Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Free School Meals - a defence of Nick Clegg

Having worked in education, and about to start my teacher training, I find the row about the rollout of Free School Meals incredibly frustrating. Whether it's Nick Harvey who seems (perhaps rightly) put out that he wasn't given fair warning of the change, or Labour calling out LibDem hypocrisy in Southwark one thing is clear to me - they're all missing one very clear point. 

A study was carried out, and it found that young people in modern Britain are falling behind because they can't rely on a warm meal every day. That's shocking, and I for one am glad that Clegg is standing up and doing something about it. 

But that isn't all. I spoke to somebody on the doorstep who told me how awful it was that children arrived at Primary School not knowing how to write their name - I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I'd seen children who had to be chaperoned to the loo as they couldn't take care of themselves. Or that there were Primary School age children who fell asleep at desks because they'd stayed up late the night before playing Call of Duty. It seems to me that there's been a horrible forgetfulness surrounding Primary education and the state of our society. 

One of the things I applaud most about New Labour is their Sure Start policy. I think it's made a difference in incredibly deprived communities like the one I grew up in and now represent. But it doesn't go the whole way. Regularly, I've seen students who aren't getting even their basic needs met at home - whether that be decent meals, clean clothing or emotional support. The Free School Meals policy won't address all of those problems (we'd need a far more radical reform to combat that issue - an issue that Liberal Democrats shouldn't shy away from) but what it will do is ensure that the very basic level of care is given by the state. It will also mean an end to the stigma attached to 'Free School Meals pupils' by their classmates. 

What's happened around this policy is one of the things that I find most difficult about the way that politics works. This policy will make a great difference to young people up and down the country, and it will stop the singling out of children from lower economic backgrounds in front of their classmates. But no, it's a slanging match about who knew first*, or it's an argument about whether it had been referred back three times in the nineties. I think we'd be a much happier party, if just occasionally, we sat back and thought that we'd done a good job. 

This is just one such occasion. There, I said it. Well done, us. 

* In fairness to Nick Harvey, I imagine that what was a perfectly reasonable comment about not knowing about the decision was taken out of context - plus ├ža change.

Friday, 22 November 2013

How about we all leave Lily Allen alone?

Now, as a number of you might have noticed, I'm a man. I can't help it - I was born this way. And so, some of you might argue that I shouldn't really have a view on this, or that it isn't my place to start 'getting involved'. I also consider myself a feminist - which only works to confuse things further. But, a lot of the stuff I've read about Lily Allen's latest single, 'Hard out here' is such rubbish, that I feel the need to take it down a peg or two. Yes, it might not be my place to say anything, but it's never stopped me before, so let's begin.

Lily Allen is a pop star. She makes pop music. She didn't write The Feminine Mystique, that was Betty Friedan. They're different people. She didn't write The Female Eunuch, either, because that was Germaine Greer and I'm sure they've both been in the same room at the same time. Lily Allen has released two albums to date, one of which contained a song joking about the size of her ex-partner's penis. I know this because I once bought a copy of the album from a supermarket for £4.99.

Unlike Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer, or whoever, people don't expect Lily Allen to always talk about feminism. People expect her to make music and sing sometimes and occasionally launch ill-advised chat shows on BBC3 (remember that? Sorry if you, like me, are still having harrowing flashbacks). That's why I think that a lot of the scorn heaped at Lily is ill-advised. Her single, 'Hard out here' has been lambasted by stalwarts of the female left because it abandons the sisterhood, ignores the singer's privilege and because the video is racist. Now, I'm not talking about the video, because that's a whole different question, but I will have a go at the song.

Our beloved Suzanne Moore wrote in the Guardian 'As hard as it might be here, I still know it's a damn sight harder for some bitches than others.' Moore's argument focuses on the idea that Lily should be more aware of her own background before preaching about womens' issues, and especially the way black women are portrayed in pop. Essentially, she's wearing a big badge reading 'Check your privilege', she's smiling, and she's tapping it.

Another talking head wrote about Lily abandoning he
r sisters - a cardinal feminist sin. Admittedly, this is a sticking point, albeit one I'll forgive. The lyrics do read 'don't need to shake my ass for you, 'cause I've got a brain'. Does it suggest that she's better than a dancer? Yes. Does it judge people who, after years of training, are paid to dance in music videos? Yes it does. Is the criticism fair? I don't think so.

And this is the crux of it. If a self-identifying feminist firebrand had come out and started talking about dancers in that way, I'd be first in line to argue against them. But, Lily Allen isn't any of those things. As I said, she's a pop star. She hasn't done a thesis on the Male Gaze. She might not understand why people like Suzanne Moore (and myself, on occasion) walk around tapping 'priv' badges and glaring. And that's fine. Is this a faultless message of female empowerment? No. It's problematic in many ways. But, it will do more good than all of the establishment hand-wringing. Let's consider the reality. If I spoke to a fifteen year old girl about male privilege, it probably wouldn't be a very engaging conversation. But, she might listen to this song and think, for the first time, that other women get just as pissed off about their representation as she does.

That's powerful.

Issues of privilege or status are all well and good, but we must remember that most people don't listen to Woman's Hour. Most people wouldn't know who Femen were if they protested in front of them. But, most people do know who Lily Allen is and they feel kinship with her perspective. It seems important that we consider the exclusivity of the feminist intelligentsia. As with mainstream politics, messaging is key, and the message isn't worth anything unless people understand it. Lily's new single may be problematic, but it's a message that's going out loud and clear to a new generation of feminists and I, for one, am glad about it.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Deleting Political History - what would Shirley Bassey say?

As Dame Shirley Bassey once said 'it's all just a little bit of history deleting' (okay, she didn't say quite that...) but this bit of deletion seems to have got Labour and the Conservatives into hot water. News that both of the major parties have deleted their website archive of speeches going back into the last administration is hardly surprising, but it sends worrying messages about the way our politics works.

Clearly, rather than having their own words spouted back at them, Labour and the Conservatives would rather try and pretend it never happened. 'An end to boom and bust' - gone. 'We cannot afford it' - Cameron on tax thresholds - all forgotten. The problem I have, is that deleting these things online suggests that nobody will remember any of it. It smacks of the fact that many people in positions of power seem to think the general public is stupid. If it isn't in black and white, it can't be proven and it didn't happen.

It's all wrong*.

I'm a great believer in political record. I campaign on my political record and my electoral chances live or die by it. People know what I'm for and what I'm against, and if they don't agree, they don't have to vote for me. The danger here, is that political records are being deleted as we speak - in the case of the Tories, they're also being wiped from search engines. If political records don't exist, how can we be properly informed?

My feeling is, whatever they try, they can't hide from the British public. I will never forget that Labour took us to war every couple of years. I will never forget Section 28, or the continued vilification of single parent families. Neither do the public when they cast their votes (or, indeed, stay at home).

My message is simple. Build your record, stand by it, and fight. As Delia would say, 'Let's be 'avin you.' If you need to constantly redesign your own record and rewrite your own history, it's no surprise that people have trouble trusting you. All parties will have to do a lot more than deleting web pages before many people trust them again.

* Images are different. I withhold the right to delete awkward pictures of myself, including anything with me accidentally photobombing and that one where I went to that party as Amy Winehouse.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

'Marine A' killing betrays our Armed Services

The killing of a Taliban insurgent by a British Troop is not an entirely rare occurance. Years after we invaded, our servicemen and women still fight in Afghanistan, attempting to enforce some kind of lasting peace. What doesn't happen every day, is that a wounded Taliban insurgent is killed at point blank range by a British servicemen, aided by colleagues.

The Telegraph is, today, running a petition begging leniency for Marine A - suggesting that the events were 'manslaughter' at best and that these things shouldn't be a surprise in the 'pressure cooker' of war. I have to admit, that the Telegraph has never been lower in my estimation. We should not be lead to believe that what happened here was manslaughter. What happened here, was that a man in British uniform told a wounded human being to 'shuffle off this mortal coil, you c**t', before discussing how best he and his colleagues should go about killing the man. 'Shoot him in the head' suggested one marine, 'too f**king obvious' was the reply. I am the first to accept the idea of pressureised warfare - I'm the first to argue that our country has a shameful record of supporting those in uniform when they return from war. Our shocking record on PTSD stands alone. That doesn't however, excuse the actions of these men.

The vast majority of our armed forces is made up of men and women who want to do their bit. That's it. It isn't political, it's very very rarely about killing people - it's about serving Queen and country for better or worse. It's testament to this end, that we so rarely hear servicemen giving critical views on what I'd argue has been a hopeless war from the outset. Our men and women in uniform tend to get on with business. This murderous act, however, betrays those men and women. Worse still, it plays into the hands of those we argue we're fighting against.

The fact that Marine A himself said at the time to keep things quiet - 'I've just broken the Geneva Convention' beggars belief. This is a man who knew the boundaries, who was aware of them at the time of his action, but ignored them entirely. That is not, in my view, the action of a proud British serviceman. Coming so close to Remembrance, this issue is particularly poignant. Two distant relatives of mine died in the First World War - and why? Because they believed that by doing so, they were protecting the things that the British held dear.

We should stand in the world, as an agent for fairness. Even at war, we should maintain the basic human standards afforded by the Geneva Convention. Whilst our reasons for being in Afghanistan become more unclear by the day - the conduct of the vast majority of our men and women in uniform shouldn't be betrayed and besmirched by acts of this kind. These men didn't show concern for fairness, or kindness - for right and wrong.

In arguing against the acts of Marine A and his colleagues, I'm not arguing against the work of the men and women of the British Military. I'm arguing that we should never allow the positive records of our armed services to be sullied by disgraces of this kind. I hope that Marine A and his colleagues are treated in exactly the same way anybody else would be if they were guilty of such crimes. The pressures of war are one thing - but this is another entirely.

Further reading - the two sides.
An excoriating piece from Yasmin Alibhai Brown
The petition from The Telegraph

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

M&S & BHS : are Britain's leading ladies dying?

I'm going to let you into a secret - I love department stores. It's odd really, because I don't have enough money to shop in them and my family have never been big Department shoppers - but I can't resist. I found myself with a few hours to spare the other day whilst in Bath and did a bit of window shopping. Invariably, what this means is mooching around department stores, looking at what they have and thinking about where I could buy it cheaper.

I first walked around Debenhams (probably my favourite at the moment, if I'm going to be honest) then Marks & Spencer and then BHS. I have to admit that it went from the sublime to the ridiculous and so when I heard this week that M&S clothing sales were flagging still, and that BHS looks set to be bought out by a foreign millionaire I wasn't entirely surprised. The whole thing reminded me of something that Margaret Thatcher said - 'I can't bear Britain in decline'. Walking around BHS in particular, it struck me that what I saw was a proud institution that had been brought to its knees.

It seems to me that the problems M&S are experiencing are actually a little bit easier to solve than those at BHS. First of all, the M&S brand still resonates really well. M&S Food seems to be propping up the business, and I think this could be the saving grace. Shopping at M&S Food is aspirational but it's still connected somewhere to value for money. That's important. At a time where people are increasingly worried about what's in their food, M&S still do provide a safe haven where people can feel that they're getting what they paid for. Similarly, M&S as a brand still means something. It hasn't faded to the point that it only means something to its elderly customers. I think what it does need to deal with is the fact that it doesn't really have a face, or an identity.

Mulling this over the other day, it occurred to me that really what they need is a slight repositioning. You just know, that there will be M&S staff who have been there for decades, who care passionately about the place they work. Gathering some of these stories, positioning M&S retail as something constant - with you for life - under a banner of something like 'We are M&S' would position it in that sweet spot of British continuity, but also leave room for updating. It would accept something that seems to have been ignored - that people want to shop at M&S, not because of Twiggy or because the clothes are incredibly good, but because it's what their family has done, and because it's comforting in a time of change to have someone to rely on.  Looking around, a lot of their Autumn/Winter range was actually really lovely, the floorsets however were a bit of a disaster. Here, they could learn from Debenhams who really are at the top of their game when it comes to presenting things.

So, for M&S I think it's all still to play for. When it comes to BHS, I worry if it might be too late. BHS was bought by Philip Green in 2000 and now sits as part of the Arcadia group with rumours abounding that it could be bought out by a wealthy foreign businessman. If I were him, I'm not sure I'd part with the money unless I was up for a bit of a fight. Where M&S has great brand recognition, and still (I believe) holds a place in peoples hearts, BHS doesn't have that to fall back on. BHS doesn't really mean anything to me, it doesn't mean quality, it doesn't mean heritage. At best, it's the place that my Nan might go to buy fitted sheets. That in itself is a really bad thing. BHS is British Home Stores - it should be the place to go to buy things for the Great British Home. The name in itself talks about quality and britishness. If I were an ad man, there would be endless fun, quirky things you could do with that.

Getting kitsch in the kitchen
Yet - instore, what do we have? When I visited the Bath store, I was confronted with a Christmas gift display not too dissimilar to the one at Debenhams, only that this one seemed positioned just close enough to the door that it was a bit of a confrontation. A bit like M&S, some of the Christmas merchandise was really great but you wouldn't have known because you couldn't really see any of it. Similarly, some of their Home section was really beautiful. They had mock fairisle, flannelette bed linen that just looked like Christmas in a bed. Similarly, whilst the name 'Maison Vintage' just makes me want to cry, the products were actually really well done. Of course, none of this means anything if you can barely see the products, and none of this means anything if you have to trawl through endless racks of rubbish before you can find any of the gems.

In Bath, I found some very quaint cereal tins printed with retro Cornflakes and Rice Crispies
designs. What I don't mention is that they were on a crowded plinth with measuring cups, right next to a rack of woks, right in front of a shelving unit full of toasters. Oddly enough, if I went in to buy a wok, I probably wouldn't buy a matching toaster. The whole thing was a nightmare. Similarly, before I could fight my way to the till (fighting through stupidly placed concessions that is, not through throngs of happy shoppers) I had to clamber past rack upon rack of bargain basement CDs. Now, I like Elton John as much as the next shopper - but by the time I've finished at BHS, I just wanted to leave.

I hope that whatever happens to BHS, it can still be improved and brought back to it's former glory. It's the same with M&S - there is a faded glory there that could be capitalised on. The shame, I think, is that the products and pricing are actually very reasonable. These giants just need to navigate the market and start to carve a position for themselves again. Like Thatcher, I hate to see Britain in decline and I hope that our leading ladies get a new lease of life rather than a long overdue retirement.

* I'll be putting my inner Mary Portas back in her box shortly, just in case you were worried.