A quick follow up on this post on a BBC presenter apparently suggesting you can’t be an American and a Muslim, and my complaint.
The BBC have now replied as follows:
Thank you for getting in touch about the US media coverage of the Chapel Hill shootings, from the Phil Williams programme on 12 February 2015. Please accept our apologies for the delay replying whilst we looked into the matter for you.
We have discussed your concerns personally with the programme’s Editor who explains in response that Phil was trying to get to the heart of the social media controversy around the reporting of the event, which maintained that US media coverage would have been greater if this had been a shooting carried out by an American Muslim on white Americans. But in the pressure of the live broadcasting environment, the Editor accepts that Phil inadvertently used phrases that were not as clear as they should have been.
As you rightly point out, the victims were US citizens too, and it was not the intention to give any other impression.
Thank you for pointing this out.
About as close to an apology as I’m going to get, I think. Anyway, civic duty done.
The news that, as Universal Credit gets rolled out, people currently working 30 hours a week at the national minimum wage (NMW) stand to be sanctioned for nearly £30 a week if they can’t either get an 18% payrise of increase their hours to 35 per week, reminded me that one of the key drivers of underemployment remains pretty well unnoticed by the media or commentariat.
This key driver is the NI employer contribution threshold, which for the current tax year stands at £7,956. Below this employers don’t have to a pay contribution. This means that the best way to keep costs down if say, a business needs 10 FTE staff to run it, is to employ around 16 staff at the NMW (£6.50/hour*) on around 23.5 hours a week, meaning that the business gets the optimum mix of cost per employee outgoings (uniforms, training etc) and lack of NI cost.
This drive towards part-time employment as a percentage of overall labour is, of course, exacerbated by the shift towards more routine jobs, up 7% in the last 12 months as a percentage of all jobs. Routine jobs tend, by their nature, to be those where continuity of the person doing the job is less important because less skill is involved**
Now all this is pretty obvious to me, as I do my best to run a tax-paying social enterprise in a service sector where the largely female workforce is open to this kind of exploitation, and where the more rapacious firms keep a close eye on hours worked in order to minimise tax outgoings, even when the discontinuity of service offered can lead to poor service quality.
I can see very well what’s going on around me. But this simply begs the question is why the media, or the political class, has not picked up on what’s going on. Why are Labour, for example, not addressing this either by looking to introduce a more staggered NI employer and employee threshold, which at the same time protects part-time workers from the later shock of not having paid in enough to get the full state pension.
The reason, I suspect, is that Westminster Bubble thing. Small employers exploiting workers by keeping their hours low tend not to make a song and dance about doing so, and so only people close to the ground see the real impact on people’s lives. Meanwhile, the policymakers either wring their hands and wonder why people can’t work full-time, or – as with the latest Tory scheme- assume it’s that the part-timers are too lazy to go full-time.
* This is for over 21s. Employers can afford to employ 18-20years olds on a NMW of £5.13/hour for nearly 30 hours a week, which means they still stand to be sanctioned.
** This isn’t always the case. Just because someone’s on the NMW doesn’t mean that they’re not highly proficient and their hours easily replaceable via part-timification. As a childcare social enterprise, we much prefer to employ full-time and pay the NI costs, not just because paying tax is the right thing to do, but because continuity of care is important. We’re skinter than we might be, but we’re very good at pre-school education.
Iain Duncan Smith has come in for some criticism today for his proposals, apparently not yet agreed within the Tory ranks, to incentivise people into work by offering them their social housing if they take themselves off all benefits for a year. The key objection is that getting rid of social housing in this way will take social housing away from those who need it, and be the opposite of what we need.
For myself, I quite like the proposal.
Imagine, for a second, the lip-licking at the proposals in the offices of those rapacious equity release companies which prey on more vulnerable home-owners by offering a bit of an income in return for a lot or all of the house/flat. They’ll already be drawing up plans to approach people in social housing with attractive looking offers of money which will allow those at the sharp end of the benefits regime a year’s respite, in return for signing away the deeds to their accommodation the moment the year is up and it becomes theirs. For, say, £25,000 up front (to replace income support and housing benefit), plus the 35%-of-value tax payment due for early sale (some of which they may be able to load onto the poor renter via the small print) the company gets a property added to their portfolio, and a stable tenant now paying rent at inflated rates.
Imagine now, though, a housing stock local authority with aforethought about how to turn IDS’s daft plan to their and their tenant’s advantage. In this scenario, the local authority does exactly the same as the equity release scoundrels, offering cash up front to the tenant-soon-to-be-owner, relieving them of the ridiculous, life-mangling benefits regime for a year, in return for a the deeds at the end of the year. At this point, under the updated Right to Buy regulations (p.6), the local authority gets compensation from central government for “loss of income above what has been covered in the self-financing settlement“, allowing it the same amount of room to borrow, while remaining within the borrowing cap imposed under that same settlement.
The local authority then pays the 35% tax on the value on behalf of the renter, and resumes rental of the social housing to the same person at the same rent as previously, using its enhanced borrowing power to pay off that 35% quasi-capital investment at the current low rates over a long period.
Heh presto, everyone’s happy, especially the renter, who may also used her/his benefit regime-free year to good effect, perhaps even moving off benefit because of a genuine improvement in circumstance.
The real point here, of course, is that this roundabout way of capitalising on Iain Duncan-Smith’s utter daftness is possibly slightly less daft than the original, which must make the original very daft indeed.
Flicking on the radio about 1210hrs last night while I made coffee, I heard Radio Five Live presenter Phil Williams interviewing two people from the US about the Chapel Hill shootings. I was shocked enough to go back to the recording later and transcribe what he said.
At around 01:40:55 on the recording, he says to the first guest, a journalist from the town:
Talk to me just briefly, Lauren, about what the level of attention this story’s had in the United States, and certain suggestions that had this been a Muslim person who had killed three Americans, it might have played higher up the news bulletins there.
He puts seemingly deliberate emphasis on the word Americans, as though to make clear the juxtaposition with ‘Muslim person’.
Then at 01: 44: 35 he asks his second guest, the Legal & Policy Director of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee:
And what’s your view on the level of coverage, and how it would compare, if the same crime had been committed, and it’d been a Muslim charge with the murder of three Americans, rather than the other way round?
Both of these suggest strongly that Mr Williams believes, at least when under radio interview pressure, that being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive. (My understanding is that the three people killed were US citizens.)
I had a brief twitter exchange with Mr Williams during the programme, in which I sought an on-air correction, and he suggested my interpretation of what he had said was incorrect. No correction was provided.)
Given the importance of high quality public broadcasting, I think it’s now my public duty to lodge a complaint with the BBC, and will do this weekend. I am sure Mr Williams meant no harm, but this kind of ignorance needs to be challenged.
Adam has an interesting post up on how Labour running the Vote Green-Get Blue tactic may be misguided. I agree, but not for the reasons Adam gives.
For Adam, the Green surge is because:
[w]ith another hung parliament now a racing certainty with the bookies, voters know that a vote for the smaller parties is no longer necessarily a wasted one.
In a first past the post system, this doesn’t really hold water. If people are making decisions about their vote, everyone outside a very small number of constituencies (Brighton, Norwich South, just possibly Bristol West and St Ives), knows that their vote will be “wasted” in terms of the meaning Adam accords it – the Greens taking or not taking the seat in May. Even the extension of this theory, that this vote builds towards victory in 2020, seems a bit ambitious.
Nor am I as convinced as Adam appears to be that most voters make their voting decisions on the basis of its likely effect on the result. Witness, for example, the small but significant “wasted” Labour votes in rock solid Tory constituencies, and vice versa, which has taken place for decades.
But the nationwide surge of the Greens in the polling appears to be real, as does the increase in membership. The question is what explains this surge, if it isn’t the prospect of victory.
An alternative explanation lies in the opposite direction from the utilitarian calculations assumed by Adam. This is that, in the terms of the godfather of anti-utilitarianism Bernard Williams, Green voters are developing “integrity”.
In the Williams sense of the term, integrity doesn’t mean honesty. It simply means that a person’s decisions are made on the basis not of other agents’ views on what the best outcome is – this for Williams is a philosophical absurdity  – but on the basis of that person’s own ‘project’.
Of course, Williams is offering a normative account, in response to the normative proposals of utilitarians, of how society might properly conduct itself, and he produces little or no empirical evidence that people actually make decisions on this basis. Nevertheless, it rings true. My own experience of talking to Green voters – both friends/work colleagues and on the doorstep – is that people are more likely than they used to be to say “I’m a Green”, as opposed to “I vote/am voting Green”. This suggests a level of internalisation of what it means to support the Green party, in the same way that we still hear “we’re Labour in this house”. By contrast, it’s not something I hear lot from people saying they intend to vote UKIP.
It’s possible, then, that what we’re seeing now – and perhaps membership is a more important indicator than polling – is the Green party starting to become an “integral” part of some people’s being, with the result that more people vote Green simply because that is what they do and who they are.
There is not necessarily any contradiction between this and the apparent swift surge in the polling and membership; the idea of making decisions in line with some kind of internal ‘project’ doesn’t mean that this project is not internalised swiftly from external factors, including press coverage. Over a longer timespan, it may be that younger people are more open to taking on being Green as part of an internal project because they have studied ecological issues at school, and are simply more aware of the detail. 
It may be that social theorist Anthony Giddens was right, way back in 1991, when she suggested that at least one section of modern society will move beyond “emancipatory politics” and towards “life politics”, and via this transition reclaim what Giddens calls their “ontological security”, a concept which seems quite close to Williams’ agential integrity.
Good for them. Most of the Greens I meet are OK people, and at a personal level I wish them well. But the issue for socialists is , of course, precisely that it is only one section of society who is benefiting from this stage of late modernism. As Giddens notes:
Life politics presumes (a certain level of) emancipation, in both the main senses….: emancipation form the fixities of tradition and form conditions of hierarchical domination…Life politics does not primarily concern the conditions which liberate us in order to make choices: it is a politics of choice. While emancipatory politics is a politics of life chances, life politics is a of lifestyle (p.214).
As a Labour person, ontologically secure in my loyalty to the Labour party because of what I have internalised about it, the rise of the Greens obviously concerns me. From a Williams/Giddens reading, it actually concerns me more than the rise of UKIP, which is currently profiting from a phase of deep ontological insecurity, but which does not currently at least threaten to consolidate a group of people who are ‘integrally UKIP’ .
The rise of the Green party concerns me because it remains fundamentally a bourgeois party, with no organisational links to the working class and no real heart for emancipatory struggle . I’m not talking here about specific policy stances, which range form the sensible (citizen’s income) to the downright stupid (opposing water fluoridation ). I’m talking about what makes Greens tick, and it’s not the emancipatory ideal and the re-embedding of worker-consumer duality that make me tick.
As Adam says then, combating the Greens with ‘Vote Green, Get Blue’ messaging will not, for the reasons I’ve set out, be effective; indeed, it may help reinforce Green “integrity”. The only real way for Labour to shore up its vote in the longer term against the Green surge is to reinvigorate the Labour ‘life project’, so that Labour people can become whole again. Again, this isn’t (mostly) about policy detail, though that helps. It’s about, at a local level, ridding ourselves of the bastardised version of ‘community organising’, which under Arnie Graf promotes the efficient but angry consumer instead of collectivist action. At a national level, it’s about allowing that to happen e.g. through allowing and facilitating the development of Modern Trades Councils as associative endeavours with ever-increasing legitimacy. It’s about people feeling the Labour impulse.
 Williams’ famous thought experiment to explore this is the story of Jim, faced with the dilemma of shooting one hostage to free twenty others, or not taking a life and knowing that all 20 will die. For Williams, the utilitarian argument for the former option is, literally, “absurd” since it
demand[s] of such a man, when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires. It is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions. It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone’s projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his projects and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.
At a personal level, this argument strikes a chord in relation to my father’s bombing of Dresden which, while an understandable act in utilitarian terms, did – I have cause to believe – leave him with a life that lacked some integrity, in the Williams sense of the word. This is not to argue that bombing civilians was ethically wrong in the context of the war – indeed Williams argument is part of his anti-ethics philosophy, but the fetishisation of the military over the last twenty years, in a way which fails to recognise what killing people actually means for those who do the killing as well as the killed – does concern me.
 There may be a more mundane explanation for the rise. It may simply be that more voters are now saying they’ll vote Green simply because they’ve not had an option to do so at local elections, in which Green candidates only make an occasional appearance in many areas.
 My nagging fear remains that, although UKIP may fade as an electoral force after May, or at least sfter a referendum on EU membership, and when the buffoon Farage goes, the empty institutional architecture of the party will be taken over by an authoritarian demagogue able to convert the insecurities of modern life, including terrorism, into the securities of something much darker, taking a large section of current UKIP sympathizers with her/him (it would almost certainly be a him). Williams-style integrity doesn’t have to be a good thing.
 In this I disagree politely with Phil, who contends that the Green party has been transformed into a genuinely socialist party no longer dominated by what he calls “deep Greens” (in my area these have been the only ones on public view for many years, though they tend only to come out at election time).
 It’s not just that this is anti-science, around which even Bernard Williams softened his stance. It’s the whole notion that personal choice must outweigh public health benefits at all costs, which seems strangely at odds with the call for collective action on the environment in general. If this logic applies to fluoridation, why won’t it apply vaccination, with resulting in the consequences of loss of herd immunity?
[Edited 22/01 to correct Bristol South to West.]
Last week, somewhat less noticed than it might have been but for the Paris attack, premier league football manager Steve Bruce gave us his commentary on the conviction of Ched Evans for rape. Here’s what he said:
Yes, I spoke with Simon [the Oldham FC chairman who tried to sign Evans] I’ve known Sing for a lot of years now, and know that in his mind – he’d looked at the case too, and when you look at the evidence before everybody, I think he was of the opinion to give the kid a chance.
In my mind he has looked at the case and evidence and he was of the opinion to give the kid a chance. I’m a big believer that if you have done your time, you’ve done your time. Everyone deserves a second chance. You’ve seen footballers involved in accidents, and given a second chance, which I can only say, on behalf of myself ad I know I might bee upsetting people, that when you do look at the case in depth, in detail, then there is a question of the rape and how he’s been convicted of it by a jury, but when you do look at the evidence, it is there for appeal.
[cut in footage]
It has divided opinion of course, and I think when you look at the case in detail – and I think most people haven’t really, because they’ve just seen Ched Evans as a convicted rapist – but when you do look at the case and look at the evidence, before everybody to see, then certainly Ched has got a case, and I’m a big believer that if you’ve done your time, you’ve done your time, and everybody deserves a second chance. We’ve seen footballers involved with accidents and been given a second chance and for me, the appeal can’t come quick enough for Ched. It must be a frustrating, difficult time for him, like it is with everybody, and I think the appeal can’t quick enough for him and I think that the event of the appeal will see for that Ched will be allowed to play football again.
Bruce has been widely criticized for suggesting that he might know something a jury that sat through the evidence doesn’t know. For myself, I don’t care what he thinks, but the way he conveys his belief that Evans may be innocent is interesting.
Bruce starts hesitantly, evidence that he knows he is on unfamiliar, risky territory. The way he gets into his stride is to adopt the grammatical structure of the football pundit, slipping naturally into the mix of present and present perfect tense that you hear all the time on Match of the Day to describe recent action: “he’s looked at the evidence”, “Ched’s got a case”, “how he’s been convicted” etc.. Listen again, and it sounds very much like he’s doing a post-match interview, and is aggrieved at a decision – something along the lines of: “he’s gone down in the box, he’s had his legs taken from under him, clear as day, but the ref’s not seen it, that’s a shocking decision, that is, Gary”, and so on.
You can even sense where Bruce might have gone with his analysis: “Sure, he’s done her, but it’s not malicious, and she’s already on her way down. It’s a yellow card at most, never a red”. To be fair to Bruce, he doesn’t go in this direction, but there’s a televisual quality about the way he questions how the jury has come to its decision, as though he and his viewers are looking at the replay from the side-on angle, and then criticizing the linesman for getting it wrong. In Bruce’s mind now, as he gets into his flow, he has actually seen what needs to be seen, and he’s made the right call because he’s a top manager, and that’s what top managers do.
I think there may be two phenomena at play here:
First, there’s linguistic determinism, of the (arguably Wittgensteinian) Whorf-Sapir hypothesis type. Bruce slips into the language with which he’s familiar, and this structures his thoughts; he has to give an opinion, because that’s the role of the pundit, and he has to talk the ‘viewer’ through the action. It’s his very expertise as a football pundit that creates his failure to step back from the abyss.
Second, there’s the cult of managerialism on display from both interviewer and interviewee. Bruce, despite knowing he’s on unfamiliar ground, can’t resist taking his managerial competence in one area and seeking to apply it to another, with disastrous consequences. Nor, it seems, can the interviewer (or the editorial team setting the questions) recognize that Bruce is a football manager, and that he’s really quite unlikely to have anything useful to say about a rape conviction.
As I’ve said, I’ve no interest in Steve Bruce, but the way he conducts himself in this interview arguably offers a wider lesson. If Wittgenstein’s maxim (5.6) that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” holds true for a football manager, why would it different for other managers, or politicians*? If they can’t speak fluently a language other than management, then it’s cognitively-linguistically impossible for them to grasp anything beyond what that language constructs for them. This, then, creates an empirically sound argument for worker representation on boards, and for diversification of background in parliament, for example, and for a democratization of decision-making in the interests of sounder and public services.
Meanwhile, Steve Bruce should stick with football.