Thursday, 21 July 2011

Foaming at the mouth

It might have done Parliament a favour had PC Plod looked a little more responsive following Wednesday's foam-pie attack on Rupert Murdoch. The world's media was trained on the octogenerarian media mogul and his sidekick as they gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee yesterday afternoon. The whole incident was somewhat overshadowed by the actions of one Jonathan May-Bowles - a.k.a. 'Jonne Marbles', the foam-pie protestor who is due at Westminster Magistrates Court next Friday for attacking the senior Murdoch while he was being questioned. The sitting was suspended, the room was cleared and journalists and members of the public were forced to sit in another room when it reconvened. Murdoch simply wiped his specs, removed his jacket and carried on.

In a way, it's the least he could do given that this was the first time he has ever held to account by a Parliamentary committee in this way. As a friend of mine said, "Keep the custard pie in perspective. Murdoch called for war in Iraq for cheap oil". Twitter marvelled at Wendi Deng's razor-sharp defence of her husband, but some MPs are beginning to worry that as a result of the incident, the public's access to debates in the Houses of Parliament is under threat, given that the Speaker, John Bercow, has launched an external investigation into Parliamentary security highlighted by Paul Waugh's excellent Waugh Room blog:

"That right to attend meetings is a very long established and precious freedom. I think it would be quite wrong for me to seek to constrain or circumscribe an independent investigation in what it can cover and what it can recommend. The point the Hon Gentleman makes is an important one...many people will share his point of view."
I am eternally grateful for the fact that our democracy allows me to attend such a wider range of Parliamentary debates, committees and meetings, which are easy enough to get into provided you've told the police officer at the door where you're going, and you're security searched and frisked in the usual way.

And although I can't say that I find every one of my visits to the Mother of Parliaments a scintillating experience, I would be deeply worried if such freedoms were to be curtailed because of the actions of what turned out to be just a harmless 'comedian'. It's easy enough to smuggle through shaving foam and paper plates into Parliament, but it would be pretty much impossible to try it on with anything else these days.

Public access to Parliament is hard fought for, and it seems can be taken away all too easily. After all, it wasn't until 1989 that Parliamentary authorities allowed cameras into the building, shining a light on what is still a gentlemen's club atmosphere. The infamous 'funpowder plot' protest by Fathers for Justice in 2004 resulted in enormous glass screens being erected in front of the public gallery - somewhat detrimental to the atmosphere of Parliament for the average visitor. And we heard yesterday that Parliamentary authorities had permanently banned the respected BBC producer Paul Lambert - withdrawing his pass and making it somewhat difficult for him to do his job.

I can't help feeling that yet there's too much of a 'security first', 1950s attitude still in Parliament, where unelected officials such as the Serjeant-at-Arms have too much power over public access to the Palace of Westminster. Thankfully, any fall-out for broadcasters has been limited - we later heard Lambert had his pass reinstated following a protest from MPs and journalists alike, the MPs expenses scandal and now phone-hacking demand a greater level of transparency than ever in our political institutions, and we need to fight for every attempt to ebb away at it.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Chavs, the Mystery of the Disappearing Working Class, and Other Stories

Whatever happened to the working class? A new book by Owen Jones tries to find the answer...
A debate on class in 2011 seemed like a rather archaic idea. We all define one way or the other though, and I suppose I’m middle class, if anything. Two degrees, a good job and living in a nice part of south London. Tick. But my parents are from proudly working class backgrounds – born in council houses in which they stayed until adulthood before earning half-decent money. And like a lot of baby boomers, they bought their first house in their early twenties and have been propertied ever since. Neither have resisted the allure of foreign holidays or nice cars, and made sure that my sisters and I got a good education.

We didn’t miss out on working class culture though, as kids. To say that the older women in my family love bingo is an understatement, while my grandparents took us shopping at the Co-Op before it became fashionable. We loved Only Fools and Horses. And we always mopped up the gravy from our Sunday roast with bread from a sliced loaf.
"All the things that were off the menu for my grandparents are the very things I’ve benefited from growing up and in adulthood".
Taking the contemporary sociological understanding of class  – you may be born into one class but it’s possible to move up or down – means that defining myself as middle-class now makes a lot of sense. All the things that were off the menu for my grandparents are the very things I’ve benefited from growing up and in adulthood.

Is the concept of working class still relevant? Does it really matter how you identify? The last fifty years have seen the fetishisation of middle-class values, if not lifestyles, as incomes have gone up and education is seemingly more accessible. Yet the gap between rich and poor has become ever bigger, which means that the group of people in society who would traditionally define as working class have become ever more distant from an all-consuming middle class.

So I was intrigued by a Young Fabians invitation to a discussion between Jon Cruddas MP and Owen Jones, author of the recent book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. But first, a disclaimer. I haven’t read Chavs – although I’m planning on doing so – which means my thoughts on the subject haven’t yet been shaped by the book itself.

Cruddas claimed that Chavs had reinvigorated the debate about class, an area which Labour is revisiting as it seeks to redefine itself. “Working class” no longer had any positive connotations, as according to the pollster Deborah Mattinson at BritainThinks, we’re all middle class now – 71% of us in fact, while 24% still consider ourselves working class.
At the same time Mattinson asserts through her research that the working class tag has become an insult – or rather the derogatory insult ‘chav’ – a word that no-one really knows the origin of. “It just means being poor” according to one of the people surveyed.

For Jones, the marginalisation of the working class was at worst demonstrated through the media’s sweeping generalisations of poor people, as opposed to the educated, affluent journalists. Dewsbury, the West Yorkshire town where nine year old Shannon Matthews was abducted and later discovered 24 days later, was a “white underclass” – the “tip of the iceberg” for all that was broken with Britain. New Labour and the Tories alike have since been sucked into linking the deprivation of poor white working class people – Iain Duncan Smith linked the deprivation of Dewsbury with reforming social housing and incentivising tenants’ good behaviour. All this because of a mythical, feral, lawless group of people whose only crime was to be poor.

Save for a few irrelevant interventions on the merits of electoral systems – which the working class had already made quite clear it wasn’t interested in -  there were opportunities to be romantic about big, extended working class families of the past.  It’s the sort of thing that Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour harks back to, and not necessarily in a hopelessly nostalgic way. But these families broke down. The working class had been destroyed economically as some people became more aspirational. For those left behind, the BNP and the far-right moved in to fill the void vacated by a new, latte-sipping Labour party.

Owen Jones claims that as a result of all this breakdown, we’re all much more insecure. Really? I wondered what my 96 year old grandmother would make of that. She’s lived through two world wars, became a single parent at 44 and had to struggle to make ends meet for pretty much all of her life. OK, she coped well enough to save her pennies and still had enough left over for the odd coach trip to Great Yarmouth, or a chalet on the Isle of Wight. But if anyone was ever insecure on low-wage, arduous work, benefits and the state pension, it was people like her. The point is, while old social structures have gone and jobs have changed, people are still better off than they ever before – there is more support and security for people now than at any time in history.
"Are there really still people who have never set foot in a branch of Iceland in their lives?"
The working class thing is still novel for some people though. One woman at the event talked about the “culture shock” of working alongside working class people for a whole two years. In 2011, I thought, are there people like this, who have probably never set foot in a branch of Iceland in their lives really so far removed from those who struggle to survive on a daily basis? I rolled my eyes in the direction of our principal speakers for the evening. Maybe they were just being polite, but they seemed to have glazed over. Maybe the middle-class spectrum is so wide that the two sides of it hardly ever see each other, let alone understand each other.

I doubt Jones’ book has been staple reading for the people who go to Britain’s bingo halls and bookmakers. It’s been book of the week for the Times and Guardian and has received favourable write-ups in the rest of the quality press, but it probably doesn’t tell us anything about the gap between rich and poor that we don’t already know. It could just be a sure sign of modern middle-class attitudes – that we’re still fascinated by the cultural and economic horrors of those less fortunate than ourselves. But whatever it is, I’m looking forward to reading Jones’ book myself.

This post was originally published on hackeryblog.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Another great publication

Another day, another opportunity. I'm very proud to be writing for a great LGBT-oriented publication, So So Gay. These guys are going from strength to strength and really providing some quality voices in gay media. My first piece for them was published today - a review of the weekend's London Pride event. Hope you enjoy it, and share, re-Tweet or Facebook if you do!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Some thoughts on Pride

Here's a short piece I penned for the Guardian's Comment is Free. They didn't want it after all, so here it is in its full, unedited glory.

It’s a common grump among the gay community that Pride is no longer political. Worse still, meaningless. Civil partnerships, equalising the age of consent and the abolition of section 28 all happened while I was growing up. In a flash, full legal equality was delivered on a plate.

Sometimes we don’t know how lucky we are. While New York has only just legalised gay marriages, we’ve had civil partnerships since 2005. The changes are cultural too. I'm comfortable holding my boyfriend’s hand in public, and give him a peck on the lips each morning at the station, just like any other couple.

While the benefits of ‘proper’ marriage are being considered, I don’t care what it’s called. The day before last years’ Pride, my boyfriend proposed. I said yes, and sobbed tears of joy behind my shades as Pride-goers from London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard congratulated us en masse in a Soho church garden.

I’ll be there again for the same reasons I always go – a celebration of what it means to be gay. There may be four gay cabinet ministers in the Coalition, but as long as politicians need to be reminded of the spectrum of human sexuality, there will always be Pride. Just ask Peter Tatchell, permanently brain-damaged as a result of his bravery supporting pride in places such as Russia.

But if it means anything to me right now, it’s an obsession with finding a venue for 120 people and a decent photographer.

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