Snap! (You’ve got the power)

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Actually, technically, she’s got the power. For she, Theresa May, or Mrs May as they call her and May, as I call her, is the unelected Prime Minister of Great Britain now seeking to become the elected Prime Minister of Great Britain with a snap election that she promised never to call. Politicians and promises, eh? Cuh.

I guess it’s called a “snap” election because it’s going to be identical the last one. Snap. In which demoralising case, if the Tories are kept in power for another five years by a Labour party weakened through its own in-fighting and long-term muddle-headedness about Brexit, and the apparent unthinkability of a progressive coalition, there’s a very real chance that this country will snap in half, if not into three pieces.

A snap election is a sneaky bastard trick to pull. The Tories had their strategy and buzz-phrases planned, while the rest of the parties have just a few frantic weeks to catch up and decide on important matters such as whether sex between two people of the same gender is or isn’t a sin, and whether we need Trident or not. (The answers to both of those questions are opaque at this stage.) So we have the unedifying sight of May striding through seas of vetted Tory supporters to stand at a podium and answer no questions as she doggedly and bloodlessly repeats the phrases “STRONG AND STABLE LEADERSHIP”, “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and “COALITION OF CHAOS” (the latter written and printed up on placards before the chaotic parties announced that they would not coalesce). Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn does what he always does, and does best, which is loosen his tie, leave Westminster behind and walk the earth, engaging with people who would benefit from Labour policy but who are still more likely to vote Conservative.

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Good lord, we are in a fucking pickle. Tory austerity and “hard” Brexit seem to play much better in the wider populace than Labour focus on workers’ rights, the NHS and bank holidays, never mind the Liberal Democrat sort-of-anti-Brexit stance, which seems to annoy most people outside of big, complex cities, who accept the fate of a referendum in which 51.9% of the country voted to accidentally cast their beloved sovereign nation as a global pariah and push it to the back of every queue. (Still, at least all the immigrants have disappeared since last June. You just don’t see foreigners any more, do you?)

My total lack of confidence in Labour after Ed Milliband’s dismayingly weak challenge in 2015 (“Hell, yeah!”) was lifted when the membership voted outsider Corbyn in on a thrilling mandate. But the failure of the party to get behind him – or to field a single credible candidate to stand against him – left them in disarray. But I truly believe that now is the time to put squabbles and snipes aside and vote for whichever party can get the Tories out. If Labour are in second place in your constituency, vote for them, for the greater good. If it’s the Lib Dems, vote for them and hope that Tim Farron makes up his mind about the gays at some later stage. If you’re lucky enough to live in a ward where the local Greens speak to the people, vote for them and we’ll sort out bin collection later. (I’ve made no secret of my fundamental support of the Green Party’s policies in the past, but unless there really is a coalition of chaos, it’s more important to oust Theresa May and her privatising PPE asset-strippers than worry about bins.)

I believe this is called tactical voting. Vote with your head, not your heart, and we’ll sort out the details later. Clearly, this would be a lot simpler if the Lib Dems and Labour weren’t too arrogant to pool resources, but we are where we are. And this is where we are:

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Personally, if I were in charge of Labour, I would waste no further time campaigning in Scotland. It is an act of hubris. The electoral equivalent of banging your head against a wall. But it’s also a distraction from the job in England and Wales, which are very likely, I think, to be what’s left of the United Kingdom within the next few years. I still wish I could vote for the SNP, but I’m going to have to come to terms with the cold, hard truth that I can’t. Unless I move to Scotland. Which is a temptation. (If I were in charge of any political party, I would ensure that my party leader did not run away from reporters.)

As for UKIP? Are they still going? Seriously, give them no thought. They’ve come in, smashed the place up, and we’re going to be cleaning their mess off the walls for generations to come. Unless Theresa May has a vicar’s-daughter epiphany one night before the month named after her and remembers that she campaigned to stay in the European Union, and calls a snap EU: Sorry About All That referendum based on facts and projections that are too complex to get on the side of a bus, or paste over a photograph of non-white migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, but that’s magical thinking, I know.

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage launches UKIP's new EU Referendum poster campaign, London, UK - 16 Jun 2016When are we going to reach breaking point? It seems to me we’ve had it with Farage and Banks and Nuttall and their cobbled-together saloon-bar fascism. And Farage’s oily ambitions to be a shock jock inside Donald Trump’s bum have now been revealed, so we really should move on. But my worry, among many worries, is that UKIP voters (many of whom were said to be ex-Labour voters) will return not to Labour, but to the warm embrace of the Conservatives, because their leader, who was firmly in favour of REMAIN before she succumbed to “the will of the people”, is seen as “STRONG AND STABLE” in “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and will stop the non-existent “COALITION OF CHAOS” from prevailing. How? In the traditonal Tory manner: by laughing hard and exaggeratedly in its face like she does to all questions of equality, rights and decency raised by Corbyn at PMQs. She is laughing at you. She thinks food banks are funny. She thinks I, Daniel Blake is a knockabout farce. She thinks an energy freeze is different to an energy cap. She is not shaking with mirth, but self-interest.

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Like you, probably, I wish there wasn’t a general election. I wish there was more time to prepare, and some different people in charge (it’s a shame that Nick Clegg counted himself out of the leadership with his betrayals, as he’s a very clear speaker and persuasive advocate of commonsense). The opposition is nothing like as strong as the might of the Scottish National Party makes it look. We ended up with the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010 because Labour were too arrogant to countenance a Lib Dem/Labour/Green coalition. We may end up with another Tory government this time if nobody has the guts to collude for the sake of the country.

I hope the pundits are right, and that this is not an election about Brexit, but an election about the future of the NHS. That the future pharmaceutical industry consultant Jeremy Hunt is still in his job after five years shows just how low down the priority list public health provision is for this bloodthirsty government. All the post requires is to keep running the NHS down by stealth, placing negative stories in the press, and economic and statistic inevitability will do the rest, eventually. A few feckless poor people might die in the process, so it’s win-win for Theresa May.

This partly political broadcast is almost over. If you’re not registered to vote, register to vote. If you think your vote will make no difference, think again. It might make the difference between a library and no library, which is stark, even if it’s a library you don’t ever plan on using. Would a world without libraries be better or worse? If you can bear to vote for a party you don’t passionately believe in, in order to unseat a party you passionately despise, do that. Nobody is going to mind.

If you want a crystal example of the disconnect between Tory thinking and cold, hard reality, spend a second or two considering long-retired former Tory health secretary Edwina Currie’s recent Tweet.

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She seems actually to think that obesity is caused by over-eating, and not by malnutrition. She also seems actually to think that malnutrition, which means bad nutrition, only applies to starving people in what she probably still thinks of as the Third World. Did I mention that she used to head the Department of Health? This is not just ignorance, it is wilful misreading of the facts to fit a prepared placard. It is also rooted in hatred. Currie is sure to be one of those people who thinks poor people shouldn’t have tellies, and that food banks are a lifestyle choice.

As Billy Bragg always rhetorically asks in such situations: which side are you on? Are you on the side of Edwina Currie, and Jeremy Hunt, and Aaron Banks, and Nigel Farage, and David Davis, and Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson (yes, let’s not forget him just because he’s been put in Big Yellow Storage for the duration of the campaign) and Theresa May? Or are you not?

Eh?

 

 

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Net migration

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Before I recycle this October 26 edition of the New Yorker by passing it on to my friend Lucy, I want to direct you to what is a typically very looooooong article detailing the journey of a young Syrian law student called Ghaith from his home town of Jdeidet Artouz, southwest of Damascus, to Sweden, where he now lives. (It’s available to read for free, in full, here.) I was struck, as I always am, by the sheer guts, determination and self-belief that takes a citizen from one side of the world to another, by land and sea. But then I have never fled from war, as I have never been in one. I have never fled from anywhere, except a dodgy early-80s houseparty in Northampton when the front door was being kicked in (a few of us actually escaped via the rooftops and ended up in an old lady’s back garden – she let us go through her house to the street outside and didn’t call the police). I won’t detail Ghaith’s entire, titanic journey – although X-Factor contestants should check their use of the term “journey” after reading about this actual one – as that’s not the point of what I’m writing about.

What fascinated me was the vital role played in one man’s escape from Syria by technology. It’s easy to bemoan the many insidious and disturbing effects of smartphones and the internet on modern society. The fact that nobody looks where they’re going any more, for instance, something that winds me up every time I make my way through a busy station concourse with my eyes straight ahead. I am reading a book called The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen, a former webvangelist who has turned against his master (“Rather than fostering a renaissance,” he writes of the internet, “it has created a selfie-centred culture of voyeurism and narcissism”). He is not the first see the online dream’s wanton destruction of middle class jobs (for which read: jobs) and the way its capacity for generating vast profits for a very slim section of society is crushing those at the bottom while a select few “young white men in black limousines” count their millions based on either having had one idea, or buying someone else’s idea and then selling it, but he sets it out well in a book. I tend towards his neo-Luddite position in my weaker moments of panic. But then I read Ten Borders: One refugee’s epic escape from Syria by Nicholas Schmidle.

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When we join the story, Ghaith’s older brother Ghalib has already fled Syria (initially, and with no choice, leaving behind his wife and three children, as is all too often the case). He did it by hiding in a crate in a truck and has settled in Gothenburg. Ghaith, also married, got a message from his brother via Facebook in May 2014, and this is where the tech journey begins. (By the way, if you ever hear some Daily Mail colonel complaining that the refugees can’t be that wretched, they seem to have enough money for mobile phones, punch them.) The Facebook message advised Ghaith to head to a Lebanese town to secure a fake passport from a smuggler. This didn’t work and he ended up in a detention centre. But he was not deterred. It is here that writer Nicholas Schmidle states, “The impact of social media on the Syrian refugee crisis has been profound.”

He refers to a 2012 paper by Rianne Dekker and Godfried Engbersen, professors at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which states that social media has not only helped in “lowering the threshold for migration,” by allowing people to remain connected with faraway family members; it has also democratised the process, by facilitating “a form of silent resistance against restrictive immigration regimes.” It’s worth remembering this when we decide that Twitter is a force if not for evil, certainly for cheap distraction and exponential outrage at nothing.

We learn about the Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers online community, which was created in June, 2013, by a 31-year-old Syrian known as Abu Amar. He became “an essential guide” for those wishing to escape Syria and re-settle in Europe. At its peak, the Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers group had more than 60,000 members. Someone from the International Organization for Migration told Schmidle that when Syrians arrive in Italy or Greece “they just melt away at the pier … they get on Facebook, and they know where to go.” I’m not on Facebook, and I’m sort of petulantly against it, as it’s run as a megalomaniac’s wet dream, but it’s clear that social networks can be used for more than social reasons.

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Ghaith, like many others, found details of escape through the Facebook group, a “discounted trip on a boat bound for Italy, run by a smuggler,” that departed from Turkey’s southern coast and went via Cyprus. Ghaith “followed instructions from the Facebook post”. For all the physical and corporeal details of his arduous journey, he might simply have never made the trip without online access. Money was exchanged electronically, using codes, naturally.

Boats, docks, life jackets, trucks, offices, shared hotel rooms, skiffs, coast guards: the building blocks of Ghaith’s escape story are solid. But the connecting threads are often ethereal, crackling electronic synapses, passing information, maintaining human contact. No telecommunications giant would dare to use the flight of a refugee to advertise its product, and yet, the flimsy premise of “interconnectedness” used to sell us only marginally improved models of a smartphone can be the difference between life and death. (If Benneton made a phone, they’d have a photo of a group of refugees huddled round a recharging generator on a Greek beach on the next billboard.)

As Ghaith’s journey continues, his sister wires him $1,000 from Saudi Arabia, to help pay for a $4,000 boat ticket, he and his friend Jamil keep in touch “through the mobile messaging service WhatsApp”, the article even reproduces chat-room communications sent between Ghaith and his smuggler (“Is there anything today?”, “Inshallah”). After a perilously overcrowded, aborted trawler trip from Turkey to the coast of Italy, we learn the terrible news: “His phone had been soaked, so he borrowed one to call his wife. Normally, they texted throughout the day, but they had been out of contact for more than seventy-two hours.” (Can you imagine the despair of not being able to use your mobile in such grim circumstances? Puts the Three Mobile network’s failure to give me a signal in the Clapham Junction area into perspective.) During a protracted layover in Turkey, Ghaith “busied himself each day by using an app, Fabulo, to study Swedish.” Again.

En route to the next possible boat out, this time to Cyprus, the go-between Turkish smuggler points to the horizon: “See those lights? Go toward them.” He then directs everyone to “switch off their phones,” as the coast guard picks up transmission signals. This exodus would not be possible without Samsung. On arrival – finally – at Lesbos, Ghaith calls his wife (his mobile has dried out) and she bursts into tears.

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This passage has nothing to do with tech, but it moved me all the same. When Ghaith reaches the immigration center at Lesbos, after many instances of kindness from the strapped Greek locals, it is closed, “so he went to a former swimming facility next door, which had been converted into a shelter. He slept on the tiled floor, using his backpack as a pillow. ‘That was the best feeling in the world,’ he said. ‘For the first time in years, I knew that I could sleep without waking up with sweats, from fear. No bombs could fall on my head, no one would try to take me.’ He went on, ‘In Europe, it’s better to sleep for two hours than it is to sleep for 50 hours in Syria. Because, in Syria, in each one of those hours you’ll have hundreds of nightmares.'”

On the journey from Greece to Sweden, we get this vivid image: “Ghaith and his friends bought sleeping bags, then travelled to Thessaloniki by bus. At a coffee shop near the city’s train station, they charged their phones while Ghaith waited for Ghalib to wire him €1,500, through Western Union.” On a northbound train to Belgrade, Ghaith and pals hide in a bathroom for fear of being thrown off: “After Ghaith took a group selfie, they switched off their phones and locked the door.” I know, maybe the selfie wasn’t vital to their survival, but it may well have distracted them from detention or death.

The cards they played on the train were real. So were the metal police batons used to beat them in Macedonia. The viral, online world exists as an echo of the real one, a parallel universe. I’m using it now to type on a moving train and save my words to a cloud (and to refer to the text of the article on the New Yorker website for accuracy). Part of me does truly believe that the world was a safer and simpler place before the existentially blameless Tim Berners-Lee sent his first email. I grew up arranging to meet people at a certain time in a certain place and then hoping they’d turn up, with no way on earth of contacting them once they had left the house. We survived. Somehow.

And Ghaith survived the long haul to Gothenberg. The thankless Abu Amar continues to run what has become “a hotline for refugees”; he is “up late every night, guiding Syrians across borders and sending them annotated maps.” His Facebook group continues dispensing advice: “The sea today and tomorrow is fatally dangerous. Don’t underestimate the situation. We have enough victims.” … “The storm is practically over. The best island to leave for today is Mytilene.” He couldn’t provide this lifeline using a loudhailer. (He, too, got out, and lives in Hamburg.)

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I liked this section, when Ghaith finds himself stuck in Athens. “In a text message, Ghaith explained his dilemma to Abu Amar, who sent a map directing him and his companions to a nearby hill. They could easily skirt Gevgelija, Abu Amar said, without drawing attention from the authorities. The refugees climbed to the top of the hill, ducked in the bushes, ate from a blackberry patch, and rested until nightfall.” There’s something pleasing about the idea of a blackberry being eaten rather than used to send a text message.

Heading for the Serbian border, Ghaith tries to “preserve his phone’s battery life, in case he needed to use G.P.S.,” surely the defining tribulation for the modern migrant. On, through Hungary, into Austria, and Germany, where Ghaith sent his brother Ghalib “a dropped pin on Viber, the messaging app” (whatever that is), confirming that he was indeed in the country. After all this messaging and pinning and chat-rooming and recharging and life-preserving across ten borders, Ghaith landed in Sweden, where an immigration officer “recorded his fingerprints, ran the data through an E.U. database, and confirmed that he had not previously been processed in Europe. ‘You are now under the custody of Sweden,’ she told him. ‘Sweden will take care of you.'” A happy ending.

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Long, complex, discursive and at times unbearably arduous, I still recommend this New Yorker article. (Boom, boom!) We are living in times as yet unrehearsed, not even in the 30s and 40s. The migration from Middle East to Western Europe defines us, whichever side of the barbed wire fence we sit on. And it seems that if mobile, wireless communications are the scourge of so much of our modern life, leading us to walk blindly through station concourses as we travel freely about the place, they can also truly act as a device for escape, safety, freedom and life.

Now, let’s bomb a few more Syrians out of there. No charge.