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Monthly Archives: September 2008

‘If Boris dropped dead tomorrow, I’d run.’

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‘Has Johnson any politics? No. We thought he did, and that was based on a collection of crazed neocon rubbish he wrote for the Telegraph.’ The truth, according to Ken Livingstone, is far worse.

‘What’s apparent now is that Boris only believes that people like Boris should run the earth. There’s no political position he’s not prepared to surrender in order to stay powerful. And that makes him very dangerous. In a situation where the far right, for example, could deliver him power, he’d have no hesitation in pandering to them.’

I meet Ken Livingstone in his new office – a window table in a Hampstead branch of Costa Coffee – and he is more than keen to chat. And not just about Boris. We talk about economics, about China and India and the organisation of gender-roles before metalworking developed. Ken talks and talks and his kind blue eyes twinkle and I feel faintly like I’m about to be invited to attend wizard school. And speaking of school –

‘I’m writing my autobiography at present, and I’ve just got to the part where I’m about seventeen. It’s horrendous stuff. I remember always being the weedy kid at school, always coming in on the mile run second last, just in front of the fat one. My sports teachers all seemed to be rehabilitated Nazi war criminals who believed that humiliation was a good way to make us improve. It wasn’t.’

Ken may be writing his memoirs, but the constant calls from his PA and pile of complex charts balanced on the tiny table doesn’t look very much like retirement to me. For more on Livingstone’s comeback plans and projects for the activist left, read the full interview in Red Pepper very shortly.

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As I write, stock markets are falling all over themselves like City boys outside Spearmint Rhinos at 3 am, and the USA seems to have fucked us all over quite royally by a 23-vote margin. Let me express my sincerest hope that you and I still have jobs in the morning.

Comic 5!

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Script by PR, art by Withiel, lettering by Twitch. Apologies for tardiness – there was no way to upload this whilst I was at Conference! x

The people’s flag is palest pink…

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Genitals, Ladymen, comrades, compatriots and fraternizers:

I’ve been at the Labour Party Conference for two days and my back and brain are aching. The sweet scent of power and privilege overwhelms the subtle breeze of socialism blowing through the hallways. Everybody knows that the party needs a new direction, and some people are even starting to say it out loud: what Hazel Blears MP yesterday called ‘the unsayable’. The fact that Labour is ‘not about altruism, or philanthropy, but about personal advancement and gain for working people’ – for those poorer social groups who are now leaving the party in droves for the Tories and the BNP. Labour is not about the good-hearted rich giving out sweeties – it’s about the people making a better deal for themselves. And now the party has retreated to Westminster, the cost of abandoning its communities is racking up. One councillor from Stoke, a new BNP heartland where skills are amongst the lowest in the country and where the Labour presence dropped from 60 to 16 seats at the last election, noted at a debate yesterday: ‘we can have all the policies we like, but if we’re not out there knocking on doors, then the BNP will be.’

The Comrade Did Not Mention Socialism!

…is what John Denham MP wanted someone to yell out from the audience, but nobody did. I’m tempted to do it myself this afternoon when Millie gets up to talk about foreign policy, but I’m on the mikes for that event and I like my job.

Last night I went to a party, drank four glasses of free champagne and compared dresses with important political ladies for a set period of time before going outside to smoke with the other interns and attempt to throw up my own lungs in a paroxysm of horror. What on earth happened to the Labour party? What happened?

(I spent the rest of the evening shouting about the RMT to Boris’ transport minister and attempting to get people to stand on chairs with me and sing ‘the red flag’. I’m not sure I’ll be invited back.)

At every event they’re edging closer to coming out and admitting that Labour has abandoned the grassroots. Peering out from their glittering Westminster bubble, even the chummy delegates and media flunkies here in Manchester are starting to get a little bit worried. If they don’t mobilise, if they don’t involve the communities and do more to address the needs of the people who vote for them and buy their newspapers, the number of expensive dinners on their horizon looks to significantly dwindle.
All this gets forgotten, of course, as soon as Club Miliband arrives at any given venue. The thrill of celebrity is thick on the air from the moment the security detail arrives, and even the bomb-squad sniffer dogs have been scampering up and down the halls with excitement (either it’s excitement or there’s something they’re just not telling us). Everywhere he speaks, crowds of hopeful delegates and camera crews follow in his godly wake, waiting, just waiting for him to say something new. Anything new. Something hopeful, something fitting from the son of the man who wrote ‘The State in Capitalist Society’. But no, there was nothing. Just a Blairite turn of phrase and Millie was away, avoiding the awkward questions with the flair of a schoolboy trained for power. He’s shaved off the stupid little moustache, but he’s still no Barack Obama.
We used to be more than this, and I’m coming to realise that it’s this very thing – the glitter and privilege of power – that’s been thrown in our eyes, divorcing us from our principles and our roots. In the week that big business was sent to the naughty step, in the week that the Telegraph – the Telegraph! – wondered if maybe Marx was right all along, let’s remember where socialist politics began and what they were for. Let’s remember that before it’s far too late.

Stripping the Tories

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Luckily enough for the Tory party, quite a few international markets went boom on the day that this story broke. Strip club vouchers offering discounts for Tory delegates, in with the brochure for the upcoming Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.
Let’s not wallow around in anyone’s gloopy moral residue. Sex work isn’t nice work, but it isn’t immoral, and a visit to a strip club is simply a statement that you are happy to cash in on the privileges of your wealth and gender in the most sickly self-indulgent of ways, and that you are comfortable enough in that privilege that you don’t mind buying other people’s bodies for your personal sexual gratification in a room full of your colleagues. Hey, there’s a big market for that sort of thing, and markets, as we’ve all been reminded this week, are amoral, not necessarily immoral. Markets merely allow the flow of wealth and power to seep a little more smoothly towards the top. And hey, since it’s the annual Tory piss-up and we’re all very pleased with ourselves, why not flaunt that philosophy, especially if, in the words of Ian Taylor of Marketing Birmingham, the vouchers were ‘produced to help maximise the economic impact for local businesses’.

What angers me about this sordid little story isn’t the fact that Tory MPs might enjoy visiting strip clubs. Statistics suggest that well-paid, powerful white men will number most patrons of these newly-licensed ‘entertainment establishments‘ (A legal loophole means that since the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 lap dancing clubs currently only require a Premises Licence for the sale of alcohol to operate, despite being part of the commercial sex industry. The number of lap dancing clubs across the UK is estimated to have doubled since 2004). There is always, always going to be a market for the more culturally and fiscally powerful to buy sex. What adds insult to time-worn injury, however, is the fact that it’s a buyer’s market. This was not an advertisement, but a voucher: a voucher offering conservative delegates a 66% reduction in entry price to Birmingham’s Rocket Club.

Now, these are bloody hard-working girls. The women who staff strip-clubs and brothels don’t do it for kicks, whatever the makers of Secret Diary of A Call Girl may say. They do it for the money, and they earn every penny of that money by laying the most intimate parts of their personhood on the line and risking their physical and mental health every day within a profession that earns them ostracization from friends and family. These women deserve better than to be offered up as discounted goods. These women deserve to be treated with respect.

In the vast majority of cases, women don’t become sex workers – prostitutes, lap-dancers, streetwalkers, strippers or porn stars – for the kicks. No, they do it for the money. They do it because there is simply no other way to earn that scale of living wage as a woman under 30 in the current UK job-market. In the Guardian today, most commenters seemed to miss the point of a heart-rending article by a prostitute and single mother. Her point was that she became a prostitute because her former job as an office PA was not paying her enough to support herself and her two children and was, at the same time, taking up so much time and energy that she barely got to see them. Her decision to go into full-time sex work was, as it is for many women in her situation, entirely an economic one.

We need to start respecting women’s work, whether or not they have made the difficult decision to enter the gloomy world of sex-work. If Tory MPs such as Anne Widdecombe really feel that the inclusion of the voucher in the brochure represents the party ‘throwing every value out of the window,’ if they don’t want to face the escalating realities of sex work for women of every class and background in the economic real world of contemporary Britain, then maybe they should start to analyse why women make these choices.

Eighty three per-cent of sex workers, according to recent studies by Object and Fawcett, want to leave the profession; but thousands of women every year make that career choice, and they make it because the country in which we live is currently fostering a gruelling long-hours culture in which women make up the bulk of lower-paid, exploited workers. Women are still paid 17% less than men in full time work and 33% less in part-time work, and when they get home they are still expected to perform the bulk of domestic chores, especially if they are single parents, as many sex workers are.

But the Tory delegates who have been so warmly invited to enjoy the bodies of the low-paid women of Birmingham at a discount price do not think this is a priority. In fact, a key part of current Tory policy proposes an end to equal pay audits, insisting that ‘only those firms which lose sex discrimination cases will be subject’ to them (‘Welfare to Work’, 2008). Until the Tories get serious about offering low-paid workers decent living wages, then any paltry statement blaming the City of Birmingham for putting entirely appropriate adverts in the back of their brochures will be crass hypocrisy. Until that day, they may as well schedule complementary sessions with hookers into the official programme and stuff a few fivers into Lady Thatcher’s pearly g-string whilst they’re at it. Any less is pure hypocrisy.

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And with that, I’m off to the Labour Party Conference for a week. I’ll be checking in regularly but comments may take a few hours to appear!

Friday webcomic: Brittania 12/09/2008

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Art by Withiel. Design and concept by Penny Red.

Those post-9/11 blues…

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In the words of one of the great philosophers of our age, ‘fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself’. (c. Albus Dumbledore, 1997).

An entirely legitimate response to atrocity is to look at the semantics. Today is a significant anniversary: seven years ago, members of minority terrorist sects hijacked some planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre, New York, and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C, killing themselves and 2,975 innocent civilians in the process, and altering the course of human history forever. Because this atrocity occurred on American soil, it is implicity weighted with more significance and solemnity than any of the many, many atrocities that have occurred since. When we say ‘9/11’ rather than ‘the world trade centre attacks in 2001’, we collude in affording the event and its victims disproportionate significance, significance that starts to justify the atrocities committed in its name. When we say ‘Terror’ rather than simply ‘terrorism’, we acknowledge that the word has silently expanded to encompass anything, anything at all, that the West, led by the USA, happens to be frightened of. And that’s quite a lot. The struggle of different nations against terrorism -something that the British are more than resigned to, having had the IRA on our doorstep for the past hundred years – is now being treated as something entirely new, in no small part due to the semantic trickery in which the rhetoric of ‘post-9/11’ is enmeshed..

The plain fact is that nobody – US citizen, British citizen, Iraqi citizen, French, Japanese or Afghani – has any right to feel safe at all times. This world isn’t safe, it will never be safe, not while there are buses on our streets and armed police in our capitals. We have no right to safety, none. We merely have a right to take care of ourselves and our neigbours as best we can, and waging war is generally accepted as a poor method of acheiving said objective. In most countries that aren’t the USA, people understand this. But some isolated, cosseted individuals are still of the opinion that suddenly not feeling entirely safe and superior any more gives them the right to have a seven-year temper-tantrum costing millions of lives and billions of dollars.

I can already hear the trolls rumbling under my bridge about tastelessness, so I may as well pick a final nit: the use of the American date convention, ‘9/11/2001’ (rather than 11/09/2001, as it would have been reported in the UK and many other nations) increases the tendency of the event to be historicised from a position which entirely privileges the North American reading of its fallout. And the North American reading is the slow finger-tracing of a frightened toddler. But if we’re still going to run cackling with the month/date obfuscation, let’s at least have some alternatives. May I suggest:

10/12: on the 12th of October, 2001, the USA and its allies invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly to cature You Know Who. Total Bin Ladens captured: none. Total innocent civilian deaths: at least 3,700 and probably closer to 5,000.

3/20: on the 20th of March, 2003, the USA launched ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ along with its allies in the UK and Australia and help and support from a ‘coalition of the willing’, consisting of over forty other nations. Total weapons of mass destruction discovered: a few really big rocks. Official body counts estimate that since 3/20, there have been 80,419 to 87,834 civilian deaths (that’s 9/11 x 30!), although the true number and names of the innocent dead will never be known.

12/ 7 – on the 12th of July, 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon with US-supplied weapons . In 33 days of war, the Associated Press’s body count gives us 1,064 civilian deaths.

Today is September the 11th, 2008. Seven years ago today, the towers went down and your world changed forever. Happy anniversary. Everybody do the post-9/11 dance.

They have no compunction.

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This week, according to the tabloids, there has been an ‘all party call for a cap on migration’. Bollocks there has. In fact, what has happened is that Frank Field and Nicholas Soames -two of the most foul and bigoted MPs ever to lumber through Whitehall -have ganged up to produce a proposal, Balanced Migration, calling for a cap on the numbers of immigrants entering the country. The disingenuous reporting of the proposal has been nothing short of shite.

Firstly, Balanced Migration is emphatically not an ‘all-party call’ for a cap on migration. One bigoted Tory colossus and his favourite Labour defector does not an all-party call make (Field was raised a Tory before jumping ship in the sixties.) There are, in fact, more than two political parties in this country, and one of the alternatives has commanded around 20% of the popular vote at the last two general elections. This is, in fact, a bipartisan proposal, limited in scope and not officially condoned by either represented political party. Good job this is a basic mistake that only the right-wing tabloids are making, then. Oh, wait.

In fact, both of these MPs have faced massive opposition within their own parties, not least on account of what has appeared to many as scantly-concealed racism. Far be it from me to suggest that Nicholas Soames is a racist. But barely a year ago there were calls from within his own party for him to resign after he quoted figures seemingly lifted from a BNP pamphlet as part of an anti-immigration speech to parliament. And far be it from me to suggest that Frank Field is a racist, but not two months ago the BBC had him all but endorsing Enoch Powell, saying in response to the racist rabble-rouser’s predictions that white people are fleeing the country because of the influx of ethnic minorities: ‘There is apprehension and people are leaving if they can – they don’t like what’s happening to this country.’
Now, I happen to have gotten my grubby little paws on a copy of the proposal, and I’ve read it through, after which I found myself chain-smoking and shaking with rage in the back garden. It’s a vile piece of xenophobic drivel. After the first few pages it doesn’t even try to be polite to ethnic minorities, openly lamenting the fact that fewer and fewer economic migrants are coming from ‘the EU and the Old Commonwealth – Australia, Canada’ and more and more coming from ‘Africa, India and ‘other foreign.’’ Pretty soon after this, its unsupported statistics start unashamedly talking about ‘white’ versus ‘black, asian and other non-white’ as opposed to ‘british-born’ versus ‘foreign-born’. Oh, and on about page three the nation ‘Britain’ apparently becomes interchangeable with a place called ‘England’, entirely omitting to mention that we have at least three other countries with their own devolved governments and proud ancient cultures within this nation state. But that doesn’t bother Field and Soames, neither of whom have, it seems, any particular inclination to even think about Glasgow – where, incidentally, the rate of immigrant cultural integration is commendably high.

In the ‘chapters’ (read: ten lines of ranting and a graph) on social cohesion and community integration, the Bradford riots are cited without detailing any causal relationship between immigration and social unrest. We’re merely invited to assume that there is one, and that a cap on migration is the best way to deal with it rather than, say, involving young people in community cohesion schemes and encouraging greater social dialogue. We’re also invited to assume that the increasing number of schools where English might not be spoken in the homes of the majority of pupils is intrinsically a bad thing. Actually, English was forbidden in some of the first schools ever established in this country, being the language of the servant classes: pupils at Rugby, Westminster and other ancient British establishment sausage factories were ordered to speak Latin or go back to the provinces. And again, ‘balanced migration’ – rather than extra language lessons for immigrant pupils and their families – is apparently the answer. The proposal is a racist striptease, tearing away veils of decency paragraph by paragraph to reveal the real sickness behind its slippery statistics: Field and Soames simply don’t like ethnic minorities, and they don’t want any more of them in their country.

As well as these staggering assumptions-by-omission, there are glaring, basic factual errors throughout the document. One of these is its much-touted claim that, by adding 7 million people to the population of the UK by 2030, immigrants would contribute an equivalent of ‘7 cities the size of Birmingham.’ Have Messrs Field and Soames ever, in fact, been to Birmingham? The West Midlands conurbation of Birmingham had a population of 2,284,093 according to the 2001 census, the largest metropolitan area in the EU. This is either some admirable feat of particular Tory perspective or these MPs and their flunkies simply haven’t done the social research which is, ostensibly, the point of the proposal.

All of this makes me spit. I’m proud to be British, and part of the reason I’m proud is that when my grandparents were driven out of Lithuania in the pogroms, they made a long, torturous journey across war-torn Europe to the UK, hoping for sanctuary, hoping for something better, and they found it. A country where they were allowed to work and worship as they pleased, where they established themselves in business and became leaders in their local synagogues, where their race and religion and country of birth didn’t prevent them and their children from becoming British citizens, and bloody useful ones too. I’m proud to be British, because in 1942 my grandmother was awarded the George Cross along with the rest of her nation in order to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” after the battering Malta took from and on behalf of the British in WW2. The medal is in her drawer, some little semblance of recompense for the years of starvation and nightly bombing offensives. When this government decides to make a similar gesture to the people of Iraq, maybe I’ll reclaim that frisson of wonder I remember from when I was a little girl peering into Nanna’s jewellery box – until then, never.

My family came to England in a time before Field and Powell, in a time when skilled and unskilled workers were welcomed into the country from the commonwealth and elsewhere, and they flourished. Now the second generation is entering its fifties (happy birthday, mum) you wouldn’t know us from Adam. We’re Slavic, European, Celtic – in other words, we’re more or less white, and according to Soames and Field, we’re a part of the problem, but not the real problem. But if we’d arrived today, we’d still be told by crusty racist MPs and little-England bigots that we were a race apart, instead of representing what this nation is about at its best. We’d most likely have spent years struggling for work permits or languishing in detainment centres. We’d be reduced to numbers on a BNP chart, taking jobs away from good, honest, native-born Britons. It makes me fucking sick.

Because, actually, we are all immigrants, even British-born natives who can trace their families back centuries untold. Immigration is what Britain is all about: since records began it’s been the waves of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Romans, Normans, Spaniards, Celts, Hibernians, Hugenots, German Protestants, Jews, French, Italians, Chinese, South-East Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Eastern Europeans and Americans that have kept us vibrant, kept us whole and humble and constantly changing as a nation. It’s racists and recalcitrants in power who are the real scum muddying up the waters of change and vitality roaring around these islands, keeping the poor poor and the rich ignorant, holding us back. If the Home Office has any sense at all, it’ll drop this sickening tract in the shredder.

ETA: I’ve given the proposal to my nearest degenerate drug-fiends, and it’s being roached as we speak.