Mainstream parties have been defeated by the monster they created

Nigel Farage’s smug grin is all over the media this morning. But the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have been defeated by a monster of their own creation.

They have failed to speak up for the benefits of migration, they have not provided decent housing, they have bailed out banks and punished the poor, they have pandered to the super-rich. It’s no surprise that people look for an alternative.

Unfortunately, the alternative is provided by Nigel Farage’s ragtag army of racists, sexists, homophobes and climate change deniers. Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker, presents himself as anti-establishment. UKIP’s policies include a tax system that would harm the poor and those in the middle while slashing taxes for the rich. UKIP politicians also advocate a big increase in military spending at the same time as greater cuts to the welfare state.

Most of these policies are barely mentioned in the media, which concentrates on UKIP’s views on migration and the European Union. The BBC must bear some responsibility for UKIP’s success. Fascinated with Farage, keen on sensational change, they have given the party vastly disproportionate attention.

Not that this is any excuse for voting for UKIP. I won’t patronise UKIP voters by suggesting they don’t know what they’re doing. Let’s not forget, however, that around two-thirds of UK voters did not even vote in this election. UKIP have received the support of about one in ten of the adult population. Even the majority of those who did vote supported parties that favour EU membership.

The Tories have already shown their willingness to cave into UKIP’s agenda, attacking migrants and the EU at the same time as they demonise the poor to justify their austerity agenda. Labour have a chance to speak up for migration and point out the real problems of spiralling poverty and inequality. Sadly, Labour politicians are already mentioning the need to talk more about immigration – a euphemism for being more anti-immigration and blaming migrants for problems they have not caused.

Thankfully, there is more to politics than choosing between four parties that marginalise the working and middle classes in the interests of the rich. There are alternative ways of voting – such as Green, Plaid Cymru and others.

More importantly, we can aim for a better world in our own lives and communities – by refusing to scapegoat migrants, Muslims or benefit claimants; by staging grassroots campaigns against austerity, prejudice and war; by supporting each other in resisting poor working conditions and dodgy landlords; by choosing kindness over consumerism. We can defy this rotten system not just on polling day, but every day.

If you think UKIP’s members are extreme, read its official policies

Nigel Farage has thrown out the latest UKIP member to provoke controversy through bigoted opinions. Farage says he wants to get rid of candidates with “extremist, barmy or nasty” views. But it is not individual candidates who are the problem. UKIP’s official policies are extremely nasty, based as they are on an ultra-Thatcherite free-market extremism.

Earlier this week, I blogged about David Silvester, a UKIP councillor in Oxfordshire who attributed the recent floods to God’s judgment on the legalisation of same-sex marriage (rather than the real sin of human-fuelled climate change). I have now lost count of the number of UKIP members that have been expelled due to racist, sexist or homophobic comments. Farage’s insistence that there are bigoted individuals in every party is true but now wearing thin as an excuse for the number of them who appear to have joined UKIP.

You only have to look at the policies of UKIP to see why. They want to make even greater cuts than the Tories. They are committed to workfare (forcing people to work for benefits, instead of paying them a wage). They want to withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees, meaning the UK could turn back people fleeing persecution. They would also remove the UK from the European Court of Human Rights, meaning it would join Belarus as the only other European country that is not signed up to it.

Despite slashing the welfare state, a UKIP government would increase military spending by forty percent and push ahead with the renewal of Trident. The party’s education policy includes the promotion of a biased, pro-imperial teaching of history in British schools. They would not, however, teach about climate change, as they deny its reality. Their policies include investment in several new gas-fired power stations.

Shortly after his comments about expelling “extremists”, Farage gave us a reminder of his own perception of reality by claiming that women can succeed just as well as men at the top levels of big business – if, he added, they are prepared to sacrifice their families. Why anyone should be expected to sacrifice their family to “succeed” was not made clear.

Of course, the debate on the number of women on boards of corporate directors conveniently obscures the reality of sexism for people on low and middle incomes. But given the power of corporations, it is telling that Farage is happy with those who are wielding that power.

It is not individual UKIPers who are the problem but the party itself and its own policies. Expelling right-wing extremists from UKIP is like expelling sand from the desert. 

Same-sex marriage and the local elections: Who thinks they’re connected?

The “Christian Right” in Britain – inasmuch as it exists – is not like the Christian Right in the US. Over there, conservatism on issues such as marriage and abortion seems to go hand in hand with right-wing views on economics and foreign policy. Over here, we have conservative Christian lobby groups with a far more narrow focus. Organisations such as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern/Christian Legal Centre and so-called Anglican Mainstream focus largely on attacking LGBT rights. They also speak out against abortion, Islam and the supposed marginalisation of Christians in Britain.

But unlike their US counterparts, these groups rarely comment explicitly on economics or international relations. True, the tiny Christian Party adopts a right-wing stance on virtually every issue, cheering on Trident and tax cuts for the rich. In contrast, the (slightly older) Christian People’s Alliance is just as hostile to LGBT rights and Islam, but has a suprisingly good record of campaigning against the arms trade and talks quite a bit about poverty.

Shortly before the 2010 general election, Christian Concern appeared to endorse the candidacy of George Hargreaves, the Christian Party’s leader, in an email bulletin to supporters. The bulletin clearly provoked some negative reactions, as the group almost immediately issued another email insisting that they do not endorse one party or another.

This makes an email that they have sent out today particularly interesting. When giving advice to Christians about voting in tomorrow’s local elections, there is only one issue they mention: same-sex marriage.

Subscribers to their mailing list received an “action alert” today that declared:

Please take the time to find out which of your candidates supports marriage as between one man and one woman before you go to place your vote.”

You might think that the afternoon before polling day is a bit late to be finding out such things. You might also wonder what local elections have to do with marriage law. The email declares:

Local authorities hold a lot [of] power which they could use to penalise people or organisations who believe in authentic marriage, so it’s important that local councillors are pro real marriage.”

There is then a link to a leaflet produced by the “Coalition for Marriage” about the links between local government and marriage law. It consists largely of unsubstantiated statements. For example:

Schools could be forced to promote the new definition of marriage in the classroom. The rights of parents could be ignored, and teachers who believe in traditional marriage could be pushed out of their careers… Churches that refuse to hold same-sex weddings may be denied grants or refused permission to hire halls from councils in the future.”

No evidence is provided to back up these claims (I hope that schools will encourage children to consider all sides of the argument on ethical, political and religious issues – as they are already expected to).

The only party that the email mentions by name is the Conservatives. Christian Concern quote a Daily Telegraph poll that shows:

…that the plan to redefine marriage makes far more people ‘less likely’ to vote Conservative than ‘more likely’ to do so.”

Speaking personally, there is nothing that would make me “less likely” to vote Conservative, as there has never been any chance of my voting Conservative at all.

Will Christian Concern’s supporters vote primarily (or even solely) on the basis of which candidate or candidates oppose same-sex marriage? This could have alarming results. Of course, there are a few Labour, Lib Dem and SNP candidates who oppose marriage equality, but most anti-equality candidates are likely to be Tory, Independent or from far-right parties such as the UK Independence Party.

This is particularly relevant at a time when UKIP is under such scrutiny. Last week, their candidate Anna Marie Crampton was thrown out of the party for anti-Semitic comments on Facebook. When the story broke, one of the first to call for Crampton’s expulsion was Sam Westrop, director of the interfaith group Stand for Peace. He said, ““UKIP, to its credit, has expelled extremist and bigoted members in the past.” It is able to have done so only because it has had so many of them to expel.

Three years ago, I analysed UKIP’s policies and discovered remarkable overlaps with the BNP. UKIP are not only anti-European, anti-migrant and anti-Muslim. They also deny the reality of climate change, support an increase in military spending and want a flat rate of income tax (so milllionaires pay the same as cleaners and nurses). UKIP believe that the Tory cuts are not going far enough. Nigel Farage has described David Cameron, the man currently presiding over the destruction of the welfare state, as “a social democrat”.

And of course, UKIP is also strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Winston McKenzie, UKIP’s candidate in the Croydon North by-election, made this one of the main points of his campaign, targeting religious voters with the untrue claim that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties want to force churches and mosques to host same-sex weddings.

Mackenzie also described adoption by same-sex couples as “child abuse”. The party’s spokespeople disagreed with him, but they didn’t expel him. Instead, it was the head of UKIP’s youth wing who was forced out of his job for supporting same-sex marriage.

Is this the party that Christians are being urged to support tomorrow? Are Christian Concern simply naïve about the likely economic policies of most candidates opposed to same-sex marriage, or are they actively in favour of them?

UKIP: The respectable face of the far right

Members of the United Kingdom Independence Party must be rubbing their hands with glee today. They’re the subject of the day’s leading news story. The Education Secretary has described them as “a mainstream party”. The Leader of the Opposition has effectively defended them. They’re being portrayed as victims of discrimination, despite their own discriminatory policies.

According to the story that broke this morning, foster carers in Rotherham had non-British children removed from their care because they are members of UKIP. This is the claim of the couple concerned. Rotherham Council’s statements seem less clear, suggesting that membership of UKIP influenced the decision, but implying it was not the only factor. They have spoken of the children’s cultural needs not being respected.

Our primary concern in all this must be the needs of the children. I do not know whether Rotherham Council were right to remove the children. I have not been involved in the case. I do not know the children; I do not know the foster carers; I do not know about all the issues involved. Nor, of course, do the many people who have rushed to condemn the council’s decision. These include Michael Gove, who has already described it as “the wrong decision”.

It is utterly inappropriate and unprofessional for the Education Secretary to comment on the rightness or wrongness of a fostering decision on the basis of media reports, without thoroughly investigating the details. It is comparable to the Home Secretary commenting on the guilt or innocence of someone who is in the middle of a criminal trial. Gove’s behaviour is the real scandal in this story.

I am not arguing that UKIP members should be barred from fostering children. I am not even arguing that UKIP members should be barred from fostering children who are not British. I am not arguing that Rotherham Council made the right decision. But I do believe that it is legitimate to take foster carers’ beliefs into account when considering the needs of children. For example, it would be inappropriate to place children from a Muslim family with foster carers who were prejudiced against Muslims.

UKIP are using this case to portray themselves as a reasonable, credible, non-racist party. The reality is that they are a far-right party. On many issues, their policies are comparable to the British National Party. It is true that they do not share the BNP’s focus on skin colour, but their policies are similar on issues including immigration, education, criminal justice and climate change. On economics, they are way to the right of the BNP, calling for all sorts of policies that would benefit the richt at the expense of the rest.

I do not make these claims lightly. Two years ago, I analysed the polices of both UKIP and the BNP. I had expected some similarities but I was genuinely shocked by the extent of them. The article I wrote as a result can be read here.

UKIP want to end all permanent immigration for five years, and severely restrict if after that. In their own words, they oppose multiculturalism. They would abolish the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees. Their education policy includes the teaching of a pro-imperial view of British history. They want to increase military spending by 40%, reduce taxes for the rich at the expense of the rest of us and force all unemployed people to work without pay in order to receive benefits. They are keen to double the number of people in prison. Unlike almost every other party in Britain, they want to discriminate against gay and bisexual people by denying marriage rights to same-sex couples. Until 2010, they wanted to make laws about what people were allowed to wear in public, by banning the niqab. Their attitude to the environment seems to be pure fantasy, based on the claim that climate change is not caused by humans.

I have come across many people who have voted UKIP because they oppose the European Union, but who are unaware of the rest of their policies. I have no doubt that some UKIP members are decent individuals. Indeed, I dare say that some of them would make good foster carers. I have no interest in encouraging personal hostility. But UKIP as a party is a far-right grouping with a twisted image of Britain, a strong stream of prejudice and policies that would benefit only the super-rich. I’m appalled that Michael Gove and Ed Miliband seem to be trying to claim otherwise.

Ring of Prayer to resist eviction of Occupy LSX

A court is expected to rule next week on the City of London’s request for an eviction of the ‘Occupy’ camp near St Paul’s Cathedral. Christianity Uncut have now formally declared their intention to organise a ring of prayer at the camp if eviction goes ahead. The news has been welcomed by Ekklesia.

If you want to join the ring of prayer, you can declare your intention to do so by signing a pledge of support at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/ring-of-prayer-at-eviction-of-ocupy-lsx.html. People of all faiths are welcome.

Christians have been discussing the possibility of forming a ring of prayer to resist eviction for some time. I think the idea first came up on Twitter. As a member of Christianity Uncut – an informal network of Christians campaigning against the UK government’s cuts agenda – I’m pleased to be helping to publicise the idea.

The camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral began because the occupiers could not get closer to the London Stock Exchange. I wish they had been able to do so. The cathedral’s distinctly mixed attitude has made a headline issue out of the relationship between Christianity and radical politics.

As a result, the public have seen a variety of different Christian attitudes. Most of them can be broadly grouped into two categories. There are those approaches that want to see the Church preserving order, continuing with its routine and seeking to gently challenge injustice from within the establishment. Then there are those that wish to see the Church taking the side of the oppressed, speaking out more loudly about the sins of financial exploitation than about the inconvenience of a campsite.

Of course, I am simplifying the issue. There is a wide diversity of views within both these groups. And I do not wish to suggest that those of us who are supportive of Occupy have got it all right. We all have a lot to learn from each other. Nonetheless, there is a conflict between two different starting-points for Christianity.

The ring of prayer is an opportunity to witness to a Gospel that confronts us with uncomfortable truths. It is a chance to acknowledge our own complicity in a sinful economic system and our own responsibility for working against it. The ring of prayer will be a testimony to the power of love manifested in active nonviolence – a power stranger, subtler but ultimately stronger than the power of money, markets and military might.

Why I’m helping to block a road

Tomorrow (Monday 9 January), I will join in nonviolent direct action by blocking a central London road in protest against reckless driving and the policies of central and local government. This is why.

On two days each week, I work in a building on the Euston Road in London. Leaving the building at rush hour, I attempt to cross the road to reach Euston station and use the tube. I say “attempt” because this is a far from straightforward procedure.

There are traffic lights, but they make little difference to the movement of vehicles along the road. The cars are usually going very slowly, and when the lights turn to green for pedestrians – and red for traffic – a good many drivers choose to park across the area designated for pedestrians to cross. Getting to the other side of the road can be a perilous matter of squeezing between half-moving cars.

And that’s for me. I walk fairly quickly. For people who walk slowly, or with assistance or not at all, it must be much, much harder. My partner uses a wheelchair, as do several of my friends, and I am well aware that they would not be able to get through many of the spaces through which I squeeze on my mission to get from one side of the road to the other.

Of course, not all London drivers are inconsiderate. Some stay behind the line at traffic lights and are attentive to the needs of others. I really appreciate them.

That should not stop us asking why the authorities are so relaxed when it comes to reckless drivers in the city centre. Spend a few hours in the city and you are likely to find yourself wondering why so many people can get away with driving over zebra crossings when there are pedestrians present, overtaking other drivers when it’s unsafe to do so and treating cyclists and pedestrians with contempt.

The real mystery is why there are so many cars in central London at all. I moved to London in 2005, and I’m told that the number of cars was even higher before the introduction of the congestion charge. Of course, there are some people who do need to drive in central London. People with mobility impairments are particularly likely to need to do so, given the appalling inaccessibility of most of the London Underground. There are those transporting things that would be difficult to carry by public transport, and there are people who may feel nervous about travelling by bus or tube late at night. I am prepared to admit that there may be other good reasons which have not occurred to me.

Nonetheless, the reality is that the majority of people in central London have no need to drive. Much of the time, they are likely to reach their destination at least as quickly on the tube. This glut of pointless driving not only harms the environment but makes life harder for pedestrians and cyclists. It slows down people travelling by bus, as well as those who have a good reason for driving. The inconsiderate behaviour of many (but not all) drivers comes on top of this already scandalous situation.

Despite this, those who defend the interests of the motoring industry have a lot on their side: the government, the opposition, Transport for London and the right-wing newspapers. A recent plan by Westminster Council to introduce new parking charges triggered a reaction laughably out of proportion to reality, with the Evening Standard comparing it to the Poll Tax. Westminster Council’s earlier (and now thankfully defeated) plan to criminalise rough sleeping received relatively little coverage by comparison.

Tory MP Philip Hammond, appointed Transport Secretary in Cameron’s first cabinet, said he was going to end the “war on motorists”. There is no war on motorists. It would be more accurate to say that the “cars above all” lobby are waging a war on pedestrians, a war on cyclists, a war on public transport users and a war on disability rights. Hammond has now become Defence Secretary, an alarming development given his tendency to believe that non-existent wars are being waged against him.

It is possible to challenge the power of the motoring lobby, and the oil industry which benefits from it, without attacking motorists themselves. Vast swathes of rural Britain have no meaningful public transport at all. In much of the UK, people have little choice but to drive cars, given the appalling state of public transport. To suggest that these people should have the opportunity to use a bus or a train is to wage a war in favour ofthem, not against them.

The situation is different in London, where the majority of people have no need to drive. From 6.00pm tomorrow Monday (9 January) I will join other pedestrians, cyclists and disability equality activists in taking nonviolent direct action outside King’s Cross station (where York Way meets Pentonville Road and Euston Road). With the authorities unwilling to control the traffic, we will take measures to control it ourselves. The action is supported by Bikes Alive, Transport for All and the Green candidate for Mayor of London, Jenny Jones. Ethical drivers can support this action as much as cyclists and pedestrians. This is a struggle for dignity and equality.