Tag Archives: Politics

Gender, LGBTQ, BME, Disability – MPs Diversity in General Election 2017

Representation in UK Parliament

Just how representative of the UK population as a whole were prospective parliamentary candidates and elected MPs in terms of gender, sexuality, disability, religion and colour/race/ethnicity? 97 new MPs joined the house, and Ken Clarke MP was re-elected as its oldest member and Father of the House. It is well known that, hitherto, the UK had the most LGB ‘out’ Parliament in the world, but not the most gender balanced, how has that changed after Theresa May‘s snap general election?

Gender | LGBT+ | BAME | Disability | Religion | Education | Summary

Gender: Female MPs compared to Male MPs

2017 sees 208 female Members of Parliament, up from 191 in 2015 (196 after by-elections). There were many seats where both the main candidates standing were female. 29% of candidates were women, 32% of those elected were – both records for the UK but not the world.

We were 46th in the world tables, we are now 39th. Guess who is first? Rwanda with 61% women, second is Bolivia with 53%. All others are less than 50%. Sweden (#6), Finland (#9), and Norway (#12=) are the top European nations, all Scandinavian. The first Western European nation is Spain at 14th and Belgium at 19th. Germany is 22nd but France 63rd! At this rate, 2062 would see gender balance in the UK Parliament. 

Labour fielded 40% women, the Green Party 35% (statistically, of course, 100% of their MPs are female!), UKIP had 13%. Of those elected, there is wide variation among the political parties. Labour have 45% (119) and their leader in Scotland but never England (except as caretaker). Meanwhile, there are just 21% (67) among Conservative MPs despite a history of two Prime Ministers and their leader in Scotland. 

Interesting that the DUP, the Conservatives in Scotland, and the Tories in England and Wales are all led by right-wing women, one of whom is anti-gay, another is gay, and another shifted to same-sex equality (through persuasion by a female LibDem MP) after a prior voting and campaigning record against it. Being a woman, it seems, is little impediment to political power in the UK. Indeed, add in Plaid Cymru, SNP, and for two weeks, even UKIP, only Labour (England and Wales) and LibDems haven’t been led by a woman.

Being female is no guarantee that one will hold pro-equality, pro-LGBT views. We now have a triumvirate of female-led parties forming a “confidence and supply” alliance to keep the Tories in power that may be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

LGBTIQ Sexuality & Gender Identity

With 45 openly LGB MPs (19 Tory, 19 Labour, 7 SNP) that’s also a record and 6 up from 2015 – at 6.9% that’s close to the supposed 6% openly LGB numbers in the population (much higher among young people, of course). None among the 12 LibDems, though their female MPs balance at 4 out of 12 is somewhat restored.

Seven Trans and two Non-Binary candidates stood (just 4 in 2015, so, more than doubling) but none were elected, several have stood in council elections before. Eddie Izzard continues to hint that he may stand as an MP.

UK LGB MPs are the highest proportion anywhere in the world. We have the most rainbow Parliament – quite an affront to the homophobic DUP with whom 19 LGB Tory MPs may now have to do electoral business with.

Since 4.5% of the people standing for election (147/3304) were openly LGBTQ, it means that LGB candidates are up to 1.5x more likely to win. Tories and Labour had 7% LGBT candidates, SNP 17% and 20% of their elected MPs, despite reduced numbers. Surprisingly, only 2% of Greens (same as UKIP!) and 4% of LibDems were. White gay men outweigh any other LGBTQ demographic 5x and are the most likely to be elected. Curiously almost zero LGBT candidates stood in Greater East Anglia! There’s an opening for me yet ūüėČ

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic MPs

Of the 147 LGBTQ candidates, just one was BME, in 2015 that was two – both shamefully low, though we don’t know the number of non-out candidates. However, 51 BME MPs were elected on 8 June – an increase of 10. At 7.8% this is just over half of the 14% general population representation.

Britain also elected its first MP of Palestinian heritage as Layla Moran for the LibDems “overturned a Conservative majority of almost 10,000 votes to win the Oxford West and Abingdon. Moran won the closely contested election by only 816, gaining 26,252 votes.”

Disability Representation

Just four openly physically disabled MPs were elected, 0.6% of Parliament, compared with 16% of the UK. Mental health is so stigmatised, one wonders if it were possible for someone to be ‘out’ with a diagnosed long term condition and an MP, other than depression and anxiety that affect 1-in-4 of us, and undoubtedly affect MPs similarly. It would be great to see a bipolar MP, to show it is possible to manage a bipolar life.

Religion

The new Parliament sees the UK’s first female Sikh MP, Preet Gill and its first turbaned male Sikh, Tanmanjeet Dhesi. Both are Labour MPs. In the past we’ve had 5 Sikh MPs in the last 15 years but never wearing a turban in the House of Commons. 

In the wake of the Manchester concert bombing, it is perhaps significant that the city elected its first Muslim MP, Afzal Khan – who was also ten years ago their youngest and first British Pakistani and Muslim, Mayor of Manchester.

Education

It shouldn’t matter, but it is interesting nonetheless with accusations that the Tories were run by the Eton and Bullingdon Club set, and even many who stood as Labour leader being Oxbridge educated.

The Sutton Trust believes that 51% of MPs were educated in comprehensive schools, and just 29% at public schools (ie privately educated). It is still disproportionately biased to private education, therefore. 

Summary

In conclusion, our LGB representation continues to be the highest in the world, across the three largest parties – but not elsewhere, and close to the assumed proportion of the general population. Several Trans, Non-Binary and similar, stood but at 9 out of 3300, they are about 10x underrepresented in standing, and to date unelectable; are they being stood as no-risk candidates in unelectable areas, that’s an analysis I’ve not done yet. On gender, we are getting there slowly, but ranking 39th in the world is a poor result, albeit an improved one. Realistically with parenting issues, 45% of Parliament would be a good showing for women, rather than the 32% we have. BME and disability remain woefully underrepresented. How a Tory deal with the DUP, who are anti-diversity on just about every count, can be squared with Parliament and the electorate’s ever-progressive diversity, remains to be seen.

Toblerone Brexit changes trump US Election news – we did not vote for this!

Toblerone changes shape & weight

Toblerone trending on BBC news
Toblerone trending on BBC news, Twitter and elsewhere

On the day of the US election when Trump and Clinton should be trending, the American-owned formerly Swiss Toblerone has stolen their thunder as a trending topic on Twitter and the BBC. UK Consumers unwrapping the same size, same price packets this morning were greeted with a 10% or more drop in weight from 400g to 360g or 170g to 150g, but with the iconic mountain ranges trimmed to leave the chocolate peaks resembling a bicycle rack.

The triangular shape and peaks of the chocolate bar are believed to be representative of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, yet Theodor Tobler’s son claimed the inspiration came from the pyramid shape formed by Folies Berg√®res dancers at a show finale.

American-owned Toblerone changes
American-owned Toblerone reduces weight to avoid increasing price

It is not a tune, though, that British consumers are willing to dance to. Illinois-based Mondelez International (formerly Kraft Foods) took over the Swiss firm in 1990. It is Brexit, however, or rather the crash of the Pound-Dollar exchange rate that has forced the drastic cuts. In the last months Microsoft, Lenovo, Apple, Marmite and more, have announced price hikes of 10-22%.  Other US-based products, Walkers and Birds Eye, plan to raise prices too.

Before we blame Brexit for a subtle change also made by the now US owners of previously York-based Terry’s Chocolate Orange, they reduced the weight of the oranges from 175g down to 157g, on 29 May, three weeks before the EU Referendum. They did this, as with Toblerone, by leaving the packaging unchanged and hollowing out one side of each orange segment.

Is all this a metaphor for life, or indeed politics? Read the small print. Check the ingredients (Cadbury’s Creme Eggs switched to a cheaper chocolate mix). Beware fake packaging and reduced content. Who of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is more shiny wrapper than edible content? Personally, I find nearly everything Trump says unpalatable.

Just as with elections, there are also winners and losers in all change. The European Union may be about free trade between its members and negotiating deals with America and Canada outside it, but it can be quite protectionist elsewhere. Take the German coffee-roasting industry worth billions, in order to protect that, the EU slaps a 7.5% tariff on any roasted coffee exports from developing markets in Africa, accepting only raw beans on fair terms.

At the end of the day, whilst traditions and chocolate loyalty are peculiarly passionate debates, it is the political battles of Brexit (ongoing) and the American Presidential election (today) that will have longer lasting effects on our cultures than a mere change of confectionery. In the battle of Trump v Toblerone I’m hoping that both are losers – as I don’t like either!

Toblerone
Toblerone – There can only be one winner

Got the Brexit Blues? Lost your Pink Beret! Reckon Orange is the new Black?

March for Europe, Paint it Blue

Yesterday, around the UK, from London to Edinburgh, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge, tens of thousands marched for Europe in an attempt to #paintitblue ahead of parliamentary discussion of the 4-million-plus second referendum petition. Peter Tatchell joined the march and Eddie Izzard, in high heels, gave chase

Orange is the New Black

Meanwhile, Theresa May was away in orange declaring to the US and China that “Brexit means Brexit“, “Free trade means free”, and Britain’s independence would be great – how quick they change their tune, or rather outfits?

Theresa May - "Better off in the European Union"
Theresa May – “Better off in the European Union”?

Political Language turning the air Blue

“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” – George Orwell

In an article in the Economist about how Republicans and Democrats in the US use political language, it was asserted that liberals try to talk facts and policies whilst conservatives are unafraid to aim for the gut.

“…conservatives use language more effectively than liberals in communicating their deepest values” –¬†George Lakoff, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic

The language of politics has also become the toxic language of hate, turning the language of the streets, rallies and even political advertising, blue – not pro-EU, but xenophobia and anti-immigrant fear and racism, both leading up to and since Brexit.

All Black takes on Pink Beret

In other news, europhile¬†Eddie Izzard in hat and heels had his pink beret “headgear stolen near Downing Street by a man dressed in all black with a balaclava covering half his face. Despite wearing high heels, Izzard gave furious chase as police caught the man and tore back his beret while he was pinned to the floor. He then dusted off the pink garment and placed it back on his head before marching to Parliament Square.” – Guardian

Eddie Izzard said: “There was one guy… he went up and snatched my beret – which has a British flag and an EU flag on – and he marched off, he stole it.”¬†The comedian said of the police that they “did fantastic”:

“…there was an inspector, some other officers in there, they took him down. I got my beret back, but it’s gone off as evidence – my beret is now in evidence. I’m out, transgender for 31 years and if anyone steals my pink beret, I’ll get it back.” – BBC

Just to keep things serious, here’s The Pink Berets from the movie Hop (2011):

Political Fashion

Now let’s stop obsessing about what trans people or female politicans wear and get back to what really matters. Oh ok, here’s a quick survey of what female leaders are wearing this season, Eddie – get on trend!

Political Fashion Orange is the new Black
Political Fashion, Orange is the new Black?

EU Referendum Vote Leave or Remain, Katy Jon Fact Check & BBC Reality Check

BBC EU Referendum Reality Check

The BBC is attempting to navigate an independent stance on¬†fact-checking the statements by the ‘BrexitVote Leave and the Remain campaigns in the EU referendum June 23 Vote. This leaves most of my practical work on economics and statistics (my undergrad background) redundant and instead makes me ponder what are the emotional, personal and psychological reasons why people are in such entrenched positions, when, to me at least, the balance of economic and equality facts favour Remain.

Labour say they cannot understand why any worker would not want to Remain for enhanced workers rights. LGBT groups say something similar regarding LGBTI equalities. Yet I know left and right wing LGBT people who have vehemently opposed opinions on this. The vote will be decided on the waverers as neither campaign reaches 50% without the 10-20% undecideds, mostly women, so please research and reflect before voting. This is more important than any 5-year election, this is a 50-year, once in a lifetime decision. Don’t stay at home on June 23.

Economic Facts and that £350m a week

Both sides have accused the other of false figures, but the use of the ¬£350m/week claim which arrived via Leave leaflet through my door again this morning leaves most to be challenged. Admittedly, in their small print they acknowledge we get some back, but they say “less than half”, the IFS and others disagree, arguing it is considerably more than half, as do BBC and Channel 4 Fact Checks.

The reality is that we pay less than ¬£85m/week not ¬£55m/day after rebates and other incomings. This is still a net donation to the EU, but why shouldn’t we, as the economically healthiest nation emerging from austerity, help our neighbours? ¬†That is a global obligation in this modern world, on a broader stage than our own isle, every socialist would surely agree with a redistribution of wealth to poorer nations?

The IFS report estimates:

“the cost of EU membership to the UK to around ¬£60 (‚ā¨75) per person (per year)”

What do we get for our net £60?

Freedom of travel across Europe, a last-resort court for human, worker and equality rights issues, reciprocal health treatment, ease of settlement and benefits receipt should we retire or relocate in the EU as 1.4m-2.2m Brits have done. Inward investment, education, and scientific research might all suffer from our withdrawal.

Environmentalists argue that the EU has brought us reduced pollution and pesticide use, as well as species and habitat protection.

Whilst, not a direct comparison, non-EU Norway contributes a gross £135/person to the EU for its access to EU markets via the European Economic Area (EEA).

Norway and Switzerland Options

Aside from the Norwegian model of EEA membership and EU budget contributions – actually more than the UK’s there is the Swiss option. Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) but has to negotiate numerous bilateral agreements and has still ended up having to agree to freedom of movement, one of the biggest Brexit issues.

“A senior Swiss official said last month that Switzerland can expect no progress in talks with the EU over migrant caps until after Britain’s referendum on EU membership in June.”

In other words, the Swiss model already costs Switzerland and they are hoping a Brexit would empower them to renegotiate a better deal on migrant numbers.

Trade & Business Costs & Benefits

Whilst EU rules and red tape are the most-cited complaints about the EU, nonetheless, a majority of SME businesses (67-78%) said the EU was a net benefit and they would vote to remain. Access to a half-billion person world‚Äôs biggest single market far outweighs any 0.4% GDP cost. Open Europe describes an admittedly worst-case “Brexit” scenario with the UK economy losing 2.2% GDP by 2030 and only gaining 1.6% if we deregulated radically and achieved better terms by far than either Norway or Switzerland. Indeed, we buy far more from the EU than we export, but that balance of trade would likely worsen with Brexit, and to keep the status quo would cost us an EU budget contribution and probably sign-up to freedom of labour movement.

“The EU is…far and away our biggest trading partner, amounting to well over half of our world exports. Indeed, we export more to Holland alone than to the entirety of the Commonwealth.”

Around half of our exports go to EU countries (44-50%), tariff-free, with trade laws that we help to draw up and at least have a say on. Even if we left, to export to the EU British products would still have to comply with EU health & safety standards.

British dairy exports might attract the 55-200% tariffs on imports to the EU. British farmers stand to lose £2.7 billion in EU subsidies.

Equality, Consumer & Workplace Laws

We may berate the EU courts and laws, but they have been a significant factor in tightening workers rights and hours, consumer protection, and especially for protected characteristic groups, champions of equality legislation. Many rights for LGBTI persons have emerged from or been challenged but upheld by European courts.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Sir Ian McKellen says:

“Now is the time to be backing Europe and giving back that sense of empowerment to countries in the European Union that are still very backward in this regard. If I were to look at ‚Äėin‚Äô or ‚Äėout‚Äô from that point of view, there‚Äôs only one point, which is to stay. If you‚Äôre a gay person, you‚Äôre an internationalist. I don‚Äôt want us to retract.”

For trans people, it is even more the case, that EU laws and courts have granted improved rights and equalised protections, even if there is some way to go still, especially for intersex persons.

Since 1999 same-sex discrimination has been banned in Europe and any joining nations like Turkey would have to abide by them, the EU can raise the rights of people in nations with poorer human rights records. Same-sex sexual activity is legal in all EU states and discrimination in employment has been banned since 2000. European Court of Justice case law has often come down against the UK Gov in the past in favour of trans people’s rights since it interprets discrimination on the basis of ‘sex’ as also extending to ‘gender reassignment’. Thus, all EU sex discrimination law applies to transgender people. In 2002, the 1976 equal treatment directive was revised to include discrimination based on gender identity. Whilst not all nations have same-sex marriage yet, EU directives mean that a same-sex marriage agreed in one EU country must be respected in all others.

Nonetheless, whilst 63% of Pink News readers would vote Remain, a surprising 37% would not. Even Boris Johnson has tried to ride the pink bus for Brexit and an ‘Out and Proud‘ group has formed to favour Leave. Admittedly, countries like the Netherlands, Spain and the UK have been ahead of the EU game on many LGBT rights, but the EU has encouraged other nations to follow the trend for greater LGBT equality.

Reasons to Leave the EU?

The three issues of security, sovereignty, and immigration, are the most oft-cited Leave issues. In addition, there is the fear-competition factor of EU access to British jobs.

Migrants and Immigration

Immigration regularly raises its ugly head during elections and its control is considered the holy grail of pandering to electorate fears. The ONS says there are 942,000 eastern European working in the UK, along with 791,000 western Europeans. A combined figure roughly equivalent to the number of Brits living in Europe. A fair trade? A further 2.93m workers originate from outside the EU with China and India being the biggest source of foreign workers in the UK. In other words we have a bigger issue with the numbers we can control than the ones we can’t. It has also been suggested for years that over 3 million British jobs may depend upon EU membership and trade.

Unemployment rate in member states of the European Union in February 2016 via Statista
Unemployment rate in member states of the European Union in February 2016 via Statista

Furthermore, there is a demographic timebomb approaching, in that, even with high net migration of up to 300,000 people a year, a small city’s worth, in a decade with an aging population we would need them to fulfil available jobs. We have one of the¬†lowest unemployment rates across Europe at around 5% compared to an EU average of 9.6%, only Czech Republic and Germany are lower and yet the latter has taken in huge numbers of migrants. A strong economy can absorb and afford migants, if not actually requires them. In addition, migrants tend to do the jobs Brits don’t want to. Long-houred agricultural, care or service sector, restaurant potwashing, jobs are invariably filled by foreign-born workers not British ‘shirkers’. Admittedly, a derogatory phrase but even in-work Brits are less productive than many foreign counterparts. France and Germany are 30% more productive per person-hour worked.

Security, Borders & Foreign Criminals

It is disingenuous to argue that the EU prevents us deporting foreign criminals. In only a handful of cases do EU courts block deportation on human rights grounds. One gain from membership is participation in the European Arrest Warrant which assists the bringing to justice of criminals across the EU. In addition, seeking to deport released foreign prisoners on the argument that they remain dangerous, suggests their sentences were too lenient in the first place, and prison reform and probation are the area of failure. Also, justice means that after a served-sentence, a prisoner is considered to have done the crime, done the time, and should be given a second chance, albeit with probation monitoring and social assistance at reintegration into society.

Iain Duncan Smith says our “open border” from staying in the EU is leaving the “door open” to terrorist attacks. Yet, recent attacks in France have meant a redoubled effort to share intelligence and prevent attacks. Security is illusory, as terrorism by its nature, usually circumvents most checks, although the British Government¬†has already prevented and prosecuted many such attacks, all the while being in the EU. Many leading military figures say that¬†the EU is an “increasingly important pillar of our security”.

As to preserving our UK borders and sovereignty, leaving the EU is almost certain to trigger a second Scottish referendum at which they would most likely leave the UK and commence negotiations to join the EU. Sovereignty is a false-idol and catch-22 if it leads to the break of the UK and creation of a future border with Scotland. In Ireland the border with Northern Ireland would have to close again.

Whilst we might regain control over fishing rights around¬†our shorelines and for miles beyond, we don’t have sufficient a fishing industry any more to exploit that gain, or vessels to police incursion by other EU fishing boats.

Brexit is a big unknown, better the devil you know – and can influence and negotiate with, than an outside-EU limbo of uncertainty.

“The most likely outcome would be that Britain would find itself as a scratchy outsider with somewhat limited access to the single market, almost no influence and few friends. And one certainty: that having once departed, it would be all but impossible to get back in again.” – The Economist

Voting matters, your vote counts, but read between the campaign soundbites, slanging matches, economic promises and fears. Instead, think about the bigger picture, future development and not just apparent personal gain, which may include so much more loss, if we were to vote leave.

 

Miriam Gonzalez Durantez BBC Radio 4 Today Guest Editor on Food & Feminism

Miriam Gonzalez Durantez Рguest editor on BBC Radio 4 Today programme

BBC Radio 4¬†Today guest editor for a day, senior international lawyer¬†and secret food blogger, Miriam Gonz√°lez Dur√°ntez took charge¬†of the programme’s direction and interviews. Intelligent and disarmingly charming Gonz√°lez discussed politics, women, role models, immigration, extremism, high heels, and food¬†with Jamie Oliver and Bake Off champion Nadiya Hussain, and interviewed Richard Branson, Theresa May, James Blunt among others, whilst sidestepping Justin Webb’s¬†sexism. Barely minutes after the interview some people¬†were criticising her interviews as “embarrassing“.

Only last week she wrote for the Financial Times on Spain’s recent election impasse, and political and judicial corruption there:

“The message is clear: voters do not want a focus on personalities or parties, they want a focus on cleaning up politics. Whoever becomes prime minister is almost irrelevant since he is likely to have to pack his (no chance of hers, alas) bags before long.” – Miriam Gonz√°lez Dur√°ntez, Financial Times

Gonz√°lez is an inspiring woman who also promotes the Inspiring Women Campaign since 2013 which talks with girls in state schools about future paths.

As El Mundo reported, it is the first time a Spaniard has guest edited the programme since the idea was introduced back in 2003. 

La abogada Miriam Gonz√°lez es la primera persona espa√Īola que ha sido invitada a codirigir un d√≠a el programa Today de la BBC Radio 4.

Miriam Gonzalez Durantez Guest Editor BBC Radio 4 Today
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez Guest Editor on BBC Radio 4 Today programme

 

Spanish Food

Gonz√°lez turns out to have been the secret author of a cookery blogMum and Sons“. She has some excellent mayonnaise cheats and a delicious¬†guacamole ¬†recipe.

“I’m Spanish we talk about food all the time… at breakfast we talk about what’s for lunch, at lunch what’s for dinner!” (2h48m)

Having lived in Spain for two years and being complete obsessed by food, I must have had a secret Spanish heart transplant.

British Freedom

She mentioned on the programme about her love of British freedom as she’s discussed before in the Guardian:

“The very first five minutes when I came to live here, I felt a freedom that I had never felt before in my life, a freedom to be myself.”

 

Women and Islamic State Extremism

González challenged Radio 4 to investigate and find out why over 60 British women and teens have travelled to Syria to possibly join Islamic State. Interviews include the Unity of Faiths Foundation which fights radicalisation through football, member of the Youth Parliament and an Ambassador for TUFF FC, Umra Butt, and director at anti-extremism Connect Justice, Laura Zahra McDonald.

“Facing racism and Islamophobic slurs…it’s the only place they feel accepted, it’s about belonging and fitting in…how can we empower people to belong…” (2h33m)

 

Smart and Beautiful

She used the opportunity as Today programme guest editor to challenge both gender roles, stereotypes and interview male and female role models.¬†She also called on¬†James Blunt to rewrite “You’re Beautiful” as “You are Smart” (1h45m). Blunt apologised for his “ridiculous accent” but not for being seen as sensitive or gay.

“…not very macho…effeminate and gay…not an insult…to call me gay is a compliment, and I’d¬†like to be considered an honorary gay man, I’m totally at ease with myself.” James Blunt

Everyday Sexism

Ever the diplomat, she chose not to slam much of the inherent everyday sexism of BBC male interviewer Justin Webb who introduced her as Nick Clegg’s wife – a dubious honour not used to introduce anyone else’s marital status or partner. Twitter of course, took him to task:

 

“Who’s in charge in your household?” (2h54m50s) “You’re the wife of Nick Clegg – it is a fact, you don’t rile from that?” (2h56m50s) “You want Theresa May to be in charge of the Tories, you are willing her” (2h59m15s)¬†

 

Home Secretary Theresa May Interview

Sharing a love of shoes, González says to May:

“I think better in high heels” (2h20m)

On whether Theresa May would lead a BrExit “No Campaign”, May dodges the question,¬†Gonz√°lez challenges “That’s not really an answer to my question”, May replies,¬†“I’m¬†a politician, Miriam”,¬†Gonz√°lez reiterates “I’m a lawyer, I have to insist”, then deflects with laughter. (2h25m45s)¬†

 

An Embarrassing or Endearing Interviewer?

Despite a debate this morning on whether her interview with May was “embarrassing” Gonz√°lez appears genuine, is obviously intelligent yet uses endearing humour – which may appear self and female-patronising at times, but which seems to be a ploy to disarm and choose which “square centimetre” battles to fight. Wanting to see change, she says, means choosing your battles wisely. Not every successful woman needs to be a Theresa May-Margaret Thatcher battleaxe, woman can make it by being themselves, not by being men.

Austerity/Labour isn’t working; How to measure a Healthy Economy & Society

Getting Britain back to work? It’s not working!

The language of austerity and recovery (the Tory version or Labour’s “austerity-light”) has all been about working to pay off the deficit, whereas the reality of much of it was about cutting public sector jobs and the benefits of those out of work. The language of Ukip has been about preventing others coming here to work, or labelling migrants as “benefit/health tourists”. According to many international bodies the UK has done well – economically, but socially we are falling apart. Socially and in microeconomics terms, rather than the surface macroeconomic recovery, the Coalition isn’t working, also “Labour¬†Isn’t Working“, the political opposition has been ineffectual.

Measuring the Health of a Nation

Labour Party, The Doctor Can't See You Now General election poster 2015
Labour: The Doctor Can’t See You Now General election poster 2015

In health service resources terms we are 28th out of 30 OECD nations, 19th in terms of our actual health. The health of society should not be measured in mere economic terms. Education, welfare, mental health, attitudes to those that are different, migrants, or asylum seekers, are often a better guide to how we are really doing as a society. When a million people are using foodbanks, something is clearly wrong.

Working Families

Britain isn't eating poster Church Action on Poverty 2013
“Britain isn’t eating” Church Action on Poverty 2013

The language of Labour and Conservatives this election has all been about “hard working families“, with Ukip adding British-only workers to that, but then even Labour wanted to push for British jobs first. On paper, the unemployment rate is almost back to¬†its 5.3% pre-crisis figure along with a massive shift away from public sector towards the private sector. After 5 years of austerity certain types of jobs are growing (self-employment, small business, zero hours contracts – 700k/2.3% of workers), but those without are being left behind – something Cameron promised not to do.

“I want to, if I’m elected, take the whole country with me. I don’t want to leave anyone behind. The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. And that test is even more important in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken, than it is in better times.” – David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show, just before the 2010 General Election

Whether disabled, unskilled, mentally ill, being a carer, or struggling with some other difficulty that makes the 9-5 “Arbeit macht frei” ethic not appropriate or possible for all, many are being abandoned, and forgotten. The very purpose of the modern state, the welfare state, even something once quoted but not fulfilled by David Cameron, is to care for the weakest and neediest in society – without scapegoating them as sick scroungers.

Ed Miliband and the #EdStone

Ed Miliband Pledge Promises Stone EdStone
Ed Miliband – Six Pledge/Promises Stone #EdStone

Even Ed Miliband in his¬†Cecil B. DeMille Mosaic stone Tablets announcement this weekend put the economy as the number #1 priority and “higher living standards for working families” as number #2, apeing UKIP and the Tories at number #4 is “Controls on Immigration“.

What no welfare?

Nowhere among Labour’s¬†6 priorities were people in need, on welfare, even mentioned. For welfare to remain a “dirty” word even with a¬†so-called socialist party shows how times have swung and the extent to which a party will spin and abandon its principles in order to regain power.

Austerity isn't working UK Uncut poster 2012
Austerity isn’t working UK Uncut poster 2012

“Cuts”¬†has been the message of austerity and debt reduction. But those cuts have fallen on the neediest in society, those on disability or welfare, not those most able to pay, or indeed – such as the banks, most responsible for the economic collapse in the first place. In 2012 UK Uncut protested the March budget with a “queue” outside Downing Street and an “Austerity Isn’t Working” poster campaign mimicing the 1978/9 Saatchi poster done for Margaret Thatcher and the Tories.

The verdict of a successful government is not just something measured in economic terms but also in moral and social ones.

Arbeit macht frei

Diefenbach’s 1873 novel “Arbeit macht frei” about a man who “is a gambler and fraudster who, through regular employment, succeeds in regaining the path of virtue” or as another commentator put it “a way for sinful people to be absolved of their transgressions through labor” is the origin of the cruel phrase that was taken on by Nazis and put over the gates of the concentration camps. Diefenbach was a Christian pastor and nationalist and echoed the Victorian work ethic that many so-called reformers in Britain held to in the 19th century.

David Cameron’s Easter message interview with a Christian magazine summed up Christianity as about “hard work and responsibility“, not Christ’s work on the Cross, meaning that, soteriologically, everything was actually already done for mankind.

Jesus said that the “truth would set you free”, the truth seems to be the thing furthest from modern politicians, with all their spin and question-dodging. No wonder 35% of the electorate don’t vote.

Less about Economic Wealth what about Mental Health?

The real hard truth is that “Britain isn’t working”. Inequality is increasing. Our communities are fractured and our countryside fracked. Those not in work are being punitively capped and cut until they can take it no more.

The irony of a government forcing state-funded CBT onto the unemployed yet unable to deliver self-requested CBT via mental health services for those that want to work is clearly lost on the Big Brother worker state. Hundreds of therapists, counsellors, and mental health experts, have written to outline their fears about the emotional and psychological toxicity of austerity and how it is being carried out. Suicides have increased over the last 5 years, especially amongst men.

Big Society or Broken Society?

Is the Big Society broken? Does society even exist or matter?¬†Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” is falsely interpreted though under a Tory-LibDem watch has been almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1987

Labour isn't working Conservative's Saatchi poster 1978/79
Labour isn’t working Conservative’s Saatchi poster 1978/79

Saatchi and Saatchi designed the 1978 poster that helped Thatcher win the 1979 election with the tagline “Labour [Still] Isn’t Working“. The Labour Party has spoofed the self same poster nearly 4 decades later. It is time to think outside the box not just rattle and rebrand it.

The truth is society is more broken than 5 years ago even if the economy may be on the mend. Austerity has been toxic. Our health, transport, housing, and education sectors have declined after being starved of resources or sold off to the private sector. Now it is society that needs rebuilding, not the economy. That is the true measure of recovery.

Post-Election Update

Labour isn't working BOB cartoon Daily Telegraph 9 May 2015
Labour isn’t working BOB cartoon Daily Telegraph 9 May 2015

With the Conservatives returned to power, not just coalition but a slim but workable majority, and achieving a rare (once in a century) feat of increasing their vote share, how much did their victory owe to spin and emphasis on the economy not those in need? Are the democratic majority simply selfish? The majority view does not mean it is the¬†right view – ethically, morally, socially. In the meantime the 37 year-old poster image is still doing the rounds with Daily Telegraph cartoonist BOB re-posting “Labour isn’t working” with a queue of unemployed Labour MPs snaking back from the dole office.

April Fools, Can you tell UKIP Truth from Fiction?

Some UKIP Policies are Jokes

April Fool’s Day falling on the third day of the UK General Election 2015 campaign is a godsend for political hacks, journalists and comedians. But with political parties, especially Ukip so prone to the unbelievable and public relations disasters anyway, how does one tell Ukip fiction from fact?

These are just some of 13 stories out there about Ukip from the last 24 hours or so, how many can you identify as jokes rather than less funny actual policies?

13 UKIP Policies, or are they April Fools?

(1) The opinion site Breitbart reports that Ukip wants to change the name of German measles. London’s Managing Editor, Raheem Kassam, left the organisation last year in order to join Ukip as Senior Advisor to the party leader, Nigel Farage.

(2) Streets too full of immigrants for British children to safely play football. Although it would make for ideal local World Cups!

(3) Ukip wants to cut net migration rates to the UK by 90% from 300,000 to 30,000 a year and will ban immigrant benefits for 5 years.

(4) As part of a tourism initiative and two fingers up to France before the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, this June, Ukip wants to clean up the Kent coastline, to keep the ‘white’ cliffs of Dover, white. Napoleon had plans to invade the UK.

(5) Ukip officials, including Nigel Farage, comment on secret late-night meeting by Farage to Ed Miliband‘s home, which lasted 3 hours, sources said. Farage corrected Michael Crick, the Channel 4 journalist, that it was actually 5 hours.

(6) Ukip candidate, Jeremy Zeid, resigns after suggesting Barack Obama should be kidnapped by Israel special forces.

(7) Teenagers should not be allowed to vote on a EU referendum since they have been brainwashed by “colouring-in books on the Common Agricultural Policy”.

(8) In any coalition deal with Ukip, Nigel Farage feels the best fit ministerial portfolio for himself would be to develop a Minister for Tourism.

(9) In a vague reference to the Bedroom tax, aka Spare room subsidy, a Ukip candidate has called for a “spare womb tax“. Allegedly, the PPC “went off on one about how we should tax all those women who are failing the UK by not having kids. Especially since all the foreigners coming over here have at least 20 children each.”

(10) Interview on UK Christian broadcaster, Premier Radio, on why Ukip is enjoying a rise in support from Christians ahead of the general election.

(11) Marxist mind benders – “Over the past 30 years they have changed the way we speak and the way we think… I want to see a revolution in this country ‚Äď a common sense revolution where we begin to say ‚Äúno thanks‚ÄĚ to the Cultural Marxist politically correct mind benders.”

(12) Ukip wants to “cut Britain free from the European human rights regime”.

(13) Ukip would introduce an Australian-style points immigration system and use an X-Factor-like panel with four officials voting on admission to the UK. Each migrant requesting a visa to enter and work here would need approval from at least three of the four officials.

How many Ukip policy jokes did you spot this April Fool’s? Just 4 are outright jokes and 2 are mixed truth and fiction, a full 7 are actual policy statements – but which ones?

UK General Election campaign, Labour Immigration Controls Mugs #GE2015

UK General Election 2015, Day One

Today is the first full working day of the UK General Election 2015 campaign, the MPs are now just prospective Parliamentary candidates but some of Labour’s former MPs are keeping their distance from the immigration mugs in their online shop.

But for a moment, let’s celebrate – we have no MPs! Parliament has prorogued and dissolved. Anarchy in the UK! On a more serious note, the psephologists are number crunching, which we all know means the return of the swingometer and ever so accurate and meaningful poll predictions. Basically the Tories and Labour are neck to neck, but on day one it is Labour who are up to their necks in it.

Other issues from the weekend such as:

  • Labour’s “no” more borrowing and “yes” more¬†borrowing
  • Conservative’s no third term for Cameron
  • Tony Blair’s offer of financial support curse

These were all dead and buried as old news after Labour created ‘better’ bad news!

It was barely an hour into day one of the official election campaigns and already immigration was the number one topic, or at least the mugs in Labour’s shop were.

Labour Anti-immigration mug

Labour Party Controls on Immigration pledge mug
Labour Party Controls on Immigration pledge mug

#MugGate, as it will no doubt come to be called, is all about Labour‘s Five Pledges, most of which are fairly non-descript and non-specific, but #4 “Controls on Immigration” was what caught everyone’s attention.

Labour have done nothing but apologise for the two things the polls say they are weak on, namely, the economy and immigration – respectively, the Tories and UKIP’s campaign strengths. Or, if like me – an ardent pro-migration and diversity activist, their weaknesses.

There were 500 mugs available, now around 90 – so over 400 bought! Probably by Tories, journalists and people like me thinking these will be worth a fortune on eBay after Labour tries to recall them as a damage limitation exercise.

Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

The criticisms that Labour were using not just Tory immigration rhetoric but UKIP’s were all over Twitter and the several Labour MPs including¬†Sadiq Khan and Chuka Umunna said they wouldn’t buy one either. Another Labour MP, Diane Abbott, called them “shameful”. and an “embarrassment“, and the “real problem is that immigration controls are one of our 5 pledges at all”:

Paul Bernal in a blog post, somewhat inevitably called “Storm in a Tea Cup“, drew attention to what he thought could have been five better pledges by Labour. I doubt anyone is calling for completely open borders, but to make immigration controls a leading campaign pledge, is neither Old Labour nor New Labour but some kind of aping of the Right and the perception that immigration is one of the biggest public fears. It may well be, but if so why not take the high ground and make the positive economic and cultural case for immigration to the people. Don’t make it a race to the bottom and sink to the level of UKIP.

UKIP Political Party mug 'Keep Calm UKIP are coming'
UKIP Political Party mug ‘Keep Calm UKIP are coming’

Renowned socialist and Guardian journalist, Owen Jones, called them “Farage wannabe mugs”, calling on Labour to give the people “hope”, rather than fuelling immigrant hate:

Last November, Ed Miliband announced plans to ban EU migrant benefits for 2 years, and a week later David Cameron responded by saying he would bar them for 4 years! Of course Nigel Farage would never let them in, in the first place by leaving the EU, although he would no doubt remain married to his German wife.

Election Campaign Merchandise

Another thing that surprised me was seeing how commercial the whole fundraising and marketing angle of the campaigns were. I did not know that each party except George Galloway’s Respect Party had an online shop and election merchandise.

Green Party Standing Up For Migrants mug
Green Party Standing Up For Migrants mug

The Green Party have rushed out a “Standing up for migrants” response to Labour mug within hours:

“Last week Labour released their “controlling immigration” mug. Here at The Green Party we believe in standing up for migrants’ rights. If you share the belief that we must all work together for the common good, join us in drinking from this mug!¬†N.B. Exact design TBC. Coming soon”

The LibDem mug can’t actually be searched for on their website because all searches must contain at least 4 characters, which rules out “mug”! Although if you search for “mugs” you’ll be steered towards the only search result, a customised mug with your favourite LibDem MP, MEP or Lord on it! Browse by category and you’ll find the other 18 mugs on offer. Lesson – don’t let the LibDems build the next Government website!

There’s also an “I’m a counsellor” mug in the Welsh products section. I always thought that counsellors counseled whereas councillors stood for office, even in Wales.

The Tories have an illustration in their kitchen shop of mugs but no mugs for sale, hastily removed, perhaps, after Labour #MugGate? Though, for the price of Labour’s mug ¬£5 you could buy “36 Blue cupcake cases“. By far the largest section of their online shop contains 23 Maggie memorabilia items. Many of the items elsewhere in the shop, including the baby clothing department, are actually green and not blue. Get in quick with your “Future Prime Minister” bib to replace David Cameron in the Parliament after next…

Labour are also selling replica posters from 1945 “Labour for Him/Her” with 70 year old campaign messages.

Future economic policies could perhaps be gleaned from the online shop Party political pricing. Labour and Green mugs are ¬£5, SNP ¬£6, the LibDems, “we won’t cut as much as Labour or Tory”, ¬£7.50, and the Tory mugs were no doubt scrapped during the austerity cuts or vetoed by George Osborne. Plaid Cymru are positively encouraging migration to Wales as they are only charging ¬£3!

The Political is Personal

David Cameron has said that the political is more than just personal, it is “national”, and made the campaign trail a straight choice between the Churchill-Cameron strong man or Ed “two kitchens” Miliband chaos.

So one of the very things that turns people off politics, is back to centre stage – personality politics. The soundbites are more about the Cameron v Miliband, than Conservative v Labour. Whilst Labour are fairly solid, repeated polls suggest that Miliband has the lowest approval rating of all the party leaders. Whether level-pegging or just ahead Labour would win more seats because of our demographic electoral system, however they are likely to fall short of a majority.

Whilst the USA has its Tea Party, here in the UK, in 6 weeks time, it will likely be a case of choosing which coalition set of mugs to form the next Government, and which get sold off on eBay at Poundland prices.

Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, Islamic Mercy and Saudi Justice

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair‚Äé, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.

Waleed Abu Al-Khair

Waleed Abu Al-KhairAmong other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair)‚Äé was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.

Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.

He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.

Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.

Yet, in all this, Waleed knows no hate. As he wrote in his last letter before prison:

“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies ‚Äď full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?

I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.

Hamza Kashgari

Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring.¬† He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.

Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:

“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rightsfreedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”

Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!

The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned  Рthe third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.

Religion and Punishment

What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.

So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.

Islam – Peace or Violence?

Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salńĀm ō≥ŔéŔĄōßŔéŔÖ‚Äé meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.

Just compare the negative Quran quotations with some of the more positive verses, including:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur‚Äôan, Al-Baqarah, 2:256

Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.

State Sanctioned Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.

As Abulkair has written:

“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”

Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:

“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in¬†Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim

“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.

Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.

Human Rights Campaigns

Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.

Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.

Whilst the ō≠ōĮŔäōę‚Äé Šł•adńęth or saying(s – technically ō£ō≠ōßōĮŔäōę  ĺaŠł•ńĀdńęth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:

“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.

In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84

The latest Amnesty International petitions can be found here: http://amn.st/6182IYIa and http://amn.st/6185IYIL. Twitter campaigns here: #FreeRaifBadawi and #FreeWaleedAbulkhair

Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:

“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”

Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.

JeSuisCharlie vigil honours freedom of expression and Charlie Hebdo victims

Norwich #JeSuisCharlie Peace Vigil

Around 200 people gathered in the rain and cold outside the Norwich Forum to stand with the #JeSuisCharlie victims in a poignant and peaceful vigil marked by respect for all beliefs, but especially of freedom of expression.

JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015
JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015

This was Norfolk’s small but inclusive contribution after nearly 4 million people assembled in France at the weekend, 1.5m in Paris alone, only tarnished by the presence of leaders and foreign ministers from around the world, many of whom shackle freedom of speech and belief in their home countries.

The Norfolk crowd, with a a few dozen French nationals studying or living here, assembled calmly outside the Forum, candles were lit to spell out “Charlie”, after an introduction by French organiser Cl√©mentine Pellegrino – in which she quoted Albert Camus, there was a minute’s silence during which pens and pencils were raised aloft.

There followed an invitation to those present for anyone to say or share something, some came with prepared words others seemed inspired with spontaneous speeches, each leading on from the last.

People of varying backgrounds, political and religious beliefs, were represented. Several began their speeches in French. A woman from the local Liberal Jewish synagogue asked for raised hands from members of other faiths – Jews, Christians, Buddhists, not that I spotted anyone noticeably Muslim by any stereotypic dress.

JeSuisCharlie en Arabe photo by Ann Nicholls
JeSuisCharlie en Arabe photo by Ann Nicholls

When I felt moved to speak, I spoke up for the hundreds of journalists around the world imprisoned or killed for publishing political or religious comment that may not agree with everyone. I mentioned the Al Jazeera journalists locked up in Egypt currently awaiting appeal against their sentence.

I noted how many Arab papers and cartoonists had also drawn cartoons of support but also how the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat had been beaten for criticising and caricaturing President Assad.

I raised the hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia sending condolences and criticisms of the criminality of the terrorist attack whilst locking up and carrying out a sentence of a 1000 lashes upon Raif Badawi for setting up a Liberal political website.

I mentioned the view against polarising this as a clash between civilisations, but instead one of a clash within them. By far the majority of extreme Islamist victims have been Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians, not Western writers and commentators satirising religious figures.

I also drew attention to the dozens of Arab and Muslim countries and organisations who did condemn the Parisienne atrocity as “Not in my name” and nothing to do with the tenets of Islam. Because of this I carried not only #JeSuisCharlie placards but the same sign written in Arabic, along with #JeSuisAhmed – the Muslim policeman who died protecting the rights of others to criticise his religion, #JeSuisRaifBadawi; #JeSuisJuif for the Jews in the Kosher store who were also targeted – if anything that *was* a racist attack; #JeSuisMusulman to say I stand with peaceful Muslims, like the Australian #IllRideWithYou hashtag that trended after the Sydney cafe siege.

Whilst I had also made a sign #JeSuisNigerian to remember the 2000 massacred in Baga a few days ago, as if African lives mattered less, I did not remember to mention it, but my omission was more than made up for when the local Police head of diversity, Abraham Eshetu, spoke about what had happened in Nigeria.

JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015
JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015

There was no racism, or Islamophobia, at the event, no far right hijack as was feared by some, indeed quite the contrary, these were condemned amidst the solidarity against fear and violence, and for freedom of expression, belief, and speech. This was echoed by the organiser’s intent for a peaceful demonstration. It was sad that some did stay away as “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, because this movement of people, galvanised over social media, need not be hijacked by world leaders for their political ends, nor used by racists to rant against immigration, instead it should be an opportunity to stand up for diversity of belief and the rights to express them. It is probably forgotten that Charlie Hebdo also ran cartoons satirising the far right, Marie le Pen, not just the icons of all the major faiths and political leaders of all hues.

Clémentine, originally from Nice and a Norwich resident for two years, was reported in the local EDP newspaper, as saying:

“My French friends and I felt like it would be good for the freedom of speech and to show the outside world that people do not want to surrender to these attacks. There is a chance that the people in France see what we have done and we want to show our support. This is a message of peace, and a chance to show the Muslim community that we support them.”

Despite, therefore, the very non black-and-white world of the #JeSuisCharlie stand for freedom, I was and am willing to be counted among the millions voicing their support, ensuring that all beliefs are free to be expressed, albeit with respect, yet open to criticism and humour. The right to insult, does not mean the need to do so. Challenging power structures and ideologies – religious or political, that oppress rather than attacking individuals or faiths in an ignorant blanket manner, is my preferred approach.