Sunday, 22 May 2016

"The Turks are coming! Let's be more like Norway!" The latest Brexit campaign panic...

Today, the Brexit campaign is warning us that if we vote to stay in the EU next month, we'll be overrun with Turks. It all exploded this morning on The Andrew Marr Show (BBC One) when Penny Mordaunt, a vote leave campaigner, incorrectly said that the UK would be powerless to stop Turkey joining the EU. Next up, on Peston's Politics (ITV), David Cameron correctly said that the UK has the power of veto over any Turkish bid for EU membership and that it will be "literally decades" before the prospect of Turkey joining the EU is realistic.

Turkey's ambitions for EU membership never really got out of first gear, since applying for European Community membership back in 1987. As long as Turkey continues to illegally occupy the northern third of Cyprus, they're not going to be allowed in. Cyprus too has a veto and Turkey won't even recognise Cyprus. And over the years, genuine concerns about security, human rights and economic reform have further stalled their campaign.

If we vote to leave the EU, we won't ever get the opportunity to veto Turkey's membership.

But why would this matter if we left the EU and had full control of our borders? ask the Brexiters. Because, dear Brexiters, leaving the EU does not automatically guarantee this utopian border control of which you so frequently speak.

If you are a Brexiter who constantly points to Norway as an example of why we'd be just fine out of the EU, you are especially culpable in a bad narrative.

Norway has twice voted to remain out of the EU, first in 1972 and again in 1994, with the out vote narrowly winning each time. But in order to trade with the EU (and anyone who thinks we can simply not bother trading with the EU or negotiate a mutually beneficial trade deal quickly is utterly deluded), Norway must retain all EU financial regulations, employment regulations and product standards and contribute to the EU budget, all while having no say in any of these regulations, standards or contributions. Do you really think the EU will treat the UK like a special snowflake in this regard if we vote to leave? Please. Do not be so naive.

On top of that, free movement of people, as per EU rules, is central to Norway's relationship with the EU. Yet Norway has no say in the making of these rules. This has resulted in a higher inward migration of EU citizens into Norway than the UK when measured as a percentage of total population. So, in decades to come, if we vote to leave, we'd have no say in Turkey's EU membership and, in order to keep trading with the EU so the economy doesn't completely tank, we'd have to give Turks freedom of movement into the UK if they ended up joining.

In short, if you think leaving the UK will mean less people in the country, and therefore less pressure on the NHS, schools and social services, you are wrong.

The Vienna Convention of 1969 would give EU citizens already living in the UK legal protections post-Brexit because of individual acquired rights. The convention says that the termination of a treaty "does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination".

Bang goes the Brexit arguments that leaving the EU would mean we could trade with the EU without letting in EU citizens or that we'd instantly be able to pull a drawbridge up on EU citizens coming to work here.

Additionally, plenty of businesses would struggle if they had to sponsor the visas of EU citizens, as is the case with non-EU staff. This would be crippling particularly for many businesses which rely on staff who can speak European languages. As long as the average Brit remains embarrassingly monolingual, plenty of employers will require the services of EU citizens.

On top of all this, the Norwegian example is particularly ridiculous especially when spouted by conservative Brexiters. The simplistic moronomics of the Brexit campaign, as encapsulated in the stupid campaign bus (made in Poland and Germany...) goes along the lines of "If we leave the EU, we will have £350 million per week to put into the NHS". Except the bus slogan neglects the money we get back as a result of being in the EU, such as the billions invested in the European Regional Development Fund, money made in trade and contributions by EU citizens who are resident here and are paying taxes and being economically active consumers.

If anyone seriously thinks the government,  particularly the current one, will match the funding we receive from the EU, especially for infrastructure projects and especially in the north of England, think again.

"But Norway is doing alright without all this EU funding!" comes a howl from the Brexit peanut gallery.

Again, if you are a conservative Brexiter and you think this is a good argument, you are being absurd. Norway is one of the highest taxed nations in the world. This is how it funds things. While this may appeal to left-leaning Brexiters, you cannot be taken seriously for a nanosecond if you are a low-tax conservative Brexiter using Norway as an example. VAT is at 25%. Corporation tax is 25%, the top rate of income tax is 46.9% and ordinary income is flat-taxed at 27%. Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is consistently above 40%, as opposed to just above 30% in the UK. All tax rates for Norway are well above the OECD average - this would be a massive vote loser for the UK, regardless of who is in power. The Norwegians might well be perfectly happy with this tax burden but it is naive to think this will fly in the UK.

But the sad truth is that this whole EU referendum debate is degenerating into an unedifying Dave versus Boris spectacle along with people trying to win the argument with internet memes. If the standard of debate improves over the next month, I will be amazed.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Does the PwC high heel row matter?

There are plenty of reasons why people might have a problem with PwC, the professional services and consultancy firm that was caught up in this week's row over receptionists being compelled to wearing high heels, but forcing women into high heels issue is not one of them.

Sure, they have private healthcare clients and the government has used our money to commission reports about healthcare from PwC, but that is another rant for another day...

When news broke about a receptionist, Nicola Thorp, being fired for apparently breaching a PwC dress code that compelled female employees to wear shoes with heels between two and four inches high, the internet debates raged thick and fast. I plead guilty to being involved in such an exchange of views.

But since then, a crucial fact has come to light. The high heel policy was not that of PwC. It was actually the frankly ridiculous and dated policy of a company called Portico, which supplies staff to PwC. On Friday, the Fawcett Society, a gender equality campaigning charity, started #fawcettflatsFriday trending on Twitter and female members of PwC merrily tweeted their flat shoe-clad feet, saying the pictures could have been taken on any day of the week, not just Friday, a day commonly associated with dressing down for the office in the corporate world.

So women have been going to work at PwC day in, day out, wearing whatever the hell shoes they like. Good.

Since the row, Portico has announced it has dropped the two-to-four-inch heel policy and is reviewing its dress code guidelines. Good. The power of negative PR is not to be underestimated.

In the meantime, Nicola Thorp started an online petition entitled "Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work". The petition is on the UK Government and Parliament petitions website and, at the time of writing, the petition had passed the 134,000 signatures mark, meaning Parliament would consider it for debate in the House of Commons.

But the petition is somewhat pointless. It is already illegal under anti-discrimination law to discriminate on the grounds of gender, disability or pregnancy.

In an unfair dismissal case, it would not take a genius lawyer to argue that compelling women - or people who are physically incapable of wearing high heels or pregnant women - to wear such shoes is discrimination on any of these three grounds. This would set a precedent and companies would have to consider whether it is worth the risk of compelling women to wear high heels when they cannot demonstrate that this would have any bearing on their ability to do the job. And unless it can be proven that receptionists are somehow more effective if they transfer calls using the heel of their shoe, a receptionist fired for no other reason than rocking up to work in a pair of flats would, in all likelihood, win the case.

Additionally, there are limited cases where a woman (and in certain cases, men...) may have to wear high heels to work, such as women performing on stage or in film and television productions, adult entertainment, and modelling and promotion work. A woman like me (very short, 40 years old, the owner of two club feet, an arthritic ankle, arthritic knees and a dodgy lower back) would not take such jobs but it would be ridiculous if I was excluded from a receptionist job all because I cannot straighten my knees, let alone walk in heels.

And reception work is an area where women dominate so it's a bit shitty to demand high heels and, as a result, exclude women from workplaces where men walk around in flat shoes with impunity.

Freedom for employees versus freedom for companies

In the case of office jobs, I support the right of a woman to wear flat shoes if she so chooses. Or she can wear heels too. There is nothing wrong with a company dress code - it is not unreasonable to expect staff to turn up to work looking professional, well-groomed and to look at their watch rather than a calendar when asked when they last took a shower. But compelling a certain heel height, when this is not practical or comfortable or even possible for every woman, and when it has no bearing on how the job is done, is a bit stupid.

If a company can demonstrate to me that compelling the receptionist to wear heels has a positive impact on their profits and effectiveness, do get in touch. I'm waiting.

We are veering into the territory on which America frequently treads when the issue of providing birth control on company health insurance plans rears its head. Is a company the same as a person if the boss does not agree with proving birth control? Is the woman's right to birth control as part of her healthcare plan more important than the religious or moral beliefs of the boss? Here in the UK, should the right of an employer to demand high heels of female employees in offices trump the right of a woman to choose her heel height?

What the Portico/PwC case does achieve is to shine a light on the treatment of agency staff in corporate Britain. Many a temp can attest that it is very easy to get fired or simply no longer required all of a sudden, with limited legal recourse. And the life of a temp can be a tenuous one. While the hourly rate may be better than a zero hours contract worker at a supermarket or fast food outlet, the financial uncertainty is still there. Yes, it is true that plenty of people like the flexibility a zero hours contract can offer, but there are plenty who would just like to be made permanent so they can be more economically active, plan ahead and do things many of us take for granted, such as take out a mortgage or a car loan.

Bogus defences of compulsory heels

Other spurious arguments came out of the woodwork over the high heel row. Someone compared it to compelling men to wear neckties and claimed her father could not wear a tie because it was too constrictive around his neck and this resulted in medical problems. Fair enough. If there really was a genuine medical reason for not wearing a tie, it would not be unreasonable for his employer to allow him to loosen his tie or wear neat, tidy corporate attire minus a tie.

But overall, more podiatrists and orthopaedic surgeons are routinely warning women about the health risks of wearing high heels than there are doctors writing notes for male employees so they can get out of wearing a tie to work. However, if enough men want to rise up and ditch ties, they are more than welcome to start a campaign. Nobody is stopping you, guys. Off you go. Fight the power.

Then there was the pathetic argument that went along the lines of "Well, if women can wear flat shoes as long as they are hygienic, surely nurses can come to work in jeans and a T-shirt if it's clean". Except that a nurse's uniform serves other purposes - as well as being a hygienic outfit for work, it is pretty important, especially in a busy A&E department, for example, for members of staff to be easily identified. I am still stunned that someone would attempt such a stupid argument but that happened. Indeed, any "But what about uniforms?" argument is stupid. Nobody sensible is calling for a ban on uniforms or a ban on safety attire for work, such as steel-capped boots on building sites. There are no picket lines of builders on construction sites in open-toed shoes and mankinis.

Then there was the argument that surely men can now wear heels to work too. They can if they want to, I guess. Is there a groundswell of men out there champing at the bit to ditch their comfy brogues and rock up to work in a pair of teetering Jimmy Choos? I very much doubt it.

It's about sexism, stupid

And this brings us back to why Portico's now-abandoned high heel rule is sexist. The simple test is to ask yourself if it would be absurd to make the same requirement of a man.

And the deeper test to ask yourself why high heels would be considered important for a woman. What is to be achieved by compelling women into shoes that change the way they walk, make it harder to run away, and are associated with sex appeal? Ties for men are not in the same league when it comes to making them vulnerable or to morph them into office eye candy.

Historically, high heels for men have always been a fad - Regency dandies, Louis XVI of France, the platforms for men debacle of the 1970s, glam rockers - none of these trends lasted or became truly mainstream across social classes. Men have always reverted to more comfortable shoes. They do not feel compelled to wear uncomfortable shoes to increase their sex appeal or their employment prospects. They are not subjected to dress codes that insist on shoes that not everyone can walk in.

If you want to wear high heels, that is your choice. If you can genuinely walk in them and feel comfortable in them, good for you. If you find them uncomfortable but wear them anyway, that is also your choice. Men don't put up with such discomfort but sometimes they can be silly in other ways. Such as demanding the receptionist wear high heels...

Photography by 10 Mix

Monday, 2 May 2016

Politics: It's all about perception

What a total shower last week was for British politics, and in particular for the Labour Party. It didn't have to be quite so embarrassing. Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, was suspended over a Facebook post from 2014 that suggested Israel should be moved to the United States. She gave a classy and dignified apology and we may not have heard quite so much about whether or not Labour has an anti-semitism problem if Ken Livingstone hadn't happened.

It was just one of many examples of how utterly incompetent the media management is in the Labour Party. Yes, yes, I know all about right-wing media bias, but even with the might of the Murdoch press, the Telegraph and the Mail, there is no excuse for the pitiful media management that is going on in the Labour Party at the moment.

If Seumas Milne had anything resembling a clue, he would not let Ken Livingstone on the telly. Censorship? Maybe. Self-preservation of the party by reining in a loose cannon? Definitely.

It does not really matter whether you think Livingstone's comments this week were anti-semitic or not. What does matter is how it is perceived beyond the Labour Party echo chamber. And Livingstone was perceived as coming across like a drunken uncle at a wedding. Why anyone thought it would be a good idea to trot him out to defend Naz Shah is anyone's guess. Why he thought it'd be prudent to describe Hitler as a Zionist while attempting to defend Naz Shah is equally astounding.

Livingstone picked up the Godwin's Law ball, ran with it, crossed the try line, did a victory lap, and then ran out of the stadium. And kept running as if he was Forrest Gump.

This week's farce, complete with Livingstone hiding in a disabled loo while journalists barked questions about Hitler at him through the door, created a ridiculous paradox.

On one hand, the Livingstone debacle and subsequent inquiry into anti-semitism in the Labour Party dominated the news cycle at the expense of all manner of important stories. Labour did not come out of this looking particularly good, even though the Tories could benefit from their own inquiry into racism, after Boris Johnson's awful comments about Barack Obama and a London mayoral campaign from Zac Goldsmith that has enough dog whistles to summon all 101 dalmatians.

But on the other hand, elections in the UK are not won and lost on foreign policy in relation to Israel and Palestine. This may come as a shock to the chattering classes on both sides of the debate, but it's the brutal truth.

With this week's local elections, we will soon find out whether the damage has been done.

Despite this week's often highly staged drama, it is pretty likely that Sadiq Khan will be the next mayor of London. Naturally, he is being slammed in certain quarters for criticising Livingstone. But what else did people expect him to do? A man who describes Hitler as a Zionist "before he went mad" is an electoral liability. And Labour needs to be elected to make any impact.

While a Khan victory will be good news for the beleaguered Labour Party, it will be interesting to see if the predicted decimation of Labour happens in local elections outside of London. London is not the rest of Britain and it is not a litmus test for broader election results. It could well be the case that voters will punish a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party outside of London, given that outside of the Labour Party, he is not polling well. Or maybe people will simply vote on local issues. Weirder things have happened in British politics.

The other brutal truth is that elections in the UK are won on the middle ground. Or on what is perceived to be the middle ground.

At the last election, the Conservative Party did an excellent job of convincing people that they represented the middle ground. Plenty of people now regret voting Conservative, but plenty of people voted that way in good faith. It is churlish for the left to slag off regretful Tory voters now. It is just another way to create divisions when people should be coming together.

Right now, there is so much going on with this wretched government that should be a gift for Labour.

This week, during Prime Minister's Questions, there was a junior doctors' strike going on. But this had all but vanished from the news cycle by Thursday afternoon. This should have been how Corbyn kicked off his questions, with an excoriation of David Cameron for losing control of his failed marmalade mogul health secretary, a robust defence of junior doctors, and evidence of every Labour MP supporting junior doctors on picket lines this week (if indeed they did this or was Heidi Alexander too busy faffing on with the daft pilot idea?). Instead, he led with a question on the forced academisation of schools - it is a very important issue, don't misunderstand me here, and it deserved a hard question -  but Corbyn should have kicked things off with the junior doctors and the NHS.

The Labour Party currently has a terrible tin ear for public opinion, an embarrassing inability to capture the news cycle.

And none of this is helped by Corbyn constantly storming away from journalists instead of answering questions. Even though politicians of all stripes do this, it makes Corbyn in particular look like a grumpy old man who can't be bothered to engage with the media and therefore the wider public. And then the media coverage grows ever more hostile. The coverage is frequently unfair or just plain absurd, but it will keep happening as long as Labour's media strategy is so poor.

Like I said, it is all about perception. Sadiq Khan understands this, but neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Seumas Milne do. And as long as they maintain their tin ears and only listen to advice they want to hear, the much-needed middle ground will be out of their reach. Its easy to say that they don't want the middle ground, but they cannot do a damn thing from the sidelines apart from wave at Ken Livingstone as he runs past.