Friday, 30 April 2010

Possible versus desirable

In "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should", there's this BBC article. I'm not going to comment on the article itself, though it has problems, but on the headline.

Not the article headline, "Sudan's date-gin brewers thrive despite Sharia" but the even shorter summary headline that is used in links to it from elsewhere. "Getting lashed".

You can see why it's there, and since headline writers are often paid for the skill at fitting puns into extremely small places, it's not surprising. On the other hand, it is disappointing that a quite serious article on brewing of araqi against the local laws is felt an appropriate place to put a silly headline based on "lashed" being both UK slang for "intoxicated" and the penalty for distilling alcohol being a beating.

From a context-free point of view, it's a very good headline, combining the two major themes of the article into just two words. Not considering the context, and not realising that just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done is a pretty common expression of privilege, though.

Friday Links

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Is the aim to be a fatally unwelcoming country?

[trigger warning]

Via Shakesville, the news that yet another asylum seeker has had their application refused, on the apparent grounds that "will be executed because of their sexuality" is not sufficient persecution.

There is a petition to sign.

It is also possible to contact the Home Office and the Home Secretary Alan Johnson directly, even though the general election means that there are currently no MPs. Contact details are on the Home Office website.

My letter to them follows. You may find the government's information on UK asylum policy useful when drafting your own.

Dear Home Secretary Alan Johnson,

The asylum decisions made in the case of Kiana Firouz, a lesbian actress from Iran, have recently been brought to my attention. It is my understanding that the Home Office has rejected her asylum request and appeals.

According to the UK Asylum web pages,

"Asylum is protection given by a country to someone who is fleeing persecution in their own country"


"The UK also adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prevents us sending someone to a country where there is a real risk they will be exposed to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

In Iran, the penalty for homosexuality is 100 lashes for the first three offences, followed by execution for a fourth offence. All of these surely count as "torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" and the strong possibly of execution surely must count as "persecution"

Returning Kiana Firouz to Iran is likely to lead to her death, and this decision seems to have been taken despite it contradicting both the European Convention on Human Rights, the Home Office's own statements on the criteria for accepting an asylum application, and the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which states:

"No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of [...] membership of a particular social group."

I ask you to please reverse this decision in the case of Kiana Firouz, and to take steps to ensure that the UK never in future abandons any person to be executed, imprisoned or otherwise persecuted on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

Yours sincerely,

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Friday, 23 April 2010

Friday Links

No, just no.

So, Labour have just released a poster. A quick description of it:

A landscape poster in billboard proportions, black background. The right three-quarters are taken up with white sans-serif text - large text saying "They'll turn Great Britain into Little Britain."1 and smaller text below saying "Under the Tories, Britain would have less influence on the world stage.". The left quarter is a picture of the fictional characters "Lou and Andy" from the TV show "Little Britain" but with David Cameron's face pasted over the standing Lou, and William Hague's face pasted over the sitting Andy.

I hadn't seen the show, so I looked up the synopsis of the characters on Wikipedia. The premise is horribly ableist, drawing heavily on the "disabled people are just faking it" and "disabled people have unpleasant personalities and/or are unintelligent" tropes.

The selection of those particular characters (the TV show had a lot to choose from) adds to that. It's trying to draw a link between Cameron and Hague and the unpleasantness of the characters, but that link only makes sense as a negative link because of the ableism associated with the characters in the first place. Otherwise it would be "Cameron is like an assistant for the wheelchair-using Hague" which doesn't make much sense as a metaphor in the first place, and only makes sense as a negative metaphor if people with disabilities (or their assistants) are seen as bad (which, of course, ableism means that they are) either generically or specifically in terms of running the country.

That latter message, of course, is the only one that people not familiar with the show would get. Knowing the show doesn't make it any better, of course.

This is the letter I've sent to my local Labour candidate.

Dear [candidate],

Today I saw Labour's recently released "They'll turn Great Britain into Little Britain" poster. I was very disappointed to see Labour releasing this poster, which relies very strongly on negative stereotypes about disability to make its point.

The characters from the Little Britain show are themselves negative stereotypes of disability, using the very common and pernicious stereotypes of disabled people as "faking it", or as unintelligent. As you are aware, these attitudes are very harmful to people with disabilities, and it is extremely distasteful for Labour to make use of them in its publicity.

Furthermore, there is the added message - and the only one that people unfamiliar with the show will see - that people with disabilities and their assistants are considered unsuitable to run the country or be an international presence.

The use of negative stereotypes about under-represented and under-privileged groups is a common tactic in political campaigning, but not one that a party that claims to be "determined that the UK should always be a world leader in disability rights" should have any use for. The use of posters such as these puts your party's sincerity in that respect into serious doubt.

Will you, as Labour candidate for [constituency]:

  1. Ensure that these posters are not used in any form in campaigning in this consituency, and disavow this style of campaigning in general?
  2. Encourage your fellow candidates to do likewise?
  3. Strongly pressure the Labour party centrally to completely abandon these posters, to release a full and sincere apology for having produced them, and to commit to never doing the same again?

Yours sincerely,

This is the one I've sent to the Labour party itself, using their contact form.

Dear Labour Party,

[first four paragraphs the same as the other letter]

Will you:

  1. Completely withdraw the posters and any related publicity from use, with immediate effect?
  2. Make a full and sincere public apology to all of the people for whom the reinforcement of negative stereotypes by these posters has caused harm?
  3. Put in place consistent and effective procedures to make sure that future Labour publicity does not rely on or use negative stereotypes about people with disabilities?

Yours faithfully,

In the event that I get a reply, I'll post it.

1 Gordon Brown used this line in the "international issues" leaders' TV debate roughly simultaneously with the launch of this poster. Clearly it's all planned to fit together, should they try to sidle away and blame it on a "rogue marketing employee" or some such.

Edit: 19:40 23 April

Well, that didn't take long. The link on the Labour website now goes to an error page. For now you can still see the poster on Left Foot Forward (who approve of it, just to warn you). Now, what about the apology and the procedures?

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Spring Flowers

For a break from all the bad news, some plant photos (the cat moves too fast)

Alpine plants
The yellow-flowered one on the left is cowslip (Primula Veris), the big purple one in the middle is a Violetta of some sort, and I forget what the big green one at the top right is. Something later flowering, anyway.

Lone tulip
We didn't plant this tulip - it must have been a deep bulb from the previous year, but it's a cheerful red. One other is poking up as well, but only just.

Lemon Balm
The lemon balm is now a giant dome of green. It hides the bare earth well, but I'm thinking I might not have pruned it back quite enough earlier.

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Not an aspect of US culture I'd have chosen to borrow

So, the Daily Mail is criticising Nick Clegg for not being "British enough".

This particular line of racism is one that's shown up in US politics a lot recently. I expected we'd have to wait (probably several decades, at the current rate) for a BME leader of a major political party before seeing it here.

Of course, it's not surprising that racism itself is being used. Partisans for all UK political parties, including the "left" or "progressive" ones, are happy to use all kinds of privilege-based and stereotype-based slurs and metaphors - racist, sexist, ablist, etc. - against their political opponents, without thinking about the wider effect this has on either the usefulness or trustworthiness of their party's anti-discrimination policies.

The attack itself will probably do more harm than good, this time. The Lib Dems jumped from 20% to 30% in the polls largely based on reminders that they existed. It's quite possible that the attacks on them, combined with the existing "underdog" narrative, will push them even higher, not lower.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

An unvalued life

[trigger warning for links]

A 40-year old Kenyan man has died in detention at the Oakington "Immigration Reception Centre", after apparently being refused medical treatment. Other than the article linked, there's this piece in the Morning Star, a couple of pieces in local news, and a short piece on the BBC. No other major news sources have mentioned this, as far as I can tell, nor the protests by the other people in detention there.

It's not the first time Oakington IRC has been in the news for mistreatment, either. The centre is run by the private security company G4S on behalf of the UK Border Agency, in the usual way of hiding the accountability in the fine print of the outsourcing contracts.

Yarl's Wood detention centre, also run by a (different) private company on behalf of the Border Agency, likewise has a catalogue of abuse. The surprise nowadays would be to find one that doesn't.

The government defends these places, and refuses to close or completely overhaul them. The principle, presumably, is that asylum seekers claim to have fled an extremely dangerous and/or abusive situation, so won't complain if put in only a very dangerous and/or abusive situation, or perhaps that if the asylum process is made as unwelcoming as possible, people attempting to flee to a "safe" country won't consider Britain "safe".

It's another very stark reminder of how the government and the mainstream media consider the lives of foreign, mostly-BME, mostly-poor people (and there are intersections with other types of discriminations such as ablism and sexism as well) worth far less than the lives of mostly-white UK citizens, and also less than the relatively small increases in costs associated with properly training the staff at these centres, having proper monitoring and accountability to stop abuse occurring, and immediately dismissing and pursuing criminal charges against anyone who does abuse a detainee.

There have been a few civil cases where people subjected to abuse at these centres have managed to get significant settlements from the government as some form of partial compensation - but where are the criminal cases against the abusers themselves, who are presumably able to do the same again.

The media and the far-right parties have managed to create a very racist and dangerous set of attitudes towards foreigners (except the white English-speaking sort) and immigrants, which rather than pushing back against, the more centrist parties, including the allegedly centre-left Labour government, have encouraged and competed with a race to who can be tougher against immigration and asylum seekers.

They would all complain extremely loudly if other countries were to take a similarly abusive approach to the UK's citizens, of course (though it might take something happening to a rich white citizen before anything more than complaints were done). Meanwhile, another person is dead, almost certainly in part due to racism, and nothing will be done.

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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Fighting red herrings on abortion

In the news recently has been Cameron's statement that the time limit for abortion should be cut to 20 or 22 weeks. This is not surprising news - he voted for 22 weeks the last time (2008) the question came up in the Commons, and many Conservative MPs (as well as some from other parties) favour larger cuts.

He claims as the reason "the way medical science and technology have developed in the past few decades". Unsurprisingly, the general response has been the same as last time, to point out that the evidence he's using for that claim is wrong.

This is not the full story.

The problem is that currently the way the debate has been framed is that the time limit on abortions1 in the UK is set with reference to the survival chances of premature babies born after an equivalent length of gestation.

Cameron and others claim that the survival rate of premature babies born in the 20-24 week period has improved significantly. Numerous doctors and scientists claim - with the support of the scientific literature - that this is not the case, although the proportion surviving who are born after 24 weeks has improved considerably.

It's a concern, definitely, if the leader of a political party is misinterpreting or unaware of the relevant research, and people are absolutely right to point this out.

The problem is that relatively few people are also pointing out that the entire basis of the argument is flawed. There is no good reason - historical inertia from the original legalisation I'd view as an "accurate" rather than "good" reason - why the survival of premature babies once born should be at all related to the time limit for abortion.

The original argument may have been to set a distinction between "alive" and "not alive" that wasn't fertilisation, conception, or birth - and if that was what was needed to get the original legalisation passed, that's fair enough. The distinction is absurd, though, and I think it's necessary to also point this out.

If medical science was to develop an incubator environment that could duplicate the uterus so well that not only did the survival rate for premature babies at any stage of development increase massively, but that babies could develop right from the embryo stage in this environment (which would be a massive boost for some branches of fertility treatment) this would hardly mean that abortion for non-medical reasons should be banned. Almost all the reasons why someone might want an abortion would still apply despite this technology existing.

Conversely, assuming that Parliament and scientific research could move rapidly enough, what about the case where a war or natural disaster significantly reduced the UK's medical and scientific resources and capabilities, to the point where survival of premature babies in the 24-30 week range became highly improbable. I doubt those now calling for a lower limit would support it being raised anyway, but it would be slightly absurd to do so even if they did.

Basing the abortion time limits on - effectively - how good the local health service is seems logically indefensible. It may have been a necessary thing to do politically at the time, and it's fortunate that the limit it provided then was a high one, but continuing to accept it as a correct way of deciding the limit will eventually be a very bad strategy. (While the reduction from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990 probably could not have been avoided in practice due to the size of the Conservative majority, it was done under exactly these grounds)

It's quite clear from the votes on 12-week and 16-week limits that some MPs would rather it was reduced significantly below any plausible limit this argument could provide, and would probably have voted for 0-week if the option had been there. If they don't accept it as a dividing line, I don't see why I should either when opposing them. The time limits at which abortion is available should be related to when it is necessary for the woman involved, not to what another woman's premature baby's chances of survival are.

So Cameron is wrong on the science, but he's even more wrong that the science is relevant in the first place.

1 Excluding Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal and the government refuses to do anything about it, and excluding those medically necessary to save the mother's life or prevent serious (but not less serious) injury to her which can occur at any time.
Technically those within the 24 week period must be justified by the prevention of harm to the mother or her existing child(ren)'s health (physical or mental) but the majority of doctors correctly interpret this broadly.


Other things that are infuriating about the way that the political debate over abortion is conducted in the UK:

  • Northern Ireland. The UK Parliament has the authority to legalise abortion there (which in practice means legalising abortion for poor women there, rich women being able to afford the ferry/plane trip to one of the other UK countries) but not the courage to do so.
  • "Free votes". All three major political parties give their MPs a "free vote" on abortion. I don't object to free votes as such, but this means that none of the three will ever include anything explicitly pro-choice in their manifesto, because this custom would stop them being able to require their MPs to follow it. They don't have to follow the custom, but for now they'll continue to do so. On other so-called "moral issues" the parties have quite happily set an official line. This seems to be a case where they're secretly happy to be bound by a pointless Westminster tradition.
  • Parliamentary timing. The amendments to the HFE Act that would have reduced the time limit to 12, 16, 20 or 22 weeks all got debated and voted on. Two pro-choice amendments (one to remove the requirement for two doctors to agree, which is not required for any other medical procedure; one to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK) were scheduled later and didn't make it to a vote. That hardly seems balanced, and if that pattern - with a Labour government mostly in control of the timing - continues, any erosions are going to be very hard to reverse.
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Friday, 9 April 2010

Friday Links

Links will be split into two parts for now, so that people entirely uninterested in the details of UK party and electoral politics can avoid it.

Usual links


Thursday, 8 April 2010

Who to vote for?

In an unusual combination of events, I'm currently in a constituency where my FPTP vote will have a much larger than average impact on the general election results.

The seat itself is a Lab-Lib marginal, currently - like most of the North East - held by Labour, but that would change hands on a 4% swing to the Lib Dems. It's unlikely to actually come down to a single vote, but it's close enough for this to be theoretically possible. The Labour incumbent, seeking re-election for the first time, now has the usual advantages an incumbent gets, but countering that is the decreasing national popularity of the party.

Nationally, of course, the situation is very different indeed. On current polling, the most likely result appears to be a hung parliament, in which the Conservatives are the largest party, but the Lib Dems in coalition with either Labour or Conservatives would form a working majority.

I've been considering for which party I should vote for several months. The possibility of a hung parliament makes things more complicated.

LabourHave passed some decent legislation over the last 13 years and seems to have at least some good ideas for the way forward.
Their local ex-MP and candidate has done some good work and consistently replies to letters.
Of the larger parties, they have by far the greatest proportion of non-default MPs and candidates, and it shows in the policies they put forward.
Labour also have some incredibly bad policies, especially on civil liberties and immigration.
While the local ex-MP replies consistently it's relatively rare that I'm satisfied with the reply.
Lib DemsMany good policy suggestions, and on paper go further than Labour on many equality-related policies.
Strongly support electoral reform, especially Proportional Representation (PR), and in the event of a hung parliament would be in a better negotiating position for getting it with more MPs.
For a party with a strong paper commitment to equality, they seem less good at the practice - their candidates are often less diverse than the Conservatives, and their record on issues such as abortion is extremely variable.
In a hung parliament, they might prop up a Conservative government.
The local candidate is unimpressive (and it's unclear how much of the party's national policy they support)
GreenExcellent policies on most issues.
More diverse than any of the big 3.
No candidate standing here, as far as I know.

I won't be making a final decision until I've had chance to look through the manifestos of the parties, of course, but I think the problem is that which party I would prefer for a local MP depends on who wins elsewhere.

Overall ResultPreferred local resultReason
Labour MajorityLib DemLabour rebels plus the opposition stand a better chance of blocking their worse policies with a smaller majority, and the Labour candidate here won't be a rebel.
Hung parliament, Labour largest partyLib DemGreater leverage for the Lib Dems in getting PR out of a coalition, more chance of Lib Dems having enough votes to make a coalition.
Hung parliament, parties about equalLabourThe Lib Dems alone won't be enough for a coalition, so it's better if the Conservatives are smaller than Labour.
Hung parliament, Conservatives largest partyLabour1The Conservatives will never go for PR anyway, so either Labour need enough seats to form a coalition with the Lib Dems anyway, or to help block a Conservative minority government (propped up by the Lib Dems or not) from breaking too much. In this case, an ultra-loyal MP is a bonus.
Conservative MajorityLabourEither party would oppose the Conservatives, so picking the one that will do it better and where the local candidate is more communicative seems better.

1 There's an argument that in this case the Lib Dems would be the better vote, for the same reason as the scenario in which Labour are the largest party, but I don't quite trust them nationally not to coalition with the Conservatives without making PR a requirement, in which case things are very bad indeed, and I'm not convinced by the local candidate either.

The next step will be looking through the party manifestos in detail to see if anything useful for making a decision comes up, and hoping that the national situation continues to improve for Labour enough to keep the Conservatives from forming the next government.

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Wednesday, 7 April 2010


A few things I've written on previously where the situation has developed.

  • "Action urged by MPs on mobility scooters". MPs are still largely missing the point on this. The BBC article itself is marginally better than the last one, in that some of the people quoted acknowledge that threatening someone's independence is risky. Only marginally, though: they could have got a quote from someone who uses a scooter rather than privileged people pontificating on their behalf.
  • So far only the local UKIP candidate has answered my question on the Election Compact on Mental Health, saying 'I am happy to sign up to this undertaking and to ensure that it is adhered to during my campaign by anyone who might be working on my behalf.'. I'm hoping the others are just overwhelmed by the volume of correspondence near election time, rather than not thinking it's important, but we'll see when the publicity starts up.
  • The Equality Bill passed, though the Conservatives will not implement some of the anti-sexism and anti-classism provisions in it if they win. It's an improvement on previous legislation in general, but still contains a lot of steps back.