Month: March 2012

The Moral Hypocrisy of Party Funding Debates

(Also published on the Huffington Post- come and visit me there!)

Britain’s 90th richest man, and eponymous founder of the ‘Peter Cruddas Foundation,’ dedicated to the “development of …lasting qualities of good citizenship” is now entering his third day of unemployment. Peter ‘Cash for Access’ Cruddas was forced to resign his position as Conservative Party Treasurer on Sunday, after an unfortunate encounter with a recording device made it clear that he had been soliciting vast donations to the Conservative Party from the super-wealthy with the promise of access to the Prime Minister and the chance to influence government policy. “It will be ‘awesome for your business!” he was recorded enthusing. It is still unclear whether he was speaking from personal experience- Cruddas has himself donated over £350,000 to the party- we will probably never know what, if anything, he got in return.

Meanwhile, David Cameron, after several days of foot-dragging over the need for action, has finally taken control of matters by commissioning a rigorous enquiry by a Tory peer to tell him who he ate dinner with last week.

The ensuing moralising from the great and the good has been full of ironies, with perhaps the most choice being Rupert Murdoch’s series of tweets on the matter: “trust must be established! Without trust, democracy and order will go.”

But the most disingenuous attempt to claim the moral high-ground has to be the repeated attempts by the government and its supporters to portray this latest scandal, and the Conservative Party’s more general financial dependence on a small handful of glitteringly wealthy donors as the moral equivalent of Labour’s funding by the Trades Unions.

It started with the barbed official response from Tory HQ to the Cruddas scandal:

“Unlike the Labour Party, where union donations are traded for party policies, donations to the Conservative Party do not buy party or government policy.”

Then Frances Maude picked up the union-bashing ball in his ill- fated Common’s performance yesterday, with a janglingly desperate attempt to characterise Labour’s relationship with the unions as some kind of corrupt Mohammed Al Fayed style “cash for policy” scandal. The meme has been picked up in a series of comment pieces in the press. The right wing amongst them are making the bald-faced argument that union influence over policy making is morally akin to political influence bought by hefty donations from billionaires. The left wing press is more muted on the subject, but even the Guardian lumps the two together in a shrugging “they’re all as bad as each other” editorial.

But of course, the two are not the same at all. The analogy is deeply flawed, and its constant repetition is just further evidence of the Tories increasing detachment from ordinary citizens.

Firstly, there is the question of transparency. The Labour Party was founded by the trades unions explicitly to represent the views of working people and the relationship between the two is not just transparent but fundamental to the constitution of the party. In contrast, the Peter Cruddas affair has shown the many shades of grey that characterise the relationship between government and its major individual donors. The Tories are keen to portray Cruddas as a rogue dealer, and the very idea of ‘cash for access’ as abhorrent, but this point is difficult to argue convincingly when even the Party’s official website is pretty clear about the level of ‘access’ that money can buy you, featuring a detailed menu and price list for varying degrees of exposure to policy makers.

Any influence wielded by highly wealthy individuals over government policy, however indirect, is by definition in the interests of the very, very few. In contrast, union donations are the combined contributions of millions of individual members, acting in their common interest. These donations are entirely voluntary for each member- when an individual joins a union they are offered a choice as to whether a proportion of their individual subscription fee goes to the Labour Party or not. The suggestion that the combined modest donations of over six million ordinary people is equivalent to the vast endowments of a tiny handful of wealthy plutocrats is ludicrous.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly is the issue of democracy. Unions, are among the most democratic, not to mention politically engaged organisations in the country. Union leaders are elected regularly by the grass roots membership and are fully accountable to them in their decision-making. In contrast, individual super-rich political donors are accountable to nobody. Consequently any influence they wield over government is deeply undemocratic. The dangers of this have become evident in the US where a small group of business people wield vast unaccountable influence over legislation.

The process of finding an equitable, democratic solution to the problem of party funding is a complex one, and change is long overdue. But lumping the unions in with the super-rich as moral bedfellows is lazy and disingenuous.

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Mother’s Day Musing: Why I Will Never Write About my Kids

(This piece was first published on the Huffington Post Come and visit me over there!)

It’s strange, given their intensity, how fleeting human emotions can be.   Feelings that are gut-wrenchingly powerful when they first hit, almost always disappear without trace as time passes.   My mind now can’t conjure up even a dim imprint of the bone-crushing despair I felt when my post-college boyfriend broke up with me on New Year’s Eve, 1994.   The intense devotion for a brewery salesman from Northampton that overcame me a few years later barely even registers as a memory any more, and even the husband-leaving anger that gripped me at 9 o’clock last night over ‘The Matter of The Tax Return’ seems, this morning, like an extract from the therapy session of an unhinged stranger.

But, for some unfathomable evolutionary reason, there is one emotion that doesn’t dwindle even the slightest bit with time, often maintaining total integrity no matter how many decades have gone by.    Seemingly the only human feeling that is experienced as keenly after twenty years have passed isn’t anger or love or elation.  It’s embarrassment.

There are petty humiliations I suffered in high school that still, when recalled in my late thirties, give me the overpowering impulse to shout “NONONONO!” and hide my burning cheeks under the duvet.  I’m confident that when I’m in the old people’s home, drooling in front of the Antiques Roadshow, my brain crumbling with dementia, the memory of the time I bared my 9 year old adoration in a note to Saul Berenstein in a Social Studies lesson and he laughed in my face, will still hold the power to make me crumple and blister with shame.

It wasn’t just the Berenstein moment.  I was pretty-much an all round awkward kid.  Nowadays, with thirty odd years of accumulated minor embarrassments of torturous haircuts and unrequited crushes lapping at my ankles, the only thing that makes it possible for me to forget, move on, and live a meaningful and productive life is the merciful fact that my mother never wrote a blog.

Me as a child. Glad no one blogged it!

When I was growing up, WordPress did not yet exist, and so thankfully there is no public record of my years of painful gawkiness.   Things will be different for my son’s generation.    It’s becoming more and more common for mothers to publish minutely detailed accounts of their children’s daily lives, part of a wider social trend which means that my son and his peers will be the most documented generation in human history.  There are an estimated 3.9 million mommy blogs in the US alone and their readership is greater than that of the print editions of the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune combined.   It’s a strong possibility that the mother of the next-but-three President of the United States is currently compiling a handy online resource for future voters to check out her potty training record and tantrums policy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love mommy blogs.  I follow several, and at their best they can be moving, insightful, hilarious and uniquely honest.    It’s a meritocratic writing marketplace that allows the cream to rise to the top far faster than in the mainstream media.  I have often been tempted to start one up myself, combining one of my favourite pastimes (writing) with my all time favourite subject (my son.)  But so far I’ve resisted that temptation, because, at some level, I feel that to blog about my son would be to write a lengthy unauthorised biography of another person.

At 18 months old, he is unable to consent to such a project, and he has no right of reply or ability to present an alternative view if I get it all wrong.   In the future, any attempt to reinvent himself, to appear mysterious to a girlfriend, or hold back embarrassing information from an employer will be thwarted by my bulging archive of his early exploits.

I also know from my career making documentaries, that it’s not just the telling of the stories in the first place, it’s also the way you tell them.  A subtle shift in emphasis can alter the whole narrative, and different people’s perspectives on a single event can vary wildly.  What may seem like a cute or funny story to me as a mother, could be cripplingly embarrassing to him in the future, his own personal Saul Berenstein moment.    Many mommy bloggers manage to pull off the teetering high-wire act of balancing humour, insight and privacy with grace and finesse.  They are both better writers and better mothers than I am.  I’m just not sure I trust my own judgement enough to get the balance right.

For all of us, our stories define who we are as people.  I worry that if I tell my son’s stories for him, I get to decide the official version of not only what happened, but to some extent who he is.   And somehow, I don’t feel able to do that.

I want my son to be able to tell his own stories, in his own time, in his own way.    And having the privilege of watching the star of his emerging personality burn ever brighter, I know he’s going to have a lot of stories to tell.

What do you think?  Is this fair?  How do you manage to maintain your children’s privacy and still write insightful interesting posts about motherhood?  Would love to hear from people.

Anyone Who Thinks the Private Sector Is More Efficient Has Never Called a Call Centre

(This piece first appeared on the Huffington Post )

If Hell is personalised for the individual, like the Google ads that make a sinister appearance when you start typing an email (“Buy Dear Mum at discount prices!”) then the Brimstone Committee already has my bespoke afterlife earmarked.  I will be spending eternity attempting to accomplish a minor routine task, on the phone to a call centre.

In perpetuity I will spiral through menu options, bouncing miserably between one unhelpful wage-slave and another, each telling me blankly that my request “contravenes our corporate policy ma’am.”   I will shout bleakly into the voice-recognition software: “REPLACE PHONE” and a sprightly robot will reply:  “Now signing you up for a high-interest loan!” and I will hear an infinite number of pan-flute renditions of Another Day in Paradise, Beelzebub’s personal ironic flourish.

At least by then, I’ll be well practiced.   Like most people in the western world, in order to keep the basics of my life ticking over, I spend many hours a year dealing with various corporations- sorting out my mobile phone, my mortgage and my bank account; buying train tickets and insurance; and calling to complain about all these services when they inevitably go wrong.    In the many hours I spend on hold, in between assurances that ‘my call is important to them,’ I tend to mull over the amount of mind-bending inefficiency, bureaucracy and sheer corporate rubbish we all put up with from these organisations.

All of this would be of little consequence, except to my own sanity, if it wasn’t for the fact that this little slice of hell is what the government believes will be the saviour of our public services.  Namely, the Private Sector.

This week’s ugly revelations of plans to outsource key elements of police work to private companies is the latest stunt in a two year long privatisation binge by the Coalition Government.   Last year, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a new “presumption” that private companies would be able to run public services without the need for specific legislation, and now this imperative spans healthcare, education, children and adult services and is being drawn into the justice sector.

It would not be too much of a stretch to distil David Cameron’s collected speeches over the last couple of years down to just four words:  State Bad, Private Good (incidentally it’s hard to imagine the self loathing this must bring on for the PM.  Trying to combine a belief in the essential incompetence of governments while simultaneously trying to run one yourself must be like Morrissey finding out that he has been elected to head up Mmm-Mattesson’s Twisted Tails factory.)

We are told repeatedly that private companies deliver services which are modern, slick and efficient, in contrast to the public sector which is bureaucratic, wasteful and sluggish.  Even critics of privatisation tend to challenge it on the grounds of fairness and accountability rather than competence.    We as a nation have bought into the narrative of private sector efficiency almost without question.  But the problem with this version of events is that the public sector is held up to a level of scrutiny which the private sector is not.

When we have a long waiting time in A&E say, we see this not as an unfortunate one-off occurrence, but a reflection of wider public-sector incompetence.   But when we spend an hour on the phone to our mobile phone provider trying and failing to sort out our contract, we do not politicise the experience in our minds and extrapolate out to its being part of a wider private-sector malaise.

Research by the IMF has found that there is little difference in the record of efficiency between the private and public sectors and when it comes to public service provision, private sector superiority is far from a given.  In education policy, for example, the government’s flagship ‘academies,’ the schools taken out of Local Authority control and run in part by private companies or voluntary groups have performed consistently worse than other comparable schools.    In healthcare, although the evidence is somewhat complicated, the contracting out of hospital cleaning services led to a drop in standards, and coincided with a sharp increase in the rates of MRSA.   The privatisation of the railways led to a situation in which the government rail subsidy is greater than it was when the network was nationalised and yet a season ticket from London to Norwich still costs nearly 8000 pounds.

There are many reasons why the police should not be privatised, not least that an independent, publicly funded police force, free from the profit motive and accountable to the public it serves, is a fundamental plank of a civilised society.   Lets not subjugate this dignified ideal to the misguided notion that the private sector would do a better job.

When Religion Enters Politics, Women are the Losers

( This piece was first published on the Huffington Post )

There are few arguments more pointless than the on-going battle between religious groups and so-called ‘new’ atheists trying to ‘out-atrocity’ each other.  “Call yourselves moral? What about the Crusades?”  “Ha! But your side has Stalin!”  Kerpow.    The whole thing is reminiscent of  ‘Godwin’s Law’,  the truism that states that all altercations on the Internet, no matter what their topic, invariably end up with someone being compared to a Nazi.

This game of ‘war-crimes Top Trumps’ that constitutes much of the current debate about religion sheds little light on the real, more subtle issues at stake.   Given the fact that most people, in my social circle at least, aren’t genocidal maniacs, the more pressing concern about the role of religion in public life is the very real threat that religious influence poses to equality between men and women.

Matters of faith have been high on the agenda on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks.  In the US there have been the bitter wrangles between religious organisations and the government over President Obama’s Birth Control Mandate, a law requiring health insurance companies to provide free contraception.  Meanwhile, back in the UK, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi has been firing off odd editorials in the Telegraph attempting to stem a force she is calling “the rising tide of militant secularisation” and arguing that in order to create a more just society, “faith should have a seat at the table in public life.”

I am, at least nominally, a religious person.  I was married in a synagogue, observe religious holidays and even once, in a weak moment, attended something called ‘rock and roll Shabbat.’  I am certainly not anti-religion and believe that at its best, it can offer a combination of community, comfort, tradition and awe that is hard to find elsewhere.   As a matter of private conscience, religion has a lot to offer, but when faith finds its way into politics, the results usually don’t look good for women.

Take employment law for example.  In both the US and the UK, religious groups have secured a sweeping exemption from anti-discrimination laws.   In short, this means that they are not required to abide by the laws of secular society that guarantee equal treatment for women in the workplace.  As a result, there is no major organised religion in either country in which women are permitted to hold the top jobs.

This isn’t just bad luck for the individuals concerned.   Religion carries vast influence in society generally.  Religious groups run a third of all Britain’s schools and a significant proportion of other state-sponsored services, and the current government are pushing hard for this to expand.   Religious leadership roles are positions of moral authority and faith leaders are role models who shape conduct and societal norms. The exclusion of women from positions of power within religion lessens our status in society as a whole.

This legally sanctioned sexism is a particular problem in the Church of England.  In the House of Lords, the highest legislative body in the country, there are 26 seats reserved for Bishops.  Seats which, by default, can be filled only by men.

In the US, the religious objections to Obama’s Birth Control Mandate are another case in point.   The mandate stipulates that health insurance companies be required to provide free contraception.  The controversy comes when religious groups, not just churches and their equivalents, but also faith-funded schools, hospitals and the like have to provide health insurance for their staff, but don’t want it to cover birth control.    Yesterday the Senate voted against wide-scale exemptions for religious groups by a margin of just 3 votes, but lawsuits by religious organisations have already been filed against the government.  It looks likely that eventually the administration will cave and make concessions of some sort.

A woman’s ability to choose for herself whether or not to get pregnant is a basic condition of equality.     Her boss’s religious views (which she may well not share) shouldn’t determine whether or not she can afford to go on the Pill.   If religious interests are allowed to steer policy-making in this area, it will be a serious blow for women’s rights.

The same goes for abortion.   Last week, in deference to religious campaigners, the State of Virginia passed a law requiring any woman who wants an abortion to submit to an ultrasound and an ‘opportunity’ afterwards to view pictures of the foetus  (they should count themselves lucky that they weren’t forced to have the ultrasound performed by vaginal probe, part of the original legislation, but discovered to be prohibited by sexual assault laws) Similar, or even sterner abortion laws exist in twenty-one other states.

Baroness Warsi’s idea that an increased role for religion will lead to a more just society is simply not borne out by the evidence.  When religion enters the murky world of politics, all too often, women are the losers.