The Sochi boycott won’t happen, but we still need to reunite politics and sport

By Alex Bryan

Stephen Fry’s heartfelt and powerful open letter to David Cameron arguing that Britain should boycott the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics in light of Russia’s restrictive and prejudiced new anti-LGBT laws has provoked a debate about the relative merits of a boycott. David Cameron and Sebastian Coe were unequivocal in their response; both stated that they did not support boycotts, and that dialogue rather than isolation was the road to social change. Supporters of Fry point to increased violence against gay people in Russia, and argue that to participate is essential to collaborate with Putin’s government.

Though the suggestion to boycott Sochi is relatively new, sporting boycotts themselves are not, and the merits of boycotts as a method of achieving anything are at the heart of this debate. Coe claimed that he is ‘against boycotts’ as they do not ‘achieve what they set out to do’. This seems quite an extreme position; surely the success of a boycott in some way depends on the numerous variables at hand, such as the aim of the boycott, how extensive it is, how it is implemented etc. Some boycotts do seem to work, such as the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa, so to take an absolute anti-boycott position seems extreme.

Regardless of whether it would be successful, given the position of Coe and Cameron and the necessity of mollifying the strategically important and volatile Russia, a boycott seems highly unlikely. In any case, a boycott of Russia would expose activists to accusations of hypocrisy; why boycott Olympics in Russia but attend in China? However, that does not mean we should ignore the suggestion, as the statements made by those opposing a boycott betray an underlying falsehood which is important to refute; that sport and politics should not mix. This supposed divorce between the two is fallacious, doing nothing to protect sport and everything to protect the oppressive regimes and the international sporting authorities who aid them from proper scrutiny.

A preliminary point to make, regardless of what one thinks of the suggestion of a boycott, is that governing sporting bodies, such as the IOC and FIFA, are responsible for choosing where their events are to take place. It is clear, from the IOC’s decision to stage the Olympics in China and Russia in two of the last three events, and FIFA’s decision to host in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 that oppressive laws are of little concern to these organisations, with potential economic rewards taking precedence. This is both sad and necessary; international sport cannot be a contest between liberal western democracies. The major emerging global powers (India, China, Nigeria and Brazil) all have sketchy human rights records, but will no doubt host global sporting events in the coming decades.

But maintaining the global nature of sporting events and incorporating countries with disgraceful human rights records is a different thing to separating sport from politics. The ancient Greeks realised this; the Olympic Truce may have suspended wars for the duration of the Games, but it was acknowledge that politics cannot be suspended, and the Games were often used for political purposes. By acknowledging that sport is not immune from political influence, that it is political, we take nothing away from the sporting event. Instead, we accept that it is a part of, rather than an exception to, regular human activity.

Rather than focussing our efforts on boycotting Sochi then, we should adopt a tactic which would be both more realistic and have more of a long-term effect, and focus on ensuring that politics and sport are no longer seen as distinct arenas. Politics is a part of sport; attempts to deny this are usually insidious, driven either by naked economic greed or ideological zeal. By ensuring the two are seen as united, or at least linked, we would in the process be ensuring that the rights of oppressed groups around the world are not ignored when commissioning events such as the Olympics. We would also be doing a service to the thousands of athletes who compete in countries where they would usually be given no chance for success on the basis of their gender, race or sexuality.


The demise of Paris Brown: a sign of things to come?

By Alex Bryan

Today, Paris Brown, the teenager appointed to be Kent’s first youth police and crime commissioner, resigned from her post after the unearthing of a number of offensive tweets sent throughout her teenage years. After newspapers exposed Brown’s history, Kent Police received high numbers of complaints about her language and the permissive attitude expressed towards drugs, binge drinking and violence, essentially forcing her resignation from the £15,000 a year post.

Brown is by no means the first person to have been caught out by ill-advised social media postings; politics is littered with such incidences. Indeed Chuka Umunna, the millionaire Labour starlet tipped for the top, was this week embarrassed by a post on an exclusive social media site from 2006 in which he bemoaned the ‘trash and C-list wannabes’ in West End nightclubs, demonstrating that social media stupidity is not a blight infecting only the young and naive.

Kent Police admitted that they did not check Brown’s Twitter or Facebook accounts before appointing her, suggesting that it may become part of the vetting process in the future.  We should remember that Brown, as the first youth PCC in the country, with a salary bemoaned by the press, was a particular case: she should be blamed for her words but, through no fault of her own, also happened to be stepping onto a public platform circled by a tabloid press at its most predatory. Caught in a confluence of so many of the Daily Mail’s most hated topics, as a symbol of a bloated public sector and of ‘the youth of today’, as soon as her Twitter account was discovered, Brown’s departure was assured.

There should be a zero tolerance attitude towards bigotry and hatred for those wishing to take on positions of power and in this sense it is a relief that Brown has left her post. Those attempting to excuse Brown’s words by appealing to her youth need only remind themselves of Malala Yousafzai, who at 15 is the same age as Brown was when she was tweeting. She surely shows us that youth is no barrier to wisdom.

But not all teenagers are so exceptional, and most teenagers surely lie in between the two: not entirely aware of the eternal nature of social media but also savvy and thoughtful enough to think about whether something is offensive before posting it. But will that thoughtfulness be enough to save them from sharing the same fate as the unfortunate Brown?

Given that Facebook profiles never die, and that few ever delete their Twitter accounts, it is certain that teenagers moving into professional life now have more of their personalities recorded and available for the public to see than any generation before them. Some of those, like Paris Brown, will want to move into politics. Few if any normal teenagers who have grown up with social media will have gone their entire lives without posting anything that, in hindsight, was crass or stupid or unrepresentative of who they actually are.

Some, of course, do. That most hated member of the political class, the fabled career politician, is a prime candidate. It is only those who will have forged a desire to go into politics before they know the entirety of what that means who will tailor the entirety of their social activities towards becoming an MP. One would think that the rise of social media might favour these types even more than the system currently does, but that would be to assume that one can look elegant whilst hoisting themselves onto the greasy pole. William Hague and Boris Johnson are two who took very different paths towards political prominence, but both know that looking smarmy (in Hague’s case) or just plain absurd (in Johnson’s) in one’s youth can haunt one’s later career.

The career politician, then, is as prone to such embarrassing misjudgements as the rest of us. But the question remains of what effect the archive of information amassed by us all will have on future politicians. The answer is not that it will favour those who attempt to look squeaky clean, but that it will favour those who the media favours.

Although Twitter and Facebook records and accounts can be accessed by all, it is newspapers who will put the time and resources into uncovering the minutiae of a political candidates life story. They will more often than not find something. Paris Brown’s words were wrong, but she was savaged by the Daily Mail as much for what she represented as for what she said. The politicians who are best-able to play the media will be those who – like Umunna – escape unscathed. There will even be some who copy Johnson’s techniques and use it as something of a springboard to launch themselves with. Either way, like all information, the social media records of future candidates for high office will be mercy to the media’s  machinations. The difference, of course, is that when it comes to social media, everyone has skeletons in their closet.

Racism and you: Cameron’s easy EU scapegoat

By Patrick Lee

There’s a book by Andrew Gamble called The Conservative Nation. Gamble suggests that despite all attempts to modernise, the Tory party will never be able to reconcile its nationalistic ideology. Glory to England. God Save The Queen. No surrender. That type of thing. Cameron won leadership of the Tory party by promising its hardcore Eurosceptic members, the nationalists, that he would provide a referendum on EU membership. He will now have to hold this referendum in his second term, if he wins the election outright, which he didn’t manage last time.

In making a pledge to hold this referendum Cameron has put all potential investors into Great Britain in a state of gross uncertainty. 57% of our trade is with Europe, where there are no cost trade restrictions and free goods flow. Isolationist policies have not worked, anywhere, (for the most obvious example, read up on N Korea’s latest famine). Austerity, also, has not worked in clawing any country out of the recession anywhere, and yet we continue to pursue austerity measures. Spending in the EU did not get us into this position. Nor, for that matter, did spending on welfare. What got us into this position was unregulated banking investments and out of control corporate tax laws. Cameron will look to blame the EU to fit his own political ambitions.

It is widely believed Cameron has accepted a deal with UKIP and Nigel Farage, the terms of which are basically that a referendum will be held on EU membership in return for UKIP not standing against Tory candidates in key seats.

Ignoring how strikingly evil and murky this deal is, let’s just focus on its consequences: prepare to hear, especially in the build up to the next election, arguments about immigration. We will be told that The European Union, and the amount of money we put into it, and the weaker state of other economies dragging us down, and the movement between Europe and the huge increase in workers in the UK this has brought, is fundamentally damaging to the UK. This is designed to distract from the real story: the woeful state of our economy and our lost generation of workers. If there is any doubt as to the significance of the EU, read this footnote from The Guardian[1].

Jack Buckby is a perfect example of how our conceptions of race, immigration and equality will be challenged in the up-coming election. He has aimed to change the language used when framing anti-immigration policy, rather than adding anything new to the debate. He has put a new mask on the same face. The point is that immigration is not to blame for the fact that this government is the first ever to preside over a triple dip recession, or the widening gap between rich and poor. The EU is not to blame for the continued failure of austerity measures in every country that tries them. All Cameron is doing by making this deal with UKIP and offering a referendum on Europe is to inappropriately introduce the topic of race back into the debate. Don’t be fooled.

[1] What did the EEC/EU ever do for us? Not much, apart from: providing 57% of our trade; structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline; clean beaches and rivers; cleaner air; lead free petrol; restrictions on landfill dumping; a recycling culture; cheaper mobile charges; cheaper air travel; improved consumer protection and food labelling; a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives; better product safety; single market competition bringing quality improvements and better industrial performance; break up of monopolies; Europe-wide patent and copyright protection; no paperwork or customs for exports throughout the single market; price transparency and removal of commission on currency exchanges across the eurozone; freedom to travel, live and work across Europe; funded opportunities for young people to undertake study or work placements abroad; access to European health services; labour protection and enhanced social welfare; smoke-free workplaces; equal pay legislation; holiday entitlement; the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime; strongest wildlife protection in the world;

Syria and the perpetual crisis

By Neil Andrews

A visit to the world’s oldest city two years ago and you would have seen men playing board games out on dusty Damascene streets.  Not any longer.  The death toll since hostilities broke out between rebel forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad in March 2011 is 70,000 and rising, and yet the West does nothing.  Why?

The situation in Syria is deteriorating at an alarming rate.  Along with the tens of thousands already dead, up to 2 million Syrians are thought to have been displaced inside the country, many without proper shelter or access to medication.  Added to this is the growing refugee problem: an estimated 700,000 people are thought to have fled Syria into neighboring countries in recent months and the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are bursting at the seams.  It is little surprise, then, that Syria’s neighbours are desperately struggling to cope with the rising influx of people and failing to provide ample healthcare and sanitation.  Added to this, a recent UN appeal aimed at raising $1.5 billion to assist Syrian refugees had only achieved 3% of its target.

The refugee problem is not all, though.  Syria itself remains in a perpetual state of violence and civil war.  Only 3 days ago a car bomb in the capital killed 53 people, a day after a mortar attack fatally wounded a player inside a local football stadium.  This latest wave of atrocities comes just weeks after the bodies of 80 suspected rebel troops were scooped out of a canal in Aleppo, the country’s largest city.  The men, who were later identified by family members, had been shot with a bullet to the head and their hands tied behind their backs, bearing all the hallmarks of a planned execution, most probably by regime troops.  Yet, despairingly, President Assad remains free to commit genocide.

There are two reasons why the West is reluctant to commit.  First is the support that Assad commands.  Inside Syria the government has a large Allawite following and the control of over 50,000 well-armed troops, as well as a pool of maybe thousands more to draw upon.  Supplementing this is the backing Assad enjoys from the Lebanese extremist party, Hezbollah, as well as financial and military aid from Iran, Iraq and Russia.  Indeed, it is the support from Russia, the world’s second-largest military power, that is especially demoralizing.  Having already blocked 3 UN Security Council resolutions aimed at evicting Assad, and on the verge of an agreement to sell air and naval defence systems (as well as a consignment of Yak-130 jets, with ground attack capabilities) to the Syrian government, Russia is proving a major thorn in the side of Western endeavors.  Despite the attempts last month of its Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to cool talk of Russia’s links to Assad, it is clear that the Kremlin is continuing to prop up the Middle Eastern despot.  Unless Russia withdraws its support for the regime, Assad will continue to sponsor the massacre of innocent Syrians and the West will be at pains to act.

Perhaps a bigger concern for the West is the danger of causing a greater pan-Arabian crisis.  Geopolitically, Syria is nestled in between a number of already highly volatile Middle Eastern nations, and an act of Western intervention carries the risk of inflaming ethnic divisions, as well as fuelling the jihadist cause.  Lebanon has close ties with Syria and any interference by the West has the potential to flare up pro- and anti-Assad divisions within the country.  Israel, which also shares a border with Syria, is another hotbed of political ferment – the installation of an Islamist party, similar to that of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, would only stoke anti-Islamic sentiment.

But this should not excuse the West’s absence.  Pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria, aiding legitimate rebel forces and increasing pressure on Russia would all be welcome moves.  If the West does not act quickly, Syrians will continue to die at an appalling rate and a once beautiful, historic country could burn to ash.

Unpaid Internships: A Rite of Passage?

By Kirstin Fairnie

Discussing our plans for the Christmas holidays, a friend told me that she is going to spend a fortnight working in the London office of a major broadcasting company. “It’s paid!” she exclaimed, clearly surprised herself, as I was to hear this relatively unusual fact. Most students I know take it for granted that unless they have spent every holiday working for free their ‘network’ will be so sparse when they graduate that no matter which institution they studied at they will never be able to catch up with their internship-savvy peers. Most assume too that a 2:1 is the norm so unless you get that basic requirement employers will not even look at your application. The results of a survey commissioned by the NUS last week seem to show that it is not just my friends that are feeling the need to pack their CVs with unpaid work: 20% of 18-24-year-olds have worked for free, whilst just 2-3% of their parents’ generation have.

Working for free devalues the worth of interns’ contributions in the workplace and young people have a responsibility to change this pernicious culture.

Along with a growing number of bloggers and student groups, I have fretted about this for a long time. Last week Hazel Blears MP’s campaign to end the illegal practice of unpaid internships that seem to be a mainstay of so many competitive sectors received widespread support in parliament. Her proposed ban on advertising them could come into force from next year.

Internships offer young people an invaluable transition between education and the workplace and I think they should become a compulsory feature of university courses in order to ensure that everybody has fair access to them. How can we be expected to know what the working world is like if we have never had any experience of it? The government needs to help employers by giving them advice on how to finance internship schemes as well as setting out clear guidelines on the structure of internship programmes and what to expect from interns.

Employers advertise unpaid internships because they know that they can get away with it. The real problem is the lack of transparency: young people are frantically trying to work out the magic formula to impress employers and get a job. At the moment, there are sufficient numbers of young people desperate to take on anything they can to add to their CV to enable the practice to continue. But last week we saw David bring down Goliath all over again with Starbucks being pressurised into contributing a fairer proportion of taxes and there is no reason why the same thing cannot happen with unpaid internships, which are not only immoral, but more importantly illegal.

It saddens me that we live in a society where ethical business is so undervalued that some employers seem to take on interns less out of a desire to share their passion for their profession than an enthusiasm to make the most of free labour. If young people passively endorse unpaid internships, we cannot feign surprise if business is conducted ruthlessly and selfishly; but young people who have been helped into the workplace by the support and mentorship of professionals are much more likely to do the same for their successors.

Yet it is short-sighted for employers not to treat their interns in an ethical manner: not only are they only going to get applicants from a small section of society (those young people who can afford not to be paid), but unless they treat their interns in an ethical manner, they cannot bank on any kind of loyalty from their interns. 18-24s are a notoriously fickle social group, and since companies seem somewhat desperate to establish themselves in the psyches of young people, it strikes me as surprising that they have not clocked that unless they give their interns a good experience, they simply cannot expect to convince young people that they really do care about us as much as their twitter accounts and expensive marketing campaigns profess. Luckily, some employers are less myopic in their approach, and I can only hope that ethical employers like Will Wood, who values his employees as members of a community rather than worker-bees, will influence his peers. Perhaps most importantly, employers should remember that you get what you pay for: if you tell someone they are not worth being paid, it is inevitable that once the novelty has worn off, an unpaid intern will put start putting less and less effort into those little leaves he or she makes on your latte in the morning, and that will only be the beginning.

We need to work to make internships mutually beneficial for both interns and companies: whilst employers should not send out a message that unless you are prepared to work for free, you are not really committed, interns should equally not expect to glide their way into top companies and pump them for information and experiences that will look good on their CVs, before applying to work for someone else. Internships should mark the beginning of a relationship between employers and students and both parties should make an effort to get the most out of the experience. Employers should feel that they are getting an opportunity to invigorate their companies with the fresh perspective of the brightest and best young people, hopefully with a view to offering them a more long-term contract, rather than feeling that they nothing more than a vehicle for a glittering reference.

One of the main problems is that only the richest young people can afford to support themselves through an unpaid internship, meaning that if your parents are rich, it is more likely you yourself will end up with sufficient internship experiences to land yourself a well-paid job. If the focus of the UK media and the location of the head-offices of most of the UK’s most successful companies is anything to go by, London is where it is at if you want to get on in life, but the capital is not only glamorous but expensive too. And not everybody has friends and family they can stay with.

Both of my parents are professionals (and they will hate me for saying this, so sorry maw and paw) but until I got to university I considered myself to have had a pretty fortunate upbringing. But thanks to the huge cost of living in the capital, I simply cannot afford not to spend my university holidays working for no money. In some respects, being in the middle of the socio-economic scale can be just as bad, if not worse, than being at the bottom: the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme (Hazel Blears’ brainchild) discriminates against young people from middle-income backgrounds by positively discriminating towards people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

This leads to a scenario which in my opinion is no better than a group of privileged individuals using their parents’ contacts to get into highly paid jobs.

The government simply is not working hard enough to enforce the minimum wage laws: their own Graduate Talent Pool, which sounds like a brilliant opportunity to match-make employers and interns, advertises unpaid internships. But to be honest I am hardly surprised that so few voices within parliament are speaking out against them: I have always felt strongly that unless they themselves have worked outside of politics, politicians cannot be expected to accurately represent the views of their constituents. I believe our representatives should be nominated well-respected members of the community, rather than just those people with sufficient political aspirations to put themselves forward as candidates. Many people criticise politicians for being out of touch, but when career politicians like Ed Milliband are heading the Labour Party, is it any surprise?  Unless politics itself becomes more accessible, politicians cannot understand why the wider workplace needs to be made more accessible.

Live or Let Die? 3 ways the young could influence the Coalition’s future


By Devon-Jane Airey

After David Cameron’s decision to cut housing benefits for under 25’s, his overseeing of the closure of EMA, the tripling of tuition fees and youth unemployment still over one million (not to mention Connexion services and the Future Jobs Fund scrapped) , it’s been reasonable to ask what exactly the government has against us young folk. Though, more pressingly, what the young folk can have against the government. I was reading an interesting piece of research this morning that touched upon this subject and so I did a bit of poking around to see how and in what areas the youth have the upper hand.

(1). Young people are often heavily influential in electoral steering points. Youth flocked in their thousands to support Thatcher in 1979 but, with the same merciless hand, were one of the largest groups to distance themselves from the ‘Iron Lady’ when austerity became a sickening cry. What’s more, it was the younger generation of Britain’s electorate that aided Tony Blair to his landslide victory in 1997 – with a remarkable 49% voting for the first ‘New Labour’ leader. However, this figure dropped to a mere 30% when Labour lost power in 2010. In that sense, efforts to secure the youth vote in today’s political climate aren’t solely directed towards the right: research by the Electoral Commission shows that both party leaders will have to work hard to secure this potentially tight grip on electoral victory. Indeed, apparently young people make up one of the biggest groups of unregistered voters and with the aforementioned cuts, the government have the potential to see this group expand even more. Labour’s proposals, therefore, of a mooted voter registration drive could well be a strategic move against their Conservative opponents. But there’s a moral advantage too: if you demonstrate a need to protect and enhance the voice of a certain demographic, they’re more likely to vote for you.

(2) Parties associated with a group’s enfranchisement are also a valued way of gaining a certain group’s vote. Migrant communities and their electoral loyalty towards the Labour party since the party secured their voting rights are a case in point. And, with the debate on reducing the voting age to 16 wedged within political woodwork, this could well be a band wagon party officials searching for a ‘youthful edge’ may want to jump on. There is, however, an element of risk that comes with focusing campaigns on the younger generation as statistics show the older you are, the more reliable you are to turn up to the polling station. In fact the Guardian ICM poll shows that on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being certain to vote, 18-24s score an average of less than 6, compared to over 65s who score 8.6. But with previous examples of their serious clout when rallied to turn out en masse ever present, there perhaps needs to be a more concerted effort to replace political fatigue and disillusion with political enthuse. A job for the politicians, not the people.

(3) Finally, and what is perhaps most telling, is that since the 1970s victorious parties in the general elections have always secured at least a third of the youth vote. Indeed, 42% of 18-25 year olds voted for Maggie T when she mounted her campaign to gain No. 10. The interesting exception for the Conservative party is David Cameron who secured only 30% of the youth vote in 2010. Youth representation in parliament that year, however, rose sharply due to the Lib Dems who have the lowest average age of supporter.  That said, the Lib Dems’ political forecast amongst the young folk in 2012 is, at best, patchy. Interestingly, in a month before the general election some 48% of 18-25’s were prepared to vote Lib Dem. Two years later and that figure has dropped 7 percentage points. Indeed, the Lib Dems’s decisions in office and their subsequent relationship with the younger generation has been compared to that of being dumped by your first love: a painful experience that can burn rather deep. Gaining back such trust, therefore, proves rather difficult.

So with the Lib Dem favourite out of the running, the Conservatives increasingly antagonising the young and Labour clinging loosely onto unstable proposals, it looks like the potentially valuable youth vote is there for the taking…