Friday, 21 March 2014

Film Review: The Company Men

Sometimes dvds can sit unwatched for too long; hence the random timing of this piece as although it was made in 2010, I've just watched it this evening.

"The Company Men" was conceived before the Crash of 2008/9 bit hard, but it catches the mood of the times wonderfully: a shipbuilding firm lays off thousands of workers, including many who had been with it since it started, in order to improve its stock value. When a long serving senior executive, Gene McClary (played by Tommy Lee Jones) questions the ethics of this, and of building a prestigious new office building for the Owner/CEO, he ends up being fired too.

The film follows McClary and two other former employees as they struggle with the ease with which the Company to which they have given their all dispenses so readily with their services. Bobby Walker, played by Ben Affleck, is a 37 year old sales exec, reeling at suddenly having to look for work in a competitive market where he is seen as too old: graduate MBAs will work longer hours for less pay than a man with a family. Increasingly frustrated at the lowering of his status as he has to leave his golf club and sell his Porsche, his is not, initially, a sympathetic character - yet he powerfully portrays a man who, having been bought by the Great Lie of self-fulfilment through a company career, is sucker-punched by its inevitable betrayal.

Yet even more betrayed is 60 year old Phil Woodward, who has worked his way from the shop floor up to the Board room. Although older, he has a family to look after and faces immediate age discrimination, with one former work friend telling him he can't recommend him for an overseas job because "I wouldn't give it to anyone over 30." His wife, embarrassed by his loss, forces him to go out with his suit and brief case every morning so their neighbours think he is still working and he spends his days drinking, with predictably disastrous consequences.

The company's sole crumb of comfort is the "outplacement" service provided by a cringeingly over-enthusiastic woman who encourages job seekers to stand and sway to an "I will win!" mantra which she calls gushingly "The Tiger". But it is in this group that Walker begins to find some humble rebirth of a sense of the true value of people - one deepened when he works with his brother-in-law as a construction worker.

The film is something of a human dramatisation of the corporate psychopathy explored in the film and book, "The Corporation" by Joel Bakan. When the $22 million dollars-a-year earning CEO is reminded that the employees he has fired are good people, he retorts coldly and immediately, "We're not responsible to them. We're responsible to the stockholders."

And so it goes, and as each character faces their denouement, the viewer can't help but ask why on Earth anyone could justify a system that so completely messes up people's mental and physical well-being, which ties self-esteem and success so closely to ultimately random employment opportunities. Walker's brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner, notes that the CEO earns more than 700 times the wage of the average company employee and asks,"Is he really working 700 times harder than all these guys spending all day riveting steel next to blast furnaces?"

In the end, though, this is not a movie preaching revolution; without giving away any spoilers, it does nothing to chart either a way, or even a need, to break the cycles of boom and bust, of exploitation and accumulation that are the hallmarks of capitalism. But it undoubtedly leaves its audience perturbed - because this is the world we all live in and, men or women, we are in the end at the mercy of the Company and all the other Companies just like it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Bingo Britain: Osborne & Alexander's Patronising Pranks

The Budget has provided few surprises: other than the long trailed rise in the tax threshold to £10,500 after 4 years of austerity and pay decreases, the main thrust is to provide tax breaks for people with money. ISA thresholds are raised from £10,000 to £15,000, while pensioners will be able to take pots of cash out of their annuities, begging the question of what sort of support will be there for those who, longer term, will end up with significantly reduced incomes.

But this is an economy whose much touted "recovery" from the 2008 recession has been stymied by the record levels of inequality - just this week, Oxfam revealed that the five wealthiest people in Britain own more wealth than the poorest 12 million put together. While average wages have declined by over 10% in the last 5 years, the richest have actually become phenomenally better off. However, as they tend not to spend a lot of their money, tying it up instead in property or other savings, this has done nothing to stimulate the flat-lining economy.

What recovery there has been has been fuelled by rising personal debt and, bizarrely, the huge one-off payments for mis-sold PPI policies - the latter alone have pumped a temporary boost of around £3,000 million into the UK economy. As this wave subsides, it seems the "liberalising" of pension pots is hoped to provide a further boost to keep things going, regardless of the longer term consequences for the individuals concerned.

So where do the Tories' Osbonre and Lib Dems' Alexander hope they will spend their money? Well, in a breathtaking display of patronising arrogance, the Coalition has cut duties on bingo halls by even more than bingo companies were asking for after the owners said they would pass a lot of any cut on to their customers in increased prizes.

Yes, that's right: the Government wants to get people out to the bingo to keep Britain working. And at the same time, they've also given tax breaks to the drinks industry (which just happens to feature significantly among donors to the Tories).

So this is the future for our battered country. Benefits are to be capped regardless of need: but tax breaks are given to alcohol and gambling. Marx called it the opiate of the masses, the bread-and-circuses deployed by the ruling classes to numb the senses of the masses and blunt calls for genuine change.

It is a tried and tested formula, but, in the past, our rulers did not act just quite so brazenly as this lot do. And leading the charge, taking any rational person's breath away, is Tory Chair, Grant Shapps MP, who makes no bones about this attempt to desensitise the toiling masses with elusive promises of random riches and a booze-filled twightlight.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Sacking With CONfidence: The Epilogue - "You're Fired!"

This is the last in an occasional series of blogs on the Coalition Government's assault on employment rights - the rights that give all of us just a tiny bit more security against pernicious treatment and even summary dismissal from our livelihoods.

It is the last because the assault is over and, I am sorry to say, the Lib Dem/Conservative has had its way. All of us who are employees - which is about 85% of the working population - are substantially less well protected than before 2010.

Since then, with the piss-taking pseudo-leftwing Lib Dem Vince Cable at the helm of employment "reforms", the Government first off extended from one to two years the length of time someone has to work for an employer before they are protected against unfair dismissal. Let's get that in perspective: at any time in the first 24 months of working for an employer, you can be dismissed for absolutely no reason at all. Your manager doesn't like you? You're fired! You come in late because the bus was cancelled? You're fired! Your boss doesn't like the colour of your jacket? You're fired!

And you've absolutely no comeback. Nada! Zilch! Forget the Daily Mail stories about pots of gold in compensation - you're out and you're not coming back; you've not got a penny and who will ever employ you again, a sacked worker?

As long as you survive two years in a job, you do finally acquire the right to not be unfairly dismissed. Note - unfairly. Because always, under all employment protection laws, employers have always had a right to fairly dismiss you. So, if you are persistently late, and you are warned not to be, you could be fired fairly. If you steal or assault a colleague, you could be fired fairly - as long as you were given the right to respond to any accusations against you and the employer's decision to dismiss was based on a reasonable assessment of the balance of probabilities: proof beyond reasonable doubt was never required, just a fair investigation and a meeting to hear the employee's side.

How would something as plainly reasonable as this constitute the shocking red tape strangling our apparently cowed entrepreneurs that Cable and co made out it was? Yet almost from Day One, with his Employers' Charter, he was busy reminding employers of how easy it was to get rid of people - and promising to make it even easier. He restored the qualifying period to the level Margaret Thatcher set it at. And more, much more than that.

In the past, if you were dismissed, you could seek redress for being unfairly dismissed if you had twelve months' service (back in the 1970s, it was six months). You could go to an Employment Tribunal, which would hear your case and your employers, and if it found in your favour, it could award recompense. Contrary to the handful of unusual settlements for large sums of money, most awards were low: on average, rarely more than £9,500 with the median award around £4,500 even although you had been found to have unfairly lost your employment.

But this was still too much for Cable. So he brought in a new barrier to workplace justice: at the same time as he viciously restricted the already small amount of legal aid available for employment cases, he introduced charges to lodge a case. If someone wants to pursue an unfair dismissal claim now, they need to pay a minimum fee of £400 - even although logic dictates that in many cases, dismissed and out of work, the complainant will not have this money, or at least not be able to afford it. And, even worse, if their complaint is about discrimination on grounds of sex, race, disability, religion or sexual orientation, then although you can bring a case even before two years' service, you have to pay a fee up to 300% higher than the unfair dismissal fee: over £1,200.

Some remissions of charges are permitted for the very poorest, but if your household has more than just £3,000 in savings, you have to pay in full  - and evidence shows that this very disproportionately affects women. This is borne out further by the fact that of all categories of cases, the fall in sex discrimination claims is the highest. Similarly, there has been a 68% fall in claims for non-payment of wages; when workers have to pay £390 to pursue such a claim, can you imagine why the numbers have fallen?

Percentage fall in tribunal claims by type of claim
Type of claim Fall in claims
Sex discrimination 77%
Disability 58%
Race 57%
Sexual orientation 75%
Age 63%
Religion and belief 60%
Pregnancy related dismissal 59%
Equal treatment rights for part-time workers 79%

So, let's recap: if you are dismissed because the boss didn't share your sense of humour or you got him the wrong sandwich at lunchtime, you pay £390 to take a case forward. That's bad enough. But if you were sacked because you refused to sleep with the boss, you have to find £1,200. But of course, Cable hails from the institutionally sexist and bullying-riddled Lib Dems, so its easy to see where the mindset originates for this sort of "justice". He also knows quite a bit about charges and fines although in his case he has us to bail him out.

And the outcome of the new tribunal charges?

Well, after just 12 months in operation, the new rules have delivered what Cable and the Conservatives wanted. The employers' organisation the CBI has welcomed the Government's "unclogging" of tribunals and now The laughingly titled Ministry of Justice has reported that there has been a 79% decline in the number of employment tribunal cases. Four out of five claims have been stopped in their tracks.
Little wonder. And shame on Clegg, Cameron and co for claiming to support "hard-working parents" and "alarm clock Britain." Now earning 10% less now than pre-recession, never in forty years have these hard-working people been more vulnerable and less protected against the whims of their profit-seeking employers.

And no one gains, no one but the already cash-soaked corporations that dole out billions in bonuses and dividends off the backs of increasingly marginalised workers and exploited consumers. The majority - the vast majority - of us see our rights diminished, our security reduced and our livelihoods ever more dependent on the random goodwill of employers rather than the basic reassurance of a modicum of employee rights. It is hardly a recipe for a happy, productive workplace or a successful country.

Vince - hasn't always paid his own charges promptly.
But the alarm clock will soon be ringing for the Cabinet of Millionaires: in just over one year, it will be time for the 85% of us who are employees to sling these duplicitous charlatans out without notice and tell the Con Dems, "You're fired!"

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Greed Ain't Good - for the Bankers

Social media is a wonderful route to expose and explore stories that are perhaps not brushed under the carpet as such, but certainly not highlighted by the mass (owned) media.

Rumbling along on a number of progressive and leftwing forums of late has been the rise in suicides among traders in the finance world, where traders in particular are nearly 40% more likely to kill themselves than the average. Thirteen men and women have killed themselves in almost as many months, often with no clear reason or warning. Three have been from JP Morgan, but others have been unconnected, their ages have ranged widely from 28 to 58, and so the cause behind this self-destructive trend seems elusive.

And yet...

Imagine being at heart maybe a relatively decent human. Imagine being pushed by parents or peers, or simply attracted to the idea of doing well, and entering their world with its twisted morality, its total competitiveness, its aggression... And the ingrained sense of total personal failure if you drop out... It's not a big step from there to standing in front of a speeding train.

In "The Spirit Level", Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, set out a convincing range of evidence that more equal societies are happier ones - not only for the poor, but for the better off as well. And not just because in a less desperate society there is less crime or ill health, but because it is also more co-operative and community-oriented. With less pressure to relentlessly compete and with traits like aggression generally disapproved of in the workplace and elsewhere, people from all walks of life can feel a little more at ease with each other and, crucially, with themselves.

Contrast that with the world of banking and high finance: with fortunes and record-breaking bonuses to be had at the rapid click of the mouse, buying and selling relentlessly, building up and tearing down financial empires regardless of the impact on real people and their livelihoods, facing pressure to achieve, to produce "results", any human would ultimately begin to struggle. Except perhaps for the psychopaths who happily inhabit such worlds, amplify them and thrive on a culture of dog-eat-dog.

And indeed, using the psychopath tests developed by Babiak and Hare, these traits are often confused with the traditional traits of "good" workplace leadership - aggression is equated to decisiveness; manipulative game-playing to interpersonal skills; lack of empathy to being able to make difficult decisions; disregarding social and legal norms becomes imaginatively go-getting, and so on. Consequently, among management roles, the incidence of psychopathy increases from the normal 1% of the population to 3%. A risk-taking, rule-breaking, high materially-rewarding sector like finance and trading especially is almost like wonderland for someone of such ilk.

Does this, then, explain the rash of suicides? It is impossible to say. But what is certain is this: even if 3%, or even 6%, of traders or their managers are psychopaths, that still means that over 90% are not. But if the culture is one favouring and shaped and reinforced by psychopathic traits, it might be little wonder if others might eventually struggle and wilt. Failure to compete, to meet targets - their wealth doubtless insulates them, but on a psychological level only to a degree.

Get out then, we might tell them - if they are not psychopaths, they should know better; and certainly given the soaring bonuses paid out to so many of them, it is a far easier option than for people in most other occupations to do. But if someone has been become inured to such a way of life, accustomed to it so that they cannot imagine alternatives, the prospect of leaving may well be overwhelming. And, at the end of the day, they are simply flesh and blood themselves.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the protagonist, Owen, reflects on the excesses of the rich, but does not condemn them - they are, he concludes, simply playing out their part in capitalism. In this sense, capitalist society can destroy a banker almost as dispassionately as it destroys an unemployed or disabled person, though, of course, in far fewer numbers and with much more coverage than someone driven to take their lives by the prospect of not being able to repay a loan shark. In this twisted world, by turns forcing and encouraging people to compromise with their humanity and deal with the devil, no one, ultimately, is secure or able to be entirely content. Money can buy you happiness, except, of course, that it can't.

And yet, with bankers and benefits claimants alike taking their lives rather than continue living in the capitalist world we are told is the only choice, Wilkinson and Pickett's thesis seems confirmed. It may be difficult to feel much sympathy for greedy bankers struggling to cope with the culture they are steeped in. But a more equal society, a less acquisitive world, one where co-operation is prized over competition, or where, as the late Bob Crow succinctly put it, need replaces greed as the main societal driver - this would indeed be to the benefit of all.

Apart of course for the psychopaths. But we don't listen to them. Do we?


GreenAid: The Video

Employing some humour to make a point has often been the most effective way of make a message stick. And so, as covered in the last blog piece, last weekend found the Liberal Democrats' federal conference in York being offered the services of a group of enthusiastic volunteer medics from the Green Party. Styling themselves on the 1970s M*A*S*H* satire, the Greens offered a range of support to the Lib Dems, whom they assumed would by now be riddled with guilt and disoriented from nearly four years of Coalition with the Tories.

Green Eurocandidates for Yorkshire and the Humber region were on hand to offer sympathy and remedies including an organic detox centre to get clean from the Coalition. However, after engaging with a number of Lib Dems, the Greens' lead candidate, Cllr Andrew Cooper, concluded that it was a hopeless case - those who remain in the Lib Dems apparently are either in deep denial about what they have done (and even what is happening to their collapsing party) or simply have no conscience in terms of the impact of their doings on society.

York is often portrayed as a "chocolate box" city, the epitome of what England should look like (or even does look like in American TV shows). But scratch the surface and the story is very different. Over a century ago, Seebohm Rowntree's groundbreaking report exposed the widespread poverty in what, even then, was regarded as a successful town. A century later and many statistics show that very little has changed - tens of thousands of people in the city, as elsewhere, remain mired in poverty. That the Lib Dems felt it was acceptable to turn up and proclaim the supposed success of the Coalition demonstrates their detachment from the reality of Britain today. But, as the video shows, the crowds of trade unionists, Greens, socialists, physiotherapists, actors, Labrador dogs and others who rallied outside the Barbican did their best to put them right.


Monday, 10 March 2014

Death Wish Lib Dems

Registering now regularly below 10% in the national polls, the Lib Dems are showing increasingly frayed nerves as The Reckoning of the 2015 General Election gradually draws into sight. And looming large between now and then, the Slaughterhouse of the Euro-elections also beckons so very terrifyingly - even their own President, Tim Farron, concedes they may be completely wiped out in the Euros. Hurriedly, northern Lib Dem MPs have issued a report attacking austerity a mere four years and hundreds of Commons votes too late. Meanwhile, shaken by the rise of UKIP in the polls, Eurofanatic leader Nick Clegg is to face his opposite number among the Eurosceptics, Nigel Farage, in a debate that is likely to be about as compellingly memorable viewing as the final episode of BBC Eurosoap El Dorado. (remember?)

Against all this, they remain unapologetic for their years enabling the Tories to change Britain perhaps for a generation if not forever: in the stealth privatisation of the health service, the emasculation of local government via death by a million cuts, the stigmatising of disabled people as a drain on society and a host of tax cuts and regulatory changes to support big corporate business. They've made tough decisions, they claim - all too often rather too eagerly and proudly to sustain their facade of reluctance for long.

And now, today, their hubris, their delusion and their death wish stand naked before us all.

The Green Party received a leaked memo from the Lib Dem Head of Campaigns setting out their plans to target the Greens at the Euroelections.

First of all, it is a perhaps sound acknowledgement of the very real threat the Greens pose to the Lib Dems in the elections: with 2 sitting MEPs and strong chances of adding at least a further 4 or more to their total, they stand poised to overtake the junior Coalition partner in both seats and votes, making in effect as big a story as any rise in UKIP support. The Lib Dems nervousness is well founded here.

Less well founded is their target for their "smearing" of the Greens as "dinosaur left-wingers that are more red than green." It seems that the Lib Dems (whose constitutional name is still the Social & Liberal Democrats) view the Greens commitment to social justice and a more equal society as Jurassic age communism. So be it. It is far less of a commentary on the Greens than on just how far the Lib Dems have travelled in their power-seeking odyssey and how pathetically desperate they are to cling onto the privileges and office-troughs they have their snouts so firmly stuck in.

For the appalling truth the Lib Dems plan to reveal about the Greens is the party's opposition to TTIP; the Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership currently being (secretly) negotiated between the EU and the USA. This treaty sets up a free-trade zone between these two areas, allegedly to help harmonise commercial standards on each side of the Pond, but also to facilitate the accumulation of wealth by large business corporations. Not only will trade duties be relaxed (denuding public treasuries of much needed tax revenue) but large American companies will be able to participate in public procurement in Europe (including the UK). Crucially, if the Governments of any European countries impose any restrictions through public policy that might reduce the profits of these predators, they will be able to sue that country for damages. Secret abritrators rather than public courts will decide such cases, making the whole process ever more opaque and undemocratic.

India and Australia have already come unstuck with similar treaties where companies have successfully sued over public health regulations at a cost of hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, under its free trade treaty with Canada, Costa Rica faces paying out to Canadian gold mining interests for stopping them prospecting in environmentally sensitive areas of its country - no wonder some call the TTIP the BAD law: Business Against Democracy.

So this is what the Lib Dems will stand for against the Greens: they will plant their flags firmly in the dung heap of corporate capital. Pitching themselves against a party that stands for the interests of ordinary citizens and communities,  they will claim that the TTIP will create some jobs generously brought to us by here-today-gone-tomorrow multinationals chasing the lowest paid round the planet (even although most of the evidence of such deals points quite clearly in the opposite direction). Clegg and his Orcs think this will stir up such resentment that the public will turn away from the Greens' ideas for a living wage, a transaction tax, clampdowns on tax avoidance and extension of the public sector.  Judging the electorate by their own standards, they apparently believe voters will prefer their own slavish adherence to corporate Europe over the Greens' aspiration for a transformed social Europe working for people not profit.

Fine. Let them. The sooner they do, the better. It's getting boring now watching the long, lingering demise of this hubristic ragbag of puffed-up careerists: let's get it over with in time for the next season of The Walking Dead. Please.
Green Party Eurocandidates offered help for Lib Dem conference delegates troubled by their guilty consciences at a special Field Hospital in York last week. There were no takers.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Khrushchev's Crimea: Vlad Wants His Pressie Back...

Crimea has erupted across the global news headlines this past week.

When a crowd of people rioted on the streets of Kiev, perhaps uniquely demanding to be allowed to join the European Union, and overthrew the democratically elected President, the western media hailed this as a triumph for freedom and democracy.

A few days later, as the new Ukrainian regime adopted laws restricting the Russian language and culture of around 40% of the population, a crowd demonstrated in Crimea and 81 of the 83 elected members of the local parliament voted to hold a referendum on whether or not the Black Sea province should leave Ukraine and join Russia. Barack Obama declared any such referendum would, apparently, break international law - Scotland better watch out. The western media denounced it as a coup d'etat orchestrated by Russian President Putin and called for sanctions - some even suggesting some sort of vague military action  Half a league, half a league onwards!

But while the chauvinistic Putin,a supreme nationalist himself, is no benign player in events, as so often is the case, our political and media class operate in complete ignorance of what they are pontificating about. The narrative put out in the West on events completely misrepresents the reality not only of current happenings but of the past too.

Not only did previous Western military adventures in the peninsula not go so well, Crimea's population is heavily Russian (around 60%), with significant minorities of Ukrainians (25%) and Tatars (13%). It is not surprising that most of the people living there might be concerned about the seizure of power in Ukraine by a coalition containing nationalists and neofacists. The intervention of Russian troops, which has led to the deaths of precisely no one, in sharp contrast to the seizure of power in Kiev, is in this context seen as extremely welcome by local people, apprehensive of the train of events.

But all the more unsurprising is the fact that they might want to be part of Russia - because, historically, they were for over two centuries. Previously, the Crimean peninsula was a province of the Ottoman Empire, part of the Tatar Khanate, a colony of Genoa and an outpost of the Byzantine Empire in turn.

Crimea in history - from National Geographic HERE
It was never part of the Ukraine until 1954. In that year, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, on something of a high after Stalin's death and his own election as General Secretary of the Communist Party, gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a wee gift. Some people got vodka, gulag prisoners got parole; Ukraine got Simferopol and, after independence at the collapse of the USSR in 1990, they kept it.

So now, facing a decidedly chauvinistic Ukrainian regime, the local parliament, which legally governs Crimea as an autonomous republic, is holding a referendum. As long as the vote is fairly held, how is there anything there that breaks international law? The parallel with, for example, the Scottish Government holding the independence referendum in September is strong and the ability of areas with a distinct identity and internal self-government to democratically secede is well-established around the world. Or is the West really so keen to defend Khrushchev's self-indulgent act from 60 years ago?

The outcome is  not a foregone conclusion though probably fairly certain - reunion with Russia - but if so, it will be because the Russian majority will likely want that. And why not? Faced with the hostility of the new nationalist government in Kiev, they probably just want to go home.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Still Nothing Worth Watching... UKIP TV

Last weekend, a Spring conference of a national political railed against inequality, cuts to the NHS and tax evasion by the wealthy and called for a basic citizens' income to be paid to all adults. The same party heard how its MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) have worked to create laws that give real protection to workers and consumers, that support communities facing pollution from big business and introduced a cap on bankers' bonuses. This party has an MP, 2 MEPs, and over 160 local authority councillors as well as 2 members of the London Assembly and its candidate came third in the last London Mayoral contest.

However, the Green Party gained relatively little coverage for its work and proposals. When leader Natalie Bennett was granted an audience with the eminence gris of Radio 4, John Humphrys, his main focus was on whether or not the party should change its name.

Wall to wall coverage meantime went to another party - UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. As for some months, its seemingly ubiquitous leader, Nigel Farage, has been profiled ceaselessly on TV, radio and press. One Tweeter was even moved to state "Listened to Sports Radio Bulletin & no quotes from UKIP. Britain isn't what it used to be."

This in spite of UKIP having no MPs, and having just pulled ahead of the Greens in terms of local councillors last year (and subsequently losing swathes of these councillors either to breakaway groups, resignations, suspensions from councils or expulsion from their own party). The party's MEPs for a second parliament in a row have plunged in number as they have been expelled or left of their own accord (although to be fair, this time none of them have gone to jail for fiddling expenses). Their record of attendance in the European Parliament is pisspoor beyond compare and when they have turned up they have voted against/abstained on votes calling for action to stop violence against women, including female genital mutilation. In spite of this, they happily draw the salaries and expenses funded by the taxpayers they claim to be defending.

In policy terms, they are indistinguishable from the Tory right wing - opposed to Europe, supporting cuts to the NHS and pensions, opposing action on bankers' excesses and hostile to immigration while ignoring the millions of Britons living in Europe. And they even have a councillor who asked on social media if tuna is "a real fish that swims in water".

UKIP have nevertheless been polling reasonably well in opinion polls - around the 10 - 12% level, neck and neck with the sucker-punched Lib dems. So now Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, has decided that UKIP is to be treated as a major party for the purposes of broadcasting during the European elections. This means parity of coverage on the BBC and commercial TV and radio channels with the Tories, Labour and Lib dems. It also strengthens Farage's claim for a place in any Leaders' debate at next years general election - and indeed reflecting this, the BBC have already set up a Nigel Farage-Nick Clegg debate in early April.

 (A note for viewers in Scotland: There are some limited exceptions in Scottish-only programming given UKIP's dire position north of the Border - keep up the good work! However, Scots can be assured that they will still be able to see plenty of Farage & Co on all UK-wide programmes such as Newsnight, Question Time and the Daily Politics as well as all news bulletins. One more reason to vote Yes!)

So UKIP joins the three other neoliberal parties on the telly. Needless to say, the Greens and any other parties with genuinely different agendas (especially, it seems, left wing ones) are still not invited - our viewing is restricted to a mere illusion of choice. "Balance" in political broadcasting is a rather oddly interpreted word, with a clear bias to providing the status quo with a near overwhelming incumbent advantage. This paralyses genuine political discourse in a context where access to media is often key to any political idea or movement being taken seriously. Indeed, UKIP's rise is not entirely unattributable to polling organisations adding them to their list of parties respondents are prompted to think about when asked how they plan to vote. The Greens and others are not currently included - on the occasions they have been, they often poll between twice and four times their normal showing.

Of course, you could argue that this is just crying over spilt milk on the party of a Green. But on the other hand, you could look to the absence of any real debate on the mass media about our society and our world and the future we face. Instead, like a set of adverts for banks or insurance firms, you get some mild variations on a theme. Go compare, but don't waste your time for too long - they really are all pretty much the same.

So many channels; so little choice...

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Choosing Poverty

Mark Wood, who died in extreme hunger four months after his benefits were slashed.
No, not a blog piece in the spirit of the dreadful "austerity porn" of "Benefits' Street", but rather the title comes from the words of Green MEP Keith Taylor at the party conference in Liverpool yesterday afternoon, when (apparently channelling Madiba, and why not?) he declared, "Poverty is not inevitable. It is a deliberate political choice."

And so indeed it is: the choice of the Coalition Government. Whilst Cameron can declare that "Money is no object" for the 3,000 flooded households of Middle England, the rise in poverty, with one-in-five households now below the official poverty line, has been claimed to be unavoidable and, in such a context, quite acceptable by the Cabinet of Millionaires. Indeed, as an instrument of undermining labour unions and pressure from ordinary workers for pay rises, miring a sizeable chunk of the population in poverty can easily be seen as in fact a very deliberate policy choice by politicians bought up by the corporate interests that seek profit maximisation first and last in all that they do.

The Green conference's second full day, set in the striking if starkly contrasting opulence of the city's St George's Hall, had austerity as a theme in a number of segments of the day. As well as recommitting the party to a basic citizens' income, a seminar on austerity in Europe heard Nick Dearden from the World Development Movement deliver an impassioned plea for unity between progressives to oppose austerity. Speakers covered how the public sector is being squeezed to death while the bankers cream off public money to continue to pay themselves obscene levels of bonuses while a further session heard of Tory plans to break up national benefits altogether and return them to local authorities, not only to administer, but to set: going back to pre-1839 Poor Law arrangements.

This came on the very day that the Guardian reported on the utterly revolting case of Mark Wood, a 44 year old man with serious mental health problems who starved to death after the Government declared him fit for work and removed most of his benefits. Mark's final days on Earth appear to have been filled with abject hunger, fears about being evicted after his housing benefit was stopped and feeling too ashamed to ask relatives for financial help. Although the coroner was unable to establish a precise cause of death, he said that it was probably "caused or contributed to by Wood being markedly underweight and malnourished". He weighed 5st 8lbs (35kg) when he died; his doctor said his body mass index was not compatible with life.

Government politicians have been silent on Mark's case; but he is far from alone in terms of misery leading to a rash of suicides among unemployed and disabled people hounded by the ATOS firm appointed to review claimants' eligibility - so Ministers have often tried to shift the blame to ATOS, even to the point that they now seem to plan to take the contract off the French-owned IT firm in 2015 when it is due for renewal and had it to some other big conglomerate like Serco or Crapita. On BBC Any Questions, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael was to be heard almost audibly wringing his hands (or maybe washing them) about the system not being up to dealing with "life events".

Well, whatever this man (the claimant of the second largest amount of expenses in the entire Commons - at £82,878 in 2012/13 over and above his salary) meant, the fact is that it is his system; it was designed and approved by the Cabinet he sits in and voted through the Commons by MPs he and others whipped to support it. ATOS is castigated again and again for its dreadful, sociopathic decisions and surreal testing of claimants, but is in fact simply doing the bidding of the Coalition - it is assessing against the ludicrous set of descriptors created under the aegis of the supposed genius Ian Duncan-Smith. And, as noted above, he and his ilk have every reason to want it to be as viciously ideologically destructive as indeed it is being.

Food bank not required: Carmichael - heading for the Westminster trough?
This, after all, is a country where food banks have massively risen in use - tens of thousands of people visit them each week to receive charity handouts of unhealthy processed food. 50% of them are people experiencing lengthy delays in benefit payments they are entitled to even under this system - a fact now acknowledged even by the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank.

Is the Government concerned? Not at all - Tories, snickering like the overgrown (and overpaid) schoolboys many of them are during the food banks debate in the Commons, almost satirically claim they show the Big Society at work. And as for the Lib Dems? When they are not trying to downplay their use by claiming the feckless have brought benefits sanctions on themselves (Mr Carmichael again in a bewildering performance before MSPs), they are actually grinning and opening them: Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, who claims £8,500 in public money a year for his kids travel costs alone, happily cut the ribbon at the opening of one in his own constituency.

"I'll have had your tea!" Grinning Minister at food bank.
Ashamed? Not at all. For people like Danny, it's all part of Living the Lie.

Keith Taylor, by contrast, has commissioned extensive research into food banks and the reasons people are driven to use them; and the story uncovered by his researcher Samir Jeraj is very different indeed. "Food Bank Britain" busted the myth put about by the Government that food banks are used purely because they exist. Rather it found that food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut and, increasingly, people are finding their benefits removed without any good reason.  In his own constituency of South-East England alone, Taylor tracked a 60% increase in use year on year, as well as the growing phenomenon of people forced to choose between "heating and eating".

The crisis is evident and so are the causes - the concentration of wealth in tiny numbers of hands to the extent that the recovery such as it is rests largely on the personal debt of the poor and random handouts such as PPI compensation payments. It is not sustainable - and sooner rather than later, it will come crashing down - and very soon, if Guardian commentator Ha-Joong Chang is right. But the big question is obviously how to tackle poverty in a way that is just and peaceful, rather than potential alternative scenarios of social conflict, chaos and authoritarian responses.

The Greens debated a range of solutions on offer: the party itself has long supported the concept of the Citizens' Income, which would give a basic income to all adults whether in work or not. This, the argument goes, would protect people from absolute poverty, permit people to be paid for socially useful work, such as caring for others, which currently goes unrecognised, and arguably, by maintaining a minimum level of demand in the economy, reduce the impact of future recessions.

But aside from issues such as how this might impact on the living wage (or not), the big question raised is how it would be paid for. And here, the elephant in the room is inequality; or, more specifically, tackling the excessive wealth of the richest in society. For at the same time as food banks have grown exponentially, the rich in Britain have never been richer: since the banking crisis of 2008/9, the total wealth of the UK has increased by over £60,000 millions - that's £1,000 for every man, woman and child in our country. But less than one sixtieth of that has reached the pockets of ordinary people.

Greens debated austerity across Europe - Clara Paillard from PCS union
So, rather than hover around housing reform and fruit & veg vouchers as a speaker from one liberal think-tank attempted, the real solution surely lies in looking at the top of the economic pile as well as the bottom: the richest 500 Britons could pay off the entire national debt and still have £30,000 millions to share between them, whilst CEO and top directors' pay has burgeoned, leaping by hundreds of per centage points through the recession.

The Greens have shown they are ready to argue for such tough approaches to the economic war being waged on ordinary people by the corporate elite, the one per cent (or in reality, even smaller number) who run our planet. The party has voted previously for a maximum wage (of £150,000 pa, after which income tax would be levied at 100%) and has called for inheritance tax to be increased rather than cut. In the European Parliament, Keith Taylor and his colleagues have argued successfully for an EU-wide transactions tax (variously known as the Robin Hood or Tobin tax) and for limits to financial sector bonuses - both have been opposed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. And Green councillors in Brighton have adopted the Living wage for their employees.

This is not some ideological never-never land. Rather, it is the logical, urgently needed response to the crisis we face of a society bereft of any real, sustainable economics; of a country now the fourth most unequal on the face of the planet; and of an electorate deserted by the main parties (and the faux insurgents of UKIP) for the pockets of the corporates. In a world of finite resources, it is not a question of would it be economic ruin to redistribute wealth and create a new economic paradigm; rather, it is a question of what dark future lies ahead for all of us if we don't.
Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut and, increasingly, people are finding their benefits removed without any good reason. - See more at: 
Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut and, increasingly, people are finding their benefits removed without any good reason. - See more at: