Monday, 15 October 2012

Rising Energy Prices ... Money for Nothing

It’s a long time since I ranted!  I’ve just been too busy with the day job, tbh … and still am, actually – I shouldn’t be writing this, but I am simply so furiously angry I cannot not rant.

I have just got my npower letter telling me of their 17%! rise in fuel prices.
It is simply theft, and they are pulling the wool over our eyes to try to disguise it.

Because, in reality, npower – and the other energy companies like them – are taking the money out of our pockets … for doing nothing.
I will explain…

1.  npower are not MAKING your energy
We all have this image of the energy companies as the makers of energy.  We associate the energy companies with drills, and pipelines, and cooling towers.  We get upset because we are told that the raw cost of energy is falling whilst consumer prices are rising, but we never question the basic assumption that npower are making the energy we are using.
That is mistaken.

npower DO make energy, but it’s not in that capacity that Customer Services Director Julie Jaglowski wrote to me today.  She makes this VERY clear in her explanation that she is raising her prices because, quote: ‘the energy we’ve bought to supply your home is more expensive than last year’.

Thus the arm of npower which is writing to you to take another £15-£20 out of your pocket every MONTH is not actually making the energy you are paying for.  It is an entrepreneurial activity buying energy from the primary suppliers (one of which may or may not be another arm of npower) and then selling it on to you.

2.  npower are not DISTRIBUTING the energy to you
‘But,’ you frown, ‘surely npower supply me with the energy-they-have-bought’.
Wrong!  No they don’t.  Ms Jaglowski makes this very clear too in her letter, when she explains also that she is raising her prices because, quote: ‘we’re having to pay more to the companies who look after the distribution networks that deliver energy to your home’.

So npower do NOT distribute the energy either.  They pay someone else to do that for them

So what do npower do?
When you think about it, therefore, npower does NOTHING but facilitate.  They are ‘entrepreneurs’ only.  (In this respect, they are like many other companies which are currently swarming into our public services at the behest of our government – an alarming prospect, because things will soon therefore be exactly the same for our care services, our health service and our schools … but I digress.)

So npower buy the electricity from the suppliers, pay the distribution networks to supply it to us – oh yes and, we mustn’t forget, charge us for it – making sure that along the way their directors take obscene salaries and their shareholders receive obscene profits.  They are thereby capitalist leeches upon the supply chain, growing parasitically fat.

And because energy is not an optional purchase, and because they are one of a cosy little cartel of energy companies all doing the same, they have us over a barrel.

Thatcher’s legacy
Thus was not always the case, of course.  In the ‘olden days’, we had a nationalised Gas Board and a nationalised Electricity Board which MADE the energy, and DISTRIBUTED the energy, and CHARGED us a price-without-profit for the energy.

It was Margaret Thatcher who, after a propaganda campaign to convince us that this was a wasteful, inefficient, outrageously-expensive way of supplying energy, handed over the goodies to the private sector, telling us that we would all be SO much better-off as a result.

It is only now, of course, that we realise that, by ‘we’, she meant the Tory Party and their rich entrepreneurial friends.  When you are now getting a letter from npower telling you brazenly that the answer to rising prices is to ‘use less energy’ – be colder, eat cold food, live in the gloom, bath in 6” of water (in fact, just go back to the 1940s) – it is the inescapable outcome of that denationalisation, all those years ago.

It’s just that I don’t seem so much wealthier and warmer, like I was promised.

The Solution
Ultimately, the answer is to re-imagine government as an activity there to benefit the people, and not merely as a procurement process there to benefit the capitalists, and to renationalise gas and electricity.  In reality, this is a long way in the future, since currently even the Labour Party doesn’t believe in nationalisation.

For the moment, therefore, my suggestion would be for the government to set up an arms-length, not-for-profit, state-owned energy company (let’s call it ‘govpower’).  People who did not trust npower to supply their gas and electricity at the lowest possible price could then transfer to govpower, who would operate within the market.
govpower would not have to MAKE anything.  All the npower-which-wrote-to-me does is organise the purchase of energy from primary-sources, and organise its distribution through an existing supply network – at base, it’s merely a matter of telephone calls, contracts and the flicking of switches.  I am sure they do so very efficiently, and I am not even bothering to try to find an alternative supplier.

But the presence of a state-sponsored, not-for-profit alternative in the market wouldn’t half ‘keep them honest’.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Acclaiming Aycliffe

It is a British trait to be dismissive of one's home town; but perhaps it is time to regain a sense of civic pride.

Last week, Aycliffe won the equivalent of a gold medal in the Railway Olympics (if you will forgive me an excruciating pun, it was a ‘track’ event).  Coached by Merchant Place Developments and our spectacular MP Phil Wilson, we triumphed over competitors from all over Europe … so that Hitachi – not only the project, but its European rail research and development centre – is coming to Aycliffe!

Thus Aycliffe has its Hitachi as Sunderland has its Nissan … yet Sunderland is a major city.  What has this small town of 30,000 people got, one has to wonder, to be chosen as the place for such a huge and prestigious project?  

Sneers, moans and vicious jibes
A time for rejoicing, you might think – a time to mount the podium, to enjoy the success, to run up the flag? 

Not so for Northern Echo reporter Duncan Leatherdale.  In a sneering and belittling article the next day he chose, not to congratulate, but to attack our town.  Mr Leatherdale wandered round the town centre, collected a few moans, and then wrote them up as an indictment.  The town, he wrote, ‘is showing its age’.  ‘The town is dead’, ‘Aycliffe is down’, ‘everybody is struggling’, ‘it is very depressing’, the article elaborated.

Equally, if you go on Twitter and search for Aycliffe, every day you will find a number of vicious jibes – ‘European Capital of Wrong’uns’, ‘a seriously weird place’, ‘not a very nice place’, to quote some of the more printable statements this week.

Our Abominable Town Centre
Before we go any further, may I agree that our town centre is an ABOMINATION.  The town centre owners seem to regard their intention one day to refurbish the town centre as an excuse to neglect it altogether, and at the moment it looks like a wasteland. 

But it is PRIVATE PROPERTY.  This is not meant to be a political rant, but the town centre is an epitome of Tory Britain – a publicly-owned asset sold off to a private company because (as we’re endlessly told) the private sector does things so much better than the state sector.  Look at Aycliffe town centre, and you catch a glimpse of what is going to happen to our hospitals, to our schools, to our marketised services etc. over the next two or three decades.

A most wonderful place
BUT THE TOWN CENTRE IS NOT AYCLIFFE!  And if it makes you as angry as it makes me, do not criticise Aycliffe, but write instead to the town centre manager and complain!

For Aycliffe, bereft of the scar at its heart, is the most wonderful place.  ‘I like living in this town,’ commented retired William Notley … and, bless him, I do too!

Aycliffe has the most wonderful history.  Our predecessors survived through a Norman genocide, feudal serfdom, Tudor enclosures, Victorian coal owners and Nazi bombs … and, out of it all, Aycliffe emerged triumphant as the flagship of Beveridge’s Welfare State.  We may be standing on the podium of a Hitachi victory right now, but we have centuries of achievement of which to be proud.

And Great Aycliffe has the most wonderful, prize-winning environment.  Visitors are always amazed at our ‘green and pleasant land’.  How many other towns do you know where a ‘green lattice’ takes biodiversity right into the centre of town and links it, through a network of walks and corridors, out into the countryside?  You can’t know of many towns where the play-parks are more modern, or the flower-beds better kept.

And Aycliffe has the most amazing community!  Have you noticed that we have a European Cup-winning footballer, two Olympians, and the UK’s most successful female racing driver amongst our number? 

Of course it is a QUIET town – but do you WANT binge-drinkers marauding through the town centre every weekend? 

Moreover, ‘quiet’ is not the same as ‘dead’.  We have a prominently successful football club.  The Town Council runs, FREE, a tourist-trip for every pensioner, a life-saving fireworks display, a two-day show, fun-in-every-park holiday extravaganzas, and an annual visit from Santa!  This year, we revived the Carnival.  The town is awash with vibrant and well-supported community groups, and crime and vandalism are falling.  A young father, visiting the town, who had reprimanded some teenagers for swearing, confided to me that he would not have dared to speak to teenagers that way where he came from – he would have feared for his safety; instead, our Aycliffe youths apologised and made way for his child to play on the equipment they had been sitting on.  And everybody who visits tells me how welcoming, friendly and caring the people of Aycliffe are.

Unfinished business
Of course Beveridge’s giants still prowl the town, and there are social and civic issues to be confronted; readers know how much I love it when ‘the people’ rise up and campaign about – well, for example, about wheelie bins – and force the powers-that-be to back down.  But that is a not a negative sign – it is a sign of energetic residents making our town the place-they-would-have-it-become.  So do not imagine for a moment that this makes Aycliffe a bad place; Aycliffe is a lovely place, and we are lucky to live here.

Punching below its weight
When Aycliffe was first formed in 1948, it met tremendous opposition from local councils, who resented their upstart neighbour.  And I suspect, even today, that Durham County Council does not fully appreciate the jewel in their crown our thriving and assertive town and trading estate constitutes.  Aycliffe has been punching below its weight for too long, and it is time for us to hold our head up and take our rightful place.

So, let’s challenge the critics and celebrate our town’s genuine achievements.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Simple Problems, Easy Answers

I have a Council colleague who regularly complains about what he calls ‘pub politics’ – the tendency of people, who haven’t really thought things through, and actually don’t know what they’re talking about, to propose ‘easy answers’.

But sometimes there ARE easy answers, and still nothing gets done.

A Problem with Litter
Tonight I attended a packed community meeting going mad about litter.  As the County Council officer who fielded most of the complaints remarked, it was perhaps a good job that it took place in a church!

But I could have solved that problem.  The Town Council already has a ‘Town Pride’ team of two with a vehicle; we are already paying for that.  If we could employ a team of a dozen on-the-ground litter-pickers, even part-time, I bet we could make Great Aycliffe the spick-and-spannest town in the country.

Meanwhile, in Great Aycliffe at the moment, there are some 250 young men and women, aged 18-24, on Job Seekers’ Allowance.  Would it cost the country so very much extra to employ a dozen of them as Council litter-pickers?  My guess is not so very much more, once you have factored in that their National Insurance and any PAYE would go back into the national kitty anyway.

An easy solution?

But then on the one hand you have a government which sees nothing wrong in paying JSA to young people to fill in forms – and millions more for them to go on unpaid, meaningless, ‘work experience’ – but which regards Council expenditure as an anathema which needs cutting to the bone … so there’s no chance of a vired budget to create jobs for these perfectly able young people.

And I would suggest we might apply to organise a programme of ‘workfare’, where the Council would take on young Job Seekers, train them, equip them, and give them meaningful employment cleaning up their town until they could find a better job … except that on the other hand we would find ourselves confronted by an army of idealistic people who would see any form of directed labour of that sort as ‘slave labour’ and exploitation, and the Council would be massacred on twitter.

So what happens?
Well, on the one hand we have thousands of perfectly healthy young people all over the country who have no job.  

And on the other we have towns all over the country with a litter problem trying to organise initiatives for volunteers and community groups to pick it up.

There are some situations where, you have to admit, the pub politicians have got a point.

Winning Back The 'Lost Left' Voters

This is a response to political letters in my local newspaper, the Newton News ... but the issue is one which faces many local Labour parties - how to win back the 'lost left' voters.

I don’t know about you, but I found the letters in last week’s Newton News exciting!

Mr Welsh, as usual, wrote a cogent and plausible letter, though I always feel his sentiments would be more appropriate for a Surrey Conservative Club than a north-east new town.  Three more years of this government’s policies and he will be literally, as well as metaphorically, ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’ … because that is what this government is going to make of County Durham.

However, it was the letters by Mr Hodgson and ‘WS’ which interested me the most because – though far to the left of Mr Welsh – readers will have seen that they too criticised ‘New Labour’.

New Labour’s problem
In the years 1997-2010, some 5 million people stopped voting ‘New Labour’.

Those who moved to the Lib Dems seem now to be returning to the Labour Party relatively easily, since they realise the Lib Dem MPs are just propping up an incompetent and wicked government, assiduously betraying everything they claimed to believe in.

The Labour Party, however, seems to be finding it much harder to win back those who left the Party because they felt that ‘New Labour’ was betraying traditional Labour principles.  Indeed, many people who stayed in the Labour Party were also uneasy with policies which introduced such as academies, PFI, marketisation and free-market economics.

‘WS’ is correct when he says that – even under Ed Miliband – Labour has been slow to abjure its ‘New Labour’ principles.  But the Party quietly dropped the ‘New’ from its name in February last year.  And Labour is, gradually and carefully, redefining its vision, distancing itself from policies which have surely been discredited by events. There is an ongoing debate within the Party – characterised by ‘colours’ such as ‘Purple Labour’, ‘Blue Labour’, ‘Red Labour’ etc. – about what form that new vision should take.  There is also, (albeit painfully slowly), a growing acceptance that policy must be evolved from the membership, not imposed by the leadership.

The irony is that, the longer the more left absent themselves from the Labour Party, the less likely it is that their views will form any part of Labour’s evolving policies. 

Focussing on the Future
Some of the principles of ‘New Labour’ must never be abandoned.  ‘New Labour’ shed Labour’s ‘loony left’ reputation, and aimed the Party’s policies squarely at the centre-ground of public opinion.  We can never abandon that ground if we want any hope ever again of forming a Labour government.

But some things that were right for 1997 were no longer right in 2010, and now we need a ‘renewed’ Labour Party with policies appropriate for the future, not shackled to the past.  Both ‘WS’ and Mr Hodgson would find many current Branch Party members who agree with every word they wrote, and it is vital that Labour distance itself from some of the crueller policies that New Labour tried, but found wanting … i.e. it is true that – if we want any hope ever of being elected – we need a Party which is able to accommodate and articulate the aspirations of ‘WS’ and Mr Hodgson.

Labour does not yet have ‘a manifesto’ which sets out its stall before the British public – it does not need one until 2015.  But it is at the moment vigorously debating what that manifesto might contain, and I urge people to join Labour and have their say within that debate … before the Mr Welshes of this world, so cogently and plausibly, lead us into the neoliberal abyss.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

'Ron Hogben' is an anti-social idiot

Here's an idea to consider ... perhaps the greatest problem with our democracy is not the politicians, but the public they serve.

Ron Hogben steps out from his groundfloor flat and lets rip: problems with his bins, the lack of parking, bus lanes, the cost of replacing his windows, why Britain should get out of what he insists on calling "the EEC", and the crazy excesses of the 2012 Olympics. I then ask him about his view of party politics. "Let's be truthful: you get a local MP that promises you this, that and the other, but he's only going to toe the line," says Hogben, 59. "My idea of a politician is a thief, a liar and a cheat."

Thus begins, in today’s Guardian, John Harris’s analysis of the recent ‘Democratic Audit’ – a report on the decline of traditional politics and political activism in this country (which receives an equally depressing airing in today’s Guardian under the headline ‘British democracy in terminal decline’).

I am trusting that ‘Ron Hogben’ is a pseudonym, but – hoping that he is not a real person – I have to say it.  ‘Ron Hogben’ is an anti-social idiot.

The problem is not 'Ron Hogben's' - 'Ron Hogben' is the problem

Let’s start with the bins.  There is no problem with ‘Ron Hogben’s’ bins.  ‘Ron Hogben’ is the problem with his bins.  And that’s not just because he puts food refuse into his recycling bin and refuses to put it on the kerbside as asked.  ‘Ron Hogben’s’  bins aren’t emptied properly because he doesn’t want to PAY for his bins emptying properly.  ‘Ron Hogben’ could have a Rolls-Royce bin service where the men emptied them every day, came into his garden to collect them and then washed them out afterwards.  It would just cost a lot.  And, of course, ‘Ron Hogben’ doesn’t want to pay.
People have a strange view of public services, which they regard as a right not a service.  ‘Ron Hogben’ expects to receive a call-out charge from the local plumber, and is happy to pay ££££s for Sky TV, but ask him to cough up the equivalent of 50p a week to have his bins emptied and he’s tirading – indeed, so much so that he has elected and is cheering on a government which is slashing Council budgets and forcing them to explore all manner of means to reduce the service on the bins to save money.

And surely the fact that he’s still talking about ‘the EEC’ is a bit of a hint as to how much credence we should place on what he says.  The ‘EEC’ was renamed the ‘European Union’ TWENTY YEARS AGO.  ‘Ron Hogben’ – like all the ‘Ron Hogbens’ of this world – is shooting off his mouth about something he knows TOO LITTLE about to warrant a comment.

Jumping the gun a little, if you are wondering ‘what’s gone wrong’ with politics in this country, perhaps we might start by wondering how we came to a situation where someone as ill-informed as ‘Ron Hogben’ feels that he can pontificate on matters of which he is catastrophically ignorant – and somehow feels he can ‘tell it how it is’ to a politician who is briefed-to-the-eyeballs, ideologically-interested, and involved with it every day of his life!
Why not shut up, find out about what you’re talking about, and come back when you are able to do more than spout pub-politics bigotry?

The unreasonableness of public political apathy

We’ve all met ‘Ron Hogbens’ on the doorstep.  ‘What does the Council do for me?’ one of them triumphantly accused me one election … whilst standing in the garden of his council house, with its renewed roof, double-glazed windows and doors, just about to get a new kitchen and bathroom, leaning on his emptied bins, looking out over a beautiful flowerbed across towards the recently refurbished children’s playground.

I have a colleague who responds energetically to those people who sneer that ‘we only see you at election-time’.  Indeed it is true that, before an election, she goes door-to-door asking supporters to vote for her.  But at other times she is available by phone and by email, not only at the council offices, but at her home!  She attends, not only Council meetings which are open to the public, but an endless, almost daily, round of community meetings, neighbourhood watch meetings, school governor meetings, etc.  The council puts out an informative news-sheet every quarter, and the Labour Party drops a steady succession of leaflets through people’s letterboxes.  This councillor also holds a monthly surgery, which usually consists of her sitting in a church hall waiting for people who don’t go and see her. 
It’s not that she isn’t extensively available to them, it is that they just have not been bothered even to pick up the phone to tell her anything.

Neither is this just laziness and preferring-the-telly.  I have a column in my local newspaper in which I write up what has happened at every Town Council meeting, and I regularly put in letters keeping people up-to-date with relevant issues.  You’d be amazed at the number of people who reply wishing that I would ‘shut up’!  It is not just that some people are too lazy to know about politics, they actively wish to be ignorant about politics!

“Do you realise that E.ON are going to put a 28-turbine windfarm across the road from the town?”
“I don’t want to know.”

The destructiveness of public political apathy

What these people do not realise about themselves is that this kind of wilful antipathy is terribly anti-social, because it undermines the democracy and government which holds society together. 
‘Ron Hogben’ no doubt feels himself superior to the ‘hoodie’ who staggers loudly and drunkenly down his street at night and smashes the Belisha beacon on the Zebra crossing.  

He would be stunned to find that I don’t think so.  
Unacceptable as vandalism is, the light can be replaced and the ‘hoodie’ will grow out of it … but the aggressive, anti-democratic cynicism of the ‘Ron Hogbens’ of our society do it a much-more permanent damage that threatens to catapult it into chaos, violence and tyranny.

Yet these, of course, are the very people who then stereotype politicians – so ‘Ron Hogben’ opined – as ‘thieves, liars and cheats’.
At this point I hit the ceiling.
He is talking about me.
I am not a thief, a liar or a cheat AT ALL – in fact, I would be quite happy to compare moralities with ‘Ron Hogben’ and see who comes up better.

Why do we let him get away with this?  If he had said it about a specific religion, people would have been up in arms.  If he had said it about a racial or ethnic group, he would have been receiving a visit from the police.  But he can say it about me and my colleagues, and I’m supposed to hang my head in shame and rush about trying to find ways to ‘involve’ this man with such ignorant opinions.

If I do have a beef with my fellow politicians, it is that they are too pusillanimous to tell these people how stupid their opinions are.  Instead we butter them up, and give it all this nonsense about how we ‘must listen to their voice’ … and even give them pride of place at the head of a national newspaper column, as though they had anything to say that is worthy of my attention.
Poor old Gordon Brown, of course, is the warning.  He met a bigoted woman who not only felt she had the right to ‘tell him how it is’, but then wouldn’t listen to his answers.  And when, getting back into the privacy of his car, he had the misfortune to be overheard saying what was absolutely the truth – that she was a bigot – what happened?  Not a wave of horror that this dreadful woman should so treat the Prime Minister of Great Britain – but such a campaign of faux-outrage which forced OUR PRIME MINISTER to go back and apologise to her.

We must start by valuing our politicians

When I was a Deputy Headteacher, occasionally I would meet the parent of a cheeky pupil who would try to tell me of a member of staff that ‘respect has to be earned’.
My reply was always the same.  That member of staff had passed his exams and interviewed successfully for a job at the school.  He had ‘earned respect’ already – and now it was the time for her and her son to give the teacher the respect he had earned.

Politicians are human beings, so there are always going to be a proportion who are ‘thieves, liars and cheats’; they should be dealt with as we deal with all thieves, liars and cheats.  But the problem with our democracy is not so much that politicians don’t deserve respect – it is that people don’t adequately respect their politicians.


So my message to ‘Ron Hogben’ is this.  Stop your mouth of these ill-informed prejudices.  Discipline yourself to go along to your monthly branch Labour Party.  Attend your local Council meetings and get active in your community.  And then – when you actually KNOW something – you’ll be amazed at how eager your local politicians will be to listen to you.
In fact, my guess would be that within a couple of years you’ll be one of them.

It’s not that there aren’t dozens of issues out there which DESPERATELY need addressing, Mr Hogben – it’s just that at the moment it’s me who is trying to address them and not only are you doing nothing to help, you are attacking me as I try to do something about them!

What a crazy world we have allowed to develop.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Be Warned - Cows Are Killers

I will never walk through a field of cows again and – if you have any sense – neither will you.

Yesterday, driving home, I passed a farm.  In the wood next to the farm was a huge fire, with leaping flames.
No problem; I’m an interferer by nature.
I pulled into the driveway, got out, opened (and closed) the gate, and started to walk down a long pathway to the farm to ask the farmer if he was aware.

An intimidating situation
Next to the pathway was a field of cows.  Even before I started down the path they were clearly ‘spooked’ by the fire.  My presence on the path, however, steadily increased their agitation.
First, a large black and white cow – which I took to be the leader of the herd – charged towards the fence.  It was leaping and crashing down on all four hooves more like an enraged horse than how one imagines a cow. 

After it had run at me a number of times and turned away, I was beginning to get a bit alarmed.  I was very aware that the fence between us was merely a mesh wire with studs, and would not stop the beast if it genuinely attacked.
I turned and faced it, looked it in the eye, shouted ‘No!’ very firmly and authoritatively, and it turned away. 

Next, a large number of cows formed themselves into a herd, wheeled round, and came at the fence at a run. 
I assessed my options.  I was about a third of the way down the path.  They were charging from behind me so there was no chance of getting back to the car.  It was too far to run to the farm, and I suspected that running away might increase their agitation.
I again turned and faced them, shouted ‘No!’, and they turned away.

What’s the matter with cows today!
Cows never used to be like that!  When I was a very small child my father used to send me into the cow-field to collect buckets of manure for his roses! 

Indeed, I remember one school trip as a young teacher meeting a herd of cows with a class of 50 schoolchildren.  ‘Don’t be scared’, I told them, ‘Cows are chicken – if you just walk confidently at them they’ll run away.’  And so we did, and so did they – indeed, my main care was to prevent the children doing anything to scare the cows, not to stop the cows harming the children.
My blood runs cold just thinking of that time; if we had met on that occasion the herd of cows I met yesterday, we would – I am sure – have all been trampled.

I continued down the path.  I have to admit that I grew increasingly reassured, but only because the farm was increasingly within ‘run-as-fast-as-you-can’ distance.  Even so, still, twice more, I felt it necessary to turn and shout at groups of cows that were getting alarmingly aggressive.

I have been aware of an increasing number of stories in the press of people being trampled to death by cows.  It strikes me that the reports generally try to make ‘excuses’ for them.  Cows are alarmed by a dog, I have read, so let your dog off the lead to run away.  Cows will attack if they feel you are threatening their calves, I have heard.

But these cows had no calves, and I had no dog.  

These cows were after ME, and they wanted to do me harm.

A truly terrifying threat
I reached the farm, and spoke with the farmer, and he was aware of the fire, and no harm done.
“Do you mind just watching me back past your cows?” I asked him. “They were getting very frisky on the way down.”
“Oh you needn’t worry,” he assured me.  “It’s an electric fence – they won’t be coming through that.”

Far from reassuring me, this alarmed me all the more. 
It had not, therefore, been my authoritative shouting which had deterred the cows – it had been the electric fence. 
I am not exaggerating or over-reacting.  I am simply sure that, if I had been trying to cross the field, rather than walking down the side of an electric fence, I would now be dead, and nothing I could have done or said would have prevented it.

I find this terrifying.  Before yesterday’s (I realise now, lucky) encounter – when, unknown to me, I was perfectly safe – I would not have thought twice about walking through a field of cows. 
Even more frighteningly, I know many family and friends who also would not think twice about entering a field of cows – they come from a generation which assumes that cows are docile and harmless.

But these cows were neither docile nor harmless.
They were wild, and could have been deadly.

Never again
Many years have passed, of course, since those harmless beasts of my youth, when docility had been bred into most breeds.  Since then, we have seen a generation of cows wiped out by foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease.  I presume that there have been new feeds, new bloodlines and different genes.  I also wonder what role the ‘right to roam’ has played in producing a more aggressive breed of cow. 

To be honest, I don’t know enough to do anything other than wonder why cows are so different nowadays.

One thing I do know, however, is that I will never walk through a field of cows ever again, because I won’t trust them not to be like the cows I encountered yesterday.

And – if you have any sense – neither will you.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Two Great Barriers To A Labour Victory

Labour is ahead in the polls, but don’t go counting any chickens yet, Ed Miliband; you still have a long way to go before people will trust you to run the country.

Yesterday, I went to a meeting about housing benefits, organised by a local residents’ group.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I think we are heading for a housing crisis, and that housing – as much as anything else – is going to be a key issue in the next election, so I was very interested.  The meeting started with a speech by my MP Phil Wilson, who placed the changes in their political and ideological framework.  He was followed by two County Council officers; every word they said backed up what Phil Wilson had told us.

So far so good, therefore, and thus finished the first session.  The chairman thanked the contributors, and reflected the general mood of the meeting that it was all very alarming … and then he said this:

“Isn’t it a pity that our MPs in Westminster care for their ‘Party’, when perhaps they should be caring for the people”.
And my heart sank.

He had not realised we are in a war

It was not just that it is a trite and naïve remark. 

But I was also distressed because, despite everything he had heard, this man obviously still had not appreciated that the problem is this Tory government. 
He was a decent, working-class chap, smart and pleasant.  He clearly cared about the residents he had helped gather together.  He had just heard a list of ideologically-inspired measures specifically designed to damage them.
And yet still he had not realised that we are in a war.   
Still he did not see that the solution is Labour Party.
Instead he saw the very concept of ‘Party’ as a BAD thing.

I was left depressed.  If we cannot convince this man that Labour is the Party of the people, then we are lost.

Labour always used to be ‘the Party of the people’

It never used to be so.
Right through into the 1980s, Labour always used to be ‘the Party of the people’, as much as the Tories were the Party of business.

Not that it did Labour much good.
I was brought up in a true-blue Tory home.  For my parents, a Labour victory was akin to a national disaster – Labour would lose control of the economy; Labour would give the unions the whip hand.
Labour were accepted as ‘the Party of the people’, but even many working class people still voted Tory.  We all knew that the Tories were the Party of the bosses, and that they would screw the working man down ... but at least you could rely on them to govern competently.

It is worth reflecting that Cameron’s popularity survived both austerity laws and an economic recession, and only began to dip when his government began to look flustered, seemed corrupt, and started making u-turns.  You see, we expect, even forgive the Tories for ‘bashing the poor’ – “it’s what the Tories do”.  What we cannot forgive in a Tory administration is incompetence.

Conversely, nobody used to doubt that, when Labour got in, they would take measures to try to improve life for ‘the people’.  But there was always this underlying suspicion that they were not fit to govern.  Thus Callaghan, and the winter of discontent, and the great inflation of 1979, seemed to prove everything people always believed – and ushered in Thatcher and 18 years of Tory rule.

Then along came Tony Blair

Under Tony Blair, Labour lost that ‘not-fit-to-govern’ image.
Whether you loved him or hated him, one thing you could not level at Tony Blair was incompetence.  If anything, the charge against Blair was that he was TOO competent in government – too smooth, too addicted to spin, too presidential.

Blair captured that middle-class yearning for a leader of stature.  He looked the part – smart, almost Kennedyesque.  He acted the part – rarely ruffled, assured and reassuring.  Meanwhile, he had behind him a New Labour team which also defied dismissal.  Campbell, Mandelson, Reid… these people were hated, and feared, but nobody could suggest they were incompetent.

The problem was that, as time went on, New Labour ALSO lost its image as the Party of ‘the people’.  Even at the start, Blair surrounded himself with the rich and famous – Ecclestone, Oasis and the like. And,
through ten years and three elections, a string of events ground down the ‘popularity’ of the Labour administration – the Iraq War, identity cards, cash-for-honours, academies, neoliberal economics, a widening wealth gap, Milburn’s NHS reforms etc.

And thus it was that, by 2007, nobody could pretend that New Labour was any longer a working class movement, whereupon a world financial crisis, and three years of Gordon Brown, restored Labour’s reputation as the Party which ruins the country.

And thus we find ourselves in a church hall in 2012, with an audience of people genuinely terrified at what Tory legislation will mean for them, yet who STILL blame Labour for causing the mess … and yet STILL do not see Labour as ‘the Party of the people’ which they need to support to fight their cause.

Before Blair, we were the Party of the people but were thought unfit to rule.
Under Blair, we were felt fit to rule, but lost our image as the Party of the people.
Under Gordon Brown we lost our reputation of being fit to rule without regaining our image as the Party of the people … and as yet we have regained neither in the minds of many, many people.

We still have a long way to go before we can hope to win in 2015.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

We Need To Talk About HealthWatch ... And ACT!

HealthWatch is in danger of becoming the Cinderella of the NHS troika – and it is YOUR job (and hugely in your interest) to act now to make sure it doesn’t.

For all we hate it because its subvert aim is to marketise health, the Coalition’s NHS is truly elegantly-designed as a three-strand plait.  
However awful it may turn out in practice, it looks good on paper.

CCGs and HWBBs
At the heart of the new NHS, of course, will be the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), comprised primarily of GPs and clinicians.  These are the groups which will be taking over from the Primary Care Trusts – which will be spending the money and commissioning the NHS services.  They are required to include ‘lay people’ on their board, but a quick glance at the person spec is enough to make you realise that these are not ‘ordinary people’ in our understanding of the term.  I would guess that most will turn out to be retired clinicians.  The CCGs are intended to be very high-powered, very expert groups.

Inter-twining their role with the CCGs, will be the Health and Well-Being Boards (HWBBs).  If the task of the CCGs is to excel, the task of the HWBBs is to keep them grounded in reality, in the medical and social needs of the local people.  The HWBBs will include representatives from the local CCG, but its main body will be comprised of relevant Council officers (e.g. the directors of public health, adult social services, children’s services etc.) and as many Councillors as the Council chooses to place on it.

Local HealthWatch – what it can do for YOU

The third (and most important for us) strand in the plait will be the Local HealthWatch.  Each council area will have one and, for us ordinary people, this is the most exciting part of the process – the part that we will have a say in, and the body which will represent us most directly in the NHS process. 

LHWs, in the government’s scheme of things, are intended to be a development of the NHS Local Involvement Networks (LINks).  The LINKs were set up in 2008 to provide proactive client scrutiny for the local NHS; one of their powers is ‘Enter and View’, and a significant strength is that they are allowed to present anonymous testimony.  Although in many parts of the country, LINks have been badly-publicised and ineffective (and you may even be unaware that you have one at all in your authority), some are run very energetically by an independent Management Committee elected from the membership, with office function supplied by a ‘Host’ provider commissioned by the County Council.

LHW is LINk writ large. 

LHW will be a ‘hub’ of all the different health and care networks and will thus constitute a ‘one-stop-shop’ – a ‘no wrong door’ – gateway of access to the NHS for ordinary people, helping them where possible, or ‘signposting’ them to the appropriate health or care services where necessary.  It will provide NHS complaints advocacy.  It will seek and solicit the needs and views of local people and feed them to the HWBB (on which it will have a seat) and the CCGs, so that those commissioning bodies can use them to inform the commissioning process.

A Role in Scrutiny

Most of all, the LHW will have the power (and the duty) to MONITOR the local NHS – not only its services, but also its processes (i.e. the HWBB and CCG). 
This is the intended primary role of the LHW, and by far the most important.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with the NHS.
At one level it is our pride and joy – the pinnacle of our Welfare State.  Health Care irrespective of person, and free at the point of need, is a principle British people value, almost as a defining factor in their ‘Britishness’ … and when Americans recently took to criticising our NHS, their comments were decidedly unwelcome!

Having said that, however, we all know that the NHS is a strange Dr Jekyll character – at one moment miraculously bringing back your wife, literally, from the dead … then taking all afternoon to conduct the simplest eye examination.  Talk to anyone about the NHS – especially to those with chronic conditions – and you will hear story after story of an NHS which is alternatively unprofessional, cruel, careless, lazy, profligate, inefficient and downright incompetent.  Worst of all, you will find that most people don’t bother complaining, for fear of victimisation, or because they believe that the medical profession will ‘close ranks’ and that resistance is futile.

In this situation, LHW could be the most valuable and important part of our NHS, not only because it will have the authority proactively to seek out client experience and feed it through to the HWBB and thereby the CCG, but because – through HealthWatch England – it will have ‘teeth’ … HealthWatch England, through the Quality Care Commission (QCC) will have the power to force HWBBs and CCGs to change.

Credit where credit is due; if the LHWs work like we would want them to work, we could end up thanking the Coalition for a truly marvellous piece of legislation (at least in this respect).

Finding out the details
As you read this, your local County or Unitary Authority is busily planning its Local HealthWatch.  Are you aware of what it is doing? Has it consulted with you?

These are the crucial days – the days of creation.  There will be a terrible impulsion at Council level to create an anodyne, compromised HealthWatch – all show and no teeth.

Chase your local Councillors and make sure that they are aware of what is going on, that they keep you informed, and that they are pressurising for an incisive and effective HealthWatch.  Go on your local council website, search for ‘HealthWatch’, and see what is going on.  Locate the scoping document, and demand the commissioning criteria.  Where there is a consultation, get involved and make your views known.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has published a guide: Building Successful HealthWatch Organisations.  Compare the HealthWatch proposed by your local Council to the models described by the LGA.
A good HealthWatch spec, says the LGA, will address nine key criteria – purpose, membership, responsibilities and competencies, functions, governance structures, methods of accountability, outcomes, milestones, and outputs.  How comprehensively does your LHW model prescribe for these areas? 

Two Key Issues
This is not something that can be campaigned nationally, for the government has stated that every LHW will and should be different, to meet differing local needs.  So it will be up to you to find out what is going on locally, and to shout out if what is going on locally is not what is needed locally.

However, I would suggest that there are two issues which are worth especial scrutiny:

First, make sure that MONITORING is at the heart of your LHW.  Is the primary and explicit focus on scrutiny?  Does your Council model stress proactive monitoring as the primary function of its LHW, or has scrutiny got buried in a welter of essentially cosmetic functions?  Does the model define HOW, and how often, the LHW will monitor the quality of local NHS services?  Above all, does it state explicitly that the LHW will monitor the quality of the commissioning process (i.e. the CCG and the Council’s HWBB) as well as simply the quality of the services commissioned?

Secondly, research the proposed membership and governance of your LHW to make sure that there is a democratic element. 
To be fair to your Council, this is not required.  Of the exemplar Councils in the LGA guidance, only two (Derby and Essex) were explicitly moving towards a full-on democratic model.
But – if the LHW is NOT at base a democratic body – how can it ever be wholly representative of the public?  The alternative to a democratic body is a paternalistic quango, ‘consulting’ on its proposals, telling us what is best for us, and then networking as fellow-professionals with the services they are supposed to be monitoring.
Yes of course there will need to be professional input – in most cases, the extended brief of the LHW will be way beyond the often amateurish LINks.  But you should make sure that your Council is insisting that the LHW has a stated strategy for an extensive and active membership, and you should insist that at least a third of members on the Management Board are lay delegates elected from that extensive membership.

This is all something that you will have to do yourself, for your own LHW.  If the new NHS is a thee-fold plait, the LHW must not be allowed to be a weak strand within the model, or the whole structure will function inadequately.

You may find that you have to pursue the issue in the face of downright opposition from your local Council, which would much prefer to construct their LHW to be as pliant and ineffectual as possible.  But you know as well as I that it is in our interest that the Local HealthWatch is as fearlessly invasive and critical as possible.

As John F Kennedy said in his inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country” – and this is your time to do something for your local NHS.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Lunacy Of Talk About Banning Factionalism

Are we looking at the end of the Labour Party as we know it?

Today, a Labour blogger named Emma Burnell has written about the possibility of a GMB motion to Conference which will, essentially, 'outlaw' the Labour lobby-group 'Progress' which, they claimed, is guilty of 'factional activity'

The Resolution on Banning Factions
Of course there is a precedent for banning factionalism.  It was Resolution 12 of the Tenth Party Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March 1921.  And the person whom Lenin chose as 'Gensek' to enforce the purge was ... Josef Stalin!
It strikes me that the cure is worse than the disease, here.

I do have reservations about Progress - the main one being that, by being - in essence - the rich man's wing of the Labour Party, it absorbs all the rich men's funding.  So we have a Labour Party which is desperately in debt, and a lobby-group within the Party which is awash with money.

However, whatever you think of their political beliefs, the grassroots members of Progress such as Luke Akehurst are totally-Labour, and for Labour to consider outlawing them would be tantamount to cutting off your arms because they don't look like your legs.

I'm not particularly in tune with Progress policy-proposals, but any attempt to expel them would have even me swinging round onto their side.

A move which will split the Party
I don't know Paul Kenny, but this is a stupid move.  It begins to look for all the world like an attempted Trade Union coup.  If successful, it will split and destroy the Party, because it will involve expelling a large number of the Party's most senior politicians, and leaving a rump of pro-unionists whose public perception will be at the mercy of the right-wing press.

Typical Labour Party - just as we've got the enemy on the run, some idiot gets us all fighting amongst ourselves again.

Hopefully, it'll all turn out to be a storm in a teacup - a bit of tub-thumping connected to this designed to focus the Shadow Cabinet's minds - and we can get on with unseating the Tories.

The whole point of Labour
The whole point of the Labour Party is that it is a tension between centrist pragmatism and left-wing idealism.  What Mr Kenny needs to appreciate is that this polarity exists within each member, as much as across the two wings of the Party.  It needs debate, understanding and compromise, and it cannot be solved by explusion.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Problem With Our Government

The problem with our government is that we have allowed it to become something that is done TO us, rather than BY us.

We have been utterly complicit in this. We have sat back and allowed others to do the work, and to take decisions themselves, whilst we have got on with more pressing and enjoyable tasks – such as pursuing our careers, looking after our children ... and going shopping and playing on the X-Box.

The problem now is that we are finding that a whole load of 'stuff' is happening to us – 'dumped' on us by government at its different levels – about which we are told little-or-nothing until it happens, and which we have no power to change when it does.  And we find that the processes of consultation and public engagement are often stitched up in such a manner that we have no way to have our say other than (usually futile) protest-after-the-event.

This applies to the Labour Party, just as much as it does to local and national government, or as it does to those great services of state such as the NHS, planning and transport.

This in its turns creates its own disengagement and apathy, because people think 'what's the point?'

Was it not different previously?  Do I remember a time when many more ordinary people were much more politically literate, and were much more keen to be routinely and regularly involved in the governance of their church, their union, their party?  Do I remember a time when the unions were active and radical, and when many dozens of people would turn up to the Branch to select their Labour Party candidates?

And is it not significant that those days were times when people were trying to and had a hope and belief that they could (and would) make things better.
And do you not find across society now a resignation, and a despair, that things can't be changed, and are only going to get worse?
These things are not disconnected.

The problem with our government is that we have allowed it to become something that is done TO us, rather than BY us.

I have no solution, beyond pleading with people to become more informed, and to get involved.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

How Close Are We To A Social Revolution?

Journalists have stopped talking about the 1930s.  In a development which is as alarming as it is apposite, they’re beginning to mention 1789.

When this crisis first erupted in 2008, people compared it to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Rightly so, too – did not the 1930s depression start with a Wall Street Crash, and then morph via financial instability and declining confidence into a world-wide depression?  The parallels were too close to ignore and Britain’s response – replacing a discredited Labour government with a coalition government which implemented an austerity programme – almost identical.

As time has run on, however, you will have noticed that the references to the 1930s have diminished … as too have the rather simplistic calls for a Keynesian reflation à la New Deal. People have found out what FDR himself found out in the 1930s – that the solution is not so simple in real life.  Instead, the British nation – government, industry and people – seem increasingly to be hunkering down for an extended (maybe permanent) period of decline and difficulty.

The one thing they ALL missed about the 1930s was that they went on for a decade, and only stopped when a world war enforced an explosion (literally) in government spending.

[Interjection off-stage: “But this is a kind of a war, isn’t it – a war against economic recession?”
Well, yes, you’re right, and the parallels with the 1930s haven’t stopped, as I will come to later in this article … but people’s focus has changed, and that’s what I want readers to realise.]

A change of focus
The recession has been going on a long time now – long enough for people to begin to get over the initial shock and to start to look about and see what is happening around them.
Even the Labour Party has begun to realise that the cuts aren’t being applied fairly – that we’re hammering the unemployed and disabled, and giving tax breaks to the former 50p taxpayers. 

But you don’t have to look very carefully before you realise that the issue is about much more than simply a government which has misjudged where to make its cuts.  You do not need to know very much before you realise that this crisis has ceased to be an economic problem, and is becoming increasingly a social and political crisis.

Because it is becoming clear that what has been one man’s disaster has been another man’s opportunity.

On the continent, today, we are being told that Europhile technocrats are drawing up plans for a greater federalisation of Europe, with all that means for national democracy and self-determination. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is increasingly linking increased German intervention to increased German influence and – however philanthropic the surface intention – one can’t help wondering whether the Eurozone crisis is being played by certain interests for their own advantage.

In Britain, the contrast between the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in the recession is even more stark.  I won’t even bother to describe the recent outrages as ATOS has declared undeniably terribly-disabled people ‘fit for work’ (1, 2, 3), or to contrast them with the continuing obscene bonuses for bankers and directors – you have been living in a alternate universe if you have missed them. 
Similarly, my twitter feed is full today of outrage about the unemployed people who were duped into working untrained and in appalling conditions marshalling the jubilee – a perspective which jars uncomfortably with the pageant of privilege and excess we are watching on our TV screens. 
It is not simply – as dictators through the ages have realised – that a good Triumph takes people's minds off the problems back home.  It is the truth that a procession sorts out the nobs from the oiks – those whose destiny is to rule, from those whose purpose is simply to stand and serve.

The return of the aristocracy
The most telling article of all about this process of social delineation, which you may have missed, however, is by George Monbiot in today’s Guardian.

Forget the apparent focus of the article, which seems to be about environmental matters.  Look instead at the social and political information that he supplies along the way:
* that the rich have taken advantage of the recession significantly to increase their ownership of land (paragraph 6);
* that we live in a Britain where an aristocrat can have a have a chat with his gamekeeper about pesky buzzards, swan down to Westminster, and introduce a law to destroy buzzards (paragraphs 1-3);
* that we live in a Britain where a very limited measure to grow a few more trees on the moors can unleash a rich-man’s storm and cause a hasty withdrawal of the proposal before it even sees the light of day (paragraphs 11-12).

The outrage of Monbiot’s article is not so much that we live in a Britain where “anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet” or even where “the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich”, but that 

as Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality … the aristocracy is back in charge.
And it against this background that I return to my initial observation, that journalists have stopped talking about the 1930s, and are starting to mention 1789.

Towards a Revolution?
1789, of course, is the date of the French Revolution – not of the 'French Revolution' we all know from our TVs, with the guillotine and Napoleon, but the real French Revolution, which overturned absolutism and introduced the world to liberté, égalité and fraternité 

The crucial article is by Nick Cohen: No wonder the working man despises the elites, in which he comments:
They forgot that perks that no one notices in ordinary times can in crises become as intolerable as the tax exemptions of the aristocrats and clerics were to the French revolutionaries of 1789. In a crisis, the elite has to convince the masses that there is a rough equality of sacrifice – a connection between them and us – or lose legitimacy.
and in which Cohen quotes – even more appropriately – Thomas More’s Utopia:
"God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth"
And suddenly you wonder whether the 1930s is the most appropriate parallel for our current situation.

1789 arose out of a government which was incompetent, out-of-touch with the reality of ordinary people’s lives (‘let them eat cake’) and – above all – financially bankrupt.  It went to the rich (the king called an ‘Assembly of Notables’) and asked them to consider paying taxes … the nobles simply laughed.  All this took place against an entrenched and growing inequality between the poor and the ruling aristocracy … and all it took was a meeting in a Tennis Court and an angry march on the Bastille, and the walls of state and society came a-tumbling down.

I will not labour the analogy.  What Mr Cameron needs to contemplate is not so much the fact of 1789 (aristocratic elites, oppression and injustice can survive for centuries unchallenged, never mind untoppled) but the fact that, when the tocsin sounded, it took everyone, not least the government, by complete surprise.

Back to the 1930s

During the 1930s, in America, unlike in 1930s or even present-day Britain, Roosevelt introduced a string of measures (the so-called ‘First New Deal’) to tackle the depression.  He accompanied these with a number of ‘Fireside Chats’ in which he appealed directly on radio to the ‘ordinary man’ to support him against the rich vested interests which were resisting his measures.

By 1935, two things were becoming clear:
* The first was that the New Deal was not curing the depression – that even Roosevelt’s huge Keynesian stimulus was in itself insufficient to restore growth.
* And the second was that – unlike our current government, which is quite able to spin a bit of banker-bashing to try to gain street-cred – Roosevelt really WAS on the side of the working man against the rich vested interests.

Consequently, from 1935, Roosevelt introduced a series of measures which are known collectively as ‘The Second New Deal’.  These were measures which were not just sticking plasters designed to ameliorate the depression, but measures of genuine social change, which gave the USA a system of pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments and employment rights which changed the lives millions of poor Americans.

What the British people and the Labour Shadow cabinet need to realise is not just that austerity which isn’t working – fiscal stimulus doesn’t work either.

The real issue was never about the crash or the economy - that is just the background context.  The real issues are social and political, and concern a process which has been going on for a number of years, by which increasing amounts of wealth and power have been concentrating in the hands of a very small group of people.

I have no problem with rich people per se – except that they seem nowadays to want to become richer and richer and ever-more powerful.

And the answer – whilst the vested interests drive systematically towards technocratic government, federalism and increasing inequality – is NOT ‘too far too fast’ nor even fiscal stimulus, but a radical and appropriate programme of social reform.

The power of the rich has increased, is increasing, and must be diminished, as John Wilkes would have said if he were alive today.

And, Ed Miliband please note, what we need for this is a new Roosevelt, who can see the need for an 'equalising' programme of social reform, and can force it through by means of an alliance with the ordinary man – if necessary in the teeth of opposition from the rich and the powerful – and pull this country back from the echoes of 1789.


Friday, 1 June 2012

Are We 'Unemployable' - Or Just Being Fleeced?

The 'unemployability' narrative is a Tory trick to maintain profits at our expense.

Richard Murphy in a blog today asks the question: ‘Are we unemployed or unemployable?’  He relates the two terms to Growth versus Austerity, Demand-led recovery versus Supply-Push recovery, Left versus Tory.

But he opens the door on yet another, deeply-disturbing development in the Tory narrative – the demonization of the workforce.

The ‘Unemployability’ narrative
Have you noticed, indeed, that the language of 'unemployability' is becoming more common?  The one that hit the headlines recently was a statement from the Scottish motor firm Arnold Clark, which announced that four-fifths of applicants for their apprenticeship scheme were ‘not employable at all’ – that they were ‘shocked’ by a normal working day, possessed of unrealistic expectations and unable to say any more than ‘I want’.  In addition, claimed the firm, the youngsters had ‘no concept of citizenship’ and – the TV report revealed – insufficient excitement about a career in the motor industry.

But Arnold Clark are not alone.  In February 2012 the Adecco group released ‘research’ showing that 73% of employers believed that a ‘permanent underclass’ of unemployable people is emerging within UK society.  The report revealed that 57% of employers did not have any apprentices, despite a general belief that they were ‘a good thing’ – the implication being, of course, that it was the ‘unemployability’ of young workers which was putting the employers off from expanding their workforce.

It’s not just young apprentices who are receiving the ‘unemployable’ treatment.  Last month UK Employment Minister Chris Grayling led a charge of business lobbyists claiming that UK graduates were ‘unemployable’, citing the lack of a can-do attitude among various other employability failings of UK youth.

The Tories, of course, are playing to an easy market.  Ever since Lee Adams penned the lyrics to ‘Kids!’ in the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie, people have tut-tutted about the failings of youth – the Adecco group found that, even more than the 73% of employers, no less than 84% of UK workers bewailed the emergence of a ‘permanent underclass’.  To a degree it’s even true – ‘real’ work always comes as a surprise to school-leavers.  (I remember well my first day at work – in Greenwood’s The Man’s Shop – when I was required to STAND! all day on the shop-floor; despite the fact that I was a cross-country runner and fit as a lop, I went home that evening seriously wondering whether I would ever walk normally again!)

It’s a myth, of course.  Having taught since the 1970s, I can assure you that the ‘youth’ of today are harder-working, better-educated, more flexible and innovative, more reasonable, and altogether better citizens than the pupils of 40 years ago – ten years of League tables and punitive Ofsted reports have seen to that.  Long gone is Willy Russell’s ‘Our Day Out’ teacher and any concept of education as ‘fun’ – nowadays, pupils are given their target grades when they enter Year 7, and they are relentlessly hounded and assessed to get them beyond that target by the time they leave.

So why the unemployability narrative?
So why the constant whingeing about easy GCSEs and devalued qualifications?  Why the unemployability narrative – why do we have a government minister openly talking down the British workforce on the international stage?

Part of it, of course, is a typically-Tory softening-up process before they fall upon our education system.  It is a strategy we are now familiar with – first you rubbish it, then you marketise it … on the grounds that this will make it more ‘efficient’.  The Arnold Clark announcement was overtly and explicitly political, not economic, and showed us where the Tories are going next: ‘We are increasingly concerned at the State-Sponsored Babysitting nature of some college programmes rather than the specifically-targeted vocational training … we believe taxpayers’ money should be being spent on.’

The ‘lazy workforce’ narrative
But the ‘unemployability’ narrative goes further and deeper than that. 

In another world, in 2006, the Guardian carried an article which claimed that ‘no one is unemployable’, in which a whole range of experts argued that, with the right support, anyone can be helped back to work.  That language of inclusivity has long since disappeared. It has been replaced by the ‘scrounger’ narrative, which sees many disabled and unemployed as work-shy opportunists who needs to be driven to work by interviews and reduced payments.  Last month even Nadine Dorries – whose mission is to bring the posh Tory leaders down to reality – outlined that part of that reality was ‘children being unemployable and spending a life time on benefits’ (my italics).

Neither is the target simply the young and adults on benefits.  The British worker is getting a kicking too.  Last year a Uswitch survey found that more than half of private businessmen believed public sector workers to be ‘unrealistic in their expectations about pay, holidays and employment terms’.  Only one-in-fifty stated that they would actively seek to recruit public sector workers, and one in ten stated that they would not employ public sector workers under any circumstances, even if they were the only applicant for the job.

And similarly, last year, steel billionaire Ratan Tata justified cutting 1,500 jobs on the grounds that the British workforce was ‘lazy’ and ‘unwilling to go the extra mile’.  We really do seem to be returning to a Thatcherite narrative of the ‘lazy’ British worker, who needs shocking and disciplining back into line to make British industry competitive again. I recently pointed out an alarming passage in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement in which he demanded ‘the right to work all hours’ and moralised:  ‘It’s no good endlessly comparing ourselves with other European countries.  The entire continent is pricing itself out of the world economy.’

So why the ‘lazy workforce’ narrative?
Yet people in the UK work longer hours and enjoy fewer public holidays than any other country in the European Union.  So why the increasing insinuation that British workers are in fact inferior and lazier than their counterparts in other countries?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in the Tory ‘it’s-not-our-fault’ reaction to economic recession.  Lazy British workers are simply one more cat-to-kick – alongside the outgoing Labour government and the Eurozone crisis.  Connected to this is the demonstrable failure of the private sector to expand (as the Tories promised) to employ sacked public sector workers … so you sell the unemployed a line that tells them to they are unemployed, not because you are an incompetent government with a non-existent business strategy, but because THEY are ‘unemployable’ – that it’s their own fault they are unemployed.
Partly, also, it is because theTores know that a ‘lazy-British-worker’ strategy will play well with the Tory working class.  Who doesn’t believe that he works harder than his workmates, and the Tories are past masters at playing on people’s resentments.  It also undermines working-class solidarity, and stops workers making waves when their colleagues are sacked … they must have deserved sacking because they were lazy.

How still to make a huge profits in a recession
But mainly, I suspect, this narrative of 'the unemployable' is part of the Tory strategy to further drive down wages and conditions of work.
It was the implications of George Osborne’s speech which terrified me – if European workers have ‘priced themselves out of the world economy’, what is the solution, if not to reduce their price – if the East has people who work much harder for much lower wages, is there any alternative save that we are going to have to do so too if we are to remain competitive.
And if the comparator is Thai children sewing footballs for pennies in filthy workshops, is that how far we are going to have to go?

Regularly, we are hearing of changes, many of them un-noticed and barely-protested, systematically stripping away, or proposing to strip away, people’s rights at work – pensions renegotiation, the pay freeze, regional pay, unfair dismissal rights, reform of the EHCR, ‘red tape challenge’, the Beecroft report, and on and on…

SO WHY, you have to ask yourself, are the government and the employers so determined to reduce our pay?
And the answer is brutally simple – money!
If they can reduce the workforce to a low-paid, terrified body which will do anything for nothing - companies can still maintain company profits despite the lower turnover during the recession.

Osborne and his 1% fully realise that Austerity will shrink the economy.  They know that growth and Austerity don’t mix. So they have to do two things:
* Firstly they have reduce costs if they are to maintain profits in a declining market … and the costs they have decided it will be easiest to reduce are labour costs.  Improving technology – innovation and investment – cost money, which they are not prepared to risk in a recession, so they fall back on the short-term (and yes, ‘lazy’) alternative, which is to reduce wages.  They are reducing the return to the workforce in order to maintain the return to themselves.
* And, secondly, they have to soften up the workforce to accept their reduced rights and pay – and you do this with propaganda which makes workers think that we ARE a lazy workforce and an unemployable population, and that therefore we MUST buckle down and (as the Lemsip advert said) – ‘stop snivelling and get back to work’.

So, maybe, the next time you hear a government minister ‘talking down’ the work-ethic or work-suitability of  British schoolchildren, or Britain’s workforce, you will be able to take it for the Tory trick it is.

'All in this together'?  You've got to be joking.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

NEC Ballot - A View From Aycliffe

OK, my ballot papers arrived in the post today, so this is who I’m voting for and why.
I wondered whether it was maybe a presumption to post my voting intentions, and I certainly wouldn't want to sway you from your choices.  However, I usually share most of what I think about politics, so why should this be any different?
So, without prejudice:

* Luke Akehurst – tireless campaigner, principled, anxious to debate – a man with the clout and the desire actually to get an increased say for the rank-and-file.
* Lewis Atkinson – north-easterner, principled, energetic … and a brilliant manifesto in the booklet.
* Johanna Baxter – again, very energetic … and someone who takes accountability and reporting-back seriously.
* Ann Black – authoritative, respected, experienced … and a much-needed left-wing voice.
* Darrell Goodlife – outspoken, enthusiastic and a principled man with fine principles.

After that, whom does one choose from people you don’t know about?  After a degree of agonising (Christine Shawcroft seems an excellent candidate), for better or for worse, I eventually went with:


* Peter Wheeler – because he is from the north, and goodness knows we need a voices from outside London.

Really hard, because there has been so little out there – I tried to suss them out on the web, and one of my criteria was that a modern campaigner ought to have a web presence.  I also read their manifestos in the booklet. 

Eventually I went with:
* Nick Forbes – leader of Newcastle Council (obviously a top-class candidate).
* Nick Wallis – from Sedgefield (our local man), who seems very reasonable and approachable.

After that, again, who to choose from people you don’t know?  After a degree of agonising (Brynnen Ririe seems an excellent candidate), for better or for worse, I went with the following, on the grounds that they had a stronger web-presence:

* Liz Twist – a NHS Unionist, and who will be a vital voice in Labour policy-making.
* Veronica Killen – higher education unionist, and from what I have been able to find out, it seems like she will be a (much-needed) voice from the Left.

Police and Crime Commissioner

(Remember here that you have to number the candidates 1-3 – your vote will be discounted if you just mark one candidate with an ‘x’.)

After a very lot of agonising I went for:
1. Ron Hogg – on the strength of his faultless presentation to our Branch meeting, which showed him to be a man with sufficient experience, and a fine Labour vision for what might be achieved.
2. Peter Thompson – currently head of Durham Police Authority, principled and popular … a fine man.
3. Bill Dixon – well-recommended from within the CLP.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

So - Who Should I Vote For In The NEC Elections?

The National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party is the representative body of the Party, alongside the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), and it is vital that we get the best people for it.  This month we will get a list of names – most of them will be utterly unknown to us – so that we can vote for our NEC; but who on earth should we choose?

By what right?
Yes I KNOW I don’t really know what I’m talking about and yes I AM nervous about getting things wrong.  But – as always – I am happy to share what I do know with you, and you will have an opportunity in the comments to rebalance as you wish.

To be honest, I have heard of few of the candidates for Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), and have never met ANY of them. 
For the National Policy Forum (NPF) it is even worse; I don’t even know who’s standing!

This – I hear you think – surely disqualifies this man from writing about the NEC elections … and there you would be wrong.
Because – inasmuch as I in my ignorance am 100% representative of 99% of the thousands of Labour supporters who will be voting in the NEC and NPF elections – in fact I am JUST the person to comment.

None of the people who are going to be elected will really be representative of the Labour Party rank-and-file, because most of the Labour Party rank-and-file will never have heard of them, and will be voting in the dark for something they don’t really comprehend.
So – since I assume that most of the other people writing about this issue know (or pretend to know) what they are writing about – that makes me the ONLY genuinely grassroots-representative commentator on this business.

Anyway, I read on twitter this morning that the ballot papers are out, and so that’s why I’m writing … to give you, and the candidates, the benefit of my crushing ignorance.

The Candidates
The one person I do ‘know’ well enough to vote for is @lukeakehurst, who is prolific on the web (his blog is here).  If Mr Akehurst and I were ever to meet, I am sure we would find ourselves diametrically opposed.  Mr Akehurst is right-wing, pro-Israel, and can get aggressive.  But he is bright-red, true-through, loyal Labour to the core.  I know how hard he works – and works at down-to-earth-things like #LabourDoorstep – because he tweets everything he does.  He is always the first to share a blog-record of NEC meetings.  He has also published his manifesto on the web and it includes – though lower down than I would have wished – a commitment to increase the say of the rank-and-file in policy-making (which is the only thing which REALLY matters in this election).  Like him or hate him, Mr Akehurst is the exemplar of what every NEC member should be, and he deserves re-election.

The other person I’ve heard of is Ken Livingstone.  Mr Livingstone will no doubt be elected on name-recognition and notoriety alone … but I hope he isn’t.  There comes a time when people need to realise that they’ve had their day, and it’s time to step down and, personally, I feel that time has arrived for Mr Livingstone.  If he does get elected, as I’m sure he will, I hope he will adopt the role of elder statesman rather than activist, even though I suspect my politics are much closer to his than to those of Mr Akehurst.

Other names I recognise by reputation.  Ann Black is very highly thought of.  She has more CLP nominations than any other candidate.  She is ‘on the left’ politically and a member of Labour Left.  She also publishes her accounts of the NEC meetings, though apparently later than Mr Akehurst.  She has written an article which can be regarded as a manifesto, which includes an aspiration* to communicate more with members. 

I am told that @JohannaBaxter (#JB4NEC) is very active – she has certainly visited dozens of CLPs during her term on the NEC – and she too declares that she wants greater member involvement in policy-making. She is the subject of this eulogy by Lord Jim Knight.

For north-east people, you will probably be wanting to vote for @LewisAtkinson from Gateshead, who has made contact with me, and seems a lively and motivated person.  I thought Mr Atkinson was the only north-east candidate, but I heard at today’s CLP that there may be a chap from Sunderland standing – if there is anybody out there who knows him, give me a wave and I will add his name here.

The other name I just must run past you is Darrell Goodlife. Mr Goodlife is a member of
Labour Left, so you will appreciate that his politics and mine merge almost seamlessly – he runs a great blog called Moments of Clarity, so you can suss out his opinions before you vote.  The other thing I like about him is that he is a History graduate, which puts him a cut above the rest in my opinion!  I am sure that he doesn’t expect to win, but feels that a good showing would publicise issues that need raising; I tend to agree with him, so you might find him worth a tick.

The Slates
There are two slates that I am aware of.

Progress, as you may be aware, are on the right-wing of the Party.  They are very slick and well-funded, and closely connected to the Shadow Cabinet and therefore the policy-making centre of the Party.  I sometimes get a bit exasperated by some of the quasi-Tory stuff they come out with, but you can probably count on them to be safe, sensible and centrist.
The Progress slate carries:
- Luke Akehurst (sitting NEC member)
- Joanne Milligan (National Policy Forum constituency rep)
· Florence Nosegbe (Lambeth Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Sport and the 2012 Games)
- Ellie Reeves (sitting NEC member)
- Ruth Smeeth (parliamentary candidate for Burton in 2010)
- Peter Wheeler (long-serving NEC member until 2010)

The other, very powerful slate is the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance.
Their slate is:
- Ann Black
- Ken Livingstone
- Kate Osamor
- Christine Shawcroft
- Darren Williams
- Peter Willsman his rather impressive article/manifesto is here.
The CLGA always do very well in the NEC elections, because they are much more left-wing in their approach than Progress.  Their web-presence, I have to say, is complicated in the extreme.

The saddest thing about both these slates, I feel, is that only five of the twelve candidates come from outside London, two of those are from Oxford, and the most ‘northern’ is Peter Wheeler from Salford – which raises all kinds of questions about the nature of the Labour Party and how seriously it ever intends to involve its rank-and-file members … most of whom, let’s face it, come from the north.

I have published this, as you are aware, not in the belief that I have any great insight into who-you-ought-to-vote-for, but in the belief that I might as well share what I know so that you can add it to your own knowledge.
I am hoping that readers who know other candidates – different facts – and perhaps simply more(!) – than I will be able to redress my personal ignorance on this subject via their comments below.

Please note that I am trying to do my best here, and if you are aggressive, unpleasant or abusive I will simply delete you.

However, if I have made an error, please tell me and I will correct it.
If you wish to add a recommendation or comment on any of these candidates or others I would be delighted.
And if you are a candidate, please feel free to use the comments to appeal or inform as you wish.

Because, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – the best-possible NEC for the Labour Party.

* The only problem with any existing member assuring you that they are committed to improved communication with members is their record; they didn’t get very far last year, for example, did they, when the NPF met only twice, and briefly.  There is a real tendency for candidates to get a leg-up from grassroots members by agreeing that grassroots opinions need a greater impact at the highest – only to ‘go off’ the idea somewhat when they find themselves at the highest level.
Ms Black’s article refers to the very patchy member response to attempts at consultation on policy.  If that is so, then I hope she will acknowledge that the aspiration for member-involvement in policy-creation is not wrong, and simply that the NEC and NPF need to do much more in terms of member education, consultation procedures and CLP processes AS WELL as steadily improving member participation.