In honour of the change that happened in England with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, Froggy will address English questions.
With the absence until now of the Labour Party as a serious opposition party, various groups sprang up to conduct various political campaigns. There is the National Health Action Party, set up in desperation at Labour conniving with the privatisation of the Health Service. There is ‘38 Degrees’ a campaigning organisation set up in 2009, in imitation of groups like change.org and Avaaz. Founding members include the husband of Anita Roddick of the Body Shop; Gordon Roddick is also associated with a number of other causes including the Big Issue. This is their explanation of their name: “38 Degrees is the angle at which snowflakes come together to form an avalanche—together we’re unstoppable.”
The Conservatives actively dislike 38 Degrees, because it works by getting its members to send emails en masse to MPs on a large number of issues. 38 Degrees work on non emotional issues, one good example being the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014’; this Act was criticized by charities including the Royal British Legion for preventing non party organisations from taking part in election campaigns. 38 Degrees, being a prime target of this ‘gagging law’, led a vigorous campaign against it; it didn’t win the day, but it made the law known to millions who would otherwise have never heard of it.
38 Degrees only launches campaigns after canvassing membership opinion. For example, on the question of the UK bombing ISIL, members were equally divided so no campaign was started. Members are invited to start campaigns: “Campaigns by you: Is your local hospital under threat? Know a beautiful place that needs protecting? Is there a company that should be challenged to change its ways, or something the government can do to make the UK a better place? With 38 Degrees, you can start a campaign on any issue that’s close to your heart. It only takes a few minutes to get started.”
They have at least a million ‘members’, people who are on their internet mailing list, making regular donations in many cases. Most of the work starts and continues on the internet, but they also give out leaflets and collect signatures on the streets, pay for bill boards, take part in demonstrations, and organize visits to MPs, either in their constituency or in Westminster. Some members have started groups that meet for the purposes of campaigning.
David Lammy and TTIP
38 Degrees got its members to go out in the streets and collect signatures against TTIP, the US-EU trade treaty; taking part in this, I found the people on Green Lanes, North London, amazingly interested. Almost everyone stopped to talk about it. The idea that investors can sue governments who put obstacles in their way in the shape of regulations and social/environmental legislation struck people as particularly objectionable.
38 Degrees then got its members to make appointments with their MP to hand in the petition in a public manner; they provided leaflets, a banner, posters, badges and a large box representing a petition box. In that way I and two others met David Lammy, M.P. for Tottenham, in the Main Lobby at Westminster. He asked if we were NHS workers, knowing that they are particularly vulnerable under TTIP, since it is a public service, where procurement is not yet completely freely available to private enterprise. He then said he understood how Tottenham people could be against TTIP, since they already suffer a loss of control in their everyday life, ‘with outsourcing of jobs, and generally privatization.’ He said he would raise the subject with Jeremy Corbyn and ‘our bis’ Angela Eagle; he said when asked that he would support Jeremy Corbyn against TTIP.
We will see what happens to this declaration of support when the question comes up in the House of Commons. The energy and resources harnessed by 38 Degrees and the NHA among others should transfer to the new Labour Party.
Visiting the House of Commons I saw the agenda: ‘3 pm, House is sitting; prayers, Bp Bristol’. Each daily sitting in the House of Commons begins with prayers, read aloud, usually by the Speaker’s Chaplain. Fact little known on the Continent! Or by the public probably, ready to be astonished and horrified if that sort of thing happens anywhere else in the world, especially in the non-Christian world.
Assisted Dying Bill
A mention in last month’s Labour Affairs of the vote against this Bill implied MPs were out of touch in rejecting it. On the contrary MPs showed in their decision that they had thought about the subject and were not swayed only by emotion or expediency as I would say the public is.
The bill does not concern people who are in pain or incapacitated, it only concerns those who want to avoid pain and incapacity in the near future; it concerns people with a terminal illness that leaves them 6 months or less to live, who are able to say they have made the decision to die, and are able to commit suicide by taking the fatal dose themselves. A doctor would bring the requisite drug, and the whole procedure would have to be approved by two independent specially licensed doctors and a judge.
This would cover only cases where the person is not already so affected by their final illness that they are unable to express themselves or unable to take their own life. It does not apply if the person is suicidal or even depressed.
It applies to people who are still in good enough physical and mental health, when suicide is presumably very difficult to contemplate and carry out on your own. The name of the Bill is misleading, because it is not assisted dying (that is what hospice doctors do), it is assisted suicide.
The guarantees are not as strong as they look: A very low number of GPs have indicated that they would seek a licence to participate in assisted suicide; moreover, the family doctor no longer exists, so in depth personal knowledge of cases would be the exception rather than the rule. The judge would not have to meet the patient; they would only have to confirm the doctors’ decision, and in a time frame of 14 days.
The problem is not that a flood of people would avail themselves of this new legal possibility. The problem is that it changes the way suicide is considered by society. Instead of being relatively rare, and a catastrophe for all concerned, suicide becomes an option that has to be considered by everyone in that particular situation.
You are given 6 months to live; the specialist, yourself, your family and friends, all know that the option of suicide exists. Instead of suicide being a solution envisaged by a few, it becomes a possible solution that everyone has to accept or reject. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Would it be better for others if I did? The Bill puts people under a horrible pressure. ‘Choice creates the burden; it does not set you free’ as the conservative MP for Winchester said during the debate.
Lyn Brown (Labour) said: ‘My mum died suddenly and unexpectedly, riddled by cancer, but I know that my mum, faced with a terminal prognosis in a world where there was the possibility of state-assisted suicide, acceptable and accepted by society, would have tormented herself during her last months with the question of when she should ask for that button to be pressed. She would have worried about the stresses that my sister and I would have endured, she would have worried about the weight of her care being shouldered by the nurses and the doctors, and she would have been anxious that folk would think that she was consuming too many resources, selfishly staying alive, costing money, when she could and should just die.’
‘My mum was not vulnerable. She was not alone or a depressive. She was dearly loved; and yet I know that the mere existence of legal and assisted suicide would have placed an enormous burden on her. But what of those without a loving family? What of those elderly people—let’s face it, they do exist—with families more interested in the cost of care, and its impact on their dwindling inheritance, than the priceless gift of life? Would not some of my more vulnerable constituents think that they ought to take a course of action because it is available and despite the safeguards in the Bill, which I acknowledge have been carefully crafted? Can we be absolutely sure that they would not be pressured into it?’
Lyn Brown’s comments show that the pressure to commit suicide would come, even if you did not have grasping relatives, from society as a whole and from the State.
Once suicide becomes desirable for people in order to avoid pain and incapacity, there are no arguments against it becoming desirable for people who are in pain or incapacitated. It will be argued that the quality of life is worse when you can’t express yourself, and can do nothing for yourself, so it’s not fair to withhold assistance in dying in these cases, even though the person is not able to take the lethal dose themselves; then mental suffering should also be considered as a reason for helping someone to die. It is not logical to accept assisted suicide but refuse euthanasia.
People facing a terminal illness that will make them incapacitated may want to hasten the moment of death, to avoid that period of incapacity. But where does that leave people who live in a state of incapacity for years?
Emotional campaigns, using characters in popular soap operas, sway the public into approving the understandable desires of a few, and stop the public from considering the effects on the rest of society. Individual choice is put before the interests of the whole society, since individual choice is considered more important than the public good.
A good society promotes life; it puts money and effort into finding cures for diseases and ways to ease suffering; it votes credits for research into palliative care. It does not offer suicide as an answer. It has a National Health Service and not individual paid insurance. ‘In Oregon, patients with lung cancer and prostate cancer are already being denied treatment on their state health insurance plan and are instead being offered assisted dying.’
The Bill was defeated 330 votes to 118. Almost as many Labour MPs voted in favour of the bill as voted against it, including several members of Jeremy Corbyn’s new shadow cabinet, such as Maria and Angela Eagle, Hilary Benn, Kate Green, Kerry McCarthy, Rosie Winterton and the new shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith. Jeremy Corbyn himself did not vote.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election was welcomed by various disabled activist groups because he has always supported them. They were particularly opposed to this bill because of the message it contains is that disability is something that should be avoided even if the price is death. The Labour Party should have a policy of protecting all life, and investing in the hospice movement and improvements in palliative care in the NHS. It should start chipping at the worship of individual choice and replace it with a concern for public good.
Some of their MPs already have this point of view, for example Lyn Brown who said: ‘I am afraid that I cannot support this Bill. My concern is that we will fundamentally change the way that our society thinks about and deals with the terminally ill, severely disabled people and the vulnerable, troubled and elderly.’ Helen Jones said: ‘This Bill is not just about individual autonomy; it is asking us to take a decision that will have a profound effect on society. This Bill is not simply about those who have a terminal illness and are expected to die within six months, because it will inevitably be extended. It is a Bill that will in future lead to consequences for this society that in my view no civilised society should contemplate. For that reason I will vote against it.’