Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Labour’s entropy gathers momentum.

If it’s Monday, then it must be time for the Labour Party to tear itself apart, again.

Deputy leader Tom Watson took to the airwaves to mutter darkly about a ‘plot’ to destroy the party if, or when, things go belly up at the forthcoming local elections.

In the frame were far left group Momentum with trades union UNITE led by Len McCluskey lurking menacingly in the shadows. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth, angry rebuttals and, by close of play a plea for party unity from Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

It would be laughable, if so many people didn't still place their trust in the Labour Party.

I don't know and don't much care if there really is a plot to destroy the Labour Party, as I see things its doing a pretty good job of destroying itself.

Momentum seem not too different to most other left wing groups. They have a ‘position’, a certain romanticized view of how politics work; but they're hardly agents of revolution.

Their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn is as touching as it is misguided. I retain the opinion of him I held when he won the Labour leadership against all the odds. He is a decent man motivated by principle, but he lacks the killer instinct necessary to win an election.

These days he looks worn out, far from wanting a praetorian guard to cement his grip on power, he probably longs to slip back into back bench obscurity.

Tom Watson’s claim that if McCluskey is re -elected as leader of UNITE the union will affiliate to Momentum and the fall of Rome follow shortly after seems less than credible.

Trades unions can and affiliate to all kinds of organizations, the influence this has on the voting intentions of their membership is minimal. To say otherwise is like putting two and two together and getting infinity.

The government is on the verge of leading Britain over the cliff into Brexit, austerity continues to bite and the NHS, Labour's greatest achievement is under threat like never before. Working people need a strong political voice, what the party many still turn to by default is providing instead is the din of a thousand private squabbles.

There are rumors that at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party MPs cheered Watson and booed Corbyn. A cynic might think the threat to King Jeremy comes from his deputy rather than than the Trots of Momentum; cynics are often right too.

There are, of course, alternatives to Labour, but the inadequacies of our voting system make it hard for them to gain traction. If this latest crisis is one more step towards the tar pit for the Labour dinosaur, though it may be sad for those people who are still loyal to a cause that stopped being loyal to them a long time ago, it could open the door for those parties who want to oppose the government; not engage in private feuds.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Is it time to bring back Sanity Fair?

In many ways, attitudes towards people living with mental illness have improved vastly in the past decade. Look beyond the surface though and a less pleasing picture emerges.

Lazy media stereotypes, deep-seated prejudices and the perennial struggle to access services, mean that people living with mental illness are still struggling for recognition of sometimes even the most basic rights. Popular culture also too often still presents them as a ‘problem’, rather than as members of one of the many communities making up our society.

Matters weren’t helped a couple of weeks ago by the comments made by Tory MP George Freeman that people with anxiety are just sitting at home popping pills and aren’t suffering from an illness that can be as limiting as any physical disability. Our sainted Prime Minister might talk about a ‘shared society’ where those living with mental illness are no longer excluded; it doesn’t seem like one of her pet policy advisors got the memo.

Individuals and charities do much to redress the balance, but there is a lot of needless duplication and when spoken by more than one voice at a time an otherwise strong message can end up being diluted.

What we need to do is celebrate in a positive way the possibility of living an empowered, productive life despite mental illness. One way of doing so could be to bring back Sanity Fair, the festival of all things relating to mental health held in the city up until a decade ago.

It could work rather in the way ‘Pride’ events have for the LGBT community, as a way for an unfairly marginalized community to say, ‘We’re here and We’re proud of who we are; get over it.’

The problem, of course, is how to pay for such an event. Council budgets are shrinking, so is that of the NHS.

The answer is to look to local employers, many of whom are slowly coming round to the idea that the mental health of their staff matters as much as their physical health and safety. Mental ill health in the workplace is a serious drain on productivity, profits and staff retention.

Concern for their bottom line, along with the slow realization that a good reputation is the best form of advertising should make business open to demonstrating social responsibility on such a major issue.

It is certainly an idea worth considering, if only because organizing a new Sanity Fair would bring the disparate mental health charities and support groups who do so much good work, often in isolation together to pull in the same direction.

It would also help to blow away with balloons, music and good spirits the clouds of stigma and suspicion that hold so many people back from reaching their full potential. Along the way, it would help to remind the wider world that Stoke-on-Trent is a modern and inclusive city, not the stereotype people locked within the embrace of the M25 like to think.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Greens send Ukip packing in Forest of Dean by election.

The Green party has won its second council seat in the space of a month, this time in the Forest of Dean.

This follows on from the party’s success in the contest held in Knowsley.

In the Forest of Dean, contest a campaign run by a team of Green Party member who only met for the first time six months ago increased the party’s vote by 30%.

The Ukip vote meanwhile collapsed, party Elections Coordinator Judy Maciejowska said this showed ‘the country is looking to the Greens as a force for good.’

She added that ‘with a determined organization the politics of hope can defeat the politics of hate. We can reach people without resorting to division and fear. We win when we come together, put in the work, and believe in our vision for a better future.’

Winning candidate Sid Phelps, speaking to the Independent, said, “We really, really worked hard. We spoke to a lot of people and had a very simple campaign message."

Party leader Caroline Lucas, also speaking to the Independent said, “This was a resounding victory for the Green Party and a major setback for Ukip.”

Adding, “When people vote Green they know they get representatives who work tirelessly for their communities and committed to protecting local services and the environment.”

As the by-elections in Stoke Central and Copeland enter their final phase this is win is a huge boost to their profile and shows the party is building a solid base of support around the country.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hypocrisy and hubris behind the shared society.

There is something deeply hypocritical about Prime Minister Theresa May’s sudden discovery of the crisis in mental health services.

In her speech to the Charity Commission this week, she pledged to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental illness and improve support for service users.

As a volunteer for two mental health charities part of me wanted to punch the air. Having our most senior politician speak about an issue that is so often side-lined has to be a good thing.

Then the cynic in me wakes up and smells the coffee in a world where nothing significant has changed.

The new money on offer isn’t all that new; it’s not all that much either. It has mostly been shuffled from elsewhere and won’t do more than plug a few holes in a fast sinking boat.

The rest is really just so many honeyed words, if you’ve been around long enough you’ll have heard most of them before.

Parity of esteem is a nice thing to talk about, it is a lot harder to achieve. Doing so requires joined up thinking and serious funding invested over the long term, neither of which are in anything other than short supply.

As for the ‘shared society’, this is a remix of a tune we’ve heard before.

I’m long enough in the tooth to remember John Major promising to create a ‘classless society’. That turned out well, didn't it?

Tony Blair and David Cameron both played variations on the same theme, with the same results. Their words warmed the air for a while; but there was little in the way of significant change

This is suggestive of a deep-seated hubris in the political elite. They believe all they have to do is touch a few tired bases and they can distract the public from the mounting problems in our society.

Those of who have seen into a darker reality know that something is going seriously wrong.

We see the lines forming at the food banks and the patients piling up in hospital corridors and know things are getting worse. Those with children see them saddled with debt and struggling to find somewhere to live and fear for the future.

The sugared sentiments and cynical positioning offered in response by Mrs May and her increasingly out of touch government are both irrelevant and insulting.

They are certainly no barrier against the rising tide of populism by which the political elite are both terrified and, bizarrely, still treat like a passing fad. The populists by contrast are not troubled by facts, common sense or decency; instead, they provide a parade of stereotypes and scapegoats.

People struggling with mental illness present a tempting target for bigots, letting them whip up threats that don't exist through amplifying difference into deviance.

If it were just a matter of the political class capering along the path to oblivion I’d treat Mrs May's posturing this week as just so much chaff thrown out to deflect criticism of the mess her party is making of the NHS.

Unfortunately they ignore the extent to which the policies of this government and the one before have made them complicit in excluding vulnerable people, worse yet they could lead to their being further marginalized; that is unforgivable.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Freedom is fragile; we shouldn’t let a scared political class put barriers in the way of our rights.

Two news stories reminded me recently that the franchise we all take for granted is less secure than we think.

Over Christmas, while the political circus was out of town the government slipped out the announcement that plans to trial requiring voters to produce ID at polling stations in eighteen areas at the next local elections.

This is, outwardly at least, a response to claims made in a report written by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that electoral fraud is a real and present threat to the legitimacy of our democracy.

In nearly twenty years active involvement with politics I have seen little evidence of this. Where there are infringements of the rules, it is more often due to a mix of innocence and incompetence than criminality.

Never mind, it gives the government a chance to make a knee jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist.

Then a couple of days into the new year I opened the Daily Mirror to read a full page plea for readers to write to Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to protest against section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This nasty little piece of legislation will make newspapers liable for the full legal costs of any case taken out against them, even if the court finds in the papers favour. The only way papers can avoid potential bankruptcy is by joining state backed press regulator IMPRESS, a quango so sinister it might have given Stalin second thoughts.

A better way of muzzling the press and scaring owners and editors out of supporting investigative journalism is impossible to imagine.

Both these stories have a subtext that says something dark and worrying about the attitudes of the political establishment.

Asking voters to produce ID at polling stations isn’t about combating electoral fraud; it is a way of keeping anyone who might support something other than the neo-liberal economic consensus quiet. After all the biggest impact of this plan will be on the communities it has hit hardest, where people haven’t got passports because they often can’t afford to eat never mind go on foreign holidays.

The political class have never forgiven the press for exposing their not so little fiddles over their expenses. Remember the people who wanted you to pay for their duck houses are the same hypocrites who want benefits claimants sanctioned for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.

In Britain, we like to imagine that we are different to other countries that have written constitutions. It is a comforting myth based on imagined superiority; it is as dangerous as it is deluded.

If we allow the press to be muzzled by people with deep pockets and dark secrets and voting to become something they let us do only when we have proved who we are to some official it will be a symbolic snipping of the silken cords that hold up our democracy. There is a real risk of their being replaced by the steel cables of control and coercion.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A curate's egg at the Polite Vicar

In a bid to raise the tone I'd like to introduce what might be called the 'reviewer's paradox.' It goes like this, what do you write when your experience was just about ok but everyone else with you had a pretty rough time?

That is the problem a recent trip to this venue posed, to keep the clerical metaphor going it was a bit like the curate's egg, some parts were excellent, others less so.

The spicy nachos, 'Jingle Burger' and chocolate orange cheesecake combo I went for was well worth the close to £13 bill. Perhaps because the only thing Christmas related was the name of the burger that probably appears under a less spangly name the other eleven months of the year.

Where things went wrong was with the one thing everyone else had come for, a good old down home Christmas dinner. The vegetables were undercooked to the point of still being in the soil, things didn't get any better with dessert, unless hunt the Christmas pudding is your favorite party game.

The portion given to one of my companions and then hidden under a lake of custard could have been served up by Scrooge himself. To be fair though the profiteroles served to another resembled a miniature mountain range drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Maybe the chef was helping the time pass by playing dessert roulette, fine if your number comes up, not so good if it doesn't.

To their credit the staff were helpfulness incarnate when we complained about the veg, it's just doing something about it seemed to take forever. I suppose cook was off in some far corner of the kitchen wearing a tux and sweating over having put all his white chocolate gateaux down on black.

The Polite Vicar isn't the Ritz Grill; you expect competent simplicity not haute cuisine. For the most part that's what we got at a reasonable price too.

The trouble is some even simpler mistakes made on a night when the pub was far from busy mean we probably won't be back in a hurry. As any gambler knows you only get one throw of the dice and the poor old Vicar lost.

The Polite Vicar
600 Etruria Road

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A psychologist walks into A pub

It’s early on a wet but mild December evening and I’m standing in a pub just outside Stoke town centre waiting for a psychologist to walk into the bar.

This sounds like the set-up for a joke, actually it was the prelude to a surprising evening.

The pub in question is The Glebe, which a friend recently described as having a distinctly ‘London’ vibe. Never having supped in the smoke I can’t comment, but being close to the campus of Staffordshire University gives it a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than most other pubs in town.

When he arrives the psychologist turns out to be an affable man called Dave Spence wearing a beard and a Christmas Jumper.

The talk, part of the ongoing Psychology in the pub series is on the ‘Psychology of Belief’, or more accurately the point where it turns into superstition. Something that we the audience, as smart broadsheet reading metropolitans could never be prone to; perish the thought.

Only, as Spence points out the more irrational elements of belief have a habit of catching us off guard. Otherwise reasonable people refuse to walk under ladders or wear their lucky socks to the most important meeting of their career.

Along the way he poked a little gentle fun at conflicting biblical accounts of the nativity, Christmas traditions that are less ancient than they seem and internet UFO photographs.

There was even time for a game of pass the parcel, something that brought back memories from my suburban childhood of squirming with embarrassment in case the music stopped while I was holding the parcel.

Thankfully it didn’t and so I was able to appreciate the whole thing as a metaphor for how belief is often several layers of wrapping around a confection, in this case a chocolate Santa.

The tone was light hearted with plenty of banter between Spence and his audience. Anyone willing to look a little closer would easily see a more serious message behind the jokes.

Beliefs are what help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Fair enough so far as it goes, apart from the fact they tend to be based on unconscious biases, making us worryingly easy to manipulate.

That is all well and good if it’s just a soft drink company fooling us into thinking it invented Santa Claus. Less so though when the manipulation is done by people with more sinister agendas.

Like getting a boorish reality TV star into the White House for example but something like that couldn’t happen, could it?