Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Labour: stop blindly following your tribe and vote Yes in the AV referendum

For a moment, I felt utterly repulsed seeing the former Home Secretary John Reid on a platform with David Cameron yesterday, explaining why he was in favour of retaining the status quo for our voting system. But I quickly got over it – remembering how right-wing he was in Government. Reid is no progressive, but the worst kind of Labour dinosaur – a tribalist who is apologetic for a discredited and discounted form of politics. He must have felt at home with Cameron. Genuinely progressive politicians should have no business on platforms with Tory politicians – not on issues as fundamental to our democracy as this, anyway. But Reid, like Cameron, can't see beyond vested interest.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly will know, I’m voting Yes in the referendum on the Alternative Vote on 5 May. And while I relish the opportunity to convince others of why a Yes vote is a good idea, I'm increasingly sick and tired of the increasingly ignorant arguments put forward by opponents of AV. And I know it's not perfect. No voting system is perfect – our current system (First Past the Post) has proved that. But I can't get my head around why other so-called progressives – and by that I mean Labour or non-aligned left-leaning people – are campaigning for a No vote in the referendum.

Some just can't stand Nick Clegg and wish to spite him. Fair enough, but he won't be around forever the way the Coalition is going. The future of our democracy is, I hope is obvious, more important than any single politician, hated or not.

There also seem to be plenty of proportional representation (PR) purists that have sprung out of nowhere, who take a rather unrealistic view of how the British 'do' politics. These people seem to think that some sort of electoral reform revolution will happen, some time in the near future, when we’ll suddenly get full PR in whatever form that might take. A lot of liberal or left-leaning people seem to think this way. But the way things stand, the prospect of 'full PR' hasn’t got a cat’s chance in hell. The Alternative Vote – the arguments for which are simple and straightforward – is the only way of achieving the aim of electoral reform at this moment in time.

The only alternative I can imagine, should the Yes campaign fail, is a manifesto pledge by Ed Miliband to introduce the Alternative Vote or another system in the next Labour manifesto. That would probably preclude any possibility of further referendums and would certainly face opposition from the likes of John Reid in his own party.

The No campaign seems to have this one in the bag if we are to believe the polls. But, as I've said before, the future of British politics will actually mean a lot more coalitions. As a socialist I hope that means more governments which stand up for public services, a fairer economic system and greener policies. And we desperately need a voting system that reflects the will of the people – not a Tory-led government elected on less than 40% of the vote, and a Parliament composed of MPs with jobs for life because the electoral system makes it comfortable for them.

If Labour really is as progressive as it would like to think, party members should vote Yes. It’s not about the outcome of the next election, or the last election, or whether you think Nick Clegg is a sell-out. It’s about a long overdue reform to our Victorian voting system which belongs with gas-lamp lighters, workhouses and rickets – in the past.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

When a kiss is not 'just a kiss'

When is an innocent kiss between two young men in a pub deemed 'obscene'? That was the question on everyone's lips - if you'll excuse the pun - at a 'kiss-in' protest outside the John Snow pub in London's Soho last night. The catalyst was the reaction by a complete stranger in the pub, and the landlord's response, to a seemingly innocent snog between 23-year old James Bull and 26-year old Jonathan Williams, who had the audacity to show more than a little interest in each other after a successful first date on Wednesday evening.

As far as I know, there's no law against kissing. But, I know that landlords are entitled to throw people out of their premises if they are causing a disturbance, or discomfort to other patrons. And it's entirely true that heterosexual couples have been thrown out of pubs for over-affection. But, as Williams has said, “p
ublic decency laws tend to, from my understanding, apply to indecent exposure. We were kissing on the lips”.

If I am a complete stranger to you and I kiss my boyfriend, as a gay man, without doing anything lewd or obviously inappropriate, am I *really* offending you? Or do you just ignore it and concentrate on having a good time with your own friends or partner?

I don't like to assume that Britain is fundamentally homophobic. Public attitude surveys have recently shown a clear swing towards tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. But I wonder if Britain is still just far too prudish in an age of sexual liberation and enlightenment and, as a friend said to me “
uses prudishness to justify homophobia”. Maybe this is true.
I fear that in an age of civil partnerships and employment equality we're still in danger of letting archaic views go unchallenged. Yes, gay and lesbian people have more or less got legal equality. But I still can't go down most streets in London – let alone anywhere else - holding hands with my boyfriend without attracting stares, while straight couples go completely unnoticed. I don't want to be noticed. I don't want to be tolerated, nor accepted. I want complete ambivalence. And that goal seems so far away, even in my lifetime.

The politics of Wednesday's protest were a bit of a mess and it was hardly a coherent campaign built over a long period time. It was a spontaneous event brought together by the power of Twitter, which may have been unthinkable a few years ago. Social networking and mobile phones have helped mobilise people in a way that people had maybe forgotten how to do until recently. As someone Tweeted:

I got thrown out of a bar once years ago for kissing my boyfriend. But it was before Twitter had been invented, so we just laughed”.

But I began to wonder how the trend towards spontaneous protesting had influenced the John Snow event, in the context of a government which is finding new outposts of dissent every day, not least the enormous anti-cuts protests just a few weeks ago. Gay and lesbian people - often accused of being apolitical or indifferent – have an opportunity in the aftermath of this incident. If the LGBT community wants to take this further, the John Snow protest could build into something a lot bigger. It's hardly a comparison, but the attitude of Barclays Bank in South Africa in the 1980s soon changed when it became clear that the younger customers who might otherwise bank with them boycotted them for being complicit with apartheid – and they pulled out.

Here's a bit of free consultancy for the Sam Smith's public relations people – if you even exist. Listen and take note of what your customers are saying about you. Because the protests will be back outside the John Snow every Friday until you apologise to Jonathan and James and change your attitude.

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