Harriet Harman addresses the press. Photo: Getty Images
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Obama’s second wind, Tories against the law, and why Liz Kendall is Labour’s Ken Clarke

Liz Kendall may well be Labour's Ken Clarke, and Jeremy Corbyn could yet be the party's IDS. 

Having orchestrated two victories over Labour for David Cameron, George Osborne wants one of his own in 2020. That is surely the thinking behind the ostentatiously cruel aspects of the Budget: a further lowering of the benefit cap, cuts to child tax credits and yet more reductions to the employment and support allowance (incapacity benefit, in old
money). The Chancellor wants to be able to go into another election with the same dull but lethal attack on Labour – “more taxes, more borrowing, more debt” – that the Conservatives used against Ed Miliband.

Harriet Harman, one of the vanishingly small number of Labour politicians who seem to grasp how much trouble the party is in, is doing her best not to fall into Osborne’s trap, announcing only partial opposition to the government’s changes to welfare. Yet there is a section of the parliamentary party which, if the Chancellor dug a large hole in the ground, lined the bottom with spikes and left a neon sign of the word “trap” beside it, would consider it a matter of principle to walk into it.

Harman paid a heavy price for her stance at a meeting of Labour MPs on 13 July. Just five supported her and there was, in the words of one present, a “lot of bloodletting”. A sizeable rebellion against the party line – to abstain in the vote on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill – looks likely and her approach has been trashed by three of the four leadership candidates. There will be more bloodletting if, as looks likely, Harman’s successor as leader junks the sensible approach of not opposing for the sake of opposing which she and the shadow chancellor, Chris Leslie, have pursued since Labour’s defeat.


Heresies of the left

I fear that Liz Kendall is Labour’s Ken Clarke. On three occasions, the Conservatives refused to elect Clarke, by far the most formidable politician on the Tory side, largely because of his Europhilia. Kendall’s heresies over defence spending and free schools seem to be having a similar effect on her campaign, which is looking increasingly worse for wear, despite polls consistently showing her to be the candidate capable of doing the most damage to the Tory party.

There is growing concern in Labour circles that Jeremy Corbyn could turn out to be the party’s Iain Duncan Smith. Given a choice between the tough love of Clarke and the hardline policies of Duncan Smith, Conservative activists opted for the latter. If the hapless IDS had led the Tories into the 2005 election, Labour would have won with a third successive landslide. The Conservative Party has a ruthlessness about doomed leaders that Labour lacks. If Corbyn – currently a strong second in terms of constituency nominations – can take the crown, it seems unlikely that Labour MPs would wield the knife before the next election.


Getting with the programme

Barack Obama continues to surprise his critics. More than eight months after a wave of Republican victories in Congress that was expected to turn his final years in office into mere time-serving, the president is still racking up the achievements. First, the right to equal marriage was enshrined by the US Supreme Court, by a margin of one vote. Two of the justices who voted to ensure equal marriage were Obama’s appointees. Now, an accord has been reached between the “P5+1” – the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany – and Iran to reduce the scope of the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. Obama-era secretaries of state – first Hillary Clinton, then John Kerry – made much of the running.

There is plenty to criticise in Obama’s ­record but he has gone some way to restoring America’s reputation overseas and made the country a little kinder than it was five years ago. He is a transformational president, not just because of the colour of his skin but because of the content of his policy programme.


Justice under fire

I went to the Bush Theatre in west London to see The Invisible, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play about the cuts to legal aid. (There were so many horrors in the Budget that further reductions in Ministry of Justice spending went almost unnoticed.) For less than the cost of a rounding error in the NHS,
the Conservatives seem happy to demolish a central pillar of the welfare state.

The consequences will be grim – and I wonder if the Conservatives might be overreaching on this occasion. Reductions in benefits and tax credits, for all their human cost, don’t necessarily hit the partners and friends of people with columns in the Times. Criminal barristers, however, are well represented around the dinner tables of the influential and, indeed, have the ear of many Tory backbenchers.


Bush by name

Shepherd’s Bush, where the Bush Theatre is located, is where I got my surname from. My great-grandfather, a Jewish shopkeeper, had a jewellery store nearby with the imaginative name of Bush Stores. He worried that the family name of Shimanski would endanger the clan if the worst happened and Hitler were to cross the Channel. So we abandoned our dangerously Jewish moniker and adopted an innocuous Gentile one instead.

The industrial-scale murder of that time came, in part, out of a decade-long reduction in living standards and public services in Germany after the Great Depression, coupled with a sense that the country had been humbled. In Greece today, just as Syriza has risen from the fringes of the populist left to the forefront of politics, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has also enjoyed a surge in support in the polls – both powered by the seemingly unending programme of austerity driven by the eurozone. I worry that the long-term consequence of further cutbacks to public spending, besides the humiliation of Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, will be a government of the radical right.

Stephen Bush edits the Staggers, the New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

Peter Wilby is away

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.