Online trolls, Julian Assange on the run and Jimmy Carr’s tax dodge

“You’re a Bolshevik feminist Jewess.” That was one of the more printable insults aimed at a blogger named Anita Sarkeesian, who wanted to make a series of videos about the portrayal of women in computer games. And it wasn’t just offensive comments. In a targeted campaign of harassment, seemingly led by a handful of message boards, she had her Wikipedia page defaced and received dozens of threats of death and rape. What was her offence? Little more than being a woman with an opinion, which is usually enough to burst the dam of rage on the internet.

Last autumn, I wrote a piece about the bullying experienced by many female writers online. It hit a nerve: others came forward to tell their stories and there have since been two BBC documentaries on “trolls”.

Slowly, the law is beginning to catch up with online bullies and the first cries of “you’re infringing freedom of speech” have gone up. The mistake that is often made in talking about the internet is to assume it’s somehow qualitatively different from any other medium. If you threatened to kill someone in person, or by letter, or through phone calls, you wouldn’t expect to get away with it. Our “freedom of speech” already has restrictions. Why should the web be a consequence-free playground?

Added to that, what about Sarkeesian’s freedom of speech? She proposed making some videos and was harassed, shouted down and victimised by hundreds of anonymous persecutors. Thankfully, she has decided to continue making the video series but many women (and men) will have looked at her ordeal and thought again about speaking up.

When you gotta go . . .

Why does the right hate Owen Jones so violently? After the Chavs author spent a day on Twitter talking about how call centres limit their workers’ loo breaks, the Telegraph’s blogs editor, Damian “Blood-Crazed Ferret” Thompson, commissioned two separate hit jobs on him. First came Donata Huggins, who found the whole subject hilarious. “He has spent the day, as [Dave] Spart would, campaigning for longer toilet breaks for call centre workers,” she chuckled. (Dan Hodges, also of this parish, followed up with an ad hominem attack about Jones being the “Justin Bieber of the left”.) 

Perhaps I’m a Dave Spart, too, but loo breaks are only a trivial subject to those who are allowed them whenever they want. The most eye-opening book I’ve read this year is Rose George’s The Big Necessity, which chronicles the struggles of the millions of people across the world without access to adequate sanitation. The Telegraph bloggers would presumably find their plight hilarious.

Leaking away

At some point on the afternoon of 19 June, Julian Assange slipped unnoticed into the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge to claim political asylum. It was a surprise, not least to those who had put up the £240,000 he needed to make bail while his appeal against extradition to Sweden played out.

Over the course of the past 18 months, I’ve watched in fascination as Assange has destroyed almost every friendship he has had: with the original WikiLeaks team, with the journalists who worked with him, and now – perhaps – with those who backed him financially. He appears to believe that he and his cause are indivisible, and therefore nothing he does can be wrong. Hosting a chat show on the Kremlin’s favourite TV channel, Russia Today? Fine. Refusing to investigate or comment on allegations that his associate Israel Shamir handed over cables on Belarusian opposition activists to the country’s dictator, Alexander Luka­shenko? Not a problem. The importance of the original WikiLeaks project has been drowned in seas of self-promotion.

The irony of Assange’s situation is this: the self-avowed campaigner on free expression now wants to go to a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, “laws restrict freedom of expression, and government officials, including [President Rafael] Correa, use these laws against his critics”.

Manger zone

Have we reached Peak Pret? Walking down Piccadilly at the weekend, I saw a hoarding advertising a new Pret A Manger store “opening soon!”. It could not have been more than a couple of hundred metres from an existing Pret.

I’m intrigued. How can the market bear so many identical shops in such close proximity? Who thinks about going to Pret but doesn’t, for the sake of an extra few metres? The answer can’t be that competing owners are jousting over business, because the chain (unlike, say, Subway) refuses to sell franchises. There are 249 Prets in Britain, 176 of them in Greater London. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry: they’re sure to come to a town near you soon. The chain has stormed the slow-eating capital of Europe with a store on the Avenue de France in Paris. Disappointingly, over there Pret A Manger is not called “Ready To Eat”.

Carr crash telly

Following the news that Jimmy Carr shelters £3.3m a year from tax by using a Jersey-based scheme, I can’t really do better than his fellow comedian Frankie Boyle’s reaction: “It’s OK to avoid tax, providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add, ‘Partly down to me, I’m afraid’ under your breath.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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Birmingham Labour members were almost disenfranchised, until Corbyn intervened

Newer members were to be denied a say in selecting candidates.

For decades, Labour members in Birmingham have had to wait for a year after joining the party to vote to select local candidates – unlike the six-month national rule. New ward boundaries for Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, will be contested for the first time next year during an all-out election – and a reduction from 120 to 101 members means every Labour candidate, including sitting councillors, must be selected.

However, Labour’s Birmingham Board decided that to vote in the upcoming selection meetings, members must have been in the party for a year prior to their call for candidate applications in 2016. As a result, if you wanted to have a say, the cut-off date for being a party member was July 2015: two years ago.

It took the intervention of Jeremy Corbyn turning up at an obscure local meeting in order to vote for this two-year cut-off date to be replaced by a six-month minimum period. This has enfranchised the vast majority of Labour members, many of whom were increasingly annoyed with the original decisions taken by the Birmingham Board.

One of those who would have been disenfranchised if the board had had its way is Birmingham councillor Liz Clements, who re-joined the party as soon as Corbyn was first elected leader in 2015. Twenty years ago, she was an Oxfordshire County Councillor, and, in 1999, a European parliamentary candidate. While studying at at Oxford, in the same year as Yvette Cooper, she chaired the university Labour Club for a term in 1989. This year she was selected to contest the marginal Hall Green ward in a by-election, and, had the original rules been in place, she would have been unable to vote for herself (or anyone else) to be selected for council elections next year.

She says: “For me it was simply a matter of fairness and democracy. I couldn’t understand why the national rule wasn’t being applied. I found it very odd that I could seek selection as a councillor and get elected before I’d be eligible to vote in a selection meeting myself.”

She feels the two-year cut-off would have sent a message to new joiners and re-joiners alike that they were “second-class members”.

"During the general election we succeeded in firing up our membership with enthusiasm for the Labour manifesto and for our Labour candidates – people came out to campaign in large numbers. The proposed freeze date was divisive and would have discouraged newer members from campaigning in next year’s council elections.”

Before the Birmingham Board met, a large number of branch and constituency-level Labour groups passed motions calling for the freeze date to be scrapped. Councillor Clements was not at the Board’s meeting, so can’t comment on why they chose to ignore the members. From speaking with other party members, it's clear there was a widespread belief that this was done deliberately so unpopular councillors could cling to power.

With every ward holding selection meetings, there is am opportunity to clear out the dead weight and for fresh talent to revitalise the council, which is currently struggling to keep up with the austerity cuts imposed by central government. Some sitting councillors are retiring or facing scrutiny of their records, and may not even be shortlisted for selection. The Birmingham Board, after all, can veto any candidate before selection, including current councillors with poor attendance and casework records.

It therefore isn’t surprising that Councillor Clements doesn’t believe these rule changes will actually result in different candidates being selected. For her, it was about Labour values. “Corbyn listened to members and asserted the importance of democracy, fairness and inclusion”.

One reason it is arguable the selected candidates would remain the same is that Birmingham is struggling to attract enough people to stand for selection in the first place. There is, particularly, a shortage of women putting themselves forward. Liam Byrne MP is understood to have suggested relaxing the Labour Party rule demanding that at least one woman in selected in multi-member seats. It would be an extremely unpopular decision with many members, but there aren’t currently enough women candidates for the 32 two-member wards.

Councillor Clements says we should stick to the party’s rules as they are, but we need more women and BAME candidates. There are other options being suggested; re-opening nominations if no women have declared an interest in time, allow some wards to select two men if a neighbouring single-member ward selects a woman, relax the rule entirely, demand local parties re-advertise the space and find women candidates, or something else entirely.

Selections are underway, but most will take place in September, as many wards now need to find larger venues to hold the meetings. This will give candidates eight months to campaign before the Birmingham City Council elections next May.

Its current (and likely future) leader, John Clancy will almost certainly remain in post. Results from the general election showed many areas, previously thought to be unwinnable or marginal for Labour, have become either safe or eminently winnable. If Labour can keep itself above 40 per cent in the polls, we may well see a huge influx of new councillors representing people across Birmingham. The difference now Corbyn has stepped in, is that there is a real chance most candidates and councillors will be united by a belief in Corbyn, and his manifesto.

David Barker is a writer and journalist based in Birmingham, and press officer for Bournville Labour Party