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Laurie Penny on owls: Everything is awful, vote for owls

I was preparing myself to vote Labour with gritted teeth if there were no good Green candidates in my area but I’d feel far less dirty about the whole thing if I knew I was getting my own owl. 

Ed Owl-i-band

In the latest edition of Westminster politics looking more and more like a rejected script from The Thick Of It, it is several hours since an official Twitter account for the political party that still claims to represent the interests of working class people in Britain sent out a missive appearing to offer everyone in the nation an owl. 

 

 

Various factions of the creaky Labour PR machine are now trying to deflect blame for what we shall call the Tweet Twoo incident. These, bear in mind, are the same people who let Ed Miliband pose with a creepy smile and a copy of the Sun last week – and then made him apologise. 

The official story is that their feed was “hacked”, although nobody knows how, or why, or what hacking actually means, or which ornithology enthusiast apparently broke into the Labour Press Twitter feed in order to tweet something random about birds. It could have been a disgruntled intern, or somebody’s drunk colleague. Whichever it was, this is still my favourite thing that’s happened in this country since that time the BNP were chased through Whitehall by a group of women dressed as badgers.

The anti-fascist badgers, however, did make me briefly feel proud to be British. Owlgate, once I’d got over giggling so hard I accidentally inhaled a bit of toast, is pretty dispiriting. The fact is that the owls, prank or not, are the only policy Labour has come up with in the past 12 months that has been at all inspiring. Their headline move of the past month has been promising more pressure on young people, who clearly haven’t been screwed over enough by six years of austerity, punitive housing and welfare policies and soaring education costs. Labour is now telling young people aged 18-21 that they won’t receive the crumbs of state support they were still entitled to unless they find work or training, which probably means more unpaid labour at Poundland. I was preparing myself to vote Labour with gritted teeth if there were no good Green candidates in my area but I’d feel far less dirty about the whole thing if I knew I was getting my own owl. 

The more you think about it, the better an idea it is. The Tories have channelled enormous efforts into unifying an increasingly divided and unequal nation, beating up teenage protesters in the street, deflecting anger onto immigrants, the disabled and people with mental health difficulties, and trying to get us all to talk about “British Values” as if a bunch of right-wing aristocrats inhabited the same planet as their electorate, let alone the same country. Instead of all that, why not just buy everyone a slightly exotic pet? It might not be a social media gaffe after all. It might be genius.

I do have a few questions, though. I want to know if the owls will be standardised. Who-whoo do I contact if my owl is defective? Will I have to raise my owl from a chick, feeding it tiny little gross bits of mouse and mince, or will it be presented to me personally by the council on the day Miliband swoops into power? Will the unemployed have to turn up at the Raptor Centre twice a week in order to keep their owl? How long will asylum seekers have to wait until they receive an owl of their own? What if some people, perhaps because of cultural differences, might prefer a different bird of prey, say a buzzard or a crested goshawk? Will small boys in Northern towns be allowed to keep their kestrels? If we must have an owl, can we choose what kind?  The public demands answers.

Perhaps it’ll turn out that the Americans are right. Maybe Britain actually is a land of magic and make-believe, in which case it shouldn’t just be students at Hogwarts who are entitled to an owl. They’ve privatised the post office, so perhaps this is Labour’s solution: owls swooping down the chimneys of local authority-owned housing, dropping eviction notices and stern letters from the Department for Work and Pensions telling people with terminal cancer that they have to get a job or be kicked out on the street.

Or maybe it’ll be more like the film Labyrinth, but instead of a snowy owl flapping into your bedroom and turning into David Bowie in a fright wig and very tight tights, it turns into Ed Miliband. Hold that thought in your mind for a second, and imagine Owl Miliband waggling a magic crystal ball about and telling jobless, hopeless young people that their benefits have been stolen away, far far away, to the centre of a treacherous maze, lost for ever unless they can find work or training in thirteen hours.

What we need is a robust, brave opposition that can actually come up with policies to make people’s lives better, rather than competing with the Conservatives to bully benefit claimants and immigrants, a game nobody wins apart from whoever slides into Downing Street next year on a slimy trickle of popular prejudice. Instead we’ve got a bloodless, practically leaderless bunch of incompetents trying and failing to look as nasty and therefore electable as the Tories and only managing to look like a awkward kids in unconvincing monster masks. I had a final point to make, but I’m just too depressed. Give me my owl now and go away.

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

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.