A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Tories are still for elitists, by elitists

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is the conclusion of the National Equality Panel whose report, published today, highlights the "deep-seated and systemic differences" that exist in Britain. According to yesterday's Guardian poll the Tories are losing the "battle" over class. Apparently over a third of voters see the Conservatives as the party of the upper classes. So what. Does class matter any more? Can it really influence the way people vote? The simple answer to both questions is yes. Whether we like it or not, class still matters in this country and could well influence the outcome of the forthcoming election. Back in 2008 Labour's shambolic "Tory toff" campaign prompted a plethora of articles and comment about whether class was still a major issue in British politics. The truth is that Britain remains a nation that is still dominated by class division. In 2007 in an ICM poll ICM poll for the Guardian, 89% of those surveyed thought that people are still judged by their class – with almost half saying that it still counts for "a lot". Over 50% of people said that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen. Despite more than a decade of Labour in power, social mobility in Britain has decreased; in fact the British middle classes are operating what is, in effect, a closed shop. For example our top universities are still, in the main, the preserve of a rich, well-connected elite.

You may well remember the furore a few years ago when Bristol University was accused of gross discrimination and unfairness — spurred on by several influential columnists and leader writers — for introducing a "fairer" criterion for admissions that would benefit pupils from poorer backgrounds. Often the real reasons why many left-leaning journalists and politicians end up sending their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools are based not on the raw results of the local state schools, but on a desire to ensure that their children have access to what the local comprehensive cannot provide: privilege, advantage and the opportunity to network. British public schools have always been a production line of the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, can raise their fees steadily, select their pupils, enjoy a growing endowment income from their benefactors, and offer some of the most impressive sporting and extracurricular activities in the country. What's more, they now recruit from a middle class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage: parents who become part of the problem, rather than seek to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and "comrades" attempting to ease their consciences by announcing that the local comprehensive is simply not good enough and they have to go private in the name of parental responsibility.

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that the perpetuation of class divisions in Britain really is part of a liberal conspiracy. It seems clear to me that those who do have influence in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order to protect it. It must surely be true, for example, that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs. Suspicion of the wealthy, the privileged and of the upper classes is hardwired into the DNA of those who espouse left-leaning ideas and policies. Why? Because most believe that the inevitable consequence of a politics that espouses equity and fairness is that it will give comfort to the afflicted and end up afflicting the comfortable. For example the majority of ordinary people watch in disbelief when bankers attempt to paint themselves as noble and public spirited by limiting their annual bonus to "only" a million pounds. What people want, demand almost, is that the super-rich should pay more, and that those that got us into this mess should shoulder the responsibility for getting us out of it. The subtext behind the polling is that many people associate class with wealth and see the Tories as the party of the rich, the party that will help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

In the coming months Labour will seek to portray the Tories as the party of the elite, a party that is out of touch with High Street Britain, out of touch with the needs and aspirations of hard-working families on low or moderate incomes. Sadly exactly the same charge can be laid at 'new' labour which is why so many

of us just don't know who the hell to vote for given such a shockingly poor choice of politicians & parties.
The Tories, committed as they are to deep cuts in public spending, would, if elected, increase the gap between rich and poor even further. If Labour is to achieve a fourth term then its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against the ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action. Even teachers are losing faith in Labour with only a quarter planning to vote for the party compared to more than two-fifths nine years ago, a poll revealed today. Traditionally core Labour voters, teachers are twice as likely to vote Tory now compared to five years ago, the survey by Ipsos MORI shows. One thousand teachers from England and Wales were questioned for the poll.

One thousand teachers from England and Wales were questioned for the poll. Teachers aged under 35 are less likely to vote Labour and more likely to vote Conservative than their older colleagues. Some 22% plan to put a cross by Labour, while 21% would put one by the Tories. Just over a quarter – 26% – of those over 35 intend to vote Labour compared to 16% who plan to vote for the Conservatives. A quarter of the teachers in the poll expect to vote Labour, but 18% intend to vote for the Tories. In 2005, just 9% pledged allegiance to the Conservatives. But despite all this I have a sneaky feeling even that cannot wipe clen the memory of disadvamntage, poverty and disillusion with the last Tory government, under John Major who took over Thatcher the snatcher's iron reign of power. Don't laugh, but it's possible that the Tories won't win the next general election. Sounds silly, I know, given that the polls, the press, why, the very scent in the air, insists that David Cameron is – in the words of one Guardian front page – the "PM in waiting". Wherever he travels now, Cameron leaves audiences concluding that he looks the part: he has the manner, the confidence, that glow of imminent power.

Even Labour ministers have succumbed to this sense of inevitability. Refer in private conversation to the Tories as the "next government", and they don't even blink in protest. But they might all be wrong. It's still possible that even if Labour doesn't win in 2010, the Tories could lose, denied an outright victory: those expenses-fiddling MPs might escape a hanging from the voters, but still parliament could be hung. I'm not saying it's likely, nor even probable. If you've got £10 to hand over to a bookmaker, find something else to bet on. But it is definitely possible. Take a look at last year's Guardian poll for example - The headline figures showed Cameron outstripping Gordon Brown on every measure of alpha male leadership: tougher and more decisive. But underneath was the news that the gap between Labour and Conservative is shrinking. Some pollsters have it at 10 points, which they declare "the bare minimum for a functional majority". If that lead melts into single digits, as it could under the hot lights of an election, then the Tories will be in peril. But that's just the beginning. Those at Brown's side promise that the coming contest will not be a national but a regional election, won in marginal seats that exist in roughly equal numbers in the south, north and Midlands. They've written off their chances in the southern marginals, but swear they're ahead in the key northern seats and competitive in the Midlands: aided, they say, by the fact that the Tories' appeal shrinks the further they get away from London.

Denis MacShane, the Rotherham MP, testifies that Cameron strikes even those of his constituents who now loathe Labour as irredeemably southern and metropolitan; their response to George Osborne is even more hostile. In a recent council byelection in Barnsley, the Conservatives came fifth behind Labour, the BNP, local independents and Ukip. Labour's high command contrasts this with the enthusiasm for Tony Blair – and poll numbers north of 50% – in 1997, and says the Tories are nowhere near where they need to be. Pollsters don't wholly disagree, noting the "softness" in Tory support, measured by those who say they might yet change their minds, and the scale of the mountain the Conservatives have to climb – needing to increase their number of MPs by the order of 70%. Look to the women, the Labour optimists say next. Among female voters the Conservative poll lead is smaller. That's why the heart of today's Queen's speech will be a new promise on social care for the elderly, aimed specifically at the 45- to 65-year-old women who are, say Labour strategists, "in the crunch" on care, either worried for themselves or their parents. The contrast will be clear, they hope, with Osborne's austerity message, which may have won plaudits from the well-cushioned commentariat but, they insist, repels regular voters. In this view, all that Labour canvassers have to say on the doorstep is that the Tories will have you working harder for longer: not a great vote-winner.

What else do they have up their sleeves? Downing Street has been studying hard the come-from-behind Conservative victory of 1992, helped by the presence of one of the lead operatives of that offensive around the current cabinet table: Shaun Woodward. That year the Tories hit their opponents by warning of Labour's "tax bombshell". In 2010 Labour is mulling a return of the compliment, warning that the Tories will drop their own bombshell – on tax credits, many of which help people on middle incomes. Another 1992 echo: Labour hopes to remind those in work and with a mortgage that they are, despite the recession, better off, thanks in part to ultra-low interest rates. They plan, too, to reprise one of Brown's favourite tunes, running 2010 as a "many, not the few" election. That the Tories have not dropped their proposed cut in inheritance tax – which will give a £200,000 tax break to the 3,000 wealthiest estates – while promising to repeal the ban on foxhunting only hands Labour a bigger target. "Government will now be of the rich, by the rich, for the rich," says MacShane. There's another potential Tory weakness. When the National Front was on the march in the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher moved swiftly, luring rightwing voters back to the Tory camp by talking their language, warning that immigrants threatened to "swamp" Britain. But that option is not open to the kinder, gentler David Cameron, not without fatally undermining his brand. So a boost for UKIP and the far-right BNP could split the right vote and see at least a few seats slipping from the Tories' grasp.

And, despite those stellar numbers in the ICM poll, Cameron is not without vulnerabilities. I'm told that one political communications professional – sympathetic to the Tory leader – asks his corporate clients what kind of strategy they wish to pursue: a Blair or a Cameron? The former is for those who want to tackle a difficult subject, the latter is for those who want to change the subject. The focus-group-meisters say the first story that voters tell when asked to talk about Cameron is still the one about him cycling to work – followed by a car carrying his bag. Or it's the Tory spinners briefing that Samantha Cameron was wearing a humble M&S off-the-peg dress – only for it to be revealed that the dress was in fact tailored especially for her on the orders of the store's chief executive. Labour can still try to brand Cameron as a fake. Put it all together, close your eyes, cross your fingers and, say Labour's most optimistic hearts, it could all come right on the night. The problem, says the former deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas, is that "this perfect combination of forces all have to come into line in time for election day". In other words, even if some of the strategists' hopes are realised, it's a stretch to believe they all will be.

What's more, plenty of those arguments wobble under scrutiny. Take the 1992 precedent. As an issue, tax credits lack the punch of income tax. And, even if Gordon Brown does analogise quite well to John Major, is David Cameron really Neil Kinnock, widely derided as "unelectable"? No. Labour is clinging to the belief that the race will tighten in the heat of an election campaign. But that's far from certain. Isn't it just as possible that Brown might look tired and clumsy, thereby reinforcing the Tories' time-for-a-change message? Even if they buy the optimistic scenario, plenty of Labour MPs are not quite sure what to do with it. For some it only makes them more frustrated, proof that the coming election really would be winnable if only they had one last element in place: a leader who had not, apparently, been written off by the electorate. Others take heart, believing that somehow they can stave off defeat without taking that fateful step. But they all know that it would take a miraculous dollop of luck for everything to go the way the Brown team say it might. And, right now, not many are feeling lucky.

Why not fight religious bigotry?

Monday night's parliamentary debate on the equality bill was one of the poorest and most ill-informed I have ever heard in the House of Lords. Despite Lord Lester's eloquent explanation of the bill, and its duty to conform to the European framework directive from which it sprang, there seemed to be a determination among the Christian peers and bishops (of which there was a surfeit) to ignore our obligations to the EU as a member state. Indeed, Lord Tebbit put it most baldly when he said: "We have a choice tonight – whether we walk in fear of the law of the Lord or the law of Brussels. I know which way I am going.""Religious freedom" seems to give these Christians an absolute right to ignore the law if they dislike it. The bishops were particularly culpable on this. As they argued for the removal of the need for a proportionate balancing of freedoms when freedoms collide (as they do with religion and gay rights), Lord Lester told them "Amendments 98 and 99 would remove the principle of proportionality. That is a general principle of European law by which the United Kingdom is bound. The amendments would remove that principle as regards differences of treatment made to comply with the doctrines of a religion. As has been said, there are a number of exemptions for religious requirements in paragraph 2 of Schedule 9 relating to sex, marriage, sexual orientation and so on. For example, in certain circumstances it is permissible, for the purposes of religious employment, for a difference of treatment to be made in accordance with a requirement either not to be of a particular sex or relating to sexual orientation – quite right, too."

Under the bill, these exemptions must be applied in a manner that is a proportionate means of complying with the doctrines of religion. Removing proportionality here, as these amendments seek to do, would mean that any religious organisation could implement the requirements without a sense of proportion and in breach of the general principle of European law. In other words, the organisation could lawfully use its powers in a way that was excessive. That would inevitably lead to complex and costly litigation, as happened in the Amicus case, in our and the European courts, the outcome of which would be to require the principle of proportionality to be applied as part of the law of the land, whatever the movers of these amendments and the seven Bishops now present may say. It is the law under European law and it is the law of the land. Proportionality is required whether they like it or not. The right for religious bodies to discriminate against gay employees is already written into the equality bill. The government was simply seeking to define the limits (ie you can demand a priest be of the faith, but not caretakers, cleaners, secretaries etc). It insisted that there was no change in the law as it had been written into the sexual orientation regulations of 2003, just a clarification.

According to a reasoned opinion (a sort of legal warning that they had not implemented the directive correctly) issued by the European commission, the government has already gone too far in trying to accommodate religious demands. The European commissioner warned the government that if it didn't narrow the exemptions given to religious groups, it might end up in the European court of justice. A complaint from the National Secular Society had led to this warning and we intend to press the commission to carry out that threat. But this debate had followed an intensive lobbying by the newly-burgeoning religious right in this country. The Christian Institute and Christian Concern for Our Nation, as well as the Church of England and the Catholic bishops conference, have mounted between them a formidable campaign claiming that the human rights of religious people are under threat. "Religious liberty" in this instance seems to mean the freedom to visit injustice and discrimination upon those who do not abide by the doctrines of your religion. To most people this would seem reasonable. "If you aren't a Christian, why do you want to work for the church?" they ask. "And why shouldn't the church restrict employment to those who agree with its teachings? You wouldn't have a Tory working for the Labour party."

The church is a major employer, often using public money to run things like nursing homes or day centres. Why shouldn't it be obliged to obey the law that every other employer does in relation to treating employees fairly? I believe that the decision last night was made on the basis of misinformation and panic-mongering. The religious lobby had made claims that the Catholic church would have to accept women priests; the Archbishop of York said he would no longer qualify as a clergyman under the terms of the bill; the bishop of Winchester even claimed that saying "God bless you" could result in Christians being prosecuted for harassment. But, if figures in the British social attitudes survey (published tomorrow) are to be believed, only 7% of people in this country consider themselves to be "very religious" and 67% think that religious leaders should stay out of political decision-making. On that basis, the government needs to give serious consideration to getting rid of the bishops' bench. Meanwhile, it seems the tactics used so successfully by the religious right in the US have now been introduced into this country. After all, the Christian Institute's strap line is "Christian influence in a secular world" and, after many false starts and humiliating defeats, it seems to have scored a significant success that may prove to be a turning point in its fortunes. If Christian influence is really a licence to practice bigotry at public expense, then it is time for all those armchair secularists to start manning the barricades.

Generations betrayed by New Labour

Mass youth unemployment has returned to Britain in a way not seen since the worst days of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government of the 1980s. The number of young people who are out of work is climbing towards two million. Nearly one in five of 16 to 24 year olds who want to work can’t find a job. Coupled with cuts in education, this means that many young people have nowhere to go. Gordon Brown’s mantra is that “training” will help people get a job. Yet even those with qualifications are spending months languishing on the dole while they try to find work. Leon left school when he was 16, but went back to study later and now has a degree. Despite his qualifications, he has only recently found temporary work after being jobless for over a year. “The system is cheating young people,” he told Socialist Worker. “Being unemployed is a painful experience. It’s disheartening.  “You work hard and study but what difference does it make? People’s skills are going to waste.” Marie graduated from Manchester university last year. “From the day I graduated I’ve been applying for jobs,” she told Socialist Worker. “But I keep getting told I don’t have enough experience. Young people are encouraged to get an education, but when you’ve finished you just feel worthless. “There are so many people applying for every job. One adviser at the Jobcentre told me that most places would need a full-time worker just to sort through all the job applications. “So a lot of the time, my application probably isn’t even read. It can really start to hit your confidence.”

In the 1980s more than one million young people were on the dole. Most working class parents didn’t expect their children to be facing the same situation today. They feel that their children have been abandoned. Joe Henry is an ex-miner living in Doncaster. He is now a teacher and sees the impact the recession is having on young people first hand. “There are strong parallels between the 1980s and today,” he told Socialist Worker. “I see kids getting qualifications but ending up on the dole. Doncaster is an unemployment blackspot.
“All the manufacturing industries and big factories have gone. Kids end up in McJobs – they are on the margins of employment. “The government says that kids need training, that unemployment is their fault rather than the fault of the system. But we educate and train kids up and there are no jobs to go to. At the college in Doncaster the bosses are laying lecturers off – at a time of mass unemployment! I left school in 1972 aged 15 and I had a choice of five different jobs to go to. Then in the late 1970s unemployment started to rise. For people like me, who had grown up with the idea of ‘cradle to the grave’ welfare state, it was a shock. When we in the pits went on strike in 1984, we weren’t just fighting for our jobs. We were fighting for the right for our kids to have work in the future. The feeling was that you shouldn’t take redundancy because it wasn’t your job to give up – it was a job for your kids.”

But true to form, his new “initiative” – Backing Young Britain – will not help young people, but instead panders to business interests. It offers firms handouts to try to persuade them to employ young people on a voluntary basis, or to run “work trials”. A government fund will offer some employers a £1,000 “subsidy” if they take on young workers. Given the scale of the problem, this is unlikely make even a small dent in the unemployment figures. Brown’s scheme mirrors demands from the bosses’ CBI organisation that the government hands companies £2,500 for each extra apprentice they train. The fact that bosses think they can hold the government to ransom, and refuse to employ people unless the state pays them to, is disgusting. But it’s little wonder that they feel confident to do so. The government has bent over backwards to appease big business since the start of the crisis. New Labour has sunk billions into the banks while refusing to take control of them. It has shown that the money exists to invest directly and create jobs. But Brown won’t even step in to save existing jobs that are under threat. For many of those who lived through the recession of the 1980s, Brown’s plans will hark back to the hated “youth training schemes” that did little more than allow bosses to exploit young people as cheap labour. For young people, being out of work means more than just being poor for a while – it means they are also likely to earn lower wages in the future.

Some 928,000 18-24 year olds are unemployed – or one in five – and the number is rising. As young people find it harder to get a job, more are trying to get to university to improve their chances. Some 60,000 more students have applied to go to university this year compared to 2008. But unfortunately qualifications don’t provide immunity to the crisis. There are now a third fewer graduate jobs than a year ago. And each graduate job is in high demand, with an average of 45 people chasing each one. So the recession is forcing young people to radically change their plans for the future. The government had pledged to increase the number of university places – but as soon as the recession hit, it cut the number of places by 30,000 and reduced funding by £100 million. They need to stop bailing out capitalism and start paying attention to the people who are the future. I think we need to argue with young people about why they need to demonstrate at Labour’s conference in Brighton next month. 16 and 17 year olds don’t even get a vote. The only way we can make our voices heard is on the streets.

The government has been putting a position, ably assisted by the mainstream media, that it had somehow got rid of the problem of unemployment. But in many areas unemployment never went away. For us, the recession means we are seeing a lot of new people who are seeking support, on top of the problems we were already dealing with. Many of these people are very angry. Benefits have been eroded to the point that, if Jobseekers’ Allowance had gone up in line with average wages rather than with below-inflation increases, it would now be worth around £110 a week rather than £60. This means that it is harder to survive when unemployed today than it was under Margaret Thatcher. Every month there are fewer jobs. Between February and April last year job vacancies fell by 51,000 – or more than 10 percent – on the previous three months. But the biggest falls in vacancies took place in the financial and business services, which were down 15.5 percent. Education, health and public administration, which were 6.1 percent down. Unemployment is up for those aged 50 and older. Those aged between 50 and retirement saw a rise in unemployment of 37,000 and those above retirement age a rise of 2,000 in the first three months of the year.

The duration of unemployment is changing. The entry of so many newly unemployed people to the ranks of the jobless has led to a drop in the proportion classed as long-term unemployed. But this doesn’t mean the situation for the long-term unemployed has improved – long term unemployment is on the rise. Unemployment is a major threat facing the working class. But those who manage to keep their jobs face different attacks. More people are working part-time who would prefer to work full-time. This trend has accelerated with the onset of recession. All the main surveys on pay find a significant minority of freezes or cuts, but freezes are not the norm. Research by the TUC found a 5 percent rise for workers at Barclays Bank and 6.25 percent for bus drivers at Stagecoach in Peterborough as examples of above-inflation settlements that have been won despite the recession. Shock figures released last week showed how young people have been hit particularly hard by the recession. Nearly half of young black people in Britain are unemployed. This stark figure comes in a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank. Its findings undercut the government’s celebration of the first official fall in unemployment for 18 months and its belief that racism is no longer a central cause of “disadvantage”.

Two weeks ago communities minister John Denham launched a government report, Tackling Race Inequality. It said, “Socio-economic status and poverty affect people’s chances in life regardless of race or ethnic background.” Poverty and class do indeed affect quality of life – but race adds a very real extra burden. The IPPR report looked at 60,000 households, including 7,200 young people aged between 16 and 24. It presents the more complex picture. Unemployment for young white people is high, at 20 percent. For Asians the figure rises to 31 percent and for African Caribbeans it reaches a truly staggering 48 percent. The greatest increase in youth unemployment has been among people from mixed ethnic groups.
Some 35 percent were unemployed in November last year – up from 21 percent in March 2008.
Racism is embedded in every part of society. In schools, black children are more likely to be excluded and marginalised.Sometimes discrimination is less subtle – as a recent Department for Work and Pensions survey found. It sent out almost identical job applications to a wide range of companies. Some had names suggesting the applicant was from an ethnic minority, rather than white British. Those applicants who were perceived to be white received a positive response after nine applications. Yet ethnic minority candidates had to send 16 applications before receiving a positive response. All of this makes it hard to believe the government’s claim that racism is now peripheral. It is also wrong to use the fall in official unemployment figures to claim that the recession is over.

There are still 2.46 million out of work and this is likely to rise. The number of people working part-time jumped by nearly 100,000 in the three months to November, while the number of full-time jobs fell by 113,000 over the same period. The number of workers who say they have been forced to take a part-time position after failing to find anything full-time was close to 1.3 million, a rise of almost 40 per cent on the same period last year. Some 46 percent of young women with no qualifications are unemployed. Some employers have sacked fewer staff because they (and some union leaders) have convinced workers to take pay cuts or work shorter hours. The news that unemployment has fallen by more than expected has cheered City economists, charities and union leaders. But some have warned that further job losses are inevitable in the coming months, which could be particularly hard on young people. The number of people out of work fell 7,000 to 2.458 million in the three months to November, and the claimant count dropped by 15,200 to 1.61 million. Despite claimant count unemployment falling by a total of 26,000 in November and December, I suspect that it is premature to celebrate the end of rising unemployment. This suspicion is reinforced by the fact that full-time employment still fell appreciably in the three months to November. We believe that further modest job shedding will occur in 2010. While the economy seemingly returned to growth in the fourth quarter of 2009, we suspect that the recovery will be prone to losses of momentum and that activity will not be strong enough overall in 2010 to prevent further net job losses. While we welcome the fact that the figures show that unemployment has fallen, this trend needs to continue over the coming months. The figures show that more people than ever before are working part-time and are trying to find full-time employment. For the economy to grow, this needs to be made a reality. The run-up to Christmas is a busy time for any business and many small firms, especially in the retail sector, will have taken on seasonal staff to help them through the busy Christmas period. However, small businesses need help to make these seasonal jobs into permanent jobs and the government must lend a helping hand if small firms are to really tackle the challenge of rising unemployment.

Any drop in youth unemployment is positive but it is too soon to be complacent. One in five young people are still struggling to find a job. Britain is in danger of losing a wealth of young talent if we fail to help them into work. We may be turning the corner on unemployment with a fragile recovery but those without jobs and young workers are paying a very high price for this bankers' recession. The multi-millionaire elite who run the finance sector have resumed gorging themselves with bonuses as if nothing had happened. Like the untouchable and unaccountable landed aristocratic elite before them, their grip on political power will have to be similarly ended; this must be an issue at the general election. Nothing has been put right in the economy. We have just replaced private borrowing with government borrowing. Labour is still pretending that this will all take care of itself - if only we borrow heavily until after the election. Frankly, none of the parties is really grasping the enormity of the problem. But Labour is in the greatest denial, as it needs to repudiate the whole strategy behind the Brown boom and apologise for 12 years of storing up trouble for the future. What have we learned from the worst downturn since the Great Depression? The longest recession in our history. The largest peacetime debt. The largest peacetime deficit. Borrowing half a billion pounds a week, £178 billion a year against tax receipts of £465 billion. I'm guessing that we learned Labour couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery, never mind govern our economy properly. Am I right? Do I get a prize for that?

Blair & Brown have blood on their hands

The real legacy of the war in Iraq has been exposed this week. This, together with the appearance of Tony Blair in front of the Chilcot inquiry, has reignited anger over the Iraq war. Many people are rightly sceptical about the outcome of Blair’s hearing—it will not be the grilling the majority wants. But the lies and horror of the war continue to seep out. An official Iraqi study found more than 40 sites across the country were contaminated with high levels of radiation and toxins. These are the result of the use of depleted uranium shells by US and British forces in Iraq. Iraq’s energy resources continue to be sold off. The Iraqi government has signed a deal with oil giants Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell PLC to develop a major oil field in the south of the country. This gives ownership of the oil fields to the companies for 20 years. There are an estimated 8.6 billion barrels of oil in West Qurna.The oil giants will pay the Iraqi government $1.90 for each barrel of oil they extract. But when this is refined and sold on the world market it will fetch $78 a barrel at present prices.

George Bush and Blair’s war has left a trail of destruction. There are 4.5 million Iraqi refugees inside and outside the country. Electricity supplies have dropped dramatically in Baghdad.In 2008, 61 percent of Iraqis said that they believed that the US military presence made the security situation worse. Many want the occupiers out of their country as soon as possible.The price for the Iraq war has been paid by the one million killed - the estimate of the most credible surveys. Blair is responsible for this - and Gordon Brown signed the cheques. On Monday at least 36 people died in coordinated suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad and in shoot-outs between security forces. The police threat to impose a ring of steel around the Chilcot inquiry on Friday when Blair appears is another attempt to protect the guilty. Undaunted the Stop the War Coalition organised a whole day of events outside the inquiry. They include a protest in the morning, then speeches, performances and music throughout the day. A naming of some of the many war dead was also to be held. Those reading the names included members of Military Families Against the War, who have lost loved ones in Blair’s wars. The Iraqi people deserve a voice in this inquiry, to tell their side of the story. As they have been deprived of this right, it is the role of the anti-war movement to make Blair’s appearance a nightmare.

Tony Blair should be tried for his crimes against Iraq—and the legacy the war has left there. million Iraqis have died, leaving millions orphaned and widowed. The war and occupation have made as many as four million people into refugees. The whole infrastructure of Iraq has been devastated by the occupation. Our heritage has been looted and destroyed, the environment has been poisoned and vital water sources have been lost. Iraq used to be the breadbasket of the region—now once fertile lands are in danger of being transformed into a desert. Children are growing up suffering from disease and deformities. Sectarianism has been elevated to all state institutions and the country is dangerously fragmented. Corruption is rife; government officials have been caught taking bribes of millions of dollars from foreign companies. Iraq’s precious oil resources have been auctioned off to the highest bidder. Meanwhile the profits of private security companies have soared. Ordinary Iraqis who have suffered the most from the illegal war and occupation are left to cope with living under the threat of violence. Unemployment now stands at 50 percent in a country where infrastructure has been shattered. Yet despite everything the Iraqi people will continue with their determined struggle to reject the occupation and build a democratic, free Iraq.'

Protesters were to make their opposition to the war in Afghanistan clear at a meeting of world leaders in London this week. Top government officials planned to come together to restabilise the Nato occupation of Afghanistan. It is going so badly that key figures are proposing negotiations with sections of the Taliban. Gordon Brown is hosting the event which will include European leaders, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative in Afghanistan, explained the Taliban U-turn, saying, “If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority. I think the time has come to do it.” Eide wants the US to drop certain leading Taliban members from its list of terrorists in order to open up negotiations. Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, has also joined the call for talks saying there has been “enough fighting”. He believes Obama’s 30,000 strong troop surge will aid this process, weakening the Taliban and making them “look desperate”. He believes that this could lead to them looking to make peace. It is highly unlikely that this will be the result of the surge. The resistance to the occupation is growing in confidence. Last week the Taliban launched attacks in the centre of Kabul. Plans by the British military to launch a new offensive in the Helmand province will see the deaths of countless Afghans and British soldiers.

But US pressure on other countries to send more troops is having some effect. It was leaked this week that the German government plans to send a further 500 soldiers. This is despite their pledge to reduce troop numbers because of public opposition to the war. The conference is designed to apply more of this pressure, seeing more troops sent to kill and be killed. The war has wrecked the lives of Afghan people and will continue to do so while the occupation continues. The conference will also discuss Yemen—set to become a new front in the “war on terror”. The anti-war movement cannot allow this to happen. We must step up the pressure to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Only this can end the ongoing devastation. The Chilcot inquiry was set up to whitewash the Labour government’s lies over the 2003 Iraq war. But it isn’t all going to plan. The inquiry team is the embodiment of what the establishment refer to as a “safe pair of hands”. The chair is a former adviser for the intelligence services. Another member wrote a speech for Tony Blair justifying “humanitarian” war. Nobody in the inquiry cares to ask the Iraqis what they think, and no politicians will be prosecuted at the end of it. Nonetheless, the contradictions and contortions of the government over the invasion of Iraq are seeping out.

Two approaches have emerged from various politicians, spin doctors and lawyers. The first is to brazen it out with the “we did nothing wrong” line. The other is to blame somebody else. In the brazen camp sit Blair’s spin doctors, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. Campbell is a teller of stories; contradictory and mutually incompatible. He told one version of events in his rather long diaries, another to the Hutton inquiry, and now a third at the Chilcot inquiry. This leads to absurdities. Campbell stands by the dodgy dossier, including the nonsense about Iraq being able to attack Britain at 45 minutes notice. Even chief spook John Scarlett, who “wrote” the dossier, admits it’s flawed. But not Campbell. He says no one sexed up the dossier in its countless rewrites. Campbell claims never to have been in the room when the rewrites he knew nothing about weren’t happening. Powell said that he joked with Campbell about how the Evening Standard newspaper would react to the dossier. The Standard reacted as it was meant to, putting the 45 minutes claim on its front page. Cabinet ministers have led the “not me, guv” school.

Former defence minister Geoff "Buff" Hoon has frequently been portrayed as a bit of an idiot. He used his appearance at the inquiry to reinforce that perception, presenting himself as being vaguely aware of what was going on, but not expecting anyone to actually tell him anything. This had the advantage of distancing him from all the key decisions about the war. His advisers no doubt told him, “Better a fool than a knave.” In contrast, Jack Straw said he was at the centre of everything - “If I had refused support, the UK’s participation in the military action would not in practice have been possible.” Straw had a plan, lots of plans. Though after hearing him it’s not clear if anyone other than Straw understood them. Especially when he says things like, “You’d think you’d got a kind of a deal, and then it would go back into this sort of extraordinary sort of beehive of the American system and you would have to wait until some of them, the bees, sniffed an odour from the great hive.” Straw stressed how hard it was for him to support the war. He hinted that anything difficult should be directed at someone else. He even suggested that the inquiry should ask a question to Robin Cook, who has been dead for five years.

But former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull suggested that Straw had kept his doubts deeply hidden. He said, “This didn’t look like a man who was privately thinking, ‘This whole thing is flawed. I just don’t think this adds up’.” Underlying all this is the chaos of the last days of the Labour government. Blair is fighting a rearguard action to defend his reputation. Brown’s people will say that it was all very difficult, but everything bad that happened was because of Blair. The government’s lawyers will reveal that they thought the war was illegal, but could not stop it. Most witnesses will say that they wrestled with their consciences and their consciences lost. The inquiry gives us an insight into the world of lies and hypocrisy at the heart of the government. Decisions are made on sofas, not in parliament or the cabinet. Those in the loop make up lies to get the result they want and the outcome is the death of hundreds of thousands. The Chilcot inquiry will not hold the guilty to account for that. So whilst they all point the finger at one another, they have also pulled a trigger killing millions of innocent Iraqi civilians. And ultimately they've also shot the hopes of an election win in May. But as they bicker amongst the bodies we know this for sure. Each Labour member who either supported the unjust war or said nothing about it have blood on their hands. And no matter how much they attempt to scrub it off, that blood will remain an eternal legacy blemishing Labour eternally.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Allow death with dignity

The tragic case of Lynn Gilderdale touched my heart, as it did so many others. Devoted mother Kay who discovered her desperately ill daughter in the midst of a suicide attempt spent 28 hours administering a cocktail of lethal drugs to her after failing to convince her to go on living. From the middle of the night, through the whole of the next day and into the following morning, Kay Gilderdale, 55, helped her daughter Lynn, 31, to end the pain of the "unimaginably wretched" form of ME (myalgic encephalopathy) she suffered. Gilderdale handed her daughter two syringes of morphine to administer to herself. Over the following hours when that failed to kill her she gave her crushed-up antidepressants and sleeping pills, injected morphine directly into her daughter's intravenous line, and passed air bubbles via a syringe into her vein to try to cause a fatal clot on the lung. At one point in the early hours of the next day, when she saw Lynn was still breathing, her mother telephoned Exit, the assisted dying charity, for advice. Shortly afterwards Lynn Gilderdale, died, 30 hours after she had called her mother to her bedside in the midst of a failed suicide attempt, to plead: "I want the pain to go. I don't want to go on."

But the story didn't end on the morning of December 3th 2008; Kay Gilderdale was arrested for murder and the case dragged humiliatingly through court, though the charges against her were dropped. The jury was told Gilderdale, a "loving, caring" mother, who is supported "unconditionally" by her family, admits assisting her daughter's suicide in December 2008. But Sally Howes, QC, prosecuting, said their task was to judge whether her actions after her daughter had called for help amounted to attempted murder. "Instead of assisting, she then set about … in performing actions which were designed with one intention only, that of terminating her daughter's life," said Howes. "It was not done to make her better. It was done to make sure that she died." The charge was attempted murder because nobody could be sure whether Gilderdale had administered the fatal dose or doses - Gilderdale denies the charge. Until the age of 14 Lynn was a bright and healthy schoolgirl, who lived with her family in Stonegate, east Sussex. But after a BCG vaccination at school she was struck down by ME and within four months was unable to move from the waist down. As the illness progressed she became bedridden, lost her ability to swallow and was fed through a nasogastric tube. Her drugs were given to her via an intravenous catheter, known as a Hickman line, and she communicated through sign language, which she developed with her parents, Kay and Richard, a former police officer.

Increasingly mistrustful of the medical profession, she came to rely almost totally on her mother, who had been trained to administer all the drugs she needed at home, including extra morphine on top of her 100mg daily dose. In the year before she died Gilderdale had made enquiries about travelling to Switzerland to the Dignitas assisted dying clinic, the court heard. In April 2008 she wrote a living will, stating she did not want medics to do anything more to prolong her life. "I fear degeneration and indignity far more than I fear death," she wrote. Her final hours began at about 1am on 3 December 2008, when Lynn tried to kill herself by injecting morphine into her blood. Realising she did not have enough, she called her mother to beg for help. For an hour Gilderdale tried to persuade her daughter not to end her life, but she gave in when her daughter was insistent she wanted the pain to end. Over the next 28 hours Gilderdale neither ate nor slept as she helped Lynn die.

Exporting difficult issues does not seem the most effective or humane way of making policy. But, in the case of Lord Falconer's amendment to the coroners and justice bill, it is better than prosecuting innocent people who are supporting loved ones in the most difficult of circumstances. Just as infertile people increasingly travel abroad to more liberal jurisdictions to secure the fertility treatment they need to create life, so people in the final stages of terminal illness are forced to travel abroad to win the right to die with dignity – specifically, to access assisted suicide at the hands of Dignitas, the Swiss group that facilitates control for people who wish to manage the timing, means and manner of their death. Since 2002, at least 115 people have travelled from Britain to have an assisted suicide. This is not a progressive or humane state of affairs. First, because partners or friends who travel to support dying people are at risk of prosecution once they return, a problem that Debbie Purdy's campaign has highlighted. Second, because organisations like Dignitas appear indiscriminate about whom they help to die. Available information suggests that at least five of the British people whom Dignitas has assisted did not have a terminal illness, but conditions such as spinal injury and diabetes.The director of public prosecutions has indicated that the current practice of not prosecuting relatives is out of step with the law, which makes assisting suicide illegal in all circumstances.

But the real answer is to bring in effective assisted dying legislation in Britain, designed for mentally competent adults in the later stages of terminal illness, and with suitable safeguards to protect vulnerable people from abuse. Across Europe, laws are being introduced to give access to assisted dying in terminal illness: the Netherlands led the way, but Belgium and Luxemburg have now introduced similar legislation, while Spain and France are now actively contemplating legal measures to help people at the end of life. As a supporter of disability rights, I back the right of disabled people to have control over the time and manner of their death, so they can avoid unbearable suffering and achieve dignity in dying. Being disabled in itself is no reason to die, but for many of those who have terminal illness, controlling the circumstances of their death becomes very important. Activists like Jane Campbell, who have achieved so much in terms of independent living for disabled people, are inconsistent in now campaigning to deny disabled people a choice at the end of life. While the disability community, like the wider public, is split on this issue, surveys consistently demonstrate that a majority support liberalisation. Now is the time to introduce a well-designed law to permit properly regulated assisted dying in limited circumstances for terminally ill people.

Debbie Purdy did not ask the law lords for the right to die, nor did she ask that her husband be allowed to help her die. Those are intensely private permissions that no one readily devolves to a court. Ms Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, asked for clarity over whether her husband would face prosecution should he help her take her life in Switzerland.   The law lords could not give her that clarity but ruled last August that she was entitled to it. Thus a significant blow has been dealt to the 1961 act that makes an offence of "complicity" in suicide and so criminalises deeds that might otherwise be judged merciful. The law must now recognise that mercy. Parliament last debated the issue in 2006 when Baron Joffe's bill on assisted dying was defeated, partly by religious lobbying. Bishops in the Lords called on the supremacy of God's will in deciding when life ends. For Man to arrogate that power, goes this argument, is an act of terrible blasphemy.  A secular democracy should respect the passions that religious faith animates on moral dilemmas, but it should not have its law dictated by them. Believers have the right to abstain from practices they consider sinful, but not a right of veto over others. But the religious argument contains the kernel of a compelling secular argument against assisted dying: it is inherently dangerous for the law to sanction premeditated killing, even within a highly specified set of circumstances. What would such a list of circumstances look like? Could there ever be enough safeguards to prevent abuse?

The basic outline of criteria where assisted dying might be allowed has been widely discussed. The mental fitness of the patient would have to be assessed, as would clarity of intent and freedom from duress. Ulterior motive in the helper would have to be excluded. But then, who gains the new entitlement? Does it extend only to the terminally ill or does it include those whose health might endure for many years but consider that prospect intolerable? Must it be a physical illness that makes life unbearable or is mental anguish sufficient grounds? Would the state withhold the right to die while it enforced counselling in the hope of teasing out remnants of a will to live? Once the process of legislation is embarked upon, there is the danger that the big moral questions, far from being resolved, will be dispersed through a multitude of procedural questions; that the difference between mercy and murder will be lost in an ostensibly civilised bureaucracy of clinical killing. There then follows a new danger. Death becomes an item on the menu of options presented on diagnosis of a fatal illness. The awful fear of being a "burden" on loved ones is amplified by the newly legitimate means to ease that burden. Subtly, society nudges the terminally sick towards the exit.

Those are strong arguments, adding up to the view that the current situation, with all its ambiguities, does less harm than would be the case if the law sought clarity. But what that view misses, what the Purdy case clearly shows, is that ambiguity is the source of most anguish. Nobody takes the decision to end their life lightly. The law is no more capable of encouraging suicide than it is currently able to proscribe it. But the law does heap needless torment on those who make that choice: fear of prosecution for loved ones; fear of being too ill to travel; sadness at being unable to die at home. There is no secret appetite for casual death that would somehow be released by new legislation. Instead, a process that already goes on clandestinely, shrouded in fear or shame, outsourced to foreign clinics, could be brought in from the shadows. Such was the case with abortion in the 1960s; society had made up its mind that the practice was tolerable, but the law made it needlessly dangerous and cruel. A new law is required. It would not create or promote the idea of assisted dying. It would simply acknowledge that people already choose that path and so render the journey more humane for them and their loved ones.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Get rid of pointless Labour

Britain's Labour government has taken another blow to their attempts to seize the next election, this time by civil service workers. First Division Association has blasted Brown's leadership as dysfunctional; Jonathan Baume, of First Division Association (FDA), told the Guardian No 10 was seen as a "blockage" because of indecision from the prime minister. Some ministers had "given up" and civil servants were starting to informally prepare for a Tory government, he said. A Cabinet Office spokesman told the paper it generally got its role right. The FDA represents 18,000 senior civil servants, policy advisers, diplomats and government economists. Mr Baume, who has been FDA general secretary since 1997, told the newspaper the dysfunction he perceives is partly political and organisational. "No-one is clear how the Treasury, the prime minister's office and the Cabinet Office actually loop together and come up with a coherent policy initiative." he said. "When Gordon Brown became prime minister, no clear direction ever emerged from him." He said there was a "government by announcement", with new policies unveiled without a clear indication of how they would be funded at a time when departmental chiefs were looking at how budgets could be cut by 17%.

There was a sense of malaise at the political level, with some ministers already focusing on what would happen after the election. A Cabinet Office spokesman told the Guardian the role of the centre of government was to set the strategic direction, provide co-ordination and maintain the standards across government, while departments take leadership on specific issues. There is always room for improvement, but we believe we generally get the balance right," he said. The mood for rebellion clings to the political atmosphere, with both Labour and Tories set to slash public sector jobs dramatically. The institute's report is full of civil service speak – things such as "silos", "cross-cutting agreements" and "strategic capacity". It even discusses what the well-bred mandarin should do when faced with a "trilemma". But it is outstandingly well-informed and correct in many of its judgments. It is in essence a plea for long-term focus and clarity at the top of government. As Mr Watt's book shows, these are impossible to achieve when politicians or officials fall out. Unless the people at the top can agree what they want, they will fail. There are lessons for both Mr Brown and David Cameron in that.

The unavoidable starting point must be to accept two related facts: that Gordon Brown will (barring some unforeseen cataclysm) be the party's leader on election day and that whatever his private promises he will not change a jot. The awkward Brown who served as chancellor, the timid Brown who hesitated before calling an election in 2007, the commanding Brown who took charge in the financial crisis and the stubborn Brown who has faced down three inept coup attempts are all the same complex man. His party and the country know his weaknesses. Now Labour had better dig out some confidence in his strengths. Labour's days of importance may be ending. Soon the party may be able to fight as many battles over personality as it likes, in the obscurity of opposition. For now it should concentrate on making a case for re-election. It has done this badly so far, which is partly Mr Brown's fault and one of the reasons people wanted to get rid of him. But the failure is wider: an argument based more on horror of the Tories than anything positive. Even on the public services, which might be a strong card, the party veers erratically between matching the opposition on cuts and promising unbelievable (and imprudent) new schemes and spending increases.

Yet the economy could be a strength. It may even lie behind Labour's real but modest recovery in the polls. There was no great depression. Unemployment is much lower than had been expected. Growth will surely return when the GDP figures come out in a fortnight. These things matter more outside Westminster than Wednesday's 12-hour political snowstorm. The government is evasive about the implications of cutting debt; it needs better answers to the overheated Tory charge that Britain is going bankrupt. But it certainly has a case to make about the past and present. What it needs now is one about the future. Every Labour MP should ask him or herself what they think is wrong with Britain and what they can do to help fix it. Securing the recovery, the current ambition, will remain simply a phrase unless it is connected to some idea of how spending can be cut, and economic growth achieved, in the decade to come. Peter Mandelson attempted this on Wednesday, but his speech was lost in the plot. Ministers insist that the government is not short of ideas. But they struggle to pull them together. They have a few months left in which to do it - otherwise Labour will enter the election heading for defeat, and deserving to lose.

I personally can't wait for the day this lying, tax raising and wasting, lacklustre government of the talentless with its 'stuff the workers, support the shirkers' mentality finally achieves the obscurity in politics it so richly deserves. Never in the history of politcs has so much been fiscally squandered by so few for the benefit of people who simply don't deserve it. And that also goes for the super-rich allowed to add more to their coffers whilst failing to give a second thought to the less fortunate. Ever since Blair changed the Labour Party constitution it has become a rudderless, morally defunct wreck drifting around with no direction, crewed by gutless, trough feeding suits and opportunists seeking power for only what they could make out of it. At least with the Tories we know what their philosophy is, for the rich and priveleged by the rich and priveleged. What amazes me is how the same has occured under Labour, and how they can both con so many working and middle class voters into electing them. The good has been hopelessly intermingled with the bad, so that transformational improvements in funding for the NHS have been accompanied by meddling micro-management and ideologically-driven privatisations.

Much of the New Labour hierarchy has been singing from an essentially Tory hymnsheet for so long (with the rank and file membership bound and gagged in a cupboard somewhere) that it's no wonder the party has lost its own authentic voice. Wooing the voters with vacuous ideologies and empty promises has become the premise of both Labour and Tories over the last decade or so; many voters I've talked to have pledged not to vote at all, and I don't blame them a jot. Let's be blunt and get to the core issue. The expenses scandal hot on the heels of Brown's crass disposal of the dreadful Blair, and then his assorted boom/bust and referendum lies proved beyond all doubt that most MPs are utterly unprincipled pygmies on the make. They grab as much cash as they possibly can whilst in the Commons, and then expect to sit back on some EU sinecure or other, or wallow in the Lords or head up a quango or two. Not to say that life will be any better under a Tory government, in fact I fear it could well be the same. Or possibly even worse though I have to raise doubts about how they can top Labour in barrel-scraping ineptitude in running the country competently.

The overidding issue we all face is the state of the public finances after a decade of gross mismanagement by Labour. How is the country ­going to cope? After the first two weeks of the election campaign, a general weariness sets in. Another five months, and there won't be problems of overcrowding in Britain; come election day the voting stations will be empty because most people will have fled. The root problem is that even in a democracy, we yearn for leadership; and we are really getting none. Gordon Brown would protest that he's taking "big decisions" and is unpopular because he doesn't duck them. David Cameron's claim to be a big "L" leader is highlighted in thousands of new Conservative posters in which his airbrushed, pink balloon face smiles out from road junctions and in shopping centres. So why this empty, tired feeling of mild, headachey despair? Oddly, given how different they are in background, age and temperament, Brown and Cameron share some leadership traits. The first is a gap between how they try to appear in public, and their real selves. If there is a word which Brown would choose to describe himself it would be "brave" or perhaps "decisive". Yet the more we learn, most recently in the resign-and-tell memoirs of the former Labour general secretary Peter Watt, the more we see a narrative of indecision and dither.

Cameron, meanwhile, would like us to see him as frank. He never stops talking about how open and honest he is, how ready to confront us with difficult choices. Yet when you drill down a bit, when it comes to the big-ticket spending cuts, he disappears into an amiable mist of imprecision. With his PR gurus, polling, focus groups and smoothie-chops advisers, he is constantly positioning. The second trait is a problem with team leadership. That is most obvious on the Labour side, with the rancorously bad relations between Brown and his colleagues. He has fallen out with so many that it is clear the problem is him, not them. Only his own weakness after the latest botched coup has ensured that Labour has something like a team again – with Mandelson, Harman and Darling the obvious winners. But the confusion about exactly who is running the election will return, it always does. On the Tory side, there's a similar problem. Cameron is not a team player. He has a cabal, a cluster of friends, with whom he feels comfortable. The echoes of early Blair are obvious. A wider range of Tory voices, including senior people like William Hague and Ken Clarke, aren't really in the loop. As with Brown's attempts to create a bigger tent, those approached by Cameron ask themselves whether they'd have real influence; and often conclude they wouldn't.

Cliques around leaders are hardly new; nor is the jealousy they inspire. Think of Harold Wilson with his kitchen cabinet, with Kagan and Marcia and co. Think of Margaret Thatcher with hers, including the Saatchis, Tim Bell and Alan Walters. But in the past this tendency has been kept in check, and challenged, by parliamentary politics. There have been big figures and groups in the Commons whose word counted. Wilson and Callaghan had a stream of ministers – Jenkins, Crosland, Castle – with their own parliamentary base. Thatcher destroyed the wets, but she could never dismiss the popularity of Heseltine, and took care to visit the tearoom. Major faced the power of the Tory Eurosceptics, and even Blair struggled with Iraq war dissent. Today, by contrast, we have a hollowed out, demoralised and politically vacant Commons scene. Labour's organised groups have all but disappeared. None of Brown's rivals has serious support among MPs. After the expenses scandal, Conservatives, like Labour, are more often thinking about retirement or a new career. One under-reported consequence of duck houses and flipped homes is that the party leaderships have almost free rein. Compare the ease with which Cameron ditches inconvenient commitments – with barely a squeak from the Tories – to the trouble Blair had in the mid-1990s as he was creating New Labour. Even with a huge majority he ran into opposition from the left of the party and the unions.

So we have uncertain leaders, relying on background advisers and a shattered legislature, whose discredited members no longer challenge them. The result is a lack of real argument on big issues. We are back to the timing and precise size of deficit reduction, to parties all saying they want to preserve frontline services and spend more on conventional military. After the failure of Copenhagen, there has been no call to arms over climate change, no mainstream debate about how lifestyles must change. Where are the big figures calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan? Who is making the case for further taxes to protect the welfare state? With Europe put to sleep as an issue, where's the discussion about a referendum, and who's making the case for the euro? Without wading into any of these issues, surely the point stands that they should be at the centre of our politics; ­instead we get brittle, trivial and very boring election positioning. This minister is up, this one down; Steve Hilton swore at a man in a railway station; Brown was grumpy at a dinner party; maybe Cameron has been airbrushed. And it's going to go on, and on.

We have to remind ourselves that it can often feel this way at the fag end of a long-lived administration. The election will bring an unprecedented clear-out of MPs. Their replacements will have the energy and authority of the freshly elected. I hope plenty have strong views, and the self-confidence that comes of having done another job, reasonably well, before entering politics. Labour will be shaken up from head to toe, and may have to contemplate some kind of alliance with the Liberal Democrats. The party desperately needs a big, many-sided and lengthy leadership contest that is mostly about ideas – strategy, but political philosophy too. And the Tories? They will have a hard time, even with a working majority. Cameron is good on television, and in press conferences. He has what it takes to win an election. But does he have what it takes to govern in turbulent times – being genuinely unpopular, yet making people want to work for him? I am much less sure, but I think we will find out. By June at the latest, the world will look very different. All we have to do is somehow get from here to there. Now … where was that passport?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Labour legacy ignored racism

Ethnic minorities are no longer automatically disadvantaged in Britain, says communities secretary John Denham, in a bold pre-election declaration. It gained him the headline in the Times that "Labour claims victory over racism". And continuing the spin, Denham intimates that the focus in tackling inequality should now shift to the white working class, who he sees as the main victims of disadvantage. That may all sound like a revelation, but anyone who claimed that every single black or Asian person was "automatically" disadvantaged could have only the most superficial grasp of the real meaning of racism. Discrimination is about general cases and general trends – and is in fact very difficult to diagnose in specific instances. In the same way, not every woman is disadvantaged by sexism, or every gay person by homophobia; but that doesn't mean they're not very real problems which have to be tackled head-on rather than trivialised. The fact remains that in terms of poverty, unemployment, educational underachievement, school exclusions, stop-and-searches and criminal convictions, many minorities are still shockingly overrepresented.

And yes, in some ways, since the Macpherson Inquiry report was published in 1999, things have got better – as Denham says, "representation in the professions, in public life, in business" – but that doesn't mean we're anywhere near solving the scourge of racism, which remains firmly embedded in our society. A small number of people making it successfully up the ladder does not mean those left behind can be ignored. New Labour abolished the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission and shoved all the "isms" into one overbearing, bureaucratic and malfunctioning equalities commission. Now Denham wants to repeat the thinking, merging minorities into an overall "social class" group which will represent all the economically disadvantaged. Well, this just won't do, because Britain's racial minorities do not fit neatly into its traditional class structure. Most minorities in Britain are from poor backgrounds, with little or no longstanding family wealth. Even those who have not faced direct or indirect discrimination have had to overcome economic and social obstacles. But do those who have done so, and gained a decent education or a decent job, immediately break free from all-pervasive racism and therefore no longer require any legal or other support?

Not only that, but no one has yet come up with a decent, all-encompassing description of what "working class" really is. Does a man or woman automatically become middle class the moment they gain an A-level? Or a degree? In which case, class inequality will always be embedded, because the success stories are excluded from the figures – and it will always appear that the working class are worse-off than minority groups. Even if such distinctions were worked out, why would black and Asian people want to join with the white working classes, when some of them are signing up to the British National party and seem only too keen to blame non-whites for their own disadvantages? Racism, in any case, is about far more than economic disadvantage: it includes marginalisation, social and cultural exclusion, prejudice and discrimination. And all on the basis of one's visible and unchangeable appearance. One only has to see the daily vitriol poured on Muslims (nearly always equated with Asians) to see that bigotry and intolerance are still flourishing. Or the intolerance of immigration, or "migrant (ie non-white) communities". Denham says: "We're going to tackle disadvantage wherever we see it." I couldn't possibly disagree with him. But let's tackle class disadvantage in addition to, rather than by downgrading, racism.

There was barely a peep from the dog-whistle in John Denham's speech to launch the government's Tackling Race Inequalities document. It acknowledged that there is a complicated interaction between race and class that affects different groups of people in differing ways according to historical factors, such as slavery and colonialism, and structural determinants, for instance in housing allocation and the way in which we regard some occupations – not just in monetary, but in snob-value, terms – more highly than others. However, I wouldn't take too much credit for reducing racism, if I were him. The fact is that, for most families, racism has died out now that generations of people from different ethnic groups have grown up together. Many of us who once had bigoted relatives with a terror of miscegenation now have black and mixed-race family members; the minds of a majority have opened over time. Yet you can't say that the battle against racism is over when "Paki" (or "turbine-head", to recall the immortal terminology of a racist git I heard on a bus in Aberdare not long ago) is still a widely used term, and when a black businessman is periodically hauled over by police because he has a nice car. Research carried out by the geographer Danny Dorling to map Britain's inequalities shows that black council tenants are more likely to be assigned housing in high-rise blocks than to gain access to a house.

That's not to ignore the positive efforts of many. To give one example, the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, led by Sir Herman Ouseley, who has criticised elements of Denham's speech, has done brilliant work to encourage solidarity on the part of black and white players to put up a united front against racist fans and, where necessary, commentators. But that's football: working-class black boys grow up believing sport to be an area in which they'll be permitted to succeed, without suspicion or censure, if that's where they decide to channel their energies. A working-class black boy with a desire to become a flautist is less likely to assume the same. So would a working-class boy, or girl, who is white or Asian. First, you're not going to know any flautists. Second, you may not have music lessons at your school. Third, everyone in class is going to call you a freak. And fourth, depending on their own frustration or hard-bitten-ness, your teachers and parents may tell you that no one from this estate has ever become a flautist so it's best not to get your hopes up - well, either that or laugh at you.

The contiguous influences of race and class are no more in evidence than at the post-2000 universities, where black, white and Asian students from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds tussle with multiple identities and divided loyalties. To negotiate the expectations of family, friends from home and your own ambitions without becoming isolated or losing face requires a vast amount of faith in yourself and in the wider world. Michelle Obama, the daughter of a pump operator, unlike some prominent young(ish) Conservatives I could mention, didn't sail to her current position on a feathered bed of privilege and assumptions that the world was hers for the taking. Her experience, or those of the financier Damien Buffini or the novelist Zadie Smith, both of mixed race and from working-class backgrounds, shows that nothing is impossible. But sometimes, depending on where you're standing in the matrix of race, class, wealth and geography, it feels that way, in which case, for all the appearance of progress, it may as well be.

Labour & Tories clueless on poverty issue

The Office for National Statistics said the broadest measure of unemployment fell by 7,000 to 2.458 million, the first quarterly decline since May 2008, leaving the jobless rate at 7.8%. The narrower measure of people claiming unemployment benefits dropped by more than expected in December, falling by 15,200 to 1.61 million, the biggest drop since early 2007. This rapid rise is a facade in itslef because it doesn't include number of people in the labour force who are neither working nor looking for work, nudging the total to 8 million; this is the most since records began. The rise was largely driven by an increase of 81,000 in the number of students not looking for work. Full-time employment fell by 113,000 to 21.2 million, while part-time employment did not rise fast enough to compensate, increasing by 99,000 to 7.7 million. As has been the pattern for months, the figures are being driven by women finding part-time jobs while men, predominantly, are losing full-time ones. Better news came for the under-24 age group who saw a drop in joblessness of 16,000 - now it's 927,000.

Other figures showed the number of people out of work for more than a year jumped 29,000 on the quarter to 631,000, the highest level since late 1997, as companies continue to shed jobs in the teeth of the UK's worst recession since 1921. Today the power company E.ON announced the closure of a call centre in Essex with the loss of 600 jobs, while last week Bosch said it was closing its car parts factory near Cardiff, losing 900 workers. Unemployment continues to hit regions of Britain differently. The jobless rate rose again in the north-east, to 9.8%, closely followed by the West Midlands on 9.6%. By contrast, the east and south-east had the lowest rates of any region, at 6.3% and 6.2% respectively. The ONS also reported that wage growth slowed to the lowest on record at just 1.1% year-on-year, excluding volatile bonus payments in the three months to November. For November alone, private sector pay showed no growth at all from a year earlier. This may seem like good news for our Labour government, but it's not enought to attract disillusioned voters back by the May 6th elections.

Labour has been harping on about bridging the inequality gap, especially between the rich and poor. A third of children are living in poverty - despite claims they would eradicate child poverty by 2011. The total number of poor pensioners is now 2.8million. The head of a Government-owned firm set up to eliminate world poverty has been criticised after earning almost £1million in a year. Richard Laing, the chief executive of the former Commonwealth Development Corporation now known as CDC. More than 300,000 pensioners face falling into poverty every year whilst Labour and Tories spout hot air and empty promises to address the issue of poverty in Britain; undoubtedly whilst taking backhanders from big business bankers. Nearly a million households in the countryside are trapped in poverty, a government adviser has warned. They live below the official poverty line while the houses around them are snapped up by wealthy second home owners from the cities, Gordon Brown's rural advocate said. Labour is correct to say it has brought down the number of poverty-stricken families since it came to power, although it has not achieved as much as it hoped. Official figures show the number of children in poverty has fallen from 4.4million in 1997 to 3.8million now, a reduction of 600,000.

The Tories are no better, keeping the rich comfortable at the expense of those struggling to scrape together enough cash for survival. A new study shows the Tory married couples’ tax break would deny 120,000 children the chance to escape poverty. One-parent family charity Gingerbread and the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies say diverting the money the Tories plan to Child Tax Credits instead would lift 130,000 children out of poverty as opposed to the 10,000 affected by the married couples’ plan. If the money the Tories have earmarked for the unfair tax break were shifted to the Working Tax Credit, 100,000 children would benefit not just 10,000. Not intent on dividing working class families in their home, Tory spending cuts would put millions of public sector jobs at risk as well as tens of thousands in the private sector. The cover up at yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions wasn't the unpublished Doncaster social services report raised by David Cameron but the Tory leader's failure to raise the issue that will dominate the election campaign: the economy.

An issue the Conservatives thought was a banker a few months ago suddenly looks a weak spot. Cameron didn't dare raise it today after an extraordinary 7,000 dip in unemployment. He was mauled the previous couple of Wednesdays over "messed up" married couple tax breaks and an elitist inheritance handout to the wealthiest few. And I wonder if Cameron will risk going on the economy at next week's session when 24 hours earlier Britain is expected to be declared out of recession. We're little more than 100 days from a General Election - if May 6 is Decision Day - and the Cons are suffering more than poll nerves. Tory MPs whisper they fear the party's draft programme is weak. The economy is no longer a Tory Ace in the pack. Cameron prospered as a one man band when he was new and shiny but he's a little battered these days and, crucially, Gordon Brown seems to be getting his act together. Where is the Shadow Cabinet? Shakespeare was still writing tragedies when Invisible Tory George Osborne last had the confidence to hold a press conference. Brown used a past Ken Clarke "social engineering" dismissal of married couple tax allowances to cause Cameron blush a second consecutive Wednesday. The balance of power has shifted on Wednesday. I suspect it's now Cameron who doesn't relish the confrontations. Labour tribalists sounded foolish mocking Nick Clegg's questions about why state-owned RBS is bankrolling Kraft's takeover of Cadbury. Many Labour MPs silently agreed with the Lib Dem leader. If today had been an election TV debate, Clegg would've won the public vote on this one. Tory school reforms that would stop graduates with poor degrees becoming teachers were exposed as a meaningless gimmick. Figures showed just one in 30 new staff left uni with a third, down from one in 25 a decade ago. And new teachers with top firsts increased from one in 20 to one in 12. More than half now get 2:1s, the Schools Training and Development Agency said. Cameron's plans would also stop his maths Tsar Carol Vorderman from teaching with a third.
Now the elitist Tory toff leader is pleading that money doesn't bring up children. Would he know the plight of struggling parents with hardly two coins to rub together? Are you kidding? Eton-boy Cam will never know what it's like to be underpriveliged because he was born with a silver spoon in his gob. In astonishing remarks, the multimillionaire Tory party leader said "warmth" was more important than wealth to making sure children were happy, healthy and did well at school. He said when parents were "competent and committed", financial circumstances made no "significant" difference to prospects. "What matters most to a child's life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting." How condescending is it that this mega-rich toad can take the moral high ground about money being unimportant when raising a child? And despite Tory plans to cut £200million a year from Sure Start - vital help to struggling families - Mr Cameron said parents should spend more time with children and support them at school. He said: "Research shows responsible parenting is more likely to occur in wealthier households, but children in poor households raised with that style of parenting do just as well.
Parents need policies not platitudes - how dare the Tories think they can get away with attempting to make the poorest think that money is no object in their lives. He has refused to protect funding for schools. He would cut £200million each year from Sure Start and take support away for families on modest and middle incomes. Poverty is a key factor in making the job for parents more difficult; any idiot with half a brain should know this by the time they become parents. The best thing Mr Cameron can do to safeguard all children is to put money in the pockets of the poorest families who need it most Parents need money to buy shoes and clothes for their children. Food isn't free either and toys and trips have to be paid for too. And we all know it costs a small fortune to keep a house warm during the winter. So David Cameron's astonishing statement that money doesn't matter when bringing up kids shows just how out of touch he is. The multi-millionaire Conservative Party leader may be so loaded that he doesn't have to worry about money. But millions of parents are forced to count the pennies every single day. Yes, the affection of caring mums and dads is absolutely vital and there's an old saying that money can't buy you love. But Mr Cameron gives the impression of having no idea whatsoever about the realities of life in Britain. His arrogant lecture should serve as a political warning because the Conservatives see the incomes of low and middle earners as a target for spending cuts. Mr Cameron and his family may not rely on the minimum wage, child benefit, state pension or tax credits - but many people do. It's easy for the wealthy Tory leader to be complacent but voters should remember his ludicrous opinions.
In a 1999 speech Tony Blair declared, “Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty forever, and it will take a generation. It is a 20 year mission, but I believe it can be done.”  To a standing ovation and with tears in the eyes of his supporters, Blair said, “The child born in the run down estate should have the same chance to be healthy and well educated as the child born in the leafy suburbs.” Why then, despite all the rhetoric and good intention, was the government forced to admit last week that it was failing in its pledge to end child poverty? Its own figures showed that child poverty had increased for the first time in six years while overall poverty had risen for the first time under this government. The number of children living in poverty increased by 100,000 to a total of 3.8 million. In a country as wealthy as ours it is a scandal that the number of children still growing up in poverty has increased – poverty which blights their life chances, poverty which for many is simply overwhelming. The effects of poverty are devastating and far reaching. Children from low income families are more likely to live in a poor environment, in poor quality housing and in greater proximity to crime and drugs.
Low income has an affect on educational achievements which in turn can lead to a cycle of disadvantage into adult life. Poverty and deprivation limits choice which in turn affects self esteem, confidence, and health. So what is the government’s solution to tackling child poverty? Gordon Brown stated “The key to the future is how many people you can get into work. That’s the bigger contribution to tackling child poverty.” Welfare reform minister Jim Murphy said the government must encourage the unemployed to think, “Work first, benefits second.” Getting people back into work and off benefits has become the mantra of the Blair government. Lone parents are now obliged to take part in work focused interviews every six months. The government also plans to force lone parents to “actively seek work” once their youngest child reaches the age of 12. Those claiming incapacity benefit have also been targeted, with Blair stating that everyone is expected to “fulfil their responsibilities” to work if able to do so. Incapacity benefit claimants have to undergo medicals as often as every 12 months to assess their capability for work; if the medical defines someone as fit for work their benefits are stopped immediately.
The idea that there exists real choice for people to work their way out of poverty is simply not true and is an insult to families forced to live on benefits. People do not choose to live in poverty, but are often trapped by low pay, working patterns that are too inflexible to match parenting responsibilities, disability, illness or discrimination. For others work has proved to be a precarious and ineffective route out of poverty. Over half of poor children – 54 percent – have a parent in work. Britain has one of the highest employment rates in Europe, yet one of the worst child poverty rates. Access to better jobs can help reduce child poverty, but today’s figures for children in working families suggest that simply resorting to getting more parents into work is not good enough. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that in order to halve child poverty by 2010 the government needs to make an annual investment of £4.3 billion. It needs to ensure that benefit safety nets are set above poverty levels and investment goes into providing better jobs, training and education. In addition it needs to reverse spending cuts in the civil service to ensure that the delivery of benefits is not affected by job cuts and limited services. While New Labour talks about its great desire to end child poverty it spent £76 billion on replacing Trident nuclear missile system. Brown and Cameron's priorities lie with big business, privatisation and war. The reality for 3.8 million children living in poverty in Britain today is that neither New Labour or Conservatives offer any hope for the future.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Tory Britain bad news for LGBT voters

Nearly a third of David Cameron's shadow cabinet voted against gay rights legislation at some point over the last two parliaments, demonstrating their "shameful" record in tackling discrimination, according to the Liberal Democrats. They have compiled research on four examples of legislation where many Tories voted against equal rights laws. Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said progress on gay rights would "grind to a halt" if the Conservatives won the election. "The Tory record on supporting gay rights is nothing short of shameful," he said. The Lib Dem research shows Ten out of 32 members of the shadow cabinet voted against at least one piece of gay rights legislation. The shadow Europe minister, Mark Francois, voted against all four. David Cameron, Kenneth Clarke, Mark Francois, Chris Grayling, William Hague, Francis Maude, Patrick McLoughlin, Andrew Mitchell, George Osborne and Sir George Young voted against legislation to repeal section 28, which had banned local authorities and schools from "promoting" homosexuality, in 2003. Nineteen members of the shadow cabinet joined the attempt to block the equality bill, which included a requirement for all publicly funded bodies to promote equality.

Four of the shadow cabinet voted against powers which passed through the house in March 2007 giving the secretary of state the ability to bring in regulations with a new definition of discrimination and harassment on grounds of sexual orientation. Thirty-five Tory MPs voted to allow only heterosexual married couples to adopt in 2002 and a third also voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations in March 2007, allowing the government to make regulations defining discrimination and harassment on grounds of sexual orientation. This week Nick Clegg has made a claim for some of the UK's sizeable "pink vote" with an interview in Attitude magazine. The Lib Dem leader is working hard to distinguish himself from the Conservatives after Cameron used his new year message to appeal to Lib Dems and claim he has turned the Tory party into the natural home for "liberal Conservatives". Clegg proposed a series of measures including reversing the ban on gay men being allowed to give blood; a requirement that faith schools implement "anti-homophobia bullying policies" and teach that homosexuality is "normal and harmless"; a change in the law to allow civil partnerships to be regarded as marriage; and a guarantee of asylum to refugees who have fled a country because of persecution over their sexual orientation.

The Conservative Party's election manifesto promises that married couples and gay couples in civil partnerships will receive tax breaks within the first five years of parliament. Tory leader David Cameron has been careful to include civil partners in remarks about the proposed benefits. The Daily Mail reports that the manifesto, to be released on Friday, contains a "cast-iron pledge" to give financial benefits to gay and straight couples who stay together. Cameron was forced to admit he "messed up" over the plans, when he said in an interview recently he "hoped" to implement the tax break changes after promising he would. However, he has not given clear details of how the scheme will work, such as what would happen in the case of a couple who divorced or had their civil partnership dissolved. Labour has attacked the plans, saying they make other types of families, such as separated ones, "second class". Other critics have queried whether a small financial incentive would persuade couples to stay together. Unlike other European countries such as Spain and Portugal, gays cannot marry in the UK. Instead, they can have civil partnerships, which grant them all the rights and benefits of marriage without the name.

Forgive me for being a cynical homosexual, but a leapord doesn't change its spots; chances are the Tories will rush to destroy the civil liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people with the greatest of swift ease. Something tells me (perhaps queer instinct) that a grovelling apology for Section 28 by the same man who aonly a few years previously wanted to keep it in, is nothing more than an opportunistic grab at the voters. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw has said "a deep strain of homophobia still exists on the Conservative benches". Mr Bradshaw, one of three gay men currently in the cabinet, made the comments as a new poll suggested more gay people were turning to the Tories. Chris Bryant, another gay minister, said: "If gays vote Tory they will rue the day very soon." Of course they profusely denied saying, David Cameron and the Conservative Party have made clear they do not believe that anybody should be disadvantaged on the grounds of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. But what is the truth about our Conservative party in regards to LGBT equality? Are they our friend or foe in the gay world? And though Labour has dedicated massive efforts for LGBT equality progress, will the Tories be the same - or perhaps better?

Roger Helmer, Conservative MEP for the East Midlands, wrote on his blog: “‘Homophobia’ is merely a propaganda device designed to denigrate and stigmatise those holding conventional opinions, which have been held by most people through most of recorded history. It is frightening evidence of the way in which political correctness is threatening our freedom.” Helmer, who is honorary chairman of the right-wing Freedom Association, added: “It is creating ‘thought crimes’, where merely to hold a conventional opinion is seen, in itself, to be unacceptable and reprehensible. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. I imagined being verbally and physically abused for being gay. Becoming self-loathing, depressed and suicidal was a figment of my imagination, and I'm actually part of a pseudo-communist conspiracy to take over the world. I admit that not only did this enrage and sadden me, it also made me feel sorry for the sheer idiocy of this individual. Nobody is born with prejudice, they learn it, so why should we put up with the preachings of a silly Tory toff anyway? It seems alarmingly close to the far-right views on homosexuality; now THAT is something worth concern.

David Cameron has insisted the Tories' fascist Polish allies in the European Parliament are not homophobic, even though they oppose gay marriage. Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, who has been accused of homophobia, has said he would consider supporting civil partnerships and will attend Conservative Pride next year. Kaminski, who is a politician for the Law and Justice Party, is the president of the Tories' new bloc in Europe. On the accusation that he used the word 'fags' in a television interview in 2000, Kaminski told interviewer Iain Dale: "I used a word that is un-transferable into English, which homosexual people feel is offensive. So I said that I would never use it again, but it was in common usage at the time – even by the leftist politicians in Poland. We just discovered that the leftwing leader of the Polish parliament during an inquiry meeting used the same word about homosexuals. "Today, we know more about homosexuals, and because they felt offended I said I would never repeat such words, and I think we have to respect people who feel that the language we are using is somehow offensive, and respect their right to be treated with civility."

Cameron also strongly hinted that Ian Duncan Smith would be families and social justice minister if Tories win the next election. This is the same IDS that voted to restore the discriminatory Section 28 policy in, and also strongly opposed gay rights including protection against discrimination. Mr Duncan Smith's backing for the clause, in a free vote, was immediately condemned by modernising Tory MPs and gay rights groups. Stonewall accused him of joining the "bigots" and of being a member of "a small, sad and isolated axis of prejudice". John Bercow, the leading Tory moderniser who voted against the amendment to bring back Section 28, described Mr Duncan Smith's vote as "a desperately backward step". He said: "It's very sad and rather shocking that Iain voted to reinstate a thoroughly offensive piece of legislation. I applauded Iain when he said that the Conservative party should review its stance on Section 28 because Section 28 sent out a message to gay people that Conservatives disliked them. That was true then and it is true now." The Conservative leader was one of 77 MPs ­ most of them Tories ­ to back the restoration of Section 28 to Welsh and English law. The move was defeated by a coal-ition of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs.

The frontbench Tories, Michael Howard and Michael Ancram were among those to vote with the party leader for an amendment to the local government bill tabled by the former Home Office Minister Ann Widdecombe. During a heated debate, Conservative MPs openly clashed in the chamber. Edward Leigh, the chairman of the public accounts committee, said that Section 28 should be restored because homosexuality was "wrong". "The reason I have put down an amendment to retain Section 28 is that I believe it is right and it represents the views of a majority of the British people," he said. Miss Widdecombe, who has been a staunch opponent of liberalising the law on homosexual rights, was backed in the debate by Julian Brazier, the frontbench Tory MP for Canterbury and Andrew Selous, the MP for South-West Bedfordshire. The Tory frontbench, including David Davis, the former party chairman, attempted to unite the divided party ranks with a "compromise amendment" which would reform sex education in schools. The amendment would have made it a legal obligation to give parents a right to a ballot on the materials used in their children's sex education. Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat local government spokesman, attacked the Tory plan for ballots as a 'recipe for homophobic behaviour on a grand scale'.

A Tory leader who branded a £400,000 grant to a Bristol gay youth group as an “outrageous waste of money” has ignored calls for his resignation. Critics of a provincial Progressive Conservative party promise to publicly fund religious schools say the plan will only further entrench homophobia. I've probably given you, dear reader, enough evidence to show that the Tories are bigoted, regressive old farts - business as usual in their dreamy world of elitist superiority. In 2007 they attempted to blockade a gay adoption law. Is he opposing it because his party doesn't agree with homosexuality, or is it because he feels it isn't the child's best interests? Or are those two views equal anyway? It is always going to be better for a child to be brought up by a loving couple than in "care". Let's face it, there are not enough heterosexual couples coming forward to adopt (why don't people adopt instead of having a fourth or fifth child of their own?). So, if gay couples are keen to help bring up unwanted children then this should be welcomed. Obviously the old-fashioned CONservatives are still trotting out their prejudices to deny equal civil liberties to minorities. All I can say is God help us all if these knuckle-dragging apes get into power in May. And God help everyone who believed the Tories had started to listen and take note.