Friday 19 December 2014

I wonder what the magistrates were thinking

So the three idiots who disrupted Tottenham's game against Partizan Belgrade have been fined £155 each. I have to say I was hoping for more, both as a Tottenham fan and a football fan. The magistrates appear to have swallowed hook, line, sinker and bait the defendants' story that this was a spur of the moment thing and not designed with any malicious intent. It's quite difficult to square “spur of the moment” with a video released beforehand to say they were going to do it, and then timed runs on to the pitch every ten minutes. They have also been banned from attending football matches till 2018. I don't think any of these numpties will view that as a serious burden. It is interesting to compare this slap on the wrist with the punishment meted out to the man who interrupted the boat race a couple of years ago. He got six months in prison. His actions were explicitly viewed by the judge as being anti-elitist. He was also deemed to have endangered his own life and the lives of others. He might indeed have endangered his own life, but with a whole flotilla of boats looking ahead to spot any dangers such as driftwood, it is difficult to see that this was really a significant factor. And even more difficult to see what the actual danger to others was. I think it more likely that this was useful to the judge in arriving at a heavier sentence than he might otherwise, despite the jury that found him guilty requesting lenient treatment. Yes, I am accusing the judge of being biassed. I equally accuse the magistrates at Highbury Corner of being biassed, but in the other direction. Their view seems to be that disrupting a football match just doesn't matter.

It's very tempting to view this through a Marxist lens. Disrupt the sport of the elite, and you will be heavily punished. Disrupt the sport of the working classes (yes, it still is despite the nouveau riche fan base of the Chelseas of this world), and who cares. Or indeed, disrupt for the purpose of drawing attention to injustice, and we will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Disrupt for the purposes of commercial marketing, and we will dismiss it with a blink. To be honest, I don't think the members of our organs of state have the capacity to think through a conspiracy on that scale, but some sort of ambience like that is there somewhere in the background. Either way, what the Highbury Corner magistrates have done is to give out an invitation. For the price of a night out (let's face it, £155 is a meal and a couple of Stellas in some places), you can disrupt any sporting event you like, as long as it's not an elite pastime, and get your five minutes of fame in front of tens of thousands of people. The idiocy of those who did it is almost matched by the idiocy of the punishment.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Feeding Britain: blaming the victim?

It is quite difficult to characterise what the Food Poverty report, Feeding Britain, is. I can best say only that it is not what I hoped it would be. I hoped for a reasoned account of why so many people are forced to go to food banks, why that number has risen so much during the years of coalition government, and what can be done to eliminate the need. Some of those elements are there but poorly argued, badly evidenced and insufficiently marshalled into coherence. Most of all I expect some passion, but there appears to be none in this document. It starts with great ambition “We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state. We propose in Feeding Britain a strategy for renewing the welfare state so it can better reflect and encourage the relationships which contribute to the well-being of our citizens, including the poorest. We think such a rationale is needed at a time when, sadly, we appear to be drifting towards more and more atomisation and less and less sharing of common values.” And then it delivers a series of bureaucratic tweaks to the current system while accepting all of the major forces that conspire to produce the poverty they hope to eliminate. In some ways, they have my sympathy. Many of their recommendations are for change in the way the DWP does things. Good luck to them if they are able to change Iain Duncan Smith's hardness of heart.

When such an eminent bunch of people gather to report, I expect something that goes behind the fa├žade and looks at the hidden structural issues. The phrase “food poverty” itself is the place to start. There is no such thing as “food poverty” or “energy poverty”, there is only poverty. People do not have little pots for each of their living requirements, one of which can empty without affecting the others. They have only one, inadequate, pot. So an investigation into food banks is really an investigation into poverty. Poverty in the UK today has two main causes, neoliberal economics, and the actions of the coalition government, specifically the Department for Work and Pensions. When even the OECD tells you that increasing inequality is the wrong way to go, it is time to sit up and listen. But this report largely ignores that whole issue.

What troubles me most of all is that, despite many fine words, the authors continuously fall into the discourse of individual shame, and they do so in a way that would make a Daily Mail journalist proud. In their initial survey they suddenly, on page 10, introduce the topic of addiction. They mention debt as a factor, then say “The other force at work is the addictions that many individuals and families have” and continue “A considerable number of our poorest families and individuals find themselves trapped, thereby, in a vicious circle of addiction fed by debt”.  There are no statistics to back up this audacious statement, no suggestion of exactly what proportion of food bank users are there because of addiction. But the suggestion is now planted in the reader's mind that it's all their own fault.

They do it again on p14 “there is a second group of our fellow citizens who rely on their local food assistance provider who it is important to distinguish for it has helped shape our recommendations. This second group consists largely of individuals with often highly complex needs that extend beyond their immediate hunger, such as mental illness, homelessness or addiction problems, and who require long-term assistance and support if they are not sometimes to be hungry. Many were reliant on food assistance before the most recent recession and many are likely to remain so in the years ahead.”  There is again no hint of what proportion of food bank users are in this situation, and no attempt to match this statement with the massive rise in food bank use that has occurred over the last four years (e.g. Huffington Post). People in this situation need intensive and personally directed help, but provision of this much needed help will not solve the problems of the vast majority of food bank users who are there for only one reason: neither work nor welfare provides enough money for them to survive..

Then, p29, they turn their attention to troubled families. They applaud the work schools do “We have had a great deal of evidence showing how imaginatively schools try to protect these vulnerable children from the consequences of the chaos that reigns at home. We applaud these efforts, would wish them to continue, and indeed be expanded to cover all children who arrive at school hungry. The aim should be for this response to be extended.” A couple of paragraphs later they admit that they have no idea how many people who go to food banks fall into this category.

They save their finest example to near the end of the report, p39. They discuss the impact of the sanctions regime, and start by saying “Some sanctioned claimants do not kick up a fuss because they may, for example, have been working on the side whilst claiming and see the sanction as part of the business plan of fraudulently claiming benefit.” They then go on to discuss the effect of sanctions on the (mostly) innocent victims. No evidence is cited to back up their imputation of fraud - absolutely none. But that impression has been planted in the reader's mind. The uninformed will far too easily be led to think that the sanctions regime is doing a great job punishing fraud and if a few unfortunate innocents fall victim, that is a price worth paying. Forget the simple, simple statistic, the DWP's own estimate that fraud and error take up a mere 0.7% of their budget. Forget the mountain of evidence of the random, arbitrary and vindictive nature of the entire sanctions regime. If one of my level one social science students made such a sweeping claim in their essay, backed up by absolutely no evidence, I would be round at their house strangling them with their own guts. That a group of authoritative people can do so in a public document fills me with fury.

There are some glimmers of hope, such as the recognition (p28) that mobile phones and internet access are more than fashion accessories. And there are many good recommendations, but they all seem to be piecemeal, unrelated pieces of a jigsaw with no picture. And for all those glimmers, the report is framed in a way that constantly diverts attention from the problem of poverty on to the failings of the poor. I had hoped for better.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Thursday 4 December 2014

Black Friday: birth of a retail festival

The year for most UK citizens is organised by retail festivals.

New Year's Day pumps up the sales fever generated by Christmas, at least for those whose credit cards are not maxed out.

Then we have Valentine's Day: big opportunity to sell cards and chocolate

Then Mother's Day: big opportunity to sell cards and flowers

Then Easter: more cards, more chocolate

Then things go off a bit, with no recognisable festivals for a while. They've had a bit of success getting Father's Day off the ground. Otherwise it's summer with promotions of barbecues, umbrellas and wellingtons.

Things pick up again around August and September with the start of the new school year.

Then we get Christmas #1, with puddings, cakes and crackers in the shops in September, which are then cleared from the shelves for...

Halloween: lots of opportunities to sell all sorts of tat. Closely followed by....

Guy Fawkes: plenty of sales opportunities there. And then....

Then it's Christmas #2 all the way to Dec 25th.

And now we have a new retail festival, Black Friday, which inserts itself neatly after Nov 5th, and kick starts the Christmas shopping spree.

There are three basic reactions to Black Friday a) I'VE GOT A 48” TV!!!!!!   b) wonder why we've taken up this American import and the country's going to the dogs  c) ignore it.

Personally, I'm in the “ignore it” category, but as a social scientist I find both the festival itself and the reaction to it fascinating.

I'm not sure about its genesis over here, but I suspect Amazon have a lot to do with it, and a lot of other retailers spotted the opportunity. So maybe it isn't because of the workings of any one organisation or group of organisations; it's just that retailers collectively noticed that this was something they could leverage.

I call it a festival because that is what it is. It is exactly the same as the other festivals - Christmas and Easter included, which have no religious or spiritual meaning for the vast majority of the country, but are an opportunity to throw off the normal routine of life and get expansive both spiritually and physically, for a short time, before going back to the drudgery of normality. And they signify that our entire society and economy are based on consumption. Citizenship and spirituality have both gone out of the window as a measure of any value. People in the UK value themselves by and large by what they spend, and these regular retail festivals are an opportunity to spend big. I say the UK because I think it's one thing in which we are world leaders. The rest of the world is not far behind but the Thatcherite implementation of neoliberalism has turned us into a nation that knows the cost of most things and the value of very little. So we buy stuff, and we love a bargain (whether or not we know a good one when we see it). And if people queue for hours, burst into the shops in a riot, get into fisticuffs with each other over the goods, what else should we expect. That is what our British values of consumerism and social disengagement encourage.

There is no point in blaming the Americans. The fact that it started in America is immaterial. It is not an import. It is here because it works, and it works very well. I am quite sure that this is now an established British retail festival, just like all the others, as I said earlier. And the biggest of all is Christmas, which has shed its religious meaning for all but a few. George Carey in the Daily Mail notes “A survey last week found that only 31 out of nearly a thousand advent calendars sold in Oxford Street had any religious references.” Why is that noteworthy? We know we are not a Christian country except in a nominal, traditionalist way. He tries to buck himself up by continuing, “But despite all this, churches and cathedrals will be packed for the darkness-into-light services.” Research suggests that maybe five million people will attend church during Advent. But that means that fifty five million don't. There is no reason why they should: advent has no meaning for them. The message of the gospel was lost some time ago, submerged by the message of consumerism. For those of us who are Christians (myself included) it is time to stop pretending that we live in a Christian country and recognise the reality of the current triumph of consumerism. Only when we do that will we be able to start fighting back effectively.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Tendency To Inflict Profit

TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is a far reaching trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU on one side and the USA on the other. It covers a very wide range of sectors and includes much debate on methodology, not least on ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement).

There are two narratives about TTIP. The first is that it is a great opportunity to enrich both sides of the negotiation by sweeping away a lot of unneeded regulation and harmonising conditions for companies on both sides of the Atlantic so that business can proceed with less obstruction and less cost, thereby benefiting both sides. The second is that it is an instrument designed to ensure the domination of private and unanswerable corporations over the lives of the citizens of all the countries involved, and to keep secret the means whereby decisions are made and paid for.

One of the reasons why there are two such distinct narratives is that the negotiations are being conducted in conditions of enormous secrecy. A certain amount of light has been shone due to tireless efforts by information campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic to hold their supposed servants to account and to be clear about what they are doing. A great deal is still being done in secret, to the extent that reassurances have to be issued from time to time that one thing or another, most notably the NHS, is or is not being negotiated about. Supporters of TTIP have begun to say it's a very transparent process now. One said to me recently it's one of the most transparent ever; I asked him for minutes of the meetings between EU officials and corporate lobbyists. I'm still waiting.

Free trade is a great thing, provided that it is transparent, equally weighted and subject to the right regulation. One thing that free traders tend to forget is that, while markets can do without over-regulation, they cannot in fact exist without regulation in some form. If somebody reneges on a contract, who enforces it? The regulators. We also need to bear in mind an issue which has become more and more apparent during the coalition government, that markets do not in fact do everything well. The East Coast railway line failed in private ownership and made a profit under public ownership, but is being privatised again because the doctrine our governments live by these days says it must be better in private hands. The NHS, which for decades delivered the same quality of care and health outcomes as the USA system did for approximately half the cost per head, now finds its costs rising, not just because medicine is more expensive and people who have thing wrong with them live longer, but also because of the cost of managing an extraordinarily bureaucratic system designed solely to ensure that private companies get their slice of the cake. I have seen estimates ranging between £10 billion and £30 billion as the cost just of running the competitive tendering system before any money has been spent on patient care.

Keeping stuff out of the hands of free trade where appropriate is as valid as enabling trade to be free where it works. The problem with TTIP is that it is not about free trade as it stands, but much more about corporate domination, to the extent of actually being anti free trade, and certainly antithetical to the interests of citizens and consumers. TTIP might just about be palatable without ISDS. With ISDS it is a monster.

ISDS is a mechanism whereby states and corporations can have disputes settled behind closed doors, and by expert arbitrators. It has become a preferred mechanism for doing business despite the ability of courts in all developed countries and most developing countries to make transparent decisions based on local and international law and taking the needs of citizens into account. Perhaps that is precisely why ISDS is a preferred mechanism. Its most insidious effect is that woven into its fabric is an option for corporations to charge countries for work they have never done.

Take an analogy for a minute. Suppose I do some work for a company for a while, and then they decide to take the work in house. I take the company to a tribunal and argue that they owe me at least three years worth of the contract they have taken away from me. And the tribunal agrees with me. You would say that was a daft idea, bonkers. And I agree. But that is exactly what ISDS allows companies to do to countries. Here are some examples of exactly this kind of daftness being forced on sovereign countries by the agreements they signed up to. This is not just stupid, it holds a gun to the temple of the entire market system. For capitalism to work, businesses need to be subject to the disciplines of the market. If they do not supply what the market wants, or do not supply it at the right price, they subside and other companies rise in their place. Not any more. If they do not supply what the market wants, they simply sue for their profit anyway. This is one reason why we are beginning to see articles with titles like “Why free traders might oppose TTIP”. ISDS is the main ingredient that makes TTIP a monster. Strip it out, and we might, just might, be able to discuss a deal that enhances free trade to the benefit of consumers. But even then, I am not sure.

Efforts have been made to reassure us lately that the NHS is not up for grabs in the TTIP negotiations. Mark Pack quotes Sal Brinton and Lord Livingston. I hope he and they will forgive me not being reassured. It has taken a great deal of effort to get even this minimal degree of reassurance about negotiations which remain about as secret as they can get. I'm a bit fed up being told things are OK without being able to see that things are OK. Health is part of the package, and it is very difficult indeed to see agreements being reached to allow European countries access to the US health market without them being allowed access to all of ours. And ISDS is still in place. Should the government wish to deprivatise any part of what has already been privatised, the threat of being sued is enough to stop them. The Tory party has already done its best in its confused way to privatise the NHS as much as it could, and if in power again it would no doubt try to do more; and those privatisations, because of the pernicious effects of ISDS, will be irreversible. A lot more work needs to be done, and a lot more scrutiny applied.