Sunday, 16 October 2016

Ched Evans' conviction is overturned. Where do we go from here?

Girls and women who have been raped need to report rape. They need to feel safe, they need to be taken seriously, they need to be treated with dignity and respect. And, at the same time, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an essential pillar of the criminal justice system of any civilised society.

When it comes to rape statistics, we will never know for sure how many women are raped each year. It is well established that the crime of rape is underreported and, in many cases, girls and women do not realise they have been raped until a long time after the event and, because of the nature of the crime, the physical evidence is long gone and convictions are difficult.

Today, the headlines in relation to the terrible, thoroughly unedifying Ched Evans case, and subsequent overturning of the guilty verdict for rape, focus on the court admitting evidence about the woman's sexual history.

Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act allows for evidence of this nature to be used in rape trials if strict criteria are met, where the evidence pertains to issues of consent and when the sexual behaviour of the complainant is so similar to the events of the trial that the similarity cannot be described as a coincidence.

In the Evans case, two witnesses came forward to testify that the complainant used the words "Fuck me harder" while adopting a position where she was penetrated from behind. One witness said he had sex with her in this manner the night before the incident took place and the other said this happened two weeks after the incident. Evans testified during the retrial that this reflects his experience on the night in question.

What is disturbing is that in the first trial, Evans told the court that he did not speak to the complainant before, during or after sex, yet in the retrial, the wordless encounter suddenly changes to one where she told him to fuck her harder.

There can be no further trials in relation to the events of 29 May 2011 in a Rhyll Premier Inn. And there have been calls to change Section 41 because it might deter future rape victims from coming forward. Given this has been splashed all over the papers, even though Section 41 is seldom applied, it is easy to see how rape victims who have led anything other than a life of saintly chastity may well be put off from coming forward.

But what is truly depressing here is that even if Section 41 did not exist, the treatment of the woman at the centre of the appalling saga is already more than enough to stop girls and women reporting rape. Personally, I find aspects of the text of Section 41 uncomfortable to read but even if it was repealed, I don't think complainants in high profile rape cases will be treated with any more respect.

Trolls have revealed the identity of the complainant in the Ched Evans case online on multiple occasions. Five times now, she has had to change her identity and move away. Twitter has become a particularly repulsive cesspit of misogyny, of loose interpretations of consent and of rape apology. At best, the complainant, waking up as she did with a vile hangover and, according to her testimony, having no recollection of the previous night's events, experience what Katie Roiphe described in her controversial 1994 book, The Morning After, as "regrettable sex".

And a night of regrettable sex, the kind of sex where you are not sure what happened, whether it was at all pleasurable and where you wake up in a pool of your own urine, should not be something that haunts you for the rest of your life. Even if you then make a rape complaint that ends up being overturned at retrial, you do not deserve to be constantly outed online, to be forever on the run, to be hiding your true identity whenever you make new friends or attempt to start a new relationship. The complainant in the Evans case has suffered and will continue to suffer. Anyone who is baying for her blood and demanding she be punished can rest easy. She is being punished on a daily basis.

And she is not alone.

The crime of rape is unique in the way victims are often aggressively targeted in a way that does happen with other crimes. If someone is robbed by someone they know, they're not likely to be asked what they were thinking recklessly letting that person into their house previously so they could see what was worth nicking and where it was kept. But if you're raped by someone you know, especially if you've consented to sex with them before or you're in a relationship with them, you could easily be made to feel as if you were somehow asking for it.

I was sexually assaulted in Dubai in 2006 when I was walking home from a film festival at an art gallery. I couldn't find a taxi so I started to walk, foolishly buying into the myth that it's a completely safe city for women. A man, who was sitting at a bus stop long after the buses had stopped for the night, pulled me off the footpath, put one hand down my neckline, the other up my dress, tore my tights and made a scratch on my chest. I managed to get away by elbowing him in the chest, throwing the burger I was eating at him and ducking under his arm.

I decided to report the crime, partly because I was not actually raped. Thus I knew I'd be safe from facing an adultery charge if the case was ever disproved in a court of law, which is a particularly terrible aspect of UAE law. When I made the initial call to the police, it was answered by an amateur, misogynistic Perry Mason wannabe who asked me what I was wearing, whether I was drunk, why I was walking alone at night and if I was making it all up. Luckily, a friend referred me to a very senior office in Dubai Police who took the case very seriously and was entirely respectful.

My attacker was never caught but I was glad that the incident did not simply wither away as yet another unreported sex attack in Dubai, where I am quite certain the sexual assault and rape statistics are artificially low. And friends who did not live in the UAE scoffed at how backwards it all was, how the Perry Mason wannabe was a disgrace, and asked if it was time I left the country, even though I'd been living there less than a year.

But in wake of the reactions to the Ched Evans case, and of people from across the world apologising for Donald Trump, it is clear there are very few places where girls and women are not made to feel ashamed for reporting sex crimes. There are still plenty of people out there with a very poor grasp of how consent works and are happy to dismiss vile behaviour of men towards girls and women as "locker room banter" or simply boys being boys, alpha men being alpha men.

Alpha men like Ched Evans who is still playing football for a living, is still planning to marry the woman on whom he cheated in a Rhyll hotel room, and is still hailed by many as hero...

Photography by Hessam/Flickr. Posed by a model in no way connected to the Ched Evans trial. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

An open letter to left-leaning Brexiters

Dear left-leaning Brexiters,

I understand why right-leaning Brexiters voted to leave the EU in May, even if I fundamentally disagree with them. But this letter is not for them. This letter is for the left-of-centre people - in many cases, the hardcore, far-left-let's-destroy-capitalism people - who voted to leave the EU.

What the everloving fuck were you hoping to achieve? What the everloving fuck did you think would happen if the majority actually did vote to leave the EU? Did you really think leaving the EU would amount to some sort of socialist victory? Why could you not see that it was a choice between two forms of capitalism? Are you really so dim as to believe that leaving the EU was going to herald some sort of workers' revolution?

"But this means we're free from TTIP!", I hear you whine.

TTIP has been killed, largely by France. France has been against TTIP from the get-go and in August, President Hollande stalled negotiations again. Couple this with growing opposition in Germany and Angela Merkel desperate to retain power, and there you have it - the two big hitters of the EU in no position to proceed.

But it isn't just French obstruction or a strong German protest movement that is halting TTIP. Labour and Green MEPs were doing excellent behind-the-scenes work to negotiate terms, going through TTIP with a fine toothed comb. Unfortunately, "behind-the-scenes" are the operative words here - nobody bothered to find out about what our MEPs were doing for us. And soon we will have no MEPs, no power of veto in Brussels, and we will be wide open to a US-UK trade deal, regardless of who wins the US election. If anyone thinks that will be a win for Britain, they're deluded.

"But I wanted to kick Cameron out!", I hear you moan.

Yeah, about that. How is that working out for you, dear lefties? When Cameron quit, the glee was palpable on the left, even though at the time, it seemed to herald an inevitable Boris Johnson move to 10 Downing Street. When that fell through, and Andrea Leadsom revealed herself to be awful and inept all at once, Theresa May became prime minister by default. And she is embracing hard Brexit and pandering to the hard right Brexiters like a long lost lover. So much for the safe pair of hands. It is more like a stampeding pair of jackboots at the moment.

And if you are Lexiter who claims to care about the NHS or scientific research or access to the latest medicines, please hang your head in shame. You are part of the problem, contributing to a vote that will probably end freedom of movement and further compound NHS staffing woes, could cost us our European Health Insurance Card for medical treatment in the EU, the risk of lost research funding as part of the EU, and missing out on being part of clinical trials as part of the harmonised approach to medicines regulation. And you have pretty well lost the right to berate Jeremy Hunt about his ridiculous plan to grow more British doctors, despite making the medical profession less attractive than it has ever been to bright students.

Feel free to wave placards about hospital closures and cuts if you like, it's allegedly a free country, but do know that your vote to leave the EU will make whatever we have left of our health system even more precarious. You are just as absurd as anyone who voted to leave the EU because they genuinely believed Boris' bus of bullshit with the stupid "£350 million for the NHS" claim.

Sorry, Lexiters, but you have dropped a bollock. You have helped the hard right usher in a new era of awful policy and there are plenty of aspects of the Theresa May-led hard Brexit that are appealing to a wide number of people. On top of this, we're left with a hapless opposition with which the hard left is enamoured, even though peak Corbyn has been reached with a stacked and skewed inflated membership. Sorry, but this does not actually reflect what the wider electorate is thinking or wants for Britain. Theresa May is currently on a mission to out-UKIP UKIP and it is working. She is being very careful to find just the right level of UKIP-ness for the electorate to tolerate to keep the Tories in power for a very long time.

For those who voted Brexit because they wanted a hard Brexit with no access to the common market and no freedom of movement, congratulations on getting what you signed up for on 23 June. For everyone else who voted out with a completely different idea of what Brexit might look like, you've made your bed and now we all must lie in it. And for those who voted Brexit because they genuinely thought it would result in some sort of socialist revolution, you are genuinely dangerous and stupid.

If I have offended anyone, I really don't care.

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, militant remain voter

Photography by threefishsleeping/Flickr

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Kim Kardashian bound and robbed at gunpoint. The hilarity.

It is one thing to be nonplussed by the story this week that reality TV star Kim Kardashian was bound and robbed at gunpoint in Paris. But it is quite another to be openly gleeful about this turn of events and to publicly express one's joy at a wife and mother of two young children becoming the victim of violent crime.

"But she was asking for it, tweeting all those photos of her jewellery, flashing her wealth around like that..."

People who wouldn't dream of blaming rape victims for their own rape have blamed Kim Kardashian for her own robbery. But the most she is guilty of is bad taste and ostentation when she tweets another fabulous gemstone. You may find this obscene when there are people starving, but it's not justification for violent crime. Hell, people who wouldn't know one end of Twitter from the other get robbed of their valuables. Quiet people get robbed. Discreet people get robbed. Anyone who an opportunistic thief might suspect as having stuff they want can get robbed.

Jodi Foster, for example, would probably sooner drive a clown car to Mars than tweet a picture of her jewellery but it is well-known that she is a wealthy woman. Yet if she was bound and robbed at gunpoint, she would probably elicit more sympathy than a Kardashian.

My husband has expressed concern for me when I wear my engagement ring on public transport. The ring is not necessarily worth much financially but sentimentally, it is priceless. It is my grandmother's ruby and it is not a subtle ring. If some lunatic cut my ruby-clad ring finger off or made me hand it over at gunpoint while I was minding my own business on the tube, people would probably have plenty of sympathy for me. I've tweeted pictures of this ring. I wear it in public most days. Would I too be asking for it?

"She is just another useless reality TV star. Who cares?"

Welcome to fame in the modern world. This is a world where high school students view "reality TV star" or "YouTube sensation" as valid career choices. We have fed the beast by watching the TV shows, clicking on the YouTube link, reading about these people in newspapers and magazines and online, talking about them as if we know them personally. We have created the public interest for this sort of thing.

"But people get robbed all the time and it isn't front page news!"

Do you even understand how the media works? Stories that are considered to be of interest to the readers, viewers and listeners will get airplay. See the above point for why Kim Kardashian's robbery is more newsworthy than the bloke down the pub who had his mower nicked from the garden shed.

There are limits to how many stories any given news outlet can cover and it is up to news editors worldwide to make judgement calls on what will be published or broadcast, what gets priority, what the balance of subjects will be on any given day. Naturally people get upset if their pet cause doesn't get the attention they think it deserves but these people don't work as news editors and have no idea what the job entails or the competing pressures that are involved.

And the onus is also on everyone else, the consumers, to choose what media outlets we go to for our information. Don't want to read about Kim Kardashian? There are plenty of places to go where you will never see a Kardashian story. And guess what? Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can usually share stories you deem more worthwhile really easily.

Take some responsibility for your choices rather than passively whining about "the mainstream media".

And the Kim Kardashian robbery is newsworthy, especially if you live in Paris. If I lived in Paris, I might want to know that there is a gang of audaciously violent thieves out there.

Yes, there are people out there suffering more than Kim Kardashian probably ever will. But the outpouring of joy over an incident that could have ended in her death is gross. It has degenerated into people publicly wishing she was raped or murdered. Where the hell is our basic humanity?

Sometimes I wonder if we have evolved that much from the days of throwing Christians to the lions for entertainment.

Photography by George Hodan

Monday, 5 September 2016

Keith Vaz and the veneer of respectability

Everything old is new again. There is a Conservative woman at 10 Downing Street. The opposition leader is reminiscent of Michael Foot. I keep seeing teenaged girls in jeans similar to the ones I wore in about 1986. And, thanks to Keith Vaz, we have a good old-fashioned MP sex scandal all over the front pages once again.

Vaz has a long history of slipperiness. Time and again, he has remained in politics despite multiple scandals and became the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. But this latest scandal, exposed by The Mirror, involving male escorts, may well be the one that brings him down.

Based on the available evidence, Vaz has not broken any laws in relation to prostitution. It is not illegal to pay for sex. Soliciting is only illegal if it happens in a public place. It is not illegal for the escorts involved to accept payment for sex when it takes place in private or if they visit clients on outcalls. It does not appear that anyone involved in the party was underage. As far as we know, nobody was coerced or trafficked, although plenty of people have been disturbed by the text message exchange published by The Mirror in which the group plans to get a fourth man involved and Vaz texts: "Someone will need to break him tonight."

The poppers he took were not illegal. In fact, Vaz helped see to that when poppers were left off the list of banned once-legal highs in the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 and commented on their usefulness in facilitating anal sex. In the Mirror's sting, Vaz offered to pay for cocaine for two of the escorts but said he didn't want any himself. He could have been charged for carrying or buying the Class A drug if he had been caught handing over the cash in exchange for it or it was found on his person or in a bag he was carrying. But this does not appear to be the case either.

In short, most people are shocked because he has sold himself to the public as a married family man, a father of two who married his wife in a white wedding in a Roman Catholic church. Vaz himself is the one who created the veneer of supposed respectability.

Are we at a place in British society where the family man with a couple of kids is considered more respectable than an openly gay man? For the most part, most people probably don't give that much of a damn. Crispin Blunt, the openly gay Conservative MP for Reigate, outed himself as a user of poppers and this has not affected his political career. He is the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Ben Bradshaw is the popular, openly gay Labour MP for Exeter and his name is regularly cited as a potential leader, someone who might help steer Labour away from the hard left.

Coming out may not be considered an easy thing to do for a Roman Catholic man of Goan heritage. In India, homosexuality is still an offence and can be punished by a life sentence. It is unclear whether Vaz is gay, bisexual, likes men for sex but not necessarily for a relationship or whether sex with men is something he has started doing recently. We don't know if his wife knew any of this before the story broke, whether she was happy to help Vaz maintain his veneer of respectability (after all, she was heavily implicated in relation to interference with a citizenship application and a financial relationship with the Hinduja brothers at the centre of that particular Vaz scandal), or whether her inevitable embarrassment is now being compounded by complete and utter shock.

And the male escort sting may well be this scandal that finally ends his political career.

His backing of 42 days of detention without charge for terrorism suspects would not lose him too much support in these paranoid times. Like both Jeremy Hunt and Jeremy Corbyn, he has supported funding homeopathy on the NHS. This makes his an anti-science bunkum pedlar but it won't affect his career. He helped Anglo-Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi in his bid to avoid extradition to France to face fraud charges and he was a director of the British arm of Auchi's company, General Mediterranean Holdings. He has been suspended from the House of Commons for making false allegations about a former policewoman. He has been investigated by the Parliamentary standards watchdog over failing to declare several thousand pounds received from a solicitor. Shortly after being elected in 1989, he joined a march of Muslims in Leicester calling for Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses to be banned. So he is also a pro-censorship buffoon.

But he has censored his own life, edited his public persona and now he may finally come undone.

And here is where it gets interesting, here is where we find out what really shocks the British public or, more accurately, what attitudes still bubble below the surface. If he was more open about his sexuality, there probably wouldn't be the same level of vitriol and shock.

The Mirror's revelations have revived calls for Vaz to step down for helping shut down a probe in the 1990s into allegations of child sex abuse by Lord Janner, the former Leicester MP who died last December. In April last year, it was decided that because of his advanced dementia, he was unfit to stand trial on 22 counts of child sex abuse. But to link a scandal involving gay sex to a paedophile scandal that is entirely unrelated to Vaz's personal life is to perpetuate the harmful, awful lie that all male paedophiles are gay or to consistently link homosexuality to paedophilia. If Vaz really did stop justice being properly served in relation to Lord Janner in the 1990s, he should have stepped down a long time ago, regardless of what he gets up to private.

To bring up Lord Janner now, tying it to Vaz's latest scandal, is bogus, it builds yet another pathetic veneer of respectability that is as hollow as the one Vaz created for himself.

Vaz is also being accused of hypocrisy in relation to the Home Affairs Select Committee's recommendation that laws on soliciting and brothel-keeping be relaxed. The report found that while there was no clear evidence that decriminalising sex work reduced demand, it would make it easier for sex workers to report crimes such as assault and make it easier for sex workers seeking to quit the industry to change jobs. The report also recommended zero tolerance on exploitation. Vaz was quoted as saying it is wrong to penalise and stigmatise sex workers.

Is his own use of prostitutes enough to constitute a conflict of interest? After all, if there was a parliamentary committee into the effectiveness of, say, the NHS, something we've all used in this country, it would be nigh-on impossible to find someone whose views on the state of the nation's healthcare had not been coloured one way or another by their own experiences, either positive or negative.

Perhaps Vaz would have been more useful to the inquiry as a witness rather than the Chair?

Will the unearthed disgust at unfaithful husbands, at using multiple male prostitutes at the same time, at the lurid details involving a cavalier attitude to condom use, and even deep-seated homophobia mean the end of Keith Vaz? He may well be a hypocrite but, as far as we know, he has not actually broken any laws.

His political career should have come to an end years ago. He has developed a startling ability to climb down from his mountain of scandals and to thrive. But I suspect this one may be a bridge too far in the court of public opinion. We'll see.

Photography by George Hodan

Monday, 29 August 2016

Reflections on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

"For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..." These are the opening words on the inscription at the memorial to people murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And despair is the operative word for it is hard to imagine anyone leaving this place without a pall of despair hanging over them.

A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a visit to a place where the banal and the horrific intersect at every turn. At the Auschwitz site, my first thought was that the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign over the gate, a grotesque misrepresentation of what it means to work for living, was not as imposing as it appeared in my high school textbooks. Indeed, the whole Auschwitz site, at first glance, was not particularly terrifying and it is easy to imagine why countless innocent people may have been lulled into a false sense of security upon arrival. I felt a sense of guilt when I noted the stylishness of the art deco exterior lights on the buildings, which were formerly army barracks. But it somehow compounds the horror, that a place with elegant 1930s architectural detail still intact was also a place so unspeakably awful.

And once inside, it becomes clear that the buildings, which served as prisons, offices, laundries, execution facilities and even a brothel are very close together. The mundaneness of the laundry was being done next to a building where people died in starvation cells or were punished by spending all night in a standing cell, measuring just 90cm by 90cm, with three other people, before having to work all day the next day. The vile inventiveness of such inhumanity was overwhelming.

The display of thousands of shoes confiscated from prisoners on arrival was another incidence of the banal meeting the horrific. The sheer range of shoes piled high behind glass on either side of a darkened corridor was astounding - shoes in every size, men's shoes, women's shoes, children's shoes., boots, bedroom slippers, shoes that were meant to be worn to parties - along with all the household items people brought with them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it becomes clear very quickly that these helpless people thought they were going to be resettled rather than sent to be summarily executed or worked to death.

Again, I felt guilty when I spotted a pair of shoes in that tragic pile that I would choose for myself. But then that's the whole point of this sort of display. In different circumstances, it could one day be any one of us forced from our homes, gathering whatever possessions we could in the pitiful hope that our oppressors might just let us live peacefully somewhere with the people we love. The room full of household objects the prisoners took with them is heartbreaking testimony to the fact that, despite what the Nazi regime had already done, many still thought they were simply being resettled.

If I had been rounded up into a ghetto then bundled onto a cattle train in the early 1940s, then had to face selection - to be sent to the right to be sent to gruelling work or to the left for extermination - I'm pretty sure the guards would take one look at the scars on my club feet, and note that my feet were swollen from days of standing in the train and I was struggling to stand, let alone walk, and send me to the left. At the Birkenau site, a few minutes drive away, we traced the terrible path so many people took from the train to the gas chambers.

Like other genocidal regimes, the Nazis were fond of getting rid of educated people, the people they considered the "elite" - the writers, the teachers, the people who might question the brutality, the anti-semitism. Eliminating such people eliminating press freedom was essential for the enforcement of a cruel statist regime where conformity and mindless obedience would help ensure survival or even promotion.

When people today, from the left or the right, slag off the "elite" but actually mean educated people, it seems facile to cry "Godwin's law!". But visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau throws the whole notion of Godwin's law - the internet adage that the longer an online discussion takes place, the higher the likelihood of someone making a comparison to Hitler or Nazism becomes - into a tailspin.

Dark, gruesome extremes kept reminding me of things that are obviously not nearly as bad as Hitler or Nazism. The standing cells denied workers even the basic right to sleep and, absurdly, this made me think about what might happen if UK workers lose the protection of the European Working Time Directive. The whole place made me think about what a post-Brexit Britain may mean for human rights.

Hitler's effective censorship played a big role in keeping the media to his message, with little room for deviation or dissent. Our guide at Auschwitz-Birkenau spoke about Nazi control of the media. I kept thinking about all the people, especially those on the left, who constantly make attacks on a free media. Calling for the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg to be sacked (which I think is an utterly appalling thing to do) or the more unworkable bits of Leveson's recommendations are not quite the same as the Editors Law of 1933, where registries of "racially pure" journalist were kept, journalists had to register with the Reich Press Chamber and editors were legally bound to redact anything "calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home". But the obsession with an ideologically "pure" media - as in a media that never dares print anything you might disagree with - is dangerous and anti-freedom. It is still a mentality that has at its heart a desire to control what newspapers print and what radio and TV broadcasts to suit a single agenda.

It also made me think a lot about how a united Europe is surely better than one that is fragmented and, as is the case now, moving in multiple places towards the far right. Incidences of people being singled out on the basis of their race or religion are still happening, and seem to be happening more at the moment, with police stats bearing this out across parts of the UK.

On a global scale, ending the atrocities of Nazi Germany did not mean an end to genocide. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia all happened since 1945. Human rights abuses didn't come to an end. Racism didn't stop. Singling out people on the basis of race and religion carries on unabated. There are still anti-semitic morons who deny or downplay the holocaust.

The cry of despair on the memorial's inscription remains, utterly depressingly, a cry in the dark that has, in many corners of the world gone unheeded in many ways. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.

Photography by Paul McMillan

Sunday, 24 July 2016

We need to talk about Jeremy

The NHS should be a gift for Labour right about now. The opposition should be scoring points left, right and centre given the sorry state of the NHS at the moment. Jeremy Hunt is still the Health Secretary, clinging to the post like an incompetent, gurning barnacle, there is no end in sight to the junior doctors' dispute, and the little-reported Sustainable Transformation Plans threaten the future of hospitals across the land.

So naturally, in his first question time facing the new Prime Minister this week, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn didn't mention any of these things and opened the session with a question about the Orgreave Inquiry. Don't get me wrong - the events of 1984 involving a violent confrontation between miners and South Yorkshire police deserve scrutiny and bereaved families deserve justice and closure - but as far as opening gambits go on one of the most-watched sessions of Prime Minister's questions for 2016, it was not ever going to dominate the headlines. That is the harsh reality of modern politics. Dominate the news cycle or die. It's a shame Seamus Milne does not seem to understand this.

Theresa May didn't really give a straight answer to any of the questions anyone asked her but she didn't really have to. She just did an obviously rehearsed Diet Coke Thatcher routine and got away with it. Corbyn could have kicked off with an excoriating NHS question but he didn't. Instead, Labour MP Jamie Reed and Liberal-Democrat leader Tim Farron were the only members to mention the NHS. Reed invited Theresa May to visit a hospital in his constituency.

Corbyn - and his Labour leadership challenger, Owen Smith - are saying the same NHS soundbites that every NHS defender wants to hear. That it should be publicly funded, publicly run and free at the point of use (although this caveat leads to multiple interpretations on how the services should be provided and by whom). And it is only right that over the course of the Labour leadership campaign, both Corbyn and Smith are vigorously questioned on NHS policy and how it will be funded. Of course, if a journalist dares ask Corbyn a hard question on pretty much anything, the Corbynistas come out, pitchforks aloft, crying: "MAINSTREAM MEDIA BIAS! BLAIRITE MEDIA! RED TORY JOURNALISTS!". And then daft e-petitions do the rounds demanding journalists be sacked and that nobody rest until the BBC morphs into Pravda.

It's pathetic and it demeans democracy.

Owen Smith has been called out because he used to work for pharmaceutical company, Pfizer. And, if he is a potential future Prime Minister, he should expect his entire CV to be scrutinised with the same forensic brutality Andrea Leadsom was subject to before she stepped aside for Theresa May.

But the understandable desire to criticise Smith's previous employment turned into something utterly ridiculous under Corbyn's leadership this week. The desperation to slag off Smith and, as a bonus, big pharma, led to pitiful back-of-a-fag-packet policy formed on the hoof.

Jeremy Corbyn said: "I hope Owen will fully agree with me that our NHS should be free at the point of use, should be run by publicly employed workers working for the NHS not for private contractors, and medical research shouldn't be farmed out to big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and others but should be funded through the Medical Research Council".

Not only did Corbyn fail to make it clear exactly who is "farming out" research to pharmaceutical companies, but he clearly advocated full nationalisation of all medical research. How else could this statement be interpreted?

This morning on Marr on the BBC, shadow chancellor John McDonnell was asked about this statement. He insisted that Corbyn was "misrepresented". McDonnell said medical research needs to be "better managed and more effective" and that we should be "increasing our resources". Fine. Fair enough. That all sounds great but one would expect the shadow chancellor to be able to explain how this would be funded.

Last year, the Medical Research Council spent £506 million on research grants. It's one of those figures that sounds like a lot of money to most of us because it's a figure we'll probably never see when we pull a mini statement out of an ATM. But Pfizer spent £4.8 billion. One company alone had a research budget to dwarf that of the MRC. If Corbyn and McDonnell are serious about implementing such a policy if they ever manage to take hold of the levers of power, they had better explain how it will be funded. That is their job as an alternative government, to explain how they would alternatively govern.

On the BBC, Andrew Marr pointed out that the policy of cutting back tax breaks on research for pharmaceutical companies would only save around £200 million per year. McDonnell floundered again, saying Corbyn was not about taking money away from companies but he was about "managing it more effectively so it's better used". Marr went on to add that the MRC has a budget of less than a billion pounds per year and that it costs more than that to bring one single drug to market.

Naturally, Twitter exploded with frothing Corbynistas fulminating on "BBC right wing bias". No. It was merely a case of Andrew Marr doing his damn job. We still have no idea how the Labour Party would pay for all this medical research if the MRC was to take over. When medical research is currently under a large, Brexit-shaped cloud, the policy Corbyn announced is reckless, irresponsible and unaffordable.

There is plenty wrong with private sector involvement in the NHS as it stands at the moment, as a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. In my area alone, Croydon University Hospital's urgent care facilities are being run into the ground by Virgin Care and led to an unnecessary death, G4S still has the patient transport contract for St Helier Hospital despite killing an amputee who was not properly secured, and I have been unable to get a straight answer from the Epsom-St Helier Trust as to whether there is any link between an alarming spike in MRSA infections and hospital cleaning being farmed out to a private company.

But the NHS will still have to procure things. Many, many things. It is unrealistic to nationalise production of every single thing the NHS needs to function, from bed linen to brain scanners. They need to be bought from companies and the NHS has a responsibility to taxpayers to use its enormous purchasing power effectively.

Hell, why didn't Corbyn mention the NHS Reinstatement Bill in question time this week? After all, he is one of the supporters of the bill but how many people out there have actually heard of it?

On top of all this, Jeremy Corbyn has, like Jeremy Hunt, indicated he would support NHS-funded homeopathy. The two Jeremys would like to see our taxes fund non-evidence based bunkum. So that's awkward.

You'll have to forgive me if I'm not exactly confident that a Corbyn government would effectively run the NHS. But what would I know? I'm just a red Tory scum journo...

Image by DonkeyHotey

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The death of Ataturk's vision

Ataturk's brilliant post WWI vision of a democratic, secular Turkey is in tatters today.

We went to bed on Friday night in the UK as a coup attempt by sections of the Turkish military was underway. Amid the chaos, there was an element of high farce as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a big fan of censorship and shutting down social media, was trying to speak to the nation on TV via Facetime, until the call dropped out. There were claims he was seeking asylum in Germany but Angela Merkel wouldn't have it. 

And, most hypocritically of all, Erdogan was calling for his supporters to take to the streets. Late at night. During a military coup. This is the same man who responds to people publicly protesting against his awful government with tear gas and rubber bullets. 

But he was more than happy to let his fans loose on the streets on Friday night. According to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, 265 people were killed in the coup attempt, including civilians.

Boris Johnson, our new Foreign Secretary (yes, I know...), said he spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu to express support for the country's "democratically elected government and instititions".

However, there is evidence that the November 2015 elections were affected by fraud. These are the elections which President Erdogan's AKP Party won after losing an election in June 2015 and forcing a caretaker government rather than forming a coalition. He is a man who does not want to relinquish his grip on power. The Washington Post used an electronic electoral forensics toolkit to conclude that the results were most likely not above board. It could well be that, amazingly, voters in Istanbul cast 1.66 votes each as an email was leaked that appeared to show 10,316,871 voters cast 17,104,607. And then the official election results website went out of service. Incredible!

In any case, it is just another example of how democracy should not simply start and end at the ballot box. Gloating Brexiters telling Remainers to get over it, take note. 

As well as police routinely opening fire and tear-gassing anti-government protests in Turkey, internet censorship laws were passed in 2007 and amended in 2014 to broaden the scope of government blocking and to make it easier for the authorities to access data without a warrant, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were temporarily blocked in April 2015 until they complied with severe restrictions, social media was blocked during the coup attempt, dozens of Turkish citizens have faced charges for criticising the government online, the Homeland Security Act 2015 increased the amount of time for which investigators can conduct wire taps and similar operations without a court order from 24 to 48 hours, and Turkey currently sits at a dismal 151 on the World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries, dropping two places from last year.

It should come as no great surprise to anyone who has been observing Turkish politics for any extended period of time that a coup attempt happened over the weekend. The methods employed by the coup leaders will be debated for years to come but there are plenty of people in Turkey who may not be a fan of the methods yet they still agree with the stated aims of returning their beloved country to a proper, functional secular democracy.

We will never know if the coup leaders would have paved the way for a return to Ataturk's vision but we do know that dark days lie ahead for Turkey. Six thousand people have been arrested. There is serious talk of a return to capital punishment. It is a barbaric slippery slope to say it will be reintroduced simply for coup leaders. Does anyone trust Erdogan not to reintroduce it on a wider scale? For dissenters or journalists perhaps? They've already jailed two prominent journalists this year in outrageous circumstances.

Are we witnessing the birth of Erdogan's Islamist dictatorship?

None of this will help Turkey's bid to join the EU. Anyone who scaremongered about Turkey during the referendum campaign should feel pretty stupid today, although these people seem to be impossible to embarrass. And Turkey's role in the refugee crisis is now up in the air and this could have tragic consequences. The only positive would be for this to force the EU to work together properly on constructive solutions instead of member states taking simplistic, hardline approaches usually in a bid to appease rising far right groups across the continent.

It is a mess and, because of Turkey's fulcrum-like geographical location, it is a mess that will not be contained within its borders.

Photo by Faruk/Flickr

The Rant Mistress takes a stroll along Theresa May's new cabinet

It's like taking a walk along a buffet at a cheap, all-inclusive resort. Some things look like they might be OK but you won't be sure until you take a bite. Some things are instantly repulsive. And some things seem downright weird. I refer of course to the buffet of astonishment that is Theresa May's post-referendum cabinet. Let's take a look at a few of the big appointments, shall we? Forks at the ready.

Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary: Theresa May is trolling Boris. She knows he doesn't want this job as he will have to look Europe squarely in the eye after spending the last few months talking absolute nonsense about the EU and convincing way more people than he ever expected to vote to leave. Did you see him as he walked out of 10 Downing Street after being told he got the job? He looked like a man who'd bitten into a cream bun only to find a lump of coal inside.

Boris is going to have to be diplomatic and not answer questions with a "What ho! How about a nice game of wiff-waff?" or a collection of swallow-the-dictionary words that don't necessarily have to make sense or be relevant. So far, he has managed not to soil himself on camera in response to the Nice terror attack and the Turkish coup attempt but only time will tell if he has the self-control to do this job for any extended period of time without being sacked or forced to resign in disgrace.

He will be forced to look squarely in the eye at the mess his shabby, simple-minded Brexit campaigning has caused.

As Foreign Secretary, he will not be able to be a naughty schoolboy troublemaker plotting away on the backbench. Of course, he may well do something to cause Britain to die of embarrassment but clearly this is a risk May thought worth taking.

Phillip Hammond, Chancellor: He has a reputation as a "safe pair of hands" and a grown-up. He didn't disgrace himself as Foreign Secretary. His appointment is no surprise. He was pro-remain and he has indicated that now is the time to scale back austerity and he is keen to work closely with Mark Carney, the excellent pro-remain Bank of England governor. This will all help him cement his reputation as a sane and sensible choice for the job. Like George Osborne before him, there is a cloud over his tax affairs. This will not be enough to cost him his job. Plus รงa change.

Whether he will find enough money to make up for the many shortfalls that will happen as a result of lost EU funding, a flatlining pound and a shrunken economy where the appetite for investment has faded with post-referendum uncertainty remains to be seen.

Amber Rudd, Home Secretary: She comes across well on television, she was another pro-remain MP and she seems happy enough to have been handed the poisoned chalice that is the Home Secretary job. No matter what you do on the thorny issue of immigration in this job, regardless of where your seat is in the House of Commons, you will either piss off the left or the right and sometimes both at the same time.

Her record as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was mixed. She was strong on moving towards shutting down coal-fired power stations but she misled Parliament on meeting renewable energy targets. She was correct in moving towards policy that does not rely on state subsidies - this is how the US is doing better than most people realise in terms of using renewable energy - but anyone in this role is going to have to deal with simpletons who are offended by wind turbines.

Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary: Everyone was convinced that this car crash of a man was going to lose his job in the reshuffle. Hell, I think even Hunt thought he'd get the punt because he wasn't humiliating himself by wearing his ubiquitous NHS badge when he walked into Number 10. But, lo and behold, after every NHS campaigner in the country was temporarily excited by rumours that he was going to be sacked spread like wildfire, the failed marmalade mogul emerged still in the same bloody job.

It would have been a golden opportunity for Theresa May to appoint a fresh face to the job, especially as this could have been a clean slate for the ongoing fiasco that is the junior doctors contract negotiations, not to mention the bursary cuts for nursing students. But Hunt remains in place like an incompetent barnacle. There are rumours that others were offered the job but didn't want it. Health, like the Home Secretary job, has become a poisoned chalice for the Tories. Nobody wants to deal with junior doctors, angry nursing students or have the balls to repeal the Health and Social Care Act 2012 so the NHS stops wasting billions administering a corrupt marketised system or tackle the escalating costs of PFI head-on. Health has officially been consigned to the too-hard basket for this government and that is not good news for anyone.

Justine Greening, Education Secretary: Surely, she can't be any worse than Nicky Morgan, can she? While junior doctors will still have to deal with Jeremy Hunt, furious, demoralised teachers may have a chance to develop a healthier working relationship with the government.

Greening was pretty good in the challenging role of International Development Secretary, and she didn't set the world on fire with her brilliance or disgrace herself either when she was interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning. This is a case of wait-and-see.

David Davis, Secretary for Exiting the EU: Like giving Boris the Foreign Secretary gig, this is another of May's attempts to make a Brexiter clean up the mess they made. Today, Davis has already demonstrated he is too stupid for the job. He told Sky News that there may have to be a cut-off point if there is a "surge" in new arrivals from the EU before Article 50 is triggered. Except that until Article 50 is triggered, we are still in the EU and freedom of movement still applies. As a bonus, plenty of Brexiters support freedom of movement as a condition of our new relationship with the EU. So either way, there could be no difference at all in numbers of EU citizens moving to the UK.

Theresa May was criticised by Andrea Leadsom before she bowed out of the Conservative Party leadership contest after proving she was too stupid to be the Prime Minister for using EU citizens as a "bargaining chip" in negotiations. But here's the thing, Andrea. Freedom of movement will have to be a point of discussion in negotiations. To call it a "bargaining chip" is just a pathetic attempt to use semantics to try and appear clever. It failed. And speaking of failure...

Andrea Leadsom, Environment Secretary: And yet another surprisingly Machiavellian attempt by May to embarrass a Brexiter... In this role, Andrea Leadsom, who has already proved to have the intellectual rigour of a jellyfish, will have to face the wrath of Britain's farmers. It is going to be a hoot to watch her try and explain how it'll be OK without around £2.4 billion to £3 billion from the EU each year or what will happen if land prices crash, farmers go out of business and can't sell their properties. But don't worry, I'm sure she'll be great in this job because she is a mother.

Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary: Behold! The most useless man in British politics right now. We can't really do much in terms of trade deals while we're in this post-referendum limbo. And if Theresa May releases the hounds of Article 50, he will then have two years to try and stitch together trade deals with at least 35 countries currently in agreements with the EU. He does know how long trade deals take, right? If not, he is soon going to find out the sheer enormity of this task. Another Brexiter put in their place by May.

Priti Patel, International Development Secretary: Good Lord. The woman is an idiot and a nasty one at that. She is now in charge of a department she wants to abolish, she would support a return to capital punishment and she is on the record as saying that foreign aid should support British business interests.

While it is naive to think that foreign aid is not used to help smooth the wheels of commerce when developing countries start to prosper, it is also important to remember the scandals that this mentality has created. The Pergau Dam scandal, which had its roots in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher meant thousands of pounds of British aid was spent on a white elephant dam project in Malaysia in exchange for a major arms deal. In 1994, the aid project was deemed unlawful by the high court. If Priti Patel oversees a similar scandal, I would not be at all surprised. This is a terrible appointment.

It could be that May wants the Brexiters to see what an economically illiterate experiment they have created by giving them prominent, EU-facing jobs. It may take further economic strife for leading Brexiters to see what a ridiculous idea voting to leave was and this would pave the way for them to be the ones forced to come out and tell the British public that they're now all about remaining in the EU. This would then pave the way for May to use parliamentary sovereignty to not pull the Article 50 lever. Hey presto, we are still in the EU and, ironically, it would be a fine use of parliamentary sovereignty, that very thing Brexiters have been banging on about for months, even those who probably never used the word "sovereignty" before the Daily Mail told them to. This would be a big gamble on the part of May and she would have to be prepared to sit back as job losses happen on her watch, but they will happen in areas that voted heavily to leave. Some dark economic times may be the shock required to stop those who voted leave from deluding themselves.

But despite a few surprises, it is pretty much business as usual for the government. . Theresa May has had a purge with the likes of Michael Gove sent scuttling to the back benches while doing a good impersonation of magnanimity by giving Brexiters jobs, even though they're jobs designed to maximise their workload and their humiliation. We will probably see more schools forced to become academies, the NHS funding crisis will go unsolved and all this against a backdrop of post-referendum uncertainty.

We still have a Conservative government in place and this seems likely until at least 2020, even if an early election is called. If only we had something resembling a credible opposition, eh?

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Sunday, 10 July 2016

Please quit telling me what a feminist victory looks like

Women of Britain! The middle-aged men have spoken! They have descended into my notifications and those of other women on Twitter to tell us that the Theresa May-Andrea Leadsom Conservative Party leadership challenge is a feminist victory. Phew. We can all relax. Thank you, men of Twitter!

Sure, the Tories have managed to ensure that our next Prime Minister will be a woman without setting quotas, lists or targets - although the male competition was not so much an embarrassment of riches as an embarrassment of embarrassments. Behold! Stepping up to the plate and then falling down a deep, ridiculous hole of his own creation was walking disaster area, Michael Gove. He and his wife, Sarah Vine, failed in their attempt to be the Macbeths. Instead, they were more like the Magrubers. And then there was Stephen Crabb, best known for believing you can pray away the gay until a WhatsApp sexting scandal broke alongside the already-notorious front page story in The Times on Andrea Leadsom's ongoing fetishisation of her own ability to make babies.

And once again, the men come out and tell us what to think about the Mum-knows-best brouhaha. Oh, and Louise Mensch who is naturally supporting a fellow incompetent by hitching herself to the Leadsom bandwagon.

"Being a mother gives me an edge on May - Leadsom" was the headline across the front of The Times. Leadsom was furious. She demanded the transcript of the interview be released. And then she demanded the audio was released. The Times duly released everything. It turned out that the article quoted her accurately. At best, she could complain that the headline maybe over-egged the pudding just a little but that is the job of the newspaper sub-editor, to encapsulate the essence of the story in a line that will draw in readers.

After the event, Leadsom is pouting that her passive-aggressively unpleasant words about Theresa May's childlessness should not have been the focus of the story. Bad luck, Andrea. You're the one who constantly mentions the fact that you're a mother as if it's an indisputable qualification for high office. Indeed, if anyone was playing drinking games during the last referendum debate, knocking back a shot every time Leadsom mentioned her own motherhood would be a one-way ticket to a thunderous hangover.

If you put yourself out there as a public figure and you make your personal choices public, you should expect scrutiny. It has also emerged that Andrea Leadsom had a nanny while she was raising her kids. I had the temerity to tweet that this means her call for small businesses to be exempt from paying women maternity pay was an example of "privileged ignorance".

Within minutes a couple of men decided to pounce on me. Hi guys! Nice of you to say hello! Charles Crawford, a right-wing former diplomat, passively retweeted me and one of his acolytes decided to respond by saying according to my logic, we may as well sack all the nannies and render them unemployed. That logic is on par with saying that if we let barbers cut our hair, the next thing we know, they'll be whipping out axes and beheading us.

Plenty of women use nannies and plenty of women make sacrifices to afford nannies so they can effectively combine work and motherhood. In the case of Andrea Leadsom, she was able to continue whatever the hell she was doing in her career in the City and as a politician, aided by her ability to afford a nanny. Good for her. Nobody should begrudge her that. She can raise her kids however she likes. But for the women struggling to earn a living working in small companies, the added burden of not being entitled to maternity pay renders them less economically active, can drive them into poverty and lead to them returning to work before they're ready just to be able to pay the bills. Did Andrea Leadsom ever give these women a second thought?

As for Theresa May, she is the least worst option, although that is damning with faint praise. She has only a slightly better track record on LGBT rights as an MP, although she was very smart to mention that she voted in support of marriage equality in her speech announcing her candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership. This instantly separates her from Leadsom's God-obsessed objection to gay people getting married. She also cannily hinted at dialling back on her urge to restrict human rights legislation. As Home Secretary, a poisoned chalice portfolio regardless of what party is in power, her work in the deportation of Abu Qatada was exemplary - she was able to demonstrate that that due process applies to everyone, even hatemongers, which is important if you are at all concerned about human rights.

And she is certainly smarter and more dignified than Andrea Leadsom. It was absurd that she felt the need to tell the Daily Mail in an interview that she and her husband could not have children and this was a source of sadness for them. Male politicians are never asked these sort of questions, but May handled it well and moved on. She has not turned this weekend's outcry over The Times' story into a woman-versus-woman slanging match even though it would be like shooting fish in a barrel to use it for political capital.

But as long as female politicians are asked about the contents of their uterus, and as long as female politicians themselves decide to make "I'm a mother, doncha know?" a central pillar of their campaigns, any victory for women in politics and public life feels decidedly Pyrrhic.

From a very basic "you cannot be what you cannot see" standpoint, it is good for girls and young women to see that being a woman is no barrier to being the Prime Minister but is that really enough?

In any case, no matter whether the next PM is Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom, we will still have an austerity-loving Conservative government in place and these policies tend to disproportionately affect women. But please, middle-aged men of the British right, do keep telling us what a huge feminist win this is. We need your penis-powered guidance and wisdom. It's much easier than talking about anyone's policies.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

In which the Rant Mistress admits she made some terrible predictions...

In my last blog post, I recklessly made some predictions that expired like a pint of milk in the sun. In some cases, these predictions turned to crap in less than 24 hours. We have just witnessed one of the weirder weeks in British politics, a week where one could quite literally go to the toilet and return to find that something else had happened to dominate the news cycle, at least for an hour or so.

In the interests of accountability - something that appears to be anathema to our elected representatives - let me go over the predictions I made when I blogged six days ago.

1. I predicted that Boris Johnson would win the Conservative Party leadership race over Theresa May.

Hey, at least I was half-right. Theresa May is still in the running and I think she will be our next Prime Minister. Stephen Crabb, a man who believes you can pray away the gay and did not vote for marriage equality, has no business being the Prime Minister. Andrea Leadsom shouted a lot in the pre-referendum debate that, depressingly, clinched it for Vote Leave, largely thanks to Johnson's disingenuous "Independence Day" speech, but she does not command the same respect within the Conservative Party that May does.

Love her or loathe her, Theresa May's speech about why she should be the next Prime Minister was pitch-perfect. She was reasonable, she was calm, she dialled back on her awful record on human rights, she reminded people that she voted for marriage equality, she came across as competent, and she had a perfectly fair dig at Boris Johnson over his moronic purchase of secondhand German water cannon.

What I sure as hell didn't see coming, along with the rest of the country, was Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, outing themselves as Poundland Machiavellians.

Sarah Vine supposedly accidentally sent an email to a member of the public in which she is advising Gove on strategy in the leadership race. I am entirely unconvinced that this was an accident. It's a weird email fail, to accidentally send that particular email to a member of the public. It's not the same as the accidental "reply-all" when a hapless office employee inadvertently declares true love for a colleague to the entire company or lets the whole team know about an embarrassing medical appointment. Why was that email "accidentally" sent to the public and not some boring "don't forget to feed the cat" message? I am wearing my unconvinced face.

In any case, it meant we won't have Prime Minister Johnson any time soon. He is probably relieved. He wanted all the power and glory of being PM but none of the responsibility of leading post-referendum negotiations with the EU.

2. I predicted that Jeremy Corbyn is toast as leader of the Labour Party and Dan Jarvis will be the new leader.

Jeremy Corbyn is still the leader of the Labour Party, weathering storms this week that would probably bring down other party leaders. Dan Jarvis is nowhere to be seen. Angela Eagle came out as the challenger to Corbyn's leadership but now she has scurried back in her box. For now. There are campaigns across the whole Labour Party spectrum to shore up new members to ensure either a Corbyn win or a Corbyn downfall in any forthcoming leadership challenge. Whether the popularity of Corbyn within the party membership correlates with the popularity of Corbyn among the people he needs to attract to form a government is debatable.

Because I am a glutton for punishment, I'll make another prediction - Corbyn will survive a leadership challenge and the Labour Party will split. If the anti-Corbyn members join forces with the Scottish National Party and the Liberal-Democrats, there is a decent chance of an alternative centre-left political force in Britain, but that will require all three elements to be the bigger person and forgive the past.

3. I predicted a new general election before Christmas and advised Labour to stick with their new leader, even in the event of a loss to maintain party stability.

I am not game to predict when the next general election will be, Labour may well still be led by Jeremy Corbyn by Christmas and the state of the Labour Party by then is anyone's guess.

And with that, I think I will take myself off the computer and pour myself a large glass of wine. Who knows what predictions I'll make next...