28 May 2014

Four months of campaigning in Latchmere, AKA Operation 'Snatch the Latch'

I've had a few days to digest Wandsworth's 2014 borough elections – and my first time standing as a candidate. That in itself was hugely exciting as being able to tell someone that I will do my best is infinitely better than saying that I'm calling on behalf of John / Joanna Bloggs, who is / will be a great champion for their community, etc. It was a fun campaign, and I managed to get a few things done for people who were of the 'I'm not voting because you're all as bad as each other' persuasion - and hopefully changed their minds. But with a 35% turnout the reality is a lot of people just don't care about having their say in how the local council is run, which is a pity, as most of the services they use on a daily basis stem from the Town Hall rather than Westminster.

I was selected back in... February, I think? It seems like an age ago, but actually wasn't that long – and certainly not long enough to loosen the grip that Labour has on Latchmere, a ward that has never elected a Tory councillor – not even back in the days of 0% Poll Tax, when my friend Tim Loughton took Labour's majority down from 1500 to 300. Operation 'Snatch the Latch' was always a bit of a long shot. My result saw us hold our share of the vote at 2010 levels* (despite our government now sitting just behind Labour in the national polls), but I came fourth, just under 700 votes behind the last of Labour's three candidates. I campaigned hard, but it wasn't enough, and the sole consolation is knowing that we managed to tie down some of Labour's resources that would have otherwise gone to the neighbouring battleground ward where we squeaked in two councillors in a very tight contest.

There were some wonderful moments during the campaign. I made new friends, met people with fascinating stories and was occasionally distracted from canvassing long enough to make the process feel more like an exercise in getting to know a community than simply compiling a database on how people would vote. A woman told me about growing up in the slums that were cleared where the Winstanley Estate is now, and about how her grandfather remembered Battersea before it was heavily developed. Latchmere Road back then was simply a dirt track known as 'Pig Hill' and used as a route for taking livestock from Clapham Common to the market. One guy told me he'd be voting Tory because 'you don't solve a cost of living crisis by fixing prices – you do it by taking less money from us in the first place' – I should have passed his details on to Lynton Crosby. Another woman – previously canvassed as 'strong Labour' (but married to a 'strong Conservative') told me that 'Maggie Thatcher abolished me, but you seem lovely and so you can have a hug'. Apparently riding a fixie makes me 'far too cool to be a councillor'. And then there was the time I was biking down Sheepcote Lane on my way home from some canvassing, when a large A4 Pacific steam locomotive rushed past – an amazing sight, and almost up there with the view from the 20th floor of Dresden House.

Blue vs Red at Battersea Labour's HQ
Election day was madness – albeit carefully planned madness. I was humbled at how many of my friends came to help, and the memory of them 'knocking-up' our supporters in Battersea Fields and on the Winstanley will stay with me for a long time. I'm normally a fairly sedate cyclist, but I'm still a little amazed that I didn't have some horrific smack on May 22nd as I hared between polling stations, campaign teams and our committee room. Note to self: if standing for election again take extra shirts for polling day, as one of the Labour candidates told me afterwards that she'd thought I was a well turned out bloke in a tweed jacket, and was surprised when I showed up at the count looking like I'd run a marathon in my shirt, jeans and converses. We started at 5am, and by the time I got to the count I was – suffice to say – exhausted, but not so tired that I couldn't keep up the family rule of having a drink with the opposition once the results were announced. I'm sure this raised some eyebrows on our side, but it's a good tradition as it means you need to fight a hard – but fair – campaign, and ultimately we're still all residents of Wandsworth once the elections are done and dusted. And this is how I came to find myself playing fußball with Battersea Labour's parliamentary candidate Will Martindale and their organiser Sean Lawless as dawn broke on Friday, with one of their activists (clearly a Blairite) lumped together with me as 'Team Tory'. They are decent people who just happen to be profoundly wrong about how we build a better community and improve people's living standards. Labour beat us on the night, but we'll bounce back stronger – after all (as I pointed out to the comrades at 6am) that's what the markets are all about: good, healthy competition driving us on to better things.

* Apparently our result in Latchmere was the best of any opposition held seat in Wandsworth.

First published by Bright Blue on June 2nd, 2014

24 May 2014

Buying sex shouldn't be criminalised: some thoughts on New Zealand's experience

Every so often our politicians declare that ‘it’s time to prosecute men for buying sex’; most recently with Caroline Spelman’s call for men to make their views clearer about prostitution. I’m one of few men who’ll own up to visiting brothels and spending time with call girls. Alas – for those getting hot under the collar with anticipation – my time spent cruising red light zones was strictly professional: I spent most of 2008 photographing sex workers in New Zealand for my dissertation, which documented how the country’s decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 had changed the industry.

New Zealand’s prostitution law reform sidestepped passing judgment on the ethics of prostitution, focusing simply on improving ‘the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers’. This might sound bureaucratic, but women in the sex industry are now protected by society, rather than marginalised from it. I remember the case of a bloke who’d pulled his condom off when he was in a brothel. The $400 fine the courts served him seemed paltry; but his name was published when the local newspapers covered the case. He was the bad person, rather than the ‘woman of ill repute’ he’d been visiting, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.

From 'The New Professionals' (Matthew Plummer)
My experience from the dozens I met in the industry was that sex work is remarkably mundane, and the stories I heard about the (mostly) men who paid for sex were pretty humdrum: widowers, couples who’d stopped having sex, and so on. But I can’t remember meeting sex workers who expressly disliked their job. Many were comfortable – even proud – of what they did for a living, with the main complaint being that decriminalisation had seen a slump in their earnings. This (I was told by an MP who debated the 2003 legislation) came down to basic economics, with price being a product of supply and demand. And on that basis criminalising the purchase of sex would be a nasty double whammy for prostitutes, as not only would they be at the mercy of clients on the wrong side of the law, but it would also drive down earnings: hardly the way to look after vulnerable people.

Of course the press loves running stories of women brought to the UK and forced into sex work; trafficked victims in heels and lipstick make for far more exciting copy than cases of domestic servitude or forced agricultural work. The English Collective of Prostitutes has done a comprehensive rebuttal of the girls-trafficked-into-prostitution misconception which is worth reading, and various estimates on the numbers of women being trafficked to Britain to work as prostitutes have proved to be wildly inaccurate. This doesn’t surprise me; statistics gathered by the police in New Zealand in the aftermath of the 2003 decriminalisation showed the numbers of active sex workers had been overstated by a factor of ten. The murky legal and social status of the profession makes gathering hard data almost impossible, and I can’t imagine that things are any different over here. Far better to bring it out of the shadows, with taxes paid and health and safety regulations enforced, rather than creating a needlessly dangerous underworld and wasting valuable police resources.

First published by Coffee House on May 16th, 2014

10 May 2014

How to win Eurovision: trust the market, not the suits

Cezar singing It's My Life (Eurovision)
There was a wonderful moment a couple of months ago when I realised just how awfully monolithic the BBC can be. The news had emerged (in a manner not too dissimilar to announcements from Moscow) that some apparatchik at Auntie had chosen Molly Smitten-Downes to represent the UK at this year's Eurovision song contest. In finest TASS Report style the cameras cut to dear old Molly singing what I rapidly realised was a truly terrible dirge. I don't want to bag her too much because Molly is taking one for the team, but her song manages to get people stop waving and cheering within the first 18 seconds – fatal for a big arena contest like Eurovision.

So Britain – a country that leads European thinking in the power of the free markets to drive quality – remains curiously statist in our Eurovision choices, with Molly just another hapless foot-soldier sent to the front. Those of you who have seen Enemy at the Gates will recall the scene where the Soviet soldiers advancing on the Germans are told to fight on with the weapons of their fallen comrades, and I can almost hear Molly's stage handler on the big night giving her that same sort of encouragement. It's a naff song that just blathers on about 'children of the universe' and 'power to the people'. Compare this with Cezar, last years' act from Romania: his song It's My Life left no-one in doubt that a bloke doing a gothic Transylvanian falsetto act really was having the time of his life. It was bonkers, brilliant and so obviously not a bureaucrat's pet choice.

Of course we know the markets are very good at picking winners, and proof of this is Sweden's Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest with the public and judges combining their votes through several televised heats, and an epic final in one of the country's major cities. I was living in Stockholm when the 2006 contest was on, and the primetime show (with a sell out live audience of 16,000) was charmingly quirky – and had some really good music. Sweden's mass public involvement in selecting its Eurovison entries has produced nine top-five finishes in the past 15 years – and two overall winners. Last year's entry Robin Stjernberg was really good. But in that time Britain has had two acts make the top-ten, and with three coming rock bottom. The BBC has resurrected Bonnie Tyler, dispatched novelty acts like Daz Sampson and seen Jemini collect a comprehensive nul points wooden spoon.

A winning Eurovision song needs support from people across the European Broadcasting Union – indeed you can usually hear the better songs playing in bars and clubs across the Continent over the summer. Conversely our artists have the press mentioning some play time on Radio Two. Smitten-Downes acknowledges that 'good music breaks through' Europe's cultural barriers, but sadly her song isn't at that level, and she'll be lucky to make it into the top ten acts in tonight's contest. Sweden, on the other hand, are hot favourites to win – yet again. It is time to put trust in the people, rather than a faceless suit in Broadcasting House.

POSTSCRIPT – Sweden finished 3rd and the UK came 17th in the 2014 contest.

First published by Bright Blue on May 10th, 2014