Friday, 15 November 2013

Aycliffe Needs to Respond to a Time of Change

Few people who voted for the Tories and Lib Dems in 2010 can have had any idea how radical this government would turn out to be. The Welfare Reform Act of 2012 has ushered in a devastating series of measures – of which universal credit, the benefit cap, job-seeker sanctions, ATOS disability assessments and the ‘bedroom tax’ are only the most high-profile.

How should Newton Aycliffe respond to this challenge?

The Contributory Principle
The Tories and Lib Dems have changed the underlying principle on which our society is based. Newton Aycliffe is famous as the town which embodied Beveridge’s post-war ‘Welfare State’, and we have lived ever since under the protection of a regime which accepted in principle the old socialist adage: ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’.
The ‘Welfare State’ – at least in those terms – is now dead and gone. A structure of benefits and protections remains in place, but the underlying principle has changed and we live now under the canon of: ‘to each according to their contribution’. It is deemed ‘fairer’, and it plays well with many people. So if you wanted a world where benefits were cut until they were inadequate to live on, where disabled people were mercilessly reassessed, where unemployed people were proactively sanctioned, and where some people on benefits were harried out of their homes… you’ve got what you wanted!
Of course, these changes affect some parts of the country more than others, depending on the level of local deprivation. Researchers estimate that the County Durham economy stands to lose £188million a year because of the welfare changes – a cut equivalent to £565 per working-age adult. The national average cut is £470 per adult. The south-east is generally less-affected.

Cuts to Councils
What has been happening to individuals, of course, has been mirrored in the government’s treatment of councils. The government has also been changing the principle by which it allocates funding to local councils – away from the old Rate Support Grant (which distributed support according to deprivation), giving them instead half of the Business Rate. This, of course, is very good news for the City of London. It is not such good news for County Durham, where the economy is relatively weak, but cuts to government grants will reduce the County Council’s income by £222million by 2018.
The result is that – at the very time our most needy and vulnerable people are being hit by welfare cuts – the power of the Council to step in and compensate has been removed. Durham County Council is barely half-way through the process and, as the financial noose tightens, we face eye-watering cuts to front-line services. People are, understandably, angry about changes to street-lights and garden waste collections; yet the County Council still has £100million more to cut from its expenditure.

What can we do?
These changes are being imposed by the Tories and Lib Dems on ideological grounds, and they are coming whether we like them or not. And while I am confident that Aycliffe people will vote for a Labour MEP in 2014 and a Labour MP in 2015, the colour of our government in the future will depend on how people vote elsewhere.
So what can we do, as a community of people upon whom these changes are being imposed?

1. Budget-setting
On 23 November, if you go to the Participatory Budget event in the Youth Centre (11am till 3pm), you will be asked to take part in a ‘Monopoly-board’ exercise where you can have your say on where the cuts should fall.
Taking part in this exercise is the first thing we can do. Indeed, I cannot stress how important it is that people take time out to attend and undertake this exercise, because – as it struggles to balance the budget over the next 5 years – the County Council will make its cuts in those areas you have indicated are least unacceptable. We cannot stop the cuts, but we can protect certain areas – at, of course, the expense of others. If you do not have your say, you may find that cuts are happening to which you have not given your consent.

2. Business

The second thing we must do, as a community, is embrace economic growth. Changes to benefits and council funding – with the multiplier effect – will strip perhaps 10% a year out of the County Durham economy … money that would have been spent on food, and wages, and clothes, and a myriad of other things on which the business life of our county depends. Hitachi offers us a wonderful opportunity for growth, but Hitachi alone will not even begin to compensate. We need to become a community geared for growth, where our planning regime attracts businesses, where our schools equip students for the world of industry, and where our town buzzes with entrepreneurial energy. If you attend on 23 November, please do not vote to cut the Regeneration budget, because without economic growth our society cannot survive … not in the present climate.

3. Charity
And the third thing we will have to do is to grow in charity. Because the Tories and Lib Dems have got it wrong. You cannot force everybody into work when there are eight times as many applicants as vacancies. You cannot fine people into smaller homes where there are no properties with fewer bedrooms. And simply declaring people fit for work does not allow a disabled or ill person to get a job. A ‘welfare’ system governed by the contributory principle is no welfare at all, because it ignores the simple fact that some people cannot, or have never had the opportunity to, ‘contribute’.
So, in our merciless new world, society has to step in where government has withdrawn; which is why I welcome my wife’s decision, as this year’s Mayor, to support the foodbank at St Clare’s.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Why Russell Brand is a false prophet

This post comes well into a long and acrimonious debate.

It was started by Russell Brand, who called for 'revolution'.
Brand was then challenged by a number of writers, not least Robert Webb.

He was then supported by Nafeez Ahmed.

This is my comment on the debate, with particular reference to Ahmed's article: 

Democracy under attack
Ahmed's article is simply one vapid nincompoop supporting another.

It is reminiscent of many of those writers in the 1930s who attacked 'broken' democracy and encouraged people to step outside the system and seek a 'better' way (in the 1930s, that meant fascism).
And Ahmed and Brand are as wrong now as Moseley and Northcote were in the 1930s.

The thing about democracy - its one advantage as a political system over all others - is that, when it is 'broken', it carries within it the mechanism to put things right.
That mechanism is the vote.

Of course, Brand and Ahmed are bit players in the political game, and it is typical of the Left that we should spend so much time ripping apart the very people who should be fellow-travellers! 

Democracy faces a much more coherent and organised threat from the corporatists, who are using the recession to take over whole states.
But the defeating of them is just the same - the vote.

And that is why I can agree with Brand - effete, rich, hypocritical, immoral elitist that he is - right up to the point where he urges people to abandon the democratic system.
At that point, what he has to say is simply music to the ears of the corporatists.
Because that, of course, like the fascists in the 1930s, is exactly what they want.
If they can reduce democracy to apathetic chaos; if they can consign it to the dustbin of the rejected ... then the way is open from them to move in.
And the form of government with which they replace democracy will not allow of any real change ... without revolution, real revolution, bloody revolution.

A recipe for disaster
For the moment, however, Ahmed and Brand are posturing within the cocoon of safety offered them by the very democracy they seek to overthrow.
Brand wouldn't last two minutes in a real revolution. And Ahmed is living in a fool's illusions where he is going to wave a magic wand and, shazam, the world is going to right itself.

Read Ahmed's article. Apart from re-iterating, yet again, the 'broken democracy' themes, it is only at the very end that he tells us what we might do to bring in the millennium.
Here, therefore, is the critical paragraph:

"Civil disobedience and occupying public spaces ... occupying mainstream political spaces ... intensive, organised grassroots campaigning, lobbying and dialogue with political actors; occupying media narratives [and] new equitable forms of production, consumption and exchange; occupying food and energy spaces by pooling community resources to grow our own food and produce our own energy in our communities; and so on."
By this, apparently,
"a new, emerging post-carbon paradigm will be co-created by people themselves from the ground up".

Best of luck.

Firstly, of course, how do you organise all this in an anarchic world where you are extolling the virtues of disengagement? It will be interesting whether we see Dr Ahmed sleeping rough outside Parliament this winter, or whether he chooses to continues his desk-bound career as a writer for the Guardian instead.

But, secondly, does anybody with even the smallest smattering of historical knowledge think that an extended Occupy campaign and a resurrected Digger movement will dislodge the corporatist oligarchy which currently dominates our government? All it will do at most is give the excuse for the authorities to further restrict our democratic freedoms, and hasten the fall of our only real way-without-bloodshed back to power.

The REAL - and much easier - answer
And what makes all Ahmed's twaddle particularly galling?
The irony is that we do not need Occupy movements. 

We do not need to go back to our allotments and prepare for food-exchange.
We already possess the power to change things.
It is called democracy.

First, we all join the Labour Party and force it to adopt the grassroots socialist policies it ought to be advocating. Then we all go out in 2015 and vote it into power.
Couldn't be easier - no sleeping rough, no spadework ... just meaningful mass-engagement.

But then we live in a world where people are too apathetic to attend political meetings or put a cross on a piece of paper.
So I suppose it is easier still to sit and roar with approving laughter at a comedian who is advocating a course of action few of his audience will have any intention of even considering.

The abiding danger in this, however, is that democracy's enemies - of which Russell Brand is a self-declared ally - will have reduced our democracy to an impotent shell before people realise that they have to get off their backsides and change the system.

Because - if they succeed in that - we will have by our inaction have condemned our grandchildren to a world where terrorism, bloodshed and suffering are the only way to change the government.

So please, people, wake up!