Sunday, 13 July 2014

Clarity News - an exciting new website for the twenty-first century

I am involved in a brand new and very exciting project called Clarity News. 

Clarity News is a news site for the twenty-first century, featuring news, opinion and activism. Clarity aims to arm you with the tools to understand the news, to give you fresh perspectives on the issues that matter and, most importantly, the opportunity to get involved with what you read about.
We want you to:


  1. Understand the news
  1. Read the arguments
  1. Get involved
To find out more about Clarity News please read here.

Or email editor@claritynews.co.uk 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Tony Benn 'best thing that ever happened to Chesterfield'

Published on
by Benjamin Mackay (author), Huiyue Zhu (author)

"If I rescued a child from drowning, the press would no doubt headline the story: 'Benn grabs child."' Tony Benn said this in 1975 in response to how the media demonised him as a loony leftie hellbent on turning Britain into a Soviet satellite state. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a bogeyman for the press. But, over the years his image changed, and in a world where politicians don't seem to stand for anything anymore, he stood out principled, pipe-smoking and passionate.

On Thursday 14 March 2014 Tony Benn passed away. Most writers and commentators expressed their admiration and respect for him. Some commentators, like Times writer Matthew Parris, couldn't resist writing, that Benn was "a deluded leftwinger who spent much of his life and endless guile working to turn Labour into some kind of East European socialist party." But on the whole the response has been respectful and the admiration for him immense.

Benn, who spent much of his political life as MP for Chesterfield, was a popular figure in North Derbyshire. The flag at Chesterfield Town Hall flew at half mast on Friday. Councillor Julie Lowe said: "Tony Benn was the best thing that ever happened to Chesterfield. He embodied what socialism is meant to be and not some watered down horrible imitation of it."

Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins said: “Chesterfield was proud to have him as our MP, and he was fond and proud of Chesterfield in equal measure. No history book of politics in the second half of the 20th Century could ignore the contribution he made or the passions he arose."

He stirred up passions because he held controversial opinions and he was not afraid to do so. He campaigned against Britain's membership of the EU, he campaigned for nuclear disarmament and he opposed Britain's involvement in both the Falklands War and the Iraq War. These are just some of the issues that caused him to become such a divisive figure.

But he also became admired, because he connected to people and he had no problem speaking up for what he actually believed in. If you watch an average episode of Question Time, the politicians on it resemble automatons. They repeat soundbites and policy lines and nothing they say is going to be exciting or passionate or controversial. And there are reasons for why they do that, because as Benn's political life shows, politicians who stand up and support unpopular campaigns have a very difficult time in the media.
Professor Matthew Flinders at the University of Sheffield writes:

"Tony Benn spent his time talking to and listening to the public in a manner that is curiously rare among today’s professional politicians. Indeed, in a period when the relationship between the governors and the governed is dominated by twitter and blogs and conducted within a fairly narrow model of a market democracy, Tony Benn could often be dismissed (even slightly ridiculed) as a political dinosaur.

"But that conclusion in itself would miss the great power he had to captivate an audience, to make people think and reflect upon their assumptions, to inspire a sense of capacity and a belief in change for the better. He could unite social divides and talk sense to the senseless. As he demonstrated in relation to a range of issues – not least in the Stop the War movement – he was a man that would march with the public and was not afraid to stand on the barricades."

Even the Prime Minister said, "Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner. There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him."

Chesterfield local Roger Flint said: "He was a great MP for Chesterfield and a man of principle who cared about the  people who he represented in Parliament."

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Why the same sex marriage bill must pass

This was written for the politics website Shifting Grounds on 5th February 2013 and can be found here.

Today Members of Parliament will vote on the matter of whether same sex couples should be able to marry. With the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, not only will legal equality be reached only 46 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but another step will be taken to ensure that all people – gay or straight – can flourish in the most ordinary of ways. Gay marriage is not simply about the couples that want to be married, but it is about a shift in the life chances and dreams of all lesbians, gays and bisexuals. It is about ensuring that when people contemplate their future they know that marriage is an option, and that in one way at least, society no longer undermines the confidence of gay men and women.

Marriage is an institution we all come across, a marker of social life that may have lost its force somewhat, but that is still interwoven into the social world we grow up in. Nobody is an island, and no person can escape the messages and meaning that a society emits in its structure. Everyone lives in a world where marriage is everywhere. Usually one’s parents are married, friends get married, weddings are attended and popular culture swarms with news and fictional stories all about weddings, church bells and matrimony. When one section of society is barred from such a recurrent feature of social life – or their committed relationships are described and understood differently – society can manifest itself as a series of reminders that a minority’s loving relationships are somehow different and worth less.

Opponents of gay marriage put forward claims that marriage is a religious matter, or that marriage is solely for procreation or that God believes that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. But such conceptions of marriage are mirages. If these people were serious about their interpretations of marriage then they would be protesting against the marriages of atheists and also of people who cannot or do not want children. Furthermore, they would have to somehow prove that their interpretation of marriage is true; whilst the religious groups who believe marriage can occur between two members of the same sex are wrong.  The last point is a salient one. With all the talk of religious freedom and the supposed threat posed by same sex couples to it, it is forgotten that there are religious groups who wish they were able to marry gay members. To prevent a religious group like the Quakers from realising their own interpretation of marriage curtails religious freedom.  It can be said that not allowing gays to get married damages religious freedom.

Some opponents of gay marriage believe that gays do not really want marriage but in fact the government is forcing a heterosexual template onto a group who would much rather live free from the demands and conformity of marriage. This is simply narrow-minded. Who are they to deny people who wish to settle down and call their partner ‘husband’ or ‘wife’?  Obviously it is the case that marriage is not for everyone, but it should be open to everyone.

The principle that individuals should be allowed to live how they want, as long as they do no harm to others, is a powerful one and has been effectively used to dismiss insidious and illiberal legislation. However, it is often used alongside the assumption that the action in question is undesirable. Someone who doesn’t like the idea of gays marrying, or at least thinks it is odd, may accept they are not really harming others, so gay marriage should be tolerated. Instead of asking society to merely tolerate homosexuality, this piece of legislation will advance the powerful argument that, in Alex Ross’s words, “abiding love cannot be a sin”. If people believe that marriage is a good, or that it can at least be a good for those who want it, then consistency entails that it is opened up to everyone. Gays should have as much right as anyone else to get married. The teenager, struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that they are gay, should know that society does not treat their nature as an immoral deviation.

For a very long time there will still be social, cultural and psychological barriers that make many gay lives and relationships more difficult. It is true that one piece of legislation is certainly not going to sweep away all the assumptions and prejudices of a society in which heterosexuality has historically been the norm and the moral standard. However, this bill is a step towards a future in which everyone can live how they wish, including the opportunity to publicly state their commitment to their partner in the same manner as the rest of society.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Gay asylum seeker due to be deported - send email to Theresa May!


There is a gay asylum seeker from Uganda who is due to removed to there. As a gay man we believe that Kenneth's life will be in grave danger if he is sent back to Uganda. 

If you could spare a minute to write an email to Theresa May (<mayt@parliament.uk>) that would be great. In fact all you have to do is copy and paste this email (but obviously add your name) I have written!

- - -
Dear Theresa May MP,

I am writing to you about the case of asylum seeker Kenneth Ayebazibwe (Home Office Ref No: A1399301/6). I am urging you not to remove Mr Ayebabzibwe to Uganda.

As a gay man we believe that Kenneth's life will be in grave danger if he is sent back to Uganda. Kenneth fled Uganda after experiencing persecution because of his sexuality. He has been 'outed' in a Ugandan newspaper which increases the risk to him if he is forcibly returned and has been a prominent demonstrator against homophobia in Uganda, here in the UK. He says he prefers to die in the UK than be sent back to his country. Kenneth was previously detained and faced removal three times. We hoped his case was on a more secure footing when a new fresh claim was issued following his previous release from detention but this was recently refused and he was arrested when he went to sign at a UKBA reporting centre.

The Ugandan Parliament reconvened last week. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill once again appeared on the order papers. It is known as the 'Kill The Gays' bill and has a lot of support within Uganda. Currently homosexual activity is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but this bill would penalize "aggravated homosexuality" including consensual same-sex acts committed by "repeat offenders," with the death penalty. 
Amnesty International says: "We’ve documented instances of discrimination, torture and detention by Ugandan authorities against LGBTI individuals under the pretext of enforcing current laws. If the Anti Homosexuality Bill is passed, it will legalise discrimination and incarceration of LGBTI people: We’re extremely concerned that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill will entrench existing discrimination by legalising and even promoting hate crimes against LGBTI individuals and activists."

As Home Secretary I hope that you will stop the removal of Mr Ayebabzibwe. As a gay man he deserves to have his rights protected by the UK government.

Yours sincerely,

<>

NAME: Kenneth Ayebazibwe
DATE OF BIRTH:  26/1/85
HOME OFFICE REF NO.: A1399301/6
PORT REF: TN5/2733500
REMOVAL DIRECTIONS: Kenya Airways flight KQ 101 21/2/2013 at 19.00

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Articles for Left Foot Forward

During January I wrote a number of articles for the politics website Left Foot Forward. They can be found here.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Why politicians should talk about morality

Wars are declared righteous, welfare reforms are presented as fair and legal changes are called abhorrent, but many politicians still claim their job has nothing to do with morality. It is bizarre that although politics and its language is value laden, some politicians seem to think ethics is relegated to the world of churchmen and philosophers. This was crystallised in a recent Question Time episode when Charles Kennedy was asked about former minister Sarah Teather’s description of the welfare cap as “immoral”. Kennedy replied that he would “leave that to Anglican Bishops to talk about immorality.”

But, the debate around a welfare cap – either you believe it is unfair families are facing upheaval and worse due to staggering rents no government has bothered to tackle or you believe it is unfair that the state is forking out tens of thousands of pounds to enable some families to live in places most working people cannot – is essentially a moral debate.

So many policies are presented as edging us closer to greater virtue, happiness or autonomy and yet politicians are still reluctant to fully accept that this counts as a debate essentially about right and wrong, justice and injustice. When proponents of the Iraq War emphasised the cruelty of Saddam’s regime and our duty to save Iraqi civilians, when Iain Duncan Smith decries generational unemployment or David Cameron claims the idea of prisoners voting makes him feel sick, particular ethical arguments are being applied. Similarly, opponents of the Iraq War, welfare changes and not giving prisoners the vote, are also making moral claims. Is it right that we wreak havoc on another nation whilst claiming it is for the sake of saving their citizens? Is it right that people are dying whilst being judged fit for work by Atos? Is it right that people cannot have a say in the future direction of their country?

Perhaps it is a sort of modesty that means politicians do not want to make too many claims about morality. Since what is right and wrong is thoroughly contested it can be arrogant and dangerous to start commanding and condemning from on high. There is a long history of men who think they know best telling everyone else how to behave and there are many areas of life in which we certainly do not want governments wading in and moralising.

Obviously there should be liberal rights that protect people from overzealous governments. However, governments have functions that go beyond protecting freedom of thought and liberty. States go to war, run services, set taxes, decide immigration policy, deal with law and order, provide refuge and much else besides. People live and die because of what the state does and does not do.

Politics is irrevocably moral and it is false modesty to claim otherwise. It needs a fresher and fuller exchange of views and honesty that these are usually immersed in moral ideas. Then in public debate these different accounts of the good society should be lined up and assessed. No one vision can be applied in its entirety and there will necessarily be compromise. However, it is just ridiculous to argue that the debates over war or welfare reforms or voting rights do not hinge on moral debate.

This was first written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here.