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Labour values: ‘We can’t help everyone’

Emma Lewell-Buck just can’t help it. In today’s Shields Gazette she decried the emptiness of David Cameron’s tough words on the Calais migrants issue, without any suggestion of what she or Labour would do to resolve the problem.

Presumably no one has told her yet.

What irked me most was that the article showed a complete lack of empathy; not just in her own words, but in the visitor comments below the article.  The people in Calais are hoping for a better life; a job, opportunity, a chance for freedom, or a haven from persecution, violence or death.

So I commented:

It says everything about the pathetic state of Labour that the South Shields MP jumps on the anti immigrant bandwagon to keep the Labour leadership happy and at the same time attempt to appeal to BNP and UKIP voters. It is reassuring though that people like Emma Lewell-Buck and most of the commenters below are in the minority (particularly the charming den ‘final solution’ patton) and that most British people are actually decent, empathetic human beings.

To put it in perspective, we have a population of over 60 million, but there are around 3,000 migrants in Calais. We are also one of the wealthiest countries in the world so not only can we afford to support these people in difficulty, we should. Sadly Emma Lewell-Buck is part of a political-economic system which prefers to maintain the status quo which makes the poor poorer and the rich richer, and rather use these people in trouble as an opportunity for cheap political point scoring rather than actually improving lives.

Maybe we can’t help everyone. But we should try, and for an MP, it should embody the reason they went for the job in the first place: to help people. 

Anything else is a betrayal to Labour voters, and what were once Labour principles.

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Shielded from truth

In the 1998 scifi action film Soldier, Kurt Russell plays Sgt Todd, a soldier who has been trained from birth to be a ruthless and efficient killing machine. To illustrate Todd’s complete absence of empathy, there’s a scene at the beginning of the film where he is in a battle in Moscow, walking through blasted ruins mowing down enemy Russian soldiers with his machine gun. A Russian soldier takes a civilian woman hostage, and holds her in front of him as a shield. The ruthless Sgt Todd shoots the civilian and the soldier without blinking. Todd’s complete dedication to the mission is chilling. We know that he is wrong; we know that he is not a moral person.

Watching Soldier on the television the other night it struck me that this is what a ‘human shield’ looks like. A non combatant intentionally placed in the line of fire to stop the opposing side firing on troops and military assets.  It’s a term we’ve been exposed to relentlessly in the past couple of weeks.

It’s been one of the criticisms levelled at Hamas – that they are using civilians as human shields. And this has been used extensively by apologists of the Israeli government to defend the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza.  Make a comment critical of Israel’s military actions and it won’t be long before a pro-Israel astro turfer rolls out the human shield defence.  The reasoning usually applied is one of the following:

– Hamas are using human shields, so Israel has no option but to kill those human shields in order to kill Hamas.

– Hamas are using human shields, so it’s inevitable that Israel will unintentionally kill those human shields whilst trying to kill Hamas.

Neither options can be considered moral. Both scenarios mean that civilians will die as a result of the Israeli government’s military actions, and that the Israeli government knows it.

There’s no doubt that Hamas is waging it’s war on Israel from the neighbourhoods of Gaza, and have been caught storing weaponry in empty schools.  But Gaza is a city of over two million, and it quickly becomes clear that Hamas’ war is being waged from inside a heavily populated area, not behind the people of Gaza.  To make it worse, the civilians of Gaza are pinned in place by Israel and Egypt with no place to run.  They are trapped.

And yet, Israel continues to launch high explosive ordinance at that small patch of land packed with humans.

This is no defence of Hamas or its allies.  I wouldn’t want anyone to live in a state run by religious extremists who ban freedom of speech, murder their political enemies and zealously execute sharia law with often deadly consequences.

The saying goes about the first victim of war being truth, and the Middle East is no different.  Using the human shield claim as absolution for killing the innocent is staggeringly dishonest and cowardly.

Letting people down

Three weeks after voting in support of the Coalition government’s ‘annual welfare cap’, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck rails at the government’s poor performance in administering the Personal Independence Payment, or PIP for short.  Our MP raised in Parliament the plight of constituent Sue Martin, who has myalgic encephalomyelitis and has been waiting since July last year to find out if she qualifies for support through PIP to help with her illness.  In most scenarios, I would say job well done to our MP.

Sadly, Ms Martin is not alone in struggling with PIP and Disability Living Allowance claims, and will likely be joined in future by many other people struck by debilitating illness, frustrated with an inhumane bureaucratic system and a capped welfare budget pot.  This capped welfare budget will mean that different departments within the welfare system will compete with each other for a share of the budget.  If one welfare function is over budget, then funds can be taken from one department to top up the other department’s failing budget.  It doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise that people’s lives will depend on the political whims of ministers courting media attention and the competing interests of internal party political warfare.

Despite Emma Lewell-Buck’s plea over over PIP and her criticism of the government for ‘letting people down’, she voted for the very bill that could make life worse for people like Sue Martin, and other people who are unfortunate enough to need the safety net of the welfare system.

Running up the white flag to the Tories

I’m going to be a different sort of MP“, she said.  When she was campaigning to replace David Miliband as South Shields’ MP, she played on the fact that she was local born and bred, with a deep Tyneside family history, and a social worker who knew the needs of and the difficulties facing the people of South Shields.

After safely winning the South Shields seat, Emma Lewell-Buck pluckily threw down the gauntlet to David Cameron, saying that he might need a lifeboat “after sailing HMS Coalition straight into the rocks, aided by his captain, George Osborne, and his cabin boy, Nick Clegg”.  Well, our South Shields MP has joined the crew of the not-so-good ship HMS Coalition.  Today, she voted with the Labour whip in support of the Coalition’s Charter for Budget Responsibility, otherwise known as the ‘annual welfare cap’, a cap on the overall level of spending in the welfare budget, excepting pensions and some jobseekers benefits.

It’s a nasty piece of legislation, another broadside in the Coalition’s dirty media war against those in receipt of benefits, and it seems, a war in which Labour wants to see some frontline action.  Unfortunately, Labour chose not to fight against the Coalition, but instead chose the easy target in a hunt for the middle England vote – against those in our society who are most in need, the poor and the unwell.  If Labour MPs wanted to distance themselves from the values of the creators of the NHS and the welfare state, they couldn’t have picked a more treacherous flag to run up their mast.

So is ensign Lewell-Buck a ‘different sort of MP’ for South Shields?  What better benchmark could we find than the late Tony Benn, whom she claimed for her was “an inspiring figure… because of his absolute dedication to his principles and his belief in the rights of working people.”  I find it difficult to believe that Tony Benn would ever vote for such a divisive policy, which in this time of savage austerity further victimises the poorest and most unfortunate in society, whilst the rich get richer.  If Lewell-Buck is a ‘different sort of MP’, it’s one that’s hugely different from Tony Benn, but remarkably similar to South Shields’ previous parliamentary disappointments, David Clark and David Miliband.

South Shields could as well have voted a Tory in, for all the difference it would have made.

High time for a discussion

It’s not often that we see politicians put their heads above the parapet over the drugs debate, so it’s refreshing to see Durham’s police and crime commissioner Ron Hogg taking a relatively courageous stance by putting the UK’s drugs policy in the spotlight.  Hogg wants to see the introduction of ‘consumption rooms’, where heroin addicts can inject their prescribed heroin in a safe, supervised environment, away from predatory dealers.  Dealers who couldn’t give a shit what is in their shit as long as they are making money.  This is one of those ideas where the down-sides are overshadowed by the benefits.  Evidence from UK trials and other countries have shown that such initiatives can improve the health of users, reduce drug related crime and reduce addiction.

In places like Denmark, consumption rooms have saved lives, not just by intervening in overdose situations, but by providing clean needles, a hygienic environment, and significantly, exposing users to drug counselling services and health professionals.  These are outcomes which every person who wants a better society should like to see.  It seems like a no-brainer: reduce the harm of drug addiction to heroin users and the wider community, whilst at the same time reducing addiction.  Consumption rooms wouldn’t be a magic bullet though, as wider and significant reforms to drug policy are needed.  This might be too bitter pill to swallow for those afflicted with a different addiction: authoritarian self-righteousness.

Usually politicians balk at discussing progressive drug policies, and avoid the appearance of being ‘soft on drugs’ by preferring a punitive approach to addicts, and wagging a moralistic finger at anyone who disagrees.  So kudos to Ron Hogg for trying to make lives better for the Durham’s addicts, their families and communities.  He’s put his political career in genuine harm’s way to make a point worth hearing.  It’s a pity that Northumbria wasn’t also on Ron Hogg’s beat.

Unfortunately Northumbria’s Labour PCC Vera Baird doesn’t see drug addiction in the same way.  Rather than take action, or even add her voice to the call to explore such initiatives further, it appears that she doesn’t see the need, and that a recent drop in recorded heroin use means that the current approach is adequate.  For a PCC who has campaigned so hard against domestic abuse, it seems her approach to heroin addiction is comparatively apathetic.  If reported incidents of spousal abuse dropped, would she dismiss new policies that may help reduce it further?

If nobody talks about drugs and drug addiction, then nothing will be done to make it better.  Drug addicts will remain the victims of addiction, criminals and an overly punitive legal infrastructure.

The ‘war against drugs’ has failed (if there was ever really one) and a new approach is needed.  At least in the North East, Durham seems to be taking the lead.