anyone over the age of 25 is entitled to.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The horror of the marked register

One particularly gruelling part of my summer holiday was spending several hours (spread out over a month because I really, really didn't want to do it) was copying data by hand from the Guildford borough marked register to the Lib Dem election software database.

But since explaining what the marked register is will take a while, here's a brief summary of the rest of this post:

1. Everyone registered to vote is listed on the 'electoral register'
2. The electoral register is available to political parties and candidates
3. Parties and candidates use it to work out who the voters are for campaigning purposes
4. When people vote, staff at polling stations cross their name off on a copy of the electoral register
5. This is called the 'marked register' and records who has voted - but not how they've voted
6. Parties and candidates use it to find out who has voted so they know who to target their campaigning at next time (e.g. not at people who never, ever vote)
7. The copy of the marked register my local party got was a paper version
8. This meant I spent far too long entering information about 80,000+ individually into excel
9. This is known by me as 'the horror of the marked register'

Now to continue with the full explanation:

Every area in the country has an electoral office whose main job is to look after their part of the national electoral register. This is basically a massive great list of the names and addresses of everyone in the country who is registered to vote.

In practice, there are several different sub sets of the register though. For example, there's the postal voter electoral register which only contains people who are registered to vote by post and different ones for different elections containing only the people eligible to vote in them.

Now anyone can walk into any electoral office in the country and ask to see the electoral register. You can also buy a copy of it if you like - which a lot of commercial organisations, particularly marketing and credit reference agencies, do.

But since the register has people's names, addresses (and quite often dates of birth and phone numbers) on it, everyone has the option to opt out of being listed on the publicly and commercially available version of the register - and if you want to do this you can do it whenever you fill in your details to register to vote.

However, political parties and candidates have the right to get a copy of the full electoral register so that they can find out who the voters are.

We do lots of things with the list of voters, often quite sophisticated things nowadays with our fancy new election software (such as remembering who's interested in education policy and who cares more about bin collections) but at the heart of it is using it to ask voters to vote for us, making notes of who's said they're going to vote for us and then trying to find out if they've actually voted for us.

And that brings me back to the marked register.

When someone goes to vote, the people working in the polling station will cross their name off of a copy of the electoral register. This copy is known as the marked register because it's been marked to show who's voted - not how they've voted but just whether they've voted.

Political parties and candidates are also entitled to get a copy of the marked register - which we duly did in Guildford following the local elections in May. We use this to work out how likely people are to vote and this in turn makes our life easier because it lets us target our campaigning activities next time to people whose likelihood to vote makes it worthwhile in terms of the effort it takes.

But, since Guildford borough only gives out its marked register in a paper format, rather than digitally, I got to experience the mind-numbing tedium of entering data about 80,000 or so voters into excel. And this tedium, which must be repeated after every single election, is the horror of the marked register.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

New Purpose

As is pretty obvious, I haven’t been blogging a lot lately (no updates for over a month - woo!). This is mainly because I’ve found myself both busy with other things and tending to vent about topical issues elsewhere rather than having the time to sit down and blog about them.

I don’t want to give up on this blog though so I’ve decided to adopt a new approach to it. While I’m not going to rule out writing posts about current events, I’m going to try to focus much more on posts actually explaining the process of politics itself and the background of current political stories.

My reasoning behind this is that people like me who are actively involved in politics aren’t normal. We’re actually very, very weird. Most of the people I know in politics know about and could name at least a dozen people on average from each major political party. Polls show that the average person, on the other hand, mainly just knows the name of the Prime Minister, the name of the leader of the opposition and possibly the name of the Chancellor.

This really reinforces the idea of the ‘Westminster bubble’ - a little world of its own where politicians, journalists, commentators and other members of the media reside and are hyper aware of what’s going on while outside of the bubble the vast majority of the country has only the vaguest of inklings about things which people in the bubble assume to be common knowledge.

If I were to talk about RISOs, Focus leaflets, knocking up, GOTV, Connect and PPCs most of my fellow Liberal Democrats would instantly know what I was talking about. Almost everyone else would be completely baffled.

And since most people don’t have the time or inclination to spend the equivalent of a part time jobs worth of effort to be involved in politics to the extent that people inside the Westminster bubble are, I’ve decided it would be helpful if there was someone out there actually breaking political stories and processes down into something which you don’t need to be a complete politics geek to understand.

Given that my doing this would actually give this blog a purpose, and give people more of a reason to read it, I consider that changing the point of this blog to that is something of a win-win.


So look forward to seeing, in the near future, an explanation of the esoteric and occult world of marked and unmarked electoral registers - what they are, why they matter and what politicians do with your information that’s recorded on them.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Dear Daily Mail: fuck you

The excellent Mark Pack has written a post reminding us that the Daily Mail considers everyone born overseas and everyone with parents born overseas to be a foreigner.

Now, firstly, there's nothing wrong with being a foreigner and only xenophobic bigots think otherwise.

But, secondly, I'm one of those people the Daily Mail would consider a foreigner.

My parents were both born in Britain and were British citizens but I happened to be born abroad, in Belgium. I was registered as a British citizen from birth, we visited England regularly while we lived in Belgium and I myself have lived in England ever since I was five years old.

But the Daily Mail considers me to be a foreigner. And by including the likes of me as a foreigner they get to make up big scary statistics about so many millions of people being foreigners taking this country away from decent British folk.

Well I'm British and I'm English. I was born an Englishman and a British citizen and I will die an Englishman and a British citizen.

And if the Daily Mail choose to insist otherwise then they can go fuck themselves for all I care.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Time to redistribute wealth: Ethiopia is more equal than the UK

Most of us know Ethiopia only as that place from the telly where there always seems to be a massive famine and from the charity adverts asking us to donate £2 a month to help save a child's life.

But, despite that, Ethiopia is actually better off than the UK in one aspect at least according to a new UN report.

You see, Ethiopia has a smaller gap between rich and poor than us.

I'll repeat that for emphasis: the poor in the UK have a lower share of the nation's wealth than Jamaica, Ghana or the Ivory Coast. The gap between rich and poor in the UK is twice as large as that in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka. We have the largest gap of any western nation.

You know the US? That place where until very recently the poorest had no medical care, where people are forced to survive on foodstamps which won't pay for a balanced diet? Well they're still more equal than we are.

Here are the figures: the poorest 40% of the country share 14.6% of the wealth between them - a lower share than any other industrial country apart from Russia.

Now, obviously a poor person in the UK is still better off in cash terms than a poor person in Ethiopia. We can't forget that. But when the poor in this country are forced to share a smaller slice of the pie than in full blown economic basket cases and countries recovering from civil war and ethnic cleansing then something is clearly bloody wrong with this country.

The support for the unemployed in the UK is less as a proportion of the average wage than in any other country. Disabled people in the UK have suffered an unprecedented erosion of rights in recent years compared to any other developed country. Black, Asian and other non-white ethnic groups continue to suffer higher unemployment rates than white people. Women in particular have a much higher unemployment rate and continue to suffer being paid less, on average, than an equally qualified man doing the exact same job.

This country is seriously unequal and seriously unfair, and something needs to be done about it.

So I'm going to say it. This isn't good enough. We need the active redistribution of wealth from those with plenty of it to those with barely any.

There are lots of ways it could be done and it doesn't really matter that much how it is done as long as it is done. We can't carry on like this. And it should no longer be considered heresy in mainstream politics to say so.

Also, while we're at it, it would be nice if the majority of the media and politicians decided to stop vilifying the very poorest in our society and blaming them for all the country's ills.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Parking on double yellow lines

In the news this week is the story that the Conservatives want to allow parking, for up to fifteen minutes, on double yellow lines and, to do this, they want to order councils not to enforce parking fines for people parking on yellow lines for fifteen minutes or less. The idea being that this will help local shops by letting people stop easily to quickly nip in and out.

Now the Liberal Democrats aren't so keen on this idea while most Conservatives seem to be. I imagine part of this is that Liberal Democrats don't like central government dictating to local government how to run their own affairs.

But more importantly, and something that I very much agree with, is that double yellow lines exist for a reason. Specifically, they exist to stop people parking in places where it is dangerous to do so.

Shops could definitely be helped by less parking restrictions but I can't help but think it might be a better idea to help them by scrapping double yellow lines where they're no longer needed, or introducing short term parking bays, rather than making all double yellow lines useless everywhere.

Friday, 26 July 2013

David Cameron and porn

Our glorious Prime Minister has been thinking about porn
So this past week David Cameron has announced plans to do two things. The first of these is to completely block ‘rape porn’ on the internet by getting search engines to show no results for certain search terms. The second of these is to introduce a nationwide porn filter which will be switched on for everyone by default and which adults will have to actively opt out of if they don’t want the filter on.

That said, the porn filter will apparently have several exemptions. For example, online Page 3 pictures from the Sun will be fine according to Cameron - begging the question of how exactly they’re going to be able to define exactly how much nudity turns a picture from “family friendly newspaper material” to “sick, deviant, hardcore porn”. Of course, I’m sure the Page 3 exemption has nothing at all to do with the fact that the paper is a favourite of many Tory MPs.

Now, the background to all of this is that David Cameron has been under lots of pressure and lobbying by “family” groups to do something to tackle porn and by women’s groups to close a loophole where it’s illegal to possess paper pornography of realistic depictions of rape but not illegal to possess the same material digitally. But I imagine an unspoken aspect of it is that he’s just royally pissed off homophobic  Conservatives by legalising same-sex marriage and this attack on pornography is a way to get them to settle down a bit.

Now closing the loophole on rape porn is something I agree with in principle. I certainly think that genuine depictions of rape, or things deliberately designed to seem like rape, should be illegal. Rape is illegal so having rape porn should be illegal - just like having sex with animals is illegal and having porn of sex with animals is illegal.

The only problem with this though, is that some people, particularly people in the BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism - think Fifty Shades of Grey) community, happen to enjoy consensual sexual roleplay of rape and so, depending on the details of the proposal, this could criminalise BDSM porn and, by extension, a bunch of people who are doing nothing worse than playing some kinky sex games in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

So for me, the ban on rape porn is something I’d very much rather wait to see the details on before I come to judgement on it.

The actual porn filter, however, is something I very much oppose - and which most Lib Dem rank and file members are likely to oppose as well on principle.

The principle which makes us object is basically that freedom (such as the freedom to search the internet without it being filtered) is something that you should have by default and if you lose that freedom it should only be because you’ve either actively decided to give it up or because you’re doing something that harms other people. So the fact that the porn filter is an opt out system rather than an opt in system contravenes that principle.

But personally I also have several practical objections to the filter in addition to principled ones. And, for the sake of being brief, I’ll just quickly list them (a better, fuller article on the practical problems, written by a friend of mine, can be found here):
  1. These kind of filters block things they shouldn’t - for example, they often block LGBT+ information resources, including, in some cases, suicide prevention websites, as being “adult material” despite the fact that a lot of young people struggling with their sexuality might need to read them
  2. They give parents a false sense of security - all it takes to bypass a filter like this is a simple web proxy which kids are bound to end up using to access porn while their parents think that everything’s fine and dandy
  3. They distract from better solutions - the best ways to keep kids from accessing porn is for parents to switch on child safety features on computers, monitor and restrict their kids’ internet usage and to keep the computer in a public space in the house; the danger of a porn filter is that it might discourage parents from bothering to use these other techniques
  4. They place a huge amount of power in unaccountable hands - the proposal at present is for Chinese company Huawei to run the web filter and it will be they who decide exactly what gets banned or not which means that if your website is incorrectly blacklisted then there’s nothing you can do about it.
All of these together are why I think this porn filter is a very bad, very impractical and very illiberal idea. If parents are that bothered about porn they should take it upon themselves to safeguard their children - they shouldn’t be able to force their views on everyone else.

One person described this as being like having a person who’s scared of the dark and, instead of buying a nightlight, campaigning for the entire country to have their lights left on by default in order to stop this person being scared by the dark. And this is a sentiment I can definitely agree with.

Of course, given that both Labour and the Conservatives are very much in favour of this kind of state interference and meddling in people’s private lives I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposals all go ahead - the Lib Dems might intervene to water down certain elements of them but I doubt it's something Lib Dem MPs are willing to start a big battle over.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Time to ditch our nukes

So last week (you know, that time when only most of the news coverage was of the royal baby rather than all of the news coverage) the review of alternatives to Trident was published. Trident being our nuclear weapon system.

The review came about because Trident needs renewing at a cost of £20 to £100 billion and the Lib Dems oppose the renewal of it. So this review is meant to come up with nice alternatives which prove we can have our cake and eat it - the ability to start world war three and pay next to nothing for it.

Unfortunately, the review has proved that if you want a full time nuclear deterrent then you have to have Trident. The only alternative is to have a part time nuclear deterrent which will cost almost nearly as much as a full time deterrent.

So, now that's nicely established, can we please just scrap our nuclear weapons altogether? At the very least can we make that Lib Dem policy?

For decades the Liberal Democrats have had to put up with a bloody stupid, decades old compromise which basically involved the leadership (who were terrified of being seen as a bunch of hippies who weren't serious about national security) and most of the membership (who actually wanted us to get rid of our nuclear weapons completely) agreeing that we'd just oppose renewing our current nuclear weapon system when the time came.

Well the time's come and we can't dodge the issue any more. Either it's Trident or it's nothing.

And, given that we are no longer in a cold war, given that anyone crazy enough in the modern world to use nuclear weapons isn't likely to be deterred by the thought of retaliation, given that we're still protected by NATO and given that it would be a monumental crime to ever use them to slaughter millions of innocent civilians, please could we just have the guts to grow up and say that we think we shouldn't have nuclear weapons at all.

We don't need them, the money could be spent better elsewhere (such as on our conventional armed forces) so lets just be honest about the fact and publicly admit what most people in the party believe already. It's not like our current position has fooled anyone into thinking we're not closet unilateralists anyway.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

We need a cumulative impact assessment

Here's an article I wrote for Lib Dem Voice:

With the Conservative ring-fencing of 40% plus of the welfare budget because it goes to a section of society which disproportionately votes Conservative (e.g. pensioners), it should come as no surprise to anyone that the forcing of all welfare cuts onto the remainder of recipients has hurt a lot of people.

Amongst those most badly effected are disabled people. Contributory Employment and Support Allowance (formerly known as incapacity benefit) has been time limited to one year. Disability Living Allowance is being replaced by Personal Independence Payments and will have been cut by 20% by 2015. Social care services are being cut by local councils as the money available from central government reduces. And many other services and forms of support have also been affected – such as the Independent Living Fund and the Social Fund.

Now each of these, on its own, doesn’t necessarily sound too bad. But, to use an analogy, if you take away a schoolchild’s textbook on its on then they could probably still learn from their teacher. Likewise if you were to take away their exercise book, or their desk, alone. But if you take away all of these together then the schoolchild would find it very hard to learn at all.

And this is the problem facing disabled people. If you’re disabled then you might need disability living allowance for transport so you can do things like go to the hairdresser or the social club and to get to your GP and hospital appointments. You might have a carer from social services to help you get dressed and washed each day because you can’t on your own. You might rely on housing benefit so you can afford to live somewhere close to family and friends who can help you with cooking meals when you can’t cope on your own.

Take away any of these on their own and you would struggle, but you could probably cope. Take away all of them together and you’ll end up hungry, isolated and trapped in your own home. And that is what I, and many others fear, is currently happening to vulnerable people who need support and don’t have anywhere to turn to.

When each of the cuts to services and support which disabled people use were made the government conducted impact assessments and, on the basis of these, parliament supported the cuts. But these assessments only looked at each cut in isolation. No one stopped to look at what the combined effect of them all would be.

That’s why I hope Lib Dem MPs will back the motion calling for a cumulative impact assessment of the impact of cuts on disabled people this Wednesday 10th of July at 4pm. This would enable us to properly understand the full combined impact of these changes and give us a better picture of what is happening.

It may be that the cumulative impact of these cuts on disabled people turns out to be something we’re happy with, or something that we can stomach at least. Or it could turn out to be something we consider absolutely unacceptable. But right now we don’t know one way or the other. That’s why we need a cumulative impact assessment – at least then we can look at the whole picture and come to a conclusion one way or another. But right now policy is being made with stabs in the dark. And that can never be wise.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The morality of Liberalism

A thought that's been running around my head recently is about liberalism as a moral philosophy.

Normally we see ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, labourism (I call it that because whatever the ideology of Labour is it's definitely not socialism any more) as political philosophies which make specific recommendations about governmental policies which should be implemented.

But I think this is actually a rather flawed view of these ideologies. Because they're not just political philosophies but moral philosophies as well.

Let's take a look at liberalism, for example. Specifically, let's look at the Liberal Democrat version of liberalism as outlined in the preamble to the Lib Dem party constitution:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives. 
We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.
Now that's just the beginning of the preamble but already we can see plenty there which is about moral values, not just political ones.

Equality. Liberty. Freedom. Poverty as something wrong that enslaves people. The right to dignity. The right to freedom of conscience - tolerance for different views in other words. A value of good stewardship of our planet. Peace. The importance of protecting the continuity of all life on the planet. Justice. Opposition to prejudice and discrimination. Opposition to entrenched privilege.

All of those are political values. But they are all just as equally moral ones. They involve tolerance and kindness and compassion and helping those in need and the pursuit of peace and of recognising all human beings as equals.

(In fact, a lot of those values sound far from dissimilar to traditional "Christian" values - which is not surprising given the historic links between Quakers and the Liberal party.)

So these are the values of liberalism. This is what is considered to be right on a fundamental level and opposition to these values is considered fundamentally wrong. They're not policies which have a background and require explanation, these are ideals which you either 'get' or you don't.

And to be honest, seeing liberalism in that way as a moral philosophy goes a long way to explaining my own moral values. I'm not a particularly religious person. I have my religious beliefs of course but they don't play a big part in my life. And though I went to schools which had the typical softcore Anglican Christian backdrop (saying the Lord's Prayer and singing hymns in assembly) I never really derived any kind of sense of right and wrong from what I learnt about Christianity, or from what I learned about any other faith for that matter.

Instead, my sense of right and wrong, I would guess, came almost exclusively from my parents and from what I worked out for myself as I grew up. Nothing ground shaking but just simple things like "I don't like it when other people are mean to me so I shouldn't be mean to other people" and "it's unfair that that person gets something more than everyone else when they didn't do anything to deserve it".

And when I became politically aware I ultimately became a Liberal Democrat because I instinctively felt that the values and principles of the party matched what I already believed. To put it another way, I just "got" what liberalism was about without needing it explained. It just seemed obvious to me.

The thing is, no doubt it's the same for devout (and I use that word in every possible sense of it) followers of other parties.

Conservatism isn't just a political manifesto, it's a moral philosophy which is about individualism - you shouldn't expect others to help you or worry about others outside your own group, you should just put your own interests first and if you want something you should earn it yourself. If you don't get what you want or are struggling then it's your own fault for not working hard enough.

Fundamentally, conservatism is about a selfish, self-reliance. And that's something I will never get. I will never be able to agree with the conservative moral view of the world.

Similarly, labourism is about a sense of collective struggle. It's about belonging to a group and struggling to win more for your group against another group who are a threat to you (workers versus employers, progressives against conservatives, etc.) and about solidarity. It's about putting the interests of the group first even if that might mean treading on or occasionally restricting the preferences of some individuals within that group.

Again, that's something which I will never get. I will never be able to get on board with that as I see the authoritarian and controlling aspect of it as morally wrong.

So this, I think, goes a long way to explaining the bitterness and tribalism of political arguments because, on the face of it, they don't make sense. Different political parties can quite frequently agree on the same compromise policy even if they have different reasons for doing so so why are they so aggressive towards each other?

And the answer is that the different parties follow different moral philosophies. Their notions of right and wrong, their views of the world, disagree with each other on a fundamental level.

Bitter vitriol in a dispute over the best way to tackle unemployment might seem inexplicable but when you look at it as a clash between different sets of moral values then it suddenly becomes pretty easy to understand.

As for myself, I guess I'd probably describe my moral values as being about ensuring freedom for every individual to do what they like as long as it doesn't hurt others and to enable them to have this freedom by fighting against obstacles and restrictions they face. That and being about rationality - accepting impartial evidence about reality and not simply rejecting it when it doesn't fit with your prejudices.

Not that this is a claim that I'm morally superior by the way. Obviously I'm going to describe my own views with more positive language than views I disagree with no matter how hard I try to be neutral. And obviously I could be completely wrong.

But thinking about my political philosophy as a moral philosophy as well does probably explain why I can (if I'm being completely honest) get sanctimonious and holier-than-thou when I fundamentally disagree with people in an argument. Intellectually I can acknowledge I might be wrong but on a fundamental level I've got a conviction that my view is simply right while my opponent's is simply wrong.

Which does rather make me a hypocrite, come to think of it, particularly when tolerance is also one of my professed moral values. But, then again, our moral values tend to show up all of us as hypocrites I guess.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The UK: Only open for business if you're white

So today comes with the news that Theresa May, our glorious Home Secretary (eternal glory be upon her), is to start requiring all visitors to the UK from "high risk" countries to pay a £3,000 bond in order to enter the UK, refundable when they leave.

Sounds fine and dandy, right? Let's just see what counts as a "high risk" country...

...oh, I see. It means pretty much all of the African and Asian countries.

Now, aside from the racism of assuming that everyone from certain countries is automatically an immigration risk while those from other countries aren't an immigration risk at all, this is also spectacularly stupid from an economic point of view.

Take, for example, international students. Particularly those from Commonwealth counties like India and Nigeria.  They're English speaking so good UK universities are very attractive for them

Once here, not only do they prop up or higher education sector by paying extortionate fees, but they also often study high demand subjects where we have major skills shortages - such as science and engineering.

And if, like many students (booth domestic and international) they decide they want to stay in the place where they went to university, then we economically benefit from highly skilled graduates who help fill skill shortages and pay taxes yet are young and healthy enough not to cost us a lot in healthcare whilst having not cost us a penny to educate as children or as young adults.

Except now if they want to do that they'll have to stump up £3,000 cash first before they can even ever the country. So now they'll go to other countries instead and we'll lose out financially as a nation as we lose a key source of skilled workers and taxpayers.

Or consider a businesswoman in one of these  countries (countries which will soon eclipse us economically) looking to make an investment in the UK or to buy products from a UK company.

If she wants to come to the UK to negotiate a business deal or investment then she too will have to pay the bond just to get through customs. The very first message she'll get from us is that we're happy to take her money but we still think she's inherently untrustworthy and a potential criminal. Why on earth would she want to do business with us after that kind of an insult?

What's more, when one country places visa restrictions on citizens of another country, it is incredibly common for the other country to retaliate by introducing the same restrictions on visas for citizens of the first country. Which means that UK citizens wanting to do business in developing countries are likely to face the same obstacles in reverse - making it harder for us to do business in and with this century's new economic powerhouses.

In short, this kind of bond will severely limit our opportunities to do business with any other country which isn't an ageing, predominantly white countries with sluggish economic growth.

So much for the Tory claim that they want Britain to be open for business.

UPDATE: in fairness, I've been reminded that it was actually one Nicholas Clegg who originally voiced this idea. So it was wrong of me to give the tories all the credit when this Mr Clegg (whoever he might be) was clearly a major influence on this stereotypically tory example of idiocy.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Islam is the problem

Islam's the problem. That's what we're meant to say, right? After Woolwich and the soldier who was horrifically and despicably murdered in the street by two men the BBC described as being "of Muslim appearance"? Or are we meant to say it's not the fault of Islam but Muslims need to do more to root out the extremists in their midst? To distance themselves from it?

Well, pardon my French, but that's bullshit.

It might be what we hear every time this happens - what the media and politicians say, what Muslim "community representatives" say to try and avoid being tarred with the same brush (a futile effort as it happens anyway) - but that doesn't change the fact that it's bullshit.

When Anders Breivik murdered dozens of young people in Norway in the name of "European Christianity" he wasn't described by the media as being "of Christian appearance". The Archbishop of Canterbury didn't feel the need to take part in a press conference to point out that murdering kids isn't part of the Christian faith or endorsed in the Bible. The Norwegian Prime Minister didn't feel the need to give a press conference calling on the Christian community to do more to root out the extremists in their midst. Universities didn't start monitoring Christian student groups for extremism.

Despite the fact that my country, my home, the UK, has been subjected to (and is still subject to in Northern Ireland) a campaign of terror, which has killed far more people than Islamist terrorism in the UK ever has, in the name of Christian Catholicism and Protestantism, I have never been stereotyped as being "of Christian appearance" or felt obligated, as someone of a Christian background (even though I'm not Christian myself) to apologise publicly for these acts of terror.

When an elderly Muslim man was murdered on his way home in Birmingham earlier this month in a premeditated attack by a white man (e.g. of Christian appearance) no one cared. The media didn't show much interest. I wasn't judged, as a white person, as being partially responsible because the suspected killer came from "my community".

Because, fundamentally, this is an issue of racism and double standards. This is white privilege. I, and the EDL and the BNP and the paramilitaries of Northern Ireland, can commit violent crimes without my entire race being held responsible.

And don't pay any attention to those slimy bigots who try to say "it's not racist coz islam is a religion not a race" - when the BBC used the phrase "of Muslim appearance" we all knew exactly what they meant. It meant a brown person, probably with a beard. And we all know that because Islam is conflated with race in the eyes of most of us. Oh, we all know intellectually that white people can be Muslims but when we hear Muslim we instinctively think "brown person with skin darker than ours" - even when we know better.

That's nothing specifically wrong with white people - the human brain naturally thinks in stereotypes. But that doesn't mean we, as a community, should try and wriggle out of the fact that Islamophobia in this country, that the huge spike in anti-Muslim attacks this week, is tied to race.

If a Muslim commits a crime, especially a violent one, or one which hurts white people, the immediate reaction of the media, politicians and society itself is to assume that their faith is the cause - and to immediately dredge up all the tired old stereotypes about Islamic extremism as the narrative we use. If a white person does the same thing then the individual responsible is held to account - not their entire community.

When a policeman was murdered in Northern Ireland by Christians I didn't read about it and worry about strangers abusing me in the street because of it. My local church wasn't the subject of an arson attack. People didn't run up to me in the street and physically attack me or throw excrement at me.

Yet that's what happens, and has happened this week, to Muslims up and down this country. Our fellow Englishmen and fellow citizens, people who are patriotic, work hard and pay their taxes and never hurt anyone, have to worry about being attacked for daring to go out in public. Are collectively criticised for not doing more to stop violent acts that even the police and security services didn't see coming. Are debated around the dinner tables and in the newspaper columns of England as being alien "others" with people asking whether they are "incompatible" with our country.

And this despite the fact that the 6% Muslims in Europe [pdf file - look at page 15] are responsible for just 0.7% of the terrorist attacks which have taken place in recent years (most attacks are carried out by left wing extremists and by nationalist separatists). Despite the fact that Muslims are disproportionately likely to be patriotic and actively proud of being British. Despite the fact that the vast majority mosques and Islamic organisations go miles out of their way to speak out against extremism on a regular basis and bend over backwards to help the security find extremists.

The reality is that European and British and English Muslims do far more to tackle terrorism by a tiny minority in their midst than any other group - and especially white people like myself whose communities have no organised programmes to tackle "white extremism" in our churches, schools and communities (I've certainly never noticed or heard of any).

And that's because, as I said, we have white privilege. We are treated as individuals. Muslims are treated as a group with every member being partially responsible for the actions of every other member. That's one of the many double standards that corrupt our society. And that's the same double standard that has led to some of the worst atrocities in European history.

If the kind of articles being written and speeches being made right now about Muslims were being made about any other group, specifically Jews or black people, we would see them as the senseless bigotry and stereotyping they truly are.

So, as a white person, I apologise to this country, particularly to Muslims. I apologise for the actions of my community. I'm sorry that the lessons of two thousand years of genocide and pogroms and racism still have not been learned. I'm sorry you are forced to defend your faith and distance yourself from the actions of two lone individuals who you knew nothing of until they committed their horrific crime. I'm sorry your places of worship are attacked and vandalised. I'm sorry that you are subject to the constant threat of violence and verbal abuse in the street.

And I distance myself from those who display prejudice towards Muslims and blame innocent people for the actions of completely separate lone individuals. The EDL and the media and the commentariat and the politicians and the dinner party conversations do not speak for all white people. And the racism and prejudice and stereotyping on display is in no way compatible with the values of tolerance and equality and progress espoused by the white community.

However, while the EDL might be only a small minority of the white community, I must express my shame and sorry that the wider prejudice and bigotry that makes their existence possible is probably currently true of the majority of white people.

And I ask for your tolerance and understanding as we upstanding members of the white community try to root out and eradicate the extremism and prejudice in our midst.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The problem with the Lib Dem coalition strategy

I just want to draw everyone's attention to this brilliant post over on the Social Liberal Forum which brilliantly highlights the problem with the current Lib Dem approach to coalition. Here's a quote but you should definitely go and read the original post in full:
I don’t mean that it’s not a good idea to restrain the Tories. Of course it is. I don’t mean that activists don’t like to hear this. Of course they do. 
But the party’s key messages have to be those that are relevant to, and strike a chord with, the wider audience. And the wider audience will simply not be won over by this Tory taming narrative. 
Let’s take a rather crude example. 
Imagine David Cameron, George Osborne and the lot of them with a litter of kittens. The room is full of piteous mewing. But the Tories don’t want the pesky things. Imagine David is about to wield the knife and kill every single little one of them. 
Nick Clegg bravely steps in. “At least spare some of the kittens” he says. 
So instead of all ten going under, three are spared and scamper away somewhere. 
The problem is most people, and certainly most of our potential voters, don’t want to kill any kittens at all. And we have just become complicit in felicide. What is more newsworthy, the seven dead ones or the others?
So the message has an obvious weakness.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The real Lib Dem position on an EU referendum

So, what with UKIP surging in the polls (despite having donors and elected representatives who are frequently misogynists and/or racists), the Tories imploding over an EU referendum (and comments which may or may not have been made by one of Cameron's chums) and the Lib Dems being asked about our manifesto "pledge" of an EU referendum, I've decided to cut through the spin and present an honest assessment of the Lib Dem position on an EU referendum:

Our position in brief

We're pro EU but we want an in-out referendum the next time there's a major transfer of powers from the UK to the EU (though we don't think that's ever going to happen). But we don't really want an in/out referendum either because we're scared we'd lose and we're not really entirely convinced about the merits of referendums for that matter.

Does this position sound barmy? Well, yes it is. But it does actually make sense for reasons which I will now explain.

Lib Dems like the EU

Yup, it's true. As a party we mainly tend to support the EU in principle - mainly because we're a rational bunch who look rationally at the realities of the situation (basically, to find the reality, just assume that it's the exact opposite of what the UK press tells you about the EU) and have worked out that, on balance, we get more from EU membership than we'd get from not having EU membership and that membership is the best thing for our national interest.

Plus, we're also traditionally internationalists who believe in different nations working together for their common interest and so naturally tend to support concepts like those behind the EU.

That doesn't mean that we don't recognise that there are problems with the EU which we'd like to change - in fact, most of our MEPs spend a lot of their time successfully pushing for changes in things like the Common Agricultural Policy - but we tend to take the view that we're better off in and that we should be working towards improving the EU rather than quitting it all together.

We're scared about admitting we like the EU

This is an ongoing problem with the Lib Dems. We have these wonderful principled, common sense positions  on various issues which are all backed up with detailed policy ...which we then promptly hide from site and never speak of in public in case it puts people off.

See, the fact is that all polls indicate that the majority (albeit a small majority) of people don't like the EU. Which, to be fair, isn't surprising when you consider the outright lies the British press prints about the EU on a non-stop basis.

And, despite the fact that there's a sizeable minority who do support EU membership (a minority which is much larger than the minority that votes for us, incidentally), we tend to be a bit scared, as a party, of admitting our real views on Europe in public in case we scare people away.

Though we're getting better at being honest and plain spoken about our views, there is still very much a tendency to try and dress up our policies, or use forms of wording, in a way that we hope won't alienate eurosceptics. Of course, no one believes this for a second, but it does explain why we have policies like an in/out referendum in the event of a future transfer of powers which we don't realistically think is ever going to happen.

We like democracy...

Referendums. Wonderful, right? We're a democratic party and a referendum on EU membership where we ask everyone what they think would be very democratic so we should support having a referendum and then campaign to stay in the EU during the referendum. Right?

...but we're not convinced a referendum would be democratic

We used to very much like the idea of referendums. In fact, for everything we weren't convinced we could some day win enough seats in parliaments to do, a referendum was the answer - exhibit A: a referendum on proportional representation.

But then in 2011 we had the AV referendum (which was not, I hasten to add, a referendum on proportional representation). And we lost. Humiliatingly.

This, in no small part, was thanks to the incompetence of the Yes campaign, but it was also a result of a campaign where the truth didn't get a word in edgeways. To give you an example, the No campaign made a big thing of their claim that AV would cost £250 million and kept on pushing that line right up until, and throughout, the day of the referendum itself. Yet, on the eve of the vote, David Blunkett, a prominent backer of the No campaign, came out and admitted the claim was a complete fabrication.

So, given how easy it apparently is for lies to be spread to distort the debate in a referendum, a lot of Lib Dems are no longer convinced that a referendum on the EU would lead to an informed choice based on the facts and think it's more likely that it might well be a decision based on lies and misinformation. Which is a big deal for us because we tend to think that the evidence overwhelmingly lies in favour of EU membership so anything that prevented the evidence from being heard could well result in a vote to leave the EU which we think would be bad for the UK.

We were opportunistic in opposition

When the Lisbon Treaty was up for debate in parliament, there were a lot of people who thought it should be put to a referendum. As a party, we might have voted for a referendum on it in parliament but there were a fair few Lib Dem grandees who threatened to publicly object and possibly quit the party if we did so. So, instead, we proposed and voted for an amendment for a full in/out referendum instead because it let us hit the tories and labour over the head with it whilst having absolutely no chance of being accepted by parliament.

But that then left us with a dilemma  We made much of that vote in our local election literature in order to try and win over some eurosceptics to vote for us (with precious little success) and then along came a general election and we had to find a way to explain our position. So we committed ourselves to a referendum the next time there was a major change in the relationship between the UK and Europe.

This was, actually, a consistent position, which we'd held all along, but it was also a disingenuous one since it let us make a pitch to the eurosceptics for votes as being the "one party that could be trusted to deliver a referendum" whilst also being a position which meant that, in reality, we'd never have to actually hold a referendum and risk losing because there'd never be a change in our relationship with the EU that was big enough to justify one.

And hence our position

And so here we are. We've got a position that's been consistent and which does follow a valid line of logic - but it's a disingenuous one at the same time because it's not a realistic reflection of what we think about Europe.

The odds are that, in 2015, we'll drop the pledge all together (after all, if we're going to have a referendum on Europe then why not one on NATO, the UN, the IMF, the WHO, etc, etc). I mean, that'd certainly be what the bulk of our members would prefer.

However, what I'd quite like is if, and the European elections next year would be a good time to do this, we were actually to finally make the positive case for Europe and try and win over the large minority of people who agree with us on this issue as opposed to running scared of our real beliefs.

Because the simple truth about the Lib Dem position is that it's one which has involved no lies, one which has been consistent, one which we can self-righteously defend, but at the same time is only that in a political sense of carefully wording things in such a way that you can't be caught out but can try and win votes by appearing to promise things you're not.

In short, it's a position which has involved no lies or deceit, but I doubt it's one which most normal people would rush to label as "honest" either.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Where I've been

So it's been over a month since I last posted on here. There are two good reasons for that: the first is that I'm lazy and the second is that I've been busy.

Glossing over the first one, here's what I've been busy with:

Coursework and writing my dissertation - over the last month and a half I've had two massive pieces of coursework to do, plus a dissertation to write. The coursework was finished off just over a week ago and the dissertation was finished yesterday and handed in pretty much just before the deadline - I have an unfortunate tendency to cut things fine I'm afraid.

Still, it's done and handed in, which means a massive weight has suddenly disappeared from my shoulders. I've still got to do a viva voca on it mind you, where I'll have to academically defend my dissertation, but that's a lot less pressure than writing the dissertation was. The subject of my dissertation, incidentally, was using electropermanent magnets to hold spacecraft together when they're docked. Electropermanent magnets are pretty cool - they were only invented in 2011 and they're basically programmable magnets which you can switch on and off and which don't use any power in either state. Though, unfortunately for me, the ones I built didn't work so my dissertation is basically just 40 pages of me talking about how they didn't work and why I think that is.

Local Elections - on the 2nd of May we had the county elections in Surrey and I was standing for Shalford division. Originally a Tory seat where no one else had a chance of winning, the local Conservatives made the embarrassing mistake and failed to hand their candidate's papers in on time. So a supposedly "unwinnable" seat for the Lib Dems suddenly became a two-horse race between myself and UKIP - and kept me very busy as a result!

While I really enjoyed the campaign in Shalford and doing the best I could to convince voters to back to me, the UKIP candidate unfortunately won and became UKIP's first county councillor in Guildford borough. Still, I got a respectable 1,023 votes (one of the highest totals for the Lib Dems in Shalford ever) and I think we've laid a solid groundwork for next time round so I'm mostly satisfied with the results. Winning would have been nice of course but the voters know best and I'm just proud that so many people voted for me.

Plus my local Lib Dem county councillors in Guildford all held onto their seats and we successfully defended a seat on the borough council in a by-election on the same day as the county elections. So, all in all, I couldn't help but smiling at the count despite losing - which was fortunate as apparently footage of me and my UKIP opponent was used on the news (I didn't see it myself but loads of people I know have told me they did).

The full election results, incidentally, can be found here.

A trip to Estonia - at the end of February I spent three days in Tallinn, Estonia with Liberal Youth at the European Liberal Youth (LYMEC) congress. It was a blast, first time I've ever been abroad under my own steam and I had great fun meeting people from all over Europe and seeing the sights in Tallinn. The congress was great fun as well - the UK delegation did very well in getting more social liberal amendments to various policy resolutions and I made quite a few speeches in the debates which, if I do say so myself, were rather passionate.

In fact, they were so passionate that a Dutch liberal (actually a libertarian who didn't think the government should do anything beyond providing the judicial system and infrastructure) accused me of being a "communist "and "behaving like the Chinese" - and this just for saying that I thought there was scope for governments sometimes investing in their economies to stimulate growth.

On the other hand, I pointed out that my party invented liberalism and that I could confirm first hand that there was nothing communist about supporting the role of the government in encouraging economic growth - not to mention that British liberals had held that view since before socialism was even heard of! Oddly, the Dutch liberal in question didn't seem particularly impressed by that but a lot of the Nordic liberals appeared to agree with me and voted for our amendment, getting it passed, so I can't complain.

And so... - and so that's what I've been busy with. It's a real shame I've been busy with all of that since a lot of things have happened in the past month and a half (UKIP, the Conservatives finally going completely insane, etc.) that I'd really have liked to blog about. In fact, I've ended up staying away from my blog because thinking about not writing anything has made me feel guilty!

But all the stuff that's been keeping me busy is over with now. I mean, I still have exams to worry about, but those aren't quite so totally time consuming as election campaigns/my dissertation were. Hopefully I'll now be able to resume a regular blogging schedule. Sorry for not being able to do so until now. And thanks to any of my regular readers who've stuck around despite my unexplained absence :)

Monday, 8 April 2013

What rape culture is and why it matters

This is crossposted from the LY Libertine who this piece was written for.

TRIGGER WARNING: This article includes descriptions, pictures and discussion of topics which may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.

I'm putting pen to paper (figuratively speaking anyway) today to talk about rape culture. Rape culture is an important subject - particularly for young people (for reasons I'll come to later) - and yet very few people will have heard of it.

In this article I intend to explain what rape culture is and why it matters - and I hope you'll have the patience to bear with me and read the entire article.

What is rape culture?

(Good basic guides to rape culture can be found here and here).

Unfortunately, there is no single definition for rape culture. However, it can be described - and examples of it can be found all around us in our society and all around the world.

At it's heart, rape culture is a system of beliefs and customs which encourage and supports sexual violence and rape. Women are usually the most common victims of rape culture but men can are the victims of it too.

Since that sound rather clinical, let me give some examples of what it really means, starting with the most recent, prominent, example, the Steubenville rape case.

Rape culture is where two young men kidnap, rape and urinate on a 16 year old girl who is to drunk to even know what is going on - let alone consent to sexual activity. Rape culture is where dozens of witnesses watch this occur and no one says "stop". Rape culture is where those same witnesses film and photograph what's going on and share the pictures and photos on social media. Rape culture is where those dozens of witnesses refuse to come forwards to give evidence when the rape is reported. Rape culture is where the rape is reported to adults and they choose not to do anything because the young men say "nothing happened". Rape culture is where the coaches of the young men involved joke about it, sweep it under the rug and still get to keep their jobs. Rape culture is where the two young men are finally convicted, with evidence they themselves recorded, and the mainstream media coverage focuses on what a tragedy it is that the young men's athletic careers have been dashed by their crimes - as though they were the victims. Oh, and when the mainstream media also avoid mentioning the rapists' names but mention the 16 year old victim's name on television.

Rape culture is when the response to the convictions is for hundreds of people to take to social media to call the victim a "whore" and a "slut". Rape culture is when, despite video evidence of what happened, those same people blame the victim for what happened and say that she was "asking for it" and where the victim receives death threats. Rape culture is this:

Hat tip to this article which you should definitely go and read in full right now.
I'll come back to it later but that's just a recent example.

Rape culture is where 70,000 women and 9,000 men a year in the UK are raped and only 1,070 rapists are convicted. Rape culture is where a man being raped by a woman is automatically considered amusing. Rape culture is where rape victims are automatically asked "are you sure it was rape?" in a way that no one would ask victims of other crimes like muggings or burglaries.

Rape culture is where 1 in 4 women experience rape or an attempted rape in their lifetimes and hundreds of thousands of women have been sexually touched or molested in some way in their lives so many times (you should seriously follow that link and read the article and the comments) that it scarcely gets mentioned. Rape culture is where the fear and threat of being raped or sexually assaulted governs the daily movements of most women. You should read this as well.

Rape culture is where it was legal in England and Wales for a man to rape his wife right up until 1991 (1982 in Scotland).

Rape culture is where a British judge says that a ten year old girl is to blame for her rape by a 24 year old man. Rape culture is when a court rules that even if she is being hurt or has changed her mind a woman is not allowed to withdraw consent after being penetrated.

Rape culture is where women are told that if they are raped while dressed a certain way then it's their fault. Rape culture is where it is assumed that men cannot stop themselves from raping someone if they are wearing a short skirt. Rape culture is where almost all rape prevention campaigns focus on telling women to modify their behaviour as though it's their behaviour which is to blame if they get raped.


Rape culture is where the stereotype of rape is where a victim is violently overpowered and raped in an alley by a stranger before reporting it immediately - despite the fact that women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger and despite the fact that women are nine times more likely to be raped in their own home or the home of someone they know than in the street.

Rape culture is the widely believed myth that there is a typical way to behave after being raped - rather than the understanding that responses to rape are as varied as its victims and that, immediately following a rape, some victims go into shock; some are lucid; some are angry; some are ashamed; some are stoic; some are erratic; some want to report it; some don’t; some will act out; some will crawl inside themselves; some will have healthy sex lives; some never will again.

Rape culture is where it is impossible to have a discussion on the topic of rape without the issue of false accusations being raised and presented as though it were a major problem - rather than false accusations making up a smaller percentage of cases, 1.6%, than they do with almost any other kind of crime and despite the fact that 61% of rapes go unreported.

Rape culture is where a footballer and his friend rape woman obviously too drunk to consent while two other friends film it and then, following their conviction, the victim is verbally abused and has her identity revealed by dozens of people on twitter and a team mate of the rapist calls the victim a "money grabbing tramp".

Rape culture is where rape is used and encouraged as a weapon of war and a tool of genocide and oppression - as it was in Europe in the Yugoslav wars and Kosovo in the 90s and as it is being used in countries around the world right now like Darfur or the Congo where tens of thousands of women have been raped by foreign militias and their own government's army. Rape culture is where gang rape is used as to "cure" queer women or where men with HIV are told that raping a virgin will cure them.

Why does rape culture matter?

The last section was pretty long so I'll keep this section as brief as possible (which isn't easy when discussing a topic as multifaceted as this). Rape culture matters for many reasons but the most important one is that it feeds and causes an environment where people are not safe and where rapists are able to get away with their crimes and act with the tacit approval of society.

Remember the Steubenville case I mentioned earlier? Well one of those witnesses I mentioned became involved after tricking the car keys away from a drunk friend of his in order to prevent him from drink driving - so far so responsible. But then he walked into one of the multiple locations where the rape took place and witnesses the victim lying on the floor, unconscious and half naked while one of the rapists slapped her thigh with his penis. The witness laughed awkwardly and left.

That's why rape culture matters. It matters because a teenager knew enough to say "no, I'm not going to let someone drink drive because drink driving is bad and can harm people" but didn't do anything to stop sexual assault and rape happening right in front of his eyes. And not just this teenager but all the other witnesses there. We live in a culture and a society where we have effectively communicated the message that drink driving is bad but haven't effectively communicated that you should try to stop rape if you see it happening right in front of you.

It matters because, upon the conviction of the rapists in the Steubenville case, one of the rapists apologised for taking pictures of the rape - but not for the rape itself. And the father of the rapist then went on record as saying that he didn't consider his son a rapist - despite the incontrovertible video and photographic evidence that he himself had seen shown in court and that his son had helped produce.

It matters because the Steubenville case isn't unique - 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 and often the abusers are other young people. It matters because cases of sexual assault and rape happen all the time, often in ways similar to the Steubenville case, yet most of the time they go unreported and the rapists go free without even being charged - not least because such conclusive photographic evidence as in Steubenville is very rarely available.

Rape culture matters because rapes take place and, on many occasions, someone could have intervened and stopped it but failed to do so. Rape culture matters because 1 in 20 male university students have raped or attempted to rape someone (63% of the 1 in 20 had committed an average of six each) and 1 in 5 female undergraduates have experienced an actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.

Rape culture matters because someone is raped every six minutes, because 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, because only 17% of rapes are reported to police and because 50% of rapes are pre-planned.

Rape culture matters because it is the reason that these things happen. Whilst almost everyone knows, or should know, that no means no, it doesn't take much detailed questioning to find out that that understanding breaks down and that a lot of people don't understand or refuse to accept the legal definition of rape/sexual assault - any sexual activity where one of the people involved does not actively consent. Yet many people will argue, for example, including George Galloway MP, that having sex with someone who is asleep (and therefore unable to consent) isn't rape. And there are plenty more other examples. These widespread misconceptions are part of the reason that rapes happen - a lot of rapists genuinely do not consider their actions to be rape.

But a far more pervasive, and urgent, aspect of rape culture for young people is what is commonly referred to as "lad culture".

This isn't the same thing as being someone who happens to like sport and drinking by the way. This is a culture which is seen at it's worst in lads mags and in websites like unilad.com. These are publications which are littered with casual sexism and a truly shocking approach to consent. For example, a study at my own university recently found that it was impossible for people to tell the difference between quotes from lads mags and quotes from interviews with rapists.

As two examples:
You do not want to be caught red-handed . . . go and smash her on a park bench. That used to be my trick. - Rapist 
I think girls are like plasticine, if you warm them up you can do anything you want with them. - Rapist
Pretty disturbing right? Now let's see what the lads mags said... oh, wait, sorry, I got that wrong. Both of those quotes above are actually from lads mags.

And that's the problem - people read these things which tell them that women are gagging for a bit of rough sex and that they might resist at first but if they're forceful then the women will end up loving it. Which then leads to some people, not all, but some, going around thinking that that's true. Which in turn is a recipe for sexual assault - particularly when, for example, someone might be in a vulnerable state such as having had a bit too much to drink.

Now let's look at unilad - the website voted "number 1 lads mag for students" and with half a million likes for its facebook page. A website which doesn't talk about women, a website which almost exclusively talks about "wenches”, “hoes”, “clunge”, “skank”, “sloppy seconds”, “pussy”, “tramp”, “chick”, “bird”, “milf”, “slut” and “gash”. Which is completely dehumanising language which turns women into nothing more than targets for sex - 'prey' for want of a better description.

That alone is bad enough. But it also runs articles like one saying that "85% of rapes go unreported. That seems to be pretty good odds" and which come up with point scoring systems for things like inserting a finger into a woman's vagina on the dancefloor. Pretty unpleasant, right? But it gets worse, it also has had articles about things like competitions to grab a woman, say "I'm going to rape you" and then seeing how long they can hold onto them for.

That, quite simply, is assault. It's terrifying for the victims concerned and yet you have entire websites which just see this as a bit of a laugh and talk about it as such.

The fact is that sexual assault is now scarily common place - a lot of female students will have stories to tell about either themselves or one of their friends being the victim of groping or an attempted sexual assault. Yet at the same time you get massively popular websites and a widespread culture saying that all of this is just "banter" which they should laugh off.

And the fact is that people are constantly subconsciously influenced by things around them. Reading websites like unilad doesn't automatically turn people into rapists - but it subconsciously reinforces the kind of attitudes which do lead to rape and helps provide self-justifications to rapists as well as creating a culture where people who complain about rape and sexual assault are dismissed and told to "laugh it off". And a culture where women are told that they should "laugh off" attempted sexual assault is fundamentally wrong.

Which brings me to rape jokes. There are so, so, so many rape jokes about. Lots of students tell them. I told them myself during my first couple of years at uni. And, as someone who's never been in a position of feeling vulnerable to sexual assault myself, it never occurred to me just how creepy and scary those jokes must have been to women in our social groups - particularly when there were more men than women in said groups. And it never occurred to me that some of them might well have been rape survivors who would have been reminded of their experiences every time somebody told such a joke - or how isolated it would have made them feel when people were laughing about the kind of things that had happened to them.

But the real problem is that jokes like "It's not rape if she doesn't have the chance to say no" help feed a culture where myths about rape are commons - such as that it really isn't rape if someone doesn't say no, rather than it being rape if they fail to give active consent to what's happening. Those kind of jokes are one of the reasons why we get MPs like George Galloway thinking that it's not rape to have sex with someone who's unconscious. Additionally, when you laugh about something, it helps you think of it as being less serious - how can we take rape seriously as something which is despicable and yet at the same time laugh about it? It's like

And, what's more, sexual predators and sexual predators, hear such jokes from their friends and take it as validation for their actions. There's hard evidence that, for example, sexist/racist jokes increase people's tolerance for and likelihood to commit sexist/racist acts themselves. So, similarly, rape jokes can help rapists justify their violence and their disrespect for their victims. It helps them dehumanise their victims and find their actions amusing. It sends a message that society doesn't abhor what they do - it sends a message that society thinks it's just a bit of a laugh. What's more - rapists genuinely believe that all other men rape which is how they justify their actions to themselves. They're not predators that everyone abhors, they're just the same as all other men. This is absolute rubbish, of course, but they can believe that because things like other people joking about rape help support their delusion that they're doing nothing different from what all other men do.

That's the fundamental problem with rape culture. It exists and, while it doesn't turn people into rapists, it does make it much easier for rapists to get away with it, makes it easier for rapists to justify their actions to themselves, makes it harder for victims to speak out about what happened to them, and it fosters a sexist culture where victim blaming and the view of rape as something normal or funny is far more common than it should be. Instead of a culture that discourages rape, rape culture at best turns a blind eye to it and at worst encourages it.

What do we do about it?

I'm a feminist. I abhor rape culture. But, at the same time, you can't ban rape culture. You can't pass a law against it. You can't censor the way people think and what they say. You can't even demand that websites like unilad be taken down as much as you might like them to.

But you can speak up about it. Just as unilad has a right to freedom of speech to say horrible, sexist, offensive, misogynist things, we have a right to freedom of speech to call them out on it. We have a right to challenge people reinforcing rape culture. We have the right to say that, actually, rape jokes aren't funny or socially acceptable. We have the right to insist on better education about sex and consent and relationships in  schools. We have the right to ask for rape prevention campaigns which focus on the rapists rather than telling  victims what they should do to avoid being raped. We have the right to say that we don't agree with rape culture and to explain to people what it is and why and how it hurts people.

We have the right to say that we believe rape victims and that we will support them and stand up for them when other people try to blame them for what happened to them.

We also have the right to boycott publications which encourage rape culture and the advertisers which support them and to call on others to do the same.

And, above all, we have the right, and the duty, to make sure that when we something like the Steubenville case happening right in front of us that we have the courage to step in and stop it rather than cowardly standing by. And we have the duty to make sure that we encourage our friends and family and, when the time comes, our children, to make sure that they do the same.

Thanks for bearing with me throughout this lengthy piece. And thanks for reading it.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Conservative Party - still the nasty party

There's already a lot of outrage on the internet by the Daily Mail deciding to scream a narrative that Mick Philpott (the violent partner who burned six of his kids to death in a plot to get revenge on an ex) is somehow the product of our welfare system. Which, in addition to absolving Philpott of any responsibility for his crimes, is despicable in saying that this individual monster is somehow reflective of everyone who claims benefits - not to mention is hypocritical in the extreme given that the same edition of the Fail had an article about a millionaire who murdered his family yet who wasn't seen by the newspaper as being symptomatic of all millionaires.

But today's blog post isn't about that because, let's be frank, nothing is too low for a newspaper which supported the fascists prior to World War II and who ran vicious polemic complaining about European Jews fleeing the Holocaust coming to Britain. No, today's blog post is about this:


The above is a compilation of screenshots from today's ConservativeHome.

In short, the Conservative party, led by George Osborne (our beloved Chancellor of the Exchequer and all round fuckwit), saw the Daily Mail's disgusting demonisation of everyone in receipt of benefits and decided to raise them by going on a full on offensive saying that the welfare state (which, you know, exists to make sure that vulnerable people don't starve to death) is to blame for producing Philpott and we should all be jolly concerned about it. (Subtext: and we'd give the welfare system a bally sorting-out if it weren't for those pesky Lib Dems blocking us, so make sure you vote for us next time.)

Now this alone, is to be expected, because, after all, Conservative MPs are normally vicious scumbags anyway.

But what really goes the extra mile is ConservativeHome talking about this as a cunning "trap" for Labour (hohoho - aren't we Tories clever?) as when Labour disagree with Osborne blaming the entire welfare system for the actions of one man, the tories now rush to smear them as "taking the same side as Philpott".

Excuse me? I have no love for Labour - they've spent fifty years betraying the poorest and the most vulnerable - but when someone disagrees with tarring everyone on benefits with the same brush as a particularly evil toerag that DOES NOT EQUAL defending the aforementioned evil toerag.

And what this shows is, quite perfectly, the utterly despicable true nature of the Conservative party. Man burns six of his kids to death in a deliberately set housefire - "hmmm, how can we find a way to politicise this to hurt our opponents and find fuel for our ideological opposition to providing a basic safety net for people living in poverty?" That's their mindset. Not one comment about the tragedy of it, not one shred of decency to stop and think that maybe, just maybe, dead children should not be used for political pointscoring.

I'll also say this: my father, who served in the armed forces, claimed child benefit for my brother and I when we were growing up and it made a big difference for all of us in terms of helping us get by after my mother died. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, my father has never burned anyone to death in a deliberately set housefire. For the tories to smear everyone claiming child benefits, including my father, by insinuating they're part and parcel of the same "benefit lifestyle" bollocks, which they claim produced Philpott, is disgusting and morally offensive.

I'm incredibly angry about this which is why I've used swear words on this blog for the first time in a while. But I'll stop here and leave the last words to the Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather who I don't normally agree with but got this particular issue spot on:
I am shocked and appalled that George Osborne has stooped so low as to make a crude political point out of the tragic deaths of six young children. It’s one thing for a tabloid newspaper to make unsophisticated, clumsy political arguments, quite another for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to join in. 
It is deeply irresponsible for such a senior politician to seek to capitalise on public anger about this case, and in doing so demonise anybody who receives any kind of welfare support. Mr Philpott should be held fully accountable for his awful actions and it is reprehensible to seek to explain it away by blaming the welfare system which Osborne has been so happy to wage war on. 
On Tuesday, when answering a question about living on £53 a week, Osborne said that it’s not sensible to reduce the debate to an argument about one individual’s set of circumstances. It makes you wonder what has changed in 48 hours.