Thursday, 15 February 2018

Bojo's Valentine's Day “Unity” speech....went down like a lead balloon with Remainer Me



The arch Brexiteers on Twitter have been quite quiet of late. It seems almost as if some of them have accepted that trying to shoehorn Remainers like me into accepting their form of Brexit without trying to put forward persuasive arguments has backfired on them. PM May's credibility level is far from glowing and with the rift between moderate, liberal Bright Blue Tories and Mogglodytes becoming ever more transparent, there's a desperate scramble to try and convince the electorate at large that the Tory form of Brexit will be far removed from a Faragiste one. What do the “nationalists but not UKIP nationalists”decide to do when the chips are down? They wheel out the “liberal” unifier in chief/bumbling buffoon Boris Johnson, the man who is famously prone to using flowery rhetoric to say the most facepalm cringeiest of things.

The speech, delivered at the right-wing Policy Exchange was not exactly packed to the rafters with substance. There was some recognition of the anxiety that Remain voters have felt with regards to Brexit: I have experienced both economic and cultural anxiety and none of the reports released by Brexiteer leaning groups have eased my feelings of anxiety. The recent revelations emanating from the Brexit Impact Assessments makes me even more fearful of what might happen, not less. There was no new information with regards to economic policy or trade negotiations going forward (surprise, surprise) nor were there any new commitments with regards to Irish border arrangements. Bojo talked about the potential for a few giveaways for voters, namely cutting VAT on “domestic fuel and other products” as well as simplifying planning procedures by cutting the number of environmental impact assessments done
(he must have been speaking to his frenemy Gove about that one). Of course there was no mention about getting rid of the tampon tax or reducing VAT on products as a whole, arguments have been advanced by socialist proponents of Brexit. Then again there was no mention of the additional VAT burdens that businesses may face following Brexit, when an estimated 130,000 may be expected to pay VAT upfront for the first time on goods imported from the EU. As Nicky Morgan, MP for Loughborough remarked last month, the implications of Brexit on the tax system “are yet to be fully explored” (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/09/brexit-government-urged-to-stop-cost-of-vat-rule-change-hitting-uk-firms).

The “Take Back Control” narrative was trotted out, albeit cloaked in philosophical liberal idealism with what may appear at first vague sentiments about national common sympathies and ensuring that citizens consent to being ruled by the Government that serves them. Bojo has interpreted Mill's words as meaning that only the UK as a nation, can be seen to be “united” amongst ourselves “by common sympathies (feelings) which do not exist” between ourselves and others that can legitimise the work of the state. This ties in with the idea that the Leave vote was a withdrawal of consent to be involved in the making of EU regulations and directives thereby rejecting membership of the Single Market.
John Stuart Mill's concept has been applied in discussions about sovereignty for donkeys years. Mill did believe that nationality primarily comes from political identity and a common national history. The success of the European Union comes, as Simon Glendinning has argued, “from cultural and national diversities across the continent”. Mill's liberal theory has been used to discuss the possibility of a federal Europe: I read an excellent article by Corrado Morricone from Durham University where he argues that “whilst Mill thinks, as a general rule that free institutions are only possible in a country constituted of a single nationality, (Mill) leaves room for the possibility of a sort of multinational state” yet such a state would be very difficult to achieve and may even go against the idea of the EU being diverse and liberal
(http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/02/13/the-work-of-js-mill-shows-the-importance-of-a-common-identity-to-the-principle-of-european-federalism/). It's not an idea that has gained traction in European countries despite what Brexiteers may be stating.

I can understand the desire for self-determination, that some people want to believe that laws should only be passed by MPs (and helped by the Lords, who, are ironically not elected by the UK electorate at large but in my eyes should be). Yet it is pure fallacy to argue that EU regulations and directives would necessarily be any less understandable because they may be drafted in more than one language or that voters would not be able to understand the motives of MEPs who help draft regulations and directives. It's also rather strange that Johnson seems to suggest that EU laws are worse because they are “expressly teleological...there to achieve a political goal”. There are plenty of UK laws that may be interpreted as being in place to achieve a political goal (censorship laws, anyone); it depends on how you define what a “political goal” happens to be.

As for Bojo asking people to name their MEP, I conducted a survey in Lincoln back in 2016 asking people on the High Street to name the MP for Lincoln (who at the time was Leave supporting Karl McCartney) and 60% of the people I asked had no idea who the MP was. That should indicate that increasing political engagement through more community engagement is important for national and European elections (should we have anymore in the future): I'm sure if more voters had understood how the European Parliament worked and had gotten to meet their local MEP candidates, the higher the participation rate in European elections would have been.
Any areas of consensus referred to in the speech were pretty much to be expected: most voters on both sides of the Brexit debate would have expected the Tories to state openly that they will continue to co-operate with our allies in the EU on national security matters and very few voters would disagree with the UK continuing to participate in academic exchange schemes, with the University of Lincoln hopefully working with European counterparts. That being said, Bojo wants to see the UK diverging from EU policy with regards to medical research, stating Britain will require a new “regulatory framework, scrupulous and moral, but not afraid of the new” that embraces new stem cell technology. What that actually means in practice is far from clear.

The comment about Brits continuing to be European “both practically and psychologically” probably didn't go down all that well with UKIPpers but nonetheless it is the truth. There will always be Brits, like myself, with European heritage who will always define themselves as British European. My Twitter handle even points out I am half Irish, half Norwegian-Swedish. Yet Bojo couldn't leave the subject alone. Ever the hypocrite, Johnson follows the comment with some bizzare diatribe about British people living abroad as being akin to God's chosen people in the 21st century, the “points of light scattered across an intermittently darkening globe” (let's not forget Bojo compared Theresa May to Moses in the speech....I'd say she was acting more like Rod Hull trying to look for a pledge of loyalty from Emu). Such an example of Brexiteer arrogance. Then again throughout the speech I couldn't help but raise a smile and think how absolutely up his own arse Bojo and Brits like him must be, thinking they are the best at nearly everything and screw everyone else. I'm prepared to admit us Brits are amazeballs but let's not pretend we're free from fault when being abroad. The recent disturbing Oxfam revelations unfortunately prove otherwise.

It infuriates me to see Bojo claim he's not against immigration per se and yet not only does he boast about rich French people spending money in London when he was Mayor but he chooses only to praise the EU migrants who enter the country who are doctors when he should also be praising EU migrants who come to this country to help care for older and severely disabled people in nursing homes and clean his hotel rooms when he checks out. It reinforces the notion that his form of Brexit and the people he and his lot represent, is going to benefit the richest in our society at the expense of the most vulnerable and most hard-working families of this country. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Bojo boasts that the fortunes of UKIP have “gone into a long deserved eclipse” and yet conveniently forgets the record of certain Conservatives when talking about immigration. Remember PM May's 2015 speech to the Conservative Conference where she told delegates that immigrants could make society “less cohesive” and peddled the myth of immigrants job-stealing, something she was critiqued for by the Institute for Directors: “The myth of the job-stealing immigrant is nonsense. Immigrants do not steal jobs, they help fill vital skill shortages and, in doing so, create demand and more jobs.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-immigration-policies-speech-conference-2015-tory-conservative-party-views-a7209931.html) Then let's not forget that leaked disgusting draft immigration policy document that was being touted as Britain's position post-Brexit the final version of which we will not see until Autumn 2018. Conservative members are determined to see reforms to the system which will limit the amount of so-called “low skilled” workers from coming to the UK which is pretty much the same as what Farage wants to see. Lord Green for example, chairman of MigrantWatch UK, moaned that EU migrants cost the UK taxpayer £4.4bn in 2014/15 (https://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2017/12/andrew-green-the-immigration-policy-that-we-need-after-brexit.html) yet would never dream of openly stating he'd be in favour of cutting the working age benefits of British workers. Remainers liberals like myself who are in favour of maintaining freedom of movement will never be swayed by such banal immigration arguments. Then again Bojo and his brigade must think voters have short memories. Not quite that short, Bojo!

For Brexiteers, the Brexit process is grounded in a politics of hope. Remainers, Leavers, people who couldn't vote and those who didn't want to vote all share a hope for a brighter, more prosperous future, one where there is enough money to pay for appropriate NHS and adult social care. Bojo wants PM May and the Cabinet to present an optimistic vision and believes that “it is the government's duty to advocate and explain the mission on which we are now engaged”. It has to mean more than “going global”....the Government needs to explain how its mission is going to effect our domestic policy, not just our trade policy. Bojo and his “merry” band of Brexiteers defend the Government's record reasonably well. John Redwood, MP for Wokingham has claimed that voters should be cheerful when it comes to the long-term economic outlook for the country. The level of growth has been sluggish: preliminary figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed that growth in 2017 was 1.5%, compared with figures released by Eurostat which confirm that the Eurozone grew by 2.7% in 2017 (http://uk.businessinsider.com/the-uk-economy-grew-slower-than-europe-for-the-first-time-since-2010-2018-2). The UK's economy is now growing more slowly than the Eurozone economy and yet Brexiteers think leaving the EU will somehow solve our economic woes. LOL. If that doesn't make you grit your teeth, it's important to point out that last month the International Monetary Fund has downgraded the UK's economic growth forecast down to 1.5% for 2019 (down 0.1%), whereas Germany's growth has been upgraded from 1.5% to 2% for 2019 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-economic-growth-imf-forecast-brexit-leave-eu-g7-international-monetary-fund-a8172231.html). These Tory Brexiteers claim their policy platform already allows for the economy to boom, yet the figures do not back that claim up. And yes, talking about the current Tory policy platform matters in discussions on Brexit. The effects of years of austerity on our public services and community cohesion is clear for all of us to see, yet there are voters are prepared to continue to back the party responsible for that austerity because they think Brexit will help reverse some of those austerity measures is quite frankly baffling. They are prepared to trust the same party who has presided over ridiculous cuts to local authority budgets: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism examined the finances of 150 councils and found the average deficit to be £14.7m, with many councils under the greatest financial pressure being under Tory control (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/08/john-mcdonnell-councils-used-human-shields-funding-cuts). Our public services are being underfunded, our wonderful public service staff are becoming increasingly demoralised and yet it's strange how Brexiteers just want to focus on getting more legislative powers for Parliament and not lift much of a finger to help local authorities, NHS Trusts, Police Forces, Ambulance Trusts and Fire Services, many of whom are struggling to keep themselves afloat.

Bojo may talk about the lack of opportunities for British born young people. Yet it is his party that has failed to invest adequately in growing the number of highly-paid job opportunities, especially in the North East and it is his party that has been far too slow off the mark to encourage businesses to invest in high quality apprenticeships not just for 16-24 year olds but also for those workers who want and need to retrain in order to access a more secure career. Bojo wants international students to be able to come to the UK but they need to be able to do so without fear of being deported within a few months of finishing their course (and we need to take students out of the migration figures too). Bojo talks about wanting to change Britain from “a low wage, low productivity economy to a high wage, high productivity” one yet it was Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had the audacity to blame an increase in the number of disabled workers for low productivity growth in the economy. It's his party who refuses to ban exploitative zero hours contracts, to ban unpaid internships lasting over a month or introduce a living wage that would allow people to afford to pay their rent without breaking into a cold sweat every 5 minutes. Why can't Bojo and his lot talk about social housing or the NHS with the same level of enthusiasm as Brexit?

What's even more baffling is there are still Labour voters who think leaving the EU will somehow reduce the level of austerity. I remember reading in The Guardian back in 2016 Frank Field using the same language as Bojo used in his speech today with regards to immigration, praising highly skilled migrants but failing to acknowledge the hard work done by care staff and housekeepers. Dennis Skinner, the “Beast of Bolsover” considered a hero by socialist Labour party members, attacks the Tories quite rightly on their record in Government, yet fails to realise the dangers posed by deregulation; instead he dreams of the possibility of a socialist state becoming a reality under Corbyn, a dream looking increasingly unlikely given the drop in support in the polls for Labour. At least Skinner has been consistent in his opposition to the EU- he's voted consistently against every treaty, including the Maastricht one. His disagreement with the EU is based on worker exploitation (despite the introduction of worker-friendly policies like the Working Time Directive 1998). Yet I'm surprised Skinner, Field et al don't feel at all nervous about the EU Withdrawal Bill becoming a Tory power grab or them being in the driving seat during this Brexit process but then as long as we're out of the EU I guess he's not particularly that bothered. More fool him and Field and Labour Brexiteers in general I say.

Another issue with the speech was the implicit indication that the Government would be prepared to preside over a “bonfire of regulations”. A consistent narrative used by those who favour a Clean Brexit (i.e. free trade agreement or at worst using World Trade Organisation rules) is one that a deregulated Britain would automatically be a better Britain for businesses. One person who commented on Paul Goodman's Conservative Home article Why our European neighbours think we're a basket case, stated that Brexit shouldn't happen unless there was deregulation (https://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2018/02/why-our-european-neighbours-think-were-a-basket-case.html). It didn't take long for business organisations to rebut any assertion implied from Bojo's speech that businesses agree with mass deregulation. John Foster CBI's Director of Campaigns for example, which is trying to encourage members to ditch Remain and Leave labels used his response to make it clear that some businesses value the current regulatory framework they operate in: “our aerospace, automotive and chemical sectors, to name a few, all have highly integrated European supply chains that benefit from consistent regulation” (http://www.cbi.org.uk/news/businesses-aren-t-looking-for-a-bonfire-of-regulations/).
Brexiteers are terrified at the prospect of a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal gaining traction with voters. Bojo dismissed the wishes of such Remainers, saying any referendum would be “a disastrous mistake.....bringing another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose”. Nothing new there then!

This speech was really about Bojo showcasing his leadership credentials in readiness for a potential Tory leadership election. He may have demonstrated his unwavering loyalty towards PM May in public, stating that she is someone who “can do a great Brexit deal” but that's only because she's prepared to stick to the idea of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. Bojo knows he can rock the boat if he wants to and he'd love to be given another chance to become Tory leader and PM in one foul swoop. I'm far from alone in coming to this conclusion. The New York Times ed on Bojo's speech talks about Bojo hankering for another chance to become PM: “Mr Johnson may be sensing another moment of opportunity, as Mrs May struggles to control her cabinet amid calls from some of her own lawmakers for her to step aside”. Of course Bojo faces stiff competition from Mr Victorian, himself, Rees-Mogg and a Tory leadership election would no doubt be absolutely fascinating to watch unfold but the end result of any such election should be that a general election is called: we don't want yet another undemocratic pass with the Tory leader automatically becoming PM without facing the electorate at large.

Valentine's Day may have left plenty of couples feeling the love, but I can hazard a guess Bojo failed in his aim to unite the Remain and Leave camps behind a Tory Brexit vision. I don't think he'll be particularly heartbroken but the whole debacle demonstrates just how difficult it will be for any political leader to articulate a vision for the future that is hopeful and inclusive. The Remain vs Leave debate remains very much alive in constituencies across the UK.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

A Labour Remain Voter's Conundrum

Hello folks! It's been a wee while since I last blogged but I've spent the last month buried deep in thought on a whole host of topics and can't wait to start discussing them further!

What's happened since the start of the year is that there have been a number of reports brought out that make for despairing reading: figures in report after report released by third sector organisations, charities and think-tanks have shown the appalling effect that austerity measures, imposed by a Government far too occupied with sucking up to Donnie Drumpf and his “merry” band of “I want to go back to the 50's when we didn't know about pop music and Oreos” Trumpians and placating our own nostalgia loving elements of the electorate (who will never be satisfied until the gates are firmly shut to anyone who doesn't have “Dr” as a prefix or a few bob in their pockets).

Our NHS has been struggling to cope with this year's flu season, given the addition of the Aussie flu strain into the mix. More than 50,000 non-urgent operations have been postponed on the advice of NHS England this winter (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2018/01/towards-eternal-winter-can-nhs-survive) yet PM Theresa May boasted that the NHS had been prepared for winter, stating “there were 3,000 more beds in use and 2.9m more people using A&E since 2010” at PMQs last Wednesday. As Corbyn pointed out when he retorted her point, “14,000 beds in wards have been lost since 2010 and 100,000 patients have waited longer than 30 minutes for an emergency ambulance”. Let's not forget that 17,000 were left waiting in the back of ambulance to get admitted to A&E in the last week of December (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/10/pmqs-verdict-may-holds-up-better-against-corbyns-nhs-attack). More nurses are now leaving the NHS than joining it (more than 33,000 nurses walked away in 2017, a rise of 20% since 2012-13), perhaps because the working conditions are stressful, the pay is not enough given the amount of work nurses are being asked to do, EU nurses face xenophobic language being thrown at that and nursing bursaries, which trainees relied on, have been unfairly scrapped. According to Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, “there are 100,000 vacancies in the NHS as of this month” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jonathan-ashworth-jeremey-corbyn-end-to-carillion-style-outsourcing-in-nhs-and-emergency-5bn-budget-plan-trickett_uk_5a6631c4e4b00228300577d6). Some hospitals are facing an equipment shortage, including a lack of ventilators and oxygen cylinders (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/25/nhs-hospitals-serious-shortages-vital-equipment).

At a more local level, Lincoln's highly rated Walk-In Centre will be shutting its doors at the end of February due to short-sighted decision making by Lincs West Clinical Commissioning Group, leaving Lincolnshire residents and voters feeling concerned about where they can go to be seen for low-level medical conditions without having to wait for hours at an already busy Lincoln County Hospital A&E. 94% of people who responded to the consultation made it clear they did not want the facility to close (I was one of them) and yet Lincs West CCG chose to ignore us but perhaps if the CCG wasn't dealing with the consequences of chronic underfunding from central Government, they wouldn't have had to close it. Our NHS is facing its greatest crisis since the 1990's and it's time the Tories living it up in Westminster faced up to it.

Labour have announced a number of measures that may reduce pressures on the NHS and improve the situation for staff and patients; for example Labour Peer Baroness Chakrabarti stated that Labour would bring “life and death services” like hospital cleaning back into public ownership. Labour would halt the introduction of Sustainability and Transformation Plans “which devolve the national service into local ‘footprints’ with reduced accountability and the potential for marked reductions in healthcare provision, commercial control of both the public estate and the commissioning function” (https://www.opendemocracy.net/ournhs/stewart-player/taking-politics-out-of-nhs-or-constructing-elitist-consensus). Labour have also announced they will provide free car parking for patients, staff and visitors, funded by increasing the private medical premium tax. Labour would also scrap the public sector pay cap on nurses pay, reinstate nursing bursaries and guarantee the rights of EU workers to stay in the UK and continue doing their amazing work. All of which I believe would be broadly welcomed by voters like me.

Another issue that has been discussed in some depth this month has been the increasing number of children living in poverty in English cities. Figures released by the End Child Poverty campaign just this past week state that 4 million children in the UK are now classed as living in poverty, a truly embarrassing and unacceptable statistic when you are reminded of the fact that the UK is the 6th largest economy globally. There are 4 constituencies in the UK where children are now “more likely than not to grow up poor” with over 50% of children living in poverty: Bethnal Green and Bow, Poplar and Limehouse (where the 1950s and 60's themed Call the Midwife is set), Birmingham Ladywood and Birmingham Hodge Hill.

The situation for children in Lincolnshire makes for less glum reading but still there should be pause for thought: 5,907 children are classed as living in poverty in Lincoln (which is defined in the report as a household having an annual income below 60% of the average); this means that 26.7% of children living within the constituency boundary are living in poverty. Louth and Horncastle has the highest percentage of children living in poverty for a Lincolnshire constituency (29%), followed by Boston and Skegness (28.6%). Data from Lincoln electoral wards (Jul-Sept 2017) shows that the percentage of children defined as living in poverty when housing costs are taken into account is highest in Glebe (34.13%) followed by Birchwood (34.12%). Birchwood happens to be the ward I live in (my parents have had a lovely house here since the Eurodance days of 1992) so to hear that 788 children in my ward are living in households where getting adequate food and clothing is disappointing to say the least.

Benefit freezes imposed by the Tory Government since 2016 (and expected to last another 2 years) have done everything to exacerbate the situation. The Child Action Poverty Group have stated recently that universal credit changes will push 1 million more children into poverty and I fear what will happen to Lincoln residents when the changes are brought in from March. The “Poverty Premium”, which is where low-income families pay as much as £1,700 more per year than wealthy families to buy essential goods and services needs to be tackled but there is very little desire from the Tory party to address the gap; instead they reiterate the tired party line that “employment is the best route out of poverty, and they have cited unemployment statistics which show that there are now 600,000 less children in workless households than in 2010. The problem with their assumption is that having a part-time minimum wage is not going to significantly improve a person's living standards, especially considering the cost of renting flats in the private sector in cities across England (how can someone earning £7.50 an hour for 20 hours a week afford a flat costing £400-£500 a month for themselves and their child??) and the potential price rises which may come as a result of the UK leaving the EU (clothing tariffs on items made in Turkey may increase by 12% from zero for example: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/26/warnings-of-post-brexit-price-rises-unless-uk-can-copy-eu-trade-deals). Doing well at school/university is also no longer a guarantee of future economic stability. Even when a graduate has manged to secure a position or a young person who has left school secures their first job, they may still find themselves living in poverty.

The End Child Poverty figures just add to what we already know about the effect child poverty is having in Lincoln. The number of emergency food parcels (which are designed to last 3 days) delivered by The Trussell Trust funded Lincoln foodback between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 was 2,447, up from 2,233 the year before (an increase of 9.58%). The number of food parcels received by children increased by 17% from 813 to 952 (http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2017/04/foodbank-charity-reveals-staggering-rise-in-foodbank-referrals-in-lincoln/). Kate Taylor, in her excellent piece for The Lincolnite back in November 2017 highlighted the Institute for Fiscal Studies projections which predicted that “relative child poverty will increase from 30% to 37% by 2021” (http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2017/11/kate-taylor-poverty-in-lincoln-and-beyond-why-are-so-many-in-financial-insecurity/). I agree with Ms Taylor that there needs to be less time spent on “crucifying people for not being in work and more time helping them out of abject poverty” and that means focusing on more than just funding employability schemes.

I appreciate the situation in Lincoln could have been much worse, were it not for the Labour-led City of Lincoln Council's Anti-Poverty Strategy, which has been in place since 2014. The Strategy has a number of objectives, including “increasing money management skills and confidence, supporting families to feed and clothe their children and helping those facing poverty due to illness” (https://democratic.lincoln.gov.uk/documents/s26370/Lincoln%20Anti-Poverty%20Strategy%20-%20Appendix%201.pdf). Campaigns that have been run by Lincoln Against Poverty, the organisation overseeing the implementation of the strategy include The Living Wage Campaign (encouraging employers in Lincoln to pay their employees and workers at least the Living Wage, with employers being recognised and recommended by the City Council for doing this) and the Helping Hand Campaign, which is designed to get debt and budgeting information and advice to residents who need it (http://www.lincolnagainstpoverty.co.uk/us/). Projects delivered by the City Council included running 5 “Survive the School Holiday” sessions which provided adults in wards such as Birchwood and St Giles with information about debt, welfare and jobs and a pilot voucher scheme in Bracebridge Heath helping 119 children from low-income families get access to groceries over the summer holidays (6 weeks) during Summer 2016. Details of 2017/18 projects will be discussed at the next Lincoln Against Poverty Conference, which I'd love to attend later in the year.

Labour are very well placed to devise policies that appeal to swing voters on the issue of reducing Child Poverty. In the last election general manifesto, for example, Labour proposed spending £250m a year on the creation and implementation of a Child Health fund, with funding being made available to support the running of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in schools, boosting the number of school nurses so there are more than 1 visit to a school (as seems to be the norm currently) and creating an Index of Child Health, measuring progress on tackling obesity, poor dental health, poor healthcare for under-5s and poor mental health (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-junk-food-adverts-ads-ban-x-factor-hollyoaks-primetime-corbyn-election-manifesto-a7722926.html). For those asking where the money would have come from, Labour would have sought to half NHS Management consultancy fees by half (estimated to cost £538 a year): I don't think many voters outside of the private sector management consultancy sector would have disapproved of that.

On policies and strategies for the NHS, on policies to reduce homelessness, Labour have the upper hand. Corbyn's most recent announcement of buying 8,000 homes for homeless families as soon as his party wins the next General Election paints him as a compassionate figure in tune with the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society. With the rate of homelessness having increased by a shameful 169% since 2010, the number of rough sleepers up by 15% during 2017 (4,751 people bedded outside) and the number of people in sheltered temporary accommodation rising by 60% between 2011 and 2017, I don't think that the Tories can deny the seriousness of the problem any longer, particularly with regards to street homelessness in our inner cities. The heralded Homelessness Reduction Bill should help to alleviate the situation but if the Government had really wanted to address the issue, they could have provided ring-fenced funding for Local Authorities to prevent families becoming homeless in the first place (by paying outstanding rent arrears). As Zoe Williams so succinctly puts it:“Local government officials are now in a situation so impossible-statutory duty on one side, insufficient resources to meet it on the other-that they have to conceive the homelessness problem as a set of practical tasks to execute, rather than a series of human interactions” (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/24/why-are-councils-so-creative-in-making-life-unbearable-for-homeless-people). We have people who are forced to endure night after night sleeping on cold doorsteps, getting little to no treatment for their mental health issues and we have amazing people, who work for organisations such as LEAP and the Nomad Trust who want to do far more but feel their hands are tied by a lack of funding (again a failure of the Tory Government to provide adequate investment for our Outreach services).

With such a bleak picture painted of a Britain struggling under the grip of Austerity loving Tories, it should make sense to a centre-left equal opportunities voter like me to turn to Labour once again and give them a chance to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people. But one aspect of the Labour leadership's view (and I am guessing the ongoing policy platform) is troubling me: that is the approach towards Brexit. When I voted for Labour back in June 2017, I did so with my eyes wide open; I knew that the likelihood of the Brexit vote being quashed entirely was next to zero and I knew at that time that support for a 2nd referendum, or even a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal was insufficient to encourage the leadership to consider altering their mindset towards Brexit. I had read the manifesto section which stated quite clearly that “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU” but I questioned in my mind whether we'd get to the point where we actually left the EU (na├»ve maybe?) What I did think may happen was in any clarification of Labour's position, Mr Corbyn would decide that membership of the Single Market, along EFTA(European Free Trade Association) lines, would be the best possible deal for the UK given the limited amount of options on the table. I'm glad that Labour has, along with the Lib Dems, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party seemingly managed to convince PM May to change tact and agree that a transition deal was needed and had to be one where the UK retained membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union. But I can't say that I'm not worried about the future of the UK outside the Single Market. I'm disappointed in Corbyn's claim that the EU cannot be reformed (ask the Nordic Greens and ALDE whether EU reforms are impossible and they'd rebuff Corbyn straight out of hand) and I am equally frowning at his blanket dismissal of the possibility of a 2nd referendum or even a referendum on the terms of the deal. That being said, Corbyn favours “some kind of Customs Union” but not the current version. Corbyn also doesn't want to be a member of EFTA either but wants to work with EFTA countries such as Norway (http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-second-referendum-1-5372112). There's been some references made as to what immigration policy will be like after Brexit but Sir Keir Starmer was the latest to comment, back in December, when he said “the end of free movement doesn't mean no movement. Of course we would want people to come from the EU to work here, we would want people who are here to go to work in the EU” (https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/what-is-labour-policy-on-brexit). Confusing policy remains the order of the day, you betcha!

I guess I should be grateful for any kind of clarity being offered by Corbyn on the party's official position but I do feel that crucial votes may end up being lost as a result of a lukewarm approach towards the EU. Take the most recent poll on Brexit support. The YouGov poll conducted back in December 2017 for The Guardian and Best For Britain campaign found that voters intending to vote Labour at the next election still are unsure as to what Labour's overall Brexit position happens to be: 23% believe Labour is “completely against Brexit” and 10% “didn't know”. The most recent Guardian/ICM poll, with over 5,000 respondents, shows that 39% of Labour leavers are now in favour of a second referendum with 65% of Labour backers overall wanting voters to have the final say on a Brexit deal (only 19% now oppose it). That being said, in the Midlands region (including Lincolnshire), 52% of voters polled would still vote to Leave the EU and that is despite 45% of voters thinking the decision will have a negative effect on the economy (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/26/labour-brexit-rethink-second-referendum-guardian-icm-poll). Students are also increasingly likely to vote for Remain (74%..up 16% since 2016...although the rise comes from those who could not vote in 2016) and women are more likely to vote to Remain in another referendum (53% to 47%). What may give any future Remain campaign a win is the fact that 51% of voters aged 38-64 would now vote to Remain.

Other results from the poll make for interesting reading. For example, when asked what impact Brexit will have on their personal finances, 36% of respondents said negative and that includes 50% of Labour voters. This stands in stark contrast to Tory voters, with only 18% stating that Brexit will have a negative impact on their finances. When it comes to asking about the impact of Brexit on culture, 42% of DE voters (unskilled and unemployed) said that it would be positive, compared to only 34% of AB (managerial and professional) voters. 57% of Labour voters stated that Brexit will have a negative impact on British culture, compared with 20% of Tory voters. There is clearly a sharp divide socially and politically here, although it would also come as no surprise to learn that 54% of voters aged over 75 believe leaving the EU will have a positive impact on the UK whereas only 24% of 18-24 year olds and 29% of 25-34 year olds agreed with them. What these figures reveal is the difficulty every political party has in adopting a unifying approach policy wise; there will be a significant section of the population worried about the social and cultural as well as economic effects of Brexit and they may feel politically homeless if the Labour party decides to align themselves with a harder form of Brexit. Nonetheless, the ruling out of a referendum on the terms of the final deal seems to be a foolish decision by Corbyn, given that 77% of potential Labour voters and 58% of overall respondents want to have that chance. Hmm.

Corbyn is set on gambling on the idea that Brexit voters in the North, in constituencies where Labour lost their seat, such as Mansfield (which went from having a 5,315 majority for Labour to just a 1,057 majority for the Tories) and Stoke-on-Trent South (which went from having a 2,539 majority to Labour to a 663 majority for the Tories) will be so convinced by Corbyn's commitment to Brexit that they will back him and vote Labour at the next election and that their votes would offset any votes lost with liberal pro-EU voters like myself choosing another party to vote for (e.g. Liberal Democrats) in marginal seats. It's certainly an interesting assumption. If you look at the figures from the poll for Northern voters especially, 54% would now vote Remain, 60% want a say on the final deal and 52% of voters think Brexit will have a negative effect on the economy. Who would have predicted that back in June? Anyways time will tell whether Corbyn is right to gamble Brexit policy wise and we shall see the effects at the next election.

Perhaps what is giving Labour the edge in polling at the moment is a desire to enact social change to help improve the lives of the most vulnerable. After years of policies favouring individualism and consumerism, there's a sense that voters are now realising the need to look after our public services after years of lack of proper investment in them. The lowering of taxes may have helped boost the economy but wage growth has stagnated and voters are increasingly fearful of the prospect of being homeless; most of us have next to no savings, which means we are often only one or two paydays away from finding ourselves on the street. That realisation should make us more compassionate towards those who have found themselves in dire straits. We should not be living in a country where more families have to make a choice between heating their home for a week or buying healthy meals for a few days. We should not be asking parents to fork out for expensive bits of clothing just because they have to have the right style of school logo on them. We should not expect single parents and parents who have found themselves with a reduced income as a result of illness or long-term disability to have to routinely deny their children access to leisure activities because they can't afford the bus fare or the petrol to take them. How can the Government continue to justify their approach and squeeze funding for Local Authorities to the point where they cannot afford to fund schemes that could reduce child poverty and empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to aspire to be in their dream jobs?


The question now is whether Labour leaning Remain voters put aside their concerns over Corbyn's muddled policy platform and trust in Labour's overall vision or whether they look for a party that showcases the referendum on the final deal as a central policy? 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Why responding to the Government's Relationships and Sex Education Consultation matters

On Tuesday 19th December 2017, Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education and Women and Equalities made the announcement that there will be a consultation to help shape the content of the soon-to-be statutory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) Programme of Study guidance (RSE which will be taught in all schools (maintained, academies and independent) in England from September 2019 (Children and Social Work Act 2017 places a "statutory duty" on Ms Greening "to make Relationships Education compulsory in all primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education mandatory in all secondary schools" (https://consult.education.gov.uk/life-skills/pshe-rse-call-for-evidence/consultation/subpage.2017-12-01.1723463910/). Key stakeholders, including parents and young people have been invited to offer their views on a number of topics including online safety, sexual harassment and LGBTQ+ issues. I believe this a fantastic opportunity for trans non-binary people to submit our suggestions as to how to make RSE more inclusive going forward. I've been talking about the need for LGBTQIA+ inclusive RSE for a while, and have blogged on its importance here: (https://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/lgbtqia-sex-and-relationships-education.html).  I'm far from being the only person making this call. Hannah Kibirige, Director of Education and Youth at Stonewall mentioned in her blogpost for Huffpost "Why We Should All Care About LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education" Stonewall research which has shown that just "one in six LGBT young people have been taught about healthy same-sex relationships", with LGBTQIA+ young people finding themselves using the Internet to access LGBTQIA+ inclusive RSE information and advice, which can be at times "unreliable, and sometimes unsafe" (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/why-we-should-all-care-about-lgbt-inclusive-relationships-and-sex-education_uk_5a3a9e25e4b06cd2bd03d72a). Rosa Simonet, writing in The Mancunion, early in December 2017 revealed the results of an anonymous survey conducted by the organisation which found that RSE (or SRE) was " criticised as being too heteronormative, with students complaining they had been given little to no information about safe sex for lesbians or other members of the LGBTQ community" (https://inews.co.uk/opinion/children-taught-sex-ed-age-four-11/). Bridie Forrester, Communications Secretary of the University of Manchester's LGBTQ society made some pertinent comments in the article: "the effect of cisnormative, heteronormative teaching is actually dangerous. Many children leave school with little to no knowledge about life as a queer person. Inter-personal problems such as STDs, domestic abuse and drugs are far from exclusive to cisgender straight people and everyone would benefit from having a greater understanding of LGBTQ issues" (http://mancunion.com/2017/12/01/sex-education-inadequate-say-students/)

Recent reports that have been released by sexual health charities and organisations in the UK have also demonstrated that young people themselves have identified the need for LGBTQIA+ inclusive RSE. One report jointly authored by the sexual health charity Brook and the National Crime Agency's COEP command (Digital Romance) surveyed over 2,000 young people aged 14 and 25 in the UK (and 72% of them being aged 14-17) with disturbing findings being made; for example, LGBT young people use the Internet to meet partners "with significantly more gay young people (9.9%) reporting they met up with an online contact who was not who they said they were compared with straight young people (4.9%). On the quality of RSE generally, only 72% reported receiving any education on relationship skills and only 26% of those respondents rated it as good or very good (https://www.brook.org.uk/press-releases/digital-romance).

Every child and young person in the UK has the right to access age-appropriate, effective RSE. Every child and young person has the right to learn about healthy relationships and to know that LGBTQ+ people can have happy and healthy long-lasting relationships that are respected by the majority of people living in the UK. Students who have SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) have the right to access information and guidance on safe sex and healthy relationships that is presented in an easy-to-understand format without patronising or infantilising them. However, as the Brook-CEOP report has shown, at the moment not every child/young person is receiving high quality RSE and it has been the case for decades. One of the largest studies on the opinions of young people, conducted by the UK Youth Parliament in 2007 which had over 20,000 participants under the age of 18 (Sex and Relationships Education: Are You Getting It?) found that 40% believed the RSE they had received was either poor or very poor. Having a basic Programme of Study that schools have to follow will allow for standardisation of content which should lead to greater consistency in delivery. 

There are also fears that the RSE consultation may allow for loopholes that faith schools can go through so as to not discuss essential topics relating to sexual health, including contraception. There may be discussions in RSE lessons that advocate against abortion when RSE lessons are meant to be delivered as free from bias as is possible. Equally there may be RSE lessons delivered which are anti same-sex marriage. Recent guidance released by the Church of England encourages Anglican schools to facilitate lessons exploring same-sex relationships but have not made it a mandatory part of their current PSHE programme probably because senior members of the Church are concerned there will be resistance from conservative Anglo-Catholic teachers if the new RSE programme of study makes it compulsory for them to teach about same-sex marriage in their classrooms. The Government last week released a statement that said that faith schools should be allowed to "teach RSE in accordance with the tenets of their faith". I would argue that this goes directly against what Greening has said in her piece for the Times Educational Supplement where she states that RSE has to be "relevant to modern life in Britain". For me, that has to include age-appropriate, sensitive discussions around same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ relationships in general.

RSE critics deliberately paint a bleak picture of the subject. Thomas Pascoe from the Campaign of the Coalition for Marriage infers that RSE is part of the "indoctrination process", arguing that it will lead to "sexualisation of children" and mistakenly concluding there is "no "age appropriate way to teach primary school age children about homosexual relationships or transgenderism" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/19/children-taught-transgender-issues-sex-education-lessons/). There are a number of things wrong with the statements Pascoe has made. Firstly, recent evidence has suggested that age-appropriate RSE helps reduce underage sexual activity; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), as quoted by sexologist Goedele Liekens, found that explicit sex education "reduces the amount of young people having sex from a very young age, reduce the numbers of sexual partners young people have, as well as preventing people from conducting or being victims of abuse" (http://mancunion.com/2017/12/01/sex-education-inadequate-say-students/).

Secondly, there are a already number of RSE experts who have designed age-appropriate guidance and lesson plans to help primary school teachers who are PSHE and RSE leads in school deliver excellent lessons on LGBT+ related topics including gender identity. I don't think Mr Pascoe is aware of Professors Richard Woolley and Sacha Mason's book on delivering RSE to 5-11 year olds which includes how primary school teachers can answer challenging and embarrassing questions (I suggest he may peruse its contents a little....you can buy your copy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Relationships-Sex-Education-5-11-Development/dp/1441190295). Deborah Price has written a great academic textbook that gives information and advice to Early Years professionals who want to talk about gender diversity and sexuality (https://www.jkp.com/uk/a-practical-guide-to-gender-diversity-and-sexuality-in-early-years-2.html). Lynnette Smith, MD and Founder of Big Talk Education opinion-eded in iNews, pointing out 2015 research which found that "children who have received age-appropriate RSE are three times more likely to speak out if something untoward is happening to them" (https://inews.co.uk/opinion/children-taught-sex-ed-age-four-11/). Smith then went on to suggest a blueprint for delivering age-appropriate RSE based on the Programme of Study RSE experts within her organisation have designed (emphasis on experts...something Mr Pascoe is not on this issue) which includes discussing gender identity.
As I've blogged about many a-time-before, I believe that the new RSE guidance should include age-appropriate lessons on gender identity. There is no shortage of children's books that can help introduce the topic sensitively, not least the excellent (and current very popular "Are You A Boy or Are You A Girl?" written by the sassy Sarah Savage and illustrated by the fabulous Fox Fisher available here (https://www.jkp.com/uk/are-you-a-boy-or-are-you-a-girl-2.html). So I really don't know what Mr Pascoe and other "professionals" like him are going on about. 

Before I go on, there's something that I should draw everyone's attention to regarding appropriate use of terminology (something RSE leads will need to be given training on to deliver lessons on gender identity effectively): there's no such thing as "transgenderism". Transgender people are not espousing an ideology....it's a word that is used by critics to try and discredit trans activists from speaking out (e.g. about the need to design more trans inclusive medical service provision within the NHS). Critics like Mr Pascoe can debate with trans people based on ideology but the ideology he and others perhaps are taking issue with is Queer Theory and the debate should be between proponents of Queer Theory and proponents of Christian Fundamentalism (Pascoe) or Radical Feminism, all three of which may be taught about in secondary school at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5. Let's hope that Mr Pascoe will be inspired to investigate best RSE practice going forward and maybe listen to lived-in experiences of trans people before he passes judgement on yet another topic he doesn't really seem to know very much about (there's rather a lot of rent-a-gob hack opinion-eding going on at the moment, especially about trans people....perhaps it will reduce in the future as a result of LGBTQIA+ RSE...let's hope so!)

The Brook and CEOP Digital Romance report revealed that young people are using social media messaging platforms to connect with each other, in both positive and negative ways. Young people want RSE practitioners to recognise the benefits of digital romance-i.e. "not convey a general negativity about all things online" as well as celebrating the positive actions young people themselves are taking to educate others about online safety. Some young people see digital technology as allowing them to exercise positive control, "some freedom from negative judgements and pressures, and space to be authentic" (https://www.brook.org.uk/data/DR_REPORT_FINAL.pdf). However, it seems that sexting has become increasingly prevalent, with 34% of respondents stating they have sent a nude or sexual image to someone they were interested in, 52% stating they had received such an image and 26% of 14-17 year olds saying they had sent a nude or sexual selfie. More worryingly, 9% of respondents said they had sent a nude or sexual image onto someone else which wasn't of them and 28% had felt pressured into sending an image of themselves (https://www.brook.org.uk/data/DR_REPORT_FINAL.pdf) with girls feeling more pressured (36%) than boys (11%). RSE lessons should address this issue head on, ensuring that all young people understand why it is important not to share images of others without consent and build young people's confidence to call out the sending of nude images as being unsatisfactory. Brook suggests that schools work with partner organisations to develop "positive bystander'" programmes and empower young people through RSE to intervene and challenge "the negative attitudes and behaviours they witness", including breaking down gender stereotypes (i.e. young men talking to their friends about respecting their body and that of their friends and partners).

As someone who was raped orally while at University and who didn't know where to turn for the initial support and advice that any rape or sexual assault victim deserves regardless of gender, I believe that RSE lessons need to contain crystal clear guidance on consent and on access to rape and sexual assault advice and support services locally, regionally and nationally. Grace Avila Casanova, from youth empowerment organisation Shout Out UK points out the current situation regarding sexual offences: "the number of sexual offences by under 18s against other under 18s in England and Wales rose by 71% between 2012 and 2017 (there were 4,603 offences in 2013-14 and this rose to 7,866 in 2016-17....see https://www.metro.news/child-on-child-sex-assaults-soar-71/774985/ for more stats on this). For Casanova, "such indicators highlight, among other things, the importance of appropriate, inclusive and up-to-date guidance on sex and relationships" (https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2017/12/27/the-current-state-of-sex-education-in-the-uk/).
At primary school level, lessons should focus on reinforcing the idea that touching certain body parts on others is unacceptable (and ensuring that students know the proper names of those body parts so they can tell their teacher/parent when someone has touched them inappropriately). At secondary level, lessons on consent should include references to key legislation as well as signposting young people to services so they will know where to go for help and advice free from judgement and stigma if they find themselves in the situation that I found myself in. No young person should ever feel afraid to approach specialist organisations for help. The help should be freely available to all regardless of their sexual orientation or gender.

I'm also very supportive of the need for RSE to contain lessons on domestic violence, abuse (DVA) and coercive control, especially at secondary school level. Young people should be able to spot early signs of abuse and be encouraged to report their concerns to organisations so that they have the best chance of protecting themselves and their family. It must be noted that whilst DVA primarily affects women and girls, anyone can become a victim of DVA and coercive control, including men but with non-judgemental help and support, they can rebuild their lives and survive. LGBTQIA+ people, especially trans people are also more likely to be survivors of DVA and coercive control; statistics quoted by Broken Rainbow (an organisation that helped raise awareness of DVA in the LGBTQIA+ community which unfortunately closed in 2016) found that Domestic Violence affects at least 1 in 4 LGB people and up to 80% of trans people (The Scottish Transgender Alliance research)and studies have shown that LGBT people are less likely to say they are victims of DVA for fear of being outed by service providers (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph50/evidence/report-4-broken-rainbow-uk-national-lgbt-domestic-violence-service-pdf-430408045). Stonewall's research found that 25% of lesbian and bi women have experienced domestic abuse in a relationship and 49% of all gay and bi men have experienced at least one incidence of domestic abuse from a family member or partner since they turned 16 (https://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/criminal-law/domestic-violence).
LGBTQIA+ young people need to be given the reassurance that if they ever find themselves in an abusive relationship, they will have services to turn to who will at least treat them with respect. At the same time, all young people should be participating in these lessons so they understand standards of acceptable behaviour in relationships.

As well as signposting for DVA, young people should know about what sexual health services are provided in their local area and how to access them. The Mancunion survey found that 26% of young people asked did not know where they could get tested and 33% had not been tested in the last 6 months. RSE leads in schools and NHS sexual health service providers should collaborate more regularly to increase awareness, whether that be organising annual visits to sexual health clinics so that secondary school students understand the sexual health check process and sexual health professionals can debunk myths around lack of confidentiality or designing innovative learning modules so that young people can visit the sexual health clinic without having to attend (using 360 pictures, videos etc). Sexual health professionals have valuable information to impart and such examples of collaboration in the past have been successful in encouraging attendance; for example there was a pilot of running mock sexual health clinics in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham in 1995, where 300 pupils in Years 10-12 attended a sexual health clinic and learned how the clinic operated; by the end of the pilot year, there was an increase of 29.5% in under 16s registering at sexual health clinics in the area (Lucy Emmerson, Secondary Schools and sexual health services: Forging the links, 2003).  Young people who are empowered to look after their sexual health when young will be more likely to continue to do so in the future. 

RSE does need to contain lessons that are focussed on prevention and protection but at the same time these lessons need to be delivered in a positive and engaging manner by professionals who are passionate about the subjects covered. Let's not just talk about what a young person can't do but also tell them that their future relationships can be happy, healthy and truly fulfilling. That includes relationships that are not sexual in any form. Young people at secondary school level should learn about asexuality- to know that we are not all sexual beings and it's OK not to have sexual desires. RSE should be a subject where children and young people are encouraged to embrace and celebrate (not just respect) differences.

RSE programmes will never be truly effective unless young people are involved in their design. As Ian Bauckham, who is leading the Government's review of RSE states in his article for The Telegraph, the consultation will only really be successful if it has managed to convince young people to contribute their opinions: "they (young people) will have important views and direct relevant experience which should help shape the decisions made on this topic" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/12/19/society-has-changed-children-need-compulsory-sex-relationship/). Some young people have already contributed to the debate; a group connected with Brook helped craft the Young Person's Manifesto for RSE, which gives 12 recommendations to create the "baseline for quality RSE". Recommendations include ensuring that regular RSE lessons are timetabled, that RSE "promotes equal, happy relationships" and that RSE leads and professionals feel OK with reacting to student's feedback and have been appropriately trained to do so (https://www.brook.org.uk/attachments/YP_Manifesto_2017.pdf). Other young people should be encouraged to contribute their views on RSE and the key to this is ensuring secondary school teachers, FE college lecturers, university lecturers and personal tutors, parents, guardians and carers and yes, maybe even the local parish priest, imam or rabbi publicise the survey and make students aware of it. The PSHE Association has even devised a lesson plan that can be used to encourage Key Stage 3 and 4 students to respond: https://www.pshe-association.org.uk/curriculum-and-resources/resources/department-education-pshe-and-rse-consultation-get. Posters, social media platforms including blogs and YouTube vlogs can all be mediums used to raise awareness, hence why I'm using my small but nicely formed platform. So please do encourage as many people as possible to take the online survey, which can be accessed here: https://consult.education.gov.uk/life-skills/pshe-rse-call-for-evidence/
You've got until February 12th 2018 to respond!