What the **** is linguistics?

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

Excuse the *rude* title of this blog – I shall have more to say about why it is rude – even though it actually only contains a few stars – in subsequent blogs.

To begin, though:

If, like me, you are a teacher of linguistics, there are two questions which people will invariably ask you:

1. What IS linguistics?
and
2. What languages do you speak?

Those are the questions I want to write about today.

In answer to the first, linguistics is the study of language, no more, no less. Since language is (almost) as fundamental to the human race as breathing, it is probably quite important to know something about it. Linguistics is actually a whole collection of subjects, from the highly scientific – like whereabouts in the brain is the language faculty located? – to the philosophical – like why does a sentence mean what it means? – to the strictly structural – like what is the difference between a noun and a verb, and does the difference exist in all languages? – to the sociological and politically relevant – e.g., in what way are women linguistically at a disadvantage in our society, and in others, compared with men?

The answer to the second question is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Even if I only speak one language, my ‘mother tongue’, I am perfectly able to study the various issues mentioned above. Chomsky, considered the originator of modern linguistics, thought that the ideal way to study language was by analysing the productions of ‘ the ideal speaker in a homogeneous community’. Studying such an ideal speaker would allow us to uncover principles of language which underlie all languages, the basic principles of the human language faculty.

However, more recently, more and more linguists have started to realize that what is most ‘universal’ about language is actually its diversity. The fact that people speak different languages, and within languages different dialects, and speak in different ways depending on their circumstances, their topic, their interlocutor, etc. is by far the most striking fact about human language, more so than the fact that all languages have something like a verb/noun distinction.

In coming blogs I will discuss the relevance of diversity and variation in language through examples mainly taken from the news and current affairs. I will try to show that linguistic questions concern us all, and hopefully convince you that there are rational and irrational ways of finding the answers to linguistic questions. Just as the fact that we all breathe does not make us experts in respiratory medicine, so the fact that we all communicate through language does not qualify us to pronounce on linguistics – though if you read the letter pages of any major newspaper it is stunning how many self-appointed experts on language/ grammar/spelling/usage there seem to be!

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Paisley’s life testament to a deeply painful social history in Northern Ireland

This article was contributed by Dr Sean Brady, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Conversation.

Dr Sean Brady

Dr Sean Brady

The death of the Reverend Ian Paisley is occasion for reflection upon the United Kingdom’s most famous religious firebrand, and certainly one of the most memorable and divisive political figures of modern times.

He will rightly be remembered for his hardline and extreme unionist stance throughout his political and religious career, for his extreme brand of Loyalism and premillenial Protestantism, which informed all of his political career – and also for the mystery of why, in 2006, he agreed to power sharing in Northern Ireland, given his rejection of the Belfast Peace Agreement in 1998.

But Paisley’s life was testament to a deeply painful social history. Northern Ireland’s society and politics have been synonymous with deep and bitter religiously orientated sectarianism, violence, conflict, militarism, and seemingly intractable community schisms since the late 1960s. And for much of that time, Paisley was one of the most vocal and most recognisable forces behind its continued division.

And yet the seemly intractable oppositions within Northern Ireland appeared to come together in remarkable unanimity on one particular issue, which Paisley almost made his own: the question of male homosexuality, and of sexual minorities in general.

No, no, no!

The Northern Irish parliament stoutly resisted any attempt to impose the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which had partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. Even after the imposition of direct rule and the ending of devolved government in 1972, opposition to any attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to introduce this legislation was voluble and intense.

A high-profile case brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Dudgeon v United Kingdom, eventually forced the United Kingdom government to impose the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982. Indeed, it was a landmark case at the ECHR itself. It was the court’s first case to be decided in favour of LGBT rights, and it now forms the basis in European law for all member states, in particular new states joining the EU.

Opposition to decriminalising male homosexuality appealed to many across the sectarian divide, but the real impetus to keep gay sex criminal came from the evangelically inspired and highly popular “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” campaign, headed by Paisley, Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party in the 1970s and the 1980s and targeted at lesbians and gay men.

Out of Ireland

In Paisley’s worldview, Ulster, the hallowed province, had to be made fit for the second coming of Christ, and therefore needed “saving” from sodomy. In a society riven by male-dominated violence and religious conflict, LGBT people would at the very least be wary about exploring their sexuality, and certainly emotions of guilt shaped and directed their lives. And for most Irish LGBT people, the only way to lead normal lives has long been to leave Northern Ireland.

It’s remarkable to recall the extent to which the Roman Catholic hierarchy gave its tacit support to this campaign, and the ways in which paramilitary organisations on both sides of the conflict came to view LGBT people as “natural betrayers” in their midst. More than anything else, religion and sectarianism shaped the lives of LGBT people in Northern Ireland until the peace process of the late 1990s.

And yet still, Paisley’s legacy of continuing homophobia in Northern Ireland is palpable to this day. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the DUP-dominated Stormont parliament has vetoed the gay marriage bill multiple times; evangelically motivated politicians of all stripes feel free to make outright homophobic comments on a regular basis.

Northern Ireland’s society is also unique in Western Europe in the intensity and the extent of its homophobic attitudes. In a huge research project into bigotry in Western countries conducted in 2007, Northern Ireland was the most homophobic of 23 territories surveyed, topping the list along with Greece.

Paisley’s legacy for the Northern Irish sectarian conflict is hugely complicated in itself – but his broader impact on Northern Ireland’s society also endures.

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Used or abused? 10 serious issues raised by FoI requests

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy. It was originally published on The Conversation.

A Freedom of Information request lodged on a quiet news day by a journalist has revealed that more than 800 police officers in England and Wales have been investigated for breaching social media guidelines over the past five years.

Quite apart from showing us that the police, like many other public bodies, find it difficult to control what its members do on Twitter, the story raises the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, which comes under regular fire for, according to the prime minister, David Cameron: “furring up the arteries” of government.

The Local Government Association recently published a list of ten “silly” FoI requests. While not arguing that all such requests are like this, the implied point is that FoI is being “abused”.

This complaint mirrors the comments of Tony Blair in his memoirs:

The truth is that the FoI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick: ‘Hey, try this instead’ and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

It also fits with concerns from a stream of other ministers and officials that FoI stops records being created and hampers decision-making. It is likely to feed into the recent government announcement of a consultation on whether the act is, indeed, being abused.

Little is known about FoI requesters. The pattern appears to be broadly that a variety of people and groups use it for a whole variety of reasons. Most FoI requests go to local government, the largest user group (contrary to Blair’s claim) are the public and, high-profile cases aside, many use FoI for “micro-political” issues, such as dealing with a pothole or planning application.

As a response to the list, I’d like to offer my own list of ten serious issues revealed by FOI requests.

  1. Extraordinary rendition – the UK’s involvement was revealed by FoI requests from the All-Party Group.
  2. Details of the Universal Credit welfare reforms.
  3. The Libor banking scandal and knowledge of it.
  4. Lists of visitors to the prime ministerial residence at Chequers (and ministerial meetings and diaries now proactively released).
  5. The use (and, it turned out, abuse) of passes to parliament.
  6. Creation of the famous “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dossier.
  7. The monarch’s involvement in vetoing legislation.
  8. The results of local restaurant hygiene inspections that helped create http://www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/.
  9. The salaries of senior academics and NHS officials.
  10. The planned closure of local libraries up and down the country.

Keeping them honest

Underneath these high-profile cases, our research found a steady stream of accountability stories over planning, car parking and many other issues – just see David Higgerson’s FOI Friday.

The act also helped create IPSA, which regulate MPs’ expenses, led to a change in the law so all members of the House of Lords pay tax in the UK and drove the regular publishing of local government salaries.

This not to say there aren’t “silly” requests, from dragons to zombie attacks (though “silly” is subjective as Jonathan Baines explains, many corruption scandals have been triggered by apparently pointless questions or the piecing together of small bits of information).

Nor is it to claim the act is not taken advantage of – in the UK, and even more in the US, FoI has led to heavy use by business – see this particularly controversial case in Scotland with Phillip Morris seeking access to details of a study of underage smoking.

Yet such requests represent only a minority of the estimated 253,000 requests per year (my own estimates based on the most recent figures for numbers of local government requests in 2010 (192,000) plus the number of requests to central government in 2013 (53,000). On the whole, research indicates that FoI is composed of all sorts of questions, on all sorts of topics, sent in by all sorts of people and groups.

It is this unpredictability that helps make it effective. One local politician told me: “you never know what you will get asked”. The presence of FoI, the possibility of a question, can make someone think twice and even deter them from corrupt or inappropriate behaviour.

There is also an issue of democratic principle. The right to information, championed by radicals such as the Levellers and Diggers centuries ago, means the right to ask questions (to misquote Orwell on liberty) that the powerful may not want you to ask.

It is a democratic right to ask and this may mean some silliness – just as voting may mean non-voting or “silly” voting. Like all parts of a democracy, it is messy and unpredictable and can occasionally go wrong. But in its messiness and unpredictability lies its power.

The Conversation

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World Bank watch out, the BRICS Bank is a game-changer

Ali Burak GuvenThis post was written by Dr Ali Burak Güven, Lecturer in International Relations & International Political Economy in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The top news from this year’s BRICS summit was the announcement of a New Development Bank. Headquartered in Shanghai, the bank will become operational in 2016 with an initial capital of US$50 billion. Its core mandate is to finance infrastructure projects in the developing world.

The bank, announced at the summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, will also have a monetary twin to provide short-term emergency loans, the Contingency Reserve Arrangement. While the bank will be open to all UN members, the reserve will lend only to the contributing BRICS countries in times of crisis.

This combination of timing, actors, and institutions is noteworthy. It was in July 1944 that the Allied nations gathered at Bretton Woods to form two of the most vital institutions of the post-war era: the International Monetary Fund and what would become the World Bank. Now, 70 years later and only a few years on from the global financial crisis, the leading developing nations of our time have joined forces to forge new institutions of international economic cooperation with mandates identical to the World Bank and the IMF.

This move is born out of a belief that the Bretton Woods twins, despite numerous governance reform initiatives over the past decade, remain set to reflect the policy preferences of their original creators. In creating complementary institutions, the BRICS will be hoping to use these alternative platforms of international economic governance and as leverage to accelerate the reform of existing arrangements.

Game-changing potential

The New Development Bank is currently the more interesting of the “Fortaleza twins”, for it is designed as a freestanding organisation that’s open to all. Yet it has not received a warm welcome in business columns. While the political symbolism of the new institution is widely acknowledged, its immediate economic utility has been challenged – why do the BRICS need a development bank of their own when infrastructure projects are already easily financed through private as well as official channels, especially through the World Bank?

This is a narrow criticism. In the long run, the New Development Bank has the potential to become a game-changer in development financing. In fact, if its evolution even remotely parallels that of the World Bank, it might end up having a formative impact on economic policy-making and overall development strategy in the Global South.

To begin, while there is no shortage of national and regional development banks as well as private financiers of infrastructure projects, there is still a massive gap in development finance, estimated to be as high as US$1 trillion per year. Many developing countries encountered significant financing problems during the global crisis of the late 2000s. This shortfall necessitated a surge in World Bank commitments, from an annual US$25 billion in 2007 to about US$60 billion in 2010.

But commitments declined just as swiftly over the past few years, and as of 2013 stood at about $30 billion. Given these figures, the New Development Bank’s readily available $10 billion in paid-up capital and the extra $40 billion available upon request are not exactly pocket money for development financing.

Yet just as the World Bank was never simply a money lender, so too will the new bank represent far more than a mere pool of funds. The existing geostrategic and policy inclinations of its founding stakeholders imply a bigger role to play for the institution. In the process, it is bound to offer a formidable challenge to the World Bank’s financial prominence and so influence policy in the developing world.

Client-side

The new bank has been long in the making. It is the culmination of nearly two decades of intense South-South cooperation and engagement. In recent years especially, the BRICS and other emerging nations have become donors and investors in both their immediate regions and in less developed areas of the world – with Chinese and Brazilian involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America representing the prime examples.

They have made an effort to establish more equal relationships with their lower-income developing peers and emphasised an attractive narrative of partnership, non-intervention and knowledge transfer, instead of smug, superior Western notions of top-down aid and restrictive conditionality. To the extent that it could keep its rates competitive, the New Development Bank is unlikely to suffer from a dearth of clients from among its fellow developing nations.

Paradoxically, BRICS and other large middle-income countries still remain the most valuable clients of the World Bank. Since the financial crisis, India has been the largest borrower of the World Bank, and has been closely followed by Brazil, China and a few other near-BRICS such as Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico. But, once the new bank fully kicks off, it is possible the World Bank will lose a lot more business from this traditionally lucrative market of large middle-income borrowers who now have a serious alternative.

Political implications

A reduced loan portfolio will ultimately translate into declining policy influence for the World Bank, which has held near-monopoly of development wisdom over the past 70 years. Perhaps in recognition of their waning power, there has already been a slight but steady decline in World Bank loans that emphasise policy and institutional reforms.

Also, a larger portion of the Bank’s resources have been allocated to conventional development projects, such as environment and natural resource management, private sector development, human development, and social protection. These are precisely the types of projects the Bank will encounter fierce competition from the new BRICS-led bank.

Knowledge and power

Consider also that the World Bank has labelled itself as a “knowledge bank” in recent years. Employing thousands of policy specialists, it doubles as one of the biggest think tanks in the world. Yet if it loses considerable financial ground to initiatives such as the New Development Bank, this threatens a decline in the power it has through knowledge.

Crucially, none of the BRICS adhere to the Bank’s standard policy prescriptions, nor do they advocate a different common strategy either. Brazil’s social democratic neo-developmentalism is quite different from China’s state neoliberalism, which in turn differs from established policy paths in others in the group. The only common denominator is a substantially broader role given to the state. But beyond this there is much flexibility and experimentation and little in the way of templates and blueprints like there is with the Western institutions. This policy diversity itself dismisses any idea of superiority of knowledge and expertise.

None of this suggests that the World Bank, as the dominant, Northern-led development agency, is now on an ineluctable path of decline. Cumbersome as they may appear, large organisations often accumulate considerable resilience and adaptive capacity over generations. Yet the World Bank does have a serious contender in the New Development Bank.

While it may not overtake the World Bank in financial prowess and policy influence any time soon, at a minimum it should be able to exert significant pressure over the World Bank to respond more sincerely and effectively to the new balance of power in the global economy.

The Conversation

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The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

joanna_bourke_portrait

This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

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Is there any value in talking about British values?

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The controversy over the allegations of ‘extremism’ in a number of Birmingham schools has led to a wider discussion on what constitutes ‘British values’. Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education and David Cameron the Prime Minister have both responded to the situation in Birmingham by announcing that schools should teach ‘British values’. At a press conference in Sweden on 10 June, Cameron stated that these values should include “freedom, tolerance, respect for the law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.” One of the questions I would like to explore here is whether an understanding of these ideas of Britishness would really resolve issues of social inclusion and equality in deprived communities or whether the appeal to ‘British values’ is a smokescreen that hides a multitude of equality and diversity issues not dealt with by British public institutions?

There is value in having a public debate about ‘British values’. Political theorists and others have long debated what values and mechanisms are required for arriving at the common good when you have a diversity of competing interests operating in society. Theologians speak of the ‘beloved community’ and explore what are the values, principles and ways of belonging that are required to create and sustain an ideal community. So it is legitimate to ask what type of communities we want to live in. What kinds of schools do we want our children to be educated in? The problem with the current debate is the context in which these questions are being framed.

The current debate is being framed by powerful white male politicians who in talking about ‘British values’ in relation to British Muslim minority communities, turn ‘British values’ into a racial marker or label of racial differentiation. The unspoken assumption being that certain behaviours are labelled as Muslim and that these are not compatible with being British. Hence it is not your passport or the taxes that you pay, but your ‘values’ and specifically ‘Muslim values’ that determine how British you are and the degree to which can legitimately participate in British public life.

It is striking that when other public and private institutions experience a crisis of governance they are not dealt with in this way. Recent crises have beset the newspaper industry, the Metropolitan Police, the National Health Service, the British Broadcasting Corporation, banks and last, but by no means least, MPs and Parliament. Weak governance, lack of due diligence, poor ethical standards, cultures of fear and intimidation can all have been said to have played some role in accounting for their institutional failings. These failings – not exclusively, but in the overwhelming majority of cases – have been perpetrated by members of white, mono-cultural, middle-class communities. They are failings that, in substantive terms, are similar to those attributed to the schools in Birmingham. Are these institutions deemed to be suffering from a lack of ‘British values’? No they are not, hence my contention that the current debate on ‘British values’ is not a genuine attempt to construct a political ethical framework for thinking about the common good, but rather it is a misguided attempt to re-racialise what it means to be British.

There is a need for a genuine discussion and debate to be had on values but the context needs to be reframed. Britain needs a discussion on whether its public institutions are genuine purveyors and defenders of equality and justice for all. Britain needs an honest and genuine reflection on whether its institutional and policy mechanisms are capable of delivering genuine justice and equality in a 21st-century, multicultural, multi-layered and multi-faceted society that incorporates Muslims rather than racialises them as an ‘other’ to be dealt with differently. The discussion needs to be reframed to talk about British institutions and the degree to which these institutions, to which we all contribute, genuinely reflect and represent the diversity of the country. Too many British institutions are woefully unrepresentative of the communities that they serve and too many members of minority communities bear the scars of discrimination, poor service delivery and injustice that they have received from these institutions. Where is the outcry over the lack of British values being put into practice on behalf of these citizens?  It is a long-standing scandal, where no one seems to be being held accountable for the startling lack of progress.  So yes, let us talk about ‘British values’, but more importantly let us see them concretised and realised for everyone and not used as a metaphorical stick with which to beat marginalized minority communities.

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The Fox in the Hen House? UKIP and the 2015 General Election

This post was written by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the Department of Politics’ blog, 10 Gower Street.

This week’s European elections have produced fascinating and, in many countries, uncomfortable shifts in electoral support (though we shouldn’t forget Italy, where the centre-left has won and Greece and Spain, where the far left topped the polls). The results have already led to the Irish Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the opposition in Spain stepping down.

In the UK, attention has focused on UKIP, the minority anti-EU party that has ‘won’ the European Parliamentary elections, or at least got more votes than any other party, and done relatively well locally. The big question is whether UKIP will influence the 2015 General Election or fade away. Will UKIP be the (indirect) kingmaker or just a bad dream by this time next year? Below I’ve set out some of the different sides of the argument so that you can make up your own mind.

UKIP is here to stay: Kingmaker in 2015?

Journalist Michael Crick points out that the UKIP vote in the local elections is slightly down on previous years. However, winning council seats means being able to build organisations and networks in local areas to help get out the UKIP vote in 2015. UKIP is putting down roots across the country.

But will voters stay with them? Some argue that the UKIP votes are just a ‘protest’ vote and supporters will ‘return’ to their ‘normal’ parties for the election that matters-the General Election. This data from Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows that many UKIP voters (they estimate 50%) are likely to stay with UKIP in 2015 – other pollsters agree.

Just to make the situation more complicated, it isn’t clear that UKIP will cut down Conservative votes and ‘let in’ Labour. Analysis by the authors of the new book about UKIP voters, Revolt on the Right, indicates that UKIP’s appeal is cross-party and attracts as many unhappy Labour voters as Conservatives – see their results in Rotherham (Ed Miliband’s constituency).

So UKIP may not win seats but may make the 2015 General Election very complicated and unpredictable. The party could cause ‘chaos’ and create ‘an electoral map of nightmarish complexity’ in certain crucial seats. Even before the UKIP surge, 2015 was already going to be very close indeed. This prediction gives a ‘dead heat in 2015’ with the Conservatives on 36.1%, and Labour on 36.5%. On a side note, Ashcroft’s poll for the constituency of South Thanet, where Nigel Farage is rumoured to be standing in the General Election, puts UKIP support very high – see pg 1 column ‘voting intention’ and ‘certain to vote’.

UKIP fades away: A bad dream in 2015?

Not everyone is sure of UKIP’s new power. Smaller parties votes have always fallen back, often sharply, in national elections. More importantly, the First Past the Post system at Westminster makes it very difficult for minor parties to win seats.

The Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan is not convinced that UKIP’s momentum can be maintained. He points out that UKIP will now be under sustained media scrutiny (which didn’t always work successfully for them, especially in the last few weeks) and will have to begin explaining its domestic policies, which may be difficult. One of the most important players will be the media and how it covers UKIP for the next 12 months.

How well UKIP as a party can cope with the stresses and strains of being a ‘fourth’ political party is debateable. Brogan also points out that there have been many ‘new’ political parties ‘enjoying a moment of popularity…Remember the SDP? The Alliance? The Greens? Or even the Lib Dems, who under Nick Clegg have gone from breakthrough in 2010 to breakdown this weekend’.

One thing we can say for certain is that the next year will be interesting. Success is not all about seats and you may see UKIP’s influence in the policies that other parties now start to adopt. Keep an eye on the coming Newark by-election – will UKIP win their first seat?

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India fights for a pension: a campaigning success story

This post was written by Dr Penny Vera Sanso, a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies and Social Anthropology in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It was originally published on the Age International blog.

India is home to around 104 million people aged over 60. Despite producing at least 50% of India’s GDP and despite contributing to the 4.5% growth rate – 90% of workers in India are trapped in low paid, insecure and pension-less work.

So, it is good news that, after many years of side-lining, social pensions are again on the political agenda; appearing on the manifestos of several national and regional parties.  This is a giant step forward.

India is a deeply divided and unequal country, but if you want to see another side to India, one promoting collaboration across socio-economic and cultural diversity, and one that is likely to have a positive outcome for older people, you would be hard pressed to find a better example than the campaigns that are pressing for a pension revolution – the Pension Parishad and the Right to Food Campaign.

A side of India that doesn’t hit the headlines

In March this year, the 5th National Convention of the Right to Food and Work Campaign was held. Over 2000 people participated from across the country.

It is a side of India that rarely hits the headlines; a side where differences of caste, class, religion, education, gender, age and able bodied-ness make no difference.

Held outside Ahmedabad in the grounds of the Dalit Empowerment Centre, a training centre for India’s most stigmatised castes, the Right to Food and Work Campaign transformed unpromising scrubland into a colourful covered meeting place for people to come together to discuss their concerns and formulate solutions on which all would campaign. I participated in the Pension Parishad workshop where almost all participants were women. When asked where the men were the women answered, as one, ‘At the food ration workshop’. And this was where I found them  – a perfect demonstration of how people were ensuring that they covered as much common ground as possible by participating in the framing of strategy and taking it all back home to their local organisations.

But this convention was just one of the proud moments of a campaign which began its journey many years earlier.

How did it start?  

First, in 2001 an extraordinary alliance of diverse groups and individuals came together to support each other in a common effort to secure basic human rights – that of the right to life and dignity for everyone in India.

Then at the 2010 Convention of the Right to Food and Work Campaign a unanimous decision was reached to campaign for a universal social pension. This spurred the development of the ‘Pension Parishad’ – a further network of NGOs and individuals focused on securing a universal social pension set at half the minimum wage.     

This led to thousands of older people across the country participating in rallies, but they were not alone.  They were joined by, and themselves supported, campaigns for widow’s pensions, disability pensions and pensions for sex workers and transgender people.

A comprehensive, cradle to grave campaign

The Right to Food Campaign uses all democratic means available to secure widespread support for the right to food and work and, latterly, the right to pensions. The Supreme Court has been moved (in both senses of the word), political parties lobbied and the media engaged.

Alongside this have been specific campaigns – to extend the public distribution system (that provides families with subsidised basic foods) and to enforce schemes supporting breast feeding and free cooked mid-day meals for school children and older people.  This has created a comprehensive, cradle to grave campaign to overcome endemic hunger.

There’s much to be learnt here but what I like best is: first, that despite deep social divisions people will come together to fight for their own and each other’s rights and second, that older people are willing and capable of fighting for their own and others’ rights.

Dr Penny Vera-Sanso has been researching and publishing on age, gender and poverty in India since the early 1990s. Recently she has been exploring visual methods for sharing research with non-academic audiences and of encouraging popular participation in research projects in order to spur public debate.  Her collaboration with The Hindu on the National Photographic Competition on the Working Elderly resulted in a unique permanent on-line gallery of nearly 3000 photographs of older workers from across India.  She has made two documentaries, We’re Still Working and The Forgotten Generation,  released in 2013 and her photo essay, ‘We too Contribute’, has been displayed as pop-up exhibitions across India.  

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British universities need Black Studies

This post was written by Dr William Ackhar, a lecturer in community and voluntary sector studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It was originally published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

In San Francisco in 1968 a group of primarily black students went on strike to demand that their college establish an academic programme that reflected their lives and experiences. Their demand was met, and San Francisco State College became the first in the US to have a department and degree programme in Black Studies.

Nearly half a century later, Black Studies, Africana Studies or African-American Studies, as they are now variously named in different institutions, are a coast-to- coast academic discipline. Their academic departments in Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia are home to internationally renowned scholars.

Built on the two foundational pillars of academic excellence and social responsibility, Black Studies in the United States has led to the emergence of more black professors, heads of department and university administrators. From small beginnings, it has emerged as a genuine success story of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle.

As someone who draws heavily on the work of African-American scholars to inform my own teaching and research, I can only look with envy at what has been achieved in the US and wonder why, after all this time, there are still no equivalent Black Studies degree programmes and academic departments here in the UK.

In the past, universities did not feel there was a demand, need or interest in the subject but this is no longer the case. Britain’s black population is approaching 3 million and its increasing significance nationally and internationally in politics, religion, economics, science and the arts more than justifies the need for an academic discipline dedicated to researching and teaching the black experience, to UK society and the wider world.

On 15 May, a group of black scholars will meet to set up a British Black Studies Association, which will call for Black Studies degree programmes to be established. There has been a growing sense of frustration and anger among black British academics over how our communities have been treated by the British university system.

Black students are being encouraged to enter higher education in ever increasing numbers, yet there are no courses or departments where we can learn about ourselves, there is very little likelihood of being taught by a black professor, and according to the latest data there is no chance of seeing a black person leading and shaping the strategic direction of the university.

No wonder many black students, according to the National Union of Students, have a demoralising experience in higher education and on average are leaving university with poorer results than white counterparts who entered with equal A-level grades.

Black Studies – a social science covering subjects such as history, politics, religion, the arts, economics, geography and psychology – is needed to counter the damaging and corrosive idea that black culture is somehow anti-intellectual and that black people are not capable of contributing meaningfully to the intellectual life of this country. For example, it could include study of the Notting Hill carnival, building insight into its historical significance and connections to the Caribbean, South America and Africa, the complex religious symbolism that underpins it, its economic, geographical and cultural impact, and its role in establishing London as a global city.

Gender Studies has played an important role in shifting cultural attitudes and public policy towards women. The study of the black experience could be transformative for schools, police forces, mental health services and other arenas of public life that still have issues with black people. In education, a Black Studies perspective could be instrumental in tackling the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys.

By seeing their intellectuals, scientists, artists, technicians, being discussed, analysed and eulogised in schools and universities, the relationship between the black community and the authorities would change from that of “problem” to one of being productive contributors to society, resulting in engagement and achievement rather than continuing disengagement and underachievement.

This enhanced status of black life in Britain would ultimately result in more black teachers, intellectuals, and professionals being seen and heard in public life. And that is something many communities and public institutions in Britain need as a matter of urgency.

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Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

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