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Crosscut your community

In November 2021, the news hit Hastings that a group of refugees had drowned trying to cross the channel. It hit us hard, because being a southern coastal town, the victims of failed attempts tend to wash up on our shore. This has never been a problem we are able to ignore. Local reactions are varied as they are everywhere but on this occasion, as the news came out that those people had had a mobile, and had called both French and English authorities for help and been denied by both, anger rose.

Quite where that anger was directed depended on people’s knowledge and political position. Some feel that looking after refugees is our responsibility because our society, our government are as much to blame as any for the number of displaced people currently crossing Europe looking for safe haven. Some feel that the UK have done all they can, that money and housing are short, so we can’t help any more. Others feel that we have room, and we have housing, but we have a government that won’t allocate resources to match needs. Many more, regardless of their political stance, are unbearably distressed by the arrival of cold, wet, terrified people on our beaches, and want to help whatever the cost and whoever pays it.

I was particularly struck by one man’s comment that managed to cut down the middle of all those views. He said something along the lines of “if I was in their position I’d do the same, but how are we going to cope with them?”

 That’s a discussable position, and a good starting point. But why is a middle-of-the-road, negotiable view of current events – any events – so rare? Why are we so ready to withdraw into opposing camps and shout about things, rather than trying to solve problems?

Party politics? Social media encouraging anonymous, irresponsible scatter-gun commenting? Shortage of money, housing and work making people defensive? I’d say yes, all those things but what we need are answers, and I suspect cross-cutting is one of them.

Crosscutting

Did you, like me, immediately think ‘oh yes, that’s the difficult way of cutting wood’ – but I’ve just seen the term in an entirely different context. I have just started reading The WEIRDEST book…

If you’re not into seriously long psychology books, don’t worry – there’s a single-paragraph abstract of the book here.

In (very) brief, Henrich and his colleagues had a startling moment when they realised that almost all the psychology studies they were relying on for information about humans had used US university students as subjects for study, and they had precious little to go on as to whether there were other kinds of humans in other places who thought in different ways.

There follow 500-odd pages of ‘us and them’ discussions about different societies, about how our own society developed and why, and what the alternatives might be. One of those discussions hinges on a study of a people in New Guinea called the Ilahita, a society that, although broadly tribal, seemed unusually good at growing and assimilating in-comers without strife. The key point, the study found, was how the communities developed interdependence. Not the kind of interdependence that is vital for survival – our modern society has no shortage of that – witness the panic whenever supermarkets run out of anything, or the power goes off – we’re really useless at shifting for ourselves as individuals, however many cans of beans we have in the cellar. No, this is about social interdependence.

Ilahita communities were crosscut, in that every village was sub-divided into extended-family clans, but also into ritual-organising groups that cut across clan groups, and groups who worked together for other purposes that cut across *those*. It meant that people were used to being ‘the same’ as another person on one issue, but ‘different’ on another. As a result, they had no problems with the idea of adopting non-blood relatives, or integrating new people into a community when they needed to.

Always coming home by Ursula Le Guin - cover pic

The idea struck a chord, and I remembered reading Always Coming Home – It’s an epic by Ursula le Guin, whose speciality was writing ‘what if’ books about different ways of living. In this particular book, she builds a detailed crosscut world, where people’s ‘kin’ allegiances were crosscut by membership of community ‘houses’ – and other group allegiances both distinguished and interwove them socially and emotionally.

My tribes

Like many of us, I got deeply involved in politics during the last decade, feeling that the time had come to agitate for change. I joined first the Green Party and then, when Jeremy Corbyn offered a new way of going on, the Labour Party. The switch from one party to the other felt odd to me. I was aware of changed perspectives, and also of a change in who was rude to me, and who gave me house-room. I made a point of still trying to talk to, and work with, Green Party people, and was enthusiastic about the ‘Progressive Alliance’ for a while.

And then the ground moved. I was also involved with the women’s sex-based rights campaign, and was shocked to find that sizable elements in both the Green Party and the Labour Party had decided this was not acceptable and worse, they had decided being rude and destructive towards gender-critical women’s groups didn’t count as bad behaviour, because we were ‘the enemy’.

I stuck around in the Labour Party and then some other lefty groups for while, and tried to build bridges, talking to trade union people, to shadow cabinet MPs and other party members about how they had been blinded by the demonisation of the women’s groups, and talking to women about how our views of the politicians involved were becoming skewed and polarised. I thought about how (former?) comrades were completely unaware of how insulting and dismissive they were of my views on this issue, or how infuriating that was for me and, as a result, tried to think more about the affect my words had on others.

In February 2020, Woman’s Place UK ran a Women’s Liberation conference at UCL in London, to which over a thousand women came. I collaborated with a woman from the Green Party to present a workshop there about how to work on women’s issues within political parties. The women who came to that workshop, and worked together for the afternoon, included Conservatives, Lib Dem, Labour, Green Party and Communist Party members. They worked well together because we were all feminists and, as women, facing a lot of common issues.

The nature of that group was in itself liberating and I tried to bring that mood back to my other political groups. The trouble is, political parties are more or less the opposite of that Ilahita culture. It became too much of a strain for me in my local Labour Party, and I left and soon afterwards, I left the other lefty groups I was in, feeling suddenly aware of just how worn down I was by tribal disagreements and blindnesses – I still can’t decide whether that was sensible self-protection or a failure of nerve.

I still try to maintain the diversity of stance in the women’s groups I work with. When I find a woman backing away, thinking a group is too far this way or that way, I sympathise. There are always going to be people at the extreme ends of every opinion within a group, and it’s hard work being one of those people – but I don’t want them to leave, because it narrows the scope of the group and someone else finds themselves being ‘the extreme’.

I don’t think that would happen in a properly crosscut society.

Avoiding polarisation

There are so many current issues and behaviours that encourage polarisation. Brexit, responses to COVID (here’s an interesting take on that – I don’t agree with everything said in this article but there’s plenty worth thinking about ), the sex-based rights campaign and, of course, how we deal with refugees and other in-comers. But is it actually the issues that are divisive, or the way we approach difference? It’s well known, for example, that the damage wreaked by racism is much *lower* in areas with well-mixed communities, where people maintain allegiances to ‘their own kind’ but also manage to function in different aspects of the wider community.

I hope and trust that Hastings will resolve its differences over refugees because there are huge overlaps between the fishing community, the RNLI, the refugee support groups and the coastal-dwellers generally. At the moment, a minor altercation on the beach has become national news, and the national media are world champions at driving a wedge into a small dispute to make a big story – but I see that members of all those crosscut local groups are investigating, and trying to heal the division. Good for them.

Let’s mix it up some more, and get on with what needs doing. I place hope in the politicians I see around social media currently looking to be (or forced into being) independent MPs and councillors. That could be a disaster, a fracturing of power – but it could also be the beginning of people mixing it up more, and having complimentary allegiances that *work*.

If you’ve read this far, please join me in resolving to crosscut our lives more. Look at your communities, your allegiances, and your attitude to ‘others’. How can you broaden it, and learn some new angles? Also (I guiltily say to myself) look at who you think it’s okay to be rude to, and who you assume you have nothing to learn from, then look again, a different way. This is the call to adventure.

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activism Hastings media Politics

What is a safe country?

Our politicians are talking about safe countries. They say refugees need to claim asylum in the “first safe country” they reach. In today’s news, we’re told that the UK and the Netherlands have agreed that refugees arriving here need to be “returned” to the “first safe country.”

Screenshot of MSN article,, header pic shows beach-art message 'safe routes now'
link to article

Sounds logical doesn’t it? But who decides what is safe, and how? Or is the very idea of “first safe country” yet another convenient myth, some words to say in parliament? I think this is likely, firstly because the problems that are creating the tide of refugees across the world are enormous – wars created by the arms industry, climate crises created by a generation of destructive industries, and unstable, unsafe regimes created by lousy politicians, mostly propped up by the USA, who don’t like to see other countries running independently of US hegemony.

It could not be more obvious that we have no politicians in our own current government with the intention or the ability to solve problems that big, so jockeying with other countries to try and prove refugees should go somewhere other than here is likely to be the best they will attempt.

In fact, according to France, our politicians are so bad it’s not worth talking to them at all. Macron is apparently annoyed with Johnson for tweeting one thing when he’s just said another, and although it’s possible he’s making a fuss, all our experience of Johnson suggests that when Macron says there’s no point in trying to work with him, it’s likely to be true.

We need a proper government, managed by professionals.

Our Home Secretary is making the refugee situation a crime issue, and thinks the answer is “tackling the criminal gangs” who arrange channel crossings – an absolutely standard Tory response that amounts to treating the symptoms. No-one would be paying strangers to organise stupid little boats if there was an official, safe route available.

Our so-called opposition has at least managed to point out that there needs to be a safe passage.

Michael Rosen tweeted the other day about the masses and masses of displaced people who were on the move after the Second World War, about how the UK had refugee camps all over the country then about how, despite being broke and all but broken by the war, we assimilated many of those refugees and organised passage to places they could live for many more. When you have a proper government, you can do things like that. Like any other project a government runs, such an endeavour builds bonds, creates work, and generally becomes a part of the life of a healthy country.

My second reason for not believing in the “first safe country” idea is that I have seen a stark example of how this works in reality.

An example of a ‘first safe country’

I went to the FiLiA women’s conference in October and in one of the plenary sessions, we all joined a zoom with some women in a refugee camp in Kakuma. It was a devastatingly emotional experience. Most of the women we spoke to were lesbians, and had been put in a ‘special’ area in the camp, because they were in a place where LGBT people were seen as something strange, something to put ‘outside’ the ‘normal’ area. There had been attacks, there had been rapes, there had been tents set on fire. One woman’s baby had been killed.

The women were terrified, and tearful, and had no idea how they could get away from that camp to a place where they would actually be safe. Most of them had no money, and those who did found that traders would not take ‘dirty’ money from gay people. Some had tried to escape from the camp, only to be attacked by security forces and dragged back. They had run away from a country where LGBT people were not safe, and been trapped in a place that was as bad, if not worse.

When I realised what the zoom was about, I worried at first that this would be some terrible spectator drama, but it wasn’t. The women had wanted to do the link-up because of the way news and politics works, because people who are known, people who have names and faces and voices, people who are in communication with others around the world, are harder to kill. I’m writing this blog post because I saw those women, they spoke to me, and I will never forget them.

We know about those women, Ms Patel. We have heard about “first safe countries”, Mr Johnson. We don’t believe you, we don’t trust you, and we require that you participate in #safepassage arrangements for refugees.

If you would like to help the Kakuma women, please visit the FiLiA website here.

Joanna Cherry has written to Priti Patel – one of the outcomes of that zoom…

Header from Nationa Scot article "Joanna Cherry: Priti Patel must help the women from the nation her parents left
Cherry’s column in the National Scot

We need to make more contacts with refugees, whether they are here or in camps elsewhere, find out more about them, and the issues that drove them from home, and then we need to educate our government.

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activism Hastings Politics prejudice

Christmas lights on the beach

Dear Home Secretary,

Fairy lights are on the trees and the lamp posts in the town centre, and the coloured lights are appearing in the shops and the windows of everyone’s houses, but these lights are the ones people of Hastings took to the sea-front, as a farewell message to the families who drowned in the English Channel this week.

They drowned in the sea because France rejected them and Britain would not help them. It’s very clear that you, like the former Home Secretary, who was our Hastings MP, do not prioritize people whose families come to Britain seeking sanctuary, or a more bearable life, you prefer to prioritize ‘our own’ – but could I ask you to look at it like this?

How do you think the people of seaside towns like ours feel, looking out over that cold, dark sea at night, and thinking there may be families drowning in that cold, dark sea? How do you think we feel, knowing that you are asking our RNLI – volunteers, who do the work they do because they care deeply about people – you are asking them to turn their backs on those people, and you are asking our border forces to do a ‘push back’ which will lead to more drownings?

I don’t believe that you are unable to find a humane solution to this. I don’t believe you are trying. The people of Hastings have been going down to the waterline to help frozen, soaking wet, terrified refugees for a long old time now.. This Christmas, if you wake up in the night, never mind the little match girl, try to imagine a little girl drowning in that cold, dark sea. For as long as that is happening, our country is not civilised, and your party is not the party of ‘law and order’, or ‘family values’.

Yours sincerely,

One who stood on the Stade tonight, unable to stop imagining families drowning in that cold, dark sea.

People of Hastings stand vigil for the drowned refugees, November 2021.
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activism economics Housing media NHS Politics prejudice Uncategorized

Transports of delight!

Oh, what an original idea! Gather up all these alarming, inconvenient people and send them to some far-flung corner of the world we have a bit of control over.

https://www.dumptheguardian.com/world/2021/nov/21/migrant-crossings-are-becoming-a-problem-for-red-wall-tory-mps

It worked before, didn’t it? That’s why Australia is what it is. Come to think of it, lots of UK citizens who hadn’t been marked as undesirable followed them, once the country got on its feet. I think we should all consider jumping the gun this time – depart Cruel Brittania, and go with the refugees to a new world built by those the Tories always did, and always will think of as ‘undesirables’.

Now, what next? As they dismantle and sell off the remains of our services (the NHS is to all intents and purposes under the hammer in parliament this week) which of the Victorians’ cruel ideas do you think our abysmal politicians are going to try out next in their endless attempts to avoid the obvious truth?

The obvious truth

We had the best NHS in the world. We had transport, power, education and care services that were faulty but sort of worked. Now so many of us are struggling to find dentists, get medical and social care, we realise ‘sort of’ was a lot better than nothing. We got as far as ‘sort of’ because we had a government that saw its job as running the country, and local authorities that saw their jobs as running the services in their areas. We knew that all those administrators were there to provide people’s needs. They were paid to do it, and paid enough to live decently, not to get rich off our services. For decades, we’ve been told our services all needed to be sold off because they were faulty. Not so. We needed a government that would keep at it, make the poor services better and the good truly great.

Demand better – demand change. If you’re over 50, you’ll know we did it once before so we can do it again. If you’re under 50, ask granny how the NHS, housing, education, social services etc etc used to work. Fight back. If acting on your own doesn’t work, get some people around you and become an active part of everyone who’s demanding better.

What’s it got to do with refugees?

All those services we fought for and won in the last century – we did all that in time when (as now) lots of people emigrated to the UK when things were unsustainable where they lived. They came because they heard the UK was better. This was not a bad thing. They can’t help coming now. The ones who reach the north coast of France and get bullied into the sea by the French authorities are a minority of the refugees on the move. Pity them – they’ve landed in a country with a merciless government, and next to no local services.

But one thing we do know about the people washing up on our beaches is that they’re strong enough and clever enough to get that far. Maybe they’re strong enough and clever enough to help make a new country, either here or on the other side of the world when we all get sent to the Falklands for stealing our daily bread, like desperate people did in the bad old days before the NHS, social care services, etc etc.

This week’s ‘Destruction of the NHS’ Bill in parliament

If you want some help fighting back, contact the People’s Assembly office@thepeoplesassembly.org.uk Or try your local Trades Council. Or check if there’s a local branch of Defend the NHS where you are.

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activism Housing Politics Uncategorized

How to be patriotic

I spent this morning at work in my garden. A very, very British thing to do, weekend gardening.

I spent this afternoon listening to Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burgon talking about patriotism and national security. How quickly we forget what it was like when the good guys were getting to do all the big political speeches.

Patriotism is looking after the people and the land around you. Community work and environmental work, in other words. Oh and gardening, of course.

Security

National security is about dealing with the threats the people are facing. What threats are our people facing? Climate change, pandemic, global conflict – so build relationships across the globe to address global-scale problems, recognise that you can’t put a fence round one little island in the North Sea to stop viruses, extreme climate events or nuclear missiles at the border.

We need to stop UK companies selling chemicals and weapons to the countries creating the conflicts, causing the disasters, driving the refugee tides. What other threats do our people face? Shortage of housing, of wages, of food – so we need to build council houses, create jobs, pass laws making food a human right, and look at how we produce and price food. What else? Threats to our health service? so we need to re-instate and re-fund the NHS. Where will the money from all that come from? I know, says Jeremy Corbyn – let’s use the billions the current government are planning on putting into creating weapons to feed more wars.

Farewell to Prince Philip

Go on, give him a couple of minutes thought, or however long you generally spend on someone you’ve heard of, who’s died. Patriotism, and national security, depend on us recognising that no one person is more important than the others, but keeping faith with the rule that every single one does matter. Let us hope that the current generation of young royals will put the monarchy idea peacefully to bed now – maybe when their gran passes on.

Our job

Meantime, we – all of us – need most urgently to find out how to get control of the rest of the elite who are wrecking the world – the aristocracy, the billionaires, the privileged, public school set who think they own the country. Please put your mind to it, and help with finding the ways. It’ll take all of us – and it’s the most patriotic thing you could be doing with your time.

This seems to be playing in my head, so here it is – you’d better listen to it too.

Oh, and this….

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media Politics

8 days mourning

Very well, you are right. No more cheeky comments from me. Yes, we should observe eight days of mourning.

DAY 1 Mourn for the ones who, in Mr Johnson’s words, have lost loved ones ‘sooner than we might have wished’ to COVID-19.

DAY 2 Mourn for the ones who have died – old and young, many key workers, many more forced to continue unessential work due to lack of funds, the NHS workers, predominantly racialised ones, who died of COVID-19.

DAY 3 Mourn for those who died the horrible death of being homeless and sick.

DAY 4 Mourn for those who died the horrible death of being poor and lacking social care.

DAY 5 Mourn for those who died on The Journey, seeking asylum. Explain to those who say it’s mostly young men who wash up here, so they must be economic migrants, tell them that that’s because the women and the children, the old and the sick don’t make it.

DAY 6 So mourn for the old and the sick who died on The Journey, and those who stayed home and died amidst destruction.

DAY 7 Mourn for the women and the children stolen away from camps like Calais by traffickers.

DAY 8 Mourn for those who die of bombs and pollution and climate change in all the places that will continue to be destroyed until we learn how to control our aristocrats and our billionaires, and *especially* the billionaire aristocrats, who bomb and starve and squeeze the whole world.

And yes, okay, give a thought to rich and well-cared for old men who die in their beds, in their castles, aged 99.

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Book reviews Hastings Politics Uncategorized women

Afghanistan is talking to Hastings

180 years of conflict and misery, and no end in sight.

[Note added in August 2021: Hi, thanks for visiting this blog. The text here is about a book released by Maya Evans two years ago, but it’s coming up in search engines because Afghanistan is, sadly, in the news again. Here’s a link to a much more up-to-date report by Maya Evans. ]