The value of dissent and the need for greater knowledge

The trouble with beliefs that strive for purity and perfection — religious fundamentalism, extreme veganism, communism / hard left, fascism / hard right etc. — is that these ideologies fail to understand people and fail to understand human relationships.

Thus, in their quest for a pure and perfect humanity, these warped minds abuse and attack those who do not submit to their totalitarian way of life.

The irony, of course, is that they profess to have a deep well of compassion for their fellow human beings.

Whereas, in reality, they are entirely heartless and entirely intolerant of dissent.

They view and treat dissenters — anyone who disagrees with them — as unworthy, and entirely disposable; human collateral damage, justifiable for the greater cause and the glory days to come.

But being intolerant of dissent means being hostile to new information. It means closing one’s mind to fresh ideas and alternative thinking.

In effect, it is akin to saying “I know all there is to know — and I need no additional knowledge.” It is a cessation of learning and an embrace of ignorance.

Today, we can see the politics of ignorance at play in Trump’s America, in Brexit Britain, and in authoritarian regimes across the world.

It is high time that decent, intelligent, compassionate people fought back and reclaimed the future direction of our shared humanity.

We cannot go into the New Year and beyond allowing fanatics to divide us and tear us down, as they infect our social discourse and our politics with their rancid indifference.

All of us as human beings are imperfect, flawed, beautiful and fragile.

We have but 80 or 85 years on this Earth, if we’re lucky, and we owe it to future generations to try to leave the world in a considerably better state than it is today.

And so that is my wish for 2018 and, I hope, the shared aspiration for many millions of good people.

Happy New Year to all!

Harborne Labour hit the ground running!

Harborne Labour community update (Page 1)Earlier this month I was thrilled and deeply honoured to have been selected as a Labour candidate for Harborne in the May 2018 Birmingham City Council elections. If elected, it will be the second time I have served on the Council of a major UK city, having previously been a Leicester City Councillor between 2011 and 2015.

Since our selection my good friend and fellow candidate Cllr Jayne Francis and I have been out campaigning regularly in Harborne, together with many of our brilliant Labour activists, and our hardworking local Member of Parliament for Edgbaston Preet Gill MP.

In late summer we ran numerous campaign sessions in Harborne, not only speaking to shoppers on the High Street – and distributing our latest community update – but also getting out on the Labour doorstep and speaking with local residents about the issues that matter to them.

Harborne residents have been relieved to see that the recent bin strike has apparently been resolved. However there remain many pressing concerns in our community on everything from a lack of school places, to a perceived rise in hate crime; from the ever-increasing cost of accommodation, to the threat of increased noise pollution by flights to and from Birmingham Airport.

Harborne Labour community update (Page 2)Like other big communities having to cope with years of Tory neglect and under-investment, we also have our fair share of health and social care challenges in Harborne. Diabetes rates are a cause for concern and Harborne has some of the most worrying statistics when it comes to mental health. In recent years we’ve also seen an increase in levels of homelessness across Birmingham as a direct result of major funding cuts being imposed centrally by Theresa May’s Tory government.

Jayne and I are ready for the challenge of representing Harborne in the years ahead. We will work closely with Labour’s Preet Gill MP, with Birmingham City Council and fellow Councillors, and with other community stakeholders, to secure a better deal for Harborne and to address many of the issues important to local residents.

As we fight to deliver positive changes and improvements for people in Harborne, in line with core Labour principles, we will inevitably face hostility and opposition from those who do not share our values.

Harborne Labour out campaigning on the doorstepThankfully the people of Harborne recognise and appreciate our efforts. Many voters have told us how impressed they’ve been to see us out and about at such an early stage of an election cycle.

And so we move forward with our campaign! We have huge talent and great ability in our Labour team. We have the best activists and a brilliant local MP helping us to knock on doors, promote our message and deliver results.

And we have the right set of values and priorities for residents in Harborne; decent hardworking people who simply want their local politicians to focus on justice and jobs, on housing and healthcare, and to deliver a cleaner, safer and more pleasant community in which to live and work.

So here’s to the good people of Harborne, as we campaign hard in the months ahead, to have the high privilege of addressing their needs and advancing their interests on Birmingham City Council.

Harborne's Labour candidates Sundip Meghani and Jayne Francis with campaigners

48 hours that changed my life

In mid-2015 my entire world came crashing down. Everything I understood about life and my purpose on this journey was shattered in an instant.

Thankfully most of us have an extraordinary ability to adapt and rebuild. To salvage some strength from adversity. To find happiness from deep sorrow.

A remarkable study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert demonstrates precisely this. Our ability to feign happiness and trick our minds into becoming happy once again is a built-in human trait.

It’s how many prisoners are able to cope with prolonged incarceration. It probably explains how those with little property or prospects can lead normal fulfilling lives. And it’s how most of us are able to dust ourselves off and move on in life if we don’t get that job we wanted or if an important relationship breaks down.

So I’m able to share this story thanks to my genetics – our shared genetics – and the fact that I have managed to rebuild my shattered world.

As a former City Councillor and parliamentary candidate it’s fair to say politics has always been a big part of my life. I was one of those weird 90s teenagers who always preferred Newsnight over Neighbours and Channel 4 News over Changing Rooms.

My passion for politics began at an early age. Indeed it is part of my own family history.

I am the son and grandson of Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived in the UK with nothing following the 1972 expulsion ordered by Idi Amin. This was a major political event, an African holocaust in the making.

Thanks to the intervention of the British government – and the compassion of the British people – thousands of lives were saved, including those of my family.

My parents and grandparents chose to settle in Leicester and I was born and raised on the St Matthew’s council estate. Life was incredibly tough for all of us and we experienced great hardship. As my father struggled to find work and provide for his young family, food was often scarce and new clothes were always a luxury.

Luckily, although my upbringing was extremely poor, my family was able to survive – and later thrive – thanks in part to our welfare state. We had a home thanks to the Council. Health care was free and easily accessible. And I had free school meals for much of my early education.

My grandparents were a big part of our family life and I frequently sat on the sofa with both of my grandfathers to watch the news whenever it was on. My maternal grandfather in particular was an avid news watcher. He would always explain to me the nature and relevance of world events.

As I grew up I began to understand more and more each day that we lived in an unjust world. I saw there were countless other families and children in Britain and elsewhere who were also suffering disadvantage and discrimination.

Looking back I think it was at the age of around 8 or 9 where, having experienced injustice – both first hand and vicariously – that a seed was planted in my head; not only that politics was really important, but that the decisions made by powerful people could affect many lives.

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by some very kind and compassionate teachers and several of them clearly saw something in me that I was unaware of.

At age 12 I was encouraged to get involved in student politics at Babington Community College, representing my class and later my year group, on the student forum. Later at Regent College when I was 16 another teacher prompted me to stand in the NUS elections and I was elected Vice President of the student body.

Over the following 10 years my passion for politics and my desire to help people, particularly those who were being badly treated, continued to grow.

I went to Brunel University in London to study politics and history. I became an active member of the Labour Party. And after finishing law school in Leicester I qualified as a defence solicitor, working primarily on Legal Aid cases, helping some of the poorest people in society to have access to justice.

All the while I would share my achievements and happy milestones with my family, but particularly with my grandfather; the man who kick-started my interest in politics – and the only person who really enjoyed watching Question Time as much as I did.

In 2011 at the age of 29 I was elected as the youngest Councillor in the city of Leicester. It was an incredible feeling to have been chosen to represent my local community on the Council.

It just so happened that I was also the first non-white politician ever to be elected – at any level – to represent Beaumont Leys, a predominantly white working class area of Leicester.

But for me this wasn’t particularly noteworthy at the time. It was the area I had grown up in and gone to school. White working class people were my community and it was now my job to fight for their interests.

Over the course of my 4-year term I worked incredibly hard – along with my Labour colleagues – to resolve disputes, champion causes, save jobs, and make a positive difference.

By my early 30s it seemed a logical next step to seek a prominent political role, and try to continue putting my beliefs and values into practice, working to help people and challenge injustice.

In August 2014 I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Harborough constituency in Leicestershire.

I was set to stand for a national political party in a UK general election. It was a surreal moment, but something that many friends and family members had been predicting ever since I was a teenager.

Of course in reality the prospect of me becoming an MP in 2015 was very slim. The constituency was considered to be a very safe seat for the incumbent Conservative Party.

But I persisted and from January 2015 right through to early May we ran the most exciting and enjoyable election campaign the constituency had seen in decades.

A relatively dormant local party was enthused and revitalised. My team and I attended public demonstrations and campaign events. I took part in hustings and debates at the secular society, a Hindu community forum, the chamber of commerce and the National Farmers Union.

For the first time in years we ran Council candidates on every ballot paper and in every ward. And I took dozens of local activists out to campaign with me in some of the most marginal constituencies across the East Midlands, helping many of my party’s candidates in the key winnable seats.

Whenever I had a few spare hours I’d pop over to see my grandfather to update him on the latest campaign event and opinion polls and generally put the world to rights.

We even sat together on his couch and watched the Leaders’ Question Time debates on Thursday 30 April 2015. Sadly it was to be the last time I’d see him alive.

On Wednesday 6 May 2015, the day before the general election, we received a distressed phone call from one of my aunties. She said my grandfather was unwell and told my parents to get over to the house. I was upstairs on the computer and oblivious to what was going on.

A frantic phone call from my father 20 minutes later spurred me into action and I began getting ready to head over to my grandfather’s house.

It was one of those strange moments, which many people will have experienced, where an otherwise ordinary day becomes extra-ordinary. You experience time in slow motion, with heightened senses, and remember every little detail.

Before I had the chance to put on my shoes another phone call confirmed the awful news. My grandfather had died. His heart had suddenly stopped working and he had collapsed at home. His name was Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani and he was 80 years old.

I’ve always found it really strange how we experience the death of a loved one. It’s as if the whole world stops turning and nothing makes sense any more.

It even sometimes makes us angry to see other people just carrying on with their normal lives, chatting away, laughing, behaving as if everything’s okay. Grief really is a complex emotion.

The suddenness of my grandfather’s passing hit me like a tonne of bricks. Not just because I had lost someone whom I loved so dearly. But because this was the man who had inspired me to dedicate so much of my life to politics.

It didn’t make sense for this to be happening the day before the General Election. We were supposed to be experiencing the election together. We were meant to discuss my result and consider the next steps.

In the Hindu tradition, a death prompts the beginning of two weeks of prayer and rituals at the home of the deceased, with extended family coming together to support one another.

On Election Day I was away from my campaign team and the constituency. I spent the day covering my grandfather’s lounge floor with sheets, and helping to rearrange the furniture, to prepare for the many inevitable visitors coming to pay their respects.

Soon after 10pm once the polls had closed, I forced myself to shave and put on a suit, and made my way over to the result counting venue – a dreary leisure centre in the middle of nowhere; a typically British democratic custom.

During that election count – as night turned to day – I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, not least because of the many surprising results from around the country.

On a personal level I was blown away by the kindness and compassion shown to me by my political adversaries, including the incumbent Member of Parliament, who would go on to be re-elected.

Unfortunately Harborough was the last constituency in the entire East Midlands to declare its result. We were up all night and I gave my concession speech at around 9.30am on Friday morning.

We managed to come in second overall, and it was the best result for my party locally since the 1979 election, which was before I was even born.

I didn’t immediately know it at the time, but the events of those two days – the sudden bereavement and the exhaustion of election night – had a monumental impact on my life.

In the short term I experienced a crisis with my mental health. I was signed-off from work for several weeks with bereavement-related stress.

Up until that point I had never experienced any problem with my mental health and, if truth be told, I never really used to believe that a mental health problem could be as debilitating as a physical health problem. This was the first of my epiphanies.

In the longer term my entire life was completely changed by those catastrophic 48-hours. My whole world was knocked off its axis, causing me to re-evaluate everything, not just in my own life but philosophically as well.

It prompted me to engage on a journey of discovery. To try to make sense of life and our purpose here on Earth. To learn more about humanity. And to understand our place in the known universe.

Most importantly of all I learnt to truly value family bonds and friendships much more than my career and ambition.

In this new age of social media, with constant global news coverage and information overload, I have come to realise that our most meaningful relationships – with the people we care deeply about – are the best way to stay grounded, to be happy.

And to find the strength and resolve we need to work hard and make this a better world.

Dedicated to my grandfather Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani

Reasons to vote Labour on Thursday 7 May 2015

Enjoying a quick coffee after a morning's campaigning in Oadby with local activistsOver the last 9 months, together with my team of Labour council candidates, I have been speaking with people in Oadby, Wigston, Fleckney, Great Glen, Kibworth, North Kilworth, Market Harborough, and many other parts of our great constituency.

I have attended four separate hustings, including the Leicester Secular Society debate featured in the video above, and I have participated in several house meetings organised by local residents.

Celebrating Navratri with the Oadby and Wigston Hindu communityI have visited schools, sports clubs, businesses and places of worship, and I have been listening to the concerns of local residents, and the difficulties that people are being forced to endure.

Throughout the campaign I have noticed a distinct theme. Firstly many people in Harborough, Oadby and Wigston are feeling the effects of rising food and energy prices as their salaries stagnate. Moreover, hundreds of local people are experiencing problems as a direct result of the current Tory government’s failures on the NHS, jobs, housing and welfare.

Inspiring the next generation of Labour voters during a visit to Manor High School in OadbyTo counter this cost of living crisis in our country, stimulate faster growth in the economy, and repair our public services and NHS, Labour has a detailed and costed plan with a wide range of excellent policies. (Click here to read the Labour manifesto.)

This includes raising the minimum wage to £8 per hour, banning exploitative zero hours contracts, and abolishing the bedroom tax. It also includes freezing energy prices for two years and freezing rail prices for at least one year, bringing in rent controls to make housing affordable, extending free childcare to 25 hours, and protecting state pensions whilst capping pension fees and charges.

Campaigning to protect our NHS in Market HarboroughFor young people betrayed by the Liberal Democrats – who had pledged not to raise tuition fees and then trebled them – Labour will cut tuition fees by a third. We also want to lower the voting age to 16, reform the House of Lords, increase pay transparency to end the gender pay gap, and freeze business rates for SMEs.

In terms to our NHS we will guarantee GP appointments within 48 hours and have maximum wait times of 1 week for cancer tests and results. We also plan to recruit 8,000 more doctors and 20,000 more nurses, whilst integrating health and social care in order to help all people with their physical, mental and social care needs. Most importantly of all we want to reverse the part-privatisation of our NHS brought in by the Tory and Lib Dem coalition.

The Lib Dems are in 4th place according to the YouGov NowcastSo to all the wonderful people of Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, and everyone else reading this blog post, I ask you to please vote Labour on Thursday 7 May 2015.

Your vote matters a great deal in this election, especially in our constituency where the Lib Dems are now trailing in 4th place, according to several respected media outlets. A vote for the Lib Dems will simply serve to let the Tories back in!

Vote for Labour’s excellent policies and the principles for which we stand. Vote for a progressive government and a leader who is prepared to stand up to powerful interests. Vote for a better future for you, for your family and for Britain.

Vote for Sundip Meghani, Labour's candidate for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston

UPDATE

“Thank you to everyone who voted for me in Harborough, Oadby and Wigston. Labour came second; our best result here since 1979! Thanks to my agent and campaign team. Although it was a terrible result for the Labour Party nationwide, I am confident we will regroup, learn some big lessons, and once again regain the trust of the British people.” – Sundip Meghani

Sugar, fructose and obesity: a national public health crisis

Published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 9 July 2014

Sugar is toxic and highly addictive. If the latest medical science is correct – and I firmly believe it is – we are sleepwalking into a monumental public health crisis.

I am not a medical expert; I am a lawyer. This article is based on the work of Professor Robert Lustig, a scientist and doctor whose research has been internationally acclaimed. My analysis of his findings shocked me into drastically reducing my own sugar intake. As a public servant I feel duty bound to raise awareness of this issue.

26% of Brits are obese and a further 38% are overweight. By 2050 more than 50% will be obese. Most of today’s primary school children will be obese adults.

Obesity is dangerous because it causes metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure etc. Average weight people get sick from these too, but obese people are at far greater risk.

There are different types of sugar such as lactose, maltose, glucose and fructose. At a molecular level, regular sugar (sucrose) is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Aside from sugar, fructose is found in honey, agave, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, and fruit juice. It is also in fruit but fruit’s perfectly safe to eat as it comes with fibre and other nutrients.

Glucose sugar is the ‘energy of life’ and an essential nutrient. Fructose sugar on the other hand, according to Professor Lustig, is the root of all evil.

The research indicates fructose is bad for several reasons. It is not properly processed by the body and mostly stored as dangerous internal fat. Fructose does not supress the hunger hormone ghrelin, leading to overeating. Chronic fructose exposure reduces the impulse to burn excess energy. Fructose is also extremely addictive, activating the same area of the brain as morphine, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol.

In summary, sugar and fructose in particular is a major contributing factor for obesity, which in-turn leads to metabolic diseases.

To me the logic and science is pretty clear. Millions of British people may be overweight or obese because they have been hoodwinked about the dangers of sugar, with tonnes of it having been added to everyday food and drink, over many years.

It is too simplistic to blame individuals. This isn’t about personal responsibility. That’s what everyone said about smoking until it became a public health disaster. The reality is that the sugar industry is the new tobacco industry.

Parliament needs to act because the industry will not. I urge every reader to demand action from their MP. I also sincerely recommend seeking medical advice with a view to reducing personal sugar intake.

We need a sensible debate on the future of faith schools

Published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 27 June 2014

Many people were alarmed by the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. A “culture of fear and intimidation” had been created in several schools by hardline Islamists, and there was evidence of an “organised campaign to target certain schools”, according to Ofsted.

We should not make excuses for what happened in Birmingham and we should not brush it under the carpet. It is good that these unauthorised practises have been uncovered and it is right that steps are taken to address the issue.

The schools in question were not faith schools: they were secular schools being run by the local Council and by academy trusts. If they had been faith schools however, then a lot of what was found to be unacceptable would still be going on.

Public appetite for faith schools has diminished significantly. A survey by Opinium found that 58% of people believe faith schools should be abolished and 70% think they should not be state funded.

The central argument against faith schools is that young impressionable children are often taught to accept untruths as truths and to assimilate information through the prism of religion.

Newsnight recently featured a report on 30 private Christian faith schools, where children are taught that evolution isn’t true, and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. This of course contradicts the overwhelming evidence we have which proves that evolution is real and the earth is 4.54 billion years old.

Although the government has banned creationism from being taught in our 7,000 state-funded faith schools, private faith schools continue to operate as a law unto themselves.

Insofar as state funding for faith schools is concerned, to me it seems irrational and counter-intuitive. We don’t allow Council tenants to be housed on the basis of faith or NHS hospitals to have different wards for different religions.

Yet with state-funded faith schools we permit a religious apartheid in our education system, where the next generation of citizens are segregated along doctrinal lines, in accordance with their parent’s beliefs.

The late Christopher Hitchens claimed that faith schools were a “cultural suicide”. He argued that increasing them would turn Britain into somewhere like Lebanon, where people live in sectarian communities, and religious tensions are always simmering away ready to boil over.

Living in a multicultural and multi-faith society is a good thing but we must actively promote integration. We should have secular public services which treat all people equally irrespective of belief.

And all children should receive a well-rounded evidence-based education, with a healthy and inclusive understanding of other faiths and cultures, so as to prepare them for life in modern Britain and the wider world.

Leicester people condemn vandalism of Gandhi statue

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterMany Leicester people were appalled and disgusted on Saturday (7 June 2014), when photos emerged on social media showing that the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Belgrave Road had been defaced.

Rupal Rajani from BBC Leicester originally tweeted the photos from her personal account, which had been sent to her by local businessman Vinod Popat.

The graffiti on the statue is an attempt to draw attention to the awful 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Amritsar, a major controversy involving the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Mrs Indira Gandhi.

However it would seem that the culprit who committed this vandalism isn’t very bright. Either they did not know that Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were two very different people and completely unrelated. Or they did know the difference, and they did it anyway, in a bid to stir up tensions in the community. In any event, they have failed.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterThis act only serves to unify Leicester people from all backgrounds and communities, who recognise that it is not a legitimate political protest: it is simply a cowardly act of criminal damage.

Many of my Leicester Labour colleagues were quick to condemn this pathetic behaviour.

Cllr Vijay Singh Riyait of Abbey tweeted: “we need to be clear that this kind of thing is totally unacceptable”. And Assistant Mayor Cllr Manjula Sood of Latimer telephoned me and told me that “this is entirely wrong and goes against the teachings of Sikhism”. She also agreed to inform the police.

Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East, tweeted: “Shocked that the Gandhi statue in Belgrave has been defaced. A foolish act of vandalism. Let’s stay united and strong to honour the great man”. His comments were later retweeted by journalists from the BBC and Leicester Mercury.

Having noticed the photos on Twitter fairly earlier on I had immediately emailed them over to City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. The City Mayor and his Cabinet colleague Cllr Sarah Russell were very quick to respond, confirming within hours that Council officers would be out cleaning the graffiti on Sunday morning.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterIt is great to see that Leicester’s political leaders have taken this seriously. We are also very lucky to have such dedicated Council officers, promptly agreeing to carry out the cleaning work on a Sunday.

Some people have questioned why this is such a big issue. Others have even made light of it or tried to justify the sentiments being expressed.

For the avoidance of doubt let me be very clear. The graffiti applied to Mahatma Gandhi’s statue is not a legitimate political protest and it absolutely must not be justified under any circumstances.

The definition of terrorism is “the unauthorised use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”. The desecration of this statue was unauthorised; it was an act of intimidation aimed at the mainly British Indian community living in Belgrave; and the purpose was wholly political.

It could be argued therefore that this act of vandalism also amounts to an act of terrorism. An act that was perpetrated by the same kind of closed-minded people who go on to commit far more dangerous acts, because they already have a blatant disregard for the rule of law. These people don’t want to convince us of their political beliefs; they want to force us into accepting them, and they’re prepared to break the law to do it.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterWe are lucky to live in a civilised western society built on the rule of law, human rights, freedom and democracy. Any transgression of these principles is an attack on all of us and our way of life. We must never justify any attempt to influence public discourse through the use violence, force or intimidation.

Thankfully I believe that this was an isolated incident and that these kinds of acts are very rare in Leicester. However we must always be prepared to stand together – people of all faiths and those of none – united against criminals and terrorists seeking to take the law into their own hands to advance their political beliefs.

Mahatma GandhiUltimately we have this statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester for the same reason that we have Nelson Mandela Park and may soon have – thanks to Cllr Adam Clarke of Aylestone – a statue of Alice Hawkins: We choose to honour great people and inspire the next generation.

We will not be intimidated by stupid cowards who break the law.

Cllr Sundip Meghani

UPDATE: The statue of Mahatma Gandhi has now been cleaned. This was done within 24 hours by Leicester City Council officers. Photo credit: Emily Anderson, BBC News. Leicestershire Police are investigating and two arrests were made on 11 June 2014. Anyone with any information should contact Leicestershire Police on 0116 222 22 22.

The statute of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester