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Archive for February, 2012

Baroness Tonge and Ken O’Keefe

February 29, 2012 15 comments

Baroness (Jenny) Tonge has been the subject of all the talk today. I won’t bother to offer opinion here, but I would like to copy here the views of former US Marine Ken O’Keefe, who Tonge recently shared a platform with.

What I’d like, primarily, to say is that not all critics of Israel have to be nutjobs, and indeed there are plenty of such people who are not. So why does O’Keefe keep being invited to talk at things like the Middlesex University Free Palestine Society? They don’t think he is the best they can do, do they?

He was the one who said 9/11 could not have plausibly been carried out by bin Laden and 19 hijackers, instead blaming the US government and Mossad. He decided to air this conspiracy theory on the new spiritual home of conspiracy theories: Press TV.

When he said the following, Tonge did not challenge him, or choose to distance herself away from this opinion. This doesn’t mean she agrees. But it does mean she didn’t find it outrageous enough to comment on, particularly as her cause could potentially be tarred with a certain kind of brush which I wouldn’t want to be associated with.

He said:

“The Jewish state (that’s not my expression), Israel, is, therefore, acting on behalf of the Jewish people. You [by which he means the Jewish people], like the Nazis, now have a special obligation. The decent Germans of World War Two, what did they do when the Nazis came to power and instituted their policies? Did they do enough to stop the Nazis? No, they didn’t.

“What are the Jewish people doing right now? Are you doing enough to stop your racist, apartheid, genocidal state?”?

The video for this is here below, and his rant, printed above, starts at around 11.14.

On what he says, firstly the comparison between Jews and “decent Germans” is flawed. Secondly, there is no reason to be this inflammatory. If he thinks all Jewish people are morally culpable for what he perceives to be a genocidal state, then he has something avowedly against Jewish people.

In brief, in O’Keefe’s mind, all Jewish people are to blame for genocide in Gaza. That’s a very serious charge.

His comments are now being reviewed by police investigation.

Asking the right questions about the payday lending industry

February 29, 2012 3 comments

It’s amazing what you can find on the internet sometimes.

Just looking around I found an American-based website offering people toolkits on how to create their own payday lending business. In big, bold capitals one of the headers reads:

YOU CAN MAKE A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF MONEY IN THE PAYDAY LOAN BUSINESS AND HELP PEOPLE IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!!

The last bit struck me, of course: help people if you know what you’re doing.

One of the things that comes up in conversations about the payday lending industry is whether the people that run them actually believe they are making a difference to the lives of their customers.

Are the people selling credit at sky high rates of interest really convincing themselves they are helping, or do they go home rubbing their hands at night.

What ought to be taken into consideration, when dealing with this subject, is that the former may well be true in some cases; that lenders feel they are doing good.

Indeed as it stands it’s possible to think they really are. After all, banks are worried about lending and sometimes the only option for people is to ask an illegal lender.

If there was any wage increases during the boom years of 1997 – 2007 then it was small, but chances are when most look at their pay packet and the increase in outgoings, any benefit we had during those years was boosted by credit. For many, that dependency has now been shifted to alternative lenders.

Barry Stevenson, chief executive of Albemarle & Bond – a pawnbroker, recently told the Guardian: “There’s hardly any bureaucracy and no intrusive checks; we treat people like human beings, unlike a lot of banks.”

One payday lender once wrote:

really, what I do when I hook someone up with a fast cash payday loan, is give another chance to some poor guy who just does not have any chance at all without me. Sure, I make money off of the poor, but is that so wrong?

In these times pawnbrokers, home credit lenders, payday lenders and the rest can take the moral high ground over banks. Even politicians, naming no names, are reduced to thinking that there is a place for the alternative lenders.

But I was recently speaking to one person who thinks different. They told me how absurd it is to equate, as so often good-willed people do, demand for the product [i.e. the need to borrow more to top-up their income] for appropriateness or usefulness of the product.

In other words the correct question to be asking here is not whether there is sometimes a need for short term, high cost credit, but whether it is good for people in the long term, and whether it is not damaging to assume mainstream lenders must turn its back on the people whose only alternative it is to be ripped off.

It is when regulators and policymakers start asking these questions that real results can be found.

Revealed: How the DWP lied about Clegg’s Youth Contract

February 29, 2012 1 comment

On Nov 25th 2011, the Department for Work and Pensions issued a press release about the new Youth Contract, announced with great fanfare by Nick Clegg.  The press release included this statement:

An extra 250,000 Work Experience places over the next three years, taking the total to at least 100,000 a year. This will come with an offer of a Work Experience place for every 18 to 24 year-old who wants one, before they enter the Work Programme.

Further to my complaint to the BBC about its handling of this press release, I submitted a FOI request to DWP seeking details on how the supposed £1bn Youth Contract was made up.  The request was made well before the latest revelations about “workfare”.

Yesterday I received my reply.  This stated:

The Get Britain Working measures includes Work Experience, sector-based work academies and Mandatory Work Activity.

Nowhere in the November press release was Mandatory Work Activity mentioned.  This suggests DWP were keen to keep its part in the Youth Contract secret.

More importantly, this means that the DWP’s claim that the scheme is “for every 18 to 24 year-old who wants one” must be a direct lie, since clients are forced into Mandatory Work Activity on the claim that they do not want to engage.

The text of the FOI reply is copied below:

Dear Mr Cotterill,

Thank you for your Freedom of Information request of 22 January 2012. You asked:

Please provide a full breakdown of the costs of the Youth Contract set out in your press release of 25th November 2011, and available online at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/newsroom/press-releases/2011/nov-2011/dwp132-11.shtml

The statement indicates in the first paragraph that the total value of the Youth contract is £1bn, and four of the five items set out in the press release have costs set against them. The final item (work experience) has no cost set against it. Please therefore provide a copy of any summary paper put together within the Department for Work and Pensions which give details on how the total value of £1bn is reached.

The Youth Contract is a package of measures covering several Government Departments worth almost £1bn and was announced on 25th November 2011 http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/1-billion-package-tackle-youth-unemployment. The table below sets out the anticipated expenditure for each element of the Youth Contract. It covers the overall cost of the Youth Contract (£939m) of which the DWP element is £660m, with the remainder going to other Government Departments and the Devolved Administrations.

                                                                                                            Cost (£m)

Net cost of wage incentive and Work Programme         £391

JCP Support                                                                                   £169

Expansion of Get Britain Working measures                     £93

Operations                                                                                        £7

Sub-total for Employment support DWP              £660

Northern Ireland consequentials @ 2.9%                          £19

Sub total for employment measures                      £679

Outreach & Skills

ENGLAND                                                                                        £218

DEVOLVEDS                                                                                    £42

Sub total for outreach and skills                                  £260

 Total Cost                                                                                    £939

Notes:

• Jobcentre Plus (JCP) support includes the cost of weekly face-to-face contact from five months and extra advisor support.

• The Get Britain Working measures line includes Work Experience, sector-based work academies and Mandatory Work Activity.

• Outreach and skills includes funding for Apprenticeships and support for 16 and 17 year olds.

• Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) refers to planned Departmental expenditure. More information on public spending planning can be found at: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/psr_spend_plancontrol.htm

If you have any queries about this letter please contact me quoting the reference number above.

Yours sincerely,

xxxxxx (redacted)

Labour Market Interventions Division

Categories: Terrible Tories

Lessons from 2008: resisting workfare and the role of the unions

February 28, 2012 3 comments

In a 2008 essay, I set out in some detail the policy implementation theory and empirical research to show that the then emerging Workfare programme would end up being entirely counterproductive:

[W]ith the ‘welfare reforms’ now proposed there’s a real risk that, given the additional bureaucracies inevitably involved, mechanisms will evolve that produce less flexibility, more ‘processing’ (i.e.  dehumanising) of clients. In the US at least front-line staff’s starting culture was one geared to just processing benefit claims with no great expectation of what might happen next; in the UK, the invasive New Public Management techniques of the last 25 years mean that front line staff in Job Centre Plus already start from a more a negative standpoint, just as inclined to ‘process’ but to do so with more of a mind to benefit withdrawal.

[T]here is a huge risk that the whole plus side of the reform – and at policy-making level increased personalized support is seen as a plus – will be ignored in favour of the downside; this will be about pushing people into (for them) counterproductive ‘work related activity’ in order to meet the newly introduced range of targets…..

At the time, the essay received some praise from the left, while on the Labour right it was largely dismissed it as pseudo-academic esoterics irrelevant to the main debate about how we needed to deal with the “welfare problem”.  Those same commentators now apparently have little to say about the abuses being heaped on the unemployed, the disabled the sick.

The Conservative regime has picked up from New Labour’s intellectual incoherence with glee, and my predictions about dehumanisation of welfare recipients have been fully borne out.  Under a Labour government, the consequences of advisor “flexbility” might have been seen as unfortunate and unintended, and in time processes might have been adapted to make them more humane.  Under the Conservative regime, there will be no such change of course. 

The current adverse public reaction to the regime’s “slave labour” excesses is to be welcomed, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s anything other than a temporary setback for the government.  Indeed, the signs are that the Coalition’s “job snob” narrative, while not currently effective, might well end up turning the current backlash to longer term advantage (this will be the subject of another blogpost). Once the backlash has faded from the headlines, the sanction rules will remain in place, as will the perverse-incentive contracts with A4E, Serco and the rest. 

The key problem is that we are focusing our resistance at the wrong point.

At the moment, the focus of attention is on those parts of the Workfare system which are wholly under the control of the private providers.  The private providers are an easy target it in the short term, but this ignores the fact that clients only arrive for abuse at their hands via Job Centre Plus advisers, who form part of a still largely unionised workforce.

This raises difficult questions for the unions, and in particular for PCS, the main union operating in this sector.

Why, we should be asking, are these unionised advisers apparently not telling young people that they don’t have to stick with work experience placements that they are not finding valuable?  Why are unionised advisers using their discretion to impose “Mandatory Work Activity” on a much larger group of people than was originally set out in the government’s own plans.  Why are unionised advisers not telling JSA claimaints that I have a right to refuse disclosure of their details to thirs parties, thus preventing their entry in the Work Programme, at which point unpaid work becomes mandatory.

Why, moreover is the only recent PCS press release concerned with Workfare, focused solely on the activities of A4E, rather than on the dehumanising tasks that his own members are being encouraged to carry out?

I am not seeking to blame individuals here. As I set out in my 2008 essay, the way in which job centre staff are now treating claimants is simply a reflection of the way in which they have been ground down by the forces of New Public Management, to the point that they see clamaints as part of their target, not as people.  The New Labour ideal that they might, in the culture and with the resources they are now expected to work, offer a MORE personalised service than before, is more ridiculous now than it was in 2008.

This is how I concluded my 2008 essay:

So how should the Left react to the ‘reforms’? I’ve already indicated some ways in which we might seek to ameliorate the situation, given that the bill WILL go through and the ’reforms’ will be implemented, however badly. In general, I think alongside the protest marches and the opposition in totality, we need to be thinking about the best way to deal with what is coming. To a large extent, I think the responsibility has to lies with the unions, especially the PCS, not just to protest, but to get their members thinking at an early stage where their priorities lie.

In practical terms this means looking at the ‘detailed guidance’ that comes out in due course, arguing long and hard over the drafts to make them fairer, working to ensure that the performance targets imposed reflect real people, not numbers on a claimant count, and working with their staff and all their unions supporters to enable them to stand up to managers driving their ‘performance, by empowering those staff to say ‘No, these people have a right to personalized and appropriate support – it says so in the guidance. It also of course means arguing and if need be striking hard for extra resources – staff, time, office space – to do the job properly.

This will not be easy, and it will take a huge effort not just from the PCS but the whole union movement and its support to make, what for some branches at least will be a step change from arguing the vital but narrow case for member conditions, to a scenario where members realize that their conditions and fairness to clients are inextricably intertwined, and that some form of ‘strategic alliance’ is needed to combat what is bad in the ‘reforms’ and to bring out what might be good if it’s given a proper chance.

Time has moved on, and the details of what can be done are clearer.  Yet I stand by the view that the only effective resistance to the demolition of this large part of the welfare state is through organised labour, in conjunction with the broader protest movement, in which union members come together, with the support of their leaders, to establish institutional legitimacy for their way of doing things – including respect for the people they are there to serve.  In time, this institutional legitimacy must compete openly for primacy with the rules imposed from without (and a signficant aspect of this later stage will be unionising the private provider workforces so that the “sites of resistance” can grow)

2012 is a lot worse than 2008, but the same basic rules apply: organisation, organisation, organisation.  I just hope Mark Serwotka and his PCS comrades takes note that public sector unions have two interrelated duties: to defend the interests of members, but also to defend public service.

 

 

 

Unpaid work: will Priti Patel MP now apologise?

February 26, 2012 1 comment

It is amusing to note Tory loon Priti Patel MP making a formal protest to the BBC about its supposed leftwing bias in its coverage of people forced to into unpaid “work experience”.

It is amusing because a month ago the BBC apologised formally to me for its poor news coverage of a government announcement on that very matter.  

That announcement deliberately sought to obscure the detail  the very unpaid Work Experience programme that is now at the centre of the furore.  The BBC fully accepts that it gave a false representation of the facts, suggesting that £1bn was being spent on subsidies to employers, whereas in fact £406m of that £1bn is earmarked for contracts with the like the notorious A4E, allowing them to push people into unpaid work experience.

So will Patel now apologise for not having noticed the BBC’s earlier apology, and accept that the BBC has been caught red-handed showing rightwing rather than leftwing bias. 

I suspect not.

Categories: Terrible Tories

Thanks Chris Grayling! Now I have sympathy for the SWP

February 24, 2012 2 comments

This is what the employment minister said:

“What’s happened in the last week is we’ve got a lot of companies who are very jumping, they’re coming under pressure from a big internet campaign that is being run by an organisation that is a front for the socialist workers party.

“Now the high street retail sector is going through a tough time at the moment. If you’re running a company and you’re getting streams of e-mails attacking you it’s very unsettling. It’s a false campaign.

“Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large. It’s a small number of activists who are deliberately targeting these companies and are trying to destabilised them.

The SWP wouldn’t know a computer from a hobby horse. I remember a time when they were reluctant to have a website, then a Twitter account, the thought of them hacking computers is laughable.

Their aggressive campaigns are born of newspaper selling, they spend most of their time making placards for the campaigns they stick their noses in, and the chances of anything technical happening at their annual meetings is zilch.

But then Grayling is clearly talking out his hat, too. It makes you wonder, when he says socialist workers’ party, does he mean to say just socialists. Is a McCarthyite revival really necessary?

Anyway he has backtracked now. Huffpo put it:

The employment minister Chris Grayling has had to backtrack on claims that his email had been hacked by campaigners against a Government work experience scheme, which is continuing to attract controversy.

We’ll nip the politics of Joe in the bud now, and I can get back to not sympathising with the SWP post-haste.

Something on income mobility to consider

February 22, 2012 1 comment

I am currently reading a book called Changing Fortunes by Stephen Jenkins and one of the main findings in the book notes that around one fifth of the UK population are poor at any one time – that’s the same as in Saudi Arabia.

(The figure confirms, though, that this is a static figure – see here)

But due to poverty dynamics in the UK, and bearing in mind tax-benefit changes since 1991, many more people are “touched” by poverty, though quickly enter out of it. On the plus side, persistent poverty is felt by very few and its prevalence has been felt less over time due to those tax changes.

Whether this result has been made in accordance to rising cost of living, I’m yet to find out. But it is quite an interesting picture – not, however, without its problems (pertaining to income mobility, excluding reference to wages, earnings or wealth).

What, of course, it does suggest is that government intervention to tax changes, namely in the form of tax credits, has helped many from falling into poverty. The welfare system does work, but the fact that one fifth of the population are poor at any one time shows us there is plenty more to be done.

Categories: General Politics

Lower the VAT rate on all sanitary products to the zero rate (0%)

February 22, 2012 5 comments

Sign the petition

From January 2001, the rate of VAT for eligible sanitary protection products was lowered from the full rate of 17.5% to the “reduced rate” of 5%. Now we must pick up the campaign to see all sanitary products (including sanitary towels; sanitary pads; panty liners; tampons; keepers and maternity pads) be reduced to the zero rate (0%) alongside most food items, books, newspapers, magazines and children’s clothes.

They are very necessary items and rates on them disproportionately hit women the most. Some common sense on behalf of the government is needed.

Sign it

Are we in a household debt crisis?

February 16, 2012 2 comments

During the middle of last year, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein noted that rather than beating around the bush, he would call “what we’re in [now, in the US] a “household-debt crisis,” or something more elegant that gets the same idea across”.

The reason being that household debt to GDP ratio are dangerously high, banks aren’t lending, people aren’t spending, businesses aren’t growing, jobs aren’t being created and recession is giving us a sarcastic wink.

Perhaps as daunting is the growth industry of alternative lenders. What kind of household debt crisis awaits us if spending is only supported by rapid increases in borrowing from high-cost lenders, in a country where there is no law as yet to stop people borrowing over and over again, or borrowing to service other debts (roll over loans in other words).

Remembering the OBR’s forecast for household borrowing and debt, which show this rising from 160% of income last year to 173% by 2015, and prompted by being told by one Labour politician that the next economic crisis in this country will be one caused by household debt, I asked some economists and economy commentators their opinion on what they thought.

As this is research for something else I’ll leave names out, but one academic economist told me, bluntly, no. The reality, for them is:

levels of secured and unsecured borrowing are falling in nominal and real terms … the personal insolvency rate is falling … [and] the OBR’s projections appear too high

Contrary to that, the economics editor for a leading newspaper told me potentially yes. Aside from low interest rates acting as a mask for the real debt problem:

there has been little reduction in the level of household debt since the crisis started

He told me what potential damage there would be if the Bank of England pushed up interest rates back up to normal levels.

The Consumer Credit Counselling Service identified last year 6.2 million “financially vulnerable” households, 3.2 million of which “are already either three months behind with a debt payment or subject to some form of debt action,” and on top of that unemployment is rising fast.

Utilities are costing us more and our wages are not reflecting the increasing cost of living. When David Cameron asked us to pay back our debts, rather than doing as he says, we are doing as he is doing and staying in debt at the expense of some rather hideous economic policies.

Something exploding in household debt is clearly plausible. But depending on your definition of household debt crisis we could be experiencing one now. Or, indeed, OBR could have projected too high, too soon last year for 2014-15 and the whole thing could be fuss for nothing.

What do you think?

My deeply disturbing thesis; don’t attack Syria

February 14, 2012 62 comments

I note with grim bemusement some of the opinions coming out of this blog in recent weeks as regards potential operations in Syria, and the rather shocking attitude of Carl to people he believes hold principles that forbid military intervention in another nation. A deeply disturbing thesis, he calls these principles. Well, I for one disagree. I’m against any attack on Syria by any government.

Western governments cannot be trusted with a gun in their hand, period. It has nothing to do with the possible creation of safe zones, the potential for the Syrian people to rise up if they get Western help or their fate if they don’t. If you put guns in the hands of a movement which is not led by the independent organisations of the working class then, as in Libya, you invite disaster.

This disaster comes in the re-emergence of whatever social roots the criminal dictatorship can rely on, and it comes in the rise of racial, ethnic and tribal tensions. Separatism, as might be emerging some Libyan regions (not forgetting that this country was created by the West), becomes the focus of politics, as it attempts to bury the class struggle that must be waged against the privatisation which Gaddafi had come around to, and which the TNC will support.

If you think this is all abstract Marxist theorising, rather than being based on real events, look at the demands emanating from the local elites in Benghazi regarding Libya’s oil. Look at the details Amnesty International have of the looting of Black Libyan areas by the rebels. And I need not even mention how ethnic, racial and religious tensions became real with a vengeance in Iraq.

When socialists reproach pro-interventionists for listening to propaganda regarding the brutality of Bashar al-Assad, they’re not challenging the veracity of the stories. They’re challenging Western media emphasis on them, and the selection of these particular evils out of a whole world full of torture, oppression and misrule. Pro-interventionists aren’t being sufficiently critical in their approach to such evils. And they plainly haven’t learned the lessons of Western intervention elsewhere.

That lesson is an abject one in total hypocrisy. Concern for the victims of Assad now becomes indifference towards the victims of the Western militaries (and their less politically correct allies) and outright enmity towards those of divergent political aims. To foist such “help” upon the brave civilians who are standing up to Assad is absolute lunacy.

In the end, intervention is not an abstract instrumental question, it is a political one. The reckoning between the people of Syria and the dictatorship will not remain within those narrow parameters because of this. Eleven months into the uprising, the rebels have not been subdued. In fact, if reports are to be believed, Assad is using foreign hired guns to do what he dare not ask the army rank and file to do. Meanwhile the rebels must bring the rest of Damascus over to them – the stirrings of revolution.

Western intervention would almost certainly halt that – and may even result in some accommodation with the regime, after the removal of Assad. How is that justice for the thousands who have died?

These rebellions across the Middle East are not accidental or spontaneous. Dictators who have paid for their rule with oil wealth and relatively good living conditions are being hit by the global economic crisis. People are coming out into the streets not just to demand political freedom but to demand more from regimes that one by one succumbed to the depredations of market capitalism. The other capitalist nations will be more than happy to grant the former if they can forestall demands regarding the latter.

The sort of people the foreign powers are willing to deploy, to shut up the Syrian populace and prevent any further spread of the Arab Spring, is deeply telling however. Up until just this month, head of the Arab League observer mission was Mustafa al-Dabi, the Sudanese military official in post in Darfur whilst the genocide was going on. When the Western nations intervene, or the Arab League intervenes, the purpose will not be to limit civilian deaths, it will be to achieve an outcome satisfactory to those governments.

Moreover, looking at the sort of people likely to attempt to take control of Syria. Another unelected unaccountable trigger-happy transitional authority will simply release the same pressures as it released in Libya – and will thereafter pursue the same policies as Assad, perhaps resulting in worse casualties should any region or ethnic group dare to assert its separatist demands. By the time that happens, we’ll be lucky if there’s a Western media presence never mind a military presence.

Unlike Egypt, but like Libya, the Syrian people have started this with a handicap. They don’t have independent organisations of the working class. But they must develop them. The most we can do is hope on their behalf, and pressure our own governments to both stay aloof and to oppose Arab League intervention. That is not as satisfying perhaps as demanding the immediate bombing of every Syrian military installation in range of the 5th fleet, but that demand is not a solution to the problem – it complicates it. Meanwhile trust the Syrians to feel their way towards the right path. Assad’s continuing trickle of concessions are the surest sign that they will get there.

Meanwhile I wonder if the anti-war movement should be gearing up to oppose military intervention in a conflict closer to home, as it were, as the tension ratchets up over the Falklands again. I’m sure we’ll be hearing all the pro-interventionist piffle about democracy and self-determination on behalf of the islanders, should Argentina invade. As with Belgium in World War I, it is so much hypocritical twaddle in the mouths of capitalist leaders.

Which neatly brings me back to the deeply disturbing thesis. The capitalist state cannot be trusted to wield the military. Capitalist leaders, in their comfortable London drawing rooms, cannot be trusted to put the welfare of people in front of business when there are no lives at stake – why should they be trusted to put the welfare of people in front of what they consider to be the national interest when there are? Hands off Iran, Hands off Syria, Hands off the Falklands and while you’re at it, Hands off the NHS.

Categories: Dave's Favourites, Marxism
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