Thursday, 29 April 2010

Is Gillian a bigot?

I’ve said what I have to say about Gordon Brown’s “private” comments about Gillian, the Labour voter he branded “a bigoted woman”. I want to look now at the wider issues that have arisen as a result of those comments.

It’s true, the woman did mention immigration but mentioning it and asking perfectly reasonable questions about the effect she believes it has on her local community does not make her a bigot. The whole argument about immigration and asylum seekers has become largely polarised and the result is that people who DON’T KNOW the answers, are scared to ask the questions for fear of being branded “racist” or “bigoted”.

If they’re scared to ask the questions, how do we hope to dispel the many myths surrounding these issues?

As anyone who’s read this blog knows I’ve recently been involved in a very high profile campaign to save my constituents, a 32 year old Malawian asylum seeker and her 10 year old daughter from deportation. I’ve written about it a fair bit and of course it’s attracted the inevitable criticism from people telling me to “do what we pay you to do and that’s to help your constituents” clearly meaning the ones that aren’t asylum seekers. The most abusive emails are always anonymous of course because I think people know when their views are unpalatable.

I’m pleased to say the overwhelming majority of people who’ve contacted me have done so to say the opposite and those who haven’t, have asked questions they are perfectly entitled to ask.

However the episode yesterday reminded me of a guy I met during the Glasgow North East by election. I chapped on his door and I explained who I was and why I was there. He seemed very nice but didn’t have much time for politicians. (NB I rarely meet anyone with a bad experience of a politician who doesn’t then decide we’re “all the same”!).

When I asked him why, he said he felt we never did anything for “ordinary” people and we really weren’t interested. Obviously I know this not to be true but I hear it so much that I really wanted to understand where he was getting this impression. He then said that he felt politicians were only interested in “minority” groups and if you weren’t black, an asylum seeker, homosexual or a list of other “categories” then we didn’t want to know.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that from a constituent but for some reason he really struck a chord with me. Possibly because he said all the right things in terms of believing that everyone including the minority groups he’d mentioned, had a right to representation. Perhaps because he reassured me he’d rather die than vote BNP. And it may have had something to do with the fact that he wasn’t attacking me but seemed genuinely sad that he had lost his faith in the political process.

However they manage to get that impression, some people genuinely do believe that the political process is not about them because they don’t happen to be in a “minority” group. And it’s something that we, as politicians, have to look at. We need to figure out how we continue to do the work we’re doing but without alienating anyone. We need to do it for them and for people in those “minority” groups who then, unfairly, become a target for resentment.

Although I say he struck a chord with me, it didn’t happen right away. It would have been easy for me to dismiss him as a bigot and that’s what I was thinking initially. I retorted in my usual way by “reassuring” him that should his government want to execute him for no particular reason, or should he be abused in the street because of who he fell in love with, I would be very happy to fight for him too.

He took my point and thus the mellowing of this particular politician.

And I explained rather more gently this time that the vast majority of constituents for whom I am fighting are not asylum seekers and I wouldn’t have a clue about their sexuality. But you don’t hear about these cases because on the whole, their issues are about someone’s incompetence rather than institutionalised injustice. That neither requires nor attracts publicity whereas the latter often does.

And whilst I fight equally hard for all of my constituents, if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s injustice. I don’t imagine anybody likes it but I really cannot bear to hear about people suffering unnecessarily. And the idea that some people for whatever reason, feel unable to do anything about it for themselves, drives me to distraction.

In doing all of this however, I need to be mindful of the need to connect with and do my best to represent everyone out there, including people like the voter in Glasgow North East who may have different views to me but who, let’s face it, could be your brother or your son. And just because he doesn’t see life the way you or I might see it, doesn’t mean he won’t one day. And if he never does? Well I still believe in equality regardless of someone's sexual orientation, race or inability to see things the way I do!

Everyone deserves to be represented, everyone deserves support when they’ve been treated wrongly. Sometimes people become so worn down with their own lives that they simply don’t have room to care about anyone else. But when people feel that their problems are being listened to, they’re far more likely to care about everyone else’s problems.

So I will carry on fighting against injustice, I will stand up for equality and for compassion and I will be there for anyone who needs my help – even those who have no interest in any of what I’ve just said. Even those who might be classed as “bigots”. After all, if I refuse to fight for the rights of my constituents who have different views to me, does that not make me a bigot too? I think if you check the dictionary you’ll find I’m right.

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