Category Archives: Politics

With Benefits Street finished, the reality starts to bite

The fifth and final episode of Benefits Street aired on Monday this week.

Channel 4 executives will give themselves a pat on the back. The show has delivered their highest ratings in years.

Other channels joined in too. Channel 5 aired The Big Benefits Row, giving a timely boost to the career prospects of failed reality-show contestant Katie Hopkins and ex-Tory MP Edwina Currie.

Currie also recently gave a now infamous interview on BBC Radio Stoke in which she criticised foodbanks. “I get very, very troubled at the number of people who are using food banks who think that it’s fine to pay to feed their dog, their dog is in good nick and beautiful, but they never learn to cook, they never learn to manage and the moment they’ve got a bit of spare cash they’re off getting another tattoo,” she said.

For six weeks the size and shape of Britain’s social security system has been part of a national conversation.

But, after Benefits Street, life will go back to something like normal for the residents of James Turner Street.

A report released this week by the National Housing Federation (NHF) confirmed what that normality looks like.

Less than a year since it was introduced, two thirds of people affected by the bedroom tax are now in rent arrears.

We don’t know the actual number of people that is, as the NHF report only polled housing associations, who house a little under half of all those affected. But it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. We also don’t know how much money these people have spent on dog food and tattoos.

But we do know that one in seven of those polled, people in the most dire straits, has been served with an eviction risk letter.

We do know that 63% of those affected are disabled. We know the government’s discretionary housing payments will be nowhere near enough to protect them – with demand for it up by 237%.

We know that the numbers of available one-bedroom properties isn’t close to the number needed for the 180,000 who are under-occupying two-bedroom homes. Housing professionals say that even if they let all of their available properties to those who are under-occupying, it would still take years to rehouse everyone affected.

We know that low income households are now spending, on average, £2.10 a day on food.

We do know that foodbanks are now issuing ‘kettle boxes’ to clients who can’t afford the electricity needed to turn on the oven.

And we certainly know that for every foodbank user Edwina Currie describes, there are countless others with stories like this one.

Full Employment – sounds good, but where, for how much, and for how long?

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Tory ministers’ frothy mouthed calls for Labour to finally unveil some new policies were answered a couple of weeks ago when shadow DWP Minister Liam Byrne made a speech at the offices of IPPR North, in which he outlined Labour’s grand plan for a return to full employment. In a wide-ranging speech taking in Beveridge, Attlee and the building of the welfare state, Byrne outlined how the old truism, that full and meaningful employment is key to social and economic prosperity, is still relevant today.

Full employment, claimed Byrne, would not just benefit those returned to work, but also those unlucky enough to be temporarily cast out of it. A strong labour market would reduce the pressures on the benefit system, up £24bn since the financial crash, and reaffirm its purpose intended by the postwar Labour government – “social insurance for a rainy day”. It would help pay down the debt. It would be a moral mission to rid people of the scourge of worklessness.

It’s bad enough being in work at the moment. The austerity policies of the current government necessitate living standards being squeezed, but for those already all wrung out, the effects have been devastating. Homelessness is up, and a new report claims that up to half a million people are now turning to food banks to feed themselves and their families. Figures show that one in five people have been looking for work for over two years. Getting these people into work seems to be more important now than ever before. The TUC have been leading the charge, as they led thousands on a march through London in October 2011 to call for a “future that works”; for the government to invest in jobs to spur growth.

But, just as Byrne’s speech begins to sound like a much-needed clarion call for a return to the post-war settlement; its sweeping historical trajectory begins to take in the realities of globalisation. The last thirty years have seen the previously unimaginable global growth of markets, interconnecting most of the world’s population. It will be remembered as the time when capital went mobile and threw off the shackles of closed economies, much to the detriment of British workers, as jobs were transferred overseas. Or, as Byrne put it, “giant firms often richer than nations now have the power to move jobs to wherever the skills are greatest or the wages lowest.”

So, Byrne is clear, there cannot be a return to low-skilled, low pay employment here in the UK. Instead, as they do in Germany, we must ‘skill up’ local workforces to face the requirements of local businesses.  Here the speech dips in detail, but Byrne was able to point to the great swathes of people who were thrown out of the work by the great Thatcher monetarist experiment, destroying whole communities, and their potential for generating local growth.

It is a noble goal, and evidence of fresh thinking. But it cannot be a continuation of the dreadful work programme, back to work assessments and zero hour contracts. If the Labour front bench is unable or unwilling to imagine that an alternative to these schemes is possible, then that is cause for alarm. Byrne identifies the transformative impact of globalisation as the principal cause of stubbornly high levels of unemployment, and yet thinks a Labour government could somehow mitigate its effects. Byrne is known to be one of the shadow ministerial team who believes that Labour can only win in 2015 if they commit to Tory spending plans, and it is even less clear how this plan, so mighty in its ambition, could stand a chance with such meagre resources.

This is the longest and most prolonged slump in our economic history. As TUC economist Duncan Weldon illustrates on his blog, we have now experienced a ‘lost decade’ of GDP per capita growth, and wages have fallen in real terms over the last three years. James Plunkett from the Resolution Foundation’s closer look at last week’s ONS release showed a significant drop in levels of business investment and exports. Despite cut after cut in the rate of corporation tax, there has been no discernible impact on reinvestment, and businesses are now sitting on any money they do have. Byrne identified this problem in his speech, describing how “the cash is simply stacking up in corporate bank accounts. Our new Bank governor Mark Carney will recognise the phenomenon from Canada where he has attacked the curse of ‘dead money’.” Keynes’ economic theories are back in fashion and this inevitability was central to them; that it would inevitably sharpen wealth inequality and increase unemployment.  How can Labour reverse this historical trend?

As too did Byrne mention how globalisation has changed the economic landscape. As this superb Robert Skidelsky analysis in the New Statesman illustrates, it was this which resolved the issue of capital’s declining profitability, as it became free-moving, able to exploit the new productive abilities of emerging markets. Byrne is right to say Britain cannot undercut these low-pay, low-skill economies, which themselves are transforming rapidly.

But the elephant in the room in this discussion remains. ‘A future that works’, that of full employment, was a concept attainable in an era of fixed national economies, but the economic stress such policies caused created the conditions whereby capital reasserted its dominance over labour. Whenever Keynes is deployed as the rationale for such policies, it is worth reminding ourselves, as Skidelsky does, of his overall ambition, for us to enjoy a “golden age” of abundance, and a 15 hour working week. Simply working to earn and consume was never a long-term policy goal. Why, when rapid technological advances are enabling wide-scale automation in our factories and shops, are we so afraid of its potential to put us all out of work? This is surely the golden age which Keynes foresaw.

It is understandable that Labour see unemployment, low growth and under-consumption as central to our economic woes. Tackling these issues have rightly been the historical duty of the centre-left, but as centre-left governments and parties struggle all across Europe in the midst of an unparalleled crisis, the time has surely come for an alternative which is innovative and sustainable. Labour and the representatives of labour should not simply call for employment at all costs, or work itself as the answer, but to promote a new, equitable type of work. The New Economics Foundation champion a 21 hour working week, and ideas like the citizens wage and the community allowance would be a welcome start to moving away from the fear of unemployment. Let’s start treating this crisis with the respect it deserves.

Thatcher’s legacy: 96 is greater than one

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In light of the death of Margaret Thatcher, this is a piece I wrote examining the legacy of her Government on footy in this country…

When Sir John Madejski, ex-chairman of Reading and prominent Conservative Party donor, called for a minute’s silence at their game against Liverpool last weekend to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher, it was met with predictable and justifiable derision. For Liverpool supporters and residents, Thatcher’s premiership was one marked by deindustrialisation and urban unrest, and culminated in the tragedy of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Reading confirmed the only minute’s silence planned would be for the 24th anniversary of that tragedy, when 96 fans went to a football game and didn’t come home.

But it has been the remarks of Richard Tracey, Sports Minister in the Thatcher government, and Jeff Powell in the Mail that have really stuck in the craw.  For them, not only should football supporters pay their respects, they should also mark the passing of the saviour of the English professional game from the worst of hooliganism in the 1980s. As Tracey told BBC Radio 5Live last week:

 Frankly I think it’s rather cheap that they decided not to show any sort of respect for her, because, to be honest, she did really deliver what football is today, particularly with the Taylor report,  and the all-seater stadia.

How unfortunate that it was the death of 96 more football fans, crushed to death in a stand unfit for human beings, that led to such recommendations finally being implemented.

The warning sirens had been aired almost 20 years earlier when fire took 66 lives at Ibrox in 1971. The Safety of Sports Grounds Acts 1975 introduced regulations which required the need for safety checks at top level grounds, but it was slowed at lower level clubs, as political interest waned. In May 1985, the main stand at Valley Parade, home of Bradford City, caught fire and burnt down, likely caused when a discarded match was dropped onto a pile of uncleared litter which lay below the seats. Four minutes later, fire had engulfed the stand, a timber structure with a wooden roof. Fans piled onto the pitch, thankfully due to the lack of perimeter fencing so common at other grounds, but 56 people couldn’t escape the flames. If the regulations followed in the 1975 Act had been followed, it shouldn’t have happened.

The subsequent Popplewell Inquiry into the events elaborated on this negligence, and made some further key recommendations; for grounds to require safety certificates, to ensure fences met certain safety requirements. Home Secretary Leon Brittan told Parliament following the Bradford fire that there would now be “no question of putting up a fence to create a trap”.

But the immediate concern for the Thatcher government following 1985 was how to combat hooliganism, following the Heysel tragedy. David Evans, chairman at Luton Town, who was also a Conservative MP, spearheaded the campaign for a national membership scheme for football supporters, and the Football Spectators Act 1989 sought to introduce an ID card for any supporter wishing to travel to away games.  Football supporters were stigmatised, public safety became secondary to public order.  Such draconian measures were wiped away after following the Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster.

The causes of the Hillsborough disaster and cover-up are now well known. Warnings about the ground’s dilapidated condition were ignored, the local authority negligent in assessing its safety, the police grossly negligent in stemming the flow through the turnstiles. Fences were constructed, gates locked and fans piled on top of each other to slowly suffocate to death.  In its immediate aftermath, the authorities closed ranks and squared the blame squarely on Liverpool supporters.  Only last year, 23 years on, has the truth finally been acknowledged.

Even following the publication of the Taylor report, Margaret Thatcher was wary of its conclusions. She rightly saw it was a “devastating criticism” of the police, but wished only to acknowledge its “thoroughness and recommendations”, rather than its “broad thrust”. So, whilst all-seater stadia were introduced immediately, the police’s negligence went unchallenged.

The warning signs were there for the Thatcher government, as were the legislation and inquiry recommendations to bring football’s facilities up to a decent standard. Instead, fans themselves became the target. Why did it have to take another 96 to die at Hillsborough before the lessons of Bradford were heeded? It is a national scandal and a national tragedy. Rather than crass or disrespectful, it was right that the only silence last weekend in football grounds was for those who needlessly died within them so many years ago.

Read the piece here at Backpage Football