Nick Clegg and David Cameron. Photo: Getty
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Will these professionally beige career politicians ever understand public service?

Despite grand promises, the coalition has not found a new way forward, nor has it overseen a resurgence of democratic engagement.

History tells us that in times of austerity, the poor and vulnerable are easy targets for those seeking to divide and weaken society. Benefit Bashing appears to be a new national sport, and this is a direct result of the death of the conviction politician, and the readiness of careerist MPs to dance to the tune of press barons in the hope of currying favourable electoral coverage. The ordinary voter is no longer the lynchpin, and press barons have seized the power our elected representatives have so readily ceded, now acting as king maker. Consequently, it’s now okay to making sweeping generalisations against huge swathes of people suffering deeply at the hands of a government composed of morally myopic, finger wagging millionaires, while ignoring harsh realities of how those government policies embed poverty and inexorably entrench class divides. The truth is no more than an inconvenience to be misreported or ignored. The fact that the media have shown more interest in where Bob Crow sunbathed on holiday, than the fact that 1 in 7 schoolchildren will endure a winter without a suitable coat says it all.

The untimely demise of Bob and Tony Benn could not have come at a worse time. The attacks on the working poor, vulnerable and disabled are not only coming from predictable government and media sources, but also from Labour. Both men were conviction politicians, routinely castigated for their views on most subjects, and in a minority of left wing advocates who managed to achieve broad media presence, speaking up for those with no voice, railing against casualisation of employment, and crusading against the excesses of a broken political system. They both passionately espoused radical socialist democracy, similar to the post war Labour administration that introduced universal health care, widespread pensions, expansive house building and full employment, but  were ultimately deserted by New Labour, as the party engaged in a limp wristed arm wrestle for what certain media outlets decided was the centre ground. It is the embedded fear held by political leaders of press barons, and a complete lack of political voices of conviction and passion, willing to defend the working poor and vulnerable that has opened the door to such flagrant collective character assassinations of benefit claimants, the like of which we have not seen since the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher.

Back in 2010, I remember discussing the prospect of coalition with many who saw alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as a necessary evil, as well as being symptomatic of that broken system. In the infancy of this parliament, sun-kissed press conferences told us how new politics would establish new economic balance, the intoxicating melody of false hope weaving its thread through the sweet fabric of those summer afternoons, atop hypnotic drumbeats of blame aimed squarely and repeatedly at the previous administration. Four years later, the coalition is not so much necessary evil as it is a political infection that has been encouraged and cultivated by the collusion of a rudderless Labour Party, and the enthusiastic applauding of the more unedifying elements of the right wing press. Like any infection of virulence that goes unchallenged, it grew in size and severity, morphing from the Coalition of the Willing, into a Coalition of Haters.

Despite grand promises, the coalition has not found a new way forward, nor has it overseen a resurgence of democratic engagement. It has overseen the legitimising of repeated smears and attacks from government and massed media aimed squarely at those least able to defend themselves. It has overseen swathes of the legal aid system becoming virtually inaccessible for the working poor and vulnerable. It has overseen the bedroom tax continuing to wreak havoc among the most disadvantaged families, and employment rights and job security sacrificed with impunity. It has overseen the very poorest among us looking on helplessly while foreign nationals and bankers massage their tax burdens via London property acquisitions, with the working poor languishing on poverty pay in part time work, on zero hours contracts, or subsidising the profits of wealthy multinationals through workfare placements.  

We must take some blame for this. We buy these papers, and we recycle these lies. We need to stop subsidising this horror show. We need politicians unafraid of voicing opinion, men and women of conviction and passion willing to stand up for the poorest and most vulnerable, because those on benefits should never be column fodder for wealthy press barons. We need more Bob Crows and Tony Benns. They are the bulwark against the race to the bottom, and the worst instincts of a feckless coalition. They are a reminder that we must continue to oppose injustice and cruelty, and are an example to every professionally beige career politician of what it means to engage in public service.

 

Karl Davis is a writer, stand up comedian, train driver, and trade union activist and advocate. He lives in Hull and is married with two young sons.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.