Tag Archives: politics

Everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about British politics

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Over the weekend, I asked Facebook friends to send me their questions on what’s happening in aftermath of the UK election, which resulted in a hung parliament. Below are some of their questions and a few I added to clarify a few things. Hope this helps my American readers understand British politics a bit more:

  1. Does the Prime Minister always get to decide when to call special elections? Has this situation ever happened before?

Yes and no. Before 2010, the Prime Minister had almost sole discretion on when an election would be called. One had to be held at least every five years, but when that happened was largely down to the whims of the government of the day (led by the Prime Minister). As you may expect, this led to a lot of elections called when the government felt it was advantageous for it (such as when they’re leading in the polls) or not called unless absolutely necessary if the party in power was suffering the polls. This was the case in 1997, when the Conservatives lost power to Labour after 18 years in government.

The Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2010 was meant to change this. Brought in by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, it was meant to ensure stability during the 2010-2015 Coalition Government (more on this later). It set out a fixed date for the next election, which was held in May 2015. The next subsequent election was not due until May 2020. However, there was a provision in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act which allowed for the dissolution of Parliament – necessary for the calling of another election – if there was a vote of no confidence in the government of the day  or if the Prime Minister requested dissolution.

Theresa May requested a dissolution of Parliament in April, setting the date for the next election as 8 June. As she was not the leader of the Conservative Party in 2015 (that was David Cameron, who resigned last year following the Brexit vote), some argued she was seeking a mandate of her own. She wanted to increase her majority to strengthen her hand when negotiating Brexit. It didn’t quite work out as well as she’d have liked though, as the Conservatives lost their majority. No one party has a majority of Members of Parliament now, which means Mrs May must seek coalition or a minority government.

  1. What does it mean to “form a government?”

    There are 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), so to have a majority a party must win at least 326 seats. There are two main parties – the Conservatives and Labour – and only they have formed a government since 1922. In the simplest of times, forming a government just means the largest party appoints people to the cabinet (as the leader of the party would be Prime Minister) and puts forward its agenda in a Queen’s Speech (we’ll get to her role later). But these are not simple times.

    In 2010, like now, no one party had a majority of seats – a scenario known as a “hung parliament.” David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party (also known as the Tories), sought coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who held 57 seats. The Lib Dems accepted, and a coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government ran things until 2015, when the Conservatives secured a majority of seats and governed on their own.

 Mrs May has squandered that majority, losing 13 seats and taking her party’s total to 318. The Lib Dems have ruled out another coalition – they suffered greatly for their role in the last one, losing 49 seats in 2015 – which means Mrs May needs to find another minor party to bolster her numbers. She looks set to do that with the Democratic Unionist Party out of Northern Ireland, which has 10 seats.

This is where it gets tricky, though, as the DUP really can’t join the government due to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics, but that’s another story for another day. Right now it looks like the DUP will prop up Mrs May’s government but not join it, meaning she’ll form a minority government with the understanding that she can depend on the DUP to support her agenda in most cases.

  1. I read that Prime Minister May was going to propose something to the Queen. What is the monarchy’s involvement with the elected government (and vice versa)?

The role of the monarchy is entirely symbolic in practice yet vast in theory. Theoretically, the sovereign is an absolute monarch – all power is vested in the crown. However, the doctrine of crown-in-parliament means that whilst Her Majesty technically holds these powers, in practice and custom they are exercised by Parliament and the government (which consists of MPs – even the Prime Minister is an MP). This goes back hundreds of years in a system that has largely haphazardly developed. Britain has no written constitution, like the United States, so its democracy functions largely on customs and a body of separate laws collectively referred to as “the constitution.”

Because these powers are technically the Queen’s, she must invite someone to form a government in her name. She does this to whoever wins the most seats. Mrs May won the most seats (even if she didn’t secure a majority), so by custom she has the first shot to form a government. She went to see the Queen to be invited to form a government. If Mrs May can’t form a government (that is, get enough support to get through her agenda, laid out in a Queen’s Speech), then the second-place Labour Party could try to form a minority government and get enough votes to pass its Queen’s Speech. If no party can get their Queen’s Speech passed, another election will be held.

  1. What is a Queen’s Speech?

The Queen’s Speech is essentially the ruling party’s agenda. It is a set of proposed laws the new government hopes to pass. During the state opening of Parliament, the Queen travels to the Palace of Westminster (where the House of Commons and House of Lords both convene) and, from the House of Lords, delivers a speech written by the party seeking to form a government. She has no political input (though could have some stylistic critiques, since she’s the one who has to say the damn thing). Why does the Queen, and not the Prime Minister, give this speech? Because the powers are actually the Queen’s, even if they are exercised by the Prime Minister and Parliament, so she’s telling the Lords, the Commons, and the country what she is instructing her government to do – even though it’s the government telling the queen what to tell them to do.

The state opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech is surrounded by a lot of really complicated pomp and circumstance. C-SPAN typically airs it live, and I encourage you all to watch it, because it really is a sight to behold. We have nothing like it in the United States.

  1. Could the Queen step in and stop the nonsense or deny any requests?

No she could not. Okay, technically she could – all these powers are hers in theory – but if she did you can bet that parliament and the people would vote to abolish the monarchy. Her Majesty is actually quite committed to democracy and the constitution, so the thought of intervening in the business of parliament would appall her.

The best example of this happening is actually not in Britain, but in Australia, where Elizabeth II is also the Queen (represented by a Governor General, since she lives in London and not Canberra). In 1975 the Governor General dismissed the Australian Prime Minister because of political instability in the House of Representatives and Senate (think Commons and Lords in Britain). This was the greatest constitutional crisis in Australian history, and Her Majesty refused to be drawn into it.

  1. What are the main belief systems of each party (and dot he ones with similar sounding names have similar beliefs/policies – ie is the UK Conservative Party similar to an American conservative)?

There are two main parties in the UK: the Conservatives (aka the Tories) and Labour. The Conservatives are capitalists, whilst Labour consists of varying shades of socialism (from democratic socialism akin to Bernie Sanders to some out-and-out Trotskyites). In the middle of this is the Liberal Democrats, which formed from the merger the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which had broken off from the Labour Party. It is more of a centrist party.

Then you have several smaller parties. The Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales), and the Green Party all have MPs and are all centre-left to varying degrees. If Labour were to form a minority government, they would rely on these three parties.

There are only two parties with seats from Northern Ireland: Sinn Fien and the before-mentioned DUP. Sinn Fien is a left wing Irish nationalist party, mostly identified with Catholics in Northern Ireland. The DUP is a far-right unionist party backed by Northern Irish protestants.

If you want to get into who analogous parties, the Conservatives are probably closer to moderate Democrats than they are Republicans. Labour is probably closer to Bernie Sanders or the US Green Party, though current leader Jeremy Corbyn is far to the left of either of these parties. The Liberal Democrats are probably more like Barack Obama, though some Obama advisors have also advised the Conservative Party.

  1. Who believes in LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, racial equality?

    All of the main parties would tell you yes, they support a broadly socially progressive agenda. The Conservatives haven’t always been great on LGBT equality, initially opposing it and passing some of the most homophobic laws in modern British history. However, over the past decade – particularly under the leadership of David Cameron – they became much more progressive, supporting the Labour government’s bringing in civil partnerships in the mid-2000s and later introducing marriage equality under Cameron. However, the majority of Conservative backbenchers (that is, Members of Parliament not in government) voted against equal marriage, so whilst the Conservative-led coalition government introduced the bill, it passed only because of support from the other parties.

    Most Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters favour the Labour Party, though there is growing support from BME voters for the Tories. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was critical of racial profiling in policing, even as her own government was accused of Islamophobia through its anti-terror Prevent programme.

    The fact is that race doesn’t really play as large a role in UK politics as it does in the US, though many BME people think it should. This is down to the relatively recent influx of a significant number of BME people (from the mid-20th century to now) and the entrenched class system. British politics is getting more intersectional, but it has a long way to go.

    None of the main parties oppose abortion access, though Labour would be more likely to relax abortion law than the Tories. Labour has introduced all-women shortlists for parliamentary candidates, which the Tories haven’t, yet the Tories have produced both female Prime Ministers. On economic issues that effect women, such as childcare and pay equality, the Tories have faced a lot of criticism from feminist activists, but Labour has also been accused of having a sexist culture in its far-left reaches.

    Now let’s talk about the DUP – who register as important since Mrs May is looking to rely on them to govern. They are anti-gay marriage, anti-choice, refuse to meet or work on Sundays, believe in creationism and deny climate change. So it’s kind of like if the state of Alabama became a political party. There are lots of people, including the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party (who is an out lesbian), expressing serious reservations about any deal – yet it looks to be the only way Mrs May can hang on.

  2. Does ideology split parties there?

As discussed, the Conservatives are capitalists and the Labour party are socialists. So ideology has a much starker impact on the parties in the UK than it does in the US, where both major parties are capitalist.

  1. This all seems really convoluted. Isn’t our system simpler?

Those in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones. A minority of voters elected Donald Trump because of our Electoral College, which to British voters seems just as maddening as the parliamentary system seems to many Americans. And when you look at how gerrymandered many of our districts are, it becomes difficult to argue that the American system as it currently exists  is more democratic.

  1. What happens next?

Right now no one knows. Theresa May met with her backbenchers earlier today, and she’s still trying to finalise any deal with the DUP. It does look likely that Theresa May will form the next government and continue on with a minority government, but her position looks increasingly untenable. She may well be gone by Christmas, with another top Tory politician taking her place as Prime Minister.

If you have any other questions, leave them in the comments below and perhaps I’ll do another blog.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes the blog The Curious American. A contributing editor at The GayUK Magazine, Skylar writes about British and American politics and society for an array of publications, including the Independent and Huff Post UK. He is based in Chicago but makes frequent trips to London, where he hopes to relocate soon.

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Yes, right-wing extremism killed Jo Cox

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Image: Flickr.com/ Garry Knight

This has been our septimana horribilis. On Sunday, we paused to mourn 49 victims of homophobic, Islamist terrorism in Orlando. As I attempted to work through my grief and put the hate in context, never did I imagine I would end the week doing the exact same thing for another brutal attack on freedom and democracy.

Yet here we are. “Oh God, no,” were my exact words when news broke that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, died following an attack by a far-right terrorist whom eyewitnesses claim shouted “Britain First!” Since then, people from across the political spectrum have eulogised Jo for the stalwart humanitarian and outstanding parliamentarian she was, and could have been.

It was hate that took 49 lives in Orlando, and it was hate that killed Jo. In the immediacy after her attack, many on the British right cautioned us not to jump to conclusions. “We don’t know why he did it,” they said, “nothing has been determined.” A man shooting a left-wing politician while shouting a far-right slogan could be purely coincidental and not at all political, they insisted, instead focusing on the alleged gunman’s mental health.

They can’t do that anymore. Yesterday in court, the suspect himself made that painfully clear. He gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Whelp.

After the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, the right-wing press, and indeed many on the British right, were quick to condemn it for what it was: an Islamist terrorist attack. The murderers made no secret of their motives, even on the witness stand. Rigby was killed by two men, at least one of whom had a long, documented history of mental illness. Coverage rarely, if ever, focused on that. Instead, “moderate Muslims” were called on to condemn the attack and to do more to root out the scourge of radicalism from their communities.

Now, in circumstances that eerily mirror Rigby’s murder, the British right finds itself in an incredible act of political contortion, trying to avoid the same treatment it gave Muslims three years ago. The fact is, the British right, particularly the Brexiters, do have something to answer for here. And it needs to be said.

No one who observes British politics, whether from within the Westminster bubble or from across the Atlantic, can sincerely say that the EU referendum hasn’t brought out the worst in people and politicians. The Brexit campaign has, from the start, been framed as a fight for the very survival of the British nation and people. “Take our country back!” they exclaim, lamenting the “swarms of migrants” coming over from Europe and beyond. To be pro-Brexit has been equated to being pro-British, and to be pro-Europe is unpatriotic.

As someone who has remained neutral in this campaign (though did argue an American and socialist case for Brexit on Radio 5), I have been appalled at the dog-whistle politics and even overt racism that has come from the Leave camp. From Farage’s “BREAKING POINT!” poster to Boris Johnson’s racist comments about Barack Obama, the Leave campaign has used white nationalist imagery and coded language throughout. Indeed, Boris’ comments about America’s “part-Kenyan” president echo those used by racists such as Donald Trump to insist Obama’s ancestry makes him un-American. Unsurprising, really, given that so many of the Brexiters feel that people with ties to foreign lands aren’t proper Brits. Not really.

This talk of losing control of the nation, of losing sovereignty, of losing national identity and security and border control, has been as jingoistic as it has been fascistic. It is a climate in which to be anything but a strident Leaver has been to be a traitor to Queen and Country. None of us exist in a bubble. You can only scare people for so long before some rogue agent takes matters into his own hands.  The tone and tenor of this campaign has led to a vitriol previously unimaginable. I’ve written about British politics since 2009. I’ve seen more racism, more xenophobia, and more bigotry in the past seven weeks than in the past seven years combined.  The hatefulness of the far right has hit a boiling point, and it was inevitable that someone would boil over the pot and into gunfire.

The right needs to own this. The Leave campaign needs to own it. No, not everyone on who is for Brexit is a bigot. Just as there is a difference between Islamism and Islam, or Judaism and Zionism, there is a difference between Brexit and bigotry. I have many people I love dearly who sincerely believe Britain will be better off outside the EU. But the Leave campaign has not only tolerated, but embraced, this nationalistic fervour in both the cynical hope that the public will be scared enough to vote Out, and in some more nefarious instances in the sincere belief that actually, immigrants are the devil.

Some of my right-wing friends have claimed Jo Cox’s assassination is being tastelessly exploited for political gain. This is simply not true. Pointing out the political nature of the attack is not political point scoring. Correctly stating facts is not propaganda. Jo Cox was killed because she is—was—a left-wing, pro-Europe internationalist. She was killed by a far-right, anti-immigrant nationalist. These two things are not mutually exclusive. They are intrinsically and inextricably connected.

This isn’t to let my fellow leftists off the hook, either. For years we have sneered at white working class concerns, particularly over immigration. From Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” to true-but-tired memes castigating rural communities and small towns with few immigrants for being anti-immigrant, we’ve ceded the discourse to Nigel Farage and the far-right. If the traditional home of the working class is no longer hospitable, of course they’re going to look somewhere else.

If we dismiss their concerns as pure ignorance instead of acknowledging them and explaining an alternative view—that it’s not immigrants what done it, but years of austerity and globalisation bolstered by unmitigated free trade and lack of economic redevelopment—then it only makes sense that they would look elsewhere. It is not necessarily bigoted to be concerned over immigration, but if we don’t say that, it’s no wonder that those concerned over immigration turn to bigots.

We have poisoned this well too. From calling Tories and Tony Blair fascists to claiming Iain Duncan Smith is a murderer to the hateful misogyny directed at everyone from Stella Creasy to Liz Kendall to Priti Patel, we need to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with ourselves as well. I’m including myself in this. I have not always lived up to my own standards, something I’m quietly reflecting on. We’re not perfect. We’ve reached fever pitch, too, and it’s time for all of us to simmer down.

There’s a reason the second largest party is called the Opposition and not the enemy. As Jo herself said in her maiden speech, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” This week has been a tragic reminder of how fragile that unity is, and how British democracy only functions if we all approach political discourse with civility, respect, and the humanity of our opponents squarely in mind. Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that, and a brilliant young MP is dead because of it. We can’t get Jo back, but I hope to God we can get our decency back.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is journalist and cultural critic who writes about British politics and LGBT rights. His work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, Pink News, and elsewhere. He founded The Curious American in 2013. He lives in Chicago.

 

How I went from endorsing Jeremy Corbyn to voting for Hillary Clinton

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Image: Mike Davidson/Hillary for America

I love two countries. America, where I was born, and Britain, where I will die. I desperately want to see both succeed as fair, equitable, and socialist countries. There are people I love in both countries who are hurting. Cuts to benefits, the high cost of healthcare, and stagnant wages are all making life a living hell for the working classes.

When, in August of last year, I endorsed Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership in a column for the Gay UK Magazine, I did so saying he had “all the electability and relevance of a Womble.” (Are you asking what a Womble is? Exactly.) Still, he was the best of an underwhelming lot, and the most anti-austerity of the bunch. So I tepidly threw support behind him.

I couldn’t imagine the overwhelming mandate that Jeremy would win. Nobody could. Registered supporters, sure. Unions, probably. But even Labour Party members voted overwhelmingly for him, something I—and no other pundit, so far as I know—predicted. Jeremy captured a zeitgeist that I felt well swept up in, myself: young urban socialists, disenchanted by Tory Austerity and Blairite “modernisation.” Many of us were young enough not to remember the bitter disputes of the 1980s, and those of us who weren’t largely fell into the camp that left (or was expelled, depending on whom you ask) by Neil Kinnock. We are angry, and we are right to be so.

But over the past few months, since Jeremy won the leadership race, I’ve seen Labour’s electoral chances nosedive. Labour is nine points down from the Tories in the latest YouGov poll. Jeremy, who we elected on an anti-austerity platform which, on the issues anyway, is largely supported by the British people, has utterly failed to turn the momentum of his campaign into any sort of tangible strategy. Instead of kitchen table issues, he’s focused on unilateral nuclear disarmament (something British voters don’t support), withdrawing from NATO (something else the British voters don’t support), and blundered on questions such as whether he’d shoot to kill a terrorist (I bloody well hope he would). No, not all of this is his fault—the media has been jarringly and unabashedly biased against him and miscreants from within the Parliamentary Labour Party, led by Simon Danczuk have been undermining his leadership since before he was elected. But the fact remains that as party leader, responsibility ultimately falls to Jeremy Corbyn, whose mismanagement thus far indicates he may be a leader in name only.

Two things have influenced my change of heart. One is this brilliant BBC documentary from the 1990s about the Labour Party in the 1980s. I’m a scholar of 1980s Britain, and I knew well how tumultuous the decade had been for the party. But hearing it from the people who lived it, speaking 20 years ago when power was within reach, and juxtaposing that to now when power is so far from us was eye-opening. We are repeating the past, and unless something changes, we will be damned in 2020 as we were in 1983.

Another is this blog by Jade Azim of the Young Fabians, widely circulated last November and succinctly titled “Sod It.” Jade, like a great many of us, was quite fed up with the Parliamentary Labour Party and, for that matter, the Twitter Labour Party, ripping into one another instead of the Tories. Unlike a great many of us, Jade had the guts to actually say something. It’s a poignant read about the disillusionment of a working class girl who became involved in politics to make changes that actually meant something. While champagne socialists natter on about Trident and defend Russia from any critique (looking at you, Seamus Milne), working class families like mine are worried about paying the rent, accessing our GP, and making sure our disability benefits—which we depend on to survive—aren’t cut by Iain Duncan Smith or a Republican-controlled Congress.

The gist of Jade’s blog can be summed up in one sentence: “give me a Blairite government over a Tory one any day. Call it ‘Red’ Tory, it’s still not bloody Tory.” Or, in other words, we have to work with the world as it is, not the world as we’d like it to be. The litmus test for politicians must be whether they deliver results, not whether they’re ideologically pure.

Which brings me to Iowa.

I can’t lie and say I haven’t long been a Hillary Clinton supporter. Those who know me know I campaigned for her in 2008. But my politics have shifted decidedly left since then, when I was still supporting the Conservative Party in the UK, and Bernie Sanders—like Jeremy Corbyn—has been a breath of fresh air. A solid candidate with democratic socialist (though not traditional socialist) credentials, he has struck a chord with the populist, left-wing contingent of the Democratic Party. Not since 2004 have I been this undecided this close to the Iowa caucuses, but with his proposals for a single-payer healthcare system (something I’ve long championed) and a return to Glass-Steagall in order to regulate Wall Street, I began to feel the Bern.

But then, Hillary Clinton said something in the last Democratic debate that struck a chord, and made me think of Jeremy Corbyn. She called herself a “pragmatic progressive,” something she’s driven home before. In a debate last year, she said “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive that likes to get things done.” She promises not what’s fantastic, but what’s feasible.

And on this, she has a point. Whether we like to admit it or not, the Republicans are likely to retain both houses of Congress this November. That means that whoever is elected president will have to work with Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the conservative movement which has hijacked our democracy. This isn’t me being Chicken Little; it’s a fact. And as Clinton pointed out in the debate, President Obama couldn’t get a public/single-payer option through with the Affordable Care Act, and he had a majority in both houses. The fact is the American people, or at least their representatives, don’t have an appetite for it. I don’t like it any more than Bernie Sanders does, but alas, we have to work with what we’ve got.

I didn’t get into politics to debate abstract socialist orthodoxy. I got into it to help the people from whence I came, people like my friends back in Leslie County, Kentucky who are losing health insurance thanks to Governor Matt Bevan. I’d love a single-payer system in America, but it’s not going to happen. At least not now. We’re still fighting just to make sure everyone can access affordable, let alone free-at-the-point-of-access, healthcare. For my friends and family back home, Bernie Sanders talks a big game. But what about now? What can be done now? Fighting for a single-payer system sounds great until you’re dying of black lung and can’t afford your treatment. Taking principled stands on wealth redistribution are noble until a Republican president and his Republican-controlled congress cuts your Social Security Disability Insurance. Then what?

Hillary is far from perfect. She hasn’t always been great on LGBT rights, but then, neither has Bernie Sanders. And as I wrote for the Daily Dot, Hillary’s stance on the Black Lives Matter movement needs some serious work.  Clinton’s record on incarceration and her links to the for-profit-prison industry are deeply troubling, and Sanders has been likewise tone deaf at times. Neither candidate has done enough to embrace this cause.

But Clinton has proven her muster on a range of issues, from reproductive justice to gun control. Her foreign policy credentials are impeccable. Yes, she voted for the Iraq war and Bernie Sanders didn’t. But one vote thirteen years ago is just not enough to prove you’re ready to be commander-in-chief. (After all, Jeremy Corbyn voted against Iraq too yet wants to negotiate a new Falklands settlement with Argentina.) Hillary has shown a deep understanding of the threats facing our country, from Daesh (ISIS) to Russia to the situation in the Taiwan Strait. She has a deep understanding of the realities of geopolitics and a longstanding commitment to human rights throughout the world. Nobody can deny this. The Republicans are still trying to make a meal out of the bones of our lost heroes in Benghazi, but her performance at the Congressional hearings prove her ability to neutralise their bogus attacks.

My heart lies with Bernie. God, would I love a Sanders presidency. But if I have to choose between a progressive reality and a socialist dream, I’m going with the former. I followed my heart with endorsing Jeremy Corbyn, and the party is in shambles. Labour has four years to course-correct, though. The Democrats have nine months. We have a straightforward choice: ideology or electability, principle or pragmatism. In both cases, I choose the latter.

That’s why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.

Skylar’s Naughty and Nice List 2015

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It’s Christmas Eve, the night that Santa makes his list and checks it twice before delivering presents to the children of the world. 2015 has been a chaotic year in which we’ve seen the best and worst of humanity. But who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? Here’s five of each!

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5. Simon Danczuk

He’s terrible. From telling LBC that Jeremy Corbyn would face a “coup” on “day one” of his leadership (spoilers: he didn’t) to continually undermining Jez’s leadership in right-wing rags, Danczuk has shown that he’s less dedicated to ensuring a Labour victory in 2020 than he is to his own vainglorious spotlight. Far from the leader of the Blairites (that mantle goes to Liz Kendall, who has shown not only grace in defeat but a remarkable reticence and resilience), Danczuk has largely behaved like a petulant child in his Daily Mail columns, revealing details of meetings with Corbyn and basically throwing a national temper tantrum. Stop it, Simon. It’s not a good look. And it’s not helpful

4. The mainstream media

Fuck, where do I even begin? From questioning Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism because he didn’t sing God Save the Queen to calling him a hypocrite because he said he would in the future, to complaining he didn’t bow deep enough at the Cenotaph (when he was the only party leader to hang around and talk to veterans) to labelling him a terrorist sympathiser without critically analysing his positions, to just yesterday claiming that he cancelled Christmas because he won’t have a Christmas Eve presser (looking at you, Telegraph), you’ve been so incredibly biased that a self-avowed Tory—Nick Robinson—has criticised your lopsided coverage. In America, the press has routinely trotted out tired tropes about Hillary Clinton, ignored the meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders, and allowed Donald Trump to spout of racist, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic bullshit with little pushback (this time looking at you, George Stephanopoulos). Indeed, the US broadcasters have built Trump up and covered him as though he were an event rather than a candidate for President of the United States of America. The mainstream press has done a horrible job of covering politics in an objective fashion this year. A pox on all your houses.

3. Iain Duncan Smith

The bedroom tax has been a failure, and IDS knows it. Thing is, he buried the damning findings under almost 400 other reports on the last day Parliament met this year. 75% of those affected by the bedroom tax have had to cut back on food; 40% of those affected have cut back on heating. He has gutted the welfare state with a glee not seen since the Grinch stole Christmas, and it’s been sickening. While we fight over Labour MPs abstaining from the latest round of benefits cuts, let’s never forget that it’s actually the Tories what done it.

2. Katie Hopkins

For the first time, we have a repeat. Katie Hopkins made my 2013 naughty list, and here she is again. Why? Because she’s fucking awful. Her heartless comments about refugees, from asking the press to show her bodies floating in the Mediterranean to calling migrants ‘cockroaches’ to fat-shaming people without really tackling the emotional and physical realities of obesity, Hopkins has time and time again proven that she is a heartless bigot who gives no fucks about the feelings of others or the consequences of her words. She routinely stokes xenophobia and Islamaphobia, most recently backing Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and supporting the US ban on a Walthamstow Muslim family that was travelling to Disneyland. She’s horrible.

1. Donald Trump

The man is a monster, and no, I’m not referring to whatever is happening on top of his head. (Seriously Donald, what the fuck even is that?) I’ve never liked Donald Trump. He’s always seemed obnoxious to me. I’m from the American south, so that makes sense. Yankees are rude. But from the moment he announced for president, Trump has proven he’s a thoroughly despicable human being. Whether calling Mexicans “rapists” or making sexist comments about women (Megyn Kelly’s “bleeding out of wherever” or Hillary Clinton’s “disgusting” pee break), he’s been a bigot from the beginning. It’s hard to say which of Trump’s fascist, undemocratic comments was the most odious this year, but his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is a top contender. It is certainly the most un-American. We are a country founded on religious freedom and tolerance, one which has long embraced Muslims as our brethren. But this is the year that Trump decided nah, we weren’t going to do that anymore. What’s frightening is that so many Americans agreed with him. We do not have religious tests to patriotism in America, and the fact that Trump is trying to institute one to even enter the country is terrifying. He is the devil. He must be stopped. I am more scared for my country now than I was after 9/11. Trump. Must. Be. Stopped.

Dishonourable mentions: George Osborne, Ted Cruz, George Galloway 

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5. Jess Phillips

Wow. It’s rare that a new MP emerges as a rock star, but Jess Phillips certainly has. First elected in May, her maiden speech was on point. “I am deeply committed to improving our country’s response to victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse in all its forms. Having worked for years in a service that operated refuges, rape crisis, child sexual exploitation services and human trafficking services, I know that we need to do more.” In the subsequent months, she has become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and has gained a reputation as a straight talker, promising to knife Jeremy Corbyn in the front, rather than from behind—a far cry from her compatriot Simon Danczuk’s scheming. She’s got critics on the hard left, some of whom will likely chastise me for putting her on the nice list. But I believe Jess Phillips is the future of the Labour Party, and that given the chance, she can prove to be a key legitimiser of anti-austerity measures. This is a woman who gets it.

4. Iain Dale

Iain and I agree on almost nothing. I first started following him in 2010, when I was still a Tory. Now I’m a Corbynista. Yet over the past several months, I’ve listened to Iain’s LBC show rather religiously, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. He’s a journalist who lets his biases be clearly known, but also attempts to be as fair as possible given those biases. He has challenged people who have called in to slag off Jez for the unfair talking points advanced by the Murdoch press and Simon Danczuk, and he’s had an open and sympathetic mind to Jeremy. Sure, he doesn’t agree with him, but he sure does seem to recognise the innate bias against him and he often questions its fairness. This is unusual for a right-wing journalist (*ahem* Dan Hodges). Iain isn’t perfect, but he’s far better than most of his colleagues at covering Corbyn.

3. Owen Jones

Owen Jones got a lot of flack for the New Statesman cover trumpeting his trip inside “the Jungle”—their words, not mine. “The Jungle” is, of course, what the refugees stuck in the Calais migrant camp call their home, and coming from a white journalist can be seen as problematic. Thing is, as Owen routinely reminds us, he doesn’t write the headlines. Still, his reporting was enlightening and brought to the national consciousness the humanity at the heart of the refugee crisis. He did this, it should be said, before it was fashionable to write about refugees. He saw the writing on the walls and he went, and he challenged us. Owen did that all year, actually. In February, he made some enemies in the radical feminist circles when he (it must be said, finally) trumpeted public support for trans people. He hasn’t backed down since. And his steadfast support of Jeremy Corbyn has been remarkable considering he’s basically the only mainstream British columnist who actually had the fortitude to support—and continue to support—the beleaguered Labour leader. I’ve long been a fan of Owen’s (he was an honourable mention on last year’s nice list), but this is the year I became a stan.

2. Justin Trudeau

I rushed home from the airport to watch the Canadian election results come in. This is weird for me; though I write about international politics, Canada is somewhere that doesn’t often register in my analysis. Yet I knew this was a pivotal election. My neighbour to the north had, for a decade, been governed by a neocon who had pillaged its land (see: tar sands) and ignored its most marginalised. Trudeau, in less than two months, has begun to transform Canada back into that bastion of equality and goodwill we all know it is. He’s been photographed embracing Syrian refugees, he’s opened up investigations into missing indigenous women, and he’s appointed the most racially and gender diverse cabinet in the world. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders hope to stoke the flames of international progressivism. Justin Trudeau has lit this shit on fire.

1. The people of Walthamstow

I don’t know where to begin. You have shown me the most kindness and the most hospitality of anyone this year. It was serendipitous that I wound up in E17 covering the general election in May. I crowdfunded at trip to London and needed a cheap hotel. What I didn’t know then, but I’ve come to appreciate, is that my cheap hotel is a massive part of the problem in Walthamstow. Regeneration is destroying a vibrant working class community, displacing thousands of people who have called the area home for generations. But the residents are fighting back, as I learned on my first day there—when I had the privilege of interviewing Nancy Taaffe and Sarah Sachs-Eldridge—and subsequently, speaking to local residents at Lloyd Park, the Goose, and this random gay night at a pub whose name escapes me but is somewhere on Hoe Street. The time I spent in Walthamstow was, by far, the highlight of my year. I felt at home, and I made a home, amongst these wonderful people. When news of the “Walthamstow Riot”—a street fight amongst 200+ teenage girls—broke, I laughed. Not because it’s funny, but because the media overblew the story and also because that McDonald’s was out of mozzarella sticks then as it was when I was last there in May. (Seriously, McDonald’s, get your shit together.) When the media was reporting that an anti-war protest marched outside of local MP Stella Creasy’s house, I was sceptical. My gut was right. Walthamstow doesn’t do that. They marched to her office. And the fact that a grassroots march organised so rapidly is impressive. It was peaceful and local, and it was magical. I’m constantly in awe of the amazing left-wing activists in E17 and the things that they’re doing. I admire you, I tip my hat to you, and I desperately want to join you. This has most recently been demonstrated in this amazing community rallying around a local Muslim family denied entry into the USA for reasons unknown. (Stella Creasy has tried to get answers from the US Embassy but they’re not acknowledging her, which is troubling.) Walthamstow, you made me feel like one of you. You supported me, encouraged me, congratulated me, and took me in. I never once felt like a stranger. Your activists showed me the true face of the British left—one the media should acknowledge—which is warm, inviting, kind, and generous. I love you. I want to join you. I want to be one of you. You are the best of Britain, full stop.

Honourable mentions: David Lammy, Mhairi Black, John Oliver

Whichever list you find yourself on this year, I hope you have a very merry Christmas. Thank you for reading my work, whether here, in the Gay UK Magazine, at the Daily Dot, or elsewhere. I appreciate your support and encouragement. I have one or two more blog posts that’ll be coming before year’s end, so watch this space. Until then—Happy Christmas from The Curious American.

x. Skylar

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

lgbtwhip

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.

I don’t need “clarification,” Governor Pence. Indiana’s RFRA is state-sanctioned discrimination.

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of   orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

In what the Indianapolis Star calls “the deepest crisis of his political career,” Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor, continues to support his state’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Speaking to the paper on Saturday, Governor Pence said that whilst he will seek legislation “clarifying” the intent of the law, he stands behind it. The massive backlash, he insists, is due to “misunderstanding driven by misinformation.”

This has been a common refrain among supporters of the RFRAs popping up in state houses throughout the country. To date, 19 states have passed laws similar to the federal one which, as conservatives like to use as a trump card, was signed into law by that Democratic darling President Clinton. (You know, the man who also signed the Defence of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?) Indeed, Governor Pence couldn’t help but mention this fact in a statement released after a private signing of the law, while also citing similar laws in neighbouring states Illinois and Kentucky.

Now, as chance may have it, I live in Illinois, which passed an RFRA in 1998, a year after the Supreme Court ruled the federal RFRA did not apply to the states. However, as the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this week, Illinois lawmakers have balanced RFRA with statewide protections for LGBT people. Before moving to Chicago nearly four years ago, though, I lived a decade in Kentucky, the state I still call home.

Kentucky’s law—passed in 2013—was initially vetoed by Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat. It became law when the General Assembly, including the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, overrode the governor’s veto. But some conservative activists said the law would not have any real consequences for LGBT Kentuckians. This law isn’t going to have an effect they think it’s going to have,” Martin Cothran, of the right-wing Family Foundation of Kentucky, told the Associated Press at the time. “All of the case law is going in the other direction. It’s not going in the direction of over-protecting people’s religious freedom. We’d like to see something a lot stronger than this.”

A year later Cothran’s wish was granted. In a landmark—and now infamous—decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that crafting giant Hobby Lobby could not be mandated to provide contraception to its employees, as it violated the company’s First Amendment right to free expression of religion. In this brave new world where corporations are people, states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and now Indiana were emboldened to pass their own RFRA laws, which broadened the scope of protection to include corporations and businesses. These laws were worded so vaguely that even some Republicans, such as the mayor of Indianapolis and, most famously, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out in opposition, the latter vetoing her own state’s RFRA because of fears it could lead to “unintended and negative consequences” and hurt businesses, something that is beginning to happen in Indiana.

But the ability to discriminate against LGBT people is a very intentional consequence of the Indiana bill, despite what Governor Pence says. As Buzzfeed reported, Indiana’s law allows for a RFRA defence even when the government is not party to a lawsuit, which is something the federal RFRA doesn’t do. It also allows this defence to be mounted against any state or local law, which as the potential of invalidating the citywide fairness ordinances a handful of Indiana jurisdictions have passed. This means the potential exists for landlords, hotels, and restaurants to openly discriminate against LGBT people, something which has already begun. A restaurant owner called Ryan phoned an Indiana radio station to say that not only has he already discriminated against gay people, but he intends to do so in the future, as the law allows.

And while Governor Brewer feared “unintended consequences” in Arizona, this was very much the intended consequence in Indiana. Governor Pence invited several right-wing lobbyists who worked to pass the bill to the private signing. One of them was Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana (AFAIN). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the AFA an anti-LGBT hate group, and AFAIN’s website shares many homophobic and transphobic stories. It also includes a quote from then-Congressman Mike Pence, praising the organisation and its Indiana leader. “I have known and worked with Micah Clark for over a decade,” Pence is quoted, “and I can tell you that you’re standing behind a pro-family, pro-life leader…” (“Pro-family” has long been a conservative dog whistle meaning “anti-LGBT”.)

Another of the lobbyists present at the singing was Eric Miller of Advance America, which not only has a history of transphobic and homophobic rhetoric, but actually posted a blog on its website following the bill’s success, which read in part:

[RFRA] will help protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers). Here are just three examples:

  • Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!
  • A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom!

  • A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding! [emphasis is original]

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Governor Pence can repeat himself until he’s blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that Indiana’s RFRA was clearly intended to and will allow discrimination against LGBT Indianans. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being passed now—the next battleground is Arkansas—are not meant, as the federal law and the 1998 Illinois law, to protect religious minorities from burdensome government regulations. They are meant to allow merchants operating in the public marketplace to refuse service to those they don’t like.

This law is nothing more than state sanctioned homophobia and transphobia, and no amount of “clarification” will change that.

2014 And All That: A primer for the new year

Goodbye-2013-hello-2014-wallpaper

Right. Where was I? So here we are on Blue Monday, when the festive warmth dissipates and we suddenly realise that, without the intoxicating mix of Christmas lights and liquor, bloody hell, this weather is shit. We also realise that politics is, too.

What did we miss over the holiday season? Nick Griffin went bankrupt, as did Britain (at least according to George Osbourne). Ming Campbell began drafting the coalition divorce decree, whilst apparently most of Sunderland is drafting their own. Michael Gove created an uproar by making the past a topic of present debate. Nigel Farage did the opposite, proving decisively that he’d like the present to feel more like the past.

But while Gove and Farage look backwards, the media pundits and this fledgling blogger are looking forward. The standard prognostications have been made. Iran will take centre stage, Ukip will write the narrative of the European elections, Simon will return to X Factor.

So, joining the chorus of predictions, I offer a few buzzwords you should listen for in 2014.

1. Intersectionality

Anyone who has ever trolled the internet is familiar with the oft-derided phrase “check your privilege,” and Laurie Penny and Louise Mensch famously debated its usage last year. What most people don’t know is CYP’s provenance. Intersectionality, at its most basic, is a feminist theory that our experiences in this world are dictated by the varying degrees of privilege and disadvantage our many identities bring us. It’s the place where gender meets race, class, sexual orientation, disability, religion and so on. Before 2013, I’d rarely heard the term used outside of a gender studies classroom. With the rising refusal of many on social media to check their privilege, coupled with the emergence of such hashags as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #NotYourAsianSidekick, and #BlackPowerYellowPeril, I expect 2014 is the year intersectionality enters mainstream consciousness.

2. Independence

Scotland will vote on whether it ought to secede from the United Kingdom in September. This alone is enough to propel the word into the public discourse. But the ramifications of Scotland’s vote will have global consequences, from Catalonia to Chechnya. Even Quebec might start looking at nationhood again. Also in the mix is South Sudan, the world’s newest state, which ended the year with the start of one of the world’s bloodiest (and most under reported) internal conflicts, which is sure to raise questions about the stability of any sovereignty movement looking to create a new country. (See: Kurdistan.)

3. Somme

Less a prediction and more an observation, I confess. 2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and as mentioned above, we’ve already seen politicians trying to capitalise and rewrite history. Expect this to continue throughout the year, with Ukip using it to argue against a pan-European identity, the Tories using it to argue for a British identity, Labour using it to argue in favour of a multicultural identity, and the LibDems throwing their exasperated hands up.

Other words to keep an ear out include libertarian (with the parallels of Ukip to the American Tea Party and US midterm elections), Hillary (will she or won’t she), heterosexism (the presumption everyone is straight, and that being so is the norm), healthy obesity (expect a a heavy debate on weight-pun intended), al Qaeda (it’s been a few years since this was bandied about, but with the recent loss of Fallujah to the terrorist organisation, al Qaeda has proven to still be a threat), Zac Goldsmith (if airport expansion continues the way it’s going, he could throw quite the curve ball to Cameron), the Troubles (the Haass talk broke up with no agreement, meaning questions of the past will continue to plague Northern Ireland’s future), and globalisation (of the economy, the markets, feminism, gay rights).

If the first six days have proven anything, it’s that 2014 will be anything but dull. Watch this space.