The Sun's frontpage for 7 October 2013. Photo via @SuttonNick on Twitter
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Laurie Penny on The Sun: fearmongering about mental health is what's really monstrous

The paper's frontpage claim that "1,200 killed by mental patients" is misleading - and it exposes exactly the kind of prejudice that implies people with mental health problems are violent, unstable monsters.

"1,200 killed by mental patients." Today's drooling Sun headline plays on precisely the kind of fearmongering that people with mental health problems have come to fear most, implying that they are violent, unstable monsters - as well as lazy benefit scroungers making up their illnesses in order to milk the system. The headline is entirely misleading. In fact, the most recent available figures show that "there has been a fall  in homicide by people with mental illness, including people with psychosis" since 2004.

The Sun claims that, far from seeking to stigmatise the mentally ill, its cover story draws attention to how many have been let down by poor mental health provision over the past decade. That's why it led with the sort of weary sensationalist headline that exploits prejudice against the sick and vulnerable to sell papers.

In Britain and across the global north, one in four people will experience significant mental health problems in their lifetimes. With the right treatment and support, most of those people are able to make a full recovery, but some need ongoing care, particularly in a society where employers are often less than understanding about how depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions affect people's ability to hold and keep a job. It's no wonder that some people choose not to disclose their mental health history, often struggling without help for years, between fear of getting sacked and the persistence of cruel, lazy sterotypes like the grotesque 'Mental Patient' and 'Psycho Ward' Hallowe'en costumes recently released by Asda and Tesco respectively - in which you could dress up as a terrifying crazy person, strait-jacketed, covered in blood and brandishing a meat cleaver. It's stigma like this that make people with severe and ongoing mental health difficulties up to ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are to perpetrate it.

Mental health problems can be scary - but not in that way. They're frightening to go through, and they're particularly frightening to go through alone. In my experience, a more accurate 'Mental Patient' costume would be a slightly funky-smelling jumper - when I'm having a bout of the blues, I'm usually strict about doing laundry, but sometimes it takes me a while to actually get the stuff out of the washing machine and hang it up, leading to a distinct whiff of damp Persil. Hardly Normal Bates, but trust me, on the inside I'm quaking.

Like a lot of people, I sometimes get depressed and anxious. On precisely none of these occasions have I flown into a murderous rage and stabbed up a stranger. Mostly, I just want a cup of tea and a cuddle, and perhaps to curl up with Netflix until I feel better.

The Sun is right about one thing, though - it is indeed a disgrace that the mental health care system in the UK is so chronically short of funds, meaning that those in most need often miss out on essential care. As austerity takes its toll on the emotional resilience of an already stressed and unequal society, there is now even less provision to take care of people with severe depression, debilitating anxiety, or more chronic conditions like psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Part of the reason people with mental health difficulties continue to face such poisonous prejudice, part of the reason the government is able to impoverish and stigmatise those receiving care in the community with relative ease, is that there has been a relentless campaign against mentally ill benefit claimants, a campaign led by right-wing tabloids like the Sun. The Sun has fought for years to make withdrawal of care from people with mental health difficulties socially acceptable. The Sun, and its editors' former riding partners in government, have stood by whilst more and more mental patients commit suicide after that care is withdrawn and they are plunged into lonely, desperate destitution. That it now claims to be championing their cause, even as it paints the mentally ill as savage, violent semi-humans - that's what's truly monstrous.

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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change