Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Review of What Fatima Did

The debut play of 21-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta uses the difficult subject of the hijab to investigate a whole number of different layers of racism, bigotry and juvenile angst. The fact that this is carried off with a quick fire comedy dialogue, makes it all the more compelling.
The plot revolves around Fatima who comes back to school after the six week summer holiday wearing the hijab. Prior to this the impression is that she was like the other students out drinking and spending time with her boyfriend George.
The whole play focuses on eight characters. Black students Craig and Stacey, Muslims Aisha and Mohamed, who is also Fatima’s brother, and white George whose parents are Irish but he hates. There is also an excellent cameo from Shobu Kapoor as the mother of Fatima and Mohamed. And there is ofourse the obligatory teacher or maybe that should be referee.
Once Fatima starts to wear the hijab everyone’s attitude changes, especially George. He at one point takes off her hjijab resulting in a fight with Mohamed and being reported for racism to the school authorities by Fatima.
The strongest protests though, apart from George, come from Aisha and Fatima’s mother Ruckshana. She protests how she fought her husband not to wear the hijab and accuses her daughter of looking like “a fundamentalist post box.”
Aisha is equally fervent in her opposition to the hijab, attacking it’s use to subjugate women. At times it is difficult not to think that the character has morphed into Jack Straw, who she quotes approvingly. This representation of Muslims being opposed to the hijab brings another refreshing dynamic to the piece.
Interesting clashes emerge such as the teacher being prepared to put up with the hijab but not a baseball cap on Craig. The play is very much of the post 9/11 world, fast moving showing how friends have been split apart and communities polarised. It shows a real intolerance among some of the kids over what is merely a piece of clothing.
George becomes so disillusioned that he drifts off to the far right. Mohamed becomes fearlessly defensive of his sister against Ruckshana and George. One of the most powerful narratives of the play comes when after a row with his mother Mohamed talks about how Muslims have become a suspect community and how people move away on the trains when spotting a Muslim with a backpack. The Muslim is seen as a potential bomber, the white person as a backpacker. “Why can’t we all be backpackers,” laments Mohamed
The dialogue of the play is fast and furious with plenty of swearing from the characters. What Fatima Did is an excellent debut play for Sen-Gupta and it must be hoped that it goes on from the Hampstead theatre. The power of the play is that it speaks to young people about politics in their language. It would though be interesting to see how it went down with a sixth form full of kids wearing hijabs. Whether it works quite as well for the over 50s remains to be seen. If Sen Gupta does nothing else other than establish a way to hold effective political dialogue with younger people she has already achieved more than most.
* What Fatima Did runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 7 November

Monday, 19 October 2009

Don't bash the posties

The answer to Royal Mail's problems is not to bash the workers The increasingly bitter mail dispute reached a new low recently when the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced it would be taking national strike action.The dispute has been escalating since the summer with sporadic strikes across the country. Ironically, the dispute began when the Government announced acceded to the union demand that it would not be proceeding with its plans for part privatisation.
At that time the union offered to sit down and talk with Royal Mail (RM) over a set period with no strikes in order to try and resolve differences over modernisation and the development of new products. RM refused and relations between management and workforce have got increasingly worse ever since. The CWU have accused RM of breaking previous agreements, imposing cutbacks and deploying bullying tactics. RM accuse the union of breaking agreements and opposing change. The dispute has not actually been about any demand for more money.As the situation has deteriorated so strikes have mushroomed with London being particularly hard hit. As a result a massive mail backlog has built up in warehouses around the land. Public support for the postal workers is not thought to be high, due in part no doubt to the way that much of the media has reported the dispute. The narrative has largely been one of unreasonable workers opposing modernisation of the business at time of economic recession. The pressure that the mail strike is putting particularly on small businesses is regularly quoted, with vital payments and products not getting through. This claim is no doubt true but on the other side of the equation, postal workers earning less than £15,000 a year do not go on strike for nothing. They will lose money, putting their families under pressure, so there must be substantive issues at stake. The vote of 76 per cent in favour on a 67 per cent turnout suggests that a lot have been driven to the brink.The lack of sympathy among the public also locks into another media driven truth that public sector workers are in a priveliged position with better pay, terms and conditions. The recession has been used as a prop to argue that these benefits need to be taken away from the public sector to bring them down to private sector levels rather than the other way round. For mail workers this would mean getting the minimum wage and having all security of employment destroyed. Lower paid workers both in Britain and Ireland it would seem are increasingly expected to take up a disproportionate amount of the pain for an economic crisis caused by reckless bankers. The bankers meantime seem to continue with business as usual.Much has also been made of alternative companies coming into take over RM business. This is pretty much a total myth. Since the mail market was opened up to competition in 2006 private companies like DHL, TNT and Business Post have come in but only to take business mail. Business mail is where the profits are to be made, residential deliveries are loss making. Previously, RM would use the profits from business mail to subsidise the loss making residential delivery side. The private companies were allowed to come in and cherry pick the best contracts without picking up any of the universal service obligation to deliver mail across the board. This development, together with the historic £4 billion plus pension deficit, underlies many of the problems that RM has at present. However, despite the opening up of the market, the final mile of delivery for the private companies is still done by RM. So a private company will pick up mail from the customer but then deliver it to RM which for a price delivers at the other end. So the idea of there being lots of alternatives to send mail via is a complete illusion. There are obviously courier style services but at £20 plus a go it seems unlikely that any business small or large could employ them for routine deliveries and stay afloat for long.Another underlying problem with RM is that its management under the leadership of former Football Association chief executive Adam Crozier has been committed to privatisation of the business. Privatisation would see many senior managers being rewarded handsomely and the failure of the most recent plan to go through has no doubt added to the resentment that many feel toward the CWU.It is against this background that the postal dispute continues to escalate. Mail remains a largely manual industry that is gradually becoming more automated. Both RM and the CWU accept that this has to happen, the outstanding question remains how. The management believe it is their perogative to manage, while the union want to be part of a genuine consultative process. The whole RM business though is being penalised by the preferential treatment being given to the private companies that can take their pick of the business post without taking any of the obligation to deliver loss making products. If this situation were resolved and Government picked up the RM pension deficit – made largely as a result of a 13 year pension holiday during the 1990s and stockmarket downturn - then the company could compete and no doubt provide a better service for the public. A management that was committed to providing the service in the public sector and not constantly looking for privatisation would ofcourse help.The present mail dispute is certainly not intractable. All the sides need to get round the table to talk but there also need to be fundamental changes made to RM management and a resolution to the pension deficit issue if things are to genuinely move forward rather than splutter along to the next dispute

Thursday, 15 October 2009

What is best strategy to counter BNP

The decision of the BBC to invite British National Party leader Nick Griffin onto the Question Time panel next Thursday has caused much consternation.The views have been split. There are those who think exposing the BNP will help show what they are really about. The opposite view is to deny the oxygen of publicity that can only be helping to make the party seem more acceptable. The BBC seems to have positioned itself in the first camp. Since two BNP candidates were elected to the European Parliament in June members of the party have featured in a number of BBC programmes. These have varied from the tough questioning of the likes of John Humphreys on Today to seeming free runs in other arenas. The trade union backed group Unite Against Fascism complained about Newsbeat on Radio 1 allowing two young BNP supporters to express their views unopposed and only subject to the mildest of questioning. Undoubtedly,Mr Griffin will not be allowed such a free run by David Dimbleby on Question Time. The Labour Party have put forward Justice minister Jack Straw for the programme and no doubt the other parties will put forward similar heavy hitters. The BBC is in a difficult position, given that nearly a million people voted for the BNP at the European elections. How from its angle can the Corporation go on justifying inviting representatives of other small parties like the Greens onto Question Time while denying that right to the BNP? The approach of UAF has been to oppose the BNP wherever they go. This led to the egg-throwing incident, following the European election victory. It has also seen other ugly scenes. More seem promised on the night of the Question Time broadcast with the UAF calling for a demonstration outside the BBC in London and at other regional centres. The problem with the UAF is that while it falls firmly in the denying the oxygen of publicity camp, its very actions so far have created much coverage for the BNP. Indeed, the whole development of far right politics and opposition to it have moved on significantly since the European elections. The fascists themselves have “mutated” with the arrival on the scene of the English Defence League (EDL). It seems as the BNP have moved closer to the centres of power whether in Europe or local councils, so the more unsavoury violent side has been downloaded into the EDL. Events so far have included violent demonstrations in Harrow and Birmingham. The EDL have future events planned for most of the major city centres across the UK.The actions of the EDL have brought forward a reaction from some of the communities which now seem themselves as targets. So Muslim defence groups have formed in different parts of the country.On the opposition side, there is UAF, Searchlight and the Hope not Hate campaign. The latter groups are much more Labour Party orientated, favouring mass grass roots organisation. There are other voices also beginning to be heard including among the different faith communities. Churches Together in Britain and Ireland recently ran a conference looking at how to challenge the politics of the far right. Head of Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe Arlington Trotman called for the Churches to unite as one voice and speak out against the far right. He also declared that “there needs to be a recognition that we can’t fight fascism without a just social system.”It is the underlying injustice of the political and economic system that is no doubt fuelling the likes of the BNP. The European elections saw the far right parties picking up some votes no doubt as a result of disgust at the MPs expenses scandal. However, the failure of the Labour Government in particular to address the needs of its traditional constituency has helped the growth of the BNP. This was born out by the election results with the collapse of the traditional Labour vote in areas like Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West letting in the BNP. The BNP’s actual share of the vote has only increased from 4.9 per cent to 6.2 per cent in the last four years.The Labour Party needs to refocus its agenda to help those in its heartland areas. This means generating jobs, building social housing, funding public services and combating myths over issues like immigration. If this happens then no doubt those who have deserted for the BNP will return to their more traditional homeland.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

More ex-soldiers in prison than Afghanistan

The news that there are more ex-service personnel occupying UK prisons than there are troops fighting in Afghanistan should be a cause for real concern. Research conducted by the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) found that there are 20,000 veterans in the criminal justice system, 8,500 behind bars and 12,500 on probation or parole. The survey of 90 probation case histories of convicted veterans shows a majority with chronic alcohol or drug problems, and nearly half suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of their wartime experiences on active service. Those involved had served in the North of Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are most likely to have been convicted of a violent offence, particularly domestic violence.

The figures lift the lid on a ticking time bomb that has steadily been primed to explode in the home population for years. The conflict in the North of Ireland has no doubt provided many of those 20,000 veterans. For most of that conflict there was little recognition of the effects of combat stress on the individuals concerned.One early victim in the North was former squaddie Jimmy Johnson, who suffered from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had flashbacks to incidents that had happened to him in Belfast. On one occasion after he left the service he was out with mates one Saturday night in the north east. Johnson finished up hospitalising a number of people in a fight but the next day could recall little. Later another flashback resulted in his beating another individual to death. He finished up in jail. After serving his sentence Johnson came out still undiagnosed. As a result some months later he had another flashback and killed another individual. Again he was sent to prison. It was only due to meeting a struck off doctor in prison who recognised the PTSD symptoms that he learnt of the condition. At that time in the mid 1990s the prison service could not provide figures regarding the number of ex-service personnel in the prison system. A psychiatrist at the time suggested there could at least be a prison full of just ex-service personnel. He was obviously right and the number has obviously grown incredibly over the past 15 years, as British forces have become engaged in more conflicts across the globe. Recognition of the personal cost and fall out of conflict has grown but resourcing of the support needed to help the victims has not.The North or Ireland situation alone has created many new inmates in the prison system. 30 years of conflict that saw thousands of soldiers taking on series of active service duties. Certainly for much of this period the Ministry of Defence were unwilling to admit PTSD was a real problem. A similar attitude was adopted to the condition known as Gulf Ward Syndrome. There were no doubt concerns about the possible compensation claims that could result but all the same this was a clear breach of the duty of care owed to service personnel. Now at least the MOD has admitted that PTSD and other conditions can result from active service involvement. There is clearly a duty of care owed to the soldiers who put their lives on the line to serve. However, the latest revelations must surely make the case for a proper investigation to be conducted into the true cost and effects of combat on the individual concerned and the society as a whole. It is a failure of the system that sees 20,000 ex-service personnel finishing up in the prisons. The cost at £35,000 per year per prisoners should be prohibitive in itself. Prison is also clearly the wrong place for people with such mental health problems to be housed. Beyond the prisons, many service personnel finish up as alcoholics and living homeless on the streets. The MOD estimate that 6 in 10 people returning from the front line could finish up with alcohol problems. These are incredible costs for individuals to be paying and society as a whole. They are certainly not the images brought forward in the shiny ads for a life of adventure in the armed forces.It is high time that a proper study was conducted of the true costs of war in all its ugly forms, and then just maybe those who send other people’s sons and daughters to fight on behalf of the country might just think twice about what they are doing. These latest revelations showing a prison population dominated by ex-squaddies, who have in many cases taken out their own mental health issues on partners and totally innocent members of the public, makes the case for withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan even stronger. The amount of crime being committed by ex-service personnel certainly bears out the view that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So for every Irish, Afghani or Iraqi person abused or killed by a British squaddie there could ultimately be a reaction on people living and working in the UK. These are sobering thoughts that underline the need to take these latest revelations from the probation service seriously and act accordingly. Failure to do so will simply result in the time bomb continuing to grow, claiming ever more victims along the way.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Why are the poorest being asked to pay for the bankes folly

Why do politicians from both political parties seem to think the way to address the deficit is to hit the poorest people hardest? Both Conservatives and Labour seem obsessed with cutting benefits and hitting the lowest paid. Meanwhile, the real public welfare recipients, the banks, escape untouched.
Instead of attempting to make the banks pay back some of the money they have absorbed, the concern the worry seems to be that a few of them might leave the country if unduly penalised. The hedge funds are relocating to Switzerland - who really cares? Is there really any truth in the line that these people are such great wealth creators that we cannot let them go. Most of the highest paid employ accountants to keep their tax payments down to the absolute minimum anyway.
In the longer term governement should be looking to move the countries economy away from reliance on this volatile sector. In the short term, why not impose a flat rate tax on the profits of all banks. This would hit those hardest who caused the problems in the first place and encourage self regulation of the whole sector. Implementation of the Compass recommendation for a High Pay Commission would be another welcome move.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Labour must continue journey back to its roots

So the recession is over we are told. Whatever happened to all those stories about it was going to be worse than the 1930s and last forever. Much it now seems was spin, no doubt created to fill 24-hour news schedules. All of course is not now right with the world. Unemployment continues to increase, the economy has retracted and there is now a huge debt to service. It has been this debt servicing that has dominated the agendas during the party conference season. The debate has moved strangely from the recklessness of bankers and the dangers of unregulated market capitalism to how to make everyone – including the poorest – pay for the mess.The Conservative Party have been most gung ho about the cuts they are going to make to public services. They have also made a few They have also made a few disapproving comments about banker’s bonuses. The Liberal Democrats also have been keen to cut, though less happy to see the burden dumped on the poorest. The Labour Government continues to lose the ongoing media battle with the other two parties. It suits the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to keep the public debate on the subject of cuts for as long as possible. For the government the cuts debate is bad news.
Gordon Brown ought to be taking some plaudits. The government has dealt well with the financial crisis. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Chancellor Alistair Darling and the Treasury took the right steps at the right time. The original projections of when the country would pull out of the recession have also proved correct. There is ofcourse the small matter of Brown having created the conditions for the crisis in the first place - with the cutting of regulation and general lording of business - but that aside he has done well.The big pity is that it has taken the financial crisis to get the government enacting real labour policies. So for example, some £1.5 billion has been pumped into housing. Powers to build new council housing have been devolved to councils and a new programme is getting underway. There are plans for programmes to expand transport systems. Small businesses have received help to get them going. There seems a genuine commitment at the heart of government to tackle climate change. It is difficult not to think that if many of these policies had come into play ten years ago and the country had not gone wading into Afghanistan and Iraq then Labour would be looking at a landslide victory, not almost certain electoral defeat.There are other dividends coming from the slump. The shortage of funds looks likely to claim unpopular initiatives like ID cards, Trident nuclear submarines renewal and it must be hoped the ongoing involvement in Afghanistan.Despite the aforesaid developments, many people in the Labour Party seem to be preparing for life in opposition. One of the problems no doubt has been that Labour has had the look of a defeated party for so long. There is a weariness born of 12 years in government. Some it would seem are looking forward to a spell on the opposition benches.Gordon Brown has failed to renew the party, instead his tenure in office has tended to open up divisions and breed that feeling of defeatism. This has helped land the Labour Party with more blame for the expenses scandal than it probably deserves.Another problem is as the right wing political commentator Peter Hitchens has pointed out an obsession in Fleet Street with getting David Cameron into 10 Downing Street. This seems to be allowing the Conservatives to practically dictate the political agenda on for example the need for cuts. The Labour Government has a perfectly robust response, which is that too much cutting will throw the country back into recession. The economy needs to grow to get people back into work and paying taxes. Increasing the tax take will cut the deficit and provide funds for public services. The big poll leads for the Tories are all the more amazing given that they have outlined very few real policies. Their main appeal is that they are not Labour.So all of these things make it very difficult to see what the Labour Government could do to pull things round before the next election. Labour would though have a better chance if it got back onto the agenda of dealing with the bankers. There is a correct perception that having got the country into this mess the bankers are now getting away with it. Interest rate cuts have only been passed onto savers not morgage holders. Everyone else has to pay for the banker's errors while they apparently live in a bubble where pretty much everything continues as before, including bonuses. Labour also needs to get across what it is doing right. Its competence in dealing with the economy, policies like council house building, investment in green technologies and transport expansion. A timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and restoration of recently denied liberties would also no doubt help. A recommitment to policies like keeping the postal service public and returning the railways totally to public ownership could also prove popular. The success of Labour over the last year has been in managing the crisis and getting back to some of its old roots. To have any chance at the next election it needs to stop the Conservatives dictating the terms of debate and reconnect with more of those roots – then just maybe Labour could be in with a chance at the next general election.