A new green revolution?

With all the cruel cuts being undertaken by this Tory-led government it has become very difficult to fight, or to blog, on all fronts. The barrage has seen the losing of EMAs, hiking of tuition fees, cuts to the poorest local councils, job losses, the restructuring of education and the NHS and above all the general dismantling of some of the most important parts of our social infrastructure. I don’t believe that the private sector will pick up the extra workforce, as David Cameron seems to. I don’t believe the ‘Big Society’ can plug all the gaping holes in services, in fact, I’m rather suspicious that the ‘Big Society’ is a convenient fabrication that allows government to renege on their responsibilities. I do believe, however, in the power of people and community action, not to fulfil the functions that the state should be providing, but to work in their own way to create a better society.

It is heartening to look to community groups that are making a real difference and to this end, I’d like to blow the trumpet of the Transition movement. These are local groups who work to make their area, and their lives, greener and more sustainable to fight climate change and to improve local life. Their organisation is highly democratic and inclusive and their aims largely altruistic, improving their society and aiding the environment. They share best practise with other groups in a cooperative network. Many towns have signed up to this and it has made a difference. In London, for example, just this month trees are being planted, Haringey has launched its sustainable food strategy and tropical vegetable gardening has become the new vogue. The Sussex town of Lewes has even invented it’s own currency for local trading.

To link this back to the cuts, at the risk of being too obviously allegorical, I’d like to consider the example of the selling (or felling) of England’s forests as an area where resistance could prevail. These could be cuts we can stop. Half a million people have signed a petition to save the threatened 258,000 hectares of English forestry estate. 84% of the public as a whole are opposed to the measure. MPs have rebelled on this issue, and David Cameron has been forced to declare himself ‘open to ideas’ as he recognised the importance this land held for the communities. Although this ‘green and pleasant land’ bit, may be more about preserving particular vistas, a valuable aim in itself, than halting climate change, it does demonstrate that many people do value nature and therefore green policies can be popular and effective.

If the government insists on its commitment to community, it should look to the movements who have engaged and empowered people to improve society. The green movement has a long history of being democratic, inclusive and progressive. Additionally, their values are vital for our time; we should learn to live without excess, without exploitation of people or the natural world, respecting the world around us and looking towards a better, more sustainable future.

Incomplete resolution: the problems of excluding women from peace processes

10 years ago, Resolution 1325 was signed at the UN, recognising the devastating affects of conflict on women and making women’s involvement in peace-building processes from their earliest stage an absolute imperative. Despite this, not enough has been done to involve women in the politics of post-conflict resolution. The involvement of women is essential to building stable societies; it has been shown in countless studies that women are more likely than men to spend development money on their communities and research demonstrates links between gender inequality and increased levels of violence within a state; where there is acute gender discrimination and abuses of human (and especially women’s) rights, countries have been shown to be more likely to be unstable. Women provide vital insights into community security, can be vital in creating an effective dialogue and responsive politics, supporting national recovery.

In Liberia, for example, women were a powerful force for positive change. Despite being excluded from formal peace talks following the civil war, a group of women were instrumental in bringing peace to Liberia. They took action, refusing to accept what appeared to be failing talks. They created an extensive and effective campaign for disarmament and demobilization, targeting ex-combatants, particularly, and volunteering to contribute to the peace process in whichever way they could. They also formed their own cooperatives, started in refugee camps, to begin to rebuild agricultural infrastructure and create food for their communities and families in a post-conflict era of extreme poverty. The UN later gave them funding in order to expand. Women’s involvement was pivotal in ending the conflict. Liberia has now elected the first African female head of state, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has been praised for maintaining peace and rebuilding the nation.

In other countries where women have had less involvement, peace processes have been shown to be less effective. In Angola, for example, the post-conflict negotiations failed to address prominent issues such as rape and human trafficking and overlooked women’s health and education. The agreement also forgave the parties for atrocities committed against women during the conflict, which arguable creates a nation where violence against women is condoned. Failure to understand women’s experience has also been devastating in Sudan, where women were not considered in the creation of refugee camps which meant that they were forced to leave the camps to collect water. In this unsafe environment there were numerous reports of sexual violence and harassment. Peace building that fails to recognise the different experiences of women and men threatens to erode women’s rights and put them at increased risk of violence, abuse, poverty and loss. Women are also more affected by destruction of infrastructure, as they are often primary carers in the family. The experience of widowhood is also vastly affecting. Women’s inclusion in peace building means that their experiences and the particular forms of violence they face during conflict can be addressed. Failing to address women’s security during and after conflict has been shown to undermine longer-term national security. Women’s participation is vital to reducing violence and inequality and building stable societies.

Our government has signed up to this treaty and recently revised its National Action Plan but has yet to act assertively in practical terms. Additionally, Lynne Featherstone has been appointed as the new Champion for tackling International Violence Against Women. It is imperative that women affected by conflict are primary in her plan and that, in this era of cuts, she is given adequate resources and authority. Beyond this, there must be effective and lasting changes in peace building processes and international politics; a peace that considers only half the population will be incomplete. No women, no peace.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité (but some more equal than others)

In France, insurrection is stirring once more. This time, the rebellion comes from within the elite universities, the grandes écoles, as they vehemently oppose the government’s efforts to impose a target on scholarships, forcing them to accept more diversification. These institutions are highly elitist: 90% of students are middle or upper class, the vast majority are white. Nearly all France’s political and business leaders have been trained at the écoles. It is a prerequisite to success. It is demonstrably a system of self-perpetuating elitism.

The state rhetoric of meritocracy and republican virtue is rendered void by the attitudes and practices of the institutions and a powerful minority. Educational leaders argue that the reforms would lead to a ‘lowering of standards.’ They imply that scholarship candidates are less able. In fact they are simply less schooled in a very specific skill set.

In order to enter the grandes écoles, one has to pass the concours. Middle and upper class children are often prepared for these exams from a very young age and are likely to take a year out to prepare. This is obviously a luxury many families cannot afford. These notoriously difficult tests require a deep and detailed knowledge of French culture. This is a breeze for children whose parents are alumni of the grandes écoles and expect the family tradition to continue. They have probably been played Debussy in the womb and fallen asleep to Molière as a bedtime story. Children of different heritage, or from lower socio-economic groups have less chance of success.

But fate is set even before the concours. Getting into the right lycée and taking the right baccalauréat determine a child’s future. Even primary school places are a factor as they can determine which secondary school the child attends. This has lead to richer parents using cleaners’ addresses and renting flats closer to schools- tactics not unheard of here. However, the most frequent, well documented and worrying means to ensure their child’s place at the right school seems to be making a call to a powerful friend. This is attributed to a Tocquevillian attitude, ‘La règle est rigide, la practique est molle.’ (the rules are rigid, the practice is not.) For those with connections, perhaps.

Gaetano Mosca, the father of democratic elitism, famously declared that ‘ruling classes do not justify their power exclusively by de facto possession of it, but try to find a moral and legal basis for it, representing it as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognised and accepted.’

In France, and elsewhere, a system that appears to be democratic, open and universal is used and subverted by those with superior wealth and power. For evidence of this in the UK, see Nik Williams’ marvellous article on the class character of the latest government proposals on education. Disadvantage at an early age too often means disadvantage in later life. To reform at university level is a step in the right direction, although perhaps it is too late. Equal opportunities must be ensured from the outset so, as Chevènement said, the elite is based on its ‘work, worth and talent’, rather than its wealth, birth and contacts.

Fire up the Quattro! Women’s rights are going back to the 1980s

Let’s support the survivors before protecting the perpetrators.

Nick Clegg said in the Commons last week that the government was facing ‘difficult dilemmas’ over perhaps the most controversial part of the coalition agreement, granting anonymity to defendants in rape cases. This has been a Lib Dem policy since 2006. Only 1 in 20 rapes are reported. Only 5% of all rapes reported to the police lead to a conviction, more than half of the cases that make it to trial result in the suspect being found guilty. The odds are already in favour of the perpetrator, why must they be further advantaged?

Defendant anonymity existed briefly from 1976 until it was abandoned in 1988 following a series of deeply critical reports. It was brought in when rape within marriage was not a crime, when it was standard judicial practice to require a witness to corroborate the story; one woman’s testimony could not be believed. This was an era where the establishment was overwhelmingly male and largely sexist. It deterred complainants, undermined survivors and impeded justice. Resurrecting it will undo all the work of women’s lobbies, charities, and criminal justice agencies who have ardently encouraged more women to bring allegations to the police.

Police and barristers are not, for the most part, advocating anonymity. They know releasing a name has led to the successful prosecution of rapists such as John Worboys. Seventy women felt able to come forward and testify against him, securing a conviction. Even Cameron’s suggestion to limit anonymity to between charging the accused and the case starting would prevent other women contributing to the prosecution. Women often expect to be treated badly by the justice system, to be treated like they’re on trial as the defence trawl through their sexual history, their alcohol intake and the clothes they were wearing. If the concern for innocent until proven guilty is so fundamental, this must also apply to the complainant.

Figures show that the number of false allegations for rape are no higher than for other crime, so why protect these men? It simply perpetrates the myth that women are liars. A vindictive minority is taken to be the norm. Treating rape as exceptional vilifies women. It is surely just as damaging to be accused of child abuse or hate crimes. As Harriet Harman said, ‘To single out rape defendants sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed. It sends a devastating message to rape victims that uniquely of all victims they are not to be believed.’

Ms Harman is right, though her lexical choice is questionable. To label a woman ‘victim’ is to disempower her. To define her by what happened. She is  not a victim, she is a survivor.

It is a tragic irony that a law which primarily concerns a crime against women may be amended in a manner beneficial to men. This is symptomatic of the political establishment’s failure to understand and support women’s issues. Cuts to rape crisis centres are a damaging indication of a negligent attitude towards survivor support. From 68 there are now only 38 in the country which are gravely underfunded with a budget of just £3.5m between them. Before we improve the situation for men, let’s ensure that the system works for women. It is essential that the coalition honours its commitment to providing long-term, sustainable funding to rape crisis centres. It is vital that conviction rates are improved. It is imperative that survivors are supported.

Over the rainbow, are the skies blue? Can the Conservative government deliver on gay rights?

The new cabinet is the least socially representative since the by-gone era of top hats and gentleman’s clubs. Oh wait, I just described the Bullingdon. The least socially representative since before the first world war, to be more precise. Cameron’s cabinet has only four women, one of whom is a minister without portfolio and Baroness Farsi is also the only BME member in the new cabinet. It seems the face of British politics is once again white and male.

Of course, representation does not have to be descriptive, one can advocate for a group without being a member. However I would insist that the person appointed representative believes in gaining rights for that group. Herein lies the problem with the new Minister for Women and Equalities. Theresa May is an inappropriate and frankly dangerous choice for this crucial role. A brief review of her voting record on gay rights demonstrates her evident unsuitability. She opposed the abolition of section 28 (as did most of the front bench). She voted against lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16. She voted against gay adoption rights. She voted against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would give lesbian couples the ability to receive fertility treatment. How can we have an equality minister who doesn’t believe in equal rights?  

How could our new Prime Minister, he of hope and the Big Society appoint her, doing such a disservice to the gay community? Perhaps because his true views are not dissimilar to hers. David Cameron voted against an amendment to the Adoption an Children Bill which allowed unmarried couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) to adopt children. This could be passed off as Victorian Values, upholding the institution of marriage, until he voted for the same amendment, this time specifically worded to exclude homosexual couples. He also voted against gay rights, advocating the need for both a father and mother to be present to gain fertility treatment.

This is disappointing, but not surprising in a party that continues to allow people like Chris Grayling into its inner circle after the B&B fiasco. No, Chris Grayling, ‘I was just recalling (the bigoted, homophobic and appallingly offensive) views I used to have’ is not a good enough excuse. This is also the party whose social policy was largely authored by Phillipa Stroud, who founded a church which attempted to ‘cure’ gay people through prayer. Although she didn’t win her seat, I doubt her influence will decline due to her position at the Centre for Social justice.

Hopefully, this is an area in which LibDem influence will temper the endemic homophobia in the Conservative ranks. Lynne Featherstone has been appointed junior equality minister. She has a positive record on gay rights and is one of few MPs who actively champion trans rights. I just hope she will be heard as she is clearly in the minority.

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