It Is Almost 50 Years Since Jack Ashley Became the World’s Only Totally Deaf Lawmaker – But What Has Changed?

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Last month (March 2017) Dawn Butler made history by becoming the first MP to use British Sign Language (BSL) to pose a question in the House of Commons. She asked whether the Government would give BSL a legal status alongside other recognised languages.  As Ms Butler said in a subsequent article :

We need to make parliament representative of wider society. One important part of this is to make parliament as open and accessible as possible.

Representation Means More Than Voting and Consultation

This is a crucial point. Vital in any inclusive political system is the ability for all groups in society to be represented and influence every aspect of Government policy, not just be called into committees when the members feel like it! Inclusion means having an input in the formulation of policy in the first place rather than being limited to commenting and voting on the agendas of others. In a review of political representation of women and BME communities Karen Bird quoted researcher Melissa Williams:

“…the only hope that marginalised group presence will have a lasting effect on policy outcomes is that decisions are based not only on the counting of votes but also on the sharing of reasons.”

The same argument, of course, applies to any other community group. But consider the figures. In the current House of Commons (April 2017) between 2 and 5 MPs are considered physically disabled, depending on the criteria applied.  Yet to be representative, on even the more narrow of definitions of diability, there would need to be 65 MPs.

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A Progressive Alliance; Short Term Expediency, Not a Long Term Prospect

progallIt has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests.  So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out.  But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.

The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance.  But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing.  Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.

The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground

So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo.  But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of  ‘Alliance’.  In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate.  But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU.  It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.

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‘A Powerful Hand’; Innovative Radical Journalist Peter Finnerty

Fiercely contested court cases, attacks on the judiciary, personal abuse and subversion of Parliament.  Sounds like 2016, but this was over 200 years ago in 1811. At the centre of it was Irish journalist Peter Finnerty.  Almost unknown today, Finnerty was the beneficiary of one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great early works Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (you can read more about the radicalism of Shelley’s Poetical Essay here), but his influence at the time was far greater. Finnerty possessed a keen perception of how state institutions could be utilized to gain public attention and saw many opportunities for advancing his radical ideas in novel ways, some of which are applicable today.

Born sometime between 1766 and 1778 (sources vary) in Lochrea, Ireland, Finnerty became a printer in Dublin and published The Press, a nationalist paper founded 1797 by Arthur O’Connor. That same year the British government prosecuted The Press and Finnerty was tried for seditious libel following strong criticism of the judges who sentenced United Irishman William Orr to death along with Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who turned down an appeal for clemency. Finnerty was tried in early 1798 and sentenced to two years imprisonment and time in the pillory.  On his release, Finnerty moved to London and worked as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle newspaper while engaging in radical activism. This included the Robin Hood Society, notorious amongst establishment figures for, amongst other things, actively campaigning against the George III Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1809.  In 1811 Finnerty was again sentenced to prison, this time receiving eighteen months for libeling Minister of War  Lord Castlereagh during a highly critical report on British military command during the 1809 Walcheren campaign against Napoleon.  Incredibly, Finnerty used the imprisonment to keep the issue of Castlereagh in the public spotlight and repeated the libel on a number of occasions. In 1811 jail was a tough place and inmates had to provide for themselves. As a result, Finnerty’s friends and associates organized events to raise money for his maintenance inside jail with Shelley’s contribution being the proceeds from his poem Poetical Essay.

Finnerty is fascinating for a number of reasons.  Firstly he was one of the first activists to use journalism as a method of developing and promoting a radical political platform. Secondly. Finnerty missed no opportunity in trying to destabilize government by petitioning Parliament on all kinds of issues including the conditions of his imprisonment. Thirdly his use of court cases, even ones he lost, as a means of keeping issues in the public gaze was masterly.

Finnerty was a thorn in the side of Government using investigative journalism to cast doubt on the veracity of Governments officials and even witnesses in trials. Finnerty’s aim was the emancipation of the Irish people and the promotion of a mainland radical and republican agenda and the techniques he used can still be deployed today. But they are as equally available to reactionary and oppressive forces as to progessive ones. We need only look at the virulent attacks on the High Court and Supreme Court judges by the Daily Mail which briefly included drawing attention to the fact that one of them was a gay Olympic Fencer! These disgusting and scurrilous articles are serving the aims of an oppressive oligarchy which are very different from those of Peter Finnerty

The Perils of Big Rocks and Regressive Policies

Misogyny, racism and narcissism. So many words have been devoted to evaluating the implications for America and beyond of these undesirable aspects of the next US leader that it is pointless to add more. Instead, on the morning after the 2016 Presidential election I want to think about the implications for the hopes of those many Americans seduced by Donald Trump’s rhetoric. In particular, the few areas of policy outlined by Trump hold out little real long term hope for these people. In a previous blog I drew attention to the fact that rapidly growing wealth inequality is concentrating the control of investment potential in the hands of very few wealthy individuals and organisations. With a desperate need to democratise this potential it is difficult to see how a billionaire property developer will be keen on such a move.

This has a number of implications for two key areas which Paul Mason identified in his book Postcapitalism; climate change and the march of technology which is leading to zero-price products. As Mason cogently argues, both of these present an existential threat to the current economic system and what is needed is an urgent and radical plan for managing the transition to a new model. Trump’s position on climate change presents a danger on two fronts. Firstly he believes that climate change is an establishment hoax and intends to rip up current agreements. Secondly the autocratic nature of large investment potential means that urgent and significant resources may be denied to crucial areas of the green economy. As one simple example, consider the Middle East Sovereign Wealth Funds which are managed by members of the ruling elites with a direct interest in oil exports. Closer to home, Trump was photographed during the campaign with a placard saying Trump Digs Coal, implying the reopening of mines irrespective of whether that is for the collective good. Maybe the people of hurricane devastated New Orleans did not vote for Trump but a Mid-West turned into a barren dust bowl will do nothing for his supporters from that area.

The policy statements of Trump, including building walls along the border is regressive 20th Century politics played out on a 21st century stage. Trump has had nothing to say regarding the digital world. He can huff and puff all he likes about Trade Agreements but digital technology is transnational and the data mined from the internet is global in nature. Fail to recognize this means failing to tackle the major source of wealth distribution in the 21st century and it is doubtful whether he really understands the nature of the threat.

Finally, in these areas I have outlined it must be noted that the British Government is presenting policies equally as bad. The encouragement of fracking and the withdrawal of green funding for projects are two examples. Likewise the focus of the Governments Brexit trade push is on food, ridiculed in the Tea, Biscuits and Jam headline. While laudable, they are hardly getting to grips with the drivers of a 21st century transnational high-tech economy on which depends a prosperous future.

I completely understand the fact that Trump was a big rock hurled at the establishment by a disillusioned and fearful electorate. But the worry is that the rock will eventually rebound off the structure of contemporary economic and environmental reality. Trump’s steampunk politico-economic solutions may actually work for 4 years, but delaying the inevitable radical changes will only make the problem worse in the long term. Both the onset of climate change and the march of digital technology will not be delayed. But worryingly, the UK Government has no better plan for us.