Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Beauty, bravery and the right to keep fit

My time in the Middle East is going really well. I've had my first barbeque in the desert, ridden a camel and I'm even learning a bit of Arabic (especially since it got me discount in the local shop last week). I've moved out of my temporary accommodation and am now living in an apartment block which seems to house mostly locals and a few other Westerners.

My parents visited a couple of weeks ago and the presence of a man (my dad) made a real difference to how I am treated: people were happy to strike up a conversion with us, although they were also rather confused when it was me who paid at the end of a meal!

Living and working in a Muslim country has really encouraged me to try to read as much
Middle Eastern literature as possible. I'm currently reading Iran Awakening which is giving me a brilliant perspective on Iran's modern political history, its relationship with the West and the development of the Iranian women's movement. We don't have a television connection at home so I am also trying my best to keep up-to-date with the news and here are a few stories that caught my eye recently. It's a real wonder that they were published in the same century, let alone the same month!

In Italy, Berlusconi shows us just how beautiful democracy really is by gathering together some of the most gorgeous women in the country, including a Big Brother star and a Miss Italy contestant, to run as candidates in the European Elections. I'm sure we all have all heard of the "fit vote" (certainly in student politics) not to mention "The Blair Babes" of 1997, but Berlusconi is taking it a bit far. Whether these women know anything about politics appears to be irrelevant - their faces would look good on en election leaflet.

Then we turn to Afghanistan where legislation has been passed that effectively legalises rape within marriage and requires a woman to seek permission from her husband before leaving the house, which arguably legalises life-long detention. As Rachael pointed out previously, many women marched together in protest against this law, despite violent opposition and the great risk to their lives. Many have described this legislation as being "worse than the Taliban" and several international leaders, included President Obama, have publicly expressed their opposition. I am disgusted by provisions such as "as long as the husband is not travelling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night" and "unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband." More recent reports are suggesting the law will be revised (some even suggest that there was simply a misunderstanding arising from the English translation, which I find difficult to believe). Nonetheless, I am pleased to read that the revision may even happen before the elections in August. After reading this story I decided to look up when the marital rape exemption was officially abolished in the UK and I was shocked to discover that it was as recent as 1991 - only 18 years ago.

Finally, this week in Saudi Arabia, women are protesting against the government's plan to close down women-only gyms. Whilst there are many gyms and health clubs which men attend, there is no legal equivalent for women. Apparently some senior Saudi clerics have condemned women-only gyms and clubs as "shameless" and criticised women for wanting to neglect their husbands and children by spending a few hours at the gym. The protest takes the form of an internet campaign called "Let Her Get Fat" which unfortunately doesn't come up on Google and focuses on the serious health implications of not exercising on a regular basis. Good luck to them - maybe they could sneak in the right to drive at the same time?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Why we blog: our ethic of progressive blogging

I've signed up to the following statement which has been put together by a number of bloggers on the centre-left. I hope you support the sentiments too and would be interested in your comments.


We are a group of Labour party members and supporters who believe that blogging can make an increasingly important contribution to progressive politics. We are seeking, in different ways, to make our own individual contributions to that, and wish to set out the ethic which informs our blogging and the broader politics we are working for within the Labour Party and beyond it.

Many of these are truths which should be self-evident. We are well aware that the broad spirit which we seek to articulate has long informed what most Labour bloggers do, as it also does most of those who blog in other parties and in non-partisan civic activism. So we do not claim any particular originality; still less do we seek to impose our views as a new regulatory code, or to attempt to police others.

Our purpose is simple. We do not believe that new technology leads to inevitable outcomes, but rather that we must all make choices about how we use it and for what purposes.

So we wish to set out why we blog and how we want the party which we support to change so that it can connect to new progressive energy for the causes we support.

1. Ethical and value-based

We believe we must act as ambassadors for the political values we profess. This applies to all politics, online or not. The Obama campaign's power to mobilise was rooted in supporters living its ethic of 'respect, empower and include'. As Labour supporters, we wish to ensure that our values of solidarity, tolerance and respect are reflected in how we do politics as well as the causes we seek to serve.

So we oppose the politics of personal destruction. We believe that the personal can be political, where it reveals the hypocrisy of public statements, the wilful misuse of evidence, or breaches proper ethical standards in public life. Where it doesn't do that, it should be off limits. Politicians should be able to have a family and private life too. A politics of personal destruction violates progressive values and brings all politics into disrepute.

2. Positive about political engagement

We do not believe that the internet is inevitably a force for anti-politics. We reject the mythology of the internet as a lawless and ethics-free zone. Bloggers are subject to law, as well as to the ethical and civic pressures of our online and offline communities. We are clear that the left can never win a politics of loathing and mutual destruction, because the faith in politics that we need will inevitably be a casualty of war. The nihilistic approach practiced by a few online should not overshadow the greater energy and numbers engaged in constructive civic advocacy.

We believe that we can challenge our political opponents without always questioning their integrity. We believe that there are big political arguments to be had between the left and the right of politics, and the left has every reason to be confident about our values and ideas, which have done much to change Britain for the better over the last century and which are in the ascendancy internationally after three decades in which anti-government arguments have often dominated.

We also believe that what is pejoratively called 'negative campaigning' has a legitimate place in politics. Scrutinising the principles, ideas and policies of political opponents is an important part of offering a democratic choice. We should challenge the ideas, claims and sometimes the misrepresentations of our political opponents, just as we would expect them to challenge us. We believe that this is effective when it is done accurately, and that this will become ever more important as the internet makes politics more transparent. So we will point out where there is a mismatch between professed principles and policies, or where the evidence does not back up what is claimed, but we will try not to assume our opponents are in bad faith where we do not have evidence to support that.

3. Pluralist and open

We believe that pluralism must be at the heart of the progressive blogosphere. We believe that debate and argument are what brings life to politics. We want to promote a cultural 'glasnost' of open discussion within our party, to show that we understand that the confidence to debate, and disagree, in an atmosphere of mutual respect helps us to bring people together to make change possible.

We believe we must change the culture of Labour's engagement with those outside the party too, including those who were once our supporters but who are disillusioned, and new generations forming their political opinions. For us, democratic politics is about individuals working together to create collective pressure for change, but also about the need to continue to talk even when we disagree deeply. We believe in engaging with all reasonable critics of the Labour government and Labour Party, wherever we can establish the possibility of taking part in democratic arguments in a spirit of mutual respect.

4. Independent spaces

We believe that attempts to transfer 'command and control' models to online politics will inevitably fail. Labour must show that it gets that - in practice as well as theory - if we are make our contribution to the progressive movements on which our causes depend.

The government and the political parties should use their official spaces to contribute to and enable these conversations. We also want to see Ministers and MPs having the confidence to engage in political debate and argument elsewhere, while being clear that there is no value for anybody in seeking to control independent spaces for discussion.

5. Participatory and cooperative

We believe in a cooperative ethic of blogging, because the internet is most potent when it harnesses the creativity, ideas and expertise of many people. The internet is a powerful tool for individual expression. We believe it also enables citizens to interact and collaborate in ways that were never previously possible, and catalyse new forces for participation and activism. As citizens, and as bloggers, we believe in asking not only what is wrong with the world but how we can work together to improve it.

We hope that others will offer ideas and responses - supportive and critical - about these ideas and how they can help to inform the future of our politics.

We know that the outcomes of politics matter deeply, that politics is about passion and argument, and that we may ourselves sometimes fall short of the values and standards that we aspire to.

But this is why we blog - and what we hope to achieve for our politics by doing so.


Sunder Katwala

Nick Anstead

Will Straw

David Lammy MP

Rachael Jolley

Jessica Asato and

Karin Christiansen

Paul Cotterill

Laurence Durnan

Alex Finnegan

Gavin Hayes

Mike Ion

Richard Lane

Tom Miller

Carl Nuttall

Anthony Painter

Don Paskini

Andreas Paterson

Asif Sange

Stuart White

Graham Whitman

Why postal votes can help not hinder democracy

A lot is being written about the Erith and Thamesmead selection process, but there was one line of argument which struck me as being particularly in need of perusal. In some of the print coverage of the postal vote accusations, it suggests that the large number of party members registered to vote by post in the selection must signify that something dodgy has happened. (The Labour Party meanwhile has commented that the number was not unduly large). Even if it was a larger amount than usual, is this necessarily a bad thing? Obviously if the allegations were true that people were filling in forms before approaching members, that's wrong and against Party rules. Though the investigation by the Labour Party has concluded that there was no irregularity. So, given that we try and maximise the postal vote in normal elections, why shouldn't we do the same in selections?

But it was a comment by Susan Press in Saturday's Guardian which really got me thinking:
Democracy should be about making a choice and people can't make a choice if they are not hearing the candidates speak and answer questions.
The current rules state that you can only have a postal ballot if you know you can't make the hustings. And I thought, actually, if you've made your mind up about who you want to vote for, why shouldn't you have a postal vote? We all know things happen last minute - children get ill, you have to stay at work late - so why should you be disenfranchised from voting for your parliamentary candidate, one of the few powers local Labour members have, just because we have an outdated notion about needing to be at the hustings.

If the candidates have done their job properly you should know all their views backwards! If they haven't knocked at your door four times, had inordinate amounts of cups of tea, explained their position on the electoral system, Trident, Iraq and the recession, and sent you a nice card afterwards, they haven't pulled their finger out. Of course it would be best if you could hear everyone give their stump speech - after all, we know politicians perform differently on a one-to-one and it's always good to see if they crumble in front of a bigger audience - but if you have heard all the candidates' views and want to be on the safe side I think you should be allowed to request a postal vote without needing to give a reason.

I think this presenteeism represents a wider problem with the way the party operates. Unless you can make your branch meeting or GC it's hard to have a say in the way your local party works. And yet we know that online forums give people who live busy ordinary lives the opportunity to get involved, yet we don't allow for proxy votes or give people systems to debate without turning up to the church hall every month. I think we need to get a little bit more savvy about the reality of peoples' lives and make it easy for them to participate in key decisions in the party, not harder.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Bravery is not enough

There ought to be more that the international community can do to support Afghan women who see their human rights under threat from new repressive national legislation.
The bravery of those Shia women in Afghanistan who chose to take to the streets this week to protest was immense. For someone sitting here, it's hard to imagine being brave enough to do that.
It was an incredibly scary and difficult thing to do to take on the braying masses of men who threw stones and angry words at them as they made their public protests.
The photos of the event show an incredibly divided gender split - women marching and crowds of men baracking.
In a culture which is increasingly putting women under pressure to stay inside and not act without the permission of their male supervisor - either husband or father, those mostly young women chose to make their protest public, showing the world that is not just western outsiders who are criticial of President Karzai's decision to cozy up to the conservative Shia Afghans.
Without such protest, it is much easier for Afghan leaders to suggest that such measures are indeed the will of their people, and critisize other nations for interfering in their cultural disputes.
As the women protestors pointed out, this is not about religion interference, but about one interpretation of religion.
Historically religions have often been interpreted/translated by men from conservative sections of society to oppress women even when this was not the original intention of the text or movement.
Where religious interpretations are being used to further conservative ideologies such as women not being allowed to take a job, drive or have financial independence, then no one should feel that criticizing those mandates is actually an attack on a religion, but an argument with those who choose to use it for those ends.
Meanwhile, we should put pressure on the Afghan government to treat all its citizens equally and not create a backward-looking elitism based on gender.

Monday, 13 April 2009

A Blog About Blogging...

Quite a week for the political blog. We've recently seen behind the veil of many a political blogger, with Derek Draper and Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) going head to head on TV, shifting the polticial blog from the computer screen into our front rooms. A sign things were on the move?

The friendships and angst sometimes felt between individual members of political parties is often released in the blogosphere, and is reaching new levels of notoriety and influence at the same time. With heavyweights such as Alistair Campbell, John Prescott and now even Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife, joining the world's of Facebook and Twitter, it is now easier than ever before to find out what key individuals think who once, not so long ago, seemed much more inaccessible.

But is this a good thing? I mean, there really is something out there for everyone, and if you wanted to find out that Jonathan Ross's dog had been sick in the night then maybe he's the 'Tweet' for you. But what about politicians, who traditionally have been less accessible, is this the way to break down those barriers, or is the average Twitter-er not yet ready to know what you had for dinner? It might sound odd, but for so long politicians (of all parties) have been criticised for being too impersonal and out of touch - but where do you draw the line? A new personal/private boundary is being drawn up, but will it lead to a productive blend of politician and public, or to the resignation of well-meaning politicians for an off messsage 140 character long 'Tweet' on a low day? Are we ready to accept that our representatives aren't perfect?

Of course, the blogging world has picked up on some big stories, led the media on tips more than once and, yesterday, resulted the publication of some fairly awful emails between Derek Draper (Labour blogger and founder of 'LabourList') and Damian McBride (Downing St. staffer until yesterday). This story has a few aspects to it, and it's only right to explore all of them. But all-in-all, yesterday was a bad day for Labour, and for politics as a whole. We absolutely should not have key members of staff in Downing St. suggesting the spreading of harmful and hurtful rumours about the opposition to 'throw them off'. No way. And some of the rumours that they were discussing are so bad that it would have been absolutely unforgivable had they have circulated them and, as quite rightly noted by Labour MP Tom Harris, Draper and McBride owe a few people a very sincere apology. Politics should be about the battle of ideas, ideology and policy, not jibes or playground games of Chinese whispers. This is exactly what turns people off from politics - the sense that everyone's as bad as each other, and are just trying to shoot each other down the whole time. And we really aren't helping that image right now, when most of us actually are so much better than that.

But leading back to my point about political blogs, this, at least in part, came to light because of Paul Staines' (aka. Guido Fawkes') severe dislike of Derek Draper - only highlighted by his comments on his blog today that ''actually Guido gave the story to the News of the World and the Sunday Times for pleasure not profit''. This isn't to take anything away from what Draper/McBride were discussing, but does bring up the question of not only how Guido actually obtained these emails but, as a separate issue, how far someone will go to tear down their blogging nemesis. It's a bit like the Dr. Who 'Time War', where clearly there were no winners, just a few left standing at the bitter end, all damaged by the goings on. And, outside of the Draper/Guido example, is that what might be in store if more politicians do enter the fray? Do we really want our politicians to be getting involved in Facebook arguments instead of focusing on policy, or does this actually open up the debate?

As someone who has had a fair few things posted about them online since their selection as a PPC, written a fair few blogs since taking up Channel 4's interactive 'YearDot' mantle, and a product of the Facebook generation, I've seen both sides of it. Whilst it may be tempting to grab your computer and blog away the rage at something said at PMQs, you really have to be careful. Just because you're typing away, the moment you press 'Post', that's it. Whatever you've just spouted off about is out there and always will be. So it's worth pausing for thought and remembering that as reflective and theraputic your blog may well be, it's not actually your diary...

There are those who will always take it too far. I've spent part of today watching on in sheer disbelief as two right wingers who, in all honesty, probably would agree on a lot of things, tear chunks out of each other. I've lost count of the number of times legal action has been threatened in the 2-day discourse. Neither of them, however, are our representatives, but is this kind of thing what we're really after? Is this what we've always been heading for since the set-up of social networking sites? Actually, a 140 character response at PMQs would finally get rid of all that jeering...but I think we need to keep the passion in politics if we are to keep it alive and well.

It's a tough question to answer really, because we just don't know how the political blogosphere is going to evolve, and if it does help politicians and the public connect in a productive way, then that's great. John Prescott, just as one example, uses Facebook to tell people about the 'Go 4th' campaign for a Labour 4th term and to post useful petitions, including one about bankers bonuses. Alistair Campbell now posts links to his new blog on Facebook and Twitter, as well as send out weekly 'to-do' lists to Labour supporters. It really can work.

All in all, politicians linking up with the people via social networking sites and blogs has been and could continue to be a good and useful way to open up and enhance political debate, and we shouldn't be afraid to get involved in the debate because we worry about what may get thrown at us. But no political Facebook account should be set up, no Tweet sent and no blog posted without heeding the big 'caution' sign stamped on them.

And, in true politician-of-the-21st-century style, I'd like to know what you think about this. Should politicians see the blogging sphere as virus free and jump right in, or just slowly test the waters before taking the plunge? And where should the 'too much information' line be drawn?

Thank you for reading, and Happy Easter!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

It's a man's world...

I’m not sure if this blogosphere is meant to be political or just for political women. If you think it’s the former then please skip over to the next post which will undoubtedly be far weightier and likely more interesting than mine.
What inspired me to start pounding the keyboard today was a quick glance at the BBC news site where I read about an incredible sixteen year old called Alice Powell. Now I appreciate it’s difficult to imagine a profession more male orientated than politics (and here I’m hoping to avoid the debate about whether politics should be counted as a profession...) but spare a thought if you will for women trying to break into the world of motor racing. Not only are the participants almost wholly male but the key role assigned to women is that of glamorous bystander, someone to hang on an arm and totter around the pit lane in uncompromisingly high heels and low cut tops.
Alice Powell, for those that do not know,is not a scantily clad hanger on, but rather has just raced in the Formula Renault Championship (where Lewis Hamilton started off) and her ambition is to be a top F1 racing driver.
So, next time you're tempted to complain about male political dominance, spare a thought for Alice...