Saturday 29 November 2014

Saturday Interview: Cath Elliott

Cath Elliott is a Unison activist and feminist commentator from Suffolk. Having taken a bit of a break from blogging at Too Much to Say For Myself, you can usually find Cath tweeting away about The Apprentice and Question Time, among weightier matters.

How and why did you get into blogging?

In 2007 I was invited “above the line” on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. Up until then I’d been commenting regularly on CiF under the monicker ‘MsWoman’, but the then editor, the late Georgina Henry, liked my contributions so much she invited me to write for the site. I think after a while of writing for CiF I realised that I had a lot more I wanted to say than either CiF or Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy, who I was also writing for by that point, were prepared to publish, so I set up my own blog – too much to say for myself.

What was your best blogging experience?

One of the main highlights for me has to be the amazing people I’ve been privileged to meet as a result of being a writer, some of whom I’m now proud to be able to count as friends. Being shortlisted for the Orwell prize in 2011 is my top blogging moment though, and I think it’s a real shame that the Orwell prize have now dropped the blogging prize. I think bloggers or citizen journalists or whatever you want to call us make a hugely valuable contribution to the political discourse, and the Orwell and other journalistic prizes should find a way to acknowledge that.

Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Don’t let the haters put you off. I’ve had more than my fair share of online abuse in the past, but the rewards of writing online still outweigh all the crap that comes with it.

And why did you stop blogging?

I haven’t stopped blogging, I’m simply on a break at the moment.

I’ve been incredibly busy in the last couple of years, both personally and workwise, and I have to admit also a bit stumped as to how to go about explaining it all ... so thanks for giving me the opportunity here Phil.

I think I’ve found it really difficult to go from almost living my life online, which is how it felt for a while, to needing some privacy while I dealt with some very personal issues. But in a nutshell, in the last eighteen months or so my mum has died, which completely threw me for six, my marriage has ended, I’ve come out to my family and friends, moved in with my partner Linda, and moved house twice. See and who says middle age is dull!

Obviously I needed to give my four adult children time to adjust to all these changes, and I didn’t think me blogging about it or doing some big public coming out story was going to be particularly helpful to them or a sensitive way to approach things. But it’s been a year now, so here I am and ready to get back into it.

Having said that, a four weeks ago two police officers turned up at our house to tell us the terrible news that Linda’s son had died, suddenly and unexpectedly. So at the moment my time is taken up with supporting Linda as best I can and trying to deal with all that comes with something as shocking as this. And in the near future I’m going to be learning everything I can about how the inquest system works, because that’s something we’re going to be facing in the next six months as we try and make sense of what happened to Dan.

Do you find social media useful for activist-y things?

Yes I do, but I think there’s a danger of people becoming too reliant on social media to the detriment of other forms of activism. I don’t think for instance that an online petition, no matter how many tens of thousands of signatures it has, will ever have the impact that those same tens of thousands of people taking to the streets could have.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan and Karl Marx.

What are you reading at the moment?

California, by Edan Lepucki. I’m going through a bit of an end of the world/apocalypse phase at the moment, so on a similar theme I’ve recently finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which I can’t recommend enough. Oh, and I’ve also been doing #readwomen2014, so this year I’ve been reading only women authors which has been great.

What was the last film you saw?

Pride. And yes I did cry.

Do you have a favourite novel?

I have a long list of favourites, but if I have to whittle it down I’d have to put Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, and The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb in my top three.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Bizarrely, considering the kind of writing I do, I’m not much of a reader of non-fiction. I dip in and out of non-fiction books and tend to read chapters and passages rather than whole books from start to finish. Fiction on the other hand has a much greater influence on me and always has. I remember reading James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Marilyn French as a teenager, and I think it was those authors who had the biggest influence on how I think about the world.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

The Labour Party Young Socialists, the Labour Party, the SWP, the Anti-Nazi League, the Anti Apartheid Movement, Rights of Women, the Fawcett Society, Abortion Rights, the CPSA, UNISON, and the NUJ. I think I’ve also very briefly been a member of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, oh and Baby Milk Action. The list is probably longer, but you’d have to check that with MI5 …

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Yes, free speech. One of the first pieces I wrote for Comment is Free was about the need for limitations to be placed on free speech, but the responses I got to that post genuinely made me rethink my position. Now I don’t think any opinion or thought, no matter how abhorrent, should be deemed too dangerous to be allowed to be expressed.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

Feminism and socialism.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Fascism, sexism, racism, misogyny, homphobia. Basically any set of ideas that places any one group of people above any other.

Who are your political heroes?

Tony Benn, Aung San Suu Kyi, Frances O’Grady, the American freedom riders, any trade unionist operating in a country where trade union activism is outlawed; basically anyone anywhere who’s prepared to stand up against fascism and repression.

How about political villains?

Thatcher, Stalin, Blair, Bush, and those, too many of whom are sadly on the left, who perpetuate misogyny and rape culture though either their words or their (in)actions.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Ending violence against women and saving the NHS.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Ending the privatisation of public services and safeguarding the welfare state.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Men, capitalism and global resource shortages.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Don’t compromise your integrity.

What is your favourite song?

It has to be REM. Either Country Feedback or It’s the End of the World as We Know It – I have that as my ringtone.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Sonic the Hedgehog, although to be fair the last time I played a video game was when a Sega MegaDrive was considered state of the art.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?


What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Cruelty and falseness: I’m not impressed by people who put on an act to try and impress others.

What, if anything, do you worry about?

It would be easier to ask me what I don’t worry about. Seriously, I worry about everything, and if I find myself not worrying about anything I then worry that there should be something I’m worrying about and I worry that I’ve forgotten what that is. I’ve recently read that people who worry too much don’t live as long as those who are a bit more carefree, but I’m trying not to worry too much about that.

And any pet peeves?

Bad grammar, untidiness, impoliteness, the proliferation of hideous made-up words like ‘incentivise’.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Chill the fuck out.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading. I’ve always been a reader, hence my earlier career in bookshops and libraries. And more recently I’ve taken up swimming. Initially it was part of rehab following hip surgery, but now I do it because I enjoy it.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mum’s writing desk that she inherited from her mum.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Soap operas, reality shows, cigarettes, trains, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

What talent would you most like to have?

I’d love to be able to sing. In tune. I love listening to music, but when I try to sing along the noise that comes out bears no resemblance whatsoever to what I’m listening to. I’d probably have done well in a band like Crass or Slipknot.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

For my children to be happy and fulfilled in whatever they choose to do with their lives.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I don’t think I would change much to be honest. Once I’d bought the inevitable house with a swimming pool, gym and hot tub and ensured my children had enough to give them financial security I’d probably donate most of it to Rape Crisis and other end violence against women organisations.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Marie Colvin, Kate Atkinson and Jill Tweedy, three women I hugely admire. I’m not sure the evening would be much fun for them though, as I’d probably spend most of the time picking their brains for writing advice.

Next year: will Labour win?

I suspect not, and sadly even if they do I don’t think they’ll deliver what we need.

Friday 28 November 2014

Local Council By-Elections November 2014

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Oct
Plaid Cymru**

* There were two by-elections in Scotland.
** There was one by-election in Wales.
*** There were four independent clashes with three independents vying for one seat and four for another.
**** The only 'other' this month was Community Action (29 votes)

Overall, 45,936 votes were cast over 23 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. In sum eight council seats changed hands. For comparison see October's results here.

When compiling these results it did look hairy for a wee while. Until the results of the last three contests came in - crushing Labour wins in Oxford - UKIP were in a healthy second place. It's bad enough that for the first time since tracking local by-elections, the purples have overtaken the reds on vote averages. Can we lay this at the door of an over-preponderance of safe Tory seats? No. Eight of the contests took place in Conservative-held seats, nine in Labour. The seats lost by Labour were held by slim majorities. Comparing Tory and Labour strongholds, like for like Conservatives pile up the votes on higher turnouts while Labour doesn't. An acceptable argument in isolation but throughout this year, just like the polls, there has been a narrowing of the results. Still much to be done, then.

Thursday 27 November 2014

SWP Bullies London Black Revolutionaries

I'm not familiar with London Black Revolutionaries but looking at their Facebook page it appears they do some very good, if not strictly lawful, work. From active solidarity with the homeless and immigrants, to protesting against racist police murders in the US, they're a refreshing change from the would-be Lenins of the far left. As you might expect, hearing a bandwagon trundling along in the distance, the SWP tried to get a piece of last night's LBR-arranged 5,000 strong 'FromLondon2Ferguson' protest outside the American embassy. According to this LBR statement below, the SWP didn't take kindly to something being organised without their "assistance". It has been lightly edited.
Reply to Weyman Bennett/ Sabby Dhalu / Stand Up To Racism & Socialist Workers Party from London Black Revolutionaries

We would like to clarify a recently alarming statement on behalf of Stand Up To Racism posted to us by Dennis Fernado and Sabby Dhalu.

From the hours of 25/11/14 3:00pm - 26/11/13 1:00am. LBR Organisers received a bombardment of calls from SUTR organisers.

We would like to refute some accusations being made.

At 1am of the 26th of November. SUTR approached us with the possibility of some of their Non-Socialist Workers Party members to speak as speakers of both events. We made the democratic decision to of course allow the families of those killed in police custody to speak at the event, as some have been arranged too already. We would like to convey respect and solidarity to all speakers of both events.

Our organisation received a plethora of threats from Weyman Bennett over the phone, ranging from the threat to dismantle and “go to war” our organisation if we continued to “ignore the leaders of the movement” and secondly, if we ever organise events within Anti-Racism, that we must be obliged to speak to SUTR/SWP.

Secondly, veiled threats were received to make individuals known to the police if we continued to host [the event] ... additionally, that the police had stated to SUTR that LBR's demonstration would need heavy policing as it appears to be friction between the two demonstrations. We would like to state that there is to be no friction between the two organisation on the day of the demonstration which is for the sole purpose of Unity. We are disappointed that individuals are using the police as a way to threaten and bend the democratic decisions made on behalf of our organisation as a method to get what they want.

Today, public letters stating individuals names were published and we take this as an extremely threatening move against our Organisation.

At London Black Revolutionaries we take these threats extremely seriously, a number of threats was made against the safety of our organisation and individual members which were redacted later in the conversation. These threats have set the tone and approach of our organisation from the outset towards SUTR and as such, we have chosen to remain separate from SUTR & the Socialist Workers Party. 
Furthermore, there are a number of issues as highlighted above, as well as wider political issues which remain unresolved over allegations made against members of the Socialist Workers Party regarding Rape, and as such, organisations and speakers within our demonstration take issue with, including ourselves.

In the same conversation, Weyman Bennett asked for the terms of which both demonstrations would happen tomorrow [Now Today]. The only agreement made was that SUTR’s demonstration would end at roughly 6:30pm and had only been setup in the first place because of his political responsibilities to the families and to contacts in Ferguson. As such they needed a demonstration to take place so that they would appear on the 6pm News. We were assured that after this they would no longer be holding a demonstration, that there would be no presence from themselves and that there would be absolutely no interference of our planned grassroots vigil/protest.

Further accusations have been lodged that a joint event was agreed. We are safe to say that the solidarity vigil organised by London Black Revolutionaries & The National Union of Black Students never agreed to this proposition nor do we know anything of it. The extent of cooperation proposals came at 1am of 26/11/14 whereby it was asked whether we could accommodate some of their speakers. To which we replied on an individual basis it was a possibility, but that we would not be liaising with them [SUTR Organisers] but with the speakers directly i.e Diane Abbott.

Response to new terms:

As stated, we will continue ahead with the arrangements made for our demonstration to start at 7pm. Our organisation will not be forced by threats overt or subtle or lies to bow into another organisations demands, nor will we b co opted or forced into making decisions by way of applying pressure to individual organisers. We are a politically principled, militant and grassroots organisation that puts the working people first. We are disappointed to have to spend time which could have gone into organising a bigger and more vibrant demonstration on political in-fighting from left organisations. We ask that all harassment cease on behalf of SUTR organisers and that on the day both demonstrations will take place as planned. The decision to make a second demonstration at 5:30pm is a highly sectarian move and political motivated but we have no political say and frankly there are more important issues at the moment.

This event is black-led and organised by young grassroots black activists in the local community and is set to be large for this reason. For the sake of showing unity – if we want to move beyond political point scoring and egoistical posturing in who is "leading" any [or no] movement – then please attend the 7pm demonstration and show unity.

We wish to spend no more time on this matter. 
We are BLACK - we are YOUNG - We are READY TO FIGHT
There are two sides of every story, but I've had brief associations with "comrade" Bennett in previous years. These included attempts to undermine the position of Stoke Socialist Party in the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism by claiming it was manoeuvring to take it over (it wasn't) , and also gossiped and lied about a prominent local Labour Party member who was less than bowled over by the SWP's approach to organising a broad anti-fascist campaign. These experiences in mind, I know who to believe.

What strikes me about the statement is the entitlement of Bennett and his acolytes. Remember, the SWP is an organisation that has suffered the worst crisis in its 60 year history and recently appealed for unity among leftists. What this episode demonstrates is this toxic tub of toy town Trots have learned nothing from their rape allegation cover up, nothing from the revulsion they inspire in the wider left, and nothing about how to repair their organisation. Their attempt to bully London Black Revolutionaries demonstrates why they should be avoided at all costs and never be allowed to pimp off campaigns and movements not of their making.

Image Credit
Hat tip Howie's Corner

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Angelina Jolie and the Mansion Tax

Oh noes, whatever are we to do? Angelina Jolie might be put off from moving Brad and the kids to London. Why? Because of the mansion tax. I'm sure some Tories are happy that Jolie has, as we used to say in Trot circles, objectively lined up with their opposition to the tax. I don't know how closely she follows British politics. I'm almost certain she's never cast her beadies across this here blog. And I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt too. She's reportedly eyed up a £25m pad, so stretching to £250/month or whatever it will be for ludicrously overpriced celebrity cribs will hardly break the bank.

Like Ed Miliband's set to with Myleene Klass, I doubt many people will feel a pang of sympathy for well-heeled celebs moaning about taxes. Especially when Klass herself blows a cool £80k a month on rent. If the Tories want to recruit celebs to their cause, they're more than welcome to do so.

But there is another assumption underpinning all this. London is now the global city par excellence. Remembering the grimy, down at heel capital I visited in the 1980s I still have a hard time believing how it's outstripping everywhere else in terms of diversity, glamour, and wealth. Arguably New York was nudged into second place a few years ago. London's play to be the capital of the world doesn't come without costs.

You don't need me to tell you about London house prices. While in Stoke you can get a home for a quid, the average cost in the big smoke is 514,000 times larger. The key driver is international finance looking for a safe port in stormy fiscal seas, but the numbers of super rich - whether celebrities or not - flocking to London are playing their part driving prices up as well. Working and middle class Londoners, the millions of unsung heroes that make the city the cultural dynamo it is are increasingly priced out of their homes (come to Stoke, we'll have you!). When the likes of Jolie are willing to splash out mega money on a Central London pad so she can be close to the action, they are gentrifying London, blandifying it. If you want a glimpse at London's future, look no further than Dubai: a glittering temple to neoliberalism filled with gaudy trinkets.

Supposedly, ordinary Londoners benefit from being the favoured haunt of the global elite. Trickle down innit. Except all that is cascading off these people is London's future doom. So if Jolie is put off by a paltry mansion tax, I hope her family settle elsewhere and take a few of her spivvy mates too.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

The Paedophile Next Door

Are we living at peak paedophile? No, we passed that a few years ago. But we do live in a culture saturated by paedophile panic. You're practically not allowed to have contact with kids unless cleared by the Disclosure and Barring Service. Nary a day goes by without a paedophile somewhere getting banged up. We've had dear old Rolf, ex-cuddly crying man for Animal Hospital jailed. The horrifying crimes of ex-Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins and the beyond imagining criminal depravity of Jimmy Savile. Added to the mix is the appalling goings-ons in Rotherham and the historic investigation of paedophilia and murder allegedly involving Members of Parliament.

Thankfully, still, child sex crimes remain relatively rare. According to the NSPCC, there were 23,000 child sex offences recorded last year, of which 5,500 were against kids under the age of 11. However, they maintain that abuse is underreported and as many as five per cent of all children have been sexually abused. That's far, far too many children living in fear of (mainly) a parent or relative. Words just do not exist.

As sentences catch up with public revulsion, lengthy jail terms do not appear to be acting as a deterrent. How can we ensure kids are protected from abuse? This is something Channel 4 have asked a self-confessed paedophile this evening in their The Paedophile Next Door.

Headed up by Steve Humphries,the documentary filmmaker who uncovered child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the programme turned around three stories and expert talking heads. The first belonged to Sarah Forsyth, an abuse survivor who was attacked regularly by her father from the age of three. What made her experience all the more harrowing was that she was sent to a children's home when it all came to light. And there she was abused by a gang of paedophiles who were supposedly her carers. When she was discharged she had the satisfaction of seeing her dad locked up, but subsequently ended up doing sex work in Amsterdam. It was unclear whether the gang were ever brought to justice. However, she is now retraining as a social worker to help keep at-risk kids safe from abuse.

Ian McFadyen has risen to some prominence in the media as one of the leaders of abuse survivors involved in Theresa May's botched enquiry into an establishment cover up. He attended Caldicott prep school where he came to the attention of a group of predatory teachers around the deputy head, George Hill. Again, in a series of graphic descriptions Ian tells of how he was groomed, initially treated with some tenderness and - at the time - felt he had become complicit with the abuse inflicted on him. As it carried on and more teachers became involved, Ian got heavily into drink and drugs, and used to skip to London at weekend to sell himself to other men. Ian, however, was fortunate enough to see his abusers imprisoned - Hill himself committed suicide as the net closed in on him.

The third guest was a man called Eddie. He is 39 and admitted that since his mid-20s he's been sexually attracted to children, sometimes kids as young as four. He was also quick to add that he has never acted on his feelings, has no intention of doing, nor ever wants to. Eddie typifies the "virtuous" paedophile - those who have sexual feelings toward children, but are simultaneously horrified/disgusted by their proclivities. He was also typical in the sense that your average paedophile is a heterosexual man who is also attracted to women. His preferences were "non-exclusive" allowing him and many others to carry on otherwise outwardly normal, law-abiding lives.

Asked why he had decided to come out publicly, he recognised he was leaving himself open to abuse and physical attack. Yet Eddie also thought that responding to him violently merely underlined the status quo, a situation where paedophiles are left to their own devices until they commit an offence and then the weight of justice and public opprobrium falls upon them. What is needed is help before an offence is committed.

Dr Sarah Goode, an expert in paedophiles and child sexual abuse concurred. She argued that paedophiles are moral people just like the rest of us who make moral choices. Instead of going overboard with the demonisation of paedophiles before they've abused a child, society needs to make that appeal and tell them that they can choose to keep children safe. They are not prisoners of their impulses, but this has to be balanced by society's recognition that it needs to make help is available.

Humphries, who began the programme with some scepticism came round to this view as well. The crackdown on the notorious Paedophile Information Exchange, the increased number of reports referred to police after 1986 (the year Childline was set up), the documenting and tracking of abusive images and films, and the opportunist campaign by News of the World to name and shame released paedophiles on the sex offenders register. Not only has this stopped an epidemic of abuse, the latter brainchild of Rebekah Brooks may have contributed to an increase of abuse by driving sex offenders underground and back into their networks, which increases the likelihood of reoffending.

If the old, draconian methods don't work, what can we do to keep kids safe? For retired copper Jon Taylor, a former specialist on child sex abuse cases, we need more online safety at home - parents must supervise the online world of their kids. Survivors like Sarah can also help in the detection of abuse. Yet, what the programme explored is a radical approach. One such initiative is Circles. Here volunteers monitor but also support released paedophiles to prevent them from reoffending. Acting as a friend/social support to these people had a reportedly 70% success rate (i.e. 30% on the programme reoffended). Again, this only engages with paedophiles after a child's life has been blighted. The programme briefly touches on a German initiative that does just this. It combines a residential course combining counselling and treatment, and it turns out that Eddie has enrolled on similar therapy regime. Interestingly, Ian Macfadyn agrees with this approach.

The Paedophile Next Door wasn't an easy watch. It was uncomfortable because the tone it adopted to Eddie was sympathetic, which is something of a cultural first considering only condemnation has hitherto been permissible. Perhaps there is a change in public attitudes though, at least if this hashtag is anything to go by. Nevertheless what Channel 4 have done is inject some much-needed debate into dealing with paedophiles and protecting kids. If we want to stop child sex abuse by any means necessary, it's got to mean just that.