Cait Reilly’s High Court Victory over Workfare is a Victory for Human Decency

Today’s High Court decision to uphold Cait Reilly’s appeal over her being forced to participate in the government’s workfare scheme on pain of having her JSA stopped, is a rare victory for human decency.

Currently thousands of people up and down the country, who through no fault of their own are struggling to find employment, are suffering the indignity and coercion of workfare. It is reflective of the callous disregard for the human rights of the poor and most vulnerable in society by this government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

In conjunction with the social injustice of the controversial and ongoing Atos re-assessments of people on disability, the upcoming bedroom tax designed to punish people on housing benefit, workfare will be remembered as a low point in the nation’s social history in years to come. The criminalisation of poverty and the demonisation of the unemployed and people on benefits is in itself a crime.

Cait Reilly’s victory today gives millions who are currently suffering as a direct result of the government’s attacks on benefit claimants hope, reminding them that they are not scum and that they do not have to accept being bullied, harassed, intimidated, and coerced – that they can fight back and they can win.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote that ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.’

Britain in 2013 is just such an unhappy land and Cait Reilly is indeed a hero.











Tory Economic Policy is More Akin to a Mass Experiment in Human Despair

We are living in the midst of an economic meltdown, which as the latest economic figures reveal is being made worse not better by a chancellor whose incompetence and mendacity is now beyond doubt.

The damning revelation that the UK economy shrunk by 0.3 percent in the last quarter of 2012 now sees the country headed for a triple dip recession, an economic calamity which calls for an immediate moratorium by the government on its present course and a reversal of its addiction to austerity. If not for the brief and mini economic boom provided by the Olympics, the UK economy would have likely registered negative growth for the whole of last year, and thus have made history for all the wrong reasons.

It really does not take a genius to understand that the nation’s overall debt is being made worse as a consequence of low consumption, increasing unemployment and underemployment, and a concomitant decrease in tax revenues. As a result, and by any objective reckoning, the government’s economic policy has been a disaster.

The difficulty is that a change in the policy being followed and failing so abjectly will by definition involve a step-change in ideology. Why? Because the economic strategy that is being implemented by this government is the product of ideological blinkers and not sound economic theory.

Since the economic crisis first hit these shores at the beginning of 2008 the glaring weakness in the economy has been a collapse in demand. The deficit grew in the wake of the crisis as the previous Labour government increased borrowing to fill the gap of plunging tax income on the back of rising unemployment, businesses going bust, and an increase in people claiming benefit, not to mention the need to bail out the banks to tune of £500 billion. Without this intervention the UK economy would have collapsed completely.

Now, five years on, and after two and a half years of a Tory-led coalition government, the official number of unemployed in the UK, according to the most recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics, is 2.49 million, a decrease of 37,000 compared to the previous quarter. However these figures are for the third and last quarter of 2012. The number of people in full time employment fell by 341,000 between September and November 2012, while the number of people in part time employment increased by 660,00.

But rather than takes steps to tackle the causal factors responsible, the present government has focused almost entirely on the symptoms – i.e. getting the deficit down by slashing spending, including benefits, even though this can only deepen the recession rather than produce a recovery.

As the US economist and nobel laureate Paul Krugman asserts: “Economics is not a morality play.”

Yet this has been precisely the approach to the crisis by Osborne, Cameron, Clegg et al. In this morality play it has been overspending, a jamboree of consumption, which has led us to the mess we’re in. And, now, in order to clear it up, a national exercise in economic self flagellation is required.

Clearly, given the lack of comparable measures introduced to dole out some of the resulting pain to the rich, this national exercise is to be restricted to the poor and ordinary working people – the undeserving poor as opposed to the deserving rich, you might say – making this a Victorian morality play.

Strip away the government’s rhetoric over the need to cut spending, the solution to this ongoing economic depression is really very simple. Bringing down the deficit requires growth; growth requires a resurgence in spending; and a resurgence in spending requires the reintroduction of demand into the economy.

This is where the locus of government intervention must be, as the investor and lender of last resort to stimulate economic activity. Investing in infrastructure projects such as housing, roads, transport, the emerging green economy, schools, hospitals, etc will create jobs, which in turn would get people off benefits and back to paying tax and spending in the real economy, thus producing a multiplier effect. Businesses do not create jobs – this is one of the great myths of modern political and economic discourse – consumers create jobs.

But no one should be in any doubt that the obsession with deficit reduction on the part of the government is really an obsession with keeping the markets happy, which brings into sharp focus the issue of sovereignty. However even here it doesn’t take a leap of logic to understand that of more importance to the ever-mystical bond markets is the introduction of measures designed to lift the economy out of depression and thus make the prospect of a decent return on UK bonds better over the short to medium term than it is at present. With interests rates at zero and unable to be reduced any further, this requires the implementation of a fiscal stimulus to create the demand already mentioned.

The billions in taxpayers’s money handed to the banks via Quantitative Easing has barely touched the real economy. Banks are refusing to lend at the same time as there are no consumers creating the demand that businesses need in order to expand. When it comes to the thousands of small to medium businesses that need to borrow to cover the gap between normal operating costs and income, by this point increasing numbers of those have either gone to the wall or been forced to contract as a direct consequence of an ongoing cycle of deepening recession.

Which brings us back to the question of ideology.

The financial and banking meltdown which hit the global economy just over five years ago was an economic 9/11. And just as that terrible event gave the Bush administration its pretext for going to war in Iraq, its economic equivalent was the pretext needed by the Tories to set about rolling back the state in Britain. The attack unleashed on the public sector, the attacks on benefits, pay and conditions across the board, has been accompanied by the demonisation of each of the aforementioned demographics. In other words, the economic crisis has seen class war declared in order to push through the structural readjustment of the economy and with it society in general. The public sector, a necessary ballast of demand through good times and bad, has effectively been declared the enemy within as part of this process.

This is the context in which these latest economic figures should be considered.

These Ceaseless Tory Attacks on the Poor

The chancellor’s autumn statement saw him take yet another opportunity to articulate his disdain for the poor, as he outlined the government’s intention to deepen its attacks on the unemployed and benefit claimants. It also confirmed the abiding economic illiteracy that underpins austerity.

When Gideon Osborne drew his comparison between those who get out of bed to go to work and those who remain in bed and don’t, he confirmed not only the deep ignorance of someone who is the product of inherited wealth and privilege, but also the cynical ploy of the government in fomenting division between the working poor and the unemployed as it sets about continuing its objective of transferring wealth from the poorest to the richest in society, having succeeded in turning an economic crisis that was caused by private greed into a crisis of public spending.

The below-inflation rise in and out of work benefits of 1 percent over the next three years was compounded by Osborne’s announcement of a cut in corporation tax to 21 percent, the chancellor boasting that this will reduce corporation tax in the UK to the lowest of any major western economy. Taken together these measures reveal a level of inequality that can only be described as brutal, one which moreover places the UK on a par with the United States when it comes to the lack of social and economic justice built into the foundations of the economy. The chancellor’s confidence in outlining these blatant attacks on the poor in the midst of the worst economic recession since the 1930s points to the extent to which the right has won the battle of ideas, given the favourable ideological environment necessary for the logic underpinning them to gain traction.

The idea that the unemployed have chosen to be and enjoy being unemployed is the product of a skewed moral compass. It amounts to a criminalisation of poverty and those whose lives have been impacted most by the recession.

The creation of the welfare state by the postwar Labour government was predicated on the need to erect a firewall between the vicissitudes of a capitalist economic system subject to periodic shocks and downturns and those impacted most – the poor and the working class. The unemployed were held to be victims of and not responsible for the economic factors that informed their plight, and as such it was deemed morally just for the state to provide a safety net in order to prevent their destitution.

But with the nostrums of Thatcherism sweeping away the philosophy that underpinned the postwar consensus three decades ago, nostrums that continue to fuel the dominant narrative politically, economically and culturally, the moral foundations of the welfare state and the social justice it represents have been subjected to an ideological assault – one that has reached its nadir under the present government.

Poverty is the worst form of violence. Those in poverty have one thing in common with the rich in that all they think about is money – about how much heating, food, and other bare essentials they can do without as they struggle to make ends meet. The idea that cutting benefits and attacking the poor could ever eradicate unemployment is beyond perverse. On the contrary, instead of eradicating unemployment it will eradicate the unemployed – and quite literally too as the suicide rate goes up.

Indeed, this is what is so easy to forget when we listen to the benign and easy establishment-speak of the political class in its depiction of the unemployed as work-shy scroungers. More austerity for those at the sharp end equates to more despair, more domestic violence, more crime, more homelessness, more mental illness, more alcoholism and drug abuse, and more hopelessness; the fate of the increasing millions who’ve been selected by this government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich to be purified with pain.

It is a government that while claiming it wishes to help those who are willing to work hard, continues with an economic policy that has and will continue to create more unemployment. The inevitable consequence is that those of the unemployed who refuse to be crushed under the weight of the economic and social injustice they are being subjected to will enter the black economy, while others will drift into crime. The law of cause and effect cannot be denied.

So, yes, the new sport is kicking the unemployed, and it is noticeable and shameful that Labour refuses to stand up for this demographic as they’re being attacked so mercilessly, instead focusing its ire on the impact of the chancellor’s midterm budget on the in-work poor and those on middle incomes.

The shadow chancellor Ed Balls’s bumbling performance in parliament in response to the Osborne’s autumn statement was panned with good reason. At a time when the nation is crying out for a clear, positive, and bold alternative, Labour remains a prisoner of its own timidity and ideological weakness. It is why this government has been successful in deflecting its culpability over the state of the economy and why it will continue to do so.

The unemployed have been offered up as a sacrificial lamb to a neoliberal consensus that pits all against all and holds poverty as a symptom of moral decay on the part of those afflicted by it rather than a result of structural inequality and the policies of a government for whom society is divided between the undeserving poor at one end of the social spectrum and the deserving rich at the other.

Nye Bevan was right. The Tories really are lower than vermin.

Scottish Tory Party Conference

The Scottish Tory Party Conference was held in Troon on the Ayrshire Coast this year. The small seaside town has been swarming with police all week, even to the extent of mounted officers patrolling the beach (no doubt looking for kids building sandcastles without planning permission). David Cameron gave a speech to the Tory faithful in Scotland on Friday. Today the STUC held a march and rally of around 1000-1200 protesters.

Here are a selection of pictures.


A Tale of Two Public Servants

This is a cross-post of an article by Jon Rogers, following yet more attacks in the media on trade union reps.

This evening’s Standard carried what is, I would say by any reckoning, a disgraceful attack upon a dedicated public servant.

Some (not very) bright spark has asked Haringey Council to tally up the salary of an elected lay representative of the National Union of Teachers over a period of six and a half years and (lo and behold) it adds up to quite a lot of money.

This really is only “journalism” in the sense that the “Taxpayers Alliance” conduct “research”. It is clearly driven by the fact that the NUT (and others) in Haringey have got Gove on a back foot over trying to force an unwanted Academy – and is surely intended to act as a warning to every other trade union representative on full time release to carry out trade union duties.

But this blog aims to provide a balanced assessment of workplace issues, so let me try to see things from the other side…

I don’t know the elected NUT rep in question, Julie Davies, personally but (much like the “Taxpayers Alliance” and all those astroturf grassroots campaigners) I know “her type”.

Here is someone who has wilfully refused to advance her career for 12 years, wantonly choosing to represent her fellow teachers at disciplinary, grievance and sickness hearings (often to the mutual benefit of the individual and their employer) rather than progress to a management role.

Shamefully, she has accepted the repeated democratic decisions of her fellow teachers that she should continue to represent them rather than (as would be supported by this Government and their supporters in the press) sticking two fingers up to her colleagues and concentrating upon personal advancement.

Quite clearly, such selfless commitment to the best interests of those who choose to devote their lives to public service deserves every ounce of the criticism which it has today attracted.

How unlike this case is that of poor Stephen Hester, another public sector employee (running a nationalised bank), whose entitlement to a bonus is quite scurrilously being challenged.

How much more positive an example is set by a banker willing to double an already astronomic salary at the expense of an impoverished nation than by some public sector trade unionist scoundrel who persists in rejecting their own individual self-interest in order to represent workers’ collective interests!

You see, dear reader? Once you look at things in a balanced way like this, it really is so straightforward…

“we Don’t Want More People from Sheffield Having Cheap Holidays”

letwin_jpg_display.jpgSo says Oliver Letwin, Conservative MP for West Dorset, Cabinet Office Minister, Old Etonian and millionaire.

It must be bad when even fellow Old Etonian, Boris Johnson, is quoted as describing Letwin’s statement as “absolutely disgraceful: a bourgeois repression of people’s ability to take a holiday. It’s a matter of social justice.”

Couldn’t have put it better ourselves, Boris. Perhaps your recent appearance on Question Time with Mark Serwotka of the PCS had more of a profound impact than anybody realised.