Thursday, June 23, 2016

Welcome In

With my anxiety over the EU referendum reaching fever pitch, what I really needed to do on the eve of polling day was get an early night. What I did instead was go to the best small venue in Britain (as voted by the NME), have a skin full of Sussex Seacider and listen to rousing anthemic music that celebrates the heritage and diversity of our island life.

The mighty British Sea Power rolled into the excellent Tunbridge Wells Forum last night as part of a series of dates to road test new material. Despite seeing the band many times in recent years, I did not see them at all last year - and how I have missed them. Opening with the title track from 2013’s Machineries of Joy album, they immediately had the sold out crowd on their side. With all six band members on the tiny stage, there was no room for bears or robots but there was still some space for their customary foliage.

Seven or eight new tracks were aired and, although Yan did not introduce them, we had been promised numbers with working titles typical of the band, such as Electrical Kittens, Telstar II, Tropical Banana and Kugelschreiber Hotdog; that eclecticism was also reflected in the more electronic elements of the songs. It was not all new material, though: in a two-hour set there was plenty of room for BSP favourites.

Remember Me, voted one of the top ten songs of the 21st century by 6 Music listeners, was greeted rapturously by the audience and, when Hamilton took over vocal duties from his brother, we got rousing versions of No Lucifer and Carrion. By this time things were starting to get hot and sweaty - there was moshing, stage front - as the band ramped up the tempo. Old live favourite, The Spirit of St. Louis, even led to accusations from keyboardist Phil Sumner that Noble was rocking out like Guns ‘N’ Roses.

The song I desperately wanted to hear was Waving Flags and, of course, British Sea Power did not disappoint. This inspiring hymn to tolerance – “welcome in/from across the Vistula/ you've come so very far” - with its open-minded attitude, had the audience bellowing along with arms aloft. At this momentous, and somewhat poisonous, point in our history it was life-affirming to hear European immigration validated rather than demonised.

Earlier in the evening, support was provided by ex-Hefner frontman Darren Hayman as part of his audio-visual project, Thankful Villages. Thankful, or blessed, villages are places where every soldier returned alive from World War I. There are 54 in England and Wales and he is visiting each one to make a piece of music and a short film. With just a guitar and some spoken audio for accompaniment, he played a short set of poignant and tender melodies celebrating rural life.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fear and Loathing

Just over a week ago, a colleague and I were handing out Labour In For Britain leaflets outside the village hall before an EU referendum hustings meeting, one of a series of debates organised by the local MP in the run up to the vote. Rural Sussex is not natural Labour territory but most people politely took a leaflet; some were actually enthusiastic, a few declined and two were downright hostile. The first gave us a Tebbitesque "On yer bike"; the second, an elderly woman on two walking sticks, took me aback when she snapped, "No! You've come here mob-handed because you're scared you're going to lose!" Scowling and muttering, she hobbled off into the hall.

In the meeting, after pitches by Leave and Remain speakers, the MP invited comments from the floor. Amidst a succession of muddled points about sovereignty, the likelihood of Turkey joining the EU and the veracity of the £350 million per week figure, the elderly woman made an aggressive contribution of telling clarity: she wanted to leave the EU to keep out immigrants, to reduce the threat of ISIS and to take back control. It was easy to recognise its source: a lethal cocktail of tabloid rhetoric, vintage Boris Farage and plain fear. What she said encouraged others: a young woman, who confessed she was not old enough to vote, bemoaned the loss of the British Empire and laid this at the EU's door.

The next day, I became involved in a debate on social media (not something I usually do) with a Leave campaigner who had used an image of British servicemen returning from the war in support of an out vote. I pointed out to him that the EU existed to ensure that there would never be a European theatre of war again and my late dad, who had lost his mum in the Blitz and then been involved in the bombing of Dresden, was a passionate supporter of the European project having seen at first hand the suffering on both sides. I was told to bugger off and that people like me were giving away British freedom.

A few days later, I overheard my children discussing the referendum debates they were having in their classes at school. They were talking about the minority of kids who supported 'out' and the reasons they had given; immigrants, and the need to "keep them out", was the constant justification. My oldest two, aware enough to not want to stereotype the outers, were skirting around the issue. It fell to the youngest to articulate what they were all thinking: "All the mean kids are supporting Leave," she said.

Mulling over all of this the night before the murder of Jo Cox, my wife and I were puzzled that we seemed to have reached a point where we are living in a climate of bitterness and resentment. Politics had clearly failed a section of the electorate but that did not entirely explain the quick conversion to anger and hatred; sections of our own community seemed to be bound up in a straitjacket of fear and loathing.

When politicians talk of immigration it is either to fudge or inflame. The worst examples of print media - The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express - have been doing only the latter. When I spoke at the hustings meeting, I said that immigration is a two-way street: there are 2 million Britons living and working in Europe and, like it or not, we are living in a smaller world; the NHS would not have survived without immigration and our ageing workforce needs migrants more than ever. I was applauded by some for my comments but when I looked across at the elderly woman she was snarling not smiling.

There is a need for honesty about immigration, not undeliverable promises and certainly not the hysterical hyperbole that some politicians and journalists have been peddling of late - they should hang their heads in utter shame. Jo Cox's assassin had seemingly flirted with neo-Nazism for 20 years; something made him violently snap now and the febrile atmosphere of our current culture and politics cannot be discounted in this.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Almost Blue

The possibility that the Conservatives contravened the laws on election expenses in key seats during last year’s General Election is a story that is not widely reported in the mainstream media, being largely confined to Channel 4. To be charitable, this may be because investigations by a number of police forces are still on-going, or that other news outlets are unwilling to run with a rival’s exclusive. However, it is a story that is gaining traction as the number of investigations has been slowly increasing and recently expanded to include Sussex.

There is cap on local spending by candidates in parliamentary elections and, in an investigation by Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick, evidence was uncovered of the Tories incurring costs for activists who were bussed in to assist in marginal constituencies; these costs had not been declared in their submitted election expenses. The police have asked the courts to grant them extra time, in addition to the one-year limit, to investigate these allegations, a move that was unsuccessfully challenged by the Tory Party in one constituency.

With nearly 20 police forces throughout England now working on cases of potential electoral fraud, Sussex Police today applied for extra time to investigate the expenses of Conservative Maria Caulfield who won the Lewes constituency from the Liberal Democrats last May. The result was one of a number of surprises in East Sussex – where the Tories astonishingly won six out of eight seats to turn the county almost blue - as sitting MP Norman Baker’s majority of 7,500 was overturned.

It is now possible that opposition parties in other East Sussex constituencies will ask the Electoral Commission to look at the expenses of unanticipated Tory victors: the Liberal Democrats also lost Eastbourne by a wafer-thin majority; Labour missed out in the marginal seat of Brighton Kemptown, which was held by the Conservatives with a majority of less than 700 votes; and the Hastings and Rye sitting MP, cabinet minister Amber Rudd, unexpectedly increased her slender majority over Labour from 2010.

With the possible outcome that some election results from May 2015 will be declared void, a government with a working parliamentary majority of only 16 may soon find that the EU referendum is not their biggest problem.