How I’m feeling about our politics right now

19 Oct

Some time between the last weeks of the Scottish referendum campaign, and the announcement mere days after earning their own MP that UKIP would be given a comfy place in next year’s TV election debates, I had an epiphany.

Picture by Andrew Skudder

Gordon Brown: better at promises than Nick Clegg?

My leanings have always been what might best be described as ‘politically progressive’ – I believe everyone should have access to free public healthcare and I think the burden of funding public finances should come from taxing wealth, not torching the safety net –  but in recent years my views have been tempered with an uneasy feeling of futility.

Our government picks on the most vulnerable people in our society and buddies up with the most powerful. Our newspapers and news programmes are full of allusions to disaffected voters, but the parameters of political debate stay the same.

In the  days before the fateful Scottish vote on independence the UK’s main political parties, united in their support of a no vote, made an eleventh hour pledge. It promised swift action on granting further powers to Scotland on things like tax, the NHS and more. Gordon Brown set out an ambitious timetable. Once the no vote came in, the promise didn’t quite seem as concrete.

In recent weeks news stories have hinted that the timeframe which the three main parties have committed to is unworkable. One story, by The Scotsman, had several academics warning the timetable was unrealistic to deal with the technical details of devloving powers to Holyrood.

The most important thing to take away from the referendum though, was that 45 per cent of Scots wanted out. Without the pledge this could well have been higher. Glued to social media in the days before the vote I saw a wave of excitement: for the first time I can remember people were given a real chance to affect the increasingly distant political establishment and they were excited about it.

Even after the no vote, yes-voters cheerfully dubbed themselves the 45 per cent. The SNP and the Scottish Green Party saw unprecedented surges in membership; people had woken up.

But for an Englishman watching with interest across the border my enthusiasm quickly ebbed. At its party conference the Labour Party, in the distant past a party of the left with the interests of genuine working people at its heart, proved itself incapable of offering anything but the same old focus-tested fare.

On the face of it some policies announced at the conference were admirable. A mansion tax represents a small step towards a more progressive tax policy and more money for the NHS is always a good thing. An £8 minimum wage is moving in the right direction – though not nearly fast enough since it’s only expected to arrive by the end of the next parliament. Right now people are struggling to get by on low paid jobs as inflation rises.

Mansions: will be taxed under a Labour government?

Mansions: will be taxed under a Labour government?

But the conference was more notable to me for what was not announced. No serious policy announcements on climate change, banking reform or corporation tax. By and large Labour seem to have stopped fighting the tories on welfare and immigration. The party also seems to have accepted the conservative’s narrative of austerity.

James Crace, reporting for The Guardian, said that on arriving at the conference “it was as if the last month had never happened”. The events of the Scottish referendum were not on the agenda.

The party seems unprepared for the radical reform needed to build a fairer society. Any hope of policies that could challenge the Tories’ neoliberal austerity were unfounded.

But did anyone really expect anything else?

I felt powerless. The slow privatisation of the NHS by stealth, public sector pay freezes, rampant corporate tax avoidance and the apparent disappearance of climate change from the news agenda; there is no one in our political establishment challenging these problems.

Then, in October,UKIP bagged their first MP through a by-election in Clacton. UKIP seem to be the darlings of the mainstream media, featured regularly on teatime news programmes and national newspapers.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when it came to announce the plan for next year’s TV debates ahead of the general election UKIP had somehow snuck in there. Of the three debates, UKIP would be invited to one. Whether the broadcasters realised this would be a controversial move or not is unclear.

Picture by the Scottish Greens

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett: not in the TV election debates (for some reason).

UKIP are not an anti-establishment party – their leader Nigel Farage is a former trader on the metals exchange educated at Dulwich College, a public School in South London..

The party’s invitation to the top table came only days after getting its first MP. Parties that remain excluded include the Green Party (1 MP), the Scottish National Party (6 MPs), Plaid Cymru (3 MPs) as well as the Northern Irish parties and others.

I suppose the reason I sat down to write this is that I no longer want to feel the futility of settling for a complacent, unresponsive political establishment any longer. This is an establishment that thinks slashing benefits for our society’s most vulnerable while privatising public spaces and subsidising fossil fuels  is the way to go.

The Scottish referendum showed me people are not apathetic by choice. If we are given the chance to decide something meaningful we will jump at it. Scotland proved that, regardless of the result. But right now the Scottish referendum is so unique precisely because our terms of debate – the choices and ideas considered realistic and reasonable in our political discourse- have somehow been artificially constrained.

That is my problem with our politics right now.


All argumentative comments are welcome.


Food banks are victims of social ignorance

1 Apr

Conservatives just don’t seem to get food banks. Last week Liam Marshall-Ascough, a Tory councillor in Crawley, told a local council meeting food poverty was not an issue because ‘you try booking a restaurant in Crawley on a Friday or Saturday night. You can’t do it’.

Earlier this month the Trussell Trust, which has links to over 400 food banks across the UK, revealed a dramatic increase in the use of food banks in Scotland. The Trust’s Ewan Gurr cited a number of reasons for this trend, including welfare reforms and the cost of living. The government responded by bizarrely claiming food banks were creating their own demand with offers of free food.

There seems to be an astonishing amount of ignorance and class privilege going on here.

It is the same ignorance that compelled Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, to sneak out of a Parliamentary debate on food banks in December. Pressure for the debate had not begun in Parliament, but as the result of a petition signed by more than 140,000 people.

Mr Marshall-Ascough also said ‘there is a £26,000 benefits cap’ adding ‘there is something wrong if they can’t live on that’. Who the councillor thinks ‘they’ are is not clear from the report in the Crawley News . Does he perhaps believe in an underclass of workshy graspers all living comfortably on £26,000 a year?

Food banks are not free supermarkets and most require a voucher or referral from the relevant authorities before access to much needed supplies is granted. It is difficult to believe the government does not know this, so to claim food banks are creating their own demand is either cynical politicking or astonishing social ignorance.

The Trussell Trust’s website reports that for the 2012/13 financial year more than 345,000 people needed the food they supplied. This is an increase of more than 200,000 on the previous year, with the top four reasons for needing emergency food being benefits delays, low income, changes to benefits and debt. None of this matters of course, because ‘you try booking a restaurant in Crawley on a Friday or Saturday night’.

We live in a society where 13 million people are classed as living in poverty. This is around 20% of the population. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation more than half of this number are part of working families. The Foundation’s Julia Unwin told the BBC last year of a labour market which offered ‘little security and paltry wages that are insufficient to make ends meet’. A TUC report released this year found one in five UK workers take home less than a living wage, with the figure in some Parliamentary constituencies rising to almost half.

The comfortably off, like Mr Marshall-Ascough, do not see this world. The government, surrounded as it is by the London property bubble, do not see it either, if they even want to at all. As the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee points out, cutting corporation tax, tax collectors and VAT inspectors are the actions of a government who would rather the state did as little as possible. Perhaps this sounds appealing to the Liam Marshall-Ascoughs of this world – who do not need a safety net to fall back on. But to millions of people it means scraping by on less and less.

We now live in one of the most unequal societies in the world. Food banks are only a symptom of this, but talk of table reservations in the face of food poverty is an ignorance we can no longer tolerate.



Youtube credit: video originally posted by Glynne Powell

Bankers invent new way to get paid too much

26 Feb

HSBC boss Stuart Gulliver. Photo by World Economic Forum (Licence here)

HSBC boss Stuart Gulliver. Photo by World Economic Forum (Licence here)

This week HSBC announced it would in future be paying its top bankers ‘fixed pay allowances’, in order to circumvent new EU rules restricting bonuses. According to the Guardian the bank’s chief executive Stuart Gulliver will be taking home at least £4.2 million a year in future.

New EU rules restrict bonuses to 100% of a banker’s pay, unless approved by shareholders. With approval from shareholders the cap may be raised to 200% of pay.

Last week our Prime Minister spoke of his ‘moral mission’ in welfare reform. He said ‘our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right’. If the moral mission does not include tempering the excesses of the banking sector, is the mission at all legitimate.

The highest paid employee at HSBC in 2013 earned £7.06 million through salary, bonuses and other payments. It would have taken me in my last job nearly nine hundred and fifty years to earn this figure without overtime. If the government allows this to happen is that doing what is right? Is this level of decadence even slightly defensible when the government’s 2008 banking bail out ran into the hundreds of billions of pounds?

According to the National Audit Office the banking sector at one point owed the government £1.162 trillion in various loans, schemes and shares. Much of this has now been paid off, but the cost in terms of businesses destroyed, jobs lost and lives damaged thanks to their irresponsible actions is immeasurable. Given this legacy wouldn’t the socially responsible thing to do be to make more jobs and help more businesses?

According to Reuters, HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver has slashed 40,000 jobs globally in the last three years. He has also ‘sold or closed 60 businesses’. As a result the bank saw a rise in pre-tax profit of 9% to £13.6 billion. It seems that £3.9 billion of this has gone into the so called ‘bonus pool’. Between this excess and a handful of Londoners claiming £80,000 in housing benefit the Prime Minister has made clear which he believes requires the more urgent reform.

Perhaps it’s time someone at the Treasury sat down with a calculator and worked out how many small businesses or secure jobs could be made for £7.06 million. Alternatively Chancellor George Osborne may want to take a look at Royal Bank of Scotland, the bank in which our government holds an 81% share.  A number of news agencies are reporting that a Treasury agency is permitting the nationalised bank to spend £550 million on staff bonuses for 2013. Perhaps this is a reward for a successful year? RBS has not yet disclosed its profits, but Reuters and Sky report an estimated loss of around £8 billion.

Inside sources also tell Reuters RBS could cut up to 30,000 of its workers in coming years. How many of these job losses come from low level staff and how many come from those in line for millions in bonuses?

What is the government doing to deal with these excessive bonuses? Well, the Prime Minister has made clear that, at RBS at least, bonuses will not inflate further from their current ridiculousness.

The government will also be taking its opposition to the EU bonus cap to the European Court of Justice. If you’re wondering whether you read that right – yes, our government is legally challenging a rule that restricts bankers from taking home more in bonuses than their normal salary. It seems our government is worried the rule will simply lead to higher normal salaries to make up for smaller bonuses.

Apparently it has occurred to no one that bankers should just accept a more reasonable wage packet.

Our banking sector has cost us infinitely more economically and socially than any problems with the welfare system. Unfortunately our government seems more interested in making things harder for struggling households than holding the super-rich to account.

The Prime Minister’s moral mission to attack welfare

20 Feb

Photo by The Prime Minister's Office, via Flickr

Photo by The Prime Minister’s Office, via Flickr

Poor old David Cameron; there are so many people upset with him and he just can’t understand why. Our Prime Minister is on a ‘moral mission’ to clean up the benefits system, you see. Apparently the government’s attack on the welfare bill isn’t just about saving money – it’s about helping people.

It seems this is the message we’re supposed to buy into going into the next election. In an article for the Telegraph the Prime Minister highlighted the problems he has been heroically trying to solve in the welfare system. Housing benefit bills as high as £80,000 a year for a single claiment. Hundreds of thousands on incapacity benefit in need of reassessment. Mr Cameron also stands by his government’s decision to cap benefit rises, although he frames this as ensuring benefits don’t increase faster than wages.

These are all very simple ideas to grasp and many of them may seem reasonable. But they mask a very overt attack on the welfare system.

The claim that under labour some people in London were claiming as much as £80,000 a year in housing benefit is intriguing.  This predictably misses the point of the housing benefit problem. As Independent columnist Owen Jones frequently points out housing benefit has for years acted as a tacit subsidy for extortionate land lords. In areas like London monthly rents can be hiked hundreds of pounds at a time.

 Average rents are set to exceed £1,000 per month for the millions of UK renters in 2014. Placing responsibility for the housing benefit bill on tenants is counterproductive and, given the number of MPs who are also landlords, frankly insulting. When Cameron chooses to spotlight housing benefit claimants instead of pursuing a serious house building programme he is letting us know who his government really cares about.

The government’s solution to incapacity benefit reassessment was to expand the role of ATOS in the assessment process. In case you’ve forgotten about ATOS, it’s the company that has this on its record. In 2012 former ATOS nurse Joyce Drummond apologised for her part in the assessments. Ms Drummond even told the Daily Record ‘ATOS went by the philosophy that if you had a finger and could push a button, then you could work’. Thousands of disabled people have been wrongly judged fit for work.

If this is how the Prime Minister’s moral mission is carried out I’m not sure I want anything to do with it.

I’m also sure to David Cameron it sounds entirely reasonable to guarantee those looking for work are not taking home as much as those in work. But as a millionaire the Prime Minister has never had to face the practical consequences of his policy or the reality of poverty. Inflation has only just dropped below 2%. The rise in the  Consumer Price Index has fallen below 2% for the first time since the government were elected. Neither wages nor jobseekers allowance have matched the rise in the cost of food, rent or other living expenses under this government. When benefits are held below inflation that means people must make a very real decision to stop buying healthy food or skip a meal. This is an experience that no one in government can ever really understand.

In case you were wondering, this is why I’m not on board with the Prime Minister’s moral mission. We shouldn’t buy in to the government spin on strivers and shirkers. This narrative of the deserving and undeserving poor is Victorian. It has no place in the new millennium.

The floods reveal our government’s hypocrisy

15 Feb

Photo by Jim Linwood, via Flickr

Photo by Jim Linwood, via Flickr

An interesting spectacle seems to be playing out on 24 hour news channels and national newspapers this week. A news story has taken hold of the news cycle that shines a light on the holes in the government’s political narrative. All week politicians seem to have been running around like headless chickens in front of cameras and microphones.

It’s difficult to describe the floods that have been disastrous for huge parts of the country in the past weeks as a mere news story though. News stories come and go like talent show contestants. As many as 5,500 homes have been flooded and train lines have been wrecked. Local businesses are hurting and farmland is currently unusable.

On Tuesday news sites were reporting the flooding could, in some areas, continue for weeks and months. Even after it’s over it could take many more months to get things back to normal. Sue Blackmore highlights in the Guardian how it took 15 months to get her home back to the way it was before it was flooded in July 2012.

But back to our politicians and the bizarre puppet show at Westminster. Last week it apparently became clear to the government that the flood situation was not going away and – if anything – getting worse. They knew they needed to do something.

Or rather, as I am starting to suspect with this government, they needed to look like they were doing something.

Now let me be clear: the government are certainly taking efforts to help the flooded communities. The Prime Minister has said publically that he will spare no expense in solving the main headline of the week. But when clarifying this Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin said ‘money is not the issue while we are in this relief effort’.

Just to be clear, the money will keep flowing just as long as there’s a need for emergency relief.

Reports have been circling since last year of job cuts at the Environment Agency. Last month the BBC reported that around 1,500 jobs in the agency were to be slashed by October. More recently ‘senior staff’ have anonymously criticised the government for a ‘salami slicing’ approach to job cuts, which will include some frontline staff. Reports also suggest that, in coming years, already cash strapped local authorities will have to boost spending on flood defences to make up for an emerging central government funding gap.

All week, whether they’re shifting blame or promising an open chequebook, the government have been skirting round the Environment Agency job cuts issue. And the less said about a connection to man-made climate change the better, apparently. Owen Paterson, our environment secretary is quite openly a climate change denier.

The jobs at the environment Agency will be cut by this government, regardless of any temporary pause in the process. This week the government have had to shoot holes in their metanarrative of deficit reduction because the flooding is a real thing that is happening to real people. But sooner or later it will be back to business as usual and the coalition will continue their dismantling of vital public services.

The floods and their long term effects will not disappear overnight. But I have an unpleasant suspicion that once the TV new cameras are pointed towards a different story the government’s grandiose promises will stop. It won’t be a matter of public image anymore.

This government don’t seem to be playing politics anymore, only PR. The goodwill of a handful of swing voters has somehow become more important to our political elite than the wellbeing of the country. Perhaps this is all Alistair Campbell’s fault …

Is Ukraine the start of an Arab Spring in Europe? No.

3 Dec

Photo by Ryan Anderson, via Flickr

‘What on earth is going on in Ukraine?’ you might well ask. Or, if you’ve not been paying proper attention, you’re probably thinking ‘Is there something going off in Ukraine then?’

Yes there is. Not that you should be expected to know about it. Since the weekend the mass demonstrations and alleged police violence in the Eastern European country has sat somewhere in the middle of the news pecking order: not close enough to us to earn top billing but not trivial enough to be entirely dismissed by editors.

So what is going on? Once again, a country just far enough away not to worry us has faced mass demonstrations against the powers that be. It might be time to get out your dusty Arab Spring bingo cards if you still have them: police forcibly picking on student protests, hastily planned mass marches against an unpopular president, and fringes of violence. Without too much trouble I could be describing Egypt, or Turkey, or many more.

Like much of the political dissent in the last three years not everyone in Ukraine is angry at the government, and President Yanukovych has a strong popular base of support in parts of the country. This is where the story stops feeling like another Arab Spring sequel. The reason for Saturday’s original demonstration was a decision by Yanukovych not to sign a trade deal with the European Union. A large chunk of the country’s people are extremely unhappy about this choice. Ukraine sits uncomfortably between Europe on one side and Russia on the other. Guess who isn’t too pleased at the thought of a Ukraine integrated into Europe?

The particulars of the Ukraine protests are not complicated. As reported by the guardian a pro-Europe rally in Kiev’s Independence Square was dispersed violently by police, using truncheons. It was apparently vital that an enormous Christmas tree be placed in the square at 4 o’clock on Saturday morning. On Sunday more than 300,000 Ukrainians came out to demand Yanukovych resign as president.  This was in spite of a ban on rallies at Independence square imposed earlier that day.

Now protesters are occupying Independence Square and the Kiev City Hall, while also blockading the Cabinet Ministry. Similarities to Tahir Square in Egypt and Turkey’s Taksim Square can clearly be drawn. But this is not the kind of popular uprising that seems to have been copy pasted from North Africa and the Middle East, regardless of some opposition figures in Ukraine describing things as a ‘revolution’. President Yanukovych’s predicament seems to be grounded in a country divided between its neighbours to the east and west.

It’s unsurprising that much of what has traditionally been Yanukovych’s support base can be found in Ukraine’s east. Although whether this is still the case is another matter.

The President’s chummy relationship with the master of the dark arts himself, Vladimir Putin, may be playing a part. According to Bloomberg the Russian President wants to create an economic bloc out of old Soviet states, with Ukraine high on the list. In laymen’s terms Ukraine is in the middle of the international politics version of tug-of-war.

Ukraine has recent form in peaceful uprisings. The 2004 Orange Revolution saw protests and general strikes in response to corruption and ballot manipulation (manipulation which would have seen current president Mr Yanukovych win the election).  Yanukovych was eventually elected in 2010. Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution who has been imprisoned since 2011, has called for the president’s ‘dictatorship’ to be bought down.

As of Tuesday a no confidence vote against the government was defeated in the Ukrainian parliament. Whether this will satisfy protestors is unclear, but if I were to judge by these pictures I would say things are not quite over yet.

So now you know what’s been going off in Ukraine. Or perhaps not; by the time you read this some more things will have happened. You’ve probably read enough to look smart in front of your work mates though, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Poor people do not have rubbish genes

16 Oct

Image by JFantasy, via Wikimedia commons

If you struggled at school, or just missed out on the socially acceptable number of GCSE grades, a senior advisor in the Department for Education may have worked out where everything went wrong. The short answer? You’ve got rubbish genes.

The long answer is a little more complicated. Dominic Cummings, a senior advisor to Secretary of Education Michael Gove, has produced a report which seems to set out his own personal vision for our education system – and it slots in nicely somewhere between scary and alarming. In a thesis that dismisses the current education system as mediocre, Mr Cummings explains in the course of 250 pages that the Department of Education should really only employ a fraction of the staff it does. The advisor’s preferred alternative seems to be a market in education (because transforming a public good into a market is how we ended up with world famous low energy bills).

Bizarrely, the advisor also claims that ‘the largest factor’ affecting a child’s performance has been shown to be genetics. To back up this claim Mr Cummings lists a number of key statistics showing the ‘heritability’ of test performance between parents and children, which seem to show a correlation. I would point out to Mr Cummings that he may have mistaken correlation for causation, but then that might be my own bargain bucket genes getting the best of me.

Do Mr Cummings’ claims match up with other statistics on education performance? Research by the Education and Social Research Council shows 21% of the poorest fifth of school children leave secondary education with at least five good GCSEs. The equivalent figure for the wealthiest fifth is 75%. From Cummings’ position, isn’t the only conclusion we can draw that poor children do worse than wealthy children because they are genetically less intelligent?

Are we to presume that proximity to hard cash has a positive impact on genetics? Are poor children likely to struggle more at school because they come from a genetic line of other poor people? Or is the answer, far more obviously, that wealth is a strong social factor in how well a child is likely to do at school and beyond? This thesis has the stench of genetic destiny to it, and feels almost Victorian in its belief in the importance of biological factors to intelligence and life chances.

In a retort to the thesis, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee spoke to geneticist Professor Steve Jones about Cummings’ thesis. The answer she received was that ‘success and failure depend far more on the economic than the genetic accidents of birth’. Well that’s a surprise – life chances are affected by wealth and influence. Who knew?

But as Mr Cummings (who is not a trained geneticist) insists ‘Most of those that now dominate discussions on social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless’. Who are we to believe? Should it be the trained professor of genetics or a political advisor accused of using ‘obscene and intimidating language’?

In an article for the Telegraph Professor Jones sets out why environment is a far more important factor than genetics, seemingly putting to rest any chance of Mr Cummings’ thesis becoming government policy. But of course Dominic Cummings has been an advisor to Michael Gove since 2011 and is a member of the education secretary’s inner circle. His hands have been all over education policy for two years.

The UK is one of the worst countries in the developed world for social mobility, scoring only half as well as both Canada and Australia in a recent study. This is a social problem, not a problem of DNA and chromosomes. Arguments like those of Mr Cummings, which claim genetic destiny disproves the need educators to consider social and economic problems when teaching children, are not only unhelpful but callous. Let’s hope this report finds its way to the back of a government filing cabinet never to be seen again.

Tim Ballantine's Blog

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