What’s in a name





Alongside the usual froth over immigration figures blasting through the government’s nonsensical immigration target – to the extent that immigration figures are at their highest since 2005 – there’s a debate about what to call the people knocking at Europe’s door seeking sanctuary and a new life. Migrants or refugees? People?

First things first.

Britain’s immigration figures are high because the economy is recovering well (or at least better than our neighbours with the exception of perhaps Germany) and even if inequality is still a major problem – it’s a big draw for people. But immigrants are also part of the reason that Britain has this recovery.

We (migrants). Built. This.

“It is not a message that you will hear from many, if any, mainstream politicians but, as the government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has pointed out, mass migration has been a key factor fuelling Britain’s economic recovery.” – The Guardian, 27 August 2015.

And despite the government’s best efforts to foster a hostile environment for migrants, the world continues to turn, even if community relations are somewhat the poorer for the divisive rhetoric and measures. Even business says that the immigration cap is damaging for the economy. Nevertheless, this year will see yet another immigration bill tabled, hot on the heels of last year’s. I am not looking forward to seeing what fresh nonsense is put on the table and I can only salute those like Migrant Rights Network, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Migrant Voice are doing to lobby for change.

(Interestingly, it also shows that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare vandalism is primarily ideological. The recovery* is not happening because of punitive welfare sanctions, the bedroom tax or harassing the sick and disabled.)

Moving on from that topic before I break something…

Language matters. Al Jazeera was lauded for its stance on using the word “migrant” to describe the people crossing the Mediterranean. After all, it reasoned, the vast majority are asylum seekers. UNHCR figures show  an estimated 293,035 people crossed the Mediterranean so far this year.

2,440 were lost at sea.

The top 5 country nationalities were Syrian (43%), Afghan (12%), Eritrea (10%), Nigeria (5%), Somalia (3%) and other (27%).

Al Jazeera correctly identified that the word “migrant” is tainted:

“The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.”

Their decision prompted a lot of soul searching at the Independent, Channel 4 News and others news outlets. However, campaigning organisations, like the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), Migrant Voice and Migrant Rights Network say that we should reclaim the word.

“By rejecting the term and using ‘refugee’ instead as a means of arousing the empathy and compassion we should be feeling towards these people, Al Jazeera gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion.” – Judith Vonberg, Migrant Rights Network.

I have been thinking about this. Language is not fixed and words are not confined to their dictionary definitions. We act upon language, conferring upon it depth and meaning. There is no doubt that migrant, perhaps as it’s so close to the word immigrant, is seen as a dirty word. Interestingly, it’s a word we use for Black and Brown people, not White people, who are tourists or expats. Let’s not pretend that has nothing to do with why this word, like the people it describes, is considered so problematic.

Migrants don’t just move countries. I have friends in London from Scotland, Wales, Leeds, Ireland. They’re migrants. Just like my friends from Uganda, Canada, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. If you move, you’re a migrant. And it’s a human enterprise to move in search of safety, or a better life. When it comes to the people crossing the Mediterranean, some are fleeing for their lives from war; others are fleeing poverty. The “economic migrant” is that second group that Vonberg identifies as the one we’re supposed to harden our hearts to. After all, poverty (in Iain Duncan Smith’s Britain and more broadly, in the neoliberal frame) is the fault of the poor. You’re not a winner. Your country may be dysfunctional but you should fix it. I’m not saying the solution to this is for everyone to up sticks and leave but I don’t have the right to sit as judge on jury on those that do. If it were my family, my life, what would I do?

I am an economic migrant. I came for study, I stayed to work. I changed categories. That’s life, we’re moving through categories. I also came on a plane, in comfort and safety because I had the choices available to me to do so. If you’ve had to take your life in your hands and put your body and perhaps your children’s bodies in a boat not knowing if you’re going to live or die — where’s the choice in that? Some people leave death behind them and don’t know if they’re going to make it to the other side of the water. That’s not a choice. That’s desperation. That’s a humanitarian crisis.

I agree with Al Jazeera, the word migrant has become reductive. And I agree with Vonberg, we shoud reclaim it. Media houses should try to be as accurate as possible when describing people – people.

I would like to see the end of the phrase “migrant crisis” though.  Migration is not a problem to be solved and yes, there is a crisis, but it’s a humanitarian one.

And perhaps one of compassion, too.

*such as it is. I mean, that’s another discussion.

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Funny Ladies

Unusually for me, I’ve barely been to the theatre this year, but I have been reading a lot more, especially books by comics.

In my enthusiasm for all things Parks and Recreation, I dived gleefully into Nick Offerman’s (he plays anti-government moustacheod Ron Swanson) memoir, Paddle Your Own CanoeIt was ok. His rants were not as interesting as his revelations about learning his trade in theatre and comedy. I’m currently reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please (also Parks and Recreation) and I’m struck by how much hard work goes into making comedy seem effortless*

I was also struck by how, like so many industries, most people know each other, they have networks that go way back. It has been interesting to read these memoirs and Tina Fey’s hilarious and heartwarming contribution, Bossypants, and notice how all the professional networks intertwine. (and how, too, these networks can sometimes be monochrome). It reminds me of why I believe in and am proud to be part of the Media Diversified project, committed not only to diversifying the media but building a platform, networks and collaborative projects for people of colour.

And since I’m talking comics, a couple more books I have on my list:

  • Is everyone hanging out without me? (and other concerns) by Mindy Kaling. I’ll probably check out her new book, Why Not Me. She’s not without controversy, but she’s a trailblazer.
  • Self Inflicted Wounds by Aisha Tyler, who also has the interesting podcast Girl on Guy.

*Comedian Mindy Kaling has written a great essay on confidence, entitlement and hard work. In sum:

“Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.”

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Democracy and Wimmin

Ladies, ladies. What are (some of us) doing?

As poll after poll points towards a Corbyn Labour leadership, I’m sceptical that he’ll win.

Sceptical because I remember the General Election polling. (Er. Wrong)

Sceptical because most people play their cards close to their chest. I bet there are a lot of bored, but fairly reliable Burnham or Cooper supporters who will toe the….sorry, I drifted off there.

Sceptical because most people in Britain at the moment are afraid and there are many different Establishment forces (the Mail, Tory HQ, come to think of it Labour HQ, Murdoch) working rather hard to keep them that way.

Sceptical because in addition to the aforementioned fear, Britain is not Spain. Corbyn is not Podemos. And Brits are nowhere near as angry as they should be.

And a bit like a really crappy Captain Planet, when these forces combine…people stick with what they know.

But nevetheless….Corbyn has reminded everyone that people are crying out for someone who stands for something. And probably for some of his policies too. I’m not convinced that he’ll win. And if he did, I’m pretty sure that he’d compromise on some things, but I feel like his heart is in the right place.

And apparently a lot of other women (who are most likely to be affected by cuts in some way) feel the same.

WIMMIN. You give them the vote and the next minute they’re BREAKING DEMOCRACY, RUINING LABOUR FOREVER and ensuring that LABOUR WILL NEVER WIN AGAIN. EVER.*

*So we’re told. Let’s see.

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Whisper It: He’s right

So. Tucked away (sorry, Guardian) in the Guardian Economics pages, the news that Corbyn is right on Labour’s record and the economic crash.

“Corbyn is the only candidate sticking to the line that the banks were to blame and he is reaping the benefit. Not least because he is absolutely right.”

What’s saddening is that this is almost a quirky footnote. Despite the data, despite the analysis (which will always have its detractors) the fact is that Labour’s grandees are too busy trying to fit into the Tory frames of reference to try and reframe the debate and rescue their legacy. Instead, the truth is seen almost like a little side hobby by a far left loon. (the media caricature of Corbyn, not necessarily my own opinion.)

Still, Labour persists that we must allow them to win. Winning is all that matters (see: Kendall). But, why? If you’ll bend with the lies and disown even your own legacy, why should you get a turn at the wheel?

Those who accuse Corbynites of denying reality are engaged in their own self-delusions. Britain hasn’t moved left with the recession, they say, opposition to austerity isn’t self-evident. But their stump for the mandate to win seems to rest entirely on the premise that Tories are automatically Really Very Bad. Clearly, that’s not self-evident either.


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Swarms and Marauders

It’s summer and just like every summer since the Tories were in power (first in the coalition and now with a slim majority) it’s immigration time.

To be fair, the situation at the migrant camps in Calais has been high on the media agenda (and to be clear, this is a humanitarian crisis, despite the British media’s preoccupation with holidaymakers and truckers being disturbed by desperate people inconveniencing their respective holidays and commutes).

Nevertheless, the Tory Party is adept at seizing the agenda over the summer, which is traditionally the silly season and a time which Labour has consistently been MIA in recent years. One year, most of the shadow cabinet just went on holiday (not a bad thing in itself but there was  no one taking the airwaves to respond to anything really); this summer it’s the moribund and never ending leadership contest* that has Labour distracted by its own navel.

First it was Cameron and his “swarms” comment; now Phillip Hammond has characterised the people in Calais as “marauding migrants” out to destroy the British way of life. Although he sees that the standard of living is low in many African countries, he appears to be labouring under the illusion that Europe has to absorb “millions” of African migrants. So…let’s do this again:

  1. Newsflash: Migrants and refugees are people. Giles Fraser did a moving and all too necessary report from St Michael’s Church in the refugee camp in Calais.
  2. Europe takes nowhere near as many refugees and migrants as developing nations. Millions? That’s a figure for Kenya. Or Lebanon. Or Turkey. Not Europe.
  3. If the standard of living in Africa is low….it’s worth considering why. (hint: Empire, Western multinational tax dodgers, corrupt regimes propped up by Europe and other nations…)
  4. Empire. Worth a look, mate.
  5. Syria. So…that’s still a thing.
  6. Empire. Seriously, dude. Check it out.

*with the exception of Corbyn. Watching increasingly hysterical media types from left and right, as well as politicians and Labour grandees scream that the man is unelectable and dangerous and/or stupid has become my summer past time. If he’s so ridiculous, why the noise, guys?

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Sex Biscuits

Two things make me growl at my TV/radio/computer screen: when politicians witter endlessly about “hardworking families” (reinforcing an idealised community unit and the myth that only the lazy/feckless suffer hardship) and the ridiculous level of female political commentary.

I know that there are brilliant female political analysts out there; sadly the media seems to think women’s opinions begin and end with Mumsnet. They are a constituency that deserve to be heard, but everything seems to boil down to the infernal biscuit test (that Gordon Brown inexplicably “failed”) and whether a candidate (male) has sex appeal. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was one of many strands of commentary. But no, it’s magnified by the chattering classes and becomes the one of the barometers for how electable someone is.

It’s ridiculous and frustrating, though it’s interesting that Corbyn seems to have a weird sort of popularity. To be fair, Miliband did too, apparently. Which shows how useless this all is.

I like Corbyn. The apocalyptic New Labour/general commentary around him is interesting, especially as someone like Nigel Farage, a right-wing radical who is largely preposterous, is treated with a level of deference and the bellweather of popular opinion. If Corbyn is radical (and I’m not sure he’s as radical as they all make out) why is he the dangerous one? For wanting no tuition fees? For questioning the welfare cap? (sidenote: I’m following the Catholic critique of and argument with Iain Duncan Smith over his welfare vandalism policies with great interest).

At least Corbyn stands for something. Unlike so many who think that they need to cowtow to the minority who voted in the Tories in order to win again. Win for what, guys? There is a sense of entitlement there, as if Labour is due another go at the wheel to manage UK plc. There is no vision of what they’ll do when they actually get there. And Sunny Hundal, in his article on this, misses one crucial point. He posits that Corbyn’s way is a losing one because voters rejected it last time round. They didn’t. Ed Miliband had a couple of solid policies, but Labour’s messaging was safe, even cowardly. It was mean and small, echoing the Tory frames of reference. And why would you vote for Tory-lite when you could have the real thing?

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In Praise of Brothers with no game

The internet has been great for flattening (up to a point) the inequalities in media access for marginalised groups – perhaps a better way of putting it is, platforms like Twitter allow a space to reply but also to champion different agendas. But it’s not all reactive.

The internet is also a site for creativity and audience building. I first got into Black web series with Issa Rae’s funny and witty series Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, charting the (mis) adventures of J, an awkward Black girl. It has a great cast of quirky characters and some sketches that are (too) true to life.

Then I discovered the British comedy Brothers With No Game. Better than Entourage and with a specific British flavour, it’s a comedy series about four guy friends who have no game. Everyone has *those* dates, and BWNG unpacks it all in snappy 12 minute episodes. It can also be unexpectedly touching, dealing with issues such as unemployment and heartbreak – all from a guy’s perspective. And unlike Entourage, it manages to do it without being sexist and the female characters are allowed to develop personalities, with the women on BWNG an essential part of the story.

One of the female characters who appeared in a couple of episodes, Venus, went on to star in an eponymous show on dating and London life, Venus vs Mars, picked up on Sky Living. I really enjoyed it; it has a similar humour to BWNG; warm and engaging, with plenty of in-jokes that you just don’t get on mainstream TV. There are other shows in the BWNG stable, it’s great to see the outfit championing strong content, particularly from women.

So, I suppose this post is in praise of BWNG in particular and Black-produced web series in general. My favourites:

One. Brothers With No Game:

Two. Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl:

Three. Venus vs Mars:

Would you recommend any more?

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At the Sharp End

It begins. This week, The Guardian has a series of reports showing that the BAME community is at the sharp end of the cuts, based on research from the Runnymede Trust.

“The Conservative budget risks widening Britain’s racial divide by making millions of minority ethnic people poorer at a faster rate than their white counterparts…with one of the worst affected groups being British Muslims”

“Runnymede’s study has built in the fact that the national minimum wage will rise to £9 a hour in 2020. But changes to tax credits and other welfare payments will hit minority ethnic Britons harder than their white compatriots.”

And that’s not all, folks. Weak enforcement of the Race Relations Act means that legal protections that are supposed to highlight disparities like this and put a brake on damaging policies are reduced to a box ticking exercise, as Kehinde Andrews highlights in a comment piece on the research.

“Not only is the Race Relations (Amendment) Act completely ineffectual, it has now become an active device for institutions to cover their discriminatory tracks.”

This is a snapshot at the intersections of economic inequality and race – it’s an intersection on a sorry road that has the rich speeding ahead and the poor increasingly sidelined, as Aditya Chakraborty devastatingly outlines in his recent article on holiday hunger and the need for free meals for kids in the school holidays, a Victorian problem making a shameful comeback.

Usefully for the government, these differences are portrayed in the media overwhelmingly as personal failings, obscuring the systemic nature of some of these problems –   hence the push to have benefits withdrawn from the overweight or drug addicts who refuse treatment, another useful sub-group to browbeat with our self-righteous cudgels. As usual, it’s a reductive narrative. If someone is obese or a drug addict, it’s rarely as simple as telling them to stop, no matter how much they may want to. And those issues are often symptoms of deeper dysfunction.

Runnymede’s research points out that here too, ethnic minority children will be plunged further into poverty after the Budget, at a rate faster than their White counterparts.

“The report warns that child poverty among minority ethnic groups may be even greater after the 2015 budget. It says: “Black and minority ethnic households are more likely to be living in poverty. This is particularly notable for BME children, with nearly 50% of Pakistani children and over 40% of Bangladeshi children living in poverty, and all BME groups having higher poverty rates than white British children.”

If there is a need for shame in this whole debate, it should be felt by all of us. Especially those who voted for this.

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Re-Up: Austerity pits young against old

As the Budget continues to unfurl its catalogue of horrors, I thought it would be good to re-up this excellent article by Aditya Chakraborty: “This Battle will Define Us: We Must Protect our Children from Austerity.”

The landmark study of the social effects of David Cameron’s austerity was produced at the start of this year by a team of academics led by Professor John Hills at the London School of Economics. They found that the biggest victims of the spending cuts made since 2010 were children, and their parents: “Tax-benefit reforms hit families with children under five harder than any other household type. Those with a baby were especially affected.”

It was published before the General Election. Spoiler alert: We didn’t.

Sadly, it’s still relevant and all the more frightening because an unfettered Tory government is galloping ahead with its plans. Osborne is so confident that he’s challenged Labour to back the spending cap, capitalising no doubt on the disarray within Labour about whether they’re for or against poverty.

And Labour seems to have no idea what to do about it.

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Who Won?

I was appalled, but not surprised, by Harriet Harman’s decision, as interim Labour leader, not to oppose the Budget measures on the welfare cap. 

Even though they will continue the work of reversing Labour’s strides of reducing child poverty. (Not that we’ll know, given that the government is simply going to change the way it classifies poverty, to make this obfuscation more convenient)

Even though they are the Opposition.

She’s right, the Opposition aren’t there to reflexively oppose everything. But, these welfare reforms are supposed to be the antithesis of everything Labour stands for.



It brings me to something that has occupied my mind since the election. Who won? On the face of it, given that we have the first Tory-majority government for about 17 years – the Conservatives? Their majority is slim.

Certainly not Labour, though the election was theirs to lose.

And judging from the Budget: not workers, unions, the poor, the disabled, the young (snapshot: higher minimum wage for only over-25’s, while simultaneously housing benefit, university grants have been cut)….I need to take a moment for the young people of Britain. It’s staggering, and indeed frightening, that we’ve collectively agreed that shafting the future of the nation is acceptable. In today’s Times Camila Batmangeligh of Kids Company talks about how young people are being refused specialist care due to budget cuts. Whatever you think of the current scandal at Kids Company – her charity is not alone in speaking out about the dangerous cuts being made to the welfare state and social fabric.

The old did quite well. More flexible pensions among all sorts of other sweeteners – oh, and the price of the free TV licence for over-75s being shunted onto the BBC from the DWP. But…I refuse to submit to the seductive generational battle being set up between old and young.

As we slash and burn everything to “balance the books” – on the backs of the aforementioned groups, shaking down the most vulnerable for small change to meet the projected £12 billion of cuts,.corporations are sitting pretty on about £93billion of corporate welfare.

Who won?

The elites – corporate, political and otherwise well-heeled wealthy types.

And Labour, in the throes of a moribund leadership contest, can’t muster the wherewithal to consider that this is still a battle worth fighting. They’re “listening”, apparently. People voted for diverse reasons, but I’d bet my hat that a minority really voted for a ringing endorsement of the Tory plans. If they had, the majority would have been more substantial. In actual fact, the only party with a ringing endorsement was the SNP. Nationalistic yes; but also progressive, anti-austerity and principled. They are currently the only left-wing party in the UK.

Labour is conceding dangerous ground. Having already allowed the Right to misdiagnose the cause of the financial crisis, it is now allowing the flawed “solution” to hold the day.

What frightens me is that this is not just an ideological game, played with cool hands and wry smiles (Hat tip to George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith); this is about people’s lives. This is about the future of the nation. The changes being made now will reverberate for generations. And the false “consensus” has doomed an entire generation of young people, especially those without the family networks and wealth to insulate them from the worst effects of austerity – to a bleak future.

Labour lost the election. And the future is theirs (and ours) to lose too.

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