Tag Archives: ge2015

I’m more concerned with why people vandalised a war memorial than the fact they did

Protesters vandalised the Women of World War II Monument in London on Saturday. Photo: The Independent

Protesters vandalised the Women of World War II Monument in London on Saturday. Photo: The Independent

Nuance is dead. The internet killed it this weekend, bludgeoned it in the head. Then, just to make sure the job was done, we all kept kicking the corpse. Some of us still are.

I am, of course, talking about what happened this weekend. Several hundred (or thousand, depending whom you ask) protestors marched through the capital, starting at Conservative Campaign Headquarters and weaving their way throughout central London. “Tories out!” they shouted, protesting the recently elected Conservative majority and, of course, further austerity cuts promised in the party’s manifesto. “Undemocratic riots” were the words bandied about by Tory supporters on my Twitter feed, in what I can only describe as a complete failing to understand democracy (because the people’s right to assemble and protest government policies is a basic democratic principle) or riots (because it hardly classifies as such, especially compared to 2011 or, you know, Baltimore circa last month). “How dare these people protest a popularly elected government” which received less than 40% of the vote, they huffed. In all, 17 people were arrested, only three more than were arrested at an English Defence League march through Walthamstow the same day, which curiously wasn’t deemed a riot and has barely been mentioned in the national press.

The real controversy, though, surrounds one particular act of civil disobedience. The Monument to the Women of World War II was vandalised, with someone scrawling “Tory Scum” in red paint. Laurie Penny, a contributing editor at the New Statesman and prominent left-wing voice, was unfazed:

Which immediately created a predictable, if unfortunate, shitstorm. Ms Penny was subsequently subjected to days of abuse from people on Twitter, the tabloid press, and that perennial gadfly of the right, Katie Hopkins, who suggested she be made “a woman of ISIS”. What she—a living breathing woman made of flesh and bones and feelings—has been subjected to by “the right” is far worse than what that memorial—made of stone and steel and entirely inanimate—suffered.

But this doesn’t mean I’m sat here condoning vandalising a war memorial. Far from it, as I said Saturday night, echoing Conor Pope of Labour List:

I did – and do – have a problem with what happened. On the same night someone graffitied the memories of our war heroes, I was buying a round for three British soldiers recently returned home. My brother only last month returned from serving in Afghanistan, and before that Iraq. My sister is a veteran. My brother-in-law is still an active duty soldier. My father was a US marine. My great-grandfather served admirably in World War II. I grew up a mile from a United States Air Force Base, where many of my friends’ parents served. I sit on the state board of directors for a veteran’s charity. The military, whether in the US or the UK, is very important to me, as are the sacrifices our brave women and men have made for the countries I love. Vandalising a war memorial is abhorrent, and I can’t believe I have to even say I stand against it, because of course I do.

However, I also stand against austerity. And this is a point I tried to make to Mr Pope. On Monday, he criticised the author and World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith for the following tweet:

To which Mr Pope had to say this:

Of course, this isn’t what Mr Smith was saying at all. He was trying to bring a bit of perspective, offering – wait for it – nuance to what had, to this point, been widely reported in terms of black and white. You’re either with the vandals who defaced the memory of war heroes or you’re against it. Clearly, from Mr Pope’s tweet, even the moderate wing of the Labour Party was buying into this rhetoric.

But it simply isn’t true, as an exchange between myself, Mr Smith and Mr Pope (amongst others) demonstrates. It’s not enough to simply decry the action of a vandal. We must ask ourselves why. Why would someone desecrate a monument dedicated to the memory of women who fought for our freedoms? Why would hundreds, maybe thousands, of people take to the streets a mere 48 hours after an election? What has so disheartened the public to embolden them to such acts?

Maybe it’s best summed up in a sign that appeared in one Camden Town pub:

Or maybe it’s that the working class are being squeezed out of affordable housing. Or that cuts to benefits and the bedroom tax are starving the poor. Or that under-25s still can’t find a job, as youth unemployment remains 3 times as high as the national average.

Explaining behaviour does not excuse behaviour. What Ms Penny, Mr Smith, and I have tried to do is point out that people are hurting. They’re disaffected, disheartened, and feel deserted. They are also angry, and righteous anger is justified anger. It isn’t that they are “sore losers,” as the headline of Bryony Gordon’s condescending piece at The Telegraph put it. It’s that they’re desperate.

But she goes on:

There is something profoundly cruel about vilifying a person for their democratic choices. When normal people become targets instead of politicians, something has gone very wrong. This then is the real politics of fear and hatred. It is espoused not by the Right, but by the Left. And the people who are going to make the next five years truly unbearable are not the ones who make up the democratically elected government, but the ones who desecrate war memorials…

This is all true, except that no one is doing this. “Tory Scum” is a vague phrase, and to assume it’s an attack on voters and not the government is to assume the protestors don’t understand power structures. And to say that it’s the left peddling fear as opposed to the right is not only incredibly reductionist, but also misses the entire point, which is that neither the “left” (Labour) nor the “right” (Tories) as we’ve previously understood it has actually addressed the gripping fear and seething anger of what is, effectively, the modern underclass. It’s to dismiss righteous anger in favour of the status quo.

And this brings us back to Mr Pope, who in his own way agreed with Ms Gordon’s assessment:

Which is exactly the problem, as I wrote on Saturday. Labour is so dedicated to respectability politics and wooing the middle-class that it’s ignoring the legitimate concerns of workaday Brits. You don’t have to condone desecration of sacred monuments to understand why someone so desperate for a better life might do just that. After all, why would they feel the need to honour a country they feel is ignoring them (at best) or abandoning them (at worst)?

I’m aghast that this happened. I’m disgusted that someone would vandalise a monument to our war dead. It is an insult to the memory of every single person, particularly the women, who fought and died for our freedom. I make no apologies for the person or people who did this.

But I’m also concerned with why they did it. Unlike Mr Pope or Ms Gordon, and indeed the vast majority of the nebulous “middle” and right-wing, I’m not allowing the actions of one, or maybe a few, to negate from the message so many aimed to send.

People are hurting. People are scared. And people are angry. This government, which hasn’t even yet written a Queen’s Speech, ought to ask themselves why.

This blog was updated shortly after publication on 13/5/2015 to include the image referred to as having been taken at a pub in Camden Town as well as a link to the Waltham Forest Guardian story on the EDL march in Walthamstow. The Curious American regrets these omissions. 

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New app launches to help LGBT voters find out if their MP is pro-equality

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Screen capture from The LGBT Whip, a new web-based app which launched this week.

As Britain goes to the polls today, some LGBT voters may have a clearer picture of which candidates support their equality thanks to a new website launched this week.

The LGBT Whip is the brainchild of Chris Ward, a developer from Vauxhall who also helped develop the LobbyALord app used by marriage equality campaigners in 2013. While LobbyALord was intended to help win equal marriage, The LGBT Whip takes a broader approach to equality issues, and is intended to illustrate, rather than change, a candidate’s position.

It is also a “recognition that as all parties are moving to the centre and their policies support LGBT rights, a lot of their candidates don’t,” Mr Ward said, adding “we need to look from a more granular level of where and what candidates stand for.”

The web app, which was developed at a 24-hour hackathon at Facebook and on which Ward collaborated with several others, including his partner and his brother, is fairly straightforward. Voters input their postcode, and a list of candidates for their constituency appears. From there, they can select up to three candidates to compare:

The first frame shows what happens when voters select their postcode. The second frame shows a list of of candidates, while the third frame compares them on the issues.

The first frame shows what happens when voters select their postcode. The second frame shows a list of of candidates, while the third frame compares them on the issues.

I chose to use Brighton Pavilion as an example, because its former MP and Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas did answer the 10 questions. She is one of what the developers estimate is only 20% of candidates who have, though. And while Mr Ward is “cutting them some slack” because “it’s a very busy period,” some candidates have left him disappointed. “We’ve had a number of candidates, who should know better, responding with an automated response saying ‘I support LGBT rights.’ Well if you do you, spend some time answering these ten very simple questions.”

The questions include historic positions, such as Section 28, as well as issues currently being debated, like banning conversion therapy. For those former MPs who haven’t responded, their votes have been gathered and made available. Candidates who have never sat in parliament “have a clean slate,” because, as Mr Ward put it, “I’d rather go by what they actually do in the voting lobbies than what they say to a journalist, because that’s what makes the law.” It was important to ask about both the past and the present, he said, because equality can be lost just as it was won.

Though MPs who voted against LGBT rights in the past can’t erase their slate, they can still show they’ve come round to equality, as has already happened.

“One Labour MP in particular…e-mailed and said ‘I know I’ve not been great on this in the past, but this is what I think now,’” Mr Ward says. “So it’s almost a recognition of the progress those individuals have made. So they’ll have a red cross on their history, but next to that they might have a green tic, almost essentially saying ‘I’m sorry about this. I’ve changed my mind.’”

But the site doesn’t just give politicians a chance to show they’ve evolved. It also gives voters a unique tool with which to hold MPs accountable. “It goes beyond the election,” Mr Ward said, and gets at “the full democratic process” of holding politicians to their word. “We have pledges at hand. We have e-mails from candidates. And when it comes to these votes or these things being discussed in Parliament, we can hold them to account.”

Ultimately, though, this is an app designed to assist LGBT voters in finding candidates who support equality. “I hope it helps (voters) make an informed decision on the basis of LGBT rights.” This way, he says, “when they go into the voting booth…they’ve made an informed decision with all the facts at their disposal.”

LGBT Whip is the result of a collaboration between Chris Ward, Peter Burjanec, Joshua Gladwin, Hereward Mills, Chimeren Peerbhai, Matt Ward, and Adriana Vecc. Though currently only available for the UK general election, the team has plans to eventually expand to include the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, and possibly even foreign elections, including the 2016 US general election. It is dedicated to the memory of Ms Peerbhai’s mother, Debra Diane Rich, who recently passed away from cancer in America.

In Walthamstow, Nancy Taaffe challenges Labour from the left

Nancy Taaffe. Image: The Socialist Party

Nancy Taaffe. Image: The Socialist Party

Walthamstow, a quiet working class community in North-East London, is as safe a constituency as they come. Labour control the local council, and the party has held the seat consistently since the 1990s, and has only lost one election since 1972. In the 2010 election, Stella Creasy—widely touted as a possible future party leader and the current Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention—commanded over 50% of the vote with a nearly 10,000 vote majority. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the community has not heavily featured in the media’s election coverage.

But Walthamstow is a community at a crossroads. Gentrification has pushed more and more people from central London to the area, at the terminus of the Victoria Line, which is in turn pushing up housing prices and pushing out residents who for decades have called this area home. According to the Financial Times, property values increased 22.3% over the course of 2014. A new development, known as The Scene, has seen the demolition of social housing to make way for a brand new cinema, restaurants, and flats which are now priced at £500,000, according to local resident Sarah Wrack. These businesses “are not aimed at the poor people of this area,” but rather “the people they’re trying to attract,” she says.

“It’s not for the people who live here at the moment, it’s to move people in and literally move people who used to be in that social housing out.”

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge agrees, another Walthamstow resident, agrees. “It’s impossible to get a decent home in this area. All of us have difficulties with housing.”

She blames the cutting of council tax benefit and housing benefit for forcing residents out, something Ms Wrack also believes is making Walthamstow unaffordable for many of its residents. Ms Wrack grew up in Tower Hamlets, in Inner-East London, which at the time “had the highest rate of child poverty in Europe,” she says. “It was a poor place.” The redevelopment of Canary Wharf forced Ms Wrack out, something she sees being repeated now in Walthamstow. ““In an area like this, almost everyone is poor,” she says. The same process which brought her here is “being repeated, as people are forced out further and further.”

Both women were out on Monday campaigning alongside Nancy Taaffe, who agrees with their assessment of the housing crisis in the constituency. It “is an expression of accumulation of loss of council homes that have come together in a sort of economic crisis of not being able to get a job or not being able to get enough money to buy,” says Taaffe, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate challenging Ms Creasy for the seat.

TUSC was formed weeks before the 2010 general election “to enable trade unionists, community campaigners, and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties,” according to its website. They are standing in 135 parliamentary elections across the country. Bob Crow, the late National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) leader, was one of its founders.

“Historically the socialist party which is part of TUSC was inside the Labour party,” Ms Taaffe says, noting that the Socialist Party left Labour “just before the ascendency of Tony Blair,” a time she claims Labour was “expelling all trade unionists (and) good socialists.”

Ms Taaffe: “They purged organisationally, they pushed socialists out and then they reconstituted themselves as a neo-liberal party.”

She stood for the seat in 2010, winning less than 250 votes. But she felt it was important to stand again. “The working class is disenfranchised. It doesn’t have a socialist voice,” she says, noting that “the Labour Party is no longer a socialist party.”

Ms. Taaffe’s comments, and indeed her candidacy, are part of a broader story that has dominated this election. Britain was, for nearly a century, a largely two-party system, with the Liberal Democrats a smaller but ever-present third party. Over the past decade, though, more and more voters have become disillusioned with what they felt were false choices between the Conservatives and Labour, and have migrated to smaller parties, including UKIP and nationalist parties such as the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. In England, where nationalism lacks the cache on the left, the Green Party has largely picked up the progressive slack, with parties like TUSC emerging to carry the banner of the traditional, if dwindling, socialist agenda.

“Allegiances to Labour are fragmented,” Ms Taaffe says, “and you can see that in Scotland,” where the SNP look poised to completely wipe out Labour, which may lose more than 40 seats in the country tomorrow.

“The austerity cuts have been absolutely devastating for women and the public sector. A million jobs have gone. So in Scotland where these jobs are going, on top of its history of losing manufacturing jobs, the betrayal — I mean all around Scotland now they’ve got stickers saying ‘Red Tories,’” she says. “It’s like a perfect storm of 30 years.”

According to Ms Taaffe, it’s the same across the country, including in Walthamstow. “Labour completely controls this area. £65 million pounds worth of cuts. We’ve lost 1000 jobs to those cuts.” One of those jobs was Ms Taaffe’s. She worked for years at the local library, but was made redundant in phase 12 of the cuts.

Ms Taaffe: “When I debated with Stella, I said to her ‘I was a single parent with two children. And you call yourself a feminist… and yet you wouldn’t make a statement about us losing our jobs at the hands of your party?”

“The least you can do if you stand in the tradition of the suffragettes is to speak for the thousands of women who are losing their jobs, the women who rely on public service for social care for their families, who have been pushed back into the home. It’s been like, we would argue it’s regressive what’s happening to women, because we rely disproportionately on the services that are going. So if you’re a feminist, you’ve got to fight the cuts.

“She said ‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’. Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.”* Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary for Communities and Local Government, led the coalition’s efforts to slash the budgets of local councils over the last parliament.

Earlier this year Ms Creasy, along with the majority of Labour MPs, voted with the Coalition for an additional £30 billion in cuts to benefits and services, a move which fellow Labour MP and London mayoral candidate Diane Abbott at the time called a “great disservice” to the working class.

While it is extremely unlikely Ms Taaffe will defeat Ms Creasy in tomorrow’s vote, she is looking ahead to the next battle. “We’re going to be fighting for the existence of our local hospital,” she says. “Stella (and) the local councillors are not being honest…. our local hospital is in debt to the tune of £90 million. The plan and the details of the cuts won’t be released until June, which is a month after the general election.

“It’s just an outrage. 340,000 people use the hospital.”

And though Ms Taaffe and TUSC hope that Ms Creasy and her party will fight alongside them, she is not optimistic.

“The fight now is outside the Labour Party.”

(The Curious American reached out to Stella Creasy for comment, particularly on the allegations she said she and Labour did not want to stand up to Eric Pickles, but as of the time of publication has not received a response. However, Ms Creasy did address the issue of housing with the Walthamstow Guardian: “The price of housing is driving many out of our area and leaving others in overcrowded accomodation… Only Labour is committed to building the homes that we need and ending unfair agency fees to provide a city fit for all.”)

Updated 2/12/2015: Last month, Stella Creasy responded to this piece on Twitter, asking us to remove the following statement made by Nancy Taaffe: “She said ‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’. Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.” The Curious American wishes to to clarify this statement. Ms Taaffe repeated a quote she alleges is from Ms Creasy (‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’.) This was in inverted commas and followed by a full stop, indicating an end to the alleged quote. Ms Taaffe then went on to offer her on analysis, which is that “Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.” Because this statement was made by Ms Taaffe, and because The Curious American reached out to Ms Creasy for comment on this specific alleged quote, we will not remove it. However, Ms Creasy has denied the comment on Twitter:

What a coalition featuring the DUP might mean for LGBT Britons

Photo courtesy of the Open University.

Photo courtesy of the Open University.

Tonight, BBC News broadcast the Northern Ireland leaders’ debate from Belfast, the last of the general election debates ahead of Thursday’s vote. Though mostly ignored in the national campaigns — in large part because none of the major parties have a heavy presence there — Northern Ireland could yet play a deciding factor in who will soon occupy Number 10.

Northern Ireland is unique in the United Kingdom. Marked by years of sectarian violence between unionists who wished to remain in the UK and nationalists who wished to join the Republic of Ireland, it is still a country struggling to reconcile its past with its future. But what really struck my interest was the fact that, perhaps for the first time in the entire election, LGBT rights took centre stage.

Equal marriage arrived in England and Wales early last year; it followed in Scotland shortly thereafter. Even the Republic looks like it may vote for equal marriage later this month. But Northern Ireland, deeply traditional and conservative, has held out. In April, the Northern Ireland Assembly rejected equal marriage for a fourth time. This follows the controversy surrounding the Ashers Bakery, which is currently in court fighting charges it discriminated against an LGBT group by refusing to bake a cake supporting gay marriage. And just last week the DUP’s health minister resigned after saying that gay parents were more likely to abuse and neglect their children than straight parents.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest Northern Irish party in the Westminster parliament. As the right-wing website Brietbart UK reported, it is likely to have 9 seats in the next parliament which could prove deeply important to a possible Tory minority government. It is an extremely socially conservative party, though with a strong contingent of pro-labour sentiment. Sinn Féin — the Irish nationalist party — tends to be more left-wing, but has long refused to take the seats they are elected to, believing the Westminster government to be illegitimate in Northern Ireland. The other party supportive of equal marriage, the Alliance Party, has one MP who may well lose her seat on Thursday.

This is all idle speculation, and there is no guarantee that the DUP will even play a significant, or indeed any, role in any coalition. To my knowledge, none of the major party leaders have publicly entertained the idea. Plus, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, “Northern Ireland may simply be too distant from Westminster thinking for either Labour or the Tories to find common ground” with the party. But in an election that’s been defined by the rising profiles of a right-wing populist party (the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP) and of nationalist parties such as the Scottish National Party and Wales’ Plaid Cymru, it’s also easy to imagine the appeal to Miliband and especially Cameron of aligning with a populist, pro-union contingent from outside England.

So if Northern Ireland is to play kingmaker, it’s likely to be the result of MPs antagonistic, or at least antipathetic, to LGBT rights. It’s not a stretch, given the tensions over the issue in Belfast, that one of the DUP’s “red lines” (as the press has taken to calling non-negotiable policy positions in potential coalition negotiations) might be no further advances in LGBT equality. That could mean up to and including halting any efforts to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. This has been a pet project of the Tories’ education secretary, Nicky Morgan who, it’s worth noting, voted against equal marriage. UKIP, with its reputation and record, are unlikely to cringe at the DUP’s positions. And the majority of Tory backbenchers did vote against equal marriage. In that context, a grand coalition of the right including the DUP, and their anti-gay policies, becomes more imaginable.

What that might mean for people remains to be seen. But judging by what’s happening in Northern Ireland, if the DUP is allowed to hold any of the balance of power in Westminster, it won’t be good for the LGBT community. It’s something few have entertained, but in an election where anything is possible, it’s one activists, and indeed the country, should consider as they tick that box on Thursday.

The Curious American in the news

Hello everyone!

Just a quick update while I work on my first piece. I was on the BBC World Service yesterday talking about crowdfunded journalism, which you can listen to here. Also, the Huffington Post UK did a short feature on me which was published today.

I’ve got two pieces to deliver in the next couple days, as well as one confirmed interview tomorrow. I am, however, still looking for people willing to talk to me. If you or someone you know is in London and would like to discuss the election, the parties, or an issue that’s important to you, please e-mail me at skylar.bakerjordan@gmail.com!

Cheers,

Skylar

The Curious American: Live from London

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You lot really are amazing. What started off as, if I’m being honest, a seemingly naff suggestion by Twitter followers in February has come to fruition. Because of you. I’m sat in London (well, Walthamstow) ahead of the general election, ready to report and analyse my heart out for the next two weeks.

When we started the GoFundMe campaign, the idea was simple: use the ingenious format developed by Humans of New York to cover the British general election. Ask everyday Londoners, and maybe people elsewhere in the country too, what they think in both the run up to and the fallout from 7 May. What is their biggest concern? What do they hope changes? What can Westminster politicians do to improve their lives?

This is still going to happen. But I would like to, on occasion, take it a step further. Instead of just posting a few sentences “in their own words,” with a few people (whom I’ve yet to meet, mind!), I’d like to dig deeper and put their particular lives in the broader context of politics and policy. What do the policies of these parties, and the likely coalition government—whatever that looks like—mean for this person? This is a question I want to ask. Additionally, I’ll offer some of my standard fare, and possibly even return to a cheeky post or two.

While here I’m going to be focusing mainly on The Curious American. I don’t plan on pitching a whole lot anywhere else. Full editorial control is one of the nicest things about having my own platform. It means I can publish things when I want, and given the context, that is more important than ever. So watch this space, because it’s going to be more active than ever before.

And again, that’s all down to you. You all have given me this opportunity. You’ve shown that you believe in me and my work, and that means more than I can ever express. I hope I do you proud.

Before I go to Asda to buy a hair dryer, because daft me left mine in Chicago, there are three people I want to thank in particularly. They have been the ones who truly made this a possibility. Unfortunately, they’ve also made it clear that they wish to remain anonymous. So all I’m going to say is that I am truly humbled by how generous and kind you were, especially since I know you’re sacrificing so much, and not just financially, so that I can pursue my dreams. I am very fortunate to know all three of you.

Everyone else, if you still want to give, I could still use the money. I’m on a shoestring budget here, enough to get around London but that’s about it. I’d love to be able to take a couple day trips, or to even just not have to worry about whether I’m spending too much while I’m out in the field. So there’s still time to get a nice little paragraph like the one before! (And, you know, to help continue to make my reporting a reality.)

I also want to open this up to suggestions. Anything you’d like to see me write about, talk about, or ask about? What kind of content do you want while I’m in London? Maybe something that doesn’t have anything to do with British politics, even. You lot made this happen, so for the next two weeks you lot are driving content. Let me know in the comments below!

x. Skylar