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Archive for March, 2010

In your face, trolls

March 31, 2010 2 comments

So Cameron is proposing 5,000 full-time,’professional’ community organizers operating nationwide. 

Let’s estimate, conservatively the salary and on-costs at £20,000 per year. 

So that’s £100 million per year to cover let’s say 60 million people.

That £1.66 per person per year, if the whole nation is covered – obviously a lot more if it’s more concentrated. 

I don’t know where the money’s coming from, though I’m told by email, in response to my earlier post, by someone closer to this action than I am, that:

The way they get round the astronomical costs that you identify for hiring community organisers is that the only costs for the community organisers which they are going to meet will be in training, and as part of their training they will learn how to do fund-raising to pay for their salaries. Don’t laugh. That is actually their plan. 

 

As a reference, the scheme at the cost set out above would cost between 5% and 8% of all the charitable giving by all 8,000 grant making Trusts & Foundations in the UK, or around 100% of all arts funding.  This is just for the staffing costs, and covers nothing in the way of costs for any community projects emanating from the organization. 

The only realistic way it can be paid for is by reducing existing grants and contracts to the voluntary and community sector (either directly or by squeezing Trusts and Foundations). 

 On the other hand, is what I was proposing a media-based, politicised, ‘community organization’ project costing around £80,000  per year to cover a medium-sized town of 30-40,000 households (let’s say £80,000 people).

That’s £1 per person. 

Unlike The Tories, I have set out fairly clearly where the whole cost might come from, including local advertising, union sponsorship, party contributions as well as direct sales and other commercial income and, in time, co-opted statutory PR budgets. 

Of course, when I suggested the kind of scale of operation needed, I was roundly ridiculed e.g. 

Eighty grand? Eighty THOUSAND Pounds???? Are you having a laugh. Are you serious?? 

Hang on, no, you are aren’t you??? 

Must be a socialist – their speciality is wasting money and committees. 

Yes, I was, and am, serious (though costs are coming down a bit) and plans are coming into place.   

Of course, the information-based power-focused activism I propose actually stands a chance of effecting some change, while the uncosted, Obama-lite, depoliticised ‘communities-are-lovely’ dross that Cameron puts forward, and is lapped up in surprising quarters, does not.  Even if the latter proposals come to pass, very soon they will be co-opted to precisely the state control that Cameron says he’s against.  That’s the top-down nature of the beast he seeks to create. 

Perhaps now, with Cameron and Co. having followed suit in terms of the scale of the operation at least, those bloggers who cast aspersions on my credibility as a social entrepreneur with the vision to combine masterfully wider policy and its grassroots implementation, might like to offer a humble apology. 

But I won’t hold my breath. 

Socialist Students meeting: the Poll Tax

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of interest at the moment in the anti-poll tax campaigns of the late 1980s and very early 1990s. This has been reflected in various articles in Socialism Today and other publications. Yesterday, the local Socialist Students group held a meeting at which one of the organisers of the Kent anti-poll tax union came to speak about his experiences.

He brought with him some fantastic resources; a book of minutes from the Kent APTU and a collection of pamphlets produced by the group, and newspaper cuttings from the time. Of particular relevance to Canterbury students was a letter he sent from prison, having been jailed for non-payment, to the student newspaper as it existed back then.

Several things stood out to me, through his narrative and through the resources. The first was the sheer weight of opposition to Thatcher and the poll tax. Kent at the time still preserved some heavy industry and in areas like Aylesham, which are unheard from today, 30 out of 43 streets were recorded as sending people to local APTU meetings.

Even in areas considered a little intimidating and no-go by some of the organsiers, in parts of Thanet, a public meeting organised on the off-chance of people showing up was packed out. From Ashford to Ramsgate, Medway to Dover, Kent was represented in force in the anti-poll tax movement; even towns like Deal turned out for protest marches.

If I appear shocked at some of this, I ask the reader’s forbearance. Living in Kent, where Labour strongholds survive only in industrial areas like Medway, South Thanet and Dover, it’s strange to think of the leagues between thronging with angry and embittered workers, prepared to protest, demonstrate and ultimately refusing point-blank to obey the law.

The second thing that stood out was the role of the Labour bureaucracy. At the time, the Labour Party nationally had utterly failed to push for the type of campaign that would have derailed Thatcher’s unjust poll tax, whether her party had occupied six hundred parliamentary seats and Labour none. It was much after Militant had decided to make the centrepiece of Thatcher’s ’87 re-election a target that Labour began to wake up.

Stories from the ground are interesting too. Delegates, chosen by local community meetings under the banner of the anti-poll tax unions, reported to Kent meetings of the country APTU that Labour Party organisers dug their heels in wherever possible, opposing the calling of public meetings, opposing having Labour speakers on the platform and so on.

This was repeated in unions like NALGO, where the Right fought tooth and claw against donating money for leaflets to APTU campaigns, and when that didn’t work, attempted to water down the political content of the material that was published. Yet included amongst the many documents was a NALGO-backed leaflet calling for non-payment.

So much of this seems familiar to our struggles with the union and labour bureaucracy today. The same short-sighted attempt to confine struggle as much as possible to parliament, or at least within the Labour Party, exists today. Neither bureaucracy was overthrown by the poll tax struggle, but at a local level, legions of activists were won over and there are records of majorities in specific streets displaying anti-poll tax signs in their gardens or windows.

This exploded the attempt to confine the struggle to a parliamentary one, and John Major was ultimately forced to admit that the ‘community charge’ was providing too little milk for far too much moo.

Bearing in mind that public service cuts are another attempt to do the same thing – eliminate large chunks of the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor – the anti-poll tax campaign has serious lessons for us today. By patiently agitating and building a campaign, while posing questions of class and solidarity as key to winning the struggle, we can stop the attempt to cut public services. A simple refusal, from millions of voices, will topple the government.

It was significant, therefore, that the meeting went on to resolve that the anti-cuts campaign should continue. No one present believed that the University of Kent’s recent climbdown over the redundancies of eleven staff in Biosciences is an end to the attempt of the university management to inflict the cost of a HEFCE grant cut on to staff and students.

Proposals were also accepted that stalls be organised and staffed on the campus of Canterbury Christ Church University, as they too will likely be facing serious cuts – all the more so since the university is not a dedicated research university but the home of many vocational courses, like a nationally-renowned centre for Initial Teacher Training.

Since it seems that none of the three major parties, including Labour, are prepared to voice on a national level the need to keep public services running, to support benefits especially at a time of mass unemployment and to end and reverse privatisations that are always a prelude to attacks upon workers, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

Hopefully this is just a beginning.

Cameron’s community organizers: an initial assessment

March 31, 2010 8 comments

Certainly, there are many more questions than answers at the moment in the plans announced today by Cameron for 5,000 ‘full time, professional community organizers’. 

At first sight, it really does look like more back of a fag packet stuff, but perhaps more details will emerge.  I won’t hold my breath, mind.

Questions include how they’re going to be paid for, of course.  5,000 professionals on full-time contracts doesn’t come cheap.  At, let’s say £20,000 per year inclusive of on-costs, we’re talking about a cool £100 million per year, even before we start thinking about training and recruitment and support.

This can’t all come, as Cameron seems to suggest it might, out of the derided but actually very good Futurebuilders programme (I should know, the voluntary organisation I run has a £160,000 loan for a community nursery and family centre.). That’s because the whole operational budget is only £51 million in 2010-11.

So it’s almost certain, if this programme were to ahead, that it would be calling to a great extent on funds already disbursed by central and local authorities to provide all the staff who already have a role  very similar to the one now envisaged as utterly new and innovative by Cameron.  Has he never heard of Councils for Voluntary Service, for example, or enquired as to what they might do?

Then of course there is the broader question of how the new community organiser role relates to that of the local councillor, which I’ll no doubt write a great deal more about, not least because I’m both a local councillor and a pretty decent ‘community organiser’ having personally draw in over a third of a million quid to my village of 2,500 people in the last couple of years, as well as organising the saving of the school.

Related to this is who exactly will be responsible for the appointment of these community organisers, and what will be their brief if and when they’re given the money to do so.  It is of course, no great surprise to see Stuart Etherington, the business-like manager of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, endorse Cameron’s announcement.  There’s business to be had there, not least in relation to the ongoing turf wars with other voluntary sector infrastructure organisations.

More specifically in terms on what the community organizers will or won’t do, there is the question of just how combative and challenging to existing structures will they be permitted to be under their new contracts.  The concept of hidden state power through the depoliticization of the notion of community will not, of course, be unfamiliar to most readers of this blog. 

In general, then, what at first sight appears to be bold and new move by the Conservatives, will turn out – I suspect both to be a reannouncement of old monies if it ever comes to pass – and also fraught with the kind of power asymmetries that will make real change, real local control, a figment of the policy makers’ imagination.

(Coming later when I”ve organized muy community for a bit: a wantonly gleeful ‘In your face, trolls!’ response to those who trolled this post about the costs of media-initiated ‘community organising’, and how to go about it.  Do the comparative maths, trolls.)

Death Tax: what’s not to like?

March 31, 2010 2 comments

In a case that could have philosophical idealists wetting themselves for decades to come, by naming something before the fact of it, we should adapt to the Conservative attempt at framing inheritance tax as a ‘death tax’. Here’s my proposal:

Step 1. We suspend habeas corpus for those who use the phrase ‘death tax’, or any other such attempts to name a fairly banal law so as to inspire fevered opposition to it. So the entire Tory Party, to begin with, starting with Lansley.

Step 2. We execute all the aforesaid and confiscate all their property, to be liquidated and used to fund universal comprehensive, elderly care. This programme will be called the “Live Long and Prosper Tax”.

Step 3. We collect the votes of elderly people and Trekkies everywhere and guarantee victory at the next general election.

Step 4. (Optional) We liquify the remains of all those who have died (or committed suicide through stupid political posturing) and use this to feed the living, who we will connect to a giant virtual reality machine in which Gore was elected President, communism works and nobody is offended ever.

We will call this the “Matrix Tax”.

Simple.

Just can’t help myself

March 31, 2010 4 comments

Alright, this really is the last one.  I promise to stop now.  Honest

Pavement politics

Payment politics

Categories: Gender Politics

RMT signallers and anti-democratic laws

March 30, 2010 1 comment

The news that Network Rail are to challenge the RMT strike ballot, due to be carried out during the rush hours of April 6th – 9th, should surprise absolutely nobody. Yet again, the law is being used by employers to prevent staff from going on strike, regardless of whether or not the majority of workers involved support the strike being used.

In this case, 54% of RMT workers backed the call to strike, 77% backed action short of a strike. Bearing in mind that the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) are to come out on strike at the same time, and that the strike as announced will probably overlap with the next round of British Airways Cabin Crew strikes, the choice to strike is the right one.

Network Rail’s press statement declared their “responsibility to all our passengers and freight users, and to the country as a whole, to do everything we can to avert a strike. Talks continue and our aim is a negotiated settlement, but we must explore all avenues at our disposal and that includes legal ones.”

This is pretty telling; for Network Rail, the legal challenge has got nothing to do with the validity of the strike ballot, it’s simply a way of stopping the strike. As I mentioned in a previous article, this is becoming a feature of every single strike – regardless of whether or not the strike is clearly supported by a majority, employers challenge it in the courts.

Short of a judge ordering a re-ballot, I’ll be down on the picket lines come next week. RMT and TSSA members have been strong supporters of Unite’s recent battle on behalf of the BA cabin crews. The RMT regularly backs left campaigns like Youth Fight for Jobs, and is key to setting up socialist platforms across the country for this election. They deserve our support, because a defeat for one union represents a dangerous signal to all employers.

Christians aren’t persecuted, and they aren’t disrespected

March 30, 2010 14 comments

Lord Carey, about whom I have had impolite things to say in the past, seems determined to storm about in his tea cup, whipping up a righteous indignation amongst tabloids and those predisposed to such indignation. His most recent stunt is another high profile letter, this time to the Sunday Telegraph (predictably) complaining of bias against Christians.

The letter, which can be read in full here, begins thus:

SIR – On March 29, a Christian nurse, Shirley Chaplin, will take the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust to the Exeter Employment Tribunal.

This dedicated nurse, who has cared for thousands of patients over 30 years, was told by the trust to remove from her neck a cross she first wore at her confirmation service over 40 years ago.

She has worn the cross every day since her confirmation as a sign of her Christian faith, a faith which led to her vocation in nursing, and which has sustained her in that vital work ever since.

Mrs Chaplin refused to remove her cross and, as a result, was prevented from working in a patient-facing role.

It would seem that the NHS trust would rather lose the skills of an experienced nurse and divert scarce resources to fighting a legal case, instead of treating patients.

The uniform policy of the NHS trust permits exemptions for religious clothing. This has been exercised with regard to other faiths, but not with regard to the wearing of a cross around the neck.

Even the Daily Mail managed to report that this woman was asked to remove her cross for ‘elf’n’safety reasons. She wore it above her clothes, and refused to put it underneath them. Judging by the picture attached to that Mail article, it exists on a fairly long chain and is in danger of contact should a nurse lean over a patient.

In 2006, the BMA recommended that doctors stop wearing neckties for precisely this reason, as they were washed less frequently than other items of clothing and had greater risk of contact. This was recommended as a means to inhibit the spread of MRSA. No doubt there is a similar medical logic to this officious move against a nurse’s cross.

So far as I’m concerned, the item either is a risk to health, in which case it should be banned across every hospital, or it is not and it should be permitted. Things don’t get much simpler. Far be it from me to step in the way of some religious crusade, against an imaginary slight, on the part of crusty Anglican relics.

The letter continues:

Furthermore, Mrs Chaplin has been informed that the Court requires evidence of the fact that Christians wear crosses visibly around the neck. It cannot be right that judges are unaware of such a basic practice.[...]

The cross is ubiquitous in Christian devotion from the earliest times and clearly the most easily recognisable Christian symbol. For many Christians, wearing a cross is an important expression of their Christian faith and they would feel bereft if, for some unjustifiable reason, they were not allowed to wear it. To be asked by an employer to remove or “hide” the cross, is asking the Christian to hide their faith.

Any policy that regards the cross as “just an item of jewellery” is deeply disturbing and it is distressing that this view can ever be taken.

In deciding whether or not something should be covered by the religious exemptions, the existence of which Carey acknowledges, surely it makes sense to have testimony from people of a given religion that an article of clothing is important to their faith. In the case of Sikhism or Islam, specific holy documents cover the topic.

There is no similar elevation of the wearing of a cross on a necklace for Christians by the New Testament. Now, I don’t agree with this method of approaching the subject; in the case of health professionals, either something is a danger to patients’ health or it is not. If not, allow it; if so, ban it. But this is not Lord Carey’s objection.

Carey specifically objects to what I’ve suggested – that the cross on a necklace be treated like any other piece of jewellery.

His problem is that Christianity no longer has the right to unthinking exemptions from the same sort of rules which everyone else has to follow. It is with the decline of Christianity in the UK, and the ebb of its control over the State, as implied by Carey’s evident desire that judges treat Christian icons as deserving of special treatment.

Reproduced from the Daily Mail article listed above

There is another section, from the elipsis above, which deserves comment:

This is yet another case in which the religious rights of the Christian community are being treated with disrespect. We are deeply concerned at the apparent discrimination shown against Christians and we call on the Government to remedy this serious development.

In a number of cases, Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience and worship are simply not being upheld. There have been numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are unacceptable in a civilised country. We believe that the major parties need to address this issue in the coming general election.

I have a lot of sympathy for people dismissed for upholding their conscience. After all, if we remove religion from the equation for a moment, isn’t asking other workers not to cross picket lines an example of appealing to the conscience of the individual? This type of thing calls for a new departure in industrial democracy.

In the second example, where an Islington Council registrar was dismissed for essentially refusing to do her job, we may not agree with or admire the homophobic sentiments located there. On the other hand, we shouldn’t make common cause with an overbearing State; we should instead ask a) was there enough work on regular marriages to keep her busy elsewhere and b) were her colleagues willing to make accommodation for her?

Instances such as these are not ones where medical science will be called on to judge health risks potentially occasioned by clothing, or whether safety risks are possible due to carrying what may be considered a weapon in public spaces, where it can represent a serious problem. They can be resolved with understanding.

What they shouldn’t be used for, as Lord Carey as well as Dr. Sentamu and the Catholic prelate of Westminster, Vincent Nichols have all done, is to attack ‘secularism’ and on several occasions atheism. They are not the result of these things – and many of them will not be resolved by the abandoning of Labour’s Equality Bill – which has been a recent hobbyhorse for this type of sentiment from clerics.

Nor should we draw the conclusions that all the signatories to this letter have done, that ‘the religious rights of the Christian community are being treated with disrespect.’

People still go to worship without trouble. They are free to live according to their beliefs – to the point of being according specific exemptions in many fields, e.g. the right of a Doctor to refuse a woman an abortion on grounds of religious belief. Key Christian festivals are still national festivals – Easter and Christmas for example.

By and large, Christians have little cause for complaint. Letters such as Carey’s, and his many co-signatories, simply serve to create a lot of noise without ever actually solving anything.

The Daily Mash Law: selling children

March 30, 2010 3 comments

Godwin’s Law has proved a useful tool for measuring some of the crazier, and not so crazy, corners of the internet. 

Similarly, I hope the new Daily Mash Law (DML) will do the same for some of the outer reaches of governmental policy. 

The DML states that:

Where a government policy is  found to be in tune with whimsical notions of same set out for satirically humorous purposes in one or more Daily Mash article, then that government policy will be found to be so stupid as to warrant immediate change.

As it happens, there is currently very good example of this law in action.  In yesterday’s ‘edition’, the Daily Mash reports:

The Conservatives have pledged to reverse Labour’s national insurance hike by selling no more than 1.5m of Britain’s least important children.

The tax cut-child auction will form the centrepiece of the Tories’ election campaign after anxious party chiefs urged shadow chancellor George Osborne to produce a populist policy that was also imaginatively cruel.

While this notion of selling children as part of an intentional strategy for the furtherance of other quite separate aims may seem somewhat ludicrous, it does in fact turn out to strike a familiar chord with the government’s current child detention policy, as defended most recently by Phil Woolas, MP.

This strategy is based on the (for non-readers of the Daily Mash) somewhat surprising theory that if children of asylum seekers are not held under lock and key, then a widespread trade in the purchase of “unimportant children” will quickly develop as a way to enable  unscrupulous adult asylum seekers to flout pre-removal detention procedures. 

As the End Child Detention Now network puts it:

The Home Office’s increasing resort to scare stories about child trafficking follows on from a similar piece of nonsense that junior minister Meg Hillier came out with on the BBC’s Daily Politics show on Friday. She suggested that if the government stopped locking up children then childless asylum seekers would have an incentive to acquire a “get out of detention free kid” from a passing child trafficker.

No evidence in support of the child auction theory appears to be available, and the policy can therefore be considered to have reached DML status.
 

Categories: General Politics

Mumsnet vs the ATL on blaming parents

March 29, 2010 1 comment

Listening to the radio this morning, I was shocked to note that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers will tomorrow debate a motion at its conference demanding that ‘the benefits system to be adjusted so that the parents of disruptive pupils lose part of their child benefit’.

Stuart Hart, one of the Cheshire-based supporters of the motion, was quoted in the Waily Mail as saying, ‘A child who is behaving badly is not only affecting themselves, but other people’s children. But there are no consequences. We want parents to think they are being hurt, in the form of less child benefit, because their child is not behaving.’

This comes as a new report, compiled on the testimony of ATL members, suggests that up to a quarter of teachers may have experienced some form of violence in work – including groping or parent rampages.

I’m at a loss to understand how anyone can think this will be effective, though I can see why the Mail has clamped on to it, as Dr. Mary Bousted certainly does a wonderful one woman “bloody parents” routine.

‘If you go into a pet shop you have to prove you are going to be able to take care of your dog before they sell you a puppy. But there’s no minimum standard for being a parent, unless you are so awful the state takes the child away from you. It’s not that children are born bad, it’s that when children behave badly at school, they are very often the results of very poor parenting.’

The Mail, evidently frustrated that Dr. Bousted wasn’t prepared to attack benefits scroungers, took a different tack and portrayed the leader of the ATL as demanding state intervention to compel parents to attend classes on how to be parents, and to remove benefits (which, said Dr. Bousted, are available irrespective of class).

Dr. Bousted appeared on Radio 4 this morning, alongside Mumsnet’s Carrie Longton, who argued that cutting benefits would do nothing, and that what was needed was increased support, smaller class sizes and continuing to build on policies that we have proof work: for example, family liaison officers or special support staff who are allotted time to wander the corridors and do spot checks on classrooms (particularly those where troublemakers are known to be).

Proposals like this seem especially ill-timed whenever the leader of the ATL itself is talking about how violence in secondary schools is on the decrease (and without the need to slash benefits). That seems to me a call to stay the course with, and increase the extent and use of, policies that are in place at schools around the country.

They lend credence to the notion that many schools are out of control, and justify stupid Tory ideas like fast-tracking former armed forces personnel into teaching jobs simply because they are physically capable and can make the place feel more like a boot camp than a school.

Is being in debt good or bad?

March 29, 2010 26 comments

Is being in debt good or bad? 

Well, it depends who you owe the money to. 

If you owe money to a loan shark at massive interest rates, who’ll come round and ransack your house if you don’t pay up, it’s bad.  If you owe money to a building society and can afford to keep up with the repayments, then you might get a much nice place to live a lot of your life than you would if you didn’t owe money.

And so too with countries.  If you’re a developing county whose debt has been bought out by one of the vulture funds whose rights Christopher Chope is so keen to protect, then your chances of making life better for your citizens is pretty limited.  

If you’ve got a reasonable lender who acknowledges that the repayments can only be made sustainable in the longer term if you’ve also got enough cash to invest in basic services and infrastructure for your citizens, then it’s a bit better.

Sadly, when it comes to Britain’s national debt, few people seem to get that nuanced.  Debt’s bad, and that’s all there is to it.

Or is it?

Here’s who the UK owed money to in September 2009 (source):

By and large, as you can see, we own our own debt.

And while George Osborne drones on about the necessity of getting the deficit down as quickly as possible as the sina qua non of the UK’s economic future (well, until today’s NI flip flop), it’s worth listening to what someone who actually understands the flow of money between public and private has to say (h/t Giles Wilkes):

It is never obvious whether Osborne actually believes what he is saying or it is just politics and he believes his target audience views government finances like a household.

For a prospective Chancellor he has a very poor image in the City because quite frankly a lot of people think he is an idiot.

The old cash value of interest payments is trotted out with monotonous regularity. Why not use percentage of GDP or percentage of central government expenditure? No scare value in that I suspect. Why not say to the target audience I would like your private pension or annuity provider to have less money?

It really is the same thing as internal UK debt interest payments are just a transfer payment to the insurance companies and pension funds.

In fact we can go further: the deficit is the net financial assets supplied by the government to the non-government sector in any given accounting period. The national debt is just the cumulative stock of the these net financial asset flows: it is public wealth.

None of the press coverage ever seems to recognise this dual asset/liability relationship. None of the press coverage ever seems to talk about reducing the deficit in terms of reducing the income of the private sector, or in terms of squeezing liquidity from the private sector, or in terms of destroying the financial assets of the private sector, or in terms of frustrating the saving preferences of the private sector.

The cash in my wallet, that’s a government liability too–won’t someone think of the children and destroy it?

[Indeed] if the government runs a surplus, it drains more monetary base as taxes than it injects as spending. As a consequence, the system is short of high-powered money. Only the government can create it, so no amount of shifting around in the banking sector can relieve the pressure.

And as Giles himself says:

All we get is a shifting balance between private and public assets and debts, in the absence of a massive international imbalance. Which means we can always afford to resolve either private or public indebtedness with a political solution, if we are brave enough.

But why exactly is 75% of GDP in public debts, owned by the private sector and paying just 4-5% interest, a problem – when the private sector needs such instruments?

That is a question Conservatives bury under the term ‘burdening our children with debts’.  It is just as much ‘providing our pensioners with assets’.

Discuss. 

Before it’s too late.

Categories: Terrible Tories
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