The Future of LGBT Labour

I joined the Labour Party in 2008. This was before I was prepared to accept my sexuality. I have now come to realise that it was joining the Labour Party, and learning of all of Labour’s achievements in Government in striving for sexual equality that helped me on my way in accepting myself. Being proudly gay and proudly a member of the Labour Party can and should be mutually reinforcing. I will always be thankful to Labour for this.

Whilst we can look back proudly on all Labour achieved in equality – and there is no need to list these here – ending legislative homophobia is not the same as ending homophobia engrained in society. Top-down measures can only work so far. Greater acceptance of homosexuality as being ‘equal but different’ to heterosexuality can only be achieved through increased exposure of what it is to be gay, i.e., being capable of loving someone of the same sex. At its most basic this can include couples walking down the street holding hands. Unfortunately, we are not yet at a stage where this simple statement of homosexuality is uncontroversial. There is still a need for gay couples to act as pioneers. I can speak from experience that some members of society are not ready to witness such sights.

Labour is at its best when fighting for the rights of minorities within society, championing the fundamental need for equality. However, whilst I am well aware that homophobia remains an issue, the greatest issue of inequality relates to income. The lack of equal opportunity in the world of work adversely affects women, the BME community and disabled people more than it does the LGBT community. With this in mind, the LGBT Labour needs to rally round and support those who also fall under the umbrella term ‘minority’. Liberation Campaigns and caucuses are vital in recognising and celebrating our differences (note the very discourse of the word ‘Pride’ in our annual Pride Marches, and the rightful presence of Labour at these marches), but our shared difficulties and experiences need to be at the forefront of our campaigns.

This is, I believe, should be the next step of LGBT Labour in Britain, standing up for the voiceless in society, speaking for those adversely affected by the Government’s draconian and ill-balanced cuts. Even if we do not self-define as members of a particular caucus, Labour needs to unite and continue the fight for equal opportunity for all.

By Dan Harrison, Outgoing BULS Chair

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An Englishman’s Home is… beyond his wildest dreams

For some reason, going back into the mists of time, the British people have an obsession with private home ownership, even though most of us should technically never be able to afford one without borrowing. In Continental Europe, people are far more satisfied to rent, either from private landlords or more ‘trustworthy’ institutions – maybe there is some correlation between these statistics and the lower levels of stress and dissatisfaction there compared to the UK.

Nevertheless, we are where we are, and there is no going back on the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 however much we might want to reverse it (indeed, many of us may actually agree with it, being as it was extremely popular with the low paid, who for the first time had a stake in their council homes and some sense of freedom, however delusional). What we have now is a housing crisis coming at the worst possible time, during a dire economic climate caused by sub-prime mortgages themselves.

Tensions over housing and its’ availability have an effect on many areas of life, including levels of antagonism towards immigrants, the environment, growth, inequality in our cities, personal debt, and of course the Daily Mail and Daily Express front pages. We need to deal with this timebomb if we are to stem a rise in far-right politics and avoid a lost generation of young people. However, worryingly this government is going about it completely the wrong way.

Not only has it made squatting illegal when there are more empty properties than there are homeless people in this country, but it has appallingly placed a cap on housing benefit, effectively pricing the poor out of our capital city and entire swathes of the country – those parts of the country which have job vacancies. The government is slashing the public sector and saddling young people who go to university with ever higher debt, meaning their chances of even being able to look forward to putting down a deposit are negligible.

What our housing market needs is a Keynesian-style investment in house building and construction; not only would this lower house prices for first-time buyers, but it would also ease tensions in the community and increase demand in the economy generally, leading to growth and the beginning of the end of the deficit that the ConDems love to remind us about so much. As a bonus, it would even lead to a return of Location Location Location to our TV screens. Gordon Brown’s plan before the proverbial shit hit the fan in 2007 was to build 3 million new homes – we need this sort of commitment now, coupled with a healthy proliferation of 1940s-inspired New Towns (hopefully better designed than the likes of Milton Keynes) and more social housing. Today’s announcement from Cameron and Clegg about guaranteeing 95% mortgages may look like a repetition of exactly what went wrong in the first place, but should not be dismissed entirely, as it is the taxpayer, not the banks, helping first-time buyers, and there is real potential for an increase in demand as a result.

However it goes nowhere near far enough. If we can’t get people to fall out of love with the owner-occupier dream, then we need to build, build, build, spending more money in the short term to get us out of the mess in the long term.

9/11 Ten Years On, Coalition Politics and Blood Donation

9/11 – A Warning from Recent History

For someone of the age of the current crop of Labour Students, it is particularly difficult to believe that it is ten years tomorrow since the lives of millions were changed forever on September 11th, 2001. Most of us were still in primary school at the time, and it is perhaps apt that our generation – one that was constantly told we were growing up too fast – had our innocence of the world around us robbed so suddenly on that bright Tuesday morning. Hearing and seeing the images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center still transfixes all of us, and as much as we might want to look away having seen enough, we can’t quite bring ourselves to stop watching.

However it is our generation – the 9/11 generation – who will be the politicians and headline-makers of the coming years, and if anything good can come of the last decade, it is surely the lesson  that those in power have a responsibility not to overreact when faced with such onslaughts. Our party’s most successful leader (in electoral terms) no doubt had good intentions, but made the grave error of marching the troops gung-ho into an unplanned and illegal war, probably creating a whole new generation of terrorists in the process, while at home him and those around him were complicit in eroding many of the freedoms we were meant to be protecting, including detention without charge and freedom from torture. If the horror of terrorism reaches us again, we must pause and assess the causes before acting. The same rule should apply for other crises, like the riots this summer.

Backbench Tories Have Nothing To Worry About

Today is the final day of the Plaid Cymru autumn conference in Llandudno, north Wales. The outgoing leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, made his final conference speech yesterday after an electoral drubbing for the nationalist party in the Welsh Assembly elections in May. Unlike in Scotland, where the SNP have been successful, he argued that coalition government in Cardiff Bay (of which Plaid was the junior party) meant Plaid’s achievements in government were smothered by Labour, and that the party was punished by voters for not claiming credit for them.

Aside from the fact that Plaid achieved very little in government in a time of economic turmoil other than a referendum with poor turnout which managed to bore even political anoraks, their experience in coalition should serve as a lesson to Westminster politics. This week Tory backbenchers, angry over law and order, Europe and abortion, moaned that the Lib Dem ‘tail’ was wagging the Tory ‘dog’ and that Nick Clegg was being given too many concessions by the Prime Minister. However come the election in 2015, the Tories will have nothing to worry about, as the voters are likely to give them sole credit for any successes – particularly if the economy picks up (not a given considering Osborne’s slash-and-burn approach) – and they will certainly not be looking to make some sort of permanent alliance with the Lib Dems, contrary to what some commentators are predicting. The coalition dog will probably have his tail docked when the voters are next given a choice.

About Bloody Time

This week the ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood for life in Britain was finally overturned (although you’d be forgiven for not noticing the leap forward because the BBC thought Strictly Come Dancing was more important on the news bulletins that night). This is a triumph that equality campaigners have been working tirelessly for for years, and at last gay men will be able to save lives and help tackle the urgent need for more donors. No more will the official policy imply that gay men cannot be trusted to practice safe sex and ‘probably have HIV’.

Although the ban was only replaced with a one-year time lag since a donor’s last encounter, it is still progress, and puts us more in line with the situation in similar countries.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

There’s been a tsunami wave of comment and opinion about ignorance and what to do about the riots in the last week, most of which has been speculative and, in some cases, downright prejudiced (I am of course referring to David Starkey). However what I want to shed some light on is the ignorance that I see every day surrounding disability and conditions that inflict millions of people.

I was on a bus this week where an elderly lady got on with a walking stick and was clearly unsteady on her feet. When she struggled to find her bus pass and got into bother, the bus driver continued to harass her, demanding that she either produce her card, pay or get off the bus. There was tutting and sighing from other passengers, and I even heard the word ‘drunk’ whispered by several people. It was 10.30 in the morning, and although regrettably some people do start drinking early in the day in areas like mine when they’d be better off doing something constructive, I think this woman would have had a tough job getting plastered this quickly.

The lady was not drunk as it turned out, but she had Huntington’s Disease, as another lady pointed out to me as she helped her with her heavy bags. Huntington’s Disease is an hereditary neurodegenerative disorder affecting muscle control which only begins to take effect in middle age, and leads eventually to dementia and in many cases untimely death. The bus driver in question was not a bad man, and was only in his twenties; he was probably concerned about losing his job if someone got away with not having their pass. However it struck me that this lady, who had a perfectly intelligent and coherent conversation with another passenger before she struggled off the bus, undoubtedly has to put up with this ordeal every time she leaves the house, with people commenting and assuming and speculating whenever she goes shopping or to visit relatives.

Why are we not educated about conditions such as this? Why do people with diseases or conditions that are not self-inflicted have to put up with social stigma and embarrassment every day by people who are not discriminatory, but are completely oblivious to the existence of the disease they cannot escape? It’ll never happen in the current climate of cuts, but I believe we should make our children attend compulsory awareness classes, not in school as the curriculum is already stretched, but outside, perhaps in the summer holidays, alongside first aid and financial management tutorials. Ideally it would inform people of ‘invisible’ conditions such as autism and tackle the taboos surrounding common illnesses like cancer. Perhaps then people’s lives would be less of a struggle and allowances would be made for the disabled by other members of the public. If the classes were to take place at 16 it would probably be more of a benefit for society as a whole than national service or leaving young people on the street; it may also encourage more volunteering, which will go some way towards creating a big society and boost young people’s employability at the same time.

The civil rights movement of our time

Just a quick blog this morning, another will be done on the pension reforms, hopefully, this evening. But anyway, I’m sure you’re probably aware of New York legalising same-sex marriages. Now this is nothing less than a triumph against the forces of bigotry, especially since this had to be pushed through a Republican state Senate but also New York is the third largest American state, so you can tell this was a big target set by the gay rights movements.

You only have to look at what was being spouted out by anti-equality campaigners such as National Organisation for Marriage (NOM) to see that what they were saying was nothing less than vile. While NOM has been veiling its true views behind a smokescreen of claims about the “Government redefinition of marriage”. At the very least, their grass-roots have portrayed the movements true views upon the lines of the usual “it’s wrong and an affront to the family” and simply spouting religious lines and hatred. It’s the sad truth that the NOM is primarily made up Roman Catholics and Christian Evangelicals both of whom spout such vile and hate. And it’s always the case that the establishment, particularly the establishment of bigotry which stands in the way of true justice and equality, throughout history. And this is what is happening in the USA today.

This is why I believe gay rights is the USA’s civil rights movement of our time. But this is a massive step in the right direction and who knows, at this rate Martin Luther King’s dream may come true one day.

Max

They Just Don’t Get It

I’ve now returned to Birmingham after a week in which the Coalition managed to look incompetent and shambolic as well as cruel. We’ve had Willetts admitting he is content to see poorer students having to settle for a degree at their local sixth form, rather than enjoying the full university experience; Norman Tebbit joining the near-univeral coalition against the NHS transformation; U-turns on defence spending and health to add to the growing list which includes school sports and buildings, forests, and even the Downing Street cat; and of course Nick Clegg. When he hasn’t been complaining that he is the nation’s ‘punchbag’ or facing criticism from his own son, he has been making some interesting comments about social mobility.

I am not going to slam the Deputy Prime Minister for having had a leg-up from his neighbour (a peer of the realm) in order to get an internship at a bank (it had to be a bank), because I challenge anyone reading this – assuming I have a readership – not to have seized the opportunity in the same way if they were in Nick’s position. A Labour party which wants social justice and equality of opportunity from birth should not be blaming someone for a background thay had no control over, and that even includes Cameron who had someone put a word in from Buck House. However, Clegg’s attempts at addressing the age-old problem of the ‘It’s who you know’ culture were embarrassing, coming at the same time this government is slashing Sure Start centres, EMA, univeristy budgets and allowing socially divisive ‘free’ schools to blossom up and down the country.

I spoke to people this week in the valleys who have Masters’ degrees who have spent over a year unemployed – young people with ambition, drive and what should be a promising career ahead of them. I overheard sixth form students on the bus complaining that they had not been accepted for any of their UCAS choices, despite the prediction of 4 As at A-level. I have personally had difficulty finding summer placements when I am not lucky enough to be able to work unpaid for six months in central London. Nick Clegg’s diagnosis was correct, but there is far more to it than setting an example to almost-bankrupt businesses by paying interns at Lib Dem HQ.

We need a new cultural shift in this country, brought about by government, where the disadvantaged are caught as soon as possible and at every stage of their lives are helped to gain the same opportunities as the better off. This should not involve positive discrimination or handouts, but should involve investment in our young people which other European countries manage while they bail out their neighbours, but we seem to think is unaffordable. A national internship scheme or national bursary programme, complementing investment in careers education (which at the moment is dire) to inform young people that they are just as talented and ambitious as the more privileged, and what opportunities are out there for the taking, is desperately needed. The underlying factors, such as affordable transport, need to be subsidised so someone who lives in the middle of nowhere with no ‘contacts’ can get work experience in a city near them.

There are important elections coming up in the devolved nations and local councils in England. Young people should be demanding better from the government and their local councils at the ballot box, and should express their dissatisfaction with the Coalition, which just doesn’t get it.

The Last Chapter for Libraries?

It was reported this week that our dear PM performed yet another U-turn (to add to the ever-growing list, which includes forests, school sports and even getting Larry the Cat) on the proposal to close a local library in his Witney constituency by Oxfordshire County Council, as reported in this week’s Independent on Sunday.

Not only is this flagrant hypocrisy given the closure of libraries on which local communities depend up and down the country, it is also ‘pork-barrelling’ of the lowest kind and an example that we are not in fact “all in this together”. The prospect of libraries being closed by local authorities who are facing savage cuts is deeply depressing – I, like so many other young people, relied on my local library for computer access growing up, but more importantly I was regularly able to borrow up to ten books at a time (some regrettably I forgot to return), discovering chuldren’s favourites like Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl and Mark Twain in the process, alongside history books and encyclopaedias.

Not only is it divisive and running directly against the government’s intentions to mend our apparently ‘broken’ society, it is morally wrong to target the cuts on the poorest, the elderly and most importantly children, who have no vote and no say in how resources are allocated. Priorities have to be made, but library closures cannot even be justified on crude market terms, because they are still being used widely and are a lifeline for so many. It seems that the local lending library could be nearing its epilogue if we do nothing about it, with disastrous consequences for childhood literacy and social mobility.

Luke