Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Labour’s Social Policy Record

July 4, 2013

In her column on Tuesday just gone Polly Toynbee points her readers to a London School of Economics survey which suggests that, contrary to what the Tories would have us believe, Labour spent both wisely and well while in power.

Did Labour’s social policy work? The answer is a pretty resounding yes, according to the LSE’s definitive survey of the Blair-Brown years: “There is clear evidence that public spending worked, contrary to popular belief.” Nor did Labour overspend. It inherited “a large deficit and high public sector debt”, with spending “at a historic low” – 14th out of 15 in the EU. Labour spending increased considerably, but until the crash was still “unexceptional”, either by historic UK standards or international ones. Until 2007 “national debt levels were lower than when Labour took office”.

But the Tory myth has taken hold: Labour squandered vast sums on wasteful programmes that didn’t work. Benefits were “thrown at” the idle instead of changing lives. All this is refuted by a wealth of statistics from Professors John Hills and Ruth Lupton and others in their reports on health, education and inequality. Reading this monumental research – Labour’s Social Policy Record: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010 – you can only wonder at how badly Labour has defended its record.

Toynbee suggests that Labour has not defended  its record – and indeed is still reluctant to draw attention to it – because it believes that in spending in the ways it did it was pursuing an agenda that the vast majority of voters do not really care for.

A deeper lesson goes to the heart of the Blair-Brown years. They did all this good mostly by stealth, unsure that social programmes aimed at the poor would win re-election. They walked the walk, but talked the talk only to the party faithful. This government gets away with demolishing what Labour did because the social democratic idea behind it was never embedded in the national psyche.

The social democratic idea, if it ever was embedded, probably died the death not long after the election of Margaret Thatcher came to power.


Statistics and Lies.

June 4, 2013

Returning to the topic of politicians lying, I have to say that I whole heartedly agree with the Guardian’s  Peter Wilby when he writes that ministers  who misuse statistics to mislead voters must pay the price,

Nearly all ministerial resignations are connected with not telling the truth: submitting false expenses, covering up a speeding points swap, receiving favours from lobbyists. But telling untruths about official figures is somehow regarded less seriously.

Andrew Dilnot who is now  head of the UK Statistics Authority, should, Wilby, says have

…the power, in the worst examples, to require a full Commons censure debate on a minister’s conduct – with an expectation that, if he or she failed to offer an adequate defence or show contrition, resignation would follow. That would guarantee press attention and ministerial trembling. Big lies about big numbers require big deterrents.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013)

April 9, 2013

A staff blogger, writing in The New Statesman just over four years ago came close to writing, a near perfect summary of what I believe Margaret Thatcher’s  legacy to be.

 Margaret Thatcher: still guilty after all these years

 It is 30 years since Margaret Thatcher entered No 10, setting in motion a revolution that would destroy the quasi-socialist political consensus of the postwar decades and, after much strife, turn Britain into the country it is today: riven, atomised, debt-stricken, hugely unequal, its prosperity excessively dependent on financial services, its public spaces degraded, and its towns, at least at night, the preserve of the binge drinker and the brawler.

Many of us may have grown more wealthy during the Thatcher and the New Labour years but, somehow, we seem as a society more spiritually bereft, more restless, unhappier even. This is not to deny that Britain, at the end of the 1970s, was dismal. We had a failing Labour government, which had already begun to experiment with monetarism and to cut public spending; a union movement that had become too complacent and too powerful, a huge obstacle to reform; a punitive taxation system that served as a disincentive to enterprise; a wider culture that was largely racist, homophobic and misogynistic. The political and social cultural consensus had to be broken, one way or another. And, in retrospect, the necessary transformation, or counter-revolution, could only have come from the right. The Labour Party was too exhausted, and soon, irresponsibly, it would split in defeat and self-hatred, opening the way for 18 years of Conservative rule.

Yet how brutal and destructive that counter-revolution proved to be, as whole communities were destroyed, especially in the industrial heartlands of northern England, Wales and Scotland, communities that have not recovered to this day. And how unbending was the doctrine that came to be known as Thatcherism.

Thatcherism, as our columnist Martin Jacques reminds us on page 10, was akin to a Bolshevik movement: a group of ideologues emerged from the margins to seize control of the very centre and effect radical change. The path was fixed. There could be no turning back. All opposition had to be crushed. The human casualties were as necessary as they were inevitable. Mrs Thatcher may have purported to believe in the High Tory, Burkean values of tradition, organic hierarchy and the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but she was no pragmatist or gradualist. “Economics are the method,” she said; “the object is to change the soul.” No Marxist would have disagreed.

And Mrs Thatcher did change the soul – of the country, of its people and of the Labour Party. New Labour was as much her creation as it was Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s. Today, her shadow still looms large over British politics: it is to the fury of at least 125 Labour MPs that one of her most lasting legacies – that of privatisation – is now threatening the Post Office. Remarkably, on its return to power, not only did New Labour refuse to reverse any of the utility privatisations, it extended them with the selling of air-traffic control.

Mrs Thatcher herself was a moralist. She believed in probity, thrift, personal responsibility, the family. At the beginning of her premiership she spoke of the need to bring harmony where there was discord and of the need to heal. At the end of her premiership, however, after three general election victories and 11 years in power, she had created, with bloodshed and war, a thin-spun, debased consumer society, the engines of which were vacuous acquisition and an obsession with celebrity. That remains the case today.

Yet we should never forget that Mrs Thatcher was adored by millions, not least because of her resolution and courage. She was a conviction politician; you knew what she believed in and, because of this, she was trusted. She demonstrated that ultimate power could be gender-neutral. And encouraging working people to buy their own council homes was hugely popular, as was her brand of English nationalism.

A theme of this special issue of the New Statesman is forgiveness. Writing on page 12, Oona King asks, rhetorically, if she can forgive Mrs Thatcher for all that she did and said. For Paul Routledge, whose article begins on page 26, there is no such self-questioning. There is only certainty – Thatcher is, and always will be, the unforgiven.

Our view is more nuanced. We recognise that the Labour Party was defeated at the end of the 1970s and that a social transformation was necessary. Our final verdict, however, must be this: Margaret Thatcher is guilty as charged

 As long as her shadow looms over British Politics – and it does and will for some time to come – we must let that verdict stand.

There lies Ian Duncan Smith.

April 6, 2013

This report taken from the pages of today’s issue of The Guardian  casts some doubt on the way that opinion is shaped in this country.

 The government is increasingly using value-laden and pejorative language when discussing benefits and welfare, a Guardian analysis has found, something poverty charities warn is likely to increase the stigmatisation of poor people.

The findings show that the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has spoken of a mass culture of welfare dependency in every speech on benefits he has made in the past 12 months.

The analysis comes after complaints that the government is using exceptional cases such as that of Mick Philpott, the unemployed man jailed this week for the manslaughter of six children, to justify its programme of changes to the benefits system.

An examination of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) speeches and press notices connected to benefits in the year to April 1 shows a significantly increased use of terms such as “dependency”, “entrenched” and “addiction”, when compared with the end of the Labour government.

Fraud, which accounts for less than 1% of the overall benefits bill, was mentioned 85 times in the press releases, while it was not used at all in the final year of Labour, which was itself accused of sometimes using intemperate language on the issue.

In the 25 speeches by DWP ministers on welfare over the year, “dependency” was mentioned 38 times, while “addiction” occurred 41 times and “entrenched” on 15 occasions. A comparison of 25 speeches on the subject by Labour ministers saw the words used, respectively, seven times, not at all, and once.

Some charities warn that such language fuels a distorted portrayal of benefits in parts of the media, which in turn perpetuates widespread myths about the welfare system. A YouGov poll for the TUC last year found that, on average, people think 41% of the welfare budget supports the unemployed – the true amount is 3% – and believe the fraud rate is 27%, as against the government’s estimate of 0.7%.

The DWP’s language was unhelpful and appeared to be getting worse, according to Helen Barnard, policy manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She said: “It misrepresents what poverty is about. It sets up this idea that there are poor people and people on benefits and then everybody else, and never the twain shall meet. When you look at the research, it’s very much the opposite. The majority of people in the UK will experience poverty at least once in their lifetime. The idea that poverty is experienced by another group that is fundamentally different to everyone else is completely wrong.”

Tim Nichols from the Child Poverty Action Group said his organisation believed government rhetoric on the issue was changing, having a real effect on those claiming benefits.

He said: “It’s without doubt got worse. It is very much linked to the fact they’ve got a major programme of cuts to social security under way, and are seeking a narrative to justify this. It’s becoming increasingly hard for us to find people in poverty or receiving benefits who are happy to speak about their situation in the media. They fear the effect of this stigmatisation if they put themselves in the spotlight – how it might affect them and their children. They really are scared.”

Duncan Smith appears to be the most frequent user of value-laden terminology, regularly including terms such as “entrenched and intergenerational worklessness and welfare dependency” in his speeches. Campaigners particularly challenge his regular claim of benefit dependency over generations; arecent study was unable to find any families where three generations had never worked and a only tiny number where this could be the case for two generations.

Analysis of language in the media a similar picture. In the past year, the term “benefit cheat” was used 442 times in national newspapers, an increase of almost two-thirds on the 12 months before the coalition took power.

The DWP said: “We are very clear that it is the welfare system that is failing individuals, not the other way around and our language always reflects that. Currently, people are being trapped on benefits or are missing out on the support they are rightly entitled to. Our reforms will end the benefits trap, and will also make it easier for people to claim the help they need.”

Can we say that we live in a “mature democracy” when we allow our opinions to be formed by politicians who tell us what must be tantamount to barefaced lies?  We know that the lies are working very well. In 1993, for example,  24% believed that benefits were too high and discouraged work, and  55% felt this not to be the case. Today polls show 62% hold that benefits are too high and attract the work shy.  collective  Those receiving the state’s help are stigmatised. With  37% believing that most people on the dole are  “fiddling”, it’s relatively easy for the likes of Ian Duncan Smith and the DWP to get away with all kinds of lap-trap.

In another part of the same paper   says that George Osborne linking of the case of Mick Philpott to the state of Britain’s benefits system,

 …he knew what he was doing. A student of US politics, he was deploying a favoured technique of the American right, honed during the decades-long culture wars. Dip your hands in the slime of an episode that stirs revulsion – and smear it all over your opponent. In the role of Willie Horton – the rapist notoriously used by Bush the elder to discredit Michael Dukakis – enter Mick Philpott. Message: if you hate him and what he did, then you ought to hate the “benefits culture” and the Labour party that supports it.

It may be that Osborne is not the only “student” whos’s been taking lessons from the American right.

Shaming the poor at will.

March 3, 2013

In a thought-provoking article published in today’s issue of The Observer, columnist Barbara Ellen, using the findings of  a multi-faith sponsored study called The Lies We Tell Ourselves. which highlights myths surrounding people and poverty, explains how shaming the poor has become the new blood sport

 The report argues that the government is “deliberately misrepresenting” the poor, blaming them for their circumstances while ignoring more complex reasons, including policy deficiencies. Moreover, they feel that this scapegoating is the result of collusion between politicians, the media and the public.

The reader does not have to wholly believe her assertion that it  does seem so long ago that most people would think twice about villifying fellow citizens for being down on their luck to see that she means that  thses days it appears “to have been sanctioned as a new national bloodsport, regularly slipping under the PC-radar as little else manages to.”

Is this our new default setting – that the needy are greedy? This chimes with a slew of government policies that appear to be founded on notions of bulletproof self-reliance, making no allowances for circumstances or sheer bad luck, and which many would require huge amounts of help to put into practice, never mind sustain. Meanwhile, the more fortunate are invited to pour scorn upon anyone who fails.

One could argue saying that it simply the “more fortunate” are the only ones invited to pour scorn on the failures ignores the fact that some of those pouring scorn are not always  especially fortunate themselves.  So what we have is the almost-poor being encouraged to  blame those below them for the situation they find themselves in.

Ellen has a neat explanation about how this came about.

 How does this kind of thing escalate? That’s easy. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the poor are poor. They have no money, no voice, no representatives, and no means to establish their own public profile. Poverty is a big domino – once it falls, everything goes. In such circumstances, if a group of people are “deliberately misrepresented” then there’s precious little they can do about it. The churches got it right – if anything, the truth seems so much worse that it must surely be time to put the shame back into poor-shaming.

All I would add here is that the same could be said about those who who are almost poor.  They are encouraged to echo the those who are fortunate because while they may not have no money,  they almost certainly have “no voice, no representatives, and no means to establish their own public profile” Nor does it look like they will have in the very near future.

Displacement of the poor…..

February 14, 2013

The forced displacement of according to an identifiable policy is, I’m reliably informed,  an example of “population transfer”. Is this an example of “population transfer”?

A council is planning the largest single displacement of poor people from London in the wake of the coalition government’s controversial welfare reforms, singling out more than 700 families to be moved up to 200 miles away.

Camden council said that it would shortly be contacting 761 households, comprising 2,816 adults and children, because the coalition’s benefit cap – which limits total welfare payments to £500 a week for families – will mean that they will be unable to afford their current accommodation or any other home in the south-east.

The Labour-controlled council warns that the majority of these families have three children and, once the cap is imposed this summer, will need to find on average an additional £90 a week for rent to remain in their homes – which means “sadly the only long-term solution for some households will be to move”…..

We come to this sorry pass when we have to seriously consider whether what we are seeing within our borders is “population transfer”, “development-induced displacement” or, my own preference, “disaster-induced displacement”.

A modest proposal for the Tories by a Tory?

February 7, 2013

Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton and a member of the joint committee on human rights, writing in today’s edition of The Guardian has a few proposals which, if adopted, could mean that the Tories may  not be as unelectable as they probably are at present.

…..rather than trying to outbid Labour on political correctness, we need a positive vision, rooted in fair competition, social tolerance and meritocracy.

The Conservatives have relevant policy ingredients – for example, lifting the lowest paid out of income tax, and the right to buy council homes – but still lack a theme. For all Labour’s politics of envy, the British remain resolutely meritocratic. According to YouGov, three-quarters say Britain is not a meritocracy – but, by four to one, agree an unequal society can be fair, as long as there is equal opportunity. This should be the clarion call for Conservatives to reach out to the aspirational underdog. But what would such an agenda look like?

The British remain resolutely meritocratic in pretty much the same way as a drowning man remains resolutely boyant – what’s the alternative? But this  is a premise on which wants to build his argument.

First, the economic message of fiscal discipline should be buttressed by radical empowerment of customer choice – capitalism for the little guy. The government should incentivise companies to sign up to consumer-driven efforts to hold big business to account – like the consumer magazine Which?’s groundbreaking “group switch” of energy companies, which saved 38,000 homes an average £223 on their yearly bills. And it could steer industry towards a secure online facility for switching supplier.

Likewise, requiring banks to give customers a clear, regular, statement of fees – and portable data so they can switch banks – would expand choice and improve service by giving consumers real bargaining power.

Second, the gay marriage controversy would have been less painful for those dissenting if there were reassurance that equality cuts both ways. Yet a Christian airline worker had to trek to Strasbourg to uphold her freedom of conscience, while two Christian hoteliers were prosecuted – and their business bankrupted – for a religious debate with a Muslim guest who was not charged. A British bill of rights could rectify this sense of double standards by strengthening free speech, protecting personal conscience, and promoting tolerance.

Third, rather than doffing a cap at tokenism, we need a meritocrat’s manifesto to revive stalled social mobility. Last year the government introduced audits of 25,000 schools, police forces and councils for their ethnic, religious, gender, sexual and wider social make-up. Senior Conservatives are toying with similar ideas for businesses. But rather than promoting a society blind to social difference, these policies would accentuate them and spark bitter resentment. Likewise, pitting strivers against skivers may resonate, but it’s divisive. We need an ethos that appeals across class and community – based on aspiration, not denigration.

Take school. Reforms to restore academic rigour are vital. Yet what about ambitious youngsters willing to graft, but who don’t want to bury their heads in books? Truancy spikes between 14 and 16 years old – youngsters who are difficult to herd back into class. Yet this is the last year for Young Apprenticeships, which gave them the option to split their time between classroom and workplace. The scheme left just 1% of entrants unemployed, but Labour went cold on it. This government should revive it. Scrapping the pointless Government Equalities Office would pay for it twice over – and send an unequivocal message about the kind of equality Conservatives stand for.

We should also remove regulatory bars to non-graduate access to the professions, like law. That would cut the cost of high-street legal services for the consumer, and realise a dream for many youngsters from tougher backgrounds.

A Conservative message of self-help must reach beyond the middle classes – and give those who have had a rough ride a second chance. Fight for Peace in East London – where I volunteer – helps disaffected teenagers out of a rut. It combines boxing and martial arts, personal development, numeracy and literacy, and youth support. One review estimated that the academy avoided 175 crimes in 2011, saving the community £1m, while another study found it got 73% of those not in employment, education or training (Neets) into work or study. This is precisely the kind of initiative Conservatives should back.

Pollsters are right that fairness remains a Tory blind spot. But we don’t need to ape Labour. Strengthening consumer clout, promoting mutual tolerance and giving the underdog a shot would help define the stubborn optimism that tough times demand.

It all sounds just a little bit paternalistic to me. Give the plebs a few morsels of comfort to be grateful for and all with be well with the the world.

Hazel O’Connor & Myton Hospices

December 5, 2011

My good friend Hazel O’Connor is backing a hospice for which a fund-raising appeal for more nurses is launched. Myton hospices in Rugby, Coventry and Warwick offer free care to 2,000 people every year and rely heavily on donations of £7m a year their running costs.

If you have nothing better to do on the following days, and are in the area, come along and support Hazel and the appeal.

The not-so-hidden agendas

August 30, 2011

On the front page of today’s Guardian we read the following:

The controversial Tory initiative to set up free schools received fast-track public funding after fierce lobbying from education secretary Michael Gove‘s inner circle of advisers, according to leaked emails.

Civil servants were urged that the New Schools Network (NSN) – a charity providing advice and guidance to set up the schools – should be given “cash without delay”, in a disclosure which will heighten concern over the government’s lack of transparency about the wider free schools programme.

The charity, which is headed by a former Gove adviser, was subsequently given a £500,000 grant. No other organisation was invited to bid for the work.

The award was made after an email from Dominic Cummings, a Tory strategist and confidant of Gove, called for: “MG telling the civil servants to find a way to give NSN cash without delay.”

Cummings went on to work for the charity on a freelance basis.

Sent after the election last May, his message goes on to say: “Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!”

Tucked away in a corner of page 7 of the same paper there is this:

Andrew Lansley’s bill contains a clause designed to give autonomy to NHS commissioning groups. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters

The health secretary will be able to “wash his hands” of the NHS after forthcoming legislation which will take away his duty to provide a national health service, according to legal advice funded by campaigners.

The legal opinion, commissioned and paid for by members of the 38 Degrees website, justifies the widespread public concern about the government’s health reforms, in spite of Andrew Lansley‘s assurances that he has listened and responded to criticisms, they say.

The independent legal team says the health and social reform bill removes the health secretary’s responsibility for NHS provision through a “hands-off” clause designed to give autonomy to commissioning groups.

David Babbs, executive director of 38 Degrees, said one legal opinion suggested responsibility for provision would instead fall to an unknown number of “clinical commissioning groups”. Babbs said: “The so-called ‘hands off’ clause … removes political accountability, which is the only real control voters have on the way the NHS is delivered. We won’t be able to fire people on regulatory bodies or private healthcare companies when things go wrong.

“None of us voted for these fundamental changes to the NHS. They weren’t in any party’s manifestos, or the coalition agreement, so 38 Degrees members have clubbed together to get legal advice to convince MPs that the changes shouldn’t be pushed ahead and that the public’s concerns need to be taken seriously.”

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the legal advice gave cause for concern: “Having seen these legal opinions, they raise serious concerns for GPs. As family doctors, we want to ensure any changes to the NHS safeguard its future and benefit patients. The advice of these legal experts brings this into question. That is worrying and the government needs to respond.”

One might be tempted to call both Messrs. Gove and Lansley devious, if it were not for the fact that one has never been in any doubt about how far they will go to promote their agendas.


Labour and damning statistics.

July 16, 2009

There was a terrific article by Jenni Russell in the 14h of July edition of The Guardian in which she examined why measuring-by-statistic-mad new Labour are still failing to understand why the electorate are ungrateful, even when all the statistics show that it’s spending on schools and the hearth service is higher than it ever was, its commitment to economic regeneration demonstrably serious, its commitment to reducing crime figures unquestionable.  

The conversations I have had recently with senior civil servants, advisers and Labour ministers have often had a plaintive tone. Why, these people want to know, aren’t the electorate more grateful for what’s been done for them? Where’s the political reward for all the money spent on schools and hospitals and economic regeneration? Why doesn’t the country appreciate the fall in crime figures? How could voters be flirting with the cost-cutting Conservatives, when Labour’s statistics show that spending money produces measurable and improved results?

These sound like the right questions, but they aren’t. What the questioners really mean is not “Where did we go wrong?” but “What’s wrong with all of you?” And what’s wrong with us is that we’re not the automatons New Labour thought we were. We’re not remote and dispassionate observers of our society, making cool calculations about its success or failure on the basis of government-generated numbers. We’re complicated, vulnerable, emotional creatures, and we live with the consequences of official decision-making every day of our lives. What matters to us aren’t the figures we’re fed, or the targets that get hit, but what the experience feels like to us. Yet that part of the process has been almost completely neglected in official eyes….

As one reads this article, one realises that big lesson that Labour did not was the lesson Simon Caulkin was, but is no longer,  preaching Sunday after Sunday in his column for The Guardian‘s sister paper, The Observer, and that is that Labour has, since it came to power, insisted on using the wrong measures.

 It thought it was being modern and innovative by treating the country as if it were a business, where all outcomes could be measured by putting money in and getting targets out. It made the false assumption that building a school or a sports complex was automatically an investment, just as it would be if the government were in the business of mechanising chicken factories or building car plants. It thought it could close police stations or post offices in the name of cost-cutting, with as little effect as if it were Coffee Republic shutting down some unprofitable shops. It didn’t stop to remember that the business of all public services is dealing with the needs of people, and that those are never just mechanical, but social and emotional too.

Governments cannot afford to take a business’s narrow and mechanistic view of people’s requirements, because it’s not just a collection of service providers. A government’s wider duty is to frame and structure the society in which we live. Rebuilding society was one of Labour’s explicit aims, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s infamous reference to there being no such thing. Yet our encounters with the state are profoundly important in shaping our culture, and every time we run up against the wooden indifference, public lies or robotic responses of officialdom we shrink into ourselves, and the bonds between all of us are weakened a little more.

Labour thought that what we prized above all else was economic efficiency. Clumsily, it tried to give it to us and, even when the evidence showed it wasn’t delivering, it went on attempting to give us statistics instead. But the priorities were wrong. What we all prize in our encounters with others is a sense of our value. We are social animals, alarmed by the uncertain world in which we live, with a profound need to be recognised, respected and responded to. We want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter. It is the deepest human need, and yet this government has been oblivious to it.

When it wonders why we’re not grateful to it, the answer’s really simple. It’s the experience, stupid.

Yes indeed we do “want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter”, and as an adjunct to that we want our newspapers and periodicals to employ and retain people who will articulate those wants in forceful ways. What we do not want is influential newspapers to rid themselves of our most eloquent spokespersons at the very moment we need them most in the way that The Observer rid itself of Simon Caulkin