Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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Constitutions, committees and campaigns: an evening at the Birkbeck Students’ Union AGM

Sean Fitzpatrick, Communications Coordinator for Birkbeck’s Students’ Union, gives a run-down of the most recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) – and invites current students to stand in the elections as Liberation Officers and Student Leaders.

A lot has been going on across the Students’ Union this academic year – so much, in fact, we had to have two Annual General Meetings.

Every Birkbeck Student is welcome to come along to our AGM. Everyone is welcome to vote on any issues that arise at the meeting. This is one of the many ways that we make sure everything we do is informed by what students tell us they want.

With one of the largest attendances of the past decade, we settled down for an evening of discussion on all things Birkbeck. First up was officer accountability, where attendees were invited to grill the elected Student Leaders and Liberation Officers on their work, poring over their officer reports and manifestos to make sure they’re doing everything that they said they’d do!

Incidentally, we’re looking for people who would be interested in being one of our paid Liberation Officers and Student Leaders for the 2018/19 academic year. If you’re interested – you can read more about our elections and put your name forward on our website.

We then had a brief run through the current financial state of the Students’ Union, where students can see where our funding comes from and how we’re spending it – it’s important for us to be transparent. We then ran through changes to our constitution, the core document that defines the Union’s ethos and purpose. All of the changes were put to the room, and students voted either in favour or against each proposed change. Once that was done, we continued our discussions at the George Bar on the fourth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, right next to the Students’ Union offices.

Our AGMs are a great introduction to how the Students’ Union works and how we can work to support Birkbeck students. They also give you an opportunity to vote on how the Students’ Union uses its resources and to bring any issues you feel are affecting students to our attention.

If you have anything you feel the Students’ Union can help you with, please contact us! We’re here to help you make the most of your time at Birkbeck. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing us at studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk

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Strategic litigation: anti-racism in the courtroom?

Rebecca Sparrow, second year LLM student, discusses a recent event about how to challenge structural and state-sanctioned racism in law.

The Centre for the Research of Race and Law’s most recent event, Strategic Litigation: Anti-Racism in the Courtroom?, hosted two panels, each of which broadened understandings of what strategic litigation does and might look like. How, whether, and when to litigate, and how to ethically, and effectively occupy Mari Matsuda’s ‘multiple consciousnesses’ of working within and against the law, is a constant and pressing concern for anyone involved in social justice or political campaigns, critical academia and legal advocacy. This set of workshops provided a stimulating space for discussion and exploration of this fraught battleground of the law, particularly in the context of challenges to structural and state-sanctioned racism, including in its ever-increasing formulation through immigration policy.

In the first session, Ioannis Kalpouzos from the Global Legal Action Network suggested a challenge to Upendra Baxi’s suggestion that all political issues of salience in the second half of the 20th Century must be articulated through human rights. Kalpouzos described the Network’s efforts to use the International Criminal Court to challenge offshore detention in Australia, a country he described as the ‘envy of the Western world’ when it comes to brutal immigration regimes. He explored the potential of using International Criminal Law to name and label western state-sanctioned violence – even when that violence is not spectacular or radical, but bureaucratic and all-pervasive. This raised questions from the audience about whether using criminal law might exceptionalize particular moments of violence, and therefore also serve to normalise violence that we should be pushing to be accepted as human rights violations. The responses to these questions made the particularly strategic nature of such litigation clear.

Lewis Kett from Duncan Lewis Solicitors, one of the main law firms with legal aid contracts to represent those in UK immigration detention, spoke about his recent successful case challenging laws on segregation in immigration detention centres. Although this, and previous wins of Duncan Lewis’, have been important, and provided some of the only real positive changes to detention policy in recent years, Kett also expanded on the extent of the problems within existing policy, and how much further there is to go. In response to queries from workshop participants, he reflected on whether improving structurally violent institutions such as detention can serve to make them more palatable without removing their inherent violence, but concluded that as a solicitor it is ethically impossible not to litigate for reform where possible, not only to change practice but also to provide accountability, and as part of wider campaigns.

The second panel began with Muhammad Rabbani, the director of CAGE recently charged and convicted under terrorism legislation for refusing to hand over the passwords to his mobile phone and laptop in Heathrow airport. He was stopped under Schedule 7, the law introduced in 2000 that sees 50,000 people per year stopped in airports, with no right to remain silent, to seek legal advice, to refuse a strip search or the handing over of data. The 99.8% non-arrest rate, as Rabbani highlighted, signifies a breach of the Magna Carta principles against suspicionless arrest. Rabbani asked brave, poignant questions about how he might have been treated, both during his arrest and during legal proceedings, particularly when unable to find any lawyer willing to submit a judicial review on his behalf because he had a ‘pigmentation problem’, and so wasn’t considered ‘the ideal case’. Thus Rabbani questioned the possibilities for strategic litigation when the law is actively constructed to target Muslims. Where, in this context, is the space for strategic litigation? Rabbani had to take his strategy beyond the courtroom and run his own campaign.

Gracie-Mae Bradley’s presentation followed on perfectly from Rabbani’s warnings. She spoke about her experience both within human rights organisation Liberty, and as an organiser of the Against Borders for Children (ABC) campaign. In particular, she highlighted ways in which litigation, however strategic, is severely compromised if it is not accompanied or preceded by wide-reaching social campaigns. She drew attention to previous strategic wins in the context of UK immigration detention, such as the retracting of the Detained Fast Track programme, and the way in which the Home Office is finding ways to re-introduce slight variations on the same policies only a couple of years later. Litigation, she reminded us, is a way of challenging policy that is fully incorporated within the limits of the system that created it, and controversial policy changes are often actively channeled by Government into legal frameworks, as the delays entailed by public consultations often mean that any successful litigation has to be applied retrospectively, which makes old policies easier to reinstate later. Quoting Gary Bellow, himself quoted by Derrick Bell, in the context of Leroy Clark’s insistence that an over-reliance on the law limited the potential of the black community’s success in pushing for school desegregation in the South, Bradley noted that ‘rule change, without a political base to support it, just doesn’t produce any substantial result because rules are not self-executing: they require an enforcement mechanism.’ Thus she showed that ‘riding on a technicality’, to which much strategic litigation must often be confined, though often crucial, is never enough to establish real change alone. Using the examples of data collection in schools that can be used to inform the Home Office of undocumented children and their parents, she argued that litigation must be accompanied by campaigns that highlight the implications and mechanisms of damaging policies, rather than just channelling the technicalities of their implementation.

Shining a light from a different direction, though with many of the same implications, Chai Patel explored the difficulties litigating strategically in anti-racist campaigns, when many of the effects of harmful and racist policy are not quantifiable in the terms required by the law. Speaking about the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ attempts to challenge the Right to Rent legislation of 2016, Patel described the insidious ways in which even though the requirement on landlords to ensure the immigration status of their tenants encouraged, in their own words, discrimination on the basis of perceived race or nationality, it was very difficult to quantify and record such prejudice. In particular, the detail that landlords will be fined for not checking documents if tenants are found to be residing unlawfully, but not for failing to check if they are legally renting, encouraged this discrimination. Thus the detail in the legislation makes it particularly likely to encourage biased assessments of prospective tenants’ immigration status. It also makes it particularly hard to collect data, pushing all conclusions into the realm of the hypothetical. Although litigation might, in this case, be one way to challenge the policy, it has been incredibly hard to show that it was the policy itself that was causing discrimination.

To sit in a room with such a broad mix of academics and practitioners, getting absorbed in the details, methods, implications, ethics, efficacy and revolutionary potential of strategic litigation against racist policy was inspirational. The mood was neither of cynical criticism nor naively hopeful for impossible change. And though the workshop participants, panellists and audience, provided necessary and timely reminders not to put all our faith in litigation, however strategic, the conference itself was inspiring testament to Rabbani’s moving encouragement that if we strive for compassion and courage, much is possible.

 

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Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

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