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Q&A: Shabana Mahmood MP

“There are some very well-to-do people that did some stupid stuff in my city.”

What's the mood like now in Birmingham?

People want to send a clear signal that they're proud of their home city. They want to draw a line under what happened. Obviously in the Winson Green area, where the three deaths occurred, people are still shocked -- it's going to take time for it to sink in, once the media and everybody else have gone away.

Were you worried about a violent retaliation after the deaths?

There was a very real concern. I am clear that the intervention of Tariq Jahan was instrumental in preventing any further trouble. When he said, "I lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home" -- that was really powerful, particularly because he was able to talk directly to some of the young men who were angry and distraught. Obviously they had enough respect for his message and his loss to listen and behave in a responsible way. He is an absolute hero.

Is part of that dignity something which is implicit in Islam?

He's behaved in a way that is an example not just to Muslims but to all of us. It is in keeping with the respectful, dignified spirit of Ramadan, a peaceful month for people to reflect and to foster their connection with God. I can't pay enough tribute to him.

Having grown up in Birmingham, how did you feel when the trouble broke out?

I was completely devastated. I saw, with my own eyes, kids who were 14 years old, girls as well as boys, with a bag of booty that they'd just looted from the mobile phone shops in the city centre. Some of them would have been well-behaved kids or people who had not been in trouble with the police before and now they're going to wake up to serious criminal records that will potentially affect the rest of their lives.

Many things have been blamed for the riots -- what's your view?

I don't think there's any one reason. There are some very well-to-do people that did some stupid stuff in my city. Trying to process all of that requires a lot of soul-searching. I'd be a bit worried about trying to pigeonhole it, when actually it's a combination of lots of very different factors -- poverty, education, drug and gang culture, alcohol, and all the rest.

What about Cameron's diagnosis of a "sickness" in society?

Some of the behaviour of some people was sickening -- I would describe it in that way. But we've got to be careful not to come at it from ideological perspectives. We need to be out there talking to people to try and make sense of it all.

What's your strategy now?

I'm home and I'm going to be here for the rest of the summer. In one of the meetings we had on Wednesday with local residents, lots of whom had been on Dudley Road when the murders happened, there was a lot of anger -- people raised concerns about the police presence in the area, the response time, the delay in getting an ambulance to the scene. That's a dialogue I'm going to carry on having with the local community and the police, because if there are lessons to learn, they need to be learned.

What do you think the role of the family is in all this?

Once the disorder started, one of the first things I called for was for parents to phone their kids and get them home and out of the trouble. We need to have a dialogue about parenting and family more generally, but not everybody who was involved comes from a broken home. One of the things we should keep in mind through all of this, particularly when you talk about a lot of the ethnic-minority communities in Birmingham, is the strength of the family. In the Asian community, the extended family networks are really strong.

Do you think immigrant communities have a stronger sense of solidarity than British-born communities?

I think there are cultural elements that bind together different communities. In the South Asian community, there's the religious binding, but beyond that people consider themselves almost relatives when they all hail from the same part of the same region of Pakistan or India or Kashmir. In the African-Caribbean community, churches are very strong, they're rooted in their community and they're good at getting people together.

You were one of the first Muslim women to be elected as a member of parliament. What role did your family play in that?

My family are key to everything I've ever done in my life. My parents are incredibly supportive, and have always wanted me to achieve to the best of my ability. There was no question of my brother getting more of a chance in life than me. I have a twin brother and we're both the eldest, so whenever an opportunity came along it had to be for both of us. I came to the decision that I wanted to run for election, and my family rode in behind me straight away and were out there campaigning for me.

Did you encounter opposition from your wider community to the idea of you running?

I didn't get as much flack as I thought I might. The community elders got behind me and thought it was a breath of fresh air.

Why did you want to go into politics?

I've always been a political person. I grew up in a Labour family, and both my parents are longstanding Labour Party members. My dad's a real activist and is currently chair of Birmingham Labour Party, so this is what I've grown up with.

Where did their politics come from?

My dad arrived in this country as a teenager with his family in the 1960s, and at that time Labour was the only party that made them feel they had a stake in British society. And then there was a strong belief in social justice because we found opportunities in this country that would not have been available to us in the village that we hail from in Kashmir and then Pakistan. It's that sense that everyone should have the same opportunity to make the best of themselves. That's what I've grown up with and that's what I want to see made available to everyone in my constituency.

You represent the area you grew up in. Was that important to you?

I'm a Brummie, and representing a Birmingham constituency -- having lived here my whole life, having gone to school here -- is really important to me. Serving the community that I've grown up in and that I want to see do better is my reason for being in politics.

Have you ever experienced Islamophobia?

Unsurprisingly for someone who is both Asian and Muslim, I have suffered racism and Islamophobia, name-calling and that kind of stuff. But equally, putting myself up for election, I might have expected more. Over the entire the campaign I received only one abusive email and one abusive text message. On the campaign trail, no matter who I was talking to, I was given a good reception.

For the most part, our communities in Birmingham are strong and live together peacefully, but we could focus on doing more to let our different communities get to know one other. That's how you understand that people's fundamental concerns are the same -- they want to get on in life, they want access to good education, good health. Those are the things that unite pretty much all of my constituents.

Is there anything you regret?

I try to live without regrets.

Is there a plan?

There's no big plan, but once I decide to do something I'm a real planner.

Are we all doomed?

Hell no. What would be the point, if we weren't optimistic? Every day I meet people who make me feel positive.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis