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Laurie Penny on The X Factor: Gamu Nhengu and the importance of empathy

The plight of the X Factor hopeful reminds us of the power of reality television.

Nothing is real until it's been made into reality television, and that includes human suffering. After years of arbitrarily blaming every imaginable social problem, from housing shortages to unemployment, on migrants, the caring British public has finally rallied to defend one single, solitary immigrant from forced deportation after seeing her perform reasonably well on the X Factor.

Eighteen-year-old Gamu Nhengu, originally from Zimbabwe, has a cherubic smile, a powerful set of lungs and an expired visa. Millions of viewers watched entranced as she belted out a precociously soulful cover of "Walking on Sunshine" in front of judges on the TV talent show, earning herself a standing ovation and a welter of appreciative Facebook fansites. Despite her popularity with the viewing public, however, the young singer was kicked off the programme and into the welcoming arms of the UK Border Agency last week amid murmurings that X Factor producers had declined to deal with her precarious immigration status. Having lived in Clackmannanshire for over five years, Nhengu and her family now have just days to leave the country.

In the past week, tens of thousands of supporters have written letters to the Home Office, signed online petitions and even travelled to Scotland to stand outside Nhengu's flat with wobbly homemade banners, treading that occasionally precarious picket line between popular protest and co-ordinated stalking. Even the Daily Mail has caved in to reader pressure and run panegyric pieces portraying young Nhengu, a benefit-claiming immigrant, as the unimpeachably twinkly offspring of Michael Jackson and Little Orphan Annie.

It's incredible. Campaigners, activists, aid workers, lawyers, family members and any number of asylum seekers have dedicated their lives to persuading a hostile press and a population raddled by prejudice and private anxiety that migrants are human beings with human rights who deserve compassion - but it turns out that all that was really needed was for one of them to stand on a stage in a party frock and compete for the chance to be publicly humiliated by Simon Cowell.

Perhaps the Refugee Council ought to rethink its press strategy. Perhaps they could put out fewer serious pamphlets about institutional abuse in immigration holding facilities and more spangly song-and-dance numbers. Perhaps the public might be more sympathetic to the plight of the hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who come to this country fleeing persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal if they were all to dress up in sequins and perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Disappointingly, however, stardom is not the top priority of most of the thousands of immigrants currently facing deportation from the UK. Most of them are more immediately concerned about being forcibly returned to countries where they face rape, torture and even murder. Most of them are interested in nothing more than the chance to earn a decent living and a scrap of social respect. Many of the 900 men and women currently locked up in segregated cells in the Yarl's Wood detention centre just want to be able to see their kids again. But not Gamu Nhengu: she wants to be famous, and unlike the aspiration to live a life free from hunger, terror and persecution, that's something we can all relate to.

The formalised rules of managed frenzy that pass for emotional interest on reality television provide an empathic format with which the TV-viewing public can relate, because we know what is expected of us. There's nothing challenging here: we know how this story goes. Here's the shot of the contestant in her home, surrounded by her family; now here she is, waiting for her cue on live camera, with the voiceover informing us about how she just wants to help her mum out. As she steps in front of the judges, chewing her beautiful teenage lips, cut to a shot of her loving parents waiting nervously backstage; as she finishes her set piece to rapturous applause, zoom in on her family crying with relief. A thousand asylum appeal videos with mournful piano soundtracks could not hope to produce the revenue-generating response of a televised reality pageant tugging robotically on the dull heartstrings of a nation used to producing feelings en masse, for someone else's profit.

It would be easy to extrapolate that consumer culture has now reached the point where the only emotion with which the general public can truly empathise is aspirational craving -- not pain, or fear, or intimacy, none of which can be reproduced or ritualised in gameshow format, but simple, needy, greedy longing, for more status, more luxury, more money. It would be easy to assume that the only thing that truly unites us in these troubled times when the social can only be accessed in commodified, photostat formats is the asocial impulse to better our individual situation sat any cost.

That, however, would be the wrong assumption. Late capitalism has warped our capacity for empathy on a social scale, but has not destroyed it. Inside every one of us, from the welfare-claiming immigrant to the wealthy city worker, is a vulnerable, hopelessly young person desperate for acceptance, preparing for our big moment in the spotlight, anxious not to let our loved ones down, hoping to be judged kindly. If we can collectively realise that notion, even for the interim of a Saturday-night talent show, we will be one step closer to building the kind of society that we need.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.