That complaint to the BBC

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.

Kind regards

About as close to an apology as I’m going to get, I think.  Anyway, civic duty done.

The labour movement’s post-election battleground: Part I of II

1  Introduction

Back in January, I was invited by Left Futures to provide a response to a post by Trevor Fisher.  Trevor considers Labour a lost cause when it comes to austerity. This is his conclusion:

The objective of the austerity movement is to destroy everything that Lloyd George and the political consensus that we have known for the last 90 years. A co-ordinated response can defeat the political objective of the neo-liberals to set up a new anti-state consensus.

So why is it not happening? The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future. It has embarked as New Labour on a Titanic style voyage into the ice field, at high speed. Labour is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to look for lifeboats. The solution has to be a people’s movement against austerity. The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted.

Trevor’s analysis is not, of course, an unusual one.   The idea that a Labour government will simply be ‘austerity-lite’ is now almost a mantra those who consider themselves left of Labour (within or outside the party).   Here are just a few examples expressing, in varying ways, anger or hopelessness or (in Sunny Hundal’s case) simply incomprehension at Labour’s purported plans to mimic the Tories in government.

Trevor’s analysis – like most others in this vein –  incorrect , for three main reasons:

  • Labour is part of the solution to the problems brought by five years of austerity, because it is actively planning for investment in public services;
  • The existing work of the People’s Assembly is, while impressive in many ways, misguided;
  • The idea that the best way to respond to the neoliberals’ anti-state consensus building is to support a return to the pre-2008 public service infrastructure of late capitalism is itself regressive.

In this essay, I present an alternative strategy for labour movement activism, which I contend takes us beyond these common errors of analysis by the Left. In part I, addressing the facts around Labour’s actual planning for government, before moving on to how and why so many people have misunderstood what Labour is about.   In part II, I look in details at what might be done for, by, with people like Trevor – no doubt a solid member of the labour movement, but who’s only recourse at the moment is another round of meetings and rallies calling, loudly but vainly, for the people to rise up against austerity.

2  What’s really being planned

Labour is seeking to portray itself as a party committed to ‘fiscal discipline’, and its central economic policy is now that it will never spend what it cannot save elsewhere.  I think this is a misguided strategy born of a narrow-minded elite in the Labour party, panicked by Tory control over opinion polls in 2001-12 (see section 3), but it is too now late to change that messaging in the 60-odd days to the election.

Behind the scenes it is different.  Labour HQ has calculators in the office, and they know perfectly well that they cannot make the cuts that the current profile suggests without collapsing parts of essential public services, and they know that this will cost them electorally; the new rounds of cuts will have to start to affect those beyond the vulnerable (e.g. social care eligibility) who to date have suffered more than other when their comparatively expensive needs have stopped being met, but who only vote once, and in relatively small numbers, so have been a calculated electoral write-off for the Coalition.

With a number of decent thinkers and planners – notably Jon Cruddas –  having fought a behind-the-scenes rearguard action against the fiscal conservatives, Labour is quietly planning to sustain and develop provision by borrowing/investing “off-balance sheet”, through mechanisms like the British Investment Bank (with an NS&I deposit) [1], which the Tott report commissioned by Labour makes clear is aimed at public services as well as SMEs, and through the development of ‘internal borrowing’ from Pension Funds [2], and through allowing local authorities to bring forward spend from later years in a five year cycle, effectively allowing them to borrow from themselves. [3]  This is in addition to the existing prudential borrowing regime, which is likely to see greater use in an environment where local authorities are not so afraid as they are currently about what comes next from the centre.

The condition for this investment from these sources is that as far as possible what is spent should create ‘downstream savings’, and it is from the “what should have been spent” pot that government, including local government and freed-up health economy organisations, will create the return for investors.   It will be, to a significant extent, a welcome foreshortening of the Social Impact Bond process developed and tested over the last 10 years, but which has proved to be bureaucratically difficult in the absence of political will.

A key unanswered question at the moment is to what extent these non-traditional routes to borrowing for investment will replace normal borrowing.

NS&I is not a bank and cannot simply create money for investment, so will presumably be constrained by the amount invested in NS&I, currently around £105bn [4].  While there is some good practice emerging around the use of Local Government Pension Funds to fund public spending where there is clear social value, to date these investments have been limited to capital schemes where the rate of return back to the Funds has been easy to determine because income streams are produced by the investment.  It is more difficult to persuade Pension Fund trustees, who must abide by their fiduciary duties [5] to protect those funds, to invest in ‘social infrastructure’ which creates savings downstream, as these savings must then be converted into returns [6].

My current view is that these non-traditional routes will not replace traditional deficit spending to the extent needed, though that it’s a good start. Given this, the further, vital question arises of what level of investment need can feasibly be packaged as social investment (and therefore open non-traditional funding) rather than simply additional spending on public services [7].  In any event, and as I go on now to explore, this is a question which the Left should be addressing for its own sake.

3  The two orthodoxies

What I have set out above may be the quiet reality of preparation for government, but it’s one known about by very few people in the labour movement, largely because of the strategic decision by Labour’s strategists (on which more below), to avoid challenge to the prevailing ‘deficit fetishism’, and instead to try and gain power by focusing on other policy areas e.g. the NHS.

This strategic decision requires a commitment to cost-neutral spending promises i.e. any spending commitment must be paid for by cuts/savings to other areas of current spending.  In order to know what’s really being planned, it’s necessary to a) talk to people closer to the actual development work (which I’ve done); and b) read the whole of policy documents, not just the summaries (which I’ve done).

In the absence of wider understanding of what is really being planned, most actors and organisations who self-identify as Labour and/or the Left have split into two broad ‘orthodoxies’, with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between them.

On one side of the ‘fault line’ are those who say an incoming Labour-led government must be ‘realistic’ about the public finances, and cannot therefore afford to reverse Coalition cuts, and those who subscribe what I will refer broadly to as the ‘anti-austerity movement’, who think a Labour-led government’s first duty is to reverse the cuts and reset public financing and public service to circa 2009.

Both sides are wrong, as I shall go on to set out, because establishing why and how they came to be so wrong, and what impact this wrongness has had to date,  is essential if the labour movement is to bridge the divide (which I address in part II).

The realist orthodoxy

The ‘realists’ are wrong for fairly obvious macro-economic reasons.  There’s no need here to go over now fairly established consensus that fiscal consolidation didn’t work, and that the way to boost growth (and pay down the deficit sensibly) is through a wage-led recovery, with a major lever for this being public investment.  The ‘realist’ support for fiscal consolidation and continued austerity has never been driven primarily by economics; calls for fiscal prudence have largely (from about 2011-2 onwards) been about a political messaging that Labour ‘can be trusted’ with the public finances, and the view (actually a self-fulfilling narrative) that the British public will never be able to conceptualize standard Keynesian economic management as anything other than spendthrift.

This is evidenced most clearly in Anthony Painter’s [8] at times excellent (2013) Left Without a Future: Social Justice in Anxious Times.  In a book devoted to ideas about how a future Labour government can create a more socially just society in times of continued fiscal restraint, Anthony sets out the need for that fiscal restraint in just a few short paragraphs (pp. 75-77), some of which are in themselves arguments against restraint.  All of the reasoning is contestable, especially the notion that “two or three years of very low growth, barely moving deficits and political impotence” might lead to a real danger of default (p.76), [9] but in any event he lets the cat out of the bag when, after this short justification he reveals its post-hoc nature:

It was in response to this debate that Cooke et al. [Anthony is one of the al.] wrote In the Black Labour: Why Fiscal Conservatism and Social Justice go Hand-in-Hand which was published in 2011 and created something of a stir in Labour circles.  Its core argument was that a reputation for fiscal responsibility was fundamental to any party aspiring to national leadership (p.78)

The realists’ economic rationale, then has never been anything much more than cover for short term electoral strategy, forged at a time when many in the Labour elite were concerned about the intractable opinion polls, which continued to show that the Coalition’s strategy of blaming a worldwide financial crisis on profligate public spending by Labour, was working remarkably well.  At that point, it made sense to this fairly small group of insiders, close to or within the pressure group Progress, that Labour should simply adopt a ‘balancing the books’ approach, because the battle for what economic common sense looks like had been lost. [10]

In their view, this was much more important than the longer term real-world impact of commitment to the In the Black doctrine largely, I suspect, because they simply didn’t consider real word impacts on the more vulnerable in society as being of themselves, important [11], even though it was clear by then that they, along with lower paid public sector workers themselves were facing the greatest direct burden of public sector cuts [12]

This all took place back in 2011-12.  Since then, Labour has, within the constraints it imposed upon itself by its commitment to no extra borrowing, brought to bear two broadly effective electoral responses to the Tories (while also playing Lib Dem Whack-a-Mole for light relief).  First, they have managed to articulate (in the Hall sense) the continued incompetencies [13] of the Tories in government with their elite background and narrowness of outlook (‘out of touch’ being the common phrase).   Second, they have managed to side step the Tories continuing lead on ‘economic competence’ by focusing on how improving figures at a national level of not translating into feelings of security and hope for the future amongst ‘real’ people.  You could even argue that Labour has managed to articulate all of these together, so that people think they are insecure and lacking in hope because Cameron is posh.  This has the added advantage of being true.

This is a good thing in the short term, and it is why a Labour-led government remains the most likely outcome despite a continuing poll lead for the Tories on economic competence.  The downside, though, is that what does or does not constitute fiscal responsibility – whether investment is actually better than  austerity – has become a taboo area within Labour, at least in public.  When Ed Balls committed to budget surplus in January 2014, leading In the Black Labour proponent Hopi Sen was simply able to tweet that the debate had been won.  To a large extent, he was right, although he underestimated the rearguard action that was mounted (see Part II for more details).

The effect of this, understandably, is that many of those who understand what actually fiscal responsibility is have now come to regard Labour as cowards and traitors.  A good case in point is Howard Reed, a decent economist, who penned White Flag Labour for Compass as early as January 2012 [14].

It could of course be argued that people like Howard should have spent a little more time looking at the kind of investments, set out above, which Labour is planning behind the scenes, rather than just the press statements, and that to effectively turn away from engagement with Labour over what it is getting right because it’s not getting everything right is actually very unhelpful to us all; indeed, this is pretty well Simon Wren-Lewis’ recent argument.

For myself, I don’t think such a blame game is helpful in the long run either; while I’ve tended towards it myself in the past, on reflection I think it’s more honest to hold myself to account for not having helped organise the forces of anti-austerity well enough back in 2011-12, not least because learning from what went wrong then is important for the new battle we face after the election.

I’ll come to this in detail on Part II, but the point to stress here is that many on and to the left of Labour attached themselves to the anti-austerity movement – to the extent that some former Labour activists are now standing against Labour in the general election – not because of actual pro-austerity policy from Labour, but because the fiscal conservatives within Labour, themselves driven by narrow political considerations rather than economic ones, created an environment in which plans for investment have remained largely hidden from view (e.g. in the IPPR Condition of Britain report (June 2014), the media and Labour’s own coverage of which failed to notice/deliberately declined to mention the chapters on innovative investment).

The anti-austerity orthodoxy

The ‘anti-austerians’ are wrong because simply returning public sector financing to the levels it enjoyed in the mid- to late 2000’s, without further consideration of how public services should be reformed, will be an utter disgrace, and a betrayal of ordinary people who depend on those services.  Yet this is apparently what is being proposed by an anti-austerity ‘movement’ backed by public sector unions who, understandably enough, are keen to defend their members’ terms and conditions in the narrowest sense of the term as best they can, but who appear to have rejected any responsibility they ever had for the quality of service provided.

The sad truth is that the quality of many public services has declined hugely in the past 20-30 years, and the pace of decline has increased, not simply because of the cuts but because of the way public servants do their work.  Journalist Kate Belgrave, for example, has recorded the transition of what we used to call employment services from a relatively harmless bureaucracy to a vicious institution which actively dehumanizes benefit claimants, and in which specific targets for inflicting misery on the already poor and powerless are implemented without challenge by trade unions.  In the NHS and care sector, the scandals at Winterbourne and at Mid-Staffs did not arise directly from public spending cuts or from privatisation, but from a decline in service standards which set in long before the Coalition came to power.

There are two main reasons for the decline in the quality of public services, and they form a duality.  First, the growth of managerialist ideology, itself a corollary of neoliberal economics, has created which are target- rather than value-driven, and in which every level of management holds the next one down accountable for reaching targets (often now called ‘outcomes’) while often preferring not to know how they are achieved.   Only last week, when earning a living tendering for a public sector contract (for a social enterprise) I was told by a senior manager that with the contract in question there was ‘no room for quality'; this was said with no hint of surprise.

Second, there has been a massive de-professionalization of the public services workforce.  Initially this de-professionalization was a conscious outcome of managerialism [15], as trade union and professional association concerns for the maintenance of quality were pushed to one side as impediments to competition-driven progress, but 30 years on most unions and associations simply no longer see it as their job to concern themselves with the quality of the service they offer to their fellow citizens; their sole role,  as they now see it, is to defend the terms and conditions of their members [16].

In my own profession, nursing, such a view of a trade union role has become institutionalized to the extent that when the Francis report recommended that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) be formally split into a ‘trade union side’ and a ‘quality of provision’ side, there was barely a murmur of protest from the RCN.  Even more revealingly, Francis did not even feel the need to recognise a possible role for Unison (the other main union/professional association for nurses) in ensuring or campaigning for quality of care.

The now endemic failure of the labour movement to care about the quality of services they provide damages it, of course; while would the non-unionised public support public servants’ industrial action in defence on terms and conditions if those same public servants don’t seem to care about them?

The anti-austerity movement is, frankly, an anachronism.  Its calls for a return to 201o spending, in the absence of proper reform, are in their own way as a regressive as the ‘realists’ call for continued austerity.   Now, I know to my cost [17] that such a bald statement, while perfectly defensible, is likely to be unhelpful to efforts to develop consensus around how a more progessive ‘post-austerity’ Labour might be organised for and won.  So let me be clear, even at the risk of repetition:  the vast majority of people who would now, if asked, hold to the anti-austerity orthodoxy position critiqued here, will be decent Labour (and ex-Labour) activists, members or supporters.

The fact that they support what I call an anachronistic position public services is not something for which they should be blamed, because the primary faults lies with a) a trade union movement which has overly narrowed its functions; b) those within the Labour party who, for the reasons set out above, have stymied a proper debate within the Labour party about what public service reform should and can be about [18].

There’s one more point to make about the anti-austerity movement as it’s developed to date, before I move on to how I think its members/supporters should think about the post-election period, and one which connects to those proposals.  This is that, while the anti-austerity movement has achieved precisely nothing of what it set out expressly to achieve, a good deal has been achieved as an unintended consequence.   While the primary ambition of retaining jobs and services by forcing councillors to spend up reserves then pass illegal budgets remains a pipe dream, the organisational and personal links forged at local, city and regional level, between grassroots trade unionists, service user activists and others such as engaged journalists and those who might self-define as anti-capitalists has been a very positive development.   As I’ll go onto suggest, it is through the emergence of an updated form of the Trades Council, properly allied to the appropriate power structures within the Labour party, that an effective working class post-austerity movement stands the greatest chance of success, and the fact that such organisational links have already been forged, even in a losing cause for now, offers promise.

Conversely, should the current anti-austerity movement move in the opposite direction, away from the Labour party power and resource that will make it effective, both it and those within Labour who believe in good quality public services and wider institutional development towards democratic socialism stand to be marginalised and alienated from each other even further than they are at the moment.

3  Developing a post-austerity movement

This is what I’ll turn to in part II.  I’ll argue that, while these two camps of orthodoxies currently seem poles apart, not least because of personal animosity and mutual name calling on both sides (and I’ve been guilty of that two), there  exists a substantial common ground between the two around which ideological and, more importantly, organisational consensus can be built.   Such a consensus, I will argue, might be built around seven core ideas, to which many can subscribe.  These are

i) that public services should have investment in human beings at their foundation;

ii) that such investment is as worthwhile, or more worthwhile, than capital investment, and that the ‘rate of return’ problem can be overcome;

iii) that public services are best when truly co-designed and co-produced, and that modern trade unions and trades councils have a key role to play here;

iv) that the institutional developments which allow for co-production will be most successful where they develop at a local level;

v) that while public service quality can be improved through intelligent, co-designed investment, such developments can and should act as a bridgehead to similar labour movement developments in the wider economy;

vi) that in order to facilitate all this, the Labour party will need to go beyond its Refounding Labour initiative and either open itself up to genuine labour movement direction, or risk becoming an irrelevance;

vii) that the window of opportunity after the election will be short, because if the two groupings described don’t coalesce organisationally around common interests, existing power interests 0 notably the narrow ones of the existing narrow trade union leadership and the Blairite right, will re-exert their power, and threaten the long-term future of the labour movement itself.



[1] Of course this borrowing is already happening via NS&I, via the Coalition’s 2.8/4% fixed term bonds for people aged over 65.  As, Chris Dillow points out, the other word for this is corruption, because of the particular choice of investor, but that doesn’t mean that using the NS&I as an investment mechanism is in itself a bad thing.

[2] Tott’s report indicates this form of borrowing can be even cheaper than conventional borrowing through the sale of bonds by the government’s Debt Management Office

[3] This is not likely to be introduced in year 1 of a Labour government, as local Public Accounts Committees may be a condition of such an internal investment mechanism (see Chapter 10 of IPPR’s June 2014 Condition of Britain report, which was effectively a Labour party report (a fact later confirmed by the Charities Commission, who reprimanded IPPR for being too overtly political.

[4] NS&I does not manage its own funds (and sadly, ATOS manage NS&I).  The funds are passed over to the National Loans Fund managed directly by the Treasury, where it is already used to fund roughly 10% of public borrowing.   There would presumably have to be a change in this arrangement if a proportion of NS&I funds were to be allocated direct to a British Investment Bank.

[5] The key obstacle to pension fund investment in social infrastructure has long been the fiduciary duty on trustees to maximise financial return to members, which has been taken as overriding all other factors and led pension funds to invest ‘safely’.  While there has been some movement towards a wider understanding of what members’ interests are, so as to allow invest in social and environmentally sound activities, and while there has been some very good local innovation in local government pension fund use, the recent Law Commission guidance remains very conservative in its approach, and there is still some way to go before we see a real rise in social investment by this route.

[6] Even when it comes to capital infrastructure, Osborne’s grand 2011 proclamation about tapping pension funds has so far turned out to be a damp squib, and Labour will need to re-energise this.

[7] I have been seeking to ‘crowdsource’ more extensive research, including a quantification of how far these new mechanisms will fill a more traditional borrowing gap.

[8] In my view, Anthony Painter is by far the best of the movers and shakers in the realist orthodoxy camp, and his Left without a Future (2013) is certainly worth a close reading.  While it is ultimately let down by the ill-conceived parameters of continued ‘tough choices’ Anthony provides for himself (as set out above), it is insightful both about how ‘investment’ should be seen in its widest sense, and in the need for the development of a range of new institutions aimed at delivering social justice (though I disagree with how his implicit suggestion around who should be responsible for designing these institutions, a matter on which I touch on in part 2 of this essay).  As I shall also set out in part 2 ,   it is to Anthony and some of his like-minded colleagues at RSA and IPPR, as well as to people like Jon Cruddas, that the (ex-austerity) labour movement will need to reach out to if it is to develop a truly effective post-austerity movement in the shortest time possible.

[9] Aside from the invalid short-shrift that Anthony gives to what he call the “ultra-Keynesian” argument – that there is real no barrier to deficit spending as long as it takes place within a functional economy – the other policy idea he dismisses all too easily is that of engineering inflation at around the 4-6 % level through quantitative easing (not the same, I should stress as deficit spending/investment on public services/infrastructure).

[10] That is not to say that countering the Tories credit card imagery was ever easy.  Such a metaphor fits neatly with Lakoff’s concept of the two central metaphors contesting the grounds in US politics:  the strict father vs. the nurturing father.  In these terms, it might be argued that Conservatives currently have the upper hand because the strict father metaphor has a hold, and it may be that Labour has to deliberately develop nurturing metaphors of its own as a way to ‘sell’ investment as a social good rather than a profligacy.

[11] I remember well Hazel Blears castigating me in a CLP meeting for being too focused on the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

[12] Of course, cuts to public spending also have indirect effects on the same group, by sucking money out of local economies and delaying recovery, and the weighting of cuts towards deprived areas has made this even more significant when it comes to regional inequalities.

[13] To blow my own trumpet for a second, I’ll add that I was amongst the first to advocate an opposition strategy of focusing on the details of incompetence, and it was my research around the maladministration of the Regional Growth Fund which created the ammunition for an early hit of this kind on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.  Unfortunately, while there have been other successes, the strategy was never deployed consistently.

[14] Howard Reed did engage with my reading of Labour’s investment plans, although he suggested I was over-optimistic.   Richard Murphy declined to engage, and continues to hold the view, reflected in Trevor’s Left Futures piece above, that Labour is Tory-lite.

[15] This is a conventional leftwing view. It is arguable that the legitimation of managerialism actually started earlier than this, and is as much a product of the socialist response to technological innovation in mass production as of neoliberalism.  As Peter Hain notes in his new book, Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism is marked by a dismissal of GDH Cole’s proposals for a modern ‘guild socialism’, on the grounds that these are incompatible with mew technologies and mass production.   While Hain seems happy to take Crosland at his work, my own view is that the side-lining of the whole guild tradition is at the roots of today’s mega-unions’ compliance with de-professionalization, especially in public services.

[16] There are vestiges of the old commitment to public service quality.  Ironically, in the face of what came next from the PCS, in 2011 the union asked election candidates to sign up to a pledge heavily focused on the quality of public services.  By 2012, that emphasis appeared to have been lost, as the Workfare programme was critiqued not for what it did to people on benefits, but solely for the effect it had on the workforce.

[17] When the Liberal Conspiracy version of the first part of this two part post appeared, I was called a wide selection of unpleasant names for my supposed treachery, but there was little or no actual counter-argument.  While that’s unimportant in itself, I accept that the provocative tone I adopted in the piece was more about my self-righteousness than any attempt to help forge a better strategy for opposition.

[18] That is not to say that there has been no debate within mainstream Labour about what ‘proper’ public service reform should look like.  The Progress pamphlet Reform in an Age of Austerity (February 2014), for example, is actually quite good on some of the crucial aspects of reform – particularly that it will need to be ‘relationa’ and personalised, but like the IPPR report Condition of Britain (see above) it remains hampered by the self-imposed fiscal straitjacket, within which these worthy ideals are mostly undeliverable.



On what drives employers to provide part-time employment

February 18, 2015 1 comment

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.


Categories: General Politics

In support of Iain Duncan-Smith’s social housing giveaway

February 12, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: General Politics

On BBC coverage of the Chapel Hill shootings

February 12, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: General Politics

The integrity of Greens

January 21, 2015 9 comments

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 [1] – 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. [2]

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’ [3].

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 [4].  I’m not talking here about specific policy stances, which range form the sensible (citizen’s income) to the downright stupid (opposing water fluoridation [5]). 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] 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.]


Categories: General Politics

Steve Bruce and the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis

January 16, 2015 3 comments

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.


* Roger tells me that Alistair Campbell’s new book may be full of stuff about how politicians can learn about successful management from footballers, though neither of us are going to read it.






Categories: General Politics

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