Archive for December, 2012

Rape and Indian culture

December 31, 2012 13 comments

The appalling gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has created the usual, and somewhat predictable, divisions in the left commentariat.

On the one hand you have Owen Jones:

But, in the West, Damini’s death has triggered a different response: a sense that this is an Indian-specific problem. “The crime has highlighted the  prevalence of sex attacks in India,” says the Daily Telegraph; “India  tries to move beyond its rape culture,” says Reuters. Again, it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a  supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.

On the other there’s Sunny Hundal:

I despair with well-meaning people who say India’s endemic violence against women doesn’t have cultural roots. Desperate attempt to be PC. The debate will go on into the night.  Nothing will be resolved, mostly because both are (only) half-right.

Owen is right to state the obvious – that violence against women remains a massive, under-recognised problem in Western Europe, but Sunny’s argument – that to ‘dilute’ the issue by suggesting that India is no worse than the UK, does a disservice to Indian women – is also reasonable.  (Like Sunny, I’ve spent plenty of time in Indian (and Bangladeshi) houses/shanties/huts and support his view that, quite simply, women have a lower status in many households).  Sunny’s probably also right to suggest a reluctance to pin the blame on Indian ‘culture’ stems, at least in part, from a wariness on the part of lefties of being taken as making racist assumptions about the cultural norms of brown people.

The problem with Sunny’s argument, though, comes in his essentialist use of the word ‘culture’.   For Sunny, culture appears to be a thing, which you have, or you don’t have.  Such a conception leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that, if the position of women in India is to be improved, Indians must lose a bit of their culture.   That, I suggest, doesn’t lead us very far.  Indeed it creates the condition in which the PC-gone-mad lefties like me, and maybe Owen, are tempted to reach for the safety of the ‘violence is everywhere’ argument.

I have a different conception of culture, and one which I think helps us through the current analytical impasse.

For me, culture is the product of a historical process of power struggle.  It is dynamic, and consistently evolving in response to those power struggles.   The biggest power struggle in the history of modern India was British Imperial rule, and this colonial rule had a very large impact on the position of women in India today.  The best analysis of this that I know of is in Varsha Chitnis and Danaya Wright, The Legacy of Colonialism: Law and Women’s Rights in India, 64 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1315 (2007), in which the authors argue that the unequal status of women in India today has its roots in the power struggle between

the native elites and the colonialists [which] was fought on the backs of Indian women because it was the alleged degraded position of Indian women and the barbaric actions of Indian men that justified the colonial mission in the first place. This brings into the picture a third group, British feminists, who claimed a moral imperative to reclaim for Indian women the dignity and rights of Western women (p.1318).

As a consequence, argue the authors:

The condition of the Indian woman, particularly within the home, became the battleground on which the contests of power between Indian and British men and between British men and women were fought…… [O]ne of the post-independence legacies of this complex tussle for power is that even secular laws for women today are either protectionist and patriarchal, or else modem Indian women are not in a position to exercise their legal rights in meaningful ways. Victorian notions of womanhood (chastity, innocence, self-effacement, and passiveness) continue to pervade some laws, and certainly the traditional training of lawmakers and judges in the British legal system allows them to bring their often patriarchal understanding of the historical foundations of these laws to bear as precedents and jurisprudential principles, even when the laws are facially egalitarian (p.1319).

Of course, blaming the unequal position of women in India on colonialism doesn’t get us very far in itself.  India has been independent for 70 years, and while the effects of colonialism are certainly longlasting and path-dependent, there are of course many other influences.  My point is simply that, if people in Britain are to support in any way, shape or form, the liberation of women in India and elsewhere in South Asia, it will be important to engage in any such action not on the basis of judgment about the inadequacy of Indian culture when compared to Western freedoms for women – that would be, after all, neo-colonialism writ large – but on the basis that we’re doing what we can to help Indian women gain the power Britain arguably denied them in the first place.


Wealth inequality: measurement, resilience, and an anti-Rentoul hypothesis

December 28, 2012 5 comments

Yesterday John Rentoul published an article in which he sought to refute accepted wisdom about the growth of inequality in Britain:

After all, “everyone knows” that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, don’t they? Well, this is where it gets interesting, because what “everyone knows” is not what is happening. The gap between rich and poor has not changed significantly for about 20 years, not since the increase in inequality that occurred when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in the 1980s.

The argument now developing, with Alex Hern responding and Rentoul re-responding, is focused entirely on income inequality. This is odd, because Rentoul’s original claim, reflected in the headline, is that wealth inequality, not just income inequality, has remained largely constant.

So I’ll respond to that aspect of Rentoul’s claim.

Rentoul’s evidence is the 2012 ONS Wealth and Assets Survey, and specifically Table 5 in chapter 2.  This shows that overall the Gini Coefficient for Wealth reduced very slightly between the 2006-08 and the 2008-10 period.

ATT00001 The Rich Dont Get Richer

This data, for Rentoul, is enough to show that:

the degree of inequality of wealth hardly changed from 2006 to 2010, becoming slightly more equal. Unless something dramatic has changed in the past two years, we would expect that trend to continue.

I assume Rentoul’s logic for this statement is that relative wealth is more stable ovet time than relative income because it reflects past accruals amd is therefire unlikely to be changed dramatically in a short space of time.  This might be fair enough, but it ignores one vital consideration: richer people not only have more wealth, they are also more resilient to economic shock.

Take financial wealth, one of the four sub-categories of total wealth measured by ONS.  Table 1 of chapter 2 shows that in 2006-08 14.9% of households owned UK shares, rising to 15.4% in 2008-10.  Table 2 then shows that in 2006-8 the mean average of UK shares per household was worth £25,200, dropping to £22,700 in 2008-10, while the median values were £4,000 and £2,000 respectively.  This means that while quite a few people had fairly small share ownership, a relatively small number had a very large amount of their wealth held in shares, and continued to do so through the two periods surveyed (though the table also shows a significant increase in gilt/bond ownership, some of which will have been a shift from shares as safe havens were sought out post-2008.

The key point, though is that UK shares, taking the FTSE 100, actually had 17.84% less value in June 2010 than they did in July 2006, as a result of the 2008 crash, with the major loss made just after the first survey period ending June 2008, before a partial recover from early 2009 onwards.  This means that, for the Gini coefficient to remain stable (and on the reasonable assumption that it is the wealthier households who own most of these shares), wealthier households must have accrued other types of wealth during the same period.  Yet we also know that substantive wealth is not reflected in the value of shares at any one point in time; rather it is reflected in the liberty to hold on to shares and sell them on at the point of greatest advantage (see als ch.3, annex 1, confirming this).

And the same logic applies to other types of non-cash wealth, held disproportionately by the wealthy, whether it be other financial investments held in less risky but lower value funds like bonds, or property values, which also suffered a dip in the post-crash period (except the very luxurious ones).

In short, the fact that the Gini coefficient remained more or less the same across the two survey periods reflects not the stable inequality that Rentoul would have us acknowledge, but a growing inequality masked by the difficulty inherent to valuing the resilience of wealth.  That growing inequality – growing if measured as overall asset base – in turn reflects the ability of wealthier to do well in times of economic crisis.

Meanwhile, we also know from the ONS report (ch3, p.34) that resilience amongst poorer households is falling:

In 2010/11, almost a third of households reported not having any savings at all, up from 24% in 2006/07. almost a third of households reported not having any savings at all, up from 24% in 2006/07.

Moreover, it needs to be recognised that the Gini coefficient, while it is a useful tool, is still a fairly blunt instrument, and tells us relatively little about distributions of inequality. In fact, it may well be that the similar Gini coefficients in the two periods mask quite dramatic changes in the internal composition of that inequality, in ways similar to those shown in this paper about the more refined use of the Gini coefficient to study the  aftermath of the 1990s economic crisis in Korea, in which detailed analysis shows that:

the average contribution of between-group inequality during the six quarters is about 122% of the changes in overall inequality. Therefore, it is believed that severe deterioration in between-group inequality has more than offset minor improvement in within-group inequality, resulting in deterioration of overall income inequality. In other words, the worker households in Korea are undergoing a distinct process of income stratification parallel with the concentration of income.

It may be that a similar secondary analysis of the ONS data might reflect some of the Labour narrative around the ‘squeezed middle’.  It is beyond the scope of this blog to test the hypothesis but, if that were to be done, we could at least thank John Rentoul for flagging up the ONS data again, even if his own use of it is sub-standard.

Social enterprise redefined and the privatisation of public involvement

December 27, 2012 15 comments

Local Healthwatches, I’m sure you remember, are the local bodies which, in April 2013, will replace Labour’s Local Involvement Networks (LINks).  See the Health and Social Care Act here, though that’s a bit confusing, because it amends Labour’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which is here.  Essentially, though, each local authority-sized Healthwatch will be responsible for public involvement in the design and implementation of health services.

Regular readers will know that my key concern about these new arrangements is exactly what kind of organisation will be eligible to deliver Healthwatch services. given the Health and Social Care Act’s wording on this:

The arrangements must be made  [by local authorities] with a body corporate which—

(a) is a social enterprise, and

(b) satisfies such criteria as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State


For the purposes of this section, a body is a social enterprise if—

(a) a person might reasonably consider that it acts for the benefit of the community in England, and

(b) it satisfies such criteria as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

After a long delay, these regulations were issued on 18th December.   This is how these criteria, by which a corporate body can be regarded as a social enterprise, are set out (my emphasis):

35.—(1) For the purposes of section 222(8)(b) of the 2007 Act (Local Healthwatch: social enterprises) the criteria prescribed are that the constitution of the body must—

(a) state, or contain provisions which ensure, that not less than 50 per cent of its distributable profits in each financial year will be used or applied for the purpose of the activities of that body;

(b) contain a statement or condition that the body is carrying on its activities for the benefit of the community in England; and

(c) where appropriate, contain provisions relating to the distribution of assets which take effect when that body is dissolved or wound up, as specified in paragraph (2).


(3) The criteria prescribed in paragraph (1) do not apply to the following bodies—

(a) a company limited by guarantee and registered as a charity in England and Wales;

(b )a community interest company registered as a company limited by guarantee; and

(c) a charitable incorporated organisation (within the meaning of Part 11 of the Charities Act 2011(17) (charitable incorporated organisations)).

Strip away the legalese, and the bizarre reality emerges.  Jeremy Hunt is allowing private firms to define themselves as social enterprises for the purposes of winning Local Healtwatch contracts, as long as they retain 50% of their profits in any financial year.  The other 50% can be distributed.  He is allowing this arrangement as a specific addition to the kind of organisational form normally associated with social enterprises (set out at para 3, though why the older form of Industrial and Provident Society is not included here is beyond me).

Clearly, the private health company lobbyists have been hard at work.   This is the first time the term ‘social enterprise’ has been defined in law, and its definition turns out to be nothing like what most people understand by social enterprise. Impressive stuff.

So what happens now?

Well, as set out here, most local authorities have already issued tenders for the provision of local healthwatch services, prior to the issuing of the regulations.  They had little choice, given the fact that the new arrangements are due to take effect in just over three months.   Many of the tenders issued have assumed, quite reasonably, that a defining feature of the organisations eligible for the work would be that they would be wholly non-profit, and have a full ‘asset lock’ written into their constitution.  Now that the regulations allow for private sector delivery of Healthwatch services, I anticipate either a panicky withdrawal/amendment of tenders by many local authorities, or legal challenge from the companies who have been lobbying behind the scenes for the very concept of social enterprise to be redefined by Jeremy Hunt, in a way designed to privatise public involvement.

Categories: General Politics

TCF review of the year

December 26, 2012 Leave a comment

It was shit.

Categories: General Politics

Global warming and the race relations catastrophe

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

In 1968, in a slim Penguin book called Labour’s Last Chance, socialist sociologist John Rex wrote a chapter called The Race Relations Catastrophe.  In it, he  predicted what would happen in Britain and urged politicians to take decisive action:

We have just about ten years to break down our ghettoes and to see to it that all men have the same opportunities in education and employment…The difficulties we face do not arise from our ignorance about how the problem should be tackled.  They arise from a lack of will or from opportunist electoral fear.  Yet trying to placate the electorate with semi-racialist policies, or keeping quiet in the hope that you won’t be called a nigger-lover hasn’t paid off, while a deliberate assault on the ghettoes with a view to clearing them would eliminate one of the most important of all the secondary causes of racialism.

The politicians did not act, and the race relations catastrophe has come to pass.  This, at least, is what I take from the YouGov survey on attitudes to immigrants, including the finding that 67% of those surveyed agree with the notion that immigration over the last decade has been bad for Britain, which mirrors the earlier finding that 67% think Britain is “losing its culture” as a result of immigration.  The act of immigration and the fact of ethnic minorities is merged in people’s minds, despite the fact that it is illogical, as Bourdieu reminds us, to call someone who already lives here an immigrant.

The die, it seems, is cast.  Whatever the actuality, a large section of the population is sorry/angry that mass immigration ever took place, and sees no chance of racial harmony.  My own daily experience is that people who are otherwise decent, tolerant types, are sure that ethnic minorities are harmful to Britain because of the way they seek to segregate themselves.  This, in the end is the result of what Chris has rightly called

an echo mechanism which helps stabilize opinion at a hostile level. Politicians and the media, knowing the public are opposed to immigration, tell them what they want to hear and – a few bromides aside – don’t challenge their opinion.

So what is to be done?  Chris seems unusually defeatist.  Alex proposes that what remains of the pro-immigration lobby seek to “go under the radar” by talking up the need for high-skill immigrants but, while that may be sensible in terms of actual official immigration policy, it doesn’t do anything about the fact that most white people apparently distrust/hate ethnic minorities (unless of course, they happen to know them, in which case the exception tends to be deployed in order to prove the rule).

In all of this,  it seems to me that there’s a corollary with the climate change question.   There is a growing body of evidence, from the regular irregularity of the weather to the risk of massive methane leaks from the permafrost, that we are at, or nearly at, the tipping point – the point when the carbon reduction methods and politics we’ve argued about for 30 years become useless in the face of new overwhelming and catastrophic change.   In such circumstances, the only solutions will come from radical technology, of the type which is now still largely seen as the stuff either of science fiction or of the lunatic scientific fringe: mirrors in space, iron filings in the sea, algae in the desert (my fave).

With climate change, we may be at the point of no return but, even if we are, it’s still likely to be a little while before we witness the full-blown effects of submerged cities and lack of drinking water.  So, too with the race relations catastrophe; we may be past the tipping point into a self-fulfilling distrust of our neighbours, but there’s no quite knowing when it might erupt into full-blown expressions of hatred.  (For what it’s worth, my  prediction is that, left to its own devices, racial hatred will erupt properly in the early- to mid-2020s, and be sparked by a far right-wing Conservative party‘s political need for ‘otherness’, against which it can make its call for a holistic, national unity of purpose.)

The only way to avoid this dark future is, I contend, to pursue the social equivalent of mirrors in space: to address the bubbling racial disharmony unconventionally and radically.

Of course, the far right already has its radical response lined up and waiting to go: it’s called ‘repatriation’ or something similar.  It might be a loathsome response in any way you might want to consider, but it needs to be recognised that it is a response which would be greeted favourably if violent and chaotic interracial conflict does develop.

From the left, the potential response takes two forms.   First, from the Marxist left, there is the belief that racial harmony will be a consequence of working class concientization, in which black and white workers being to recognise that their interests are mutual in the face of capitalist exploitation.  Then there’s the social democratic left’s belief that, working class consciousness aside, disharmony can be eradicated if only material disadvantage is tackled through state intervention in decent housing, employment creation, and high quality education.  Sort out material disdadvantage for all, goes the theory, and the rest will sort itself out.

I have sympathy with both these positions (and those in between), because any radical change in this direction would be welcome.  Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that any such developments would have a direct impact on now well-ingrained cultural hostility and deep social distrust.  Indeed, it may be that the ‘shallow’ form of working class consciousness that we may now be starting to witness, which is a result of the current government’s governing style rather than solidarity-building actions by the left, could be co-opted as a form of solidarity against ethnic minorities.

For me, the only radical initiative that continues to strikes me as both plausible and directly targeted at the race relations catastrophe as it stands is for an incoming Labour government to, first, recognise that race relations are, indeed, at a point where only radical action will work, and then on this basis establish some form of Truth and Reconciliation process, whereby the roots of racial distrust are examined in-depth, with widespread testimony to why and how the catastrophe came to pass.  This should of course, include scrutiny of the Labour party’s own part in what happened.

I have written about this previously, of course.  I even submitted it as a key recommendation in TCF’s submission to Refounding Labour process.  It was, naturally, ignored at the time.  Perhaps Labour, in the light of what Sunny Hundal rightly calls the “awful state” of public opinion – not just on immigration but also about ex-immigrants and their families –  might like to reconsider.  Before it really is too late.

Tory minister: local councillors must be independent of means

December 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Brandon Lewis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, gives his reasoning for the decision to bar local councillors from the Local Government Pension Scheme

Robust local scrutiny of council spending requires councillors to be substantively independent of means

I wonder if there’s any evidence of councillors not being robust because they’ve had pension rights.

Interestingly, this requirement does not apply to Boris Johnson, who gets to keep his pension rights because he’s full-time.

Jackie Ashley on Labour and migration: grammatically, factually and politically incorrect

December 17, 2012 4 comments

Jackie Ashley is by no means the worst Guardian columnist – Simon Jenkins is, by a country mile – but this is horribly disappointing:

We do need to think about the numbers. In a decade, almost 4 million migrants settled in England and Wales, according to last week’s census figures. The population rose by 3.7 million between 2001 and last year; 70% of the rise was caused by immigration.

Though the effects are spread across most of urban Britain, they are most dramatic in London. There, just under 45% of people are white British. Across the country less than 90% are white. Some 7.5 million people are foreign-born; there are apparently around a million households that speak no English……….

There are some fundamentals on which Labour should be more forthright, less mealy-mouthed. One is language. What we want is a strong sense of common citizenship, obligation and rights going together. That’s always been the progressive position. But it’s impossible to fully participate if you don’t speak and understand English. Miliband is talking about this at last, but can afford to push harder.

Alongside this go basic, longstanding progressive positions on women’s rights, free speech, equal educational opportunities for all and individual freedom of choice. In a time when one religion – Christianity – is on the wane, but others are on the rise, the liberal advances won over decades can never be taken for granted.

First of all, Ashley looks to be factually wrong on  the number of “households that speak no English”.  (That’s slipped past the Guardian grammar police, and I assume it means “households in which no-one speaks English”).  She appears to have got the 1 million figure from the ONS findings (pdf via here), which says that in 4% of the 23.4 million households in the country (so roughly 1 million) no-one “speaks English as a main language” (p.18)  Not having English as a main language is quite different from speaking no English, and the ONS makes this perfectly clear in the very next sentence:

People who did not report English as a main language may br fluent English speakers and were able to report their English language proficiency as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

So the Guardian’s fact-check police appear to have been on holiday too.

The key issue, though, is how this fairly glaring error  fits with the overall narrative that having funny-language foreigners, especially non-white ones, is necessarily a problem that Labour needs to work on.

As I set out the other day, the evidence suggests that, for the country’ s long-term future, the opposite may be true.  Research from the US, for example, suggests that children who grow up ‘language brokering’ for the non-English speaking parents actually benefit cognitively, to the extent that they achieve more academically than peers who don’t have this life-role.  Further, NALDIC reports that children growing up to become bilingual make faster progress in the English GCSE curriculum than their monolingual peers, as well as outperforming them overall in GCSE Biology; Chemistry; Physics; Mathematics; Statistics; Religious Studies; French; German; and Spanish (h/t @barsacq).*

But it’s the last paragraph quoted above which is particularly worrying.  Does Ashley really mean what she says?  Does she really believe that the decline of Christianity and the the rise of other religions provides a threat to “equal educational opportunities”?  Does she really think there are a large number of Muslim/Sikh/Hindu parents intent on denying girls education?

If so, she’s not just ignorant of the research** showing the opposite, she’s also been reading too much the Daily Mail.  As, arguably, have the Guardian sub-editors.

* I was talking about this stuff with people in the pub at the weekend.  It occurred to us that in fact migrant parents not learning English as quickly as they might (or at least not admitting to having done so) may in fact be – at least partially – some kind of learned response (i.e not consciously articulated) around the developmental needs and subsequent life-chances of their children.

Compare, for example, the way in which parents (myself included) feign ignorance about subject areas so as to encourage their children to “teach” them about their new findings about the world, and how this creates not just confidence in the subject area itself but also helps to develop oracy around it.  Could it be that parents do the same as their foreign-born children learn English more quickly than them?

Further, having learned a couple of languages myself by ‘throwing myself in the deep end’ (notably Bangla from scratch but also French-to-working-fluency in a Swiss hospital), I can vouch for how absolutely knackering and even stressful it is in the early stages, when you don’t trust yourself to understand what’s said back to you.  Is it not an appropriate response for parents to provide the safety and reassurance of the first language in the home, to the extent that this becomes a familial norm even when children have got the fluency point?

** Just as two examples of Asian family commitment to female education in Britain:

1) Basit TN (1997) ‘I Want More Freedom, but Not Too Much’: British Muslim girls and the dynamism of family values, Gender and Education, V ol. 9 , No. 4 , pp. 425 – 439:

Research shows that young Asian women who have been to school in Britain are increasingly been allowed to work, if only until their marriage (Sharpe, 1976). However, the assumption that British Asian girls will have an arranged marriage and will not need career advice is not borne out by research (Thornley & Siann, 1991), as the wish for marriage, children and family life does not necessarily preclude the desire for labour market participation amongst girls (Mirza, 1992). British Asian Muslim parents are amenable to their daughters’ desire to work if they are able to attain a good education and go into a career perceived as safe and respectable: one which does not jeopardise the safety and reputation of these young women (Basit, 1996a).

2) Afsha H (1989): hopes, expectations and achievements of Muslim women in West Yorkshire, Gender and Education, Vol. 1, No. 3  pp 261 – 262:

Muslim women in West Yorkshire, like their male counterparts, place an inordinate trust in the ability of the educational system to act as a means of delivering their children from the drudgery of poverty. Although in practice there is not enough evidence to support their optimism, women of all backgrounds, regardless of their own levels of educational achievement, seek to promote their children within the school and further educational systems and are increasingly doing so for their daughters as well as their sons.

For a wider review, try Stevens, Peter A. J (2007). Researching Race/Ethnicity and Educational Inequality in English Secondary Schools: A Critical Review of the Research Literature Between 1980 and 2005.  Review of Educational Research  Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 147 – 185.


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