Friday, 20 March 2015

Response to Bardo terrorist massacre must be focus on human rights

We read that terrorists have referred to the those innocent civilians massacred at Tunisia's Bardo museum as "infidels". One horrifying aspect of extremism, be it religious or secular, is that a group’s adherents believe that their particular belief system imbues them with superiority over others, leading them often to regard non-adherents as either a means to an end, or worse, as sub-human enemies worthy of  eradication. 

Throughout human history people professing all faiths and none have behaved in similarly appalling ways using various justifications. People of nominal Christian faith perpetrated genocide against Muslims in former Yugoslavia; tribal differences were used to fuel genocide in Rwanda; Nazis in Germany used ideological and racial justifications for the holocaust (perpetrated by alleged Christians against Jews and others) and wars of aggression; and communist political ideology was used by people to justify atrocities in Cambodia and by the Soviets.

The best way to defeat terrorism at home or abroad and to confront dictators is to focus relentlessly on human rights, because we each enjoy these by virtue solely of our humanity not as gifts of state or God. Human rights are no panacea, they must be defended, sometimes requiring action and sacrifice by those in safety on behalf of victims. 

However, they offer hope not just because they confer the right to speak freely, practice religion, be an atheist and elect governments, but because they remind us that irrespective of any religious, national, tribal, racial, political, ideological or ethnic identity, we are all united in being human and therefore owe one another respect and protection.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Times letter: government showed Putin & others our weakness in Syria

Sir, Instead of chest-thumping for Nato about how Russia is a clear danger to the Baltic states, Michael Fallon and the government ought to reflect on just why it is that President Putin appears impervious to the West and Nato’s opposition to his activities. Terrorist groups were not alone in watching gleefully as the West chose inaction (in Syria) or limited action (in Libya and Iraq) — despite the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the occupation of large swathes of territory by extremists. 

John Slinger

Friday, 13 February 2015

My Times letter on rape sentencing

Sir, You report that “Britain leads Europe on sending rapists to jail” (Feb 12), with 5,408 prisoners serving sentences for rape in England and Wales in 2013. What is truly startling is that this number, despite appearing large in comparison to our neighbours, is only a tiny fraction of the number of rapists in our midst. There were 24,043 rapes recorded by the police in the year to September 2014, and the Office for National Statistics estimated that 85,000 women were victims of rape or sexual assault by penetration in 2012. 

If all rapists were actually caught and convicted, our prison population would mushroom overnight.

John Slinger

Online at The Times here

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The government has presided over our military & diplomatic decline

There can be no better or more tragic metaphor for Britain's decline as a global military and diplomatic power under this government than our minuscule contribution towards the anti-Isis coalition. The MPs on the defence select committee have done a great service by describing Britain's military intervention as a "strikingly modest" response to a grave threat. The Prime Minister must be held to the solemn, statesmanlike pledge he gave last year in Parliament when he argued that our intervention was designed to "see ISIL degraded and then destroyed as a serious terrorist force". 
Defence reviews, spin and blandishments cannot mask the reality that the government is following, rather than leading the public in this vital matter of international affairs.

View my writing on foreign policy here

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Labour Uncut oped: Our rights are protected. It’s time for Labour toemphasise our responsibilities

Online at LabourUncut here.

In a 2002 Observer article Tony Blair set out the theme of “rights and responsibilities”. He sought to expose the inadequacies of what he termed the left’s “1945 ‘big state’ that wrongly believed it could solve every social problem” and the right’s “narrow, selfish individualism of the 1980s”. For Blair, responsibilities were concomitant with rights. Admirable people and organisations, from MPs to QCs, Amnesty to Liberty, the CAB to the EU, have ensured that rights are now well-defined and defended. We must remain vigilant about rights, but now it’s time to foster a “responsibilities culture.”

The culture of rights, fought for by philosophers, politicians and ordinary people throughout history has advanced human happiness, security and economic prosperity. It achieved this by imbuing individuals with rights by virtue of being human, not as gifts of God or the state.

Responsibilities should be given this irreducible, non-negotiable status. “I know my rights” is the unacceptable face of rightsism. The responsibilities agenda has historically been directed at the poor rather than the better-off, when in fact it is a universal imperative. In the future, it would be good to hear more of, “I know my responsibilities”, from citizens, companies and organisations throughout society and the economy.

Here are a few areas where the responsibilities revolution could take effect:


We are required to by the law to obey its strictures. However, we each have a moral responsibility to avoid illegal behaviour. Our criminal justice system would be much less necessary if people accepted the not unreasonable responsibility to desist from harming others. We should spend less time trying to understand the “causes” of crime and more on instilling a sense of respect for others and ensuring that violators fear the law and wider community. The challenge is huge: despite crime apparently falling, the Met reported last week that violent crime in London is up 25 per on last year.


This week, several hospitals declared major incidents due to A&E over-crowding. NHS England’s Professor Keith Willett has previously said that between 15 and 30 per cent of people presenting at A&E do not need actually need to be there. Andy Burnham is right to blame cuts to social care, problems with the 111 system, and insufficient GP capacity, but individuals share a responsibility to help the NHS work effectively. While the NHS must treat all ailments compassionately, we must overcome our British reticence about the “nanny state” and more actively encourage people to change their lifestyles in order to prevent medical conditions. Gastric band surgery may be cost-effective compared to treating the long-term conditions caused by obesity, but not becoming obese in the first place would be better for individuals, the NHS and economy. Labour’s public health agenda can, in government, do more to assist individuals to lead healthier lives.


Governments must cease holding teachers entirely responsible for tackling deep-set societal problems. Parents should be made far more aware that it is their responsibility to send children to school with respect for staff, a thirst for learning and with good behaviour. A national Parental Responsibility Code could be brought in.

Volunteering/active citizenship

We need more school governors, more parents able to run sports or music clubs, more Special Constables, more philanthropy, more social activism. Citizens taking on these responsibilities shouldn’t be regarded as the exception, but the norm. Empowered, active citizens of all social classes and backgrounds should feel that they are community leaders, that they are responsible for maintaining high standards within their communities. They shouldn’t require permission from sometimes moribund councils or “the authorities”. Employers could be required to allow employees time off to volunteer, just as with armed forces reservists.


False idols like Russell Brand and other prophets of apathy and cynicism fill a vacuum created by mainstream politicians. Yet the blame isn’t politicians’ alone and must be shared with the media and public. People often say that politicians are (delete as appropriate) “all the same/corrupt/don’t listen/are lining their pockets”. These are false statements. We each have a responsibility to use the political system to change our country for the better, including, if necessary, the constitution. People can vote, join a political party or even create their own –nobody stopped Mr Farage.

Unlike our Tory and Lib Dem opponents, we in the Labour Party believe in the power and responsibility of the state to do this. Take the Tories’ Big Society agenda which focused exclusively individual and charitable action because of their ideological antipathy to an active state. It is no good proclaiming the virtues of active citizenship if you’re slashing local and national government spending. People can only volunteer in their communities if their jobs don’t require them to work all hours and if communities, through local councils, have the buildings, the playing fields in which clubs can flourish.

Only Labour can usher in a responsibilities revolution, because we can set out how the state’s responsibilities can nurture those of individuals and vice versa. Unlike our opponents, we see an enabling state working in partnership with individuals and communities to help create a fairer, more prosperous Britain.

As J. F. Kennedy didn’t quite say:

“Ask not which rights your country can protect for you, but ask instead what responsibilities you have to yourself, your community and your country”.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

July 2014 BBC radio interview with Immigration Services Union re Ebola screening: let's hope plans are better advanced now

I hope that nurse Pauline Cafferkey recovers swiftly from Ebola. Her case has highlighted once more the systems that the Government has put in place to protect Britain from Ebola and to ensure that people who may be carrying the virus get the care they need as quickly as possible.

Below is the transcription I made of what I thought at the time was a very revealing interview in July 2014 about the way the UK was preparing for handling cases of Ebola. I am clearly no expert, but the interview with Lucy Morton of the Immigration Services Union suggested to me that the Border Force had not been given sufficiently robust advice, resources or training by the relevant authorities. In fact, I would suggest that the preparation appeared almost as farcical as a scene from Yes Minister, or The Think Of It.


BBC Radio 4, The World Tonight, 30 July 2014

Intro: The UK's health services have the ability to deal with the experience to deal with the threat posed by the Ebola virus - that's the message from the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond...

Earlier is month Public Health England issued an alert to UK doctors...this evening Border Agency staff were provided with information. A statement from Public Health England said it and the Border Agency remain in close contact to monitor the situation and agree any additional activity as needed. The statement goes on: "it's important to note that the UK has robust systems in place already for infectious disease control, including those in airports and ports, and that the risk of Ebola in England remains very low".

What's the view from the Border Staff themselves, who police the points of entry. I asked Lucy Morton from the Immigration Services Union.

LM: The concern is what do they do if they are confronted with someone that appear unwell at the border. There is no health facility at the border, there is no containment facility and until extremely recently, within the last hour, there has been no guidance issued to staff at all as to what it was they should do.

Q: Would you be able to spot the symptoms of Ebola yourself?

LM: Absolutely not, and no more would any other Border Force officer. We are not medical professionals. The best we could do possibly would be if someone appeared to have a fever, but no, nothing more direct than that.

Q: So what advice advice are you being offered then?

LM: There is a risk algorithm which has been offered to staff very recently.

Q: A risk algorithm? [sounds bemused]

LM: It amounts to a very brief series of questions and ends with "if worried, call an ambulance".

Q: And what, are you supposed to put those questions to somebody if you think that they may have the symptoms but if you don't know the symptoms how do you know who to stop?

LM: I can't answer that one because, how do they know? If someone is symptom free, and of course they may well be, or if the symptoms are relatively mild - people don't get off long-haul air flights looking their best - then no, they've got no way of spotting it.

Q: If you suspect somebody is suffering from Ebola, where do you put them? What do you do with them?

LM: There are small interview rooms. We could remove them from the immediate public, but they are not cleaned, or sterilised, or sealed in any way, above and beyond normal cleaning. There is nowhere to put them. The instructions to staff at the moment amount to "if you're worried, call an ambulance". I very much hope the NHS has an answer to what those poor ambulance staff are supposed to do.

Q: So when we are given assurances that the risk of Ebola in the UK remains very low, because, obviously of the procedures that are on place here, what do you say to that?

LM: Nothing has changed in the procedures that are in place, from this week, to last week, to last year. There is nothing specific in place to control the risk of Ebola arriving. I'm not a public health official, I can't answer to the medical diagnosis, but for my members on the border, they have seen no change and they have no specific information.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

LabourList blog: Labour can change the false narrative with a realitycheck

Online at LabourList here.

A false narrative has developed about Labour that must be rejected comprehensively by a party aiming to govern in six months. It claims that Labour has become alienated from virtually the entire electorate. Our response to date has been ineffective. Here are some suggestions for how we may succeed in future.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. We should take heed and refuse to be cowed by something as illusory as a false narrative, even when we have sometimes fed it. When a narrative gets you down, the only thing to do is change it.

Step one: remind ourselves and the country that our values are not antithetical to those of the majority of voters. This doesn’t require a new New Labour, rather we must recast our core beliefs, and then personify them in our actions, so that they resonate at this particular moment in politics.

Remind voters that the clue is in our name: Labour. We are the work party, not the welfare party. Our founding father, Keir Hardie, who from age eight supported a large family single-handedly, did not fight all his life for the right to claim benefits, but for the right to enjoy the dignity of well-paid, unexploited work. We founded the modern welfare state and will always believe it to be a defining feature of our civilised society, but we must now communicate more effectively that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and colleagues are focused on founding a new economy defined by labour not benefits.

Step two: set out policies that provide clear examples of how our values work in modern Britain. These should ideally be counter-intuitive to grab the attention of voters, activists and the media. Think how Labour reclaimed the law and order issue from the Tories in the late 1990s. Chuka Umunna’s heartfelt belief in “the British dream” of entrepreneurialism and small business shows how this can be done. Merely denying that we are anti-business is not sufficient. We must show, practically, that we are pro-business and pro-fair and dynamic markets. Rachel Reeves has similarly shown that our compassion need not mean we lack credibility on reforming benefits.

We’ve had new, blue, purple and “in the black” Labour. Perhaps now it’s time for a “tough love Labour” showing that we’ve moved beyond a reflexive opposition to Tory reforms onto an agenda of contribution and responsibility over entitlement and rights. We represent places where there is growing concern about immigration, so we must be at the forefront of the debate about the worry many have about rapid changes to their communities and a fear that parts of the country are becoming little more than vessels of economic activity. By avoiding the debate, we have helped create a vacuum of rich pickings for UKIP. Yvette Cooper’s recent speech is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Step three: place all ego and internal politics to one side and choose spokespeople who are particularly able to reach the parts that we haven’t been able to reach of late. We must field people who can connect with voters from across the political divide. Our ranks are full of them, with a small but not exhaustive list including Gloria de Piero, Rachel Reeves, Stewart Wood, Dan Jarvis, Liz Kendall, Sadiq Khan and Luciana Berger. Jim Murphy shows how it’s done and Scotland’s gain is our loss at Westminster.

Step four: in order to counter the narrative that the Labour leadership is a detached metropolitan elite, all candidates, current MPs, shadow ministers and key advisers should spend a day a week from now until the election shadowing ordinary people in their paid or unpaid jobs (i.e. including childcare, or caring). The panopticon prison of a party’s back office and the entire Westminster and media bubble, cannot be escaped by some timely focus groups or street surgeries. Labour’s politics would benefit from a large dose of the reality that becomes apparent when we look outwards not inwards.

In his 2013 speech about reforming Labour after the Falkirk scandal, Ed Miliband said “we need to reach out to others outside our Party too” and suggested primaries for Parliamentary selections where the incumbent is retiring and membership has dwindled. Many of us encouraged him to push forward with this. Primaries would be another way of showing that we reach out beyond the sometimes dwindling and moribund local party structures.

Step five: do not seek plaudits or medals for the above. Simply do it without fear or favour and let the experiences influence speeches, press releases, policy reviews and then enthuse the broader Labour movement.

It’s not too late. Ed Miliband has shown that he can change the narrative, seize the initiative, challenge vested interests and be a visionary leader. Each member of the Labour Party must have faith in our individual and collective ability to change the narrative. Together, we can and must show the country that we are far better than the fabrication our detractors are portraying. If we do this effectively, the narrative will change.

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant.