We’re fighting the cuts- really?

I went to the public meeting held in Hanley tonight on the subject of fighting the cuts in public expenditure. It was well attended meeting chaired ably by Jason Hill. If anything there were too many speakers, but that is a personal view. I did think that they were more or less saying the same thing, with the possible exception of the Stoke Councillor who represented Hartshill.

In many ways it was like a re-run of the 1980s and a number of contributions from the floor were Councillor’s from that decade. Myself, Barry Russell and Arthur Bough who I think made contributions that added to the debate.

Speaker after speaker to denounce the work of the Con Dem coalition and urged the need to resist the cuts. The need for demonstrations and the need to mobilise the trade union movement to take the battle to the enemy was a common theme. A slightly sour note was sounded by the Stoke Councillor who felt that by ducking the cut’s issue that it was playing into the enemy’s hands. Perhaps someone should lend him a copy of George Lansbury’s leader of the Labour party in the 30s biography?

The panel ended by urging the Labour establishment including the trade union leadership to take the fight into parliamentary and extra parliamentary action.

One speaker spoke of the need to increase public service investment. At this I balked. I have a problem with the no cuts at any price tocsin. I actually think that the ending of ID cards and curtailing of the Surveillance State is a good think. I deplore the target culture and if there are cuts. I am quite happy to entertain reductions in the numbers of target setter’s. Would anyone shed a tear if OFSTD ceased to be? I am slightly queasy about the slogan of increasing public investment. I would prefer the cry of more investment in people and communities. After all despite massive public investment the wealth gap has increased and social mobility widened. For me its time for a different approach. I actually think, although it was derided at the meeting, that Cameron might have touched a nerve with the “Big Society”. People seem to recoil from the bossiness that unfortunately all too frequently attends public bodies. Besides my own and my family’s experience of the public sector is less than perfect. I have had a terrible experience of Job Centre Plus, a shocking encounter with staff at Sure Start and a feeling with staff at Connexions that ticking a box was more important than dealing with me as a person. My Mother was told at a City Council Housing Office by a young female member of staff that she ought to be “grateful” at the poor level of service that she received caused me to stop breathing for a few minutes.

On the other I have had good experiences with the CAB and with the Transition Town Movement.

The argument that public is universally good and voluntary cheapskate or in the words of one contributor ” jackshit” rather rankles with me.

It does smack in an Orwelliam sense of two legs- voluntary and bad four legs public and good.

Ideally one system should augment and support the other.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we ought to resist the cuts, but the argument is rather more nuanced than any of the speakers gave credit for.

I thought of the man who made the “jackshit” comment. I presume should he go to the seaside and unfortunately fall into the sea then he would he would refuse to be rescued by the ” jackshit” volunteer crew that man all RNLI boats?

You could argue that the voluntary sector has been around far longer than the State. Thomas Coram’s Children Service was founded in the 18th century and the Salvation Army and Barnado’s predate the welfare state. Does this pedigree make it inferior?

I did make the point that it is important that the local voluntary sector in the shape manage itself carefully and should resist the idea that it replaces public services. The voluntary sector should not allow itself to be cast in the role of “useful idiot” in a cuts driven agenda.

I made a comment that it was important to build a mass campaign that included the trade unions, community, faith groups and other. If you are looking at historical precedents then the Poll Tax Campaign of 1990 is a good example. However, as I pointed out it was a “slow burner”. I recall going to a national demonstration that was poorly attended in September 1989 in Manchester. Things only took off in the spring when bills hit the doormat and there was the riot in Trafalgar Square in April 1990. When you have demonstrations in Tunbridge Wells and Frome then you know you have problems. And, of course, by November Thatcher fell.

It is also too easy and frankly negative to say what you are against. It is important to say what you are for. I would uneasy about fighting for public investment. I would want to fight for community investment. I cavil at the fight for jobs. What about fighting for a liveable income?

A campaign has to be about positive messages as well in my opinion.

I fear that some of the comments made at the meeting mean that it will end messily and in factions which is usually the case with the Left. I might be confounded however

A view from the tills

Working at a till at a checkout gives you a unique perspective on British society. For one thing most people use supermarkets and over a 4-hour period it is likely that you will see approaching 200 people. Some will be well off and the people on limited incomes will arrive late with the hope of getting some late bargains. Over the course of a day you will see many people engaging in consumerism.

I was working at the supermarket the other day and had occasion to look up. There was a line of several people looking very grim. On my facebook page I likened it to an illustration by Daumier from the 1820s of a line of prisoners being taken away in an execution cart to hang at Tyburn.

They all looked hollowed eyed.

People are not happy and it is a theme I have touched on before. There is something wrong in the land.

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For many years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest and possessions: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective worth. It is how we identify ourselves. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. I shop therefore I am.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not central, I believe, to the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates only from the last 30 years: the obsession with wealth and the need to own, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless economic growth.

We cannot go on living like this. David Cameron also thinks like although I suspect that the prognosis and the solution will be radically different. The crash of 2008 was a warning that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it falls prey to its own excesses and like Cronos ends by devouring its own children.

If it is to be taken seriously again, progressives must find their voice, but it cannot be again taken in by New Labour as wedded to the false orthodoxy as the Conservatives. There is much to rage about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; inequity of class; exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege narrowing the arteries of democracy. There are now more former public schoolboys in the cabinet at any time since the 1950s. But it will no longer suffice to identify the shortcomings of “the system” and then retreat indifferent to the outcome. The irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding of decades past did not serve the left well. It must learn to engage with itself and with others. It should be a historic opportunity.

We have entered an age of neurosis””economic insecurity, physical insecurity, climate insecurity, political insecurity. The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the catastrophe that followed. Insecurity breeds fear. And dread””fear of change, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world””is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest. It is a reality evident even is as trusting a place as North Staffordshire.

All change is disruptive. We have seen that the spectre of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil. Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences in the years to come. People will inevitably be thrown back upon the resources of the state. They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for “security” and a fear of the other. The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state. It is thus incumbent upon us to recast the role of government. If we do not, others will.

The new MP for the Moorlands in the local paper talks about ensuring that the pain of the cuts will be equally shared but to quote a line from Samuel Beckett it will not. It will be the poor, the vulnerable and the isolated who will suffer the most

Poverty is a preoccupation especially for the poor. But the tangible results of an accumulated impoverishment are all about us. Poor neighbourhoods, derelict land, failed schools, the unemployed, the low paid, and the abandoned: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so contagious that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong much less set about repairing it. And in that there is something seriously wrong.

To comprehend the depths to which we have fallen; we must understand the scale of the changes that have overtaken us. From the late nineteenth century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services, and guarantees against acute misfortune, modern democracies were shedding extremes of wealth and poverty. The Roosevelt New Deal and banking reforms being an excellent example.

Since 1980 we have abandoned this tradition. To be sure, “we” varies with country. The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference- the private affluence and public squalor argument- has resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicentres of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unravelling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice

The UK is now more unequal””in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances””than at any time since the beginning of the 20th century despite 13 years of New Labour. There are more poor children in the UK than in any other country of the European Union. Since 1973, inequality in take-home pay increased more in the UK than anywhere except the US. Most of the new jobs created in Britain in the years 1977″“2007 were at either the very high or the very low end of the pay scale of which Stoke provides a good example. And on the radio this morning the head of the Centre for Cities gave a gloomy prediction for places like Stoke and Hull which have been loosing private sector jobs even before the recession.

The consequences are clear. There has been a collapse in social mobility: in contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today in the UK have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. The poor stay poor. Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunity and””increasingly””the familiar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling, violence and minor criminality. The unemployed or underemployed lose such skills as they have acquired and become chronically surplus to the economy.

. Even trust, the faith we have in our fellow citizens, corresponds negatively with differences in income: between 1983 and 2001, mistrustfulness increased markedly in the US and the UK, countries in which the dogma of unregulated individual self-interest was most assiduously applied to public policy. In no other country was a comparable increase in mutual mistrust to be found.

Inequality is a poison. It rots societies from within. And it is rotting the UK. The impact of material differences takes a while to manifest itself: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens- think of the ridicule directed at Chavs. (Some of this mockery was directed at me as a checkout operator the other day) and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked.

The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is very bitter indeed.

As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders. Relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the post war decades. Having carried out some research into the 1950s I can vouch for that at least from the greater social capital that we seemed to have in that decade.

How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else? Perhaps we might start by reminding ourselves and our children that it was not always so. Thinking the way we have done for thirty years is not deep-rooted in the human condition. There was a time when we ordered our lives differently. It is up to people to recover this past.

Nu Labour- Goodbye and Good Riddance

There is a pleasant country walk that goes from the Haregate Estate in Leek to Tittesworth Lake. It takes about an hour to do and there are excellent views over to the Roaches.

Along the walk are a series of benches, which have been provided by the local PCT so that people can sit and admire the views. Cut into the 8 benches is a series of health promotion messages about obesity and exercise and the need to raise your heart beat.

I cordially detest the messages and have to think that they are pointless what is the reason for directing messages at people who are undertaking some moderate exercise but I hate the messages for the simple reason that they sum up the ethos behind Nu Labour perfectly.

If I were to characterise the last Government I would be using one word that word would be control. The messages on the benches seem to perfectly encapsulate that. It suggest that the people cannot be trusted and only we the middle class professionals who devised the idea and used public money to have the messages inscribed know what is good for you. It says we really despise you for your unwillingness to accept the messages we give you.

Of course sometimes the loathing spills out such as Brown at Rochdale but the evidence has been all around for some time.

” Friends of the people” sometimes I struggle to find a connection.

I have experienced it myself. On the occasion when I took my 3-month-old daughter to a Sure Start Centre in Ellesmere Port and was told that I, as a white man, I must be a bad parent. I have seen it at innumerable meetings when some one makes a disparaging comment about the people of Stoke because they are stupid or fat or lazy or vote BNP. The people who make these comments are usually middle class professionals who live some distance away from the City. They use their prejudices to further seek control over the lives of the people they have so little time for

My other example, which I like to use to illustrate the folly of Nu Labour, was the setting up of the School Food Trust following the expose of Jamie Oliver on the condition of catering in schools around the country. The response of Nu Labour was to set up the Trust based in Sheffield. My partner at the time was working in a school kitchen. The findings of the TV programme on the general poor quality of school food led to more food preparation time for the school cooks. However it did not lead to more pay. On the other hand the newly set up quango in South Yorkshire quickly acquired a Board of Nu Labour cronies as well as well paid posts. I seem to recall a media officer employed on £95,000 a year.

Then there were the targets. Not a week seemed to go under the previous regime without some manifestation of the consequence of the target culture. Trolleys in hospital corridors have their wheels removed so that they become beds thereby meeting a target. Schools teach to the league tables when the number of 16-18 year olds not in education or further training rose. Police Officers spending less time on the beat and more on paperwork to prove that they are meeting a central imposed agenda.

Social Workers occupy much of their time huddled over computers imputing data rather than dealing with their clients. Everyone it seems has a target and it seems to be getting in the way of the ability of people to provide a public service.

There are many reasons why people should have been in open revolt by the way that in which many have to leave professional judgement outside their place of work. Let us hope the new Government has learned the lesson.

Let us hope that if the axe is to fall it falls on the panoply of the target industry. It has been calculated that performance management costs an average size local authority of around 300,000 £1 million a year. Then there are the consultants that are employed. Then there are the computer systems that have to be developed to monitor this questionable system. Costly systems which have blighted the management of the NHS, farm payments, child benefit, employment records and tax credit. And of course an aspect of the performance management culture is the impenetrable jargon filled language, which frequently attends it. All culminating in the grotesque spectacle of an authority have to have passed all its targets and deemed a 3 star authority at the same time as Baby P was happening.

There were of course were the other failings. The dalliance with the finance industry and the light touch regulation that lead to a. Finance Services Authority which failed to protect the public from risk. The wars, the overweening arrogance that led it to blatantly ignores the wishes of ordinary members over uses of council house revenues, the 10 pence tax fiasco, the growing inequality, ID Cards, the surveillance society meant to combat terrorism, but used to see what people were putting in their bins or living within a school catchment area. I could go on and perhaps you have your own favourite.

Now it seems to me that the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party have sworn not to follow the mistakes of the years of Nu Labour. I do not think that this goes far enough and that they should be made to rub their noses in the mess that they have created.

I have been watching quite a few films about US Presidents as well as reading avidly. FDR strives me as a individual who believed that politics could be made to work for people and the role of government was to mobilise individuals to deliver a good society. That is what I want from my politics to believe that an individual through the democratic process could work for the betterment of society and the crucial difference from the failed Nu Labour experiment in communities that are empowered.

The terrible verdict on Nu Labour that despite the good will and the popular mandate it had in 1997 it allowed an opportunity that it was given to be wasted.

The pursuit of happiness

I am a worker in the great hive of modern consumption- the supermarket. I worked on the checkouts all day today and one observation that I have to make is how miserable many of the shoppers are in the day to day task of shopping.

I experienced it myself yesterday shopping in the supermarket where I work yesterday with my daughter. The woman in front of me looked very angry when the queue was delayed for several minutes and turned to me as a likely ally on which to vent her anger about the unfairness of it all. I mean the check out operator by his incompetence was delaying her from, I guess, finishing her string quartet or discovering a cure for cancer.

On most faces today there were grim glassy-eyed expressions and I reminded of, I think, a PG Wodehouse comment about people who looked if they had been weaned on a pickle.

It is a question worth contemplating how is it at a time when most people have never been healthier, wealthier and safer we becoming more mistrustful, insular and forlorn. In an election year is pursuit of happiness a worthy goal for politicians to aim for? And if so how can it be achieved. Certainly it’s claimed that we live in stressed times. I over heard two young women in the supermarket opine that their grandparents did not know what stress was. At such moments I wish I had access to a time machine to transport a ancestor from the Somme to a supermarket queue, whilst their descendant’s could experience what it was like to walk slowly carrying a 60lb pack over a muddy field against German machine guns as a measure of a stressful situation.

We do kid ourselves if we think that we are the only society that thinks it suffers from increasing stress. I came across a quote by the Victorian Frances Cobbe writing about the 1860s and comparing it with the earlier generation of 30 years earlier.

” That constant sense of being driven ““ not precisely like dumb cattle. But cattle who must read, write and talk than 24 hours will permit, can never be known to them”

But still the epidemic of stress and the over blown language that’s used to describe every day occurrences. A friend of mine is annoyed by the inflated use of the words “nightmare” and “misery” to describe being caught in a traffic jam. Rightly he feels use words should be restricted to events like the Haiti earthquake but such hyperbole constantly manifests itself.

Today a man came up cheerfully to me and said “There was nothing worse than queuing”. I disagreed with him and pointed out lengthy list starting with death and illness of things that were worse than queuing. He did however add thoughtfully “drowning” to my list of calamities

I read in a national newspaper a review of a book by two Canadian economics professor’s Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran, which suggests that greater affluence and widening disparity of wealth can be very damaging to a country’s health. They argue that once an individual reaches a reasonable standard of living than there is no great benefit from increasing the wealth of the population. It might even make them even worse off. It is argued that as consumption shifts to buying status symbols of no intrinsic value such as luxury cars it has a detrimental effect ” they satisfy the owner, making them seem wealthier, but every one else is worse off”.

Their work owes much to the economist Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that people seek status through conspicuous consumption, which derives its value not from the intrinsic worth of what is consumed but from the fact that it permits people to attempt to set themselves apart from others. As the economy grows, people increasingly choose status symbols or “Veblen goods” over other goods.

“Those with above-average wealth consume Veblen goods with a positive impact on their happiness,” the authors write. “But those with below-average wealth simply cannot afford these goods, so they have a negative impact on their happiness. This is known as ‘Veblen competition’. As average wealth rises, people grow richer but not happier

Its thought to explain those study that indicate that we live in an unhappy age. As more and more rush to acquire then they have less time or desire to help others. This has a corrosive effect on community and trust and the well being of society.

All this fits into a debate within economics about how to measure a nation’s true wealth. Many economists believe they need to focus more on measuring happiness. The belief that a focus on individual wealth creation at the exclusion of everything else can be divisive has spread around the worlds of politics, psychology and science. Clinical psychologist Oliver James has argued that there is an epidemic of “affluenza” throughout the developed world, with attempts “to keep up with the Joneses” triggering huge increases in depression and anxiety.

Last year a best-selling book by two epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, argued that Britain and America were the countries with the widest gulfs between rich and poor in the developed world, and as a result had the most health and social problems.

Perhaps an answer does lie in re engaging with other people through community and voluntary work. Interestingly the happiest person I met today was organising a meal for 200 in Leek as a fundraiser for a cancer charity

Racial Equality Council goes into Administration

nsrecToday it has been announced that the North Staffs Racial Equality Council, which has been in existence for over 30 years, is being wound up due to “serious financial problems”.

This is sad news, for such a long standing charitable organisation who have done some good work in the city. Tony, Nita and myself have all had dealings with this organisation, and have found the staff and others involved with it to be dedicated, hardworking people who believe in equality for all.

It seems that the REC has a £1 million annual budget, funded by the government, local councils and other local agencies, but the Charity Commission have not received any REC accounts for the past two years.

It is not yet known how much the independent voluntary organisation owes creditors. But the charity has today confirmed it does not have enough money to see it through February. Administrators are expected to be called in on Monday.

Now I know there are lots of businesses going under in these very difficult times, but it is sad to see such a long standing charitable organisation following the same path. However, the REC haven’t cited the credit cruch as one of the problems, but it could have added to their original financial difficulties.

The REC have done a lot of work in the city, and I am left wondering who will continue this good work when the organisation no longer exists. Is this something the city council should be considering and acting upon?

Given the political and racial tensions which exist within the city, an organisation like the REC provides a valuable resource. Where do the people of the city go to when they need help with issues of racial inequality? How is the city going to cope with the issues which were dealt with by the REC? Or do you think the REC was of little importance in the city and we won’t miss it?

Your comments please….