Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A radical rebirth?

Yesterday was All Saints’ Day – the day when Christians the world over are expected to build on the faithful witness of generations of good people who have lived out the Christian message. What a good day, then, to visit St Paul’s Cathedral, and see the protest that has caused so much trouble to the church in the last few days, and see what the current good people of the church are doing.

I’m an Anglican, albeit a liberal one. And the way the church has behaved has been a deep embarrassment. 

Now whatever we think of the various parts of the protest (and to be frank, there are an awful lot of seemingly professional protesters, people who do it for ‘lolz’, anarchists and extremists, together with people who genuinely have a cogent argument), there is a central idea – the idea of human rights, and of an end to poverty in the UK, particularly with reference to unbridled capitalism, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer (and I would suggest it should be world-focussed on the poverty side, with children the world over unable to even find clean water to drink). These, from any Christian perspective, are things which should worry the church; but they just don’t seem to.

The church has been a monumental waste of space on issues like this for years. This, of course, is the same ‘church’ that supported slavery and prejudice against people on grounds of race (and still does on gender and sexuality). But this is a wake-up call; and if our Anglican leaders don’t answer (the Romans have always been far behind in some ways – God forbid that people are put above an institution – but there is a lot of ground work going on that is simply obscured by sex scandals and homophobic ranting), then the church is in crisis.

I suppose the real problem is that the church has been caught unawares. One moment it is doing what it’s always done; and the next there’s a protest on its door step, posing all kinds of questions about poverty, capitalism and exploitation (together with a million causes that far left extremists cannot stop themselves from stapling all over their agenda, many of which are far more controversial and simply don’t garner public support). And what has the church done? Been pretty pathetic, if we’re honest.

When I was a younger and less cynical student, I remember a priest saying to me that university is the time that people should be radical about religion. Well, if this isn’t the time, then when is? I think he was pushing me towards becoming an evangelical; well maybe Christians should be more evangelical, but not in the classical way of shoving the Bible down people’s throats, but instead genuinely showing the good news in their lives.

So has St Paul’s woken up to the call to arms that this situation has proven to be? All that seems to have happened is that a Canon has resigned, and then the Dean, in a fit of nerves and perhaps one might uncharitably suggest, in a fit of peak, has resigned. We have been warned that, if protests like this continue, the Monarch might not make it to St Paul’s as part of her Jubilee Year – shock horror. So I suppose we should simply be brushing issues under the carpet, and rooting the camp out right now – we certainly can’t have our Queen having to deal with real day to day issues. The problem that the church is having is that it’s too late on these issues; it’s missed the boat, and all it can do now is appear on the side of the protesters, or on the side of the city. And neither is really being authentic to the voice of the Gospel. But it’s fairly obvious which side Jesus would have been on – and I’m not sure that he was a huge fan of pin-stripes and braces.

Rather than waking up, let me tell you what St Paul’s has done. If I might us the words of a priest sat near me tonight, what was preached from the pulpit – the place of moral argument – last night was ‘the worst sermon I think I have ever heard’. It seems that St Paul’s has decided to become deeply introspective and protectionist – to place the church in a place of separation and difference – and to completely ignore the issues which it is being forced to address.

Let me briefly tell you a story, told to me by a senior clergyman of a country cathedral. On Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem before the crucifixion, a lady of the establishment left the cathedral, and noted to this clergyman ‘what a lovely day, Father. I wonder if our Lord had such a lovely day on his ride into Jerusalem.’ It’s at times like this that even the most rose tinted amongst us must look at people who profess to be Christian, and wonder if they have really got the point. Even her husband mentioned ‘I think he probably had more important things to think about’. And this is exactly what St Paul’s, and the wider church, is missing. St Paul’s is an institution first, and a place of Christian worship second. Rather than putting the institution first, we should be putting the communities and people of the earth first. Which we categorically fail to do each Sunday, and which is a huge sin for the church.

But back to the ‘sermon’ we were subjected to. We got the standard platitudes about God (albeit performed in a somewhat Gilbert and Sullivan way), but it was the rest of the content that followed which was most offensive. We were told that the church was acting with ‘courage and certainty’, ‘making known the good news’, and were reassured that those professing to be Christian both ‘know and are known by God’. We were also told that we must ‘live the eternal now as revealed to us in Jesus Christ’. So far, it seems pretty sensible; that church goers must live the life as given in the gospels, from the Jesus who says ‘love your neighbour as yourselves’. In fact, the gospel for the day included the words ‘Blest are the poor’; a call to action for those of us who have much to give, if ever there was one. However, it was the preacher’s concentration on Jesus’ words that ‘blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you’ that was most disturbing. Because he seemed to think the church needed some sympathy.

He claimed ‘it’s not our job to justify ourselves’. Just let that sink in for a moment. Because, St Paul’s, yes it is. The church has failed. It has failed in its basic goal; to reflect God’s love in its actions and deeds. You can tell a million people about how great a man Jesus Christ was, and about how to get happiness, but if you fail to tell the whole story, or fail to make those words into actions, by speaking up and acting against poverty, corporate greed and exploitation, and making that one of the major, if not the major, parts of your mission, then every time the Lord’s Prayer is uttered, ‘thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven’, you lie to yourselves. The church just becomes a bunch of men in frocks talking about the rules that God wants us to follow.

In the same sermon, he said we should ‘look death in the eyes’. The church looks death in the eyes every single day, when people die because of hunger, and the church doesn’t seem to care, doesn’t seem to speak up, and lets any good message on world peace and equality get smashed down by something far more irrelevant and minor, whichever it is that week that ‘threatens to break the Church apart’. The Church is just a group of Christians – the institution is a distraction, and any obsession with it is harmful and damaging. Focussing on love for humanity would be a good start.

That’s not to say that St Paul’s doesn’t do some things about poverty; the work on corporate greed, for example, that the foundation has done – but then it hasn’t released it, in case it was bad PR. And that is the problem with the church’s seeming obsession with PR – they don’t want to look on the side of the protesters, in case they upset people. Someone who was quite happy to upset people, including the officials and religious authorities, was Jesus Christ. The church isn’t agreeing with everything the protesters are saying; but by blocking a report, and refusing to engage with the issues (they are engaging with the protesters, provided that it’s a well-media-managed situation) they are making the church into an irrelevance. How pitiful it is that we have barely heard from our leaders, who almost obsessively jump about when gay marriage, or female clergy, or threats to religious power are mentioned.

The sermon ended with ‘this saints day is business as usual’. Well, what exactly is business as usual for the Church of England at the moment? And does the business as usual really leave so little to be desired that the church need not justify itself because it is so perfect and does so much good?

The reality is that the church has been caught unawares, and from its point of view, these protests are an unfortunate, but timely, reminder that they should have the moral high-ground here, but don’t. It shouldn’t have come to this, but it has, and it’s time that the church got off the fence, stopped worrying about what it looked like, followed its founder Christ, and created real life, modern saints, ones who do genuine good in the world, rather than some in the dubious list, who have fought valiantly against other Christian denominations, killed at least a couple of hundred people, and been canonised.

It’s time for a radical rebirth for Christianity, and this is the chance for the Church of England to redefine itself as a church for the next era. If the state doesn’t like it, disestablish. If some wealthy parishioners don’t like it, Jesus has an answer – sell all you have and give it to the poor. The Church is an institution first, and a communion of people second – it’s time to turn the tables, much like Jesus did in the temple, and leap forward in faith like never before.

We’re lucky – Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Anyone who professes to be Christian in the western world carries the collective sin of the church, both now and across the centuries. So let’s take this call to arms, take the true message of the Gospel to the streets, speak up and act against greed and poverty, and be the prophetic voice that our world badly needs.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

A little clarification for claudified minds

Well, well, well. Another day, another dollar. As if trying to learn how to cannulate people wasn’t enough, yesterday led to naughty attacks on me from left, lefter and leftist. What fun. Well, here are a few pointers to try to correct the decent folks as to my thought processes; and to generally irritate the sociopaths.

Where do I start? Such nonsense has been bandied around, and such vitriol, that even Stalin himself would probably have crept into a corner and cried. And he was a mass murderer…

Which I’m not, incidentally. And let me just take one of the more offensive moments of the day first and foremost. Don’t you dare call me disablist; who the hell do you think you are? As someone who is a medical student, desperate to make a difference to the lives of sick and dying people; as someone who has watched and helped care for his own father as he became steadily more disabled and deeply unwell, and eventually died; as someone who has used that experience to fire up in myself and others a desire to help people enjoy their lives, limited or otherwise. If you really believe a revolution is coming, comrades, then in my opinion, you sound as though you have some kind of borderline delusional disorder, at the least. There’s nothing disablist about making a potential diagnosis. If you don’t like it, then persuade people otherwise, using debate and ideas. But don’t be cheap and personal; because that really is pathetic, low, and ultimately demeans you.

So let’s take some of the more moronic comments now – not offensive, but equally ludicrous.

You extremists really hate that term, don’t you. I think it’s really impressive that you miss the blaringly obvious signs that people really don’t think along the same lines that you do. And you don’t even seem interested in trying to argue that they should; instead you just get indignant and look down on us idiots who can’t understand your logic. Debate, persuade, excite – please. Your ideas, at the moment, look great in a text book from the Victorian era – but they don’t really make sense in today’s world. Academic posturing at the expense of real people’s lives is a bit pathetic – and if you lot prevent another Labour government being elected because of your extremism, you have the poverty of a generation on your hands.

The thing is, I suppose that in Cambridge you self-confessed radicals (not that radical, with the ideology being quite a few years old) really do have a bit of a voice; especially amongst the non-tax-paying, ivory-towered and vulnerable students which we have here. However, I thought you would probably realise that you are, at best, a joke in the real world? The problem is, it’s not a joke when you wreck Labour’s chances. Remember that.

Anyway, that’s the extremist point.

Another major point was that a bunch of non-students decided to proselytise to us about the point of our students’ union. Well, thank you, most helpful. The problem is, I don’t think you’ve really understood the point of a students’ union. As students, we have the right to expect our union to represent our interests, and get the most out of the university we can. I suppose the major problem is quite how damn good our JCRs are, and how little this leaves to CUSU. Then we elect a CUSU President, and indeed Sabbs team, and spend most of the year emasculating them by voting on total nonsense at CUSU Council. In fact, it barely gives them the chance to act out their manifesto. And incidentally, not everyone takes the President election seriously; many people, in fact, vote because they think it would be funny if someone were to be elected.

Now let me just pause for a moment here, and remind you what the article was about. It was categorically not about the protest on 30th. It was about CUSU – and our role, as students, in interacting with it. I was a bit amused to read a complaint about my article, saying I should focus on getting people involved, rather than complaining about the extremists. Well, that is what my article is saying. We need to get involved, and get a real debate going, and get our genuine views heard, rather than just let politically overactive people get the better of us. CUSU Council is one of the most useless and least representative bodies that could ever have been conceived of. I’m not saying that it should bury its head in the sand; what I’m saying is that we should start watching what our representatives (so called) are doing, and bring them to account if we don’t like it.

I still very much hold to my point that Cambridge is mostly full of dull politicos – and ones that just love making cheap or personal political points whilst not bothering to instigate interesting conversation. I don’t hate every Tory voter, or indeed every Tory politician; in fact, I try to not hate everyone, and try to understand their point of view. I suppose part of that is dealing with homophobes; but I let it spill over into my political life too. We don’t win elections by hating other people; we win by listening to them, and then by debating with them, trying to persuade them over to our point of view. For the extremists, winning elections doesn’t matter, of course; but for the rest of us, going on and on about some off the cuff remark a politician (student or otherwise) makes, or having a go about their faith, or finding cheap ways to attack people, just turns people off. The more personal politics has become, the more bored people get of it; and the Westminster-village syndrome seems to have come to Cambridge. Get over yourselves, stop being ‘outraged’ by some cheap political (and generally unfair) point – and convince people to vote for your side. It’s been a total embarrassment seeing the centre left at Cambridge consistently refuse to take a stand against the more ridiculous things that the extremists come out with; you will lose the centre left votes, and that is a damning of public life for a generation.

It’s been interesting to see how many people are totally rude in their responses to me; I’m actually quite a nice and fair minded kind of fellow, who would more than happily sit down and discuss these things with you. And calling me far right is extraordinarily odd; don’t be silly. Ten minutes in my company can quite easily convince you otherwise. And please, please, try to read my articles correctly, rather than making your own conclusions and then shaping my words around them.

Now before I deal with the walk out question, I would like to draw your attention to the Veolia issue. I am somewhat interested that few people mentioned it; and I do hope the vote doesn’t come to quorum. However, it is worth noting that the organisation that is generally behind these votes is one that wants to smash apart the state of Israel. Now the problems in that area are manifold, and of course cannot be considered here, especially by someone as ignorant as me. However, finding a sensitive and sensible solution probably doesn’t involve rubbish, breaking UK law, creating tension and continuing the state of misery.

Right, now to the walkout. My views on the walkout are different to my views on what I think that CUSU should do. Do I, and will I, support the day of action in some circumstances? Yes. But that’s because I’m a member of the BMA, and they do. The UCU, incidentally, are still in negotiations. Some are striking over pensions; some over cuts. Even the Labour leadership says that a solution can still be found. So it’s not all obvious just yet. However, if, as seems the case, working people are being messed about, where factually they need not be to the same extent (and here I am looking at the pragmatics of a situation where we are in trouble financially, for a whole variety of reasons, but where pensions deals and pay changes are being done behind closed doors and will little listening to interested parties), then I fully, fully support their right to take action. As a student doctor, I cannot strike; and I believe that is fair, and wouldn’t ever dream of doing so. However, for those who legally can, and morally feel they should, then I give them my 100% support.

The odd part, though, is CUSU’s demanding (please don’t see it as simple support – they are demanding this) a walkout of lectures that day. Now, it’s pretty close to the end of term, so there probably won’t be many lecturers. Oh, and on that point, how is walking out of a lecture (i.e. one where the lecturer has turned up) showing solidarity to that lecturer? It’s all a bit strange. not a lawyer, but I’m unsure as to its legality (considering secondary picketing etc.). But the point is: should CUSU be demanding it?

Well let’s take the second point first. It’s very clear to me that we didn’t elect an executive that ever expressed this view on demanding students not learn for a day. So the people putting this view forward are some dullards who rock up to CUSU Council to either get out of there as quickly as possible, or to put forward their extremist views. There aren’t many people that take it terribly seriously, and hence why we get this nonsense passed, so people can get to the Cow asap.

CUSU represents a huge body of student opinion, and should reflect the complexities of a situation like that on 30th November. CUSU should be a facilitator in matters of politics, protecting students and making sure they can express their views; and it should be a great actor in matters of university policy and student welfare. Demanding that students walk out alienates a huge number, and as it’s not even in support of UCU, let alone the whole body of university lecturers (very few of whom have asked us to walk out; and if they did, I imagine a large number of students would agree to do so, on an individual basis). CUSU should not be meddling in things like this; it’s not a union in the sense that Unite is, and it should be something that represents all, not just a few, students. That’s not to say people shouldn’t walk out, or show some form of solidarity; but it is to say that CUSU shouldn’t be demanding it.

Will I be walking out on 30th? As I’ve already stated, in the spirit of the law, I feel I cannot walk out, but I will certainly be showing my support.

As BMA Cambridge Med Students Chair, will I be urging BMA students to show solidarity in some form? Yes. And why? Because we are a trade union, and it is our belief that our members are being messed about by a government that refuses to negotiate. Do I believe that the pension age shouldn’t rise? No – we are living longer, and factually it is impossible for it not to do so, economically. It’s good news we’re healthier and living longer – but of course a staged transition is important, particularly in the case of women, who currently retire earlier than men (and live longer!). Should we increase our contributions? Probably, but in a staged and affordable manner. Do we need some cuts to save some government money? Yes, but they needn’t be so hard, fast and unpleasant as the current plans are.

As a student, will I be showing support to lecturers who ask for it, if they convince me that they are being taken for a ride by a government that won’t listen and refuses to negotiate? Yes. Is that my choice? Yes. Should CUSU be facilitating this? Yes. Should they be demanding that I do so, even though the facts aren’t all out yet, and UCU hasn’t even decided to strike? Absolutely not. CUSU – give us the facts, and let us decide for ourselves, in such a complex situation. Even suggest that you think we should, given your reading of the facts, at the time (not over a month before). But don’t demand it, because you will alienate far too many of your members. And waste far too much time and money on political posturing than improving the welfare and day to day life of students.

So don’t all start jumping to conclusions because you don’t read an article correctly. Get your facts straight.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Loony left and the destruction of CUSU


Politics is rather boring.
Or at least the people who practice it usually are. Add the pseudo-intellectual arrogance of a Cambridge student into the mix, and you are stuck with a rather silly, ideologically driven and evidentially sparse set of ideas, propagated by a bunch of self-styled political students, mouthing off at whoever (or often, whatever) will listen to them. No wonder no-one really cares – even at the last general election, a large number of students didn’t bother to turn out; not that electing a Liberal Democrat has made much difference.  And as for CUSU – quite rightly it is considered a bit of a dullard’s game.
You only have to turn up to a ‘meeting’ of the fortnightly CUSU Council to see what happens when a bunch of self-important, self-interested and extraordinarily boring people get together to slam their own, usually totally ridiculous, policies on an executive – and I use the term very lightly. Our CUSU executive has to implement all the nonsense that gets thrown their way every other Monday – and having watched this pantomime for a couple of years, something fairly worrying is happening – and something that nobody seems to know about.
Now all student unions have been plagued for years by people who think that their role is to launch an armada against Mugabe or send the tanks into Milton Keynes – and who think that anyone outside of the room they are in will actually care what they have to say - but there’s a whole new phenomenon taking place in Cambridge. It’s something that has been slowly creeping up on us since the rather moronic raising of tuition fees, and the smash and burn culture of the last year or so – where the best way to show anger is apparently to break into expensive shops and steal plasma TVs. Very few people thought that the tuition fee increase was a good idea. But a group that has really benefitted from this are beginning to wreak their own particular brand of havoc on the university.
I’m talking about the far left extremists. The bad gang of alleged Marxists/Communists (all with iPad and MacBook Pro in hand) out to save Cambridge from the excesses of the bourgeoisie.  To be honest with you, I’m not too sure who is in the latter category, but so far as I can tell, it’s anyone who’s not them. I, for one, am apparently one of the first up against the wall (rather invitingly put, I feel), when the revolution comes. I’m not sure if they are actually so unwell as to believe that it will come – but they seem pretty convinced.
Well, this lot have decided that it’s time they made their move; and their ingenious plan is to start becoming members of CUSU Council – mostly unelected, if they can (why break the habit of a lifetime), and mostly in the MCRs (how they have the time or inclination to complete a degree, I simply can’t understand; how is the world going to fundamentally shift on its axis without their help?). I don’t think their entire reason is to become a member of a politburo, although I imagine their sitting around with a bunch of the ‘saved’ is probably helping massage their egos; they’re there because they’ve realised they can cause a lot of trouble – and that nobody seems to care.
Well, I think we should. CUSU is now demanding a walk out of all lectures on 30th November, because our representatives asked them to. There is also to be a referendum on who clears our bins, which probably won’t (and shouldn’t) get to quorum, but will waste a whole bunch of money. And this is just the start of the ideology seeping out of their diseased political udders. Last year, they were in a decisive minority, and any calls, on our behalf, for strikes, walkouts, occupations (the most silly and pointless of all protests), pickets, condemnation of the university, hatred of Israel, fury at preventing genocide in Libya, etc, were ignored. If they try it this year, they might just win.
This is our council, and they are our representatives. It’s time we took them in hand. Most of us are pretty much centre left here. And most of us are here to learn, to debate, and to discuss; not to walk out, smash up or make sweeping political statements. CUSU is our students union, and should be dealing with students’ issues. Let’s get them out, vote them out, debate them out of town; and the body of student opinion can wrench their attempted iron curtain out like a massive magnet, and drop it back in the political doldrums, where it belongs, and where their ideas can continue to fester and bore others.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Till death us do part - unless you're a gay, of course.

I now pronounce you…man and wife.

Now I’m fairly sure that a thousand different people could take issue with the somewhat archaic and sexist way of announcing a union between two people – man, take home your wife, your property. Woman, you are now someone’s wife. Even – you may kiss the bride. Not terribly 21st century is it. But then, as you will be told time and time again, God’s will doesn’t change, so neither should the view or teaching of religion. ‘Women, be subject to your husbands’. Etc. The list goes on, and that’s only Christianity. So why on earth would the state want to broaden the church’s view of marriage to include gays?

Well, first and foremost, the church has missed the boat on this one. They lost their stranglehold on marriage once the concept was accepted as law from other religions, and then when the state took the step of making marriage, in name and form, a state function. In fact, marriages are only legal if the presiding person is empowered by the state to sign off the legal documents - and this is not the way a lot of churches now work. Of course, their argument will be that the act of marriage is separate from the state accepting it as a legal fact. That may be the case, but the reality of the situation is that marriage is now, in name and in legal reality, a function of the state.

Now what is marriage for? Not perhaps something we can come to a clear answer on - and with good reason. In fact, the inability to come to a single answer for all those who enter into it suggests just how pluralistic the definitions are, and indeed, should be.

Those from a church background seem to be the most vociferously opposed to the recently announced legislation to call a union between two people of the same gender a marriage. In fact, it's one of the five non-negotiables (http://www.saviorquest.com/news1/catholicvoters.htm) - things that Roman Catholics must not vote for - indeed they must not vote for a candidate who is even lukewarm on the issues. On the list are genuine matters of life and death: abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, embryonic stem cell research. But gay marriage? Really? Of course, the arguments surrounding the sacraments and their 'denigration' could go on forever - I do suggest reading the non-negotiables simply to read the wonderful phrase, that 'legal recognition of homosexual unions actually does homosexual persons a disfavor [sic] by encouraging them to persist in what is an objectively immoral arrangement'. But it seems those in the church and elsewhere miss the point - they believe in free will - and what the allowing of gay marriage is really doing, ismaking a change to civil law. It is generally accepted (as parties were voted in with it as an objective) that the citizens of the UK do not oppose gay committed long-term partnerships. Civil marriage means many things to many people. Many, if not all, of these things apply as much to gays and lesbians as they do to straight couples. So to call such a union between two people anything other than civil marriage, if that is what is wanted, seems disingenuous, silly, pointless, and not terribly grounded in fact.

Now I anticipate the standard complaints here, and I'll tackle a couple of them.

Firstly, marriage was and is for the creation of children. The standard argument against is 'but what about old people getting married, shouldn't they not do it, as they can't procreate...etc etc'. Well I imagine a Roman response would be that, if by a miracle, God wanted them to have children, it would be possible. This is pretty shoddy reasoning (I mean, it's about as likely for a gay man to have a child with another man as any post-menopausal woman or one who's had a hysterectomy) - however, it's not the only shoddy bit of reasoning amongst some church teaching, so it can't come as a total surprise. But this is missing the point. Over time, institutions, rituals, etc, all change and remould themselves to the current state of affairs in a democratic nation. So, although 'marriage' was originally the church's alone (together with teaching on children), since becoming a civil institution, marriage is pluralistic in its definitions, and hence saying 'this is what it used to stand for and you can't change it' doesn't hold much ground; welcome to democracy, your Holiness. What we call civil marriage is often for different reasons, and hence may be considered as different to religious marriage (particularly traditional Roman marriage). But you lost the name when the state got hold of it - and you don't have the monopoly on it. Which takes me onto my second point:

The inclusion of homosexuals within the legal civil marriage framework does not mean that this is a threat to religious marriage, and neither is the state forcing religions to perform such marriages. In fact, it's interesting that the church even cares about it; every marriage in the UK not celebrated by a Roman Catholic priest is 'invalid' anyway - so just add this to the list! What is interesting is that groups like the Quakers are upset that, at present, they CANNOT perform gay marriages or even civil partnerships in their buildings, despite them having no religious reasons not to - the state is in fact preventing them from performing rites that they want to perform - not allowing much religious freedom there then! What the current proposed law will do is allow these ceremonies to be performed by the state, just like ordinary civil marriage, and also give more religious freedom.

Adoption is also something which is constantly dropped into arguments against gay marriage - as though one comes hand in hand with the other. The arguments that surround this could go on forever, but let's not deliberately join the two. Just because gays can marry, it doesn't necessarily mean that adoption is going to be slipped through the back door. The two are separate arguments. Let's keep it that way.

'Civil partnerships are enough; why bother with marriage'. Because civil partnerships are generally considered to be a somewhat derogatory and offensive way of denigrating the importance of a union. Why shouldn't there be two married husbands or wives? Anyone suggesting civil partnerships are 'enough' needs to look at their semantic complaints - marriage is marriage, it's recognised as an official union. There is no need for two steams - it's equality or nothing.

This all sounds a little hard-line, I suppose, but I suppose it is somewhat tiring to hear pseudo-philosophical meandering from within the church criticising state civil gay marriage as though it causes major problems to them. 'It offends the sacraments'. Deal with it. Gays have dealt with a fair bit of offense from the church over the years - and it's here that the church has got left behind. They could have been the institution of love - but instead, too often it looks like it's the institution of rules for rules' sake, and casting of the first stone.

I haven't even had a chance to rejoice rally against the injustice shown to intersex, XX males, XY females, transgender people, and a whole number of others - who should a man who is genetically female marry, for example. The church is well behind, and so is the state - these are true 21st century things to be thinking through; gays are so last century.

So let's rejoice in the slow but sure advance towards equality for homosexuals in expressing their love. And I suppose let's feel a little bit sorry for the church which rather missed the boat.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Loosely educative - a review

I'm torn over whether university should be totally free or have some form of contribution - it's a toughie and I don't think there's an easy answer. If it's totally free, then it means people who don't access HE are paying for those of us who do; but the argument that counters this is that HE is an inherently good thing for the nation. However, there have been some interesting mess-ups about the recent fee hike, which, like a lot of the rest of the stuff this government has thrown at us, was rushed and doesn't seem terribly well thought through.

Today OFFA has released the fact that a third of universities are planning on charging £9k - and the average will be over £8k - a year - for university. This is in stark contrast to the comments coming out of Downing Street not that long ago, in particular from Dave's Deputy PM and Simon Hughes, who went on and on about it only being a 'few', and it seems that they all live up to the 'access' criteria they have to abide by. So much for this only being a minor problem. (On that point, the government has said that a fee increase will not put off poorer students from applying to university. Yet they have been going on about only a few universities charging the extra. Is the government suggesting that poorer students will still apply because there are still cheap options available - as what else would be the benefit of some universities remaining cheaper? It's all very confused.)

So what has this done to the government's finances? Well apparently the fee increases may make loans unaffordable! Whether that is true or not is hard to know - but as a medical student, this is of particular interest...

Undergraduate medical students currently pay year 1-4, then there is an NHS bursary for year 5 and 6 (or the last two years at any rate - the graduate bursary is less generous). This means that, excluding living costs (which are considerable, especially in the clinical years), a medical degree costs the student around £14,000 (which is probably about a tenth of the true cost). Once the fees raise, it will cost £36,000. However, this bursary has only won a reprieve for a year - after 2012 intake, it looks like it will be removed, because it is UNAFFORDABLE! So the government cannot even afford it's own fees! That means that a medical course will cost up to £54,000 - £40k more than at present.

You might argue that because doctors earn good money this isn't a problem. However, let's not forget that doctors are public servants - and are performing a vital function. The best doctors are in it because they want, at heart, to help and heal - not because they want to earn lots. We need the best, academically and personally, to be in the profession. Yet if we tell them they must pay a lot more than any other degree, what on earth does that say. Not only does it say that we don't value education - but also that we don't value medics. If you study medicine, in other words, you'll be paying for it for years. So much for wanting a better NHS for patients...

But, of course, medicine isn't the point when we look at fee increases, according to the proponents of the idea. The problem we 'romantics' about education have is that we think all education and degrees are like the ones that used to exist - the idea of a degree for a degree's sake. Well, maybe. Maybe some degrees aren't terribly useful. Maybe some of the degree subjects could be taught in different ways. Maybe some things do provide benefit solely to the individual. Maybe payment for those should work in a different way. Maybe the arbitrary level of 50% of the population going to university was pointless and hasn't acheived much (surely getting the best kids from any socio-economic background to university rather than just increasing numbers is a far more sensible definition of 'access'). But that doesn't mean that increasing the fees across the board is the answer - simply making the current system, a very much imperfect system, affordable, rather than fixing it, seems a bit pointless.

The associated 'access' argument about allowing some students in to universities with lower grades is also missing the point. Schemes like ones run at some of the top universities that take children with natural talent but poorer grades, and get them up to speed, are very sensible, and to be applauded. The question that isn't being asked, however, is the most important one - why the hell do these schemes need to exist? What on earth is wrong with our school system that allows that to happen? My advice to government ministers desperate to meddle in universities and reduce the private school intake - sort the damned school system out first. Give the kids a level playing field and give them a chance. And don't try the money argument on me.

'We can't afford it' is the new phrase of government - that's the main reasoning for the cuts. But we can afford Libya (which has prevented genocide and which is thus fully justified). We can afford to help bail out Ireland. We can afford helping the IMF bail out Greece. We can afford the Olympics. Some of these are essential and important, of course. But if we can afford to do them, we have the money to do so - or at least we are willing to borrow to do so. That rather removes the government's 'necessary fast and deep cuts' arguments doesn't it. How about our poorest and most needy being 'essential and important'? And how about the country's future - at the mercy of its education - being 'essential and important'?

What a mess.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Graduation 2011

The following is an Address I gave in Queens' College (Cambridge) Chapel at the Graduation Service, 30th June 2011:

It’s a very great honour and a privilege to address you today, especially on the eve of what will be the first step along the road of adulthood and responsibility for many of us. It’s very hard to look back over the past three years without a fair share of happiness, regret, yes, and amusement. All of us have changed a good deal from the somewhat na├»ve and childish selves that entered Queens’ not that long ago; we are not fully formed – of course – but Queens’ has, and will always, leave a mark on us – one, I believe, that has shaped us for the better.
We are deeply lucky here to have that sense of community that a college brings. Even if it does mean everybody knowing everyone else’s business, it also means that there are always people there to pick you up if you are down; always people there who are, in a funny kind of way, just like you; and there are always people there to crib off. Relationship is, or at least should be, at the very heart of what it means to be human. Love, compassion, kindness, understanding – none of these are terribly popular when it comes to the cut-throat world of business (or, as I have found out, applying for research placements) – but without them, the very fabric of our society begins to fall apart. We are deeply lucky to have been here – and the question we must ask, at the end of it all, is – being given this great privilege of learning, what should we do with it? What was it for?
It’s perhaps difficult for me to stand here as a Christian and attempt to think this through with you. The church has managed, over its long and chequered history, to be cast as an engine of division and hurt as much as a force for social good. The bible and church tradition has been used to prop up slavery, to justify the burning of human beings because of their differing theology, and in more recent times, some groups still use it to prevent women from serving at the altar, and tell gays they are inherently sinful for showing love.
Let me tell you a story. In 1920s Harvard, it was decided that the sin of homosexuality was causing a, and I quote, ‘stain’, on the reputation of the place. Student after student was expelled. A mother wrote to the Dean of Harvard: "You could have done much good," she wrote, "had you perhaps had a little less sense of justice and a little more of the spirit of Jesus in your heart." Perhaps in today’s times, we could learn a little from that mother.
So what is that spirit of Jesus – and why is it relevant to this great period of transition in our lives? Well, that spirit of Jesus is love, and it is that love, so much stronger than anything else in our broken and sad world, which holds the key to our really bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. How many times have we passed people living in the street by Kings and rather than loving, simply judged them? How many times have we told ourselves – I’m not going to give them money, but I will give it to charity to help them – and then never bothered to do so. I, for one, looking back at the number of times I got it wrong, am ashamed.
Christ, of course, doesn’t mince his words. ‘The gate is narrow, and the road hard’ we are told. Too often we opt for the easy way out – the turning of a blind eye to an obvious injustice (take our recent alliances with China to support trade, whilst some human beings are being rounded up and executed for disagreeing with the authorities by the very same Chinese leadership; or our continued purchase of cheap clothes whilst human beings a quarter of our age are working in sweat shops in what can only be called slavery). But it’s not happening in our consciousness – so we don’t care. Talk of a global village is, of course, political claptrap. But it shouldn’t be – and it is for our generation, and for people who have benefitted from the amazing opportunities of Cambridge, to change that.
But will we? The world we live in, and are about to work in, is not designed for those who care – the easy road is very much in the ascendency. It is hard not to be totally swept up in the pointless acquisition of wealth or material goods that we are constantly sold by commercial after commercial, celebrity after celebrity. ‘Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ And we are given a solution: ‘Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find’. If we spent a little more time asking and searching, rather than judging and taking, how much more fulfilled and rich our lives would become.
But no, we are told that modern life is only worthwhile if you have the greatest possible material happiness; happiness is that perfect house, or those perfect designer sunglasses, or that perfect and illicit sexual encounter. John Terry, and I believe I can say that without being lifted off by the police, is just the last in a long line of celebrities who promote the lifestyle of take, take, take, and who cares about the consequences. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. Just how many of us follow that, truly? Who cares about the consequences? Well Christ quite clearly tells us – ‘I do’. ‘Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father’. In the words of David Brent, we can talk the talk, but if we don’t walk the walk, or at least attempt to, then there’s not really much point.
Christ tells us: ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. So, as we come to the end of our three or four years here at Queens’, I suppose what the real question should be is – where are we going to store up our treasure? What will we do with all the learning and opportunities we have been deeply privileged to share in? Will we continue to sacrifice it on the altar of consumerism – where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal – or will be try to look a bit higher, and try to become more like the lamp that gives light to all in the house? Jesus tells all those who try to follow him that we are to be the light of the world – but the more that we turn towards ourselves, and selfishness, greed and ignorance, and away from asking, searching, loving, then the more that light becomes hidden. Life, and love, are deeply intermingled, and the more the latter influences the former, the more fulfilled it will be. Because, at the end of it all, we will all die; and if we haven’t shown love to those we leave behind, then our legacy is as nothing.
We have the chance to make the difference, we have the chance to be radical, but will we grasp it, and go through the narrow gate, or will we fall by the wayside and take the easy road? God give us strength to follow him as pilgrims on the route to the cross, working for the good of all, and not just for ourselves.

I will finish with a Pilgrims’ Prayer by St Gildas:

In health may I and all of my companions

Safely arrive with no harm or injury –

May my boat be safe in the waves of the ocean,

My horses safe on the highways of the earth,

Our money safe as we carry it with us

To pay due heed to our poor necessities.

May our enemies fail to do harm to us,

However evil the counsels which inspire them.

In the eternal name of Christ our Master,

May my roads all lie plain before me,

Whether I climb the rugged heights of mountains,

Or descend the hollow depths of valleys,

Or trudge the lengthy roads on open country,

Or struggle through the thickets of dense forest.

May I walk always in straight ways and shining

To longed-for places . . .

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I promised myself it was exam term - but someone got me into a PICKLE

I actually cannot believe what happened tonight.

Eric Pickles gets the name for being one of the rudest and most unpleasant members of the Cabinet. I hadn't seen this side of him and thought it worth giving him a chance. I went to tonight's union speech to listen (not to disrupt like the extremists outside, who were determined to prevent free speech).

What a disappoinment. He started off by giving a seemingly fair account of what the current government are doing - he beat down some questions about rich councils keeping more money by noting that they had less to start with - so far, so good. He had some people convinced. He filled up with righteous anger when someone asked him why he was attacking the poor - he was from a council estate, he would never attack the poor, and how dare anyone suggest he would. He had us convinced - here was a man who genuinely did believe that his philosophy would help the poorest. Wrong, of course, but not out there to 'get the poor' as the protesters were suggesting.

Then I made the disastrous move of asking him why he thought the current Tory party, despite Cameronism, were still thought of as 'hating the poor'. I had already noted in my question how sad I thought it was that the extremists were attempting to prevent grown-up politcal debate. What I wanted was just that - from the mouth of someone who was Chairman of the Conservative Party. Why is it that people think they hate the poorest - from someone who passionately wants to help the poor.

His response was one of the most depressing in my lifetime. I can safely say I have never come across such unprovoked and vicious rudeness in my life. His response (and bear with me, because it is fairly incomprehensible) - 'it's because of posh people like you joining the Labour Party'. And so on. I admit, I shouldn't have shouted 'oi' at a Minister of State. But I asked him - where is your serious political discussion? What on earth do you know about me? What is my background? Just because I speak in a particular way, why does that link me with one social grouping or another? And why does it matter? - and that is the crux of the matter. If the Torie truly believe in meritocracy - why does it matter?

I joined the Labour Party, like many others who have had 'priveleged lives' like me (and believe me it's not been that privileged - losing a father far too young, being the only one who is the 'poor boy' amongst a bunch of public schoolies - but I accept, the opportunities I've had have been amazing - and they're opportunites that every kid born in a developed country like ours should have BY RIGHT) because I give a toss about people who haven't had these opportunites, and because I think we should be offering better education, better life chances, and higher income to people who haven't had the chance of a pampered upbringing, or who have been dealt one of life's blows.

The major difference between my ideology and that of the Tories is this - I simply don't believe that everyone 'can' do everything by themselves, and make it up the social scale in the UK, because of the way that our structure still is. The Tories do. They believe in hands off government - that is their ideological reason for cutting areas which will hit the poorest hardest - because they believe that those dealt the biggest blow in society can simply sort it out themselves. It's not true, and it's been shown not to be true by study upon study. Tories like Pickles don't hate the poor - and I believe them; but they do totally misunderstand the social structures and the reasons that people start off, and remain, poor in the UK.

So tonight has depressed me. I can't bear extremists on the 'left' saying that all Tories hate the poor - because it's not true. They're just wrong about how to help the poorest (and there's certainly a question mark as to whether they care about the poor who won't move up by meritocracy). Success in life and in general are much about the opportunities afforded to children - and the poorer you are, the fewer the opportunities - and the fewer there will be if more cuts are made in services for the poor.

Tonight was also depressing because it highlighed just the level of political discussion that is present in the UK now. The other day, I mentioned that I was bored by the constant personal attacks made by people in politics on each other in order to make party political points - and was rebuked by a Tory, who said it always came from the left. Well, rubbish. Tonight, a pathetic attack came from Eric Pickles - a cheap, boring, and groundless attack, based on nothing other than prejudice.

Well, Tories, you've always been good at prejudice - I'm just suprised it's my accent you are attacking this time. Ten years ago it would be the fact that I was in love with another man. People with chips on their shoulder, of all different kinds, need to get them well away from the political arena. Just because I was lucky enough to be privileged (and not arrogant enough to think that I deserved it) doesn't mean I have no idea about the poorest, or that I don't care about them. Pickles - you were cheap tonight, and you let your govenment down. But worse than that, your ideology and political philosophy is letting down our society and the poorest in society, and I pray fervently for the day that you are banished from the benches of power, back to the easy benches of opposition. Or maybe people will realise how rude you are and relieve you of a seat - who knows. What I do know is that with a Cabinet like that, the Labour Party just needs to hold tight and wait.

Ed - the fightback has begun, and at the moment, it's own goals all the way from Cameron et al. It's time for the Labour Party to fight; to fight and to win. The Tories' cuts are ideological - and it's time they were beaten.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

NUS distress

Before I start today’s ‘beginner’, ‘ignorant’, ‘right-wing’ etc piece, I would like to make a couple of observations about the way my last article was received. On one side, those who identify as ‘hard left’ said it was right-wing. But my argument, that people rather than political ideas are attacked, shone through. So many of the aggressive and unpleasant comments attacked me personally. Charlie only cares about his own class, middle class bastard, he just asks his parents for money, so on, so forth, so tired. ‘I always assumed he was a Tory’ rather summed it up – because there are two lessons here. Firstly, don’t make unsubstantiated allegations about someone’s person or personal circumstances, because it leads to the charge of ignorance, or worse, arrogance. To those who attacked me personally – get to know my person first. And secondly, if you disagree with someone, at least work out why you do, and have a coherent argument against what they are saying, rather than just spurting a tired ideology. A political argument is interesting and helps shape ideas; a political diatribe, viciously attacking the other side but not understanding or engaging, gains nothing, and is frankly a bit too establishment for young people to be getting involved in. And please, try to be consistent. ‘Doctors are working class’ says one, as they sell their labour; and yet I’m told I am putting my own class priorities first, as a bad thing. I got rather confused – but also rather depressed by the fact that these who attacked me identify as ‘left wing’ and should naturally feel more affinity to people sharing a somewhat common goal than those more to the right. But no, apparently not; and what a shame that truly is. Maybe being sure of yourself gets you far in politics, but if you don’t listen, you might as well give up. Perhaps not listening is part of the ‘hard left’s’ psyche, but it won’t win people over. Still, they probably don’t care.

But anyway. Today sees the start of one of the most derided but potentially most dangerous conferences in the union calendar: the National Union of Students. Aaron Porter, a moderate and deeply committed President, has been somewhat forced out, and there is a real choice for next year’s leader. Slightly right, slightly left, and ‘hard left’.  And the extremists might just win – which would be a disaster for the NUS, and which will lead to distrust from those making and enforcing the law, the public and the majority of ordinary hardworking students. Delegates need to remember that they are representative (note to extremists – representative is when you’re elected for something – like I was – thus I can call myself ‘representative’) of their parishes, and should be voting as such.

The NUS has long been seen as a spring board to power for those centre-lefties who want to make it to the Shadow Cabinet by the time they’re thirty (what an awful thought – how about getting a life and having a life?). And this, together with various pressure groups, has led to a lot of non-student motions being debated. Let’s take one, for example. Israel Palestine, a situation that is as difficult as it is appalling, and one which I wouldn’t believe myself able to comment on, having only a basic grasp of the history and politics of the area. However, there are very strong views on both sides, and it’s something that should be debated in a number of forums. I’m all for debate. But debate and discussion is a very different thing to passing motions and ‘speaking for the student movement’. So a motion condemning Israeli ‘apartheid’ in Palestine, or Palestinian ‘terrorism’ in Israel, goes one step too far. Because it deigns to speak on behalf of ‘students’, not just a couple of politically active and ideologically driven wannabe politicians or activists of the future. It’s not that what is said is necessarily wrong – it’s the forum which shouldn’t be used.

A students’ union must be for students’ issues. The standard argument is that ‘what affects the public as a whole affects students as well’, and this is true – but that doesn’t mean that it is relevant or appropriate for the NUS (or our own beloved CUSU) to pass motions on it. It is perfectly appropriate for a students’ union – a lobby group, if you will – to oppose increases to tuition fees, if that is representing its members. It is also appropriate for the same union to be campaigning to save maintenance bursaries, etc. Because, as a union representing its members in their capacity as STUDENTS, with very specific things that we, as a body, take into consideration uniquely, it should be an effective lobbying force (whether it is or not is debatable – and perhaps it isn’t so effective because of all the peripheral non-student-specific issues that are motioned).

For those of us (and there are a lot, although most get so bored and fed up with political posturing at NUS/CUSU that they don’t get involved) that disagree with non-student-specific things being motioned at student unions, what are we supposed to do? The procedural idea of ‘this shouldn’t be debated, move on’ is a good one, but often it doesn’t work.  Instead, we end up having to speak against things that we personally agree with, but which are simply not the domain of the students’ union. I have personally been labelled a fascist this year for moving things to a vote, or voting against things, which are traditional ‘left-wing home-territory’. But if people actually listened to the reasons we have, when we oppose motioning for non-student-specific issues, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so vilified.

I’m all for political discussion, and I’m all for students getting involved and engaged with difficult issues worldwide and in this country (although I think it’s important to remember that students are generally inexperienced and don’t pay income tax), but do NOT use our student-specific lobbying body to launch a general non-student-specific political campaign. Some of the stuff up for debate in the next couple of days will truly affect the student experience. Some of it will be ineffective. And some of it will have nothing, at all, to do with student-specific business, and it should NOT be debated. And if it is, then I will have to vote against, because sometimes accepting your own potential ignorance, and remembering what you are doing – that is, representing a body which has mandated you to do so – is more important than your own political convictions. I am not there as Charlie Bell, member of Labour. I am there as Charlie Bell, delegate of CUSU to the NUS.

I trust and hope that we gain an effective leader, who will hold together the disparate strands of the student body who belong to the NUS. If we don’t, those who elect an extremist will plunge their colleagues – those who elected them to vote on student-specific issues, and get a better deal for future students – into a mire of destruction – and into an NUS that many will no longer feel is their union, and which will not be the representative body it must seek to be.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The ignorance of arrogance

A rather boring and tired complaint in the press is that 'left and right are just too similar nowadays'. Whilst this is blatantly not true, there is perhaps an element of truth in what they are saying. What that is, is that appealing to the centre-ground has never been so important. And what is that centre-ground? Essentially, people who neither have a burning desire for immediate social justice, but are not particularly selfish; people who are somewhat ambivalent about the 'class system' (whatever that means); people who want to see what a government can do for them, whilst giving a toss, to a variety of extents, about what happens to other people.

This is an unashamedly Labour blog, by the way. I am a fair and square social democrat. My argument here is that classic Marxism simply won't work in order to improve the electoral chances of Labour. I smash back the criticism that this means parties are just in it to win - of course they need to win to get power and thus implement their policies - but there must be ideology behind it. Marxism, and all those who are determined to turn the Labour Party into this kind of party, doesn't work - because it is deeply arrogant. It is misplaced arrogance, as well, and alienates the huge number of people who support the Labour aims, but don't identify as 'working class' - and it is deeply patronising to those who do.

It's rather similar to the selfishness of those far to the right (the keep-the-poor-in-their-place mentality) - it's the obsession with class. Blair famously said this is a classless society - this is, sadly, seemingly rubbish. We do have some form of class, in that we have some form of social strata. It's not a nice thing to have, but we have to accept it's there, and try to find a way to break it down. But Marxists love, just love, to go on about it, and about how to 'change' it. Let's be very clear here, if you are not 'working class', then you cannot help with bringing about the 'revolution'. They are not arguing for social change, with improved social mobility, with higher lower wages (or indeed closing the wage gap). No, instead, they say that the 'working class' are the only ones who have the ability and, let us say, 'right' to bring change - that is by bringing down the government and instigating measures such as public ownership etc. This isn't a review of Marxism - just a review of why it doesn't make any sense for the party to adopt it.

The Labour Party needs to have this discussion, and they need to have it now - even if it has been had before - because opposition can lead to extremism, if left unchecked. If they go down the Marxist line, it will be a total disaster. On the CULC blog, the argument has been made that we need a Labour party for the working class labour movement. What Labour has come to represent is so much more than that. Atlee, speaking of Labour, summed it up, that Labour legislation was ‘designed not for one class but for all’ (which is not denegrating the poorest, but appealing to the richest). The working class labour movement is, of course, at the heart - the heart which is all about social justice. But that now includes so much more than the outdated and unacceptable idea that firstly, there is something called the 'working class' that will always be the same, and is immobile; and secondly, that people who were, by chance, born into a different background, cannot care about social justice, improving the lot of the poorest, etc. What utter tosh.

Let me say it - the scrapping of the old clause 4 was one of the best things done by New Labour. New Labour got a lot wrong - of course - but that particular (unpopular) move was a triumph. The Labour Party needs to stand for social justice, and mustn't lose its roots - in the trade union movement, supporting the employed (that is, people) against the sometimes uncontrollable excesses of capitalism. But it also needs to keep its wide-church feel. It needs to welcome (in fact, recruit) anyone who cares about social justice in all its forms - rights for the underrepresented, a fresh look at immigration, removal of oppression and discrimination, improved lowest wage, increased education, improved ecosocial mobility, and so on.

The Labour Party needs to be the party of the people - that is, all the people who can get over selfishness, and care about protection of the most vulnerable. It isn't, and shouldn't, become a party for 'class war', because that, in and of itself, is deeply arrogant, and deeply flawed. The fact that the government front bench is full of Etonians (where George Orwell, of course, attended) should not be what is attacked per se - rather, it should be their policies, which may (indeed must) have been influenced by their backgrounds (look at Atlee, Gaitskell, Foot and Blair). The whole idea behind social democracy and its Labour incarnation is that accident of birth shouldn't lead to oppression - and a sharp swing to 'the left' (and I'd argue that calling it left is spurious) is dangerous and pointless, directly contradicting this.

So, Labour, keep attempting to attract the centre, because otherwise the Labour Party will become irrelevant. You don't have to be 'working class' to care - and you shouldn't need to be, to be part of the Labour Party. Class war is damaging, dangerous, and spurious - and an obsession with it, based on political philosophy, rather than an inclusive ideological and pragmatic application of social democracy, cannot be accepted by the public at large (including those who support Labour ideals), nor allow Labour aims to be implemented.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Hands off our NHS...and why Ed might be right...

Was today the new beginning? For the first time in SO long, I cheered when I heard a Labour leader's speech. He put forward some decent ideas, argued very well against the government, and made ideological and sensible arguments against a policy. Merci Dieu. 'Red Ed' no longer... for this seemed like a man on a mission, and a man whose mission was to appeal to the country, not just the unions (cf CULC blog today) - a man taking Labour in the right direction.

And what was he arguing against? Possibly one of the most rushed, potentially damaging, and unnecessary changes to one of our public services in living memory (or indeed ever) - and one that this government promised wouldn't be on the cards before the last election. No major top-down shake up of the NHS - what a pile of rubbish. An NHS for the patients? Again, what a pile of old tut.

I had the honour of going to the BMA Medical Students Conference this last weekend, and joined my voice to hundreds, if not thousands, of health professionals and service users by speaking against and condemning the appalling changes envisaged by the government bill (which has now been 'stalled' to allow Andrew Lansley the time to explain it further).

Let me outline the big four problems:

1. GP consortia - yes, of course there should be input from medical professionals in the delivery of care, but that doesn't mean smashing the PCTs or making a bunch of managers redundant simply to make yourself look like an effective government. Of course, a load of the middle managers (the ones the government wants to get rid of) will simply end up working for the consortia rather than the PCTs, hence leading to the removal of high-level managers, the ones with the expertise. Do GPs really have the skills and time to manage health care resources? Do they really want to? Why is there no involvement AT ALL of those working in secondary and tertiary care - those actually employed by the NHS - but rather total monopoly given to those who have a very different contract structure? We should be using all clinicians to inform resource provision, and we should also be using patient groups and government. This is a huge fudge. And another problem - take for example the patient who has a series of severe headaches, and whose GP refuses to grant an MRI scan. That patient has every reason to turn to his doctor and ask her why - and ask her whether it's about saving money. And what could she say to that? I'm all for having input, but there has to be managerial input at least at some level. Chucking out all the managers (and there are indeed arguably far too many at the moment) is simply not the answer, is ideological, gets cheap points, and is dangerous. Patients, our patients, will suffer. Look instead at the managers in hospitals who are employed to order a consultant's materials - which that consultant could do by themselves (and who did a few years ago), and rationalise there, rather than making sweeping and idiotic changes to the provision of the whole of healthcare.

2. The lie about competition -  at the BMA, I heard the argument go like this: we are all medical students competing for jobs. Therefore, competition is good for patients, so stop moaning about competition between the NHS and private companies for provision of services. Simplistic? Just a little. What a load of rubbish. The difference is that competition between people for jobs, meaning the best and most qualified is likely to get the job, is good for patients. But once price becomes an issue, then quality will suffer. Fact. The government has announced that value for money will be considered by Monitor (the new watchdog) rather than simply cost, as a carrot to those appalled by the plans. Sorry? That wasn't the original intention? How can competition be anything other than dangerous if quality is not the first criterion? Put it like this: would you like a hip replacement with cheap material and labour that will last for 5 years but have quarter of the cost of one that will last for 15 years? It's value for money, it's just you'll need three in the time. If you believe that healthcare is one of the things that should be equally given to all (like education, for example), then competition is not a good thing. Why not spend the time looking at how to provide NHS treatment better, or rolling out limited competition for specific purposes? We are primarily a caring profession - caring for patients. Giving them worse options to save money simply isn't ethical. That's not to say that we can continue spending what we do (or increasing spending) on healthcare - indeed, it is thought that if we continue to increase spending like we have for the last 10 years, then we will be at 100% of GDP spent on healthcare in the not too distant future. So what we need is a rationalisation, a bottom-up decided, and then top-down implemented system, to determine what we should, can and will pay for, and how best to achieve that within the NHS.

3. Cherrypicking - arguments abound on this - suffice to say that private companies taking the cheap and profitable operations, leaving the costly and complicated ones to the NHS, will lead to the destruction of the fabric of the NHS, making it even less sustainable. Which isn't what the Tories want to do, of course...

4. The national NHS - postcode lotteries are despicable. Utterly so, and it is a failure of the last government not to have destroyed them. Devolution aside (and I'm not a huge fan of it), if we believe in a national service which provides free health care at the point of use, that is what we should provide. We don't. We provide localised health-care, so 'local people can have a voice on what their priorities are'. This is NOT a NATIONAL health service, and devolving power from national to local government in this area does two things. Firstly, it removes the blame from the Dept of Health - so when the inevitable goes wrong, they can sit back and say 'not us gov'nor'. And secondly, it further cements localism which is damaging to a national health service. In this area, like in education, we need nationwide priorities, and nationwide services that are available. If someone in Surrey can get IVF on the NHS (or any number of other treatment), then someone in West Yorkshire should be able to as well. It's not fair, it's not popular, and it's not something we should countenance any longer. Taking it to extreme - if loads of people have heart attacks in Hampshire, but few in Cambridgeshire, should you be prevented from life-saving treatment simply because you live in the latter? Of course not. So anything provided by the NHS should be exactly the same.

These reforms (if that's really what they are) are a disaster, and in the words of the BMA, we should be going for evolution, not revolution. Ed Miliband struck the nail on the head today, and I hope this is characteristic of what is to come from the Labour opposition. He suggested a cross-party think on the NHS - one badly needed and well overdue - and I just hope he is taken up on it. These reforms are a disaster, they are not popular with the public or the health service, and we need to stop them. Otherwise patients will suffer, and then why bother having an NHS at all?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Manacles, morons, money-making and morality

Internet here is about as good as Alex Salmond's policies, so if you're looking for BMA stuff check  my twitter (@charliebelllive), which will have up to the minute updates on conference. I am currently in a bar with Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of the BMA Council... so here is a blog on current affairs that I wrote on the plane...

One thing which can’t go unnoticed is the absolutely unbelievable change to the prison system in the UK. No longer are we guaranteed that the hand of justice will be fair, even and community-based – no, instead we are diving head first (well, North first, needless to say) into a world of privatised prisons.
It doesn’t sound too outrageous to start with: especially in this time of cost-cutting, moving some public services out to the private sector is the ‘austerity compassionate conservatism’ that we’re being asked to support, or at least understand. However, is this not just a step too far? Take HMP Doncaster, for example – close to home for me, and indeed for the Labour leader Ed Miliband. The idea propounded by Ken Clarke QC, is that this will be a results based prison! And how will this be measured – simply, he suggests: the fewer repeat offenders, the more cash.
Maybe I’m over-complicating things, but I thought there were a few very simple concepts that British justice ran on: innocent until proven guilty, and all equal under the law. Well the first isn’t being challenged here (although it might well be under potential new rules governing child sex offence cases), but the second seems to be.
There is just such an incredible level of stupidity involved in the new plans. Once again, much like in the fee issue, money talks, sense is put to bed, and the philosophical – ideological indeed – reasoning behind the changes is totally ignored. Clarke, a natural liberal, surely cannot be very happy with the changes – and Labour, used to being seen as too ‘soft on crime’, will be unwilling to make too much noise: but they should. Another Blair (or actually Brown) phrase comes to mind – tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The latter, in particular, is philosophical – and something the government doesn’t seem to be considering in their ‘targets’ for prisons (indeed, I thought this was the government with new politics, moving away from the target culture…).
Let’s take the money for a second. How much is this saving – according to Mr Clarke, £265 million, over the lifetime of the contracts. Is it worth it? The current government mantra that cuts need to be deep, fast and now is already being somewhat eroded by their spending serious amounts on Ireland’s bailout, Libya and the World Cup bid. I’m not suggesting these are not worthy causes (maybe more on that anon), but the fact is, if there really is NO money, and the cuts were absolutely necessary to keep us on an even keel in May 2010, how much more now needs to be cut after those ventures? Nothing? If so, then something is awry. But anyway, is the relatively small saving worth it?
I would say absolutely not. What this means is that there is likely to be a disparity in provision at different prisons – look at the arguments over NHS contract outsourcing: are we looking for quality, or price? Surely the latter is important – even if it’s dressed up as ‘value-for-money’ – and if the former suffers, then we’re in trouble. The government’s answer – challenge private prison companies on their re-offending statistics, as though that’s an accurate way to determine quality.
The whole issue is another mess for the coalition – or the government, as I was reminded it is yesterday. Unless we can tackle the causes of crime, which will arguably be exacerbated with some of the badly-targeted cuts taking place, harping on about results from private prison companies is extraordinary. It’s an odd country where taxpayers are willing for companies to make profit, and shareholders to make money from prisons. I’m not one for public ownership of all utilities – thank goodness clause 4 was removed – but I am fully in support of public ownership of the things which are the cornerstone of our democracy.
It’s like the student fees issue – the questions which need to be asked aren’t being asked. ‘Prison works’ said Michael Howard. Does it? Do we have too many people in prison? Are community orders effective? What is prison for – punishment, preventing public danger, reformation? If the latter, why the low levels of education in prison? Why is there such a high level of crime in our inner cities? Why are so many petty criminals so poorly educated – and once again, cutting education budgets is inherently stupid! Why is there a huge increase in the level of antisocial behaviour? Look at knife and gun crime. Let’s get the causes of crime and effective methods to prevent offending first, and worry about cash once there is actually a plan.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Educa-shun

What a bloody mess we're in.

Why is the current political consensus so boring and pathetic on education? That was the buzzword of the nineties, remember? 'Education, education, education', said Blair. But don't challenge the ideas of grammar schools (whilst preventing streaming in other schools, of course), for goodness sake, it'll only upset the parents. Oh, and don't over-tax public schools, either - we need the middle to vote for us.

So that was Labour then. And Labour just before May last year - a City-Academy sponsoring, revitalised party? No, not really. One boring myth peddled about Oxbridge is that our academics actively select against state school pupils, meaning that around 39% of home students at Cambridge are from private schools, compared to the 9% educated in the private sector. But of course, just a little delving into the FACTS (not opinions) does the world of good.

An Oxbridge education is supposed to be world class - that is, the best. Taking the best students. Best students, in the minds of our academics (given the appalling methods by which to judge them, our failing A Levels), are those who achieve the best grades - A*AA being the current achievement boundary. Guess what the ratio of state educated to privately educated pupils is that achieve this - about 60:40. Oh dear, nay-sayers - Oxbridge just reflects the way kids are left after school finishes at 18.

Alison Richards, the last VC of Cambridge, got into very hot water a few years ago by claiming that universities are not, and should not be, machines of social engineering. But is that so controversial? Surely universities should naturally assume the role of enforcers, rather than creators, of social mobility? Plenty of people have argued that Cambridge should employ methods of positive discrimination, to increase our state school intake, and I agree with this to a degree. What I totally disagree with is that, at interview, quotas should be drawn up on schooling. My thoughts on 'positive discriminatory' tactics that work are:
  • Increased application rates from those in non-traditional backgrounds are desirable, hence a push for access work in schools.
  • Consideration should be given to those who had a tough couple of years at school, be it through ill health, being a carer, lack of funds, necessity to work etc.
  • In so far as it is practical, in the above situations, potential as well as achievement should be considered.
  • Some form of funding (either the EMA or the more targeted - but less cash-injected - system) should be provided to help those in the above kind of situations buy books/travel etc.
  • Funding for the poorest students when at university - and an increase in the maintenance loan provided to all students (which at the moment is pathetically small, and barely covers accommodation - but which has been very cleverly overlooked in all the discussion on tuition fees).
This is not to say that those not acheiving the grades from all state-maintained schools should be given a golden ticket - obviously not - but you can take into account circumstances without unduly disadvantaging those from the private sector.

But back to my point - education. What is it for, and why do we have it? Is it an inhererent social good? Yes. Does it help our country (and world) to improve living conditions and life chances? Yes. Are a significant number of our prison population under-educated? Yes. Should we be providing a world-class and equal opportunity of education to all? Yes. Does education stay in the classroom? No. Do things like cooking, managing a budget, relgious choice, sport, music, etc, all count as education? In my opinion, yes. Should we be providing them to our children, again world-class and equal opportunity? Yes. Does social mobility suffer if we don't? Yes. Are people the most malleable before they reach 18? Yes. So what on earth are we doing cutting the education budget?!

People go on about ring fencing not working - indeed, the new Chair of the BMA has said that if health spending were truly 'ring-fenced', then we would be spending 100% of GDP on health in 50 years time! But, of all things we should be ringfencing in a time of austerity, education must, MUST, be number 1. Good education leads to better health - so in my opinion, as a medical student, indeed, education must come first. But not a single political party seems to think so. Cf my last blog - if Labour wants a priority, going back to that particular theme of Blair's would do them the world of good (although this time, try looking at more sensible ideas - yes to mobile streaming within schools, for example; and kill the private schools debate by making our state schools the best in the world, and the place to be). Invest in education; invest in good teaching, in better facilities (stop taking money from BSF for example), and in providing the next generation with the skills and knowledge they require to excel.

I will briefly touch on HE - Labour destroyed the fabric of 'HE' by moving it into BIS - the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (under His Grace Lord Mandleson, Lord Foie) - removing it from education. What a stupid mistake. Not a single party asks the simple questions - what is education for? When should it stop? Is HE really HE or just employability skills? What kind of courses should be funded? What is the public good? Should the arbitrary figure of half of the population really attend university? Until questions like these are asked, and answered, by our major parties, the whole question of tuition fees (incidentally 'free education' lost under the Labour Govt when £3000 fees were introduced) cannot even be considered.

As I say, what a mess. But a salvagable one - and one which could win the next election, couldn't it, Labour?

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Labour's mistake

Yesterday Ed Miliband made a number of silly errors - mentioning various uncomparable 'movements' in the past, and suggesting the current protests were all part of the same - but they pale in significance compared to the mistakes the Labour Party has made and is still making.

Here are a few of them, off the top of my head:

1. Ed Miliband. Inextricably linked to the big GB, less charismatic than his brother, and seemingly desperate for union approval. Not that the last thing is necessarily a bad idea, especially in the eyes of some Old Labourites, but when it's being done in a political climate where it seems to be opportunist first, ideological second, then its damaging. It also puts off the middle:

2. Putting off the middle. Elections aren't won by hard-core supporters of either side - they're won by getting the approval of the swing voters. Just because this or that party member agrees with this or that item of the government/opposition's agenda doesn't mean the public will. The centre ground is allegedly hated by the press and by people bemoaning the fact that there isn't a choice between parties any more - but it's where elections are won, and ignoring it is dangerous.

3. 'the alternative'. What alternative? Every cut seems to be opposed (even those which would be more likely to be Labour than Tory policies - like the child benefit change). Labour doesn't (and shouldn't) oppose every cut - but without an alternative proposed, Labour risks aligning with the far left, anarchists, and the like. I'm sure there are some in Labour who want this, but this will not win elections. New Labour is a reality, and whatever the next buzz word is (Next Labour - sounds a bit crummy), it has to follow on from New Labour. This is all as much about PR (not proportional representation, of course) as it is about real policy - and as much as people hate that, it's the political world we live in. Release a nice booklet saying what Labour's priorities are - and use that when arguing against specific cuts. It's not full blown policy, but it tells the voter - this is what Labour stands for, this is what we should preserve, and this is how we would do it. Not rocket science.

4. Say sorry. YES the bankers screwed up (partly down to lax regulation that was enacted by Labour and supported by the opposition); YES there has been a global crisis; but YES there was overspending by the last government - a Labour government (not that it was checked AT ALL by the opposition). A Labour government often over-spends - for good reason. When the reason for governing is improving the quality of life, and life chances, of the worst off in society, money needs to be spent. It's political suicide to raise taxes (perhaps a reason that Labour governs for shorter than Tories in general), but money has to come from somewhere. But we've learnt, to our peril, that over-borrowing is also damaging. Say sorry, mean it and bury the past, move on, promote a different course to the government, become an effective opposition. Simples.

Labour is unelectable, even at a time when the government is despised by a lot of people, when the Lib Dems are going to absolutely bomb in the next election, and when there are very deep cuts. So what are you waiting for?