Friday, 16 June 2017

The fire that was always going to be political

A social housing tower block was destroyed by fire this week. Of course this is political. It is naive to suggest otherwise. When housing is provided by or heavily subsidised by the government, politics will never be far behind.

It is the people directly affected by the Grenfell Tower who are politicising it. They were political before the fire and they will continue to be political. 

And rightly so.

The people who this week have lost everything, friends, neighbours, family members, as well as possessions, are grieving but they are angry. Very angry. 

For years, they warned that Grenfell Tower was a disaster waiting to happen. Kensington and Chelsea Council, which owns the flats, was lobbied. The MP was lobbied. Boris Johnson was lobbied. Yesterday, Sadiq Khan was yelled at by a child. Residents wanted to seek legal advice over their safety concerns, but legal aid wouldn't quite stretch that far thank to, yes, that's right, the government. Now lawyers have offered to work pro bono but it's a shame those offers weren't there before this week. 

The residents, a mixture of social housing and private tenants, were not listened to before the fire. Today, they are marching on Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall.

Perhaps the Conservative-run council and the Conservative MP, who was defeated by Labour in last week's general election, didn't think they'd ever need the votes of the people who live in the deprived part of one of the country's wealthiest neighbourhoods. Perhaps they took for granted their positions of power. Perhaps they thought the people who have lost everything would not even bother to turn out to vote. 

Those in ivory towers looked down on those in tower blocks.

While the cause of the fire is yet to be fully investigated and the fire service is still recovering bodies, information is coming to light. And it is the residents who are leading the way, forcing politicians of all stripes and journalists to look at awful things and confront uncomfortable facts. 

Why was a 24-storey social housing block of 120 flats only equipped with one set of fire stairs? Why did the multi-million pound refurbishment of the building not include sprinkler systems, but did include plastic-laden cladding which is banned in Germany? What can the new MP, Labour's Emma Dent Coad, tell us about her time as the council representative on the board of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, the housing association appointed by the council to manage Grenfell Tower?

When successive housing ministers sat on a report for four years and didn't change a damn thing, they need to answer hard questions as well. The 2013 report, the results of a coronial investigation, came after the 2009 Lakanal House tower block fire, which killed six people in south London. The recommendations included installing sprinkler systems in all tower blocks. This is only the law for tower blocks built since 2007, yet in hotels in Britain, it is law for sprinkler systems to be installed. Grenfell Tower was built in 1974. So please, enough with the cries about safety regulations being too onerous. If this country and its hotel businesses can afford to keep tourists safe, we can afford to protect the people who live here, regardless of their income.     

The residents of Grenfell Tower do not need or deserve to be told that politics has nothing to do with the fire. 

Only now is there a public inquiry, after the death toll is at 30 and rising. It is fatuous to say the safety concerns of these people must now be taken seriously. That should have happened a long time ago.

Photography by Zdenko Zivkovic/Flickr

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Optical illusions

"Optics" is becoming the new "I misspoke". The new bullshit excuse. The new cliche when something isn't a good look. Or high praise when it is a good look.

Remember the fad of saying "I misspoke!" when all someone did was expose themselves as an idiot/racist/sexist/cloth-eared dolt/intellectual bankrupt? Misspeaking is when a kid calls a teacher Mum or Dad, it's a genuine slip of the tongue, it's often a Freudian slip, such as Sophy Ridge saying Kezia Dugdale is the leader of "Scottish Labia".

Now this election campaign we've all endured - largely with the able assistance of vast quantities of liquor, with all its car crashes from across the political spectrum - has popularised the good versus bad optics cliche. But it's lazy, shallow and lacking in nuance.

It was terrible optics for Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, when he flubbed and flopped in response to questions about his attitude towards gay sex. Never mind that he has a better voting record than Theresa May on LGBT rights and it would appear he can keep his private religious beliefs out of politics - the story became an excruciating series of images of Farron looking uncomfortable.

Compare those scenes with Theresa May being asked by Andrew Marr if she thought gay sex was a sin. Without hesitation, she crisply answered "No.", And that was the end of the debate, even though her voting history on LGBT rights has only recently become progressive. It was obvious that she was ready for the question. It looked like she had been rehearsing her answer in the bathroom mirror.

It was good optics.

Now she is desperately trying to eke out a deal with the notoriously homophobic DUP - surely these are the worst optics of all for her if she is trying to convince anyone that she gives a damn about LGBT rights.

And this nonsense is not limited to politics.

A few days ago, The Pool reported on a ridiculous PRWeek event in which an all-male panel addressed the audience on how to fight sexism in the workplace. PRWeek is generally pretty sound - it's a good source of news on the PR industry as well as a fine place for PRs (and journalists looking to cross to the dark side for more money) to find jobs. So you'd think an event run by an organisation dedicated to public relations would not be quite so tone-deaf as to host a festival of weapons grade mansplaining. Yet that is what happened.

The explanation for this debacle (at an event called "Hall of Femme" - I ask you...) was that "the optics might have appeared off".

"The optics might have appeared off".

Jesus H. Christ on a two-wheeled perambulation device. No, This is not merely about how it looked. It's about how it was. It's about how bloody patronising it is to expect a room full of women listen to a room full of men tell them where they're going wrong and to offer pearls of wisdom about speaking loudly, rather than being listened to, and "stretch opportunitoes" when, for some women, the opportunities simply are not there.

The "optics might have appeared off" is a shallow excuse for stupidity.

And, sometimes, when the optics are good, the reality is bloody awful. Just ask Theresa May.

Photography by savertashe2/F;ickr

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The power of women after the Great Election Debacle of 2017

First, the good news for the women of Britain after a thoroughly astounding election - a record 208 women are now MPs. Being a woman should not be a barrier to being elected to public office or indeed to being Prime Minister, and women are getting elected, across all parties, because they are good, not merely because they are women.

Hell, the two most powerful politicians in the country today are women - Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).



The two most powerful women in the country are terrible.

Theresa May is a principle-free flake with all the depth of a thimble, someone who merely impersonates a competent and moral leader, doing whatever she can to cling to power, even if it means throwing women under a bus to form a pastiche of a government with the DUP.

Arlene Foster cannot be accused of having no principles. It's just unfortunate that her principles include religious bigotry, homophobia, climate change denial, creationism and banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. It's Handmaid's Tale stuff made real.

In Northern Ireland, the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied. In 1945, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which allows abortions to save the life of the mother was extended to Northern Ireland, but abortions are not legal in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. Just as abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland, all that Northern Ireland abortion laws achieve is to move abortions to other parts of the UK for women who can afford to go private - or harm women who are forced to carry to term because they have no other choice.

On top of that, it is impossible to ignore the links between the DUP and the Ulster Defence Association, including Foster's personal connections with a group responsible for hundreds of deaths in Northern Ireland.

Today, on Radio 4, Owen Paterson, the Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland secretary was ominous. In an interview with Radio 4, he tried to allay fears of an attack on gay rights under a Tory-DUP deal but suggested that issues such as reducing the time limit on abortion could be up for debate.

No. Just no. I don't care if you think a bill restricting abortion access probably wouldn't pass. We simply should not be having this argument in 2017, 50 years after it should have ceased to be an argument and remained a matter for women and their doctors.

How dare Owen Paterson, someone who will never need an abortion, even put the issue on the table as a suggestion. Pro-choice women of Britain will fight this and fight it loudly.

There are still plenty of MPs outside of the DUP, including Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, who are in favour of reducing the abortion time limit from 24 weeks. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, and Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, made an ill-fated attempt to restrict abortion access in 2011.

Theresa May should, if she claims to be a feminist, speak out today against using abortion rights as a bargaining chip to cling to power.

But she has not done that.

It is good to see that female politicians have spoken out already, including senior Conservatives. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Ruth Davidson have all made it clear that they are not pleased with Theresa May's direction of travel.

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has received "assurances" from Theresa May that an alliance with the DUP will not erode LGBT rights. Given Theresa May called an election after saying she wouldn't call an election, and ran an election campaign riddled with reverse ferrets, her assurances are not worth a pinch of pelican poo.

Davidson has also used her position of considerable influence - Scottish Conservative voters helped scrape Theresa May over the line on Thursday - to tell the Prime Minister to move away from her hardline approach to Brexit. Interestingly, this is not too far removed from the DUP's calls to ensure a soft border remains between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit and that Northern Ireland remains in the single market.

However, the DUP also campaigned in favour of leaving the EU, while 55.8% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain. The joyless, miserable, punitive DUP interpretation of God only knows what Arlene Foster and her cohorts were thinking when they campaigned for Brexit.

It does demonstrate that when people voted for Brexit, they did so with different ideas in their minds as to what a Britain outside the EU might look like.

And with Thursday's vote, I am pretty sure nobody, especially those who voted Conservative, voted with the thought of the possibility of an unsavoury alliance with the DUP foremost in their minds.

It is great to see women from all parties speaking out against Theresa May's desperation, incompetence and craven appeasement of the DUP. When May spoke in front of 10 Downing Street after the shock election results, she was arrogant, she lacked humility, and she was terrifyingly authoritarian.

In contrast, Ruth Davidson gave the speech the Prime Minister should have given - she was not arrogant in the face of a pyrrhic victory for the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, did not have a great election campaign or stellar results, but she also managed humility and reflection in her post-election speech.

If Theresa May survives this fiasco, it will be a political miracle. The likely outcome of her political demise is another man as Prime Minister. But after May replaced the ultimately catastrophic David Cameron, perhaps her big achievement is to demonstrate that a woman who is equally as incompetent as the man she replaced, can rise to the top of British politics.

Theresa May's rise and inevitable fall has not been a massive win for women. But the good news is that there are plenty of good women of all political stripes who will be bloody difficult for the right reasons.

Photography by Darren Johnson/IDJ Photography/Flickr