Sunday, 23 November 2014

So, who is allowed to say what we're all really thinking?

Every time Katie Hopkins vomits a deliberately outrageous tweet or Nigel Farage says something about not wanting to live next door to a group of Romanian men or someone, almost always from a right-leaning perspective, creates an outrage, someone will always rise to their defence by saying: "They're only saying what we're all really thinking.".

Obviously, this statement is not literally be true. Nobody can ever say something that echoes the thoughts of every single one of us. But someone like Hopkins or Farage is frequently afforded the "TOSWWART" defence, as if they are speaking out for a silent majority too scared to say something that might cause offence.

But the TOSWWART defence is not applied equally. Witness the debacle this week over Emily Thornberry's ill-considered tweet that caused her to lose her job as Shadow Attorney General. All the tweet said was "Image from #Rochester" with a photograph of a house festooned with St George flags and a white van parked out the front. It was a tweet that was open to interpretation but the mob verdict - which was ultimately the only verdict that mattered - was: "Check out the north London Labour snob looking down her nose on a working class household." 

And Thornberry may well have rolled her eyes as she passed the house. Or maybe she was just sharing the sights of the electorate. Here is a tweet she cooked earlier. Whatever the case, she probably shouldn't have tweeted anything more controversial than a selfie with the Labour candidate, but what's done is done. Ed Miliband said the tweet made him "furious" - so furious, in fact, that she had to jump before she was pushed, thus keeping the story in the news cycle all bloody weekend. 

Honestly, Ed, there are million things more infuriating than that tweet, and now you've lost a woman from a working class background, an MP who is popular in her constituency and largely seen as someone who does a good job, from your shadow cabinet. Cue a slow hand clap for the Member for Doncaster North.

An apology would have been sufficient. That would be an apology to the same mob that routinely calls out the left for being nothing but a homogenous rabble of sandal-wearing, muesli-knitting professional outrage-takers. An apology to one stereotypical group that stereotypes another group who stereotypes those who disagree with them in return. And so we have a cycle of stereotyping that rinses around the news cycle and the world of social media and achieves absolutely nothing.

Predictably, The Sun pounced on Dan Ware, the flag-flying, white van man who admitted he doesn't vote and didn't know there was a by-election on in his own town, and published his stage-managed manifesto. It was an incoherent splattering of ideas that basically boiled down to: "Send 'em all back where they came from, lower taxes but make public transport cheaper and build better roads, and while I'm at it, let's bring back the cane in schools and spend more public money jailing anyone who burns a poppy!".

Good to see Ware surprised everyone by completely shattering the stereotype of the English flag-flying, white van man, then.

Is that ridiculous manifesto really what everyone is secretly thinking and only Ware has the courage to say it via The Sun

I doubt it. Ware is being used by The Sun to push their agenda in the lead-up to the election and it is one that plenty of people can see right through. The paper had Ware photographed outside Thornberry's "£3 million house" because apparently you can only live in a big house if you were born in one or you play football.

But why can't Thornberry also be afforded the TOSWWART defence? 

Either by accident or design, Thornberry shone a light on the thoughts that cross many people's minds when they see a house like Ware's. It is naive to think that none of us stereotype or make assumptions. We all do, regardless what our politics might be. I know people from across the political spectrum whose hearts sink when they are out canvassing door-to-door for their party and they come across the house with the St George flags flying. They expect a difficult conversation, possibly about immigration, and this is often precisely what happens.

Of course, the challenge for all the major parties is to find ways to engage with people whose choice of home decoration causes them to pause before knocking on the door, especially if they feel they are so far removed from the political process that they never bother to vote. Knee-jerk reactions, such as forcing someone out of a job over a three-word tweet and slamming that same person as a champagne socialist who would only have any political credibility if she lived her whole life in an unheated council house, are equally unconstructive. 

It's time we all grew up. Twitter is a great source of breaking news, of getting quick reactions and engaging with our politicians. But when the news cycle is bogged down for days in the fallout from one tweet, regardless of who sent the tweet, we have a serious problem.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Myleene Klass, Ed Miliband and the sorry state of political debate

Well, that was a sorry sight. We witnessed Ed Miliband supposedly being "owned" by Myleene Klass on ITV's "The Agenda", a programme I hadn't heard of until my Facebook news feed erupted this morning with people on either #TeamMyleene or #TeamEd. From what I can tell, the programme is an attempt by ITV, albeit not a particularly good one, to foster political debate.

Instead, we had the unedifying spectacle of Miliband calmly trying to explain the rationale behind the so-called "mansion tax" as a means of funding the NHS, while Klass kept talking over the top of him, using the phrase "fiscal drag" so everyone thinks she knows what she is talking about, claiming to speak out on behalf of grannies in £2 million pound houses, claiming £2 million will only get you a garage in London even though a cursory glance at Rightmove will reveal that she is talking bunkum, and using the non-analogy of "You may as well just tax me on this glass of water" even though that doesn't make any sense.

But in the midst of her spiel, she made a good point - or at least she gestated the embryo of a good point. It is unclear how much money a mansion tax will bring in for the NHS. Miliband says £1.2 billion. He may be right. He may not. Klass claimed the tax might only raise £300,000 but this figure wasn't attributed to a person or a group. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the mansion tax, whatever sum of money it might raise, it quite simply will not be enough to sort out the funding crisis in the NHS.

Miliband said that the NHS has gone backwards under this government. That is true, although it has been going backwards under successive governments. It was then that Klass asked: "But why? But what are the other options?" and asked Miliband why the NHS is in this mess in the first place.

That is a good question. So naturally the cloth-eared dolt of a presenter decided to wind up the NHS discussion there and then. The whole discussion lasted all of two minutes. Two minutes. One-hundred-and-twenty seconds devoted to discussing one of the biggest issues facing this country, an issue that elections can be won and lost on. And it was a mere two minutes that caused social media to lose its shit today.

And Klass's embryonic good point was lost forever.

The two biggest reasons for cost pressures on the NHS are crippling PFI debts - paying back loans taken out to build or redevelop hospitals across the country will end up costing us around £300 billion with repayments expected to peak at £10.1 billion per year by 2017-18 - and the cost of the marketised NHS. The administration alone on the tender process for NHS contracts costs billions and that is before a single contract has been signed or any service has actually found its way to a patient.

But this is never really discussed properly. There may be some tinkering around the edges with Labour Party NHS policy but no major party is actually tackling these two issues head on. And any discussion about NHS finances is completely meaningless without discussing these two factors. Any party that has a clear plan to sort out the waste of our money created by both these scandals deserves to win the next election.

Similarly, this morning on Sky News, the red sofa of inexplicable guests was filled with Tony Blackburn and Michelle Dewbury, neither of whom appeared to have any real clue about the NHS. This didn't stop them discussing it anyway with Stephen Dixon, surely the most intellectually mild news presenter in the country right now. It was another ill-informed discussion full of the usual wailing about how we all need the NHS, and what can be done about it but nobody ever being particularly clear on what "it" is. And given that "it" is PFI debt, it's NHS marketisation costs, it's Clinical Commissioning Groups created by the rancid Health and Social Care Act of 2012, it is all too hard to be summed up in the Sky News breakfast news programme or on a lame attempt at serious journalism on ITV. Meanwhile, debate in the House of Commons is generally a petty schoolyard rabble.

And as a result, we are all the poorer and less informed for it.

Photography by Petr Kratochvil

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

UKIP and the man behind the green door: The sequel

Last week, I wrote about the man down the road from my house. The man who has a UKIP poster in his window. About how I wondered who might live in that house. And then I wondered no more when I found him collapsed in his doorway, a 91-year-old man who immigrated to the UK from Poland after WWII. I didn't demand to know why he had a UKIP poster. I called an ambulance while two visiting builders helped him to the sofa. He is still in hospital - the bump on the head was as serious as it looked and he was rattling with multiple medications for multiple conditions. It is a sad situation but he is in good hands at St Helier Hospital.

I was forced to confront my own prejudices and assumptions. I admit I was fully expecting a middle-aged man, born in the UK, to be living there. I could not have been more wrong and I acknowledged that. The man's need for medical care was far greater than my need to ask why he plans to vote UKIP next May. There is nothing to be gained by me picking an argument with a vulnerable widower.

Yet still assorted UKIP supporters appeared in my Twitter feed and called me an ageist lefty bigot. They are entitled to form that view of me. What was ironic was a few of them then proceeded to make assumptions about me - they all assumed I get all my news from the Guardian. I do not. And they all assumed I was a Labour party supporter. I am not. I seriously have no idea where my cross will go at next year's election. One genius decided to include Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in the tweets he sent at me.

But what was interesting about the Twitter conversations was the bizarre way UKIP supporters try to defend UKIP's NHS policy.

They were all keen to tell me that UKIP is all about keeping the NHS free at point of use. This would be fine if one of UKIP's policies wasn't compulsory, government-approved private health insurance for all immigrants for the first five years of their time in the UK. Only once an immigrant has paid both tax and private health insurance for five years would they then have the same standing in the NHS as a British-born person who has never had a job or a British-born convicted criminal, neither of whom are under any obligation to contribute to the system for any period of time.

There was no real answer from anyone from UKIP on this one. And as soon as I point out that scapegoating immigrants won't save the NHS when the system is buckling under the pressures of PFI loans and the outrageous cost of the tender process within the NHS - estimates vary between £3b and £10b per year but Jeremy Hunt isn't going to give us exact figures - then they disappear from the conversation. UKIP has no policies on reforming the marketised NHS and its policy on buying back PFI loans is entirely uncosted.

And while every political party right now will tell you they want to keep the NHS free at the point of use, it is important to then discuss whether the services will be provided publicly, by the private sector or as a mixture of the two, and what is the most responsible path to take. "We want to keep the NHS free at the point of use" is a meaningless statement without this additional debate. It's the kind of glib statement I got from a Lib Dem today but that does not surprise me in the least. It is the useless party of glibness and faded principles and it is populated by MPs as self-serving as any other party.

But what is even more curious about discussing the NHS with UKIP supporters is how they are quick to acknowledge the NHS policy is flawed. I even had one agree with me that their NHS policy is full of holes. And another one was moved to blog about my blog post last week and admitted that "UKIP doesn't have a particularly strong policy on the NHS, other than to keep it free at point of use, whatever that takes." See the three paragraphs above as to why that is a pretty pitiful excuse for healthcare policy and one that does not move me to vote UKIP.

And curiouser and curiouser, I've never had a UKIP supporter quote their Dear Leader, Nigel Farage, when it comes to the NHS. This is hardly surprising. Farage did not do a damn thing when his deputy, Paul Nuttall, congratulating the current government for bringing a "whiff of privatisation" to the NHS and has been caught on camera supporting an insurance-based system. Are his supporters embarrassed by him or do they know they are not going to convince anyone by quoting their leader?

We should not be surprised by any of this. In the past four years, there have been so many changes to their NHS policy, it is hard to keep up. And some of their policies, such as the duty on all NHS staff to report low standards of care and the requirement for foreign health service professionals to speak an acceptable standard of English, are already in place. But they are policies that sound good to people who don't know any better and aren't about to do any research.

It is a party of cheap populism, of blowing with the wind, of making it up as they go along depending on what they think might garner support and make headlines. It has nothing to do with what is good for the country and its people. UKIP is a party that once had compulsory uniforms for taxi drivers as a policy on its website. People rightly mocked that one. It vanished. If anything that is currently on the UKIP website is mocked too loudly, that will probably vanish from cyberspace too.

The funny thing is I have met UKIP supporters in person and they were pleasant, friendly people. I met four last Friday night at a screening of Sell-Off, a film about the threats to the NHS such as PFI, vested interests, TTIP and the cost of the tender process. They were stunned into silence and I can only hope they came away from the screening knowing that immigrants are not the problem here. But whether UKIP policy will reflect that is another matter entirely.

Monday, 3 November 2014

UKIP and the man behind the green door

It is a house I walk past every time I walk to the tube station. Like my own house, it's a 1930s semi with bay windows at the front. Unlike my house, it still has the lovely original front door. And unlike my house, there is a poster stuck to the front window telling people not to deliver leaflets from any other political party because the occupant is voting UKIP.

I'd often wonder as I walked past who might live there. If I ever spotted the occupant in the front garden, would I have the nerve to ask them about the poster, to tell me what particular policies of UKIP they like so much? Would they eloquently defend UKIP? Would they end up telling me I'm OK, that I'm one of the immigrants "we like", which is always code for "white, native English speaker, not wearing a hijab"?

Today I got to find out who lives at the house with the cute green door. It was a humbling lesson.

I was doing my usual walk to the tube station, my attempt to keep vaguely fit and save Oyster card credit by foregoing a five-minute bus ride for a 15-minute walk, when I noticed the green door was open. I am a chronic sticky-beak so I took a peek. There were two builders standing in the doorway. Lying on the floor was an elderly man. He was pale, he was incoherent, he seemed agitated, he didn't appear to have all his clothes on even though it was a chilly morning.

The old man was clearly in trouble and the builders were desperately trying to get him on his feet. I asked if everything was OK. They told me they'd come over to remove his old conservatory, he'd struggled to answer the door and now he was on the ground. There was a nasty bruise on his forehead caked with dried blood.

I called the ambulance while the builders slowly got him on his feet, carried him to the sofa and covered him with a blanket, an attempt to restore some of the man's dignity. As I explained the situation to 999, I saw the house was a mess, it smelled of urine, soiled underwear was discarded on the kitchen floor, the peeling living room wallpaper was smeared with a large streak of dried blood, possibly from when he hit his head.

The paramedics arrived quickly and a neighbour who regularly checks on him turned up. More was revealed about the old man's life. The lovely neighbour said he is still quite active. The food in the fridge was still in date. His wife died last year at the age of 96. He is 91. There was a note from the council from a social services visitor who tried to see him last week because she was concerned about his welfare but there was no answer at the door. His family had visited him over the weekend. I wondered to myself why they didn't try and tidy up, maybe run a Hoover over the place or wipe down a few surfaces. Just as I'd made assumptions about the identity of the UKIP voter, I found myself judging people I'd never met.

By this time, there were four paramedics, two builders, the neighbour, the elderly man and myself at the house. We all tried to talk him into going to hospital to get the bump on the head checked out. He was not keen on the idea but in the end, he agreed to it. The paramedics did a spectacular job - caring, professional, patient - exactly the kind of people you'd want to treat you or your own elderly relatives.

And so, apart from popping into the council building before I got on the tube to update the social services department on the situation, my work was done. I'd like to think that anyone would have called the ambulance if they were confronted with the situation of an old man slumped in his own doorway. Please tell me society has not crumbled to such a point that walking on by would be the norm.

And my terrible curiosity about the identity of the UKIP voter was extinguished. The 91-year-old man came to the UK from Poland after WWII. Obviously, I did not choose that vulnerable, fragile moment in his life to ask him why he loves UKIP so much he put a poster in the front window.

I could have pointed out to him that if he arrived in the UK from Poland under a UKIP government, he would be forced to take out private health insurance and not be entitled to NHS care until he'd paid National Insurance for five years. I could have pointed out that there is nothing in UKIP's NHS policy that would prevent further marketisation of NHS services, which may one day result in us getting billed for ambulance journeys. Indeed, at St Helier Hospital, where he was taken, the non-emergency ambulances are already run by the stratospherically incompetent G4S and have caused a needless death.

But of course I did not do this. That would have been a dick move of gargantuan proportions. Instead, we should all be grateful we live in a country where he was treated promptly by highly trained, compassionate medical professionals and he did not receive a hideous bill for his trouble.

Unlike me, they had not spent any time wondering about the UKIP poster, or fighting an urge to knock on his door and ask him hard policy questions, or rolling their eyes at the thought of someone so keen on UKIP, they told the whole street about it via their front window.

They did none of these things. They simply treated him, without fear or favour, without making snap judgements about his politics, as they would any other patient who comes their way in the course of their working day. For that, I am humbled. We should all be vigilant in ensuring we can maintain this level of excellent care. I want to remain living in a country where medical treatment is not determined by wealth, immigration status or political persuasion.