Sunday, 29 January 2012

Labour should thank goodness for Cllr Mackenzie

Yesterday, there was a twitter-storm concerning a certain Cllr Mackenzie, who had called disabled protestors 'a bunch of unwashed people' who ought to move to North Korea.
This article argues that the Left-wing concept of social justice is currently less popular than the Tories' concept of 'fairness' in society. But people such as Cllr Mackenzie remind us that the idea of 'getting what you deserve' is ultimately a dog-eat-dog, proto-nazi concept which we need to resist.

Yesterday, reacting to the Welfare Reform Bill demonstration in Oxford Circus, a certain Cllr Luke Mackenzie from Basildon tweeted:

I hear there are a bunch of unwashed people at Oxford and Regent Street, if you don't like capitalism move to North Korea #UKUNCUT

The Oxford Street Protest
It was a foot-in-mouth moment of stupendous inaccuracy. The Guardian video of the demonstration gives a very different impression. The action was a protest by disabled people against the DLA elements of the Welfare Reform Bill. Far from being ‘a bunch of unwashed people’ the protestors come across as gentle, middle-class and very, very scared. For many, it was the first time they had protested about anything. A blind man handing out leaflets mocked himself for not being able to see if there was anyone there to take one. Another protestor thanked the TV for giving him airtime to advance his case. A lady in a wheelchair in the front line was overcome by the moment and dissolved into tears; a silver haired man in a wheelchair next to her patted her hand silently in comfort.

It was old-fashioned, decent British democracy in action. The bus driver bemoaned his luck at being moments away from getting through the traffic lights – but clearly bore the protestors no malice. After two hours, a kind policeman told the demonstrators firmly that it was time to end it now, and they obeyed politely.

It was the early 19th century campaigner Francis Place who first developed this kind of protest – parading good and tragic people before the public, to highlight the essential justice of their cause. UK Uncut had replicated his methods with genius. These were the people whom we have been brought up to protect – the meek and the poor – lovely people to whom life has dealt heartbreaking setbacks – and our Parliament is enacting laws to reduce even the meagre benefits we dole out to them.

Cllr Mackenzie and his tweet
I feel quite sorry for Councillor Mackenzie. If you check out the picture on his Basildon council page he looks like a sixth-former. His position is ‘assistant to the leader’ – a gofer. He has waded in way above his head.

After a lifetime as a professional historian, I am quite good at reading between the lines, and I would like to bet you any money that his tweet was a simple misunderstanding – that, hearing that UKUncut were holding a demonstration in Oxford Circus, he assumed it was an Occupy London protest, and bashed out a scornful hate-tweet … only to find to his horror that he had inadvertently attacked the wrong people – disabled people.

You or I would simply have apologised – “Sorry! Wrong, wrong, wrong – I wish the DLA protestors well … sh*t what a goof!” But Cllr Mackenzie is young, arrogant, and I didn’t fully realise the awesome magnitude of his error:

“Deary me, it seems I have upset a few people”, he tweeted cheerily,

“Question to the left, do you consider people with an income in the worlds top 1% as poor?”
and then:

“Here we go those supporting more than £26k a year in benefits, type £26k into here you are the 1%”

And finally, as the abusive tweets and emails piled in, he shut up shop.

A question of ‘Fair’
To understand the causes and implications of this twitter-storm, you need to understand that, whilst both Labour and Tories advocate a ‘fair’ society, they have very different approaches to what the concept ‘fair’ involves.

The Left tend to interpret ‘fair’ in macro-terms.
They talk about social justice in principle rather than about the reality of people’s everyday lives. If I were being bitter, I would suggest that part of the reason for this is that the Labour leadership has not talked meaningfully with its rank-and-file for two decades, but I will bite my tongue on that.
Nevertheless, when Lefties talk about ‘fairness’ in society, they tend to
make sweeping statements about the – admittedly incontrovertible – inequalities in society. They will tell you that 4 million children one in three are currently living in poverty in the UK. They will tell you that in 1997 the collective wealth of the richest thousand people in Britain stood at £99 billion; by 2009 it was £336 billion.

The Tories see ‘fairness’ in very different terms.
When she quarrelled about poverty with Owen Jones on the TV, Edwina Currie ridiculed the idea that ANYBODY in Britain was poor when they could walk round with the latest mobile phone. The now-infamous Cllr Mackenzie echoed a similar line of thought when he tweeted: “Question to the left, do you consider people with an income in the worlds top 1% as poor?”

To be honest, I’m more with Edwina than with Owen Jones on this. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: ‘A household is deemed to be in poverty if its income is less than 60% of average household income’ – i.e., for those of you who get lost off by fancy language: ‘you are in poverty if your income puts you in the poorest third of society’.
Now you don’t have to be very clever to realise that this is a ridiculous definition of ‘poverty’. If we define ‘the poor’ simply as those as those in the poorest third of society, it won’t come as much of a surprise to find that ‘one in three [children] are currently living in poverty in the UK’!
The poor, said Jesus, are always with you … but they are bound to be, aren’t they! If we define ‘poverty’ as the poorest third, a third of our society will always be defined as being in poverty. Indeed, by this definition, one in three of the children in Monaco’s millionaire gated communities are, as I write, growing up ‘in poverty’.

The Tories understand the everyday concept of ‘Fair’
And thus it is that it is the Tories who have put their finger on what Joe Public sees as ‘fair’. Cllr Mackenzie may be mealy-mouthed, but you can’t deny that he has the public ear on this.

How can we say that anybody in Britain is ‘poor’ when you see those programmes on your TV about the tip-dwellers in India, or about Romanian orphans? In a world where recession is biting, and some families live in genuine need, Britain continues to raise £_millions to help street-children in Brazil and tsunami victims in Indonesia, in the full knowledge that these countries have billionaires of their own, who should be reaching into their own pockets. So, yes, your average old lady KNOWS that she is in the top 1%, even though she cannot afford her electricity bill.

And that is the key to 'credibility', isn’t it? It is saying things that – whatever the macro-statistics seem to be telling him – the man-in-the-street KNOWS are true, because he sees them everyday in his experience.
The Tories are true in the micro (I suspect because 13 years of opposition forced them to listen to ordinary people).

So it’s no use bleating on that benefit fraud concerns only one half of a percent of claimants. Every single one of us knows at least one person who is defrauding the benefit system in some way or another … and if we all know someone who is doing so, how many must that make nation-wide? The statistics, however compelling, are rejected if they don’t conform to our personal experience.

And when I get up at the crack of dawn, and work all day every day for £12,000 p.a. doing a job I hate, is it fair that some families, apparently are gifted more than £26,000 a year for doing nothing? If I have an extra child, I have to put bunks in the boxroom and make my £12,000 stretch to an extra mouth; is it FAIR that when some families have an extra child, they can apply for a bigger house on the grounds of overcrowding, and be given more benefits out of MY taxes ... particularly when these self-same families are all too often a nightmare in the community.
Don’t even begin to try to talk me down on this one – I am capable of telling you all the caveats myself. I am simply telling you, on this, the Tories have won the propaganda battle hands down, totally and comprehensively.

And, as the recession bites, don’t think that working class attitudes will warm to the poorest third of society. As he finds his day-to-day life getting harder, your ordinary man-in-the-street will most likely become increasingly resentful of the benefitted classes, even more than the privileged classes. Tuppence-ha'penny looking down at tuppence
– the Tories have the future, as well as the present.

The problem of Tory ‘fairness’
The idea underlying the Tory concept fairness is the idea of deserving.

Why does Joe Public resent that family being given an income equivalent to a salary of £35000?
Because he has worked for his money, and therefore feels that he deserves it, and that they don’t because they haven't … it’s not fair.
And it is by playing on this sense of injustice that the Tories have captured the vote of many working class people, who see Labour simply as the Party 'which throws benefits fecklessly to immigrants and scroungers'.

The Labour leadership is well aware of this, and that is why they have adopted the ‘scrounger’ narrative, accepted the cuts and assessments, and support the cap in principle. To do otherwise, they say, is simply to reinforce the accepted misconception of Labour's fecklessness, and lose even more votes.

Nothing could be more disastrous. Because the Tory concept of fairness is a con-trick to justify an ideological attack on the rights of the poor, and to accept it is to fall, indeed, into the ‘Tory trap’.

The flaw in the Tory concept of ‘fairness’ is that the concept of ‘deserving’ (including ideas such as the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and of a ‘contributive’ principle under-pinning benefits) is based on foundations akin to
Social Darwinism'the survival of the fittest'.

Social Darwinism – the idea that the powerful and rich are powerful and rich because the powerful and rich deserve it – is also the theory that the poor and the weak are poor and weak because they are flawed or inferior and should therefore be given less because they do not deserve it.
It underlies the 'deserve' argument that causes you to resent the benefit ‘scrounger’ who is ‘stealing’ your taxes, but is the same argument that justifies the bankers’ bonuses and predator capitalism.
Ultimately, it is the same argument which the Nazis used to shut up the Jews in the death camps.

The Tory ‘deserve’ narrative which is used to justify the attack on the poor and the disabled also lies behind many of the economic injustices in our society. It is the foundation of the class system, and a justification of exploitation.
- How do I justify earning £1.2million with a bonus approaching £1million? Because I have risen to this high position and I deserve its rewards.
- How do we justify making £_millions of profit when old people are sitting in the cold? Because we are a global public company and we have the right to make these charges.
- How do we justify the highest rail fares in Europe? Because we are a monopoly service and people have no alternative.
- How do we justify paying our workers so little that they have to claim tax credits when our executives earn hundreds of times their annual wages? Because we are the bosses, and we have earned our privileges and position.

We live in a society where the wealthy are becoming wealthier, where workers are losing their rights and their powers, where benefits long-established are being reduced or withdrawn, where our public services are being handed over to the profit-mongers etc.
WE ordinary people are at the sharp end of all those developments, and we need to understand that the justification that lies behind them is the same as that which makes you support the cap.

desirability of a ‘getting-what-you-‘deserve’ society depends on who decides who are the deserving and what they deserve.

Labour should thank goodness for Cllr Mackenzie
And do not think that this is the end. This is only the beginning.

George Osborne, in his Autumn statement, suggested that Europe’s generous wages and benefit structures were pricing European firms out of the global market.
What is the implication of this, if not that we need a protracted period of falling wages and reducing benefits until our workers stand in the same position as those Indonesian child-workers whose labours are under-cutting our exports?
Is THAT the future we can look forward to in a ‘Tory-fair’ world?

“Question to the left, do you consider people with an income in the worlds top 1% as poor?” tweeted Cllr Mackenzie.
“@CllrMackenzie And the implications of this statement are...?” I replied.
Cllr Mackenzie did not reply, but the implications clearly are that the weak and the disabled in our society need to shut up and take any cuts and humiliations because – can’t you hear your grandmother telling you – ‘there’s always someone in the world worse off than you’.

The Left’s macro-definition of social justice in terms of greater equity in the division of the product of society does not ‘speak’ to ordinary people as powerfully as the Tories’ selfish-gene micro-concept of ‘fairness’, which gets the working classes all looking jealously at each other to see ‘what they are getting that I am not because they don’t deserve it’.

However, ultimately, the Tory model of social fairness is the thin end of a dog-eat-dog nazism, which will plunge us all into a stratified world of ‘ranks’, and set us in thrall to our ‘betters’ – who will self-define as the wealthiest.

So thank goodness that, from time to time, someone like Cllr Mackenzie comes out of the Tory woodwork to remind us what life will be like if we don’t resist this insidious Tory attack upon the benefits and wages of the poorest third of society ... and, ultimately, upon all of us.


  1. ‘A household is deemed to be in poverty if its income is less than 60% of average household income’ – i.e., for those of you who get lost off by fancy language: ‘you are in poverty if your income puts you in the poorest third of society’.

    Losing the "fancy language" in the way you did also loses a rather important part of the definition. It's quite possible to have a society where no-one is in relative poverty by the original definition (e.g. 10 people, of whom 3 earn £4, 3 earn £5, 3 earn £10, and 1 earns £1000) or a society where almost half of the people are in relative poverty (e.g. 1000 people, of whom 499 earn £1 and 501 earn £5)