It’s Been A Terrible Week – But There Are Reasons For Hope

Kelly Grehan

As we all know the last seven days have been a week like no other.  Our way of life has been transformed. Amongst our new found hardships, shock and anxiety we are grieving the loss of things we were looking forward to – things like holidays, weddings, seeing our children attend proms and other rights of passage.  

Almost without exception we are all grieving the loss of things we never expected to miss – many of them things we always thought we never really liked.  Things like school – even taking exams, travelling on public transport, sitting next to people in meetings and driving our kids to hang around with their friends.

Most of us are anxious.  We are worried about money, health, family and we what worry what tomorrow will bring,

We are all missing people too.  I’m missing my baby nephew, I’m missing my friends  and the adventures I was expecting to have at the now cancelled 40th birthday parties I was expecting to attend this year.  Most of us have had emotional phone conversations with friends and relatives whom we would usually see regularly. Usually we might nip round to see a friend who was upset – give them a hug, make them a cup of tea.  Now we simply must not do that. I rang my grandparents today – to wish my Nan a happy mother’s day and realised as I hung up that I have no idea if and when I will see them again.  

It is ironic that after a decade where we have feared for the consequences on our children for lacking human contact as they were  spending too much time on their electronic devices we are now grateful they have them – as they face spending months with this being their only contact  with the friends they used to see every day.

Tomorrow, my children, like many others, will begin their first day of homeschooling.  Two weeks ago the idea that they would be learning from home would have seemed propostuous to me – I had always taken pride in their high school attendance, worried about the impact on their education and development of social skills if they were away and believed passionately in the need for them to spend time outside, with people from different backgrounds and to hear try new things. Now I don’t know when they will see any other humans in person other than each other, me and my husband and none of us know when we will visit a new place.  

 These are indeed dark times.  But I truly believe there are reasons for optimism.  

For as long as I can remember Britain has been known as a ‘selfish society.’  Headlines decried the fact people did not know their neighbours, did not do things for others.  We wasted food, we threw things away that worked perfectly well and inequality and a lack of things in common seemed to have bread a lack of empathy.

But this week, none of those things seemed to be true anymore.  Yes there are idiots hoarding toilet rolls and refusing to give up their rights to go to the pub.  But most people I know have condemned this and are disgusted by that behaviour. What I have seen this week could be described as a rebirth or reignition of true community spirit.  People are genuinely concerned for neighbours – often people they barely know the name of and are ensuring they are looked after. People are going through their cupboards and ensuring that, rather than waste food they pass it on to someone else and people are facing several journeys to shops to get shopping for neighbours whose health precludes them from making the journey themselves.  

There is conversation everywhere expressing concern for others. I have not heard a single voice of descent about the Chancellor’s measures to protect workers and have universal approval for the measures to include self employed.  I’ve never known such consensus on government policy before. Online forums – so often a place for vitriol are now filled with expressions of concern for others and offers of help for others along with thanks for health staff.

This illness seems to strike across the social divide.  For the first time in my lifetime I really feel that everyone feels we are in this together and that they must be part of the fight to save lives.  

As awful as everything is, I feel proud of my community and I hope the support and solidarity we are providing to each other last long after this wretched virus is eradicated.

Privilege and Panic

Kelly Grehan

I’ve never felt privileged like I felt this morning.  

I woke up this morning, sent my kids to school and my husband and I both settled down to a day home working.  No one in our household has any history of illness, indeed both my boys have impeccable school attendance records.  If I were to need to be off work I would get full sick pay, we could continue to pay our mortgage.

That’s not to say I am not experiencing moments of panic and horror at what is happening, but, for us, there is an unreal quality to it.  The biggest danger to us personally is for the four of us to end up stuck indoors together for two weeks and for our holiday to be cancelled.  

Our lifestyle – caused mostly by luck with health and circumstances – has shielded us from the horrors that now face many of our friends and neighbours.  We can, more of less sit back and follow the government advice and know that no difficult decisions await us.

I am painfully aware that, had this crisis occurred five years earlier, when my mum was suffering what turned out to be a terminal illness every action we took would have taken on a critical concern as any of us contracting the illness could have shortened my mum’s life and meant we could have been bared from seeing her – a thought so heartbreaking it’s hard to bear.  Then there is the thought of how my aunt, sister and I would have looked after my nan, who lived in sheltered accommodation had we been forced to self isolate when she was alive. In either circumstances we would have had to arrange our lives in an effort to try to stop us contracting the virus because the consequences of getting it would have been so awful. That would have meant keeping the kids off school, so not working and then all the financial and practical implications that would bring.

And, it is with heartbreak I watch friends now consumed with fear as they worry if decisions they are making are putting themselves or their families at risk.  I see people – who this time last week were making a decent living – not knowing if they will have jobs this time tomorrow or if their company can survive this week.  I cannot imagine the weight of trying to decide whether to stay off work because you have coughed a few times – knowing that doing so will mean you don’t get paid for at least 2 weeks and going to work means you might endanger others.

I see friends who cannot visit the parents who live in care homes and others cancelling long looked forward to trips to see family abroad or far away. I worry for  mums of disabled children fretting because they cannot get the larger nappy sizes they need or the specialist wipes they relied upon.

Never has life seemed as fragile or as unpredictable as it does now.Try as we might there is little we can but carry on.  I sent my love and admiration at everyone doing their best through these difficult times.

Battle Weary Reflections On International Women’s Day

Kelly Grehan

This week we have had to face the fact, once again that the next President of The US will not be a woman. I cannot see a likelihood of Donald Trump – misogynist and sexual assaulter of women – losing the US election and that can only mean that a sizable number of voters in America do not find his behaviour towards women problematic – never mind reprehensible. Then there is the depressing rhetoric from some who explain they failed to support Warren because she is ‘school-marm-ish’ – what that means and why it would be a negative trait in a president I’ve no idea.

Warren, herself described the “trap” of gender for female candidates
“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’” Ms. Warren said. “If you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”
Then there is situation in my own Party. I’ve nothing against Keir Starmer being Labour Party leader, but I find it depressing that we will have two leaders called ‘Keir’ before we will have a female leader. My chosen candidate Lisa Nandy summed things up this week when she responded to being asked if she thought the women had had a tougher time in the leadership contest, Lisa Nandy responded that she had not ‘seen an article about Keir’s shoes yet.’’

People keep telling me things are improving. But are they really? The number of female heads of government is lower today than five years ago with only 10 women in such positions in 193 countries,

This week a UN Report, looking at 75 countries, found that not one had acheived gender equality. 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights.

Globally, close to 50% of men said they had more right to a job than women. Almost a third thought it was acceptable for men to hit their partners. About half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders.

How do we start to combat this? We have had countless terrible male leaders which surely proves tosterone is not a bonus for a leader. We have had decades of feminism now, decades of campaigning for equality, of women proving (to use a phrase) that anything a man can do we can do bleeding.

But still here we are, fighting for a world where our daughters can walk home in their school uniform without men harassing them, where we can do our jobs without comment on our clothing and where when we say we have been sexually assaulted no one passes judgement on why we were alone/drunk/flirting/wearing a low cut top/dancing/etc.

Sometimes it is so exhausting fighting these battles over and over again. We think we are making progress and then we find ourselves in a world where Donald Trump is likely to serving a second term as President. But what choice do we have but to fight on? If we accept the world as it it we will never change it.

So for now, all I can do is heed Elizabeth Warren’s advice
‘’Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: Nevertheless, you must persist.’’

Mums Don’t Need To Justify Their Involvement In Politics

Kelly Grehan

I will be honest and say I am writing this in anger. One of my fellow councillors is a mother of two children with additional needs. I won’t go into details, but yesterday someone saw fit to question whether it was appropriate for her to be a councillor in her circumstances.

I am so sick and tired of people thinking women must justify their choices.

When I decided to run for council people asked me what my husband thought. I am certain no one has ever asked him what I thought of his career choices.

Then there are the constant insinuations that places of power are not suitable for mothers, as if they lack something or bring strain on institutions by their very presence.

This attitude that women with children are somehow a burden to an organisation is pennicious and harmful.

In fact I will go as far to say its advantageous for councils to have women on them.

It is well documented that the cuts the Tory government have made to council budgets have disproportionately hit women and children. For example, earlier this year The Women’s Budget Group launched a report entitled Triple Whammy (authored by Heather Wakefield, the former head of local government at Unison) which looked at the impact of local government cuts on women.

It found the network of local government services which are vital to women’s lives as workers, mothers, carers and citizens have been torn apart by central government cuts to council funding since 2010.

Ms. Wakefield commented

Women’s refuges, public transport, street lighting, libraries, adult education, social care, youth services and community centres have all been affected, leaving women less safe, unable to access learning and leisure facilities and increasingly having to fill the gaps in care provision.’

And of course, when care services are rolled back its typically women that end of stepping in.

With only 32% of elected councillors being women, and only 14% of all councillors being under 45, is it not inevitable that services used primarily by those groups are the ones that will be lost ?

I’m not saying councillors cannot act for all groups and demographics they are not part of – of course they can. But, bringing up children today is vastly different to 20 years ago. With my oldest child now being 13, I’m aware that I became a mother at a very good time – when Sure Start services were at their peak, breast feeding support services had not yet been dismantled and Health Visitors were accessible to all mums. Just over a decade later and it’s a very different situation. My experience is not fit to base current judgements on. It is simply out of date. Of course I talk to lots of people in my ward who are experiencing these services (or lack of them) but having diversity in the room makes a difference, and its hardly like mothers of school age children are a rarity so why are they a rarity in councils?

We need people on councils who are experiencing services – and cuts – first hand, who understand their impact.

Furthermore it’s no coincidence carers are largely missing from policies – because their presence is missing from the decision making processes.

I’m sick of people who are carers – for children, older people, ill people, or whoever – being made to feel they don’t belong. It’s indicative of the attitude this country takes to carers and it’s indefensible. I want to hear the voices of those living with these roles. Until we do they will remain ignored.

So why do people take the attitude mothers dont belong in places of power? I wish I had an explanation. But let me say this, those who cannot appreciate the hard work and the importance of the role taken by mums who are councillors are seriously lacking in empathy and basic common sense and must be challenged whenever they spout these nonsensical opinions. Not just for the sake of those they criticise, but for the sake of all people that lose out when other mums are deterred from standing and we have councils which are not representative of the people they serve and there is no one advocating for those people who are not represented.

Judge The People Making Unwanted Advances, Not Those Who Receive Them By Kelly Grehan

When I was 17 I went to a birthday party in a school friends’ house. I wore a short blue dress, with a high neckline, flesh coloured tights and blue velvet shoes with heels that were about an inch high.

I wore that dress hoping I looked attractive. I expect I was hoping one of the boys there, mostly fellow school friends, would try to kiss me.In the event, none did, but the father of the birthday girl, a particularly rough man, whose wife was in another room, put his hand up my dress and on my bum. One of the boys I was with, bravely told him to stop. The man replied “don’t fuck with me boy, I’m a Millwall supporter.”

We all laughed and the night carried on. I don’t recall feeling particularly upset. 20 odd years later I look back on the incident with horror, that a man probably older than I am now would think it’s acceptable to touch a teenage girl.

Then there was the time I went to a Halloween ball when I was a university student. I guess I was 19. Not long before The Spice Girls had gone to the premier of their film wearing colourful bras and blazers, without shirts and I thought they looked amazing. I worked as a health care assistant in the holidays and my flatmate and I decided it would be good to go dressed as sexy nurses. We pinned up the hems on my uniforms, wore stockings and wonder bras, which were the big fashion item at the time, with newspaper articles about them, seemingly every day. We let the zips on the front of the dresses stay just low enough that a decent bit of cleavage was on display, hoping we looked as good as Geri Halliwell. When we arrived a friend of my boyfriend introduced us all to a friend of his. My boyfriend went to the bar and the friend of a friend put his hand up my skirt and undid my stocking and brushed my knickers. I automatically slapped him round the face and ran into the toilet. When I returned he was telling my boyfriend there had been a misunderstanding. He apologised and said it was difficult for men to resist when women dress so provocatively. I said not to worry and he then proceeded to put his hand on the back of my dress. I walked away.

Later the friend who introduced us shouted at me about how unreasonable I was not letting this guy round to my house for the after party drinks!

I never saw him again, thankfully. I learnt a valuable lesson that night – women will always be blamed for the actions of men.

On neither occasion did I think of going to the police, or even in the first instance phoning my parents to come and get me.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to describe what I wore on both of those occasions. What I was wearing should be irrelevant, but we all know it isn’t. I know that what I was wearing on both occasions will be scrutinised by people reading this story. Oddly enough I can’t recall what either of the males were wearing, and as a teen I must have gone out hundreds of times, but I struggle to remember what I wore on most times. I think I recall it with these instances because subconsciously I attribute some of the blame to my choice to wear these outfits.

I also feel compelled to mention that on neither occasion was I drunk. On the first incident I would have consumed what I always drunk at house parties- 2 bottles of alcopops, as agreed with my parents. At university I would have been drinking snakebite, but this occurred at the very beginning of the night, and realising I needed my wits about me I stopped drinking then. It should be irrelevant, of course, but somehow I know it isn’t for some people.

Neither incident has scarred me for life. I know very few, if any women who do not have similar stories to recount. I would probably never have felt a need to commit the stories to print if it were not for reading the comments directed at Charlotte Edward’s in the last few days.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Sunday Times journalist Charlotte Edwards has written that Boris Johnson groped her upper thigh under a table at a private dinner in 1999 when he was editor of the Spectator magazine.

I’ve heard people questioning why she did not react at the time, or complain then. Well without knowing Charlotte I can take a pretty good guess. It simply wasn’t worth it. I presume she was at an early stage in her career. Speaking out at the time would have been to invite attention on herself, none of it good. Humiliation was likely.

Even now, as a successful journalist, in a relationship with a very prominent journalist (Robert Peston) there are those accusing her of attention and fame seeking or looking for a career boost. It’s not clear to me in what way they think she will achieve this, or why, if this was the case, she would not have done this earlier.

There are also those that take the view that men touching women are either doing it by accident or that it is the only way of knowing if a woman is interested in them. Isn’t it funny how men don’t seem to touch each other in intimate places by accident? Is talking not an appropriate means of finding out if someone is attracted to you?

Then there are those that seem to think she should count herself lucky: that women enjoy being inappropriately touched. I’m genuinely shocked at how many of these comments come from women.

There is something every single one of these types of stories has in common – power.

From Trump grabbing women by the pussy, to Weinsein ruining carers of anyone who rejected his advances, to the men at the Presidents Club who told waitresses to ”down that glass [of champagne], rip off your knickers and dance on that table” to Boris Johnson, the magazine Editor putting his hand on Charlotte Edwards inner thigh when she was a journalist starting out – in each case the men concerned knew the women had more to lose by speaking out than they did if the women spoke out.

And, in every single case, you will see more comment about the women’s behaviour – before, during and after the incident then there is on the mans.

And this is why women don’t say anything at the time, and why they often wait until they themselves are in a more powerful position to say something.

Some men will continue to behave like this while society let’s them.

Observations Of Attending My First Iftar As A Non Muslim By Kelly Grehan

Last night I went to our local Mosque with some friends to experience Iftar. Before I went I thought I might write about that experience, but actually it is my journey there I want to discuss.

Before I went I visited a friend’s mum, who is a Muslim, and she fitted me with a head scarf. I then drove to the Mosque. As I walked the short distance to the car I became nervous about people staring at me and potentially shouting.

As I drove on I realised I needed petrol and so went to the petrol station. As I used the pump I could not shake the feeling that people were making assumptions about me and I felt slightly panicky.

As I queued up to pay in the petrol station I felt concerned about what people might say about me and was pleased to get back in the car.

Why did this worry overtake me?

Well reports have shown that Muslim women are the most likely to be the victims of hate crime, and awareness of that was certainly with me, I felt a real fear I could be the victim of such an attack.

To some degree the scarf, on one hand an innocuous piece of fabric, made me feel that I had put a target on myself.

I imagined, that if anything were to happen to me people would apportion blame to me because of what I was wearing. It was really insightful to experience how some Muslim women must feel whenever they leave the house.

Then there is the feeling of assumptions being made about me, based purely on what I was wearing.

This felt deeply uncomfortable, not least because it reminded me of how sometimes, try as I might not to, I make snap judgements about people based on what they are wearing too.

This was only a small experience but, it certainly gave me a new perception.

Why Ousting This Conservative Government Is A Matter Of Life Or Death for Millions in The U.K. By Lisa Mulholland

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I edit and publish blogs for the Avenger but I lacked the headspace I needed to write. Editing is one thing but to actually formulate something and put it out into an article yourself takes a lot. And I just haven’t been able to sift through the overwhelming political material that has been hitting us left right and centre

Because anger without being mentally or physically able to take action for me is just wasted energy and it leads to frustration. I didn’t have the capacity for that.

However some things cannot be ignored.

Some things rip you out of your hiatus and put fire in your belly. And I can’t switch off any longer and really neither should any of us. That fire needs to go somewhere. For many in poverty this is now a matter of life or death.

So here I am. Writing. Putting my energy somewhere.

What pulled me out of it? Well that’s an interesting question because let’s face it we have a whole treasure chest of things to choose from: Brexit, The Government in contempt of Parliament, Brexit again, Theresa May facing a vote of no confidence, the absolute mess of negotiations and oh wait…

The. United Nations Report on Extreme Poverty. Here. In the UNITED KINGDOM!!!

Yes. The U.K. ‘Great’ Britain. Blighty.

Our wonderful little island… has been investigated for its ‘cruel’ austerity policies. The UN has gone so far as to call it “social engineering”.

Up until now, I knew we had a poverty problem caused by austerity. I’ve seen the statistics. I know that 1 in 4 children in the U.K. now live in poverty. I’ve seen the figures for foodbank usage. I also know that there are 130,000 homeless children in the U.K. and there are so many more depressing figures to report on. Each statistic is worthy of its own dedicated blog. The Trussell Trust and Shelter are awash with depressing facts and figures.

I’ve seen commons debates over the universal credit roll out. I’ve seen Corbyn trying desperately to halt that rollout. He’s managed to delay it quite a bit but the inevitable has happened and we are now almost peak rollout.

So with baited breath I forced myself to read the report. I delayed it slightly because I knew that once I read it there would be no going back for me and that I wouldn’t be able to shut off from it any longer. My ‘red pill/ blue pill Matrix’ moment has arrived.

The special rapporteur of extreme poverty and human rights Professor Philip Alston, conducted an investigation spanning a few months.

He traveled the length and breadth of the U.K. interviewing, those in poverty, from a wide range of backgrounds. He went on a fact finding mission, along with in depth analysis of our benefit system and austerity measures, interviews with ministers, local councils and charities to name but a few.

He did not hold back on what he had to say. The report was scathing and harshly worded and rightly so. I have summarised his report statement below:

• U.K. is the fifth largest economy with a system of government that is the envy of many countries.

• So it is therefore unjust and contrary to British values that so many are in poverty.

• He highlights the growth in homelessness, including rough sleepers and foodbank usage. It’s exponential rise has been since 2010, when austerity measures were introduced by the Conservative government.

• Local councils have been “gutted” with library closures in record numbers, which compounds the breakdown of community

• 14 million people in the U.K. are now in poverty.

• 4 million of those in poverty live 50% below the poverty line.

• 1.5 million of those are destitute. Meaning they can not afford basics such as food, or shelter.

• An estimated 40% of children live in poverty although the official amount is 1 in 4.

• He calls it “social calamity” and an “economic disaster”.

• He calls the government a “lone stubborn actor” in this mess. Councils, charities and other organisations have tried to step in.

• He says the government are in a “determinedly state of denial”.

• He uses words like “callous” and “social engineering” to describe our government.

The full statement and official summary of his report is here https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E

These are strong words. This is a damning report. He makes no bones when he says that “austerity inflicted on people” is “unnecessary because it hasn’t saved any money but it has cost a significant amount to implement these policies”.

He admits that the government are overturning the Beveridge report, which is what preceded the implementation of the welfare state.

But he did commend the work of charities and local councils who try to do their best and be creative under terrible circumstances, as well as local communities.

Worryingly though, he said that, overall the British nature of being “compassionate towards those who are suffering is now being replaced with a mean spirited approach to those less fortunate than themselves.”

A sorry state of affairs.

Not only are people in this country being subjected to the cruelty of Universal Credit, which he states is the “ultimate embodiment of the promotion of austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state”. But the very nature of us as a nation, once known for our compassionate nature, is being worn down by a callous government.

So what is next for us a nation?

Well Professor Alston predicts that if things carry on the way they are that the economic uncertainty around Brexit and the continual fall of the pound, coupled with the continuation of the Universal Credit rollout will lead to a 7% increase in child poverty by 2022. That’s on top of the staggering figures we’ve seen in the present day.

He does say that as a nation these problems and the extreme poverty could “easily be reversed” if the government follows a set of recommendations that he makes. They are pretty clear and prescriptive.

Will this conservative government implement his changes?

Did the British media react with the outrage that this report deserves?

The simple answer is no.

While lots of media outlets touched on this report, many did not give it the attention it deserves.

Whether or not that is because they are preoccupied with Brexit and the Conservative party currently imploding, remains to be seen.

My personal view is a lot more cynical than that.

When this report was presented to Amber Rudd, the DWP Secretary she reacted with complete denial, and disgust.

Not towards the figures.

Not towards the plight of millions of people that she is supposed to represent.

Not towards the fact that money was available to the treasury to avoid and stop this problem.

No; she was disgusted that this report was even written!!!

So even with the vote of no confidence tonight… even with the government being held in contempt of parliament, and the complete pantomime that has occurred in this last week in the House Of Commons… all since this report was published, even with all that the conservatives still haven’t learned.

There is no ounce of shame. No ounce of humility. No sign of remorse .

Even if Theresa May loses this vote tonight; she will be replaced by someone in her party who will not give any regard to the abject poverty and suffering of so many people in this nation.

People have died, with no food in their stomachs. People would starve if it were not for British people donating food. Children are entering foodbanks and vomiting when they finally have the chance to eat.

So, for many, unless this conservative Government is ousted, it will be a matter of life or death.

We now have it in writing from a completely independent well respected source. One that is not politically motivated.

These words are not from the opposition. But from a well respected United Nations Professor, who is politically neutral. And Australian. He has no political points to score. He said “Austerity and the rise of poverty since 2010 is a political choice” made by the government. The Conservatives. Fact.

Owen Jones said “when the next Election comes it will be the fight of our lives” and he is absolutely right.

So when that time comes we absolutely have to do everything in our power to fight against this. Because it could be our friends, our family, our neighbour. And one day it could be you.

Sources

The Trussell Trust

Shelter

United Nations Special Report on Poverty in the U.K.