Thursday, 15 June 2017

Jeremy Corbyn - zero to hero in seven short weeks

The result of the general election is still sending shock waves through the political system of the UK.
Nothing has been the same since that uncannily accurate exit poll came in at 10 pm on election night. From that point on, it was clear that PM Theresa May had badly misjudged the mood of the country, when she called a general election, having previously denied she would do such a thing.
The calculation seems to have been that the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party was weak and divided. The opportunity was there to strike, secure a 100 plus majority and rule with impunity. How wrong was that calculation?
The most amazing factor of the entire election was the way in which Corbyn grew in stature as May declined. Corbyn was constantly out on the road, talking to the public, debating in the media. Meanwhile, May seemed to be hiding from the public. She refused to debate with the other leaders, whilst claiming she was strong and stable – the person most suited to deal with the EU.
The launching of the manifestos was another crucial point in the campaign. The Labour manifesto was first leaked, then officially launched a week later – a deft way to draw maximum publicity to the content. The manifesto, which promised more funding for the NHS, health and education, went down well with the public. A public tired of austerity for the many, whilst the few went along with business as usual, getting ever richer.
The manifesto though whilst portrayed by some as some sort of outlandish left document was very measured in tone and fully costed. As the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith noted it would only put the UK on the same footing as other European countries in terms of how it was run.
The Conservative manifesto was another disaster, not costed, it seemed to target the very people who usually support the party. The now infamous dementia tax, coupled with a decision to end the triple lock on pensions and restrict winter fuel allowance for the elderly. May was backtracking on the dementia tax within days of the manifesto launch.
The question of the EU exit process, the alleged reason for the election, proved another strong area for Labour. A well nuanced position saw the party promising not to leave the EU without a deal. The position appealed to both remainers and leavers.
The election campaign was punctuated with terror atrocities in Manchester and London. However, even these attacks seemed to work against the Tories.
What appeared like a perfect opportunity to at last look like a“strong and stable” leader turned into another disaster, as police cuts - particularly in Manchester - that the Police Federation had warned against- were trumpeted across the media.
The result of the election was largely due to a very good Labour campaign led by Corbyn, against a truly appalling effort from the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s honesty appealed, especially to young people, who came out in their droves to vote Labour. The commitment of the young was brought home to me by my next door neighbour, whose son made a special trip back from York University for the day to vote in east London.
Labour also managed to mobilise, the thousands of activists who have joined the party since Corbyn became leader, on the streets. The organisation Momentum played an important role here. The energy and idealistic enthusiasm of many of the younger people knocking on doors and attending rallies was infectious.
Corbyn’s Labour also managed to overcome an almost universally hostile media. He continued to make the grown up arguments, whilst there was intense activity on social media to try to circumvent the negative coverage in the mainstream papers like the Sun and Daily Mail. The strategy seemed to work. The result should cause for question in editorial offices across the land – the message, to get out more and maybe talk to your kids.
One of the more amusing elements of the success post-election was to hear those in the Labour Party who have spent so much time over the past 18 months denigrating Corbyn, now having to praise him. As ever Peter Mandelson attempted another spin masterclass, talking in the third person of those who had under rated Corbyn, whilst failing to acknowledge himself to have been foremost amongst them. Meanwhile, the same media commentators who told us that Corbyn had no chance now pen pieces explaining why he won. Penance indeed.
The future now looks bright for Corbyn and Labour. Re-energised, the party can look forward to another general election in the not too distant future. If the momentum can be kept up and divisions in the party avoided, Labour should win next time. The one proviso must be that the Conservatives, with a new leader, surely cannot perform so badly again.
Corbyn needs to keep going – his energy for a man of 68 is truly extraordinary. I have known Corbyn for more than 20 years, often dealing with him on miscarriage of justice cases like the East Ham 2 and Bridgewater Four. Also, on Ireland, where his valiant efforts together with those of the likes of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell helped lay the way for the peace process.
It is ironic that having attacked Corbyn relentlessly for his role in talking to Sinn Fein that the Tory Party now seeks to get into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party – a party with past close links to Loyalist paramilitaries.
The Labour leader has certainly gone from zero to hero in the space of seven short weeks. Never regarded as a leader, he has grown into the job, stood by his principles, when being pilloried from all sides. Fortunately, for us all, he has remained standing with his message of hope resonating with people across the generations. The challenge now is to keep the pressure on the government, as Brexit negotiations open. As for the man himself, he will probably be reflecting on the aptness of something his former mentor the late Tony Benn said: “First they ignore you, then they say your mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Monday, 12 June 2017

Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth

This fascinating book raises some fundamental questions about the relationship between humanity and the environment.

It is made up of a series of articles that Paul Kingsnorth wrote in publications between 2009 and 2016. The result is an account of a man plotting his own path through life, whilst trying to make sense of the world in which he lives.

There is an element of the Damascan conversion, as he moves from the early years of walking with his father in the wilds of Cumbria and Pembrokeshire to the road protests of Twyford Down onto the environmental movement today.

This path leads to a certain disillusion with much of that movement, which he sees as being consumption obsessed, not seeking to make basic change in the way of life but instead just looking to make it more sustainable.

He criticises the lack of concern over the mass extinction of species that has gone on over recent decades, when the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of wind farms versus wave machines, with no effort being made to address the question of consumption.

Voracious consumption can go on in this world of what he calls the neo-environmentalists, it just has to be done sustainably. So rather than look to a more simple way of living with nature, humanity seeks to bring everyone up to the consuming levels of the west - which will require the colonisation of other planets.

Kingsnorth looks at the idea of progress, which he concludes has brought humanity to the point of self-destruction today.

He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifesyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing  people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.

The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.

The progress question is a troubling one that does go rather unresolved in the book.

Kingsnorth provides all sorts of interesting vignets, like a chapter on the impact of the Norman conquest, which led to the concentration of land ownership in the hands of very few (mainly the crown) that continues to this day.

There is also some interesting wrestling with the idea of nature, a greater being and spirituality. Non-religious, Kingsnorth is captivated by the idea of the sacredness of the natural world. He describes a visit to the Grotte de Niaux cave deep in the mountain, where he finds the paintings of bison, going right back to the Palaeolithic times. He then contrasts the wonderment of what he saw in the cave to the activities of the de-extinction people today, who seek to try to bring back species like the woolly mammoth. Kingsnorth sees the latter activity of humans taking over the God role, deciding what lives or dies. The author suggests that one of the problems today is that humans see themselves as master over nature, rather than co-workers in the great plan.

Taking in the wide span covered in Kingsnorth’s work could leave the reader with a feeling of hopelessness. But he does offer ways to fight back. He himself has recoiled from the world, moved to Ireland and bought a bungalow with 2.5 acres. He now seeks to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay. There is a vivid description of the creation of a compost toilet.

He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving non human life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc   

 Kingsnorth succeeds in bringing together a number of separate essays into one embracing narrative. He covers much ground, asking some questions that need deeper answers. But there are fundamental questions for the environmental movement today, as well as the politicians who in many cases it would seem are simply managing natural decline, ironically, often in the name of progress. The hope in the book comes from the power of one, the power within us all to combat the destructive human machine by to a degree turning back to simpler times and life coping methods. Everyone can in some way make a difference changing their lifestyle to a more compatible complimentary way of living. 

- published by Faber and Faber, £14.99

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Anti-terror legislation has not prevented terrorism, it has resulted in the iimprisonment of innocent people and the alienation of communities

It seems to be an accepted part of the populist narrative that every piece of anti terror legislation passed in the past 40 years actually prevented terrorism, so anyone like Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against such measures, was is someway soft on terrorism. This is a complete fiction, legislation like the Prevention of Terrorism Act did little to prevent terrorism but did result in the imprisonment of innocent people, like the Guildford Four and the alienation of communities (first the Irish, more recently Muslims).
Give up your liberties in exchange for security has been the cry of dictators down the ages, the same applies today. Making a bonfire of our liberties does nothing to prevent terrorism, in fact it marks a capitulation to the terrorists who want to destroy our democratic way of life.

*published Evening Standard 7/6/2017

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Political discourse on immigration is economically illiterate

How extraordinary to see the validity of any party’s position on immigration being set according to how much they can reduce the numbers by.

This country has an ageing population, migrants virtually run many of the vital services, like the NHS and education, yet apparently – post Brexit -we don’t want them. Migration contributes billions to the exchequer, without which vital services could not be funded.

Immigration will reduce when the economy declines and the jobs are not available. A ridiculous position that Theresa May seems to prefer to that of a buoyant open economy with migrants. Even former Chancellor George Osborne has described the Tories position on immigration as economically illiterate.

Maybe the questions on immigration should not be premised on cutting numbers but as to whether the politicians concerned want to make people poorer. If the answer is no, then it follows , don’t cut immigration.

Published Evening Standard - 6/6/2017

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Transitional season for West Ham, who must do better to attain top six status

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic deserves credit for securing an 11th place finish amid a number of ongoing difficulties over the past season.

Bilic himself has spoken about the “obstacles” of this season, when West Ham failed to improve on the 7th position attained in the final iconic season at the old Upton Park ground.

Indeed, the move to the London Stadium proved to be an ongoing headache for much of the season. The team took time to settle in the new environment, with many of the supporters unhappy. There were stewarding problems and some incidents at the early games.

Fortunately, things have settled down, with the team managing to win seven home games in the league, whilst drawing four others. Things should be better next season.

On the field there were the problems with French talisman Dimitri Payet, who went rapidly from hero to zero with fans. From the moment the Frenchman decided he was going on strike, manager Bilic decided he had to leave the club.

The owners had wanted to make Payet stew in the reserves but the player was clearly causing such disharmony it was better to get rid of him. Indeed, Bilic managed the situation well, using the discontent to galvanise the rest of the squad. This saw a revival in fortunes over Christmas and New Year with siginficant back to back home wins over Burnley and Hull then another victory away to Swansea.

The problems for Bilic though did not just reside with the change of ground.The club did not recruit well last summer. The signing of striker Simone Zaza on loan, with a view to a permanent move, proved a disaster. The loan was cut short in January.

Others like Havard Nordtvelt and Sofiane Feghouli took time to find their feet. Record signing Andre Ayew was injured in the first game against Chelsea and did not really start showing what he can really do till the latter part of the season.
However, the most confusing thing was the failure of the club to recruit a right back, as well as forward cover. Making matters worse, for some reason, the versatile James Tomkins, who could be relied on at full back or centre back, was sold to Crystal Palace for £12 million.

Striker Enner Valencia was also loaned to Everton for the season – another strange move, as those brought in to play in his role clearly were not better than the Ecuadorian.

The strange thing was that with a jump in gate revenues from the 35,000 attendances at the old Boleyn ground to 57,000 at the London Stadium, the club did not splash out on players. When the sale of Payet for £25 million is put into the mix, West Ham only paid out around £15 million on new players over the season. What the salaries were for some of the free transfers is another question ofcourse.

Among the successes was 21 year old Edimilson Fernandes, an £8 million buy from Swiss club FC Sion, who looks a real find.

On the plus side, West Ham do have the makings of a really good team, if they can hang onto their best players. Michail Antonio was outstanding, finishing top scorer, despite having his season cut short in April. Manuel Lanzini has stepped up to take on Payet’s creative mantle and could even eclipse the Frenchman in time. Cheikou Kouyate continues to improve and together with Pedro Obiang should provide a strong midfield duo next year. At the back Winston Reid remains one of the best defenders in the Premier League, while full backs Aaron Creswell and Sam Byram could become a formidable pair. Given the addition of a few quaility players up front and at the back and West Ham can move on to become a top six side.

It would though have been good to see more from the youngsters coming up through the West Ham ranks. There were limited opportunities for the likes of Reece Oxford– not helped by the early exit from the Europa League.

The latter part of the season saw the team at its most consistent, losing just once in the last seven games. The highlight of the season for fans was the victory over Spurs, which effectively secured West Ham’s Premier league status, whilst ending the north Londoners title hopes. Other notable displays over the season included the victories over Swansea and Crystal Palace at home – the latter with Andy Carrolls spectacular overhead kick to score.

Matters were not made easier for Bilic over the closing months of the season with seeming constant stories in the media about his demise. Those stories must have come from somewhere. Whilst hindsight is a wonderful thing, West Ham were never in the relegation dogfight, yet there were some who seemed to want to make out that they were.

The manager has to now plan for the next season. He has notably retained his dignity, whilst making comment about obstacles that have been in the way this past season. He has also said that moving to a big stadium does not immediately make for a big club – the transition is a gradual process that takes place over time.

The fans seem happy with Bilic. Though, from the owners angle, they no doubt look to teams like West Brom and Bournemouth, where the manager has had less resources than Bilic and wonder whether things should not have been better.

However, if they want  success then the owners need to keep faith in Bilic and dig deep in their pockets this summer. They have the resources, with the increased gate and TV money.
Bilic is popular internationally and can attract top talent. If handled properly, West Ham can move onto the next stage and really challenge for a top six place.  So a difficult season but looking forward, the future at the London Stadium looks bright.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Bishop of Brentwood Alan Williams makes Migrant mass call for practical action to help refugees

Bishop of Brentwood Alan Williams called on people to “open their hearts but also look to do something practical and tangible for refugees.”

Delivering the homily at the 12th migrant mass being celebrated at St Anthony of Padua in Forest Gate, East London, Bishop Williams described child migrants as the most vulnerable group.

He called for refugees to be welcomed as a gift to parishes.

The bishop also recalled how helping refugees is not always a popular activity. He illustrated the point with a story about a charity he was involved with in central London, which was given a cash contribution by a bank, on the condition that the gift was anonymous.

There were prayers calling for legislators to enact “new policies that do justice for our country and those who would immigrate here.”

There was also a call for those “who fan the flames of fear and discrimination against the undocumented maybe touched with divine compassion.”

A joint collaboration between the diocese of Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood, it was the first time in the 12 years of the migrant mass that the celebration had been held in the Brentwood diocese.

More than 1500 people crammed into St Anthony of Padua Church, with banners representing the Keralan Catholic Chaplaincy, the Goan Chaplaincy UK and the Slovak Catholic Association forming part of the opening procession.

Community organization Citizens UK contributed to the celebration, telling how they have helped settle 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees over the past year under the Dubs Amendment. The day before Citizens UK had brought three young Syrian orphans to live with their grandparents in Winchester.

If you have a spare room and are interested in hosting a refugee see:

Read about Citizens UK refugee resettlement programme here:

Friday, 19 May 2017

Why is the growing ethnic diversity of the pew not reflected on the altar?

One of the most striking features of the annual migrant mass tomorrow will be the contrast in ethnic diversity between the people in the pew and the clergy on the altar.

The pews are awash with the many races that make up the universal Catholic Church, a panorama of multi-cultural diversity. On the altar, there is a uniformity of whiteness, with priests drawn in the main from the continent of Europe. The distinction is striking and instructive.

The Church ofcourse is not the only institution that fails to reflect the diversity of people on the ground amongst its representatives. Take Parliament, where there are just 41 Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) MPs, some 76 short of the number required to reflect the diversity of the population.  Business is even worse, with less than 2% of the directors of FTSE 150 companies being drawn from a BAME background.

Public institutions, though, including the Church, have recognised the need for more diversity amongst their leaders. This was acknowledged with the publication of Lord William Macpherson’s report (1999), which defined institutional racism as being “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.” At the time, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales welcomed the definition, urging “Catholic organisations and institutions to look again at how they could better serve minority ethnic communities in our society.” However, 18 years on, progress appears to have been very slow, certainly in terms of the clergy.   

A survey of the diocese of England and Wales by the Catholic Communications Network found many unaware of the number of BAME priests. And, where the figures were available, BAME representation tended to reflect migrant priests coming from abroad, rather than those who have come from the communities in the UK.

So, Arundel and Brighton diocese has four Polish parish priests plus another three as part of the Polish Chaplaincy and three Italian priests (two as part of the Italian Chaplaincy). There were also a Dutch, a Russian, an Indian and a Nigerian priest serving.

Of the 96 priests in Leeds diocese, six are from a BAME background – two from India, three from Africa and one Yorkshire born of mixed race.

Southwark diocese confirmed 23% of its priests were black, with another 10% from the Indian subcontinent.

The Middlesbrough diocese has “no BME priests actually incardinated into the diocese but does have four priests from abroad - three from Nigeria and one from India.”

One of the most surprising responses came from Brentwood, which includes East London - one of the most diverse areas in the country. A spokesperson for Brentwood diocese said: “I’m afraid I don’t have a record of whether a priest is black or from an ethnic minority – the main concern is whether he can offer Mass, hear confessions, etc., etc. and save souls. We could do a survey, but it would take time.  

So why the lack of progress in terms of BAME representation amongst the clergy?

Father Howard James, the first black Britain of Caribbean descent to be ordained a priest back in 1991, does not believe a lot has changed in the intervening years.

Father James doesn't think BAME men are drawn to the priesthood because they do not see members of their community as priests. “Sometimes as priests we are aloof from our people and we don’t encourage. Our Catholic community is not always welcoming and many of our black men see more welcoming family understanding in other faiths that they don’t see in the Catholic or even Christian faith,” said Father James, who recalled in his own case that it was involvement in Catholic youth movement in Jamaica and a number of youth groups in the UK, that his faith grew and encouraged toward the priesthood. “So that when the notion of priesthood came into my head and heart I was not scared or afraid to put myself forward,” said Father James, who believes that the schools are the place to start. “The Catholic sixth forms would be a place to look. I would also suggest fourth and fifth forms as places to look. We should encourage, especially in Catholic schools.”

Professor of religion and public policy at Birmingham University Francis Davis believes the schools are key but also emphasised that a strategy needed to be put in place to address the problems. “We know from every other institution that if there is not a strategy put in place to deal with the obstacles that those (BAME) communities face, then individuals don’t come through from those communities,” said Davis, who contrasts the lack of priority placed on the ethnic background of clergy with the approach of the Catholic Education Service, which chronicles in much detail the ethnic background of pupils.

The CES boasted in its 2016 census that: “Catholic schools in both primary and secondary phases are considerably more ethnically diverse than national school figures.”

Davis believes the fact that there are a high level of BAME pupils in Catholic schools but they do not then go onto become priests indicates a failing of formation and nurture on the part of the Church. “The fact that they are not going on to seminaries, indicates that they do not feel included,” said Davis

Oldham based priest Phil Summer believes that BAME people still feel alienated, not seeing the Church as an institution of their community. “We need to recognise identity much more in church, so when people walk in they don’t feel it is some sort of European establishment,” said Father Summer, who also believes this feeling resonates in the seminaries “If a young African Caribbean man was to put himself forward to become a priest, the institutional life of our seminaries would be such a culture shock as to make him feel as if he didn’t belong.”

This view though is refuted by Father John Oakley, rector of St Mary’s college, Oscott, who reports rising numbers of BAME  applicants. Of 63 students at St Marys, 16 come from a BAME background (six Africans, six Filipinos and four Indians). “There are signs that students are coming from the home communities,” said Father Oakley.

The late chair of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice Haynes Baptiste complained about the lack of a black bishop and the negative signal that this sent out to BAME people. He certainly had a point. Father Summer, though, is ambivalent about a BAME bishop, believing it could be a good or bad thing. He recalls some BAME bishops appointed in the Anglican Church having a tendency to denigrate their own background. On the other hand, he says probably the most prominent black Archbishop John Sentamu of York has done great work. “He has remained true to himself, a man of gravitas, who brings something different to the Anglican community,” said Father Summer.   

A BAME bishop would certainly give the communities someone to relate to, in a way that senior appointments in any public services have a similar effect.

The question as to why the diversity of the pew and school is not reflected in the clergy is an agenda that the CARJ has been attempting to address since it was established back in 1983.

“The persistent shortage of BAME priests in the Catholic Church in England and Wales over recent decades, and the reiterated call for this problem to be addressed, might prompt those in positions of responsibility, at all levels of the Church (eg parents, teachers, volunteers, priests, bishops, etc) – to look again at this important question,” said Richard Zipfel, a CARJ trustee. “Raising such a question, however, should not become a judgmental exercise or an effort to cast blame.  Rather, it should remain rooted in a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of our Catholic community and the wider community that we seek to serve.”

For the present there is still much to be done if the ethnic gap between altar and pew is to be bridged. The suggestion that the Church is institutionally racist is unproven, though most would agree that it has not progressed as quickly as it might since the Macpherson report was published at the turn of the century. What though does still need to happen, if the altar is ever to really ethnically reflect the membership of the pews, is for some definite structures and practices to be put in place that will lead to BAME priests coming forward. Simply waiting for something to happen, ensures only that the status quo is maintained and the white concentration of the present clergy perpetuated.  

*published - Tablet - 20/5/2017