General Politics

Marginal No More; Reflections on the 2017 UK General Election and Polling

I was supposed to have voted yesterday in a high priority Tory-target marginal. Instead I voted yesterday as part of a majority of over 13,000. I watched as seat after seat was moved from a Labour held marginal to a Labour majority; from a Labour target marginal to a Labour gain; from a Conservative safe seat to a Conservative held marginal including seats held by prominent ministers, and in particular the case of Canterbury moving from a very safe Conservative hold to a shock Labour gain. Something big happened – in the short election campaign leftist messages cut through a hostile press, and voting turnout was up, especially amongst an engaged Corbyn-loving youth.

I was not expecting such a positive swell, even being the most optimistic of my friends. I entered the election hoping that there would be a pump in the Labour vote from 18-24 year olds yet ultimately believed that the parties would stay at roughly the same level, switching a few seats between them but with no substantial change. I did not think Corbyn would alienate Labour seats, but suspected he may not win over many people outside these areas. Still I appreciated politics done from a position of principle over likeability and thought that it was unfortunate that Labour’s internal politics had likely done some damage.

Having done work with Survation, and so knowing how they conduct their interviewing and knowing their 2015 fatal decision to not release their last “rogue” poll, I did not react with complete dismissal to their polling or final call like some. However I was nervous about whether the clear boost they were showing in young people’s intention to vote would actually transfer into reality and flipped seats. Instead of having more trust that the result could be better than I anticipated, I fell into the cynical trap of assuming hope always equals a profound naivety.

It’s a huge problem on the left, but also just with politics in general the we think optimism is the sign of stupidity. We don’t want to get hurt and then mocked for thinking the future is a great place. To enable us to put on an intellectual veneer we act as if banality is common sense, and as if common sense is the supreme dictator of how politics works. Our logic says that if Corbyn is passionate and states more divisive positions he can’t be electable, ergo there will be a Tory supermajority, ergo everyone who says otherwise is a deluded fanboy.

Survation’s bet was an intriguing one – they knew they messed up last time and decided to stake their reputation on what seemed to be the one huge outlier of all the polling organisations, having changed very little overall in their polling methodology since 2015. Unlike YouGov whose tweaking lead to them wavering in their final poll back to a prediction of a 7% Conservative lead, Survation called the hung parliament. It suggests that what happened in 2015, aside from some places suppressing polls that didn’t fit the general trend, was one of analysis. Rather than assuming that people’s views were in flux, we assume the polls were just plain wrong. It is entirely possible that every poll from 2015 was an accurate picture of a nation that changed its mind. With Brexit the margins were so narrow that pundits calling it for Remain was generally down to the “common-sense” assumption that referenda will always favour the status quo. In effect this general election people were picking the most “common-sense” option and then assessing the validity of the polls based on what would lead to that answer.

If this election shows anything, it is that cynical posturing no longer applies. Hope is not utopian, and if we have a fear of appearing naive then our problem is a lack of imagination. People don’t want a country where there is no true opposition, and are willing to transform themselves into voters when given a party that can offer them that coupled with a strong chance at creating a large parliamentary group. The opportunities now that we can see politics is no longer a game of just appealing with bland centrism to a sliver of floating voters are ones I relish. I was wrong to be so fatalistic this election; next time I’ll try to be better.

An Election Abroad: GE2017

This year I get the particular privilege of organising my general election vote via proxy as my Masters thesis means there will not be time to go back to London to cast it in person. The functioning of a proxy has amused a lot of my colleagues, many hailing from countries where you simply go and vote in your embassy, who find it a hard concept that you would trust someone else with your ballot. Fortunately I do have trust in my proxy – it is the broader public that I worry about making their own choices in the polling booth.

Watching your country’s election from abroad is an interesting experience. So much of the minutiae of campaigning is lost, – no flyers stuffed through letterboxes, or vote canvassers, or – you only get the headline news. This, coupled with late night viewings of the debates, has given me a surface view of what is happening without the fluff that tends to go with it.

As a result the stuff which cuts through generates more intrigue since you feel more assured that this is likely the same messages that are reaching those who don’t really follow politics on a daily basis. Unfortunately this has utilised by terrorists – the dominant message the past few weeks has been pushing out is one of fear, and of the need for more securitisation which over time will help to erode a lot of the liberties I think are vital for us to continue to grow into a proper democracy.

It is no secret that I will be voting for Labour. I want priorities to be focused on the NHS, on a Brexit that does not alienate us from Europe, and I want governments that are committed to a more equitable distribution of wealth and the privileges that a lot of us, including myself, take for granted. Combating extremism requires a more holistic approach than just treating symptoms, and part of that is creating a society where everyone feels like a valued member able to succeed within its bounds.

This is not to say I am an uncritical voter, even with the change in leadership since my last discussion on voting for the least wrong lizard in the race. As it stands the mess of both the PLP and the Leadership these past few years has just continued my disappointment in Labour. Labour are the party I desperately want to love, and instead I’ve consistently found myself just viewing them as the best of the bad lot as a result of their inability to put aside petty differences and work to create a cohesive impression, especially at politically opportune times. Their policies, especially on universalism, align to a large degree with my own beliefs but I continue to have doubts on the ability of everyone there to carry them out.

Sitting down to watch the debates has cheered me a little. For once we had demonstration that there would be a strong defence of positions. When Corbyn answers a business owner who queried Labour over rises to minimum wage and taxes on private schools he appeals to the importance of tax funding to support the broader society, the needs of low income workers and the priority of caring for one’s neighbour over individualism. This is a significant departure from most politician’s tendency when posed difficult questions to just opt for the safety of “the customer is always right”, never wanting to be seen telling a member of the public that they have a full ideological disagreement.

For voters in a lot of areas Labour are the party that will offer meaningful change focused in a positive direction. Ultimately it becomes the first step to a reformed system, included a reformed voting system, that we desperately need. It’s an unfortunate truth that in our political system the link between your vote and impact is quite tenuous. Move a few streets one way and you might go from being one of an 8,000 lead to a crucial decision maker in a marginal constituency where a win was a mere 27 votes. I am fortunate that my vote is in a more significant constituency where I feel that I can actually shape the course of the next parliament.

So now we are here, waiting to find out which polling companies adjustments (or lack thereof) are the most suited to this moment in time. Whatever happens though I am content with my choices and the values I defend. If you share these values make sure you vote in defence of them too.

How We Communicate With Abominable Ideas

The Dutch elections are to be held on the 15th March and Wilders may just get the majority of seats. He won’t be leader, but the tension of rising numbers willing to side with him means I’ve been thinking about the way that we as a society debate reprehensible ideas. We tend to feel the theatre of open debate will help, when all that happens is people like Wilders exploit these gaps. Later when opponents concede or ape particular points in a vote chasing effort he can present it as his whole position being secretly correct. It’s an effective manipulation.

There is a weird tendency I’ve seen where someone will argue against a position not understanding why the other person holds it. For instance an individual might argue for “shutting all borders to Muslims because they are terrorists”, and their opponent will argue “we can’t turn away refugees fleeing from wars caused by terrorists”. This is not going to sway anyone who thinks that every Muslim is a problem because it does not get to the root of their argument which is the intertwining of Islam and terrorism. We frame the fault in their statement as a lack of compassion, when really it is a faulty risk analysis and/or pure racist and xenophobic bigotry.

Coupled with this is the inclination to point out that a position is discriminatory, which doesn’t make much difference if discrimination was the point of the speech in the first place. If people are not starting with the same base ideals as us chatting to them as if they are doesn’t magically change their opinion. Nowadays we see how these linguistic tick boxes are used against us, to re-frame arguments so that a racist can slip in ‘human biodiversity’ in lieu of ‘segregation’ and ‘racial hierarchy’.

Wilders himself frequently uses LGBTQ rights to batter the idea of Dutch Muslims, a trick he borrowed from his populist predecessor Pim Fortyn. Lamenting that discrimination against Muslims is wrong when they are arguing that Muslims are the cause of discrimination, or pretending that a nod to our conventions means they are on the right track, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. They are dragging the discussion over to their frame so that we are left picking holes out of politeness rather than opposing the concept as a whole.

Defending principles on the grounds that they are important enough to be re-articulated without concession is essential, as is not discarding values just because your opponent discards them in an attempt to win them over (I’m looking at you people suddenly now against freedom of movement). Yet having these pointless back-and-forth “debates” in public is just giving these groups the chances they require if they are to expand.

Perhaps the key flaw in a lot of liberal thinking is the idea that concepts we find repulsive will remain fringe if we allow the ideologies to talk themselves out of existence. It assumes others will find what we perceive to be self-evident truths and so these concepts will never gain wider traction. Yet even if that may be the case sometimes, in situations where you risk severe losses to bigoted ideas why even take the risk of exposing more people to them?

Why allow debates about the rights of individuals to be reopened under the guise of public speech when we have already settled the answer? Ultimately it ends up undermining your point by sending a signal that certain principles are negotiable. Giving Fatima an advocate, or letting her speak for herself, in a public debate about whether she should have rights is an abhorrent position to wilfully put anyone in.

Sometimes I suspect that this problematic style of argument develops because our first introduction to political discussions are often with family, where certain conventions of respect are expected to be followed. It’s much politer in conversation to say “I see your point, but here’s the issue” than “That is a ghastly opinion to hold and I think that if you genuinely hold it you are an awful person.” Breaking out from the instinctive response to keep everyone on friendly terms takes work.

In other words proper resistance is the idea that we can’t just get along with everyone, and that there are a fair amount of people who are irredeemably awful. No public institution or talk show is required to host those whose views effectively portray a number of the population as subhuman. Debates are for whether pineapple on pizza is an abomination, or the best way to approach economic policy, and politeness in political talk is for great-aunts. When it comes to people with ideas like Wilders we should not give them the same consideration.

 

Beyond Scare Tactics

The EU referendum campaign is in full swing, and Turkey is a problem. From Vote Leave a new leaflet highlights not only countries looking to join but spotlights Turkey by shading in the bordering countries of Iraq and Syria. Turkey is a good political pick because of its strong association with both the migrant crisis and the movement of terrorists. This insinuation that if we don’t vote to leave the EU Turkey will overwhelm us with migrants and terrorists from IS has extended to discussing how we’ll become the victims of crime due to a supposed Turkish predisposition. It is a dog-whistle at its finest.

One could argue the reason Turkey is featured in many Vote Leave advertisements is that it is simply one of the EU candidate states – yet one of the intriguing parts about the decision to highlight Turkey is how hard it would be for Turkey to actually become an EU member. To give a brief overview Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963, applied for membership in 1987, got candidate status in 1999, and finally had their (still ongoing) candidate negotiations start in 2005 which – regardless of anything else (such as opponents using vetos, arguments about geographical relevance) – cannot be resolved until Turkey opens its ports to Cyprus. In comparison Croatia applied for membership in 2003, started negations in 2005, and joined in 2013. For many the question is ‘if’ not ‘when’; Turkey joining the EU is a long way off and requires a lot of political manoeuvring. Billboards are using a very distant possibility to drive fears of terrorism and free movement of Turkish people, relying on unfavourable associations being brought to mind.

Watch out, the Muslims are coming.

The campaign run by the Goldsmith team against Khan during the London Mayoral race was another demonstration of scare tactics that rely on this “scary outsider” bias. The absurdity of painting Sadiq Khan – as much a radical Muslim as a plate of custard – as a terrorist sympathiser demonstrates clearly how little interest modern UK politicians have in even pretending to be for all people in their push to exploit wedges in society.

The mayoral race was important because it came down to the Conservatives either genuinely thinking that the political blancmange of Sadiq Khan was a dangerous man and sympathetic to terrorists, or they pointedly decided that public perception of Sadiq Khan and other Muslims by extension as regular Brits with a multitude of opinions is fine to sacrifice for some political gain. When the PM uses fancy footwork to say a man supports IS knowing that people will interpret this as referring to the terrorist group and not just the ideological concept of a state based on Islamic thought to legitimate false criticism of his opponent he loses credibility to govern fairly for all his citizens. With scare tactics you not only say a huge segment of your population are inherently dangerous, but you also say you have no interest in dealing with the divides in society if there is a chance for you to make a personal gain from it.

A calculation was made; Muslims won’t vote for us so it is okay to demonise them in the hopes that we win. And again with the EU Referendum a calculation has been made; let’s just play up these divisive fears to attract those who don’t know the nuances of Turkey and EU politics. Yet this gamble entrenches divisions that have real and harsh consequences to the actual population.

This is not an issue limited to one end of the political spectrum. Most political parties and groups in the UK are only interested in a narrow section of people they feel represent their voting base and frequently throw those deemed outside of this under the bus. Both sides of the EU debate are trying to out terrify the other with what will make us more susceptible to terrorists. I’ve heard someone discuss how “the Jews” don’t vote for Labour anyway so why bother dealing with antisemitism? Scottish voters are demonised for voting SNP and therefore there should not be a solid Scottish policy because they are not on “our” side anyway. Rural and coastal voters don’t get talked about as much as London and other cities. And god forbid the vitriol for those who don’t vote. Huge swathes of people get their needs ignored, or directly worked against in vote chasing, and groups of multitudes are portrayed as monoliths in order to appeal to those opposed to them. In the midst the actual humans of this country are forgotten.

If political groups only existed to win that would be one (still terrible) thing but the policies and words a political group chose not only shape the conversation around an election but become the spectrum for what is possible to be implemented and who gets to be involved. Once something outrageous has been said everyone else has to respond to it, lending it some legitimacy and further exposing it to the public. We need to respect people who wouldn’t ever vote for us and appreciate their needs as citizens even if we disagree with their thoughts. Turning around and using dog-whistles against huge parts of the population only succeeds in spreading both alienation and extreme misinformation.

A lot of people believe it is better to have a chance in power than to remain in opposition and therefore these tactics may be undesirable but ultimately worth it. But opposition – true opposition – is the process of calling that power to heel, and articulating the voice of everyone else. And democratic power is supposed to be about ruling with consideration of everyone, even those who won’t vote for you, rather than just a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule ad infinitum. MPs are not there only for the people that voted for them, or even just the people that voted. They are there to represent the whole borough and that thought has to come first.

This is partially the fault of our political system being so heavily tilted to “not them” voting. Voters are either seen as our tribe or our enemies. When the not-we voters start to be generalised in broad descriptors – Muslim, Asian, Jewish, Scottish – it triggers an opportunity to make use scare tactics rather than generating good policies and working towards opening up a political system that will naturally draw in people in a positive way. This obsession with voters is creeping into other aspects which will permanently tilt how politics is played out, with constituency borders based not on the actual amount of people living there but on those who are registered to vote, as if those who don’t could never have concerns in their borough.

Wedge politics pushes people out of having an actual voice as politicians pander to only those whose votes they may win (and frequently ignore “safe” voters concerns). Each time there is a vote people are chastised for not participating (or recently for signing up “too late” to participate, as if becoming engaged is something we have to decide months in advance or else we don’t deserve it) which takes away the responsibility of groups to look at how to appeal to them beyond scare tactics. Politics is meant to be about articulating a vision of the future – the best way to serve everyone in a society. To create a consensus where we abandon that for power is incredibly dangerous. It’s a slow dull trundle to a backwards and unrealistic representation of society and one where soon only an incredibly small sliver of people will be competed for and thus become the only ones who politically matter.

Thoughts About Stigma

Six ago I remember going on a class trip to an orphanage. In the middle of group-play with the children a young boy was singled out by a nurse. She said that he was HIV+, and suddenly a wealth of blank space opened up around him as people rapidly moved away. He sat in the middle, dejected, playing alone with his ball.

I always reflect on that moment each year on this day. In 1988 the World Health Organisation declared December 1st to be World AIDS Day. Perhaps more than anything World AIDS Day highlights the fact that stigma kills; too many people are not tested, or do not get access to medication because of fear of engaging openly about HIV. In some countries this stigma manifests in false conspiracies about those with HIV as being either promiscuous, sex workers, or drug users who therefore “deserve it”. In others governments deny there is even such a disease within the borders of their nation.

For some HIV remains stuck as a Western 80s Gay horror, or a impoverished African nightmare, but really it is just a virus that can impact anyone. Advances in medication mean that with the right treatment many doctors declare it more manageable than diabetes, but still the language we use to describe it betrays a harsh moral judgement – “Are you clean?”

Six years ago I instinctively moved away from the boy and then spent the rest of the day guilty playing with him, allowing him to sip from my water bottle. Other students were horrified, but they lacked an awareness about how the virus worked outside of “knowing” that it was a death sentence. Even with my education the stigma meant I too remained hesitant and stiff with him, wondering what I would feel if he somehow infected me.

There are approximately 36.9 million people in the world living with HIV. Harm reduction measures are often labelled as encouraging “risk-taking” behaviour – PrEP medication is not widely accessible, needle-exchanges are frequently shoot down, and safer sex measures necessitate that people are actually educated about safer sex in the first place.

Stigma is most of the hurdles. The tools are already here.

Sorrow for Paris, France, and Everyone Everywhere

Yesterday I stayed up all night waiting for news from friends. What happened in Paris is almost incomprehensible – large scale rapid and sporadic attacks, bombs, and then a hostage and siege situation. I send my thoughts and my love through a screen and feel so helpless.

Time has shifted how terrorism operates, now designed in the West to generate maximum hysteria and misinformation. I spoke about it briefly on Twitter. The attack was similar to the Mumbai Model where terrorists pulsed through the city creating a situation that is hard (perhaps one might even say almost impossible) for police to initially manage. Essentially it is guerilla warfare transposed to a Western urban policing situation where the cops are mainly trained to deal with local small-scale beats and large crowd control focused on protests. Hitting a huge variety of locations sporadically makes it complicated to capture gunmen at the beginning as policing is more designed for follow-up checks rather that interventions. This ensures dominance of the 24 news cycle, social media, and the theatre of watching an ever increasing death toll. After such an attack the number of gunmen vary wildly with different reports, and a general panic sets in for days as people worry about loose gunmen, second stages, and copy-cat attacks.

I spent last night staying away from most feeds, restricting myself to prevent feeling more tight and sick than I already was. Each new piece of information confirmed was a new bit of horror. Last night I furiously debating my fears over what different parties claims of responsibility might mean with regards to the MENA region. I spoke with people who said Friday the 13th was chosen for its symbolism, others that the important thing was it was the date for the France vs. Germany match, prompting speculation that Germany is “next” and that the plan was even designed to kill on a much larger scale but that parts failed. This is part of the play, to make it the topic for days and weeks as we worry about how our lives will slowly change, even those of us who are not in France.

In the coming days there will likely be “reprisal” attacks against those suspected of being Muslim and/or migrants. We have a duty to speak out about them too, on top of mourning the dead like we are now. The attackers – regardless of which group claims ultimate responsibility – want to drive this wedge further down, and to bait far right groups. And it will work, it always does. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks my mother begged me to promise that if someone approached me in the street I would speak Spanish and then run away.

They don’t just use bombs these days – they use our minds against us too. Terrorism tries to make us hate just as much as it tries to make us scared. This must be resisted most of all.

Pretty in Pride

At the beginning of the Pride Parade in London a glorious menagerie of corporations will thunder down the road and declare that they are LGB(TQ) friendly, and also won’t you please buy are products, and also will you ignore their ethics because look everything is rainbows!

Pride is a commodification of an important riot and the beginning of a struggle for LGBTQ rights that even with the historic US Supreme Court ruling in favour of equal marriage on Friday, is nowhere near finished. Here in the UK trans individuals need their spouses signature to legally change gender or their marriage is dissolve, and around the continent are routinely sterilised against their will. Equal marriage we do not quite yet have, even before we discuss all the other issues that are yet to be properly fought.

Pride in London has issues, inviting UKIP despite the large presence of individuals who the organisation actively fights against, meaning that many of those in charge were initially quite willing to make a celebration feel like a hostile place for LGBTQ BAME individuals and especially for LGBTQ immigrants who constantly have to validate their place in British society. There are major LGBTQ organisations for whom sometimes the B and especially the T and often the Q is considered not important. And then we have individuals themselves, who think that equal marriage is the end of all issues, and that #LoveWins, even though frequently love often is not as important as wealth, privilege and connections in navigating oppressive structures. I will not start on allies who centre the discussion and celebration on them.

Alternatives to Pride are vital to continuing that revolutionary spirit of Stonewall. Mainstream Pride however has its place in creating a large environment where young queers (some at least) will fit in and be surrounded by people celebrating their existence. There are flaws that desperately need to be sorted out, but I don’t believe it is a sunk ship yet; it tells people that if they can be treated by the wider world as if they are a sin, they might as well also adopt the sin of Pride.

So  I will critique it to save it, but for today I will be turning up and embracing all the joy of the moment while I can.