Sunday, 27 October 2013

Benefits cap chaos shows up the weakness of the Tories and Labour.

The government’s cap on benefits will struggle to meet its aim to encourage people back into work, so says a report from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) examining how a trial of the policy has worked in the London borough of Haringey.

The CIH report shows that just 10% of people living in the 747 households involved in the trial found work and half had to be given extra funding by the council to make up for money lost.

The report also found that 2300 children were affected by the benefits cap with large families being hit hardest. Researchers said that attitudes to work were changing, but many families still faced huge barriers such as the availability of affordable childcare.

Nearly half the families in Haringey involved in the trial claimed help from the council to pay their rent, switching the cost of housing benefit from national to local government and hiding the true impact of the cap.

Grania Long, chief executive of the CIH told the BBC ‘the government said the benefits cap would save money and encourage people into work, but this report shows it is far from achieving those aims,’ adding that ‘unless ministers commit to increasing support for people looking to get back into work and funding for childcare this could be very dangerous.’

Claire Kober, the leader of Haringey council, also speaking to the BBC, said ‘the government may be making some savings; the real costs are just being passed on to councils already under enormous financial pressure.’

Work and Pensions Minister Mike Penning, speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme refuted the claims made in the report calling it ‘flawed’ and saying the CIH was looking at data from too small an area to draw valid conclusions.

‘We do not recognise this report as providing a sound or reliable picture of the reforms,’ he said.

As if the shambles surrounding the trial of the benefits cap wasn’t enough it was also announced this week that the government was putting on hold plans to move thousands of disabled people off Disability Living Allowance and onto its new Personal Independence Payments in all but four trial areas. Rumours abound that private companies ATOS and Capita are struggling to cope with their workload of existing claims let alone the extra volumes they would have had to deal with had the move gone ahead.

Just another Whitehall farce, a sad but familiar farrago of inept contractors and out of touch ministers. If there is comedy in this though it is of the blackest sort; lives are at risk of being irreparably ruined here.

What does the government propose to do about a problem it has created with its rushed and ill thought out benefits reforms? Nothing; apart from carping that any organisation that highlights their mistakes hasn’t done its research properly.

What about the opposition then? The Labour Party is still basking in the afterglow of Ed Milliband’s announcement that they would freeze energy bills for two years if elected into office. On the subject of benefits reform they are rather more evasive, talking earnestly about not being able to make any promises until they’ve seen the books; or hanging back to see which way the wind blows if you’ve a cynical cast of mind. My guess is that it will blow in a direction that wafts the ships of fools captained by Red Ed ever further away from Downing Street.

There is no doubt that a cumbersome, slow and bureaucratic benefits system invented in the forties is badly in need of reform. That shouldn’t though mean bashing claimants and making poor people even poorer because it plays well with the sillier tabloids.

We need a reformed benefits system that works with claimants giving them the skills to find work and a sense of personal agency that makes them want to do so. Sadly the chances of even starting the debate that would create such a system in the present political climate are virtually non existent.

Instead we get a sort of mass displacement activity carried out by a political class who are masters at playing the Westminster game and dunces when it comes to understanding life as lived by most Britons. Both main political parties have been hollowed out to the point where the only real difference between the two is one wears blue rosettes and the other red ones.

They say the same things, subscribe to the same prejudices and in extremis resort to roaring like lions at the poor because the poor largely don’t vote. When faced by say the big six energy companies or bankers threatening to go to Wall Street you just see if they don’t if anyone even suggests regulating their activities and the lion promptly turns into a kitten.

The electorate aren’t fools; they know that rising fuel and food bills; never mind nonexistent job security are making us all poorer however much George Osborne says things are getting better. Is it any wonder they are choosing an alternative, even if it is just staying home on polling day, to the tired Tories and lost Labour?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Time to put the lights out on Labour

‘Labour don’t stand for people like us anymore; they’re only in it for themselves,’ a woman in her sixties tells me, as she speaks her head shakes with anger.

‘They’re shutting everything down, then they give themselves a pay rise,’ it’s a man speaking this time; he’s in his forties and has two children in tow.

I’m standing in Hanley town centre collecting signatures for a petition against the closure of Abbots House, a care home for dementia patients where my Father spent some time earlier this year. It is a busy Saturday morning with shoppers rushing to and fro, most pass by clutching bags or with mobile phones clamped to their ears, a few, more than a hundred by the end of the morning, stop and when they do they express a raw anger with the Labour Party which has had a virtual hegemony over running the city for decades.

Near to where I’m standing workmen are taking up the old paving slabs and replacing them with shiny new blocks as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the town centre. They’re also replacing the old streetlights with flash new ones, for some reason these are burning brightly even though it is daytime.

To explain how I came to be here we have to take a step back and it has rather a lot to do with those lights.

We need, I suppose, to step back to 2001 when I joined the Labour Party, Tony Blair had just won a second term in office with a huge majority and I thought I was joining a progressive and principled political party. It is hard to imagine now just how appealing Tony Blair and New Labour were to people who had lived through the tumult of the 1980’s, the decade when greed was good, society was a quaintly old fashioned notion and Labour were eternally unelectable also rans.

The marketing was masterful, guided by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell New Labour pulled off the trick of fooling most of the people for the best part of a decade. By the time I left the party in 2010 after nine years of active membership I had come to realise that the compassionate image was a false front masking something far less pleasant.

The Labour Party had become a hollowed out organisation that hadn’t just lost touch with the concerns of its core vote it had long since begun to take them contemptuously for granted. A party founded to speak up for working people had become a vehicle for the competing egos of a political elite, most of whom had never had a job away from Westminster.

Ample evidence of this can be seen in the endless feuds between the Blair and Brown factions, the shameful waste of the mandate provided by two huge majorities and the failure of Labour, despite three years of soul searching under the leadership of Ed Milliband, to find anything distinctive to say now they’re in opposition.

Locally the Labour Party had become complacent after decades of almost unbroken control of the city. Unelected officials from regional office routinely treated party members with decades of service with contempt and the open and fair debate essential to good policymaking was determinedly stifled.

Three years on little has changed and nothing has got any better. Under the leadership of Councillor Pervez Labour has continued to take the people of this city for granted. They have foisted upon us the expensive gamble of building the Central Business District, alienated residents of Stoke with plans to move the Civic Centre to Hanley doing untold damage to the economy of the town in the process and presided over savage cuts to services.

Earlier this year after much thought I joined the Green Party because they seemed to be the only party that talked about issues of social justice and sounded like they meant what they were saying, two weeks ago I accepted their invitation to stand as a candidate in the Badderley, Milton and Norton by-election.

What Stoke-on-Trent needs is an effective opposition voice in its council chamber, an opposition that will hold the ruling Labour group to account whilst at the same time having the maturity to work in cooperation with any party that has the best interests of our city at heart.

We need to have a serious discussion about the priorities influencing the way our city is governed. Long term regeneration cannot be tied to the retail sector, too many other towns are taking that route and the internet is changing the way we shop, we need to build a skilled manufacturing economy capable of exploiting the opportunities provided by green technology.

We also need to have a serious and open discussion about how we protect vital services, too often under the current administration the most vulnerable people are being asked to pay the highest price. That isn’t fair and it stores up serious problems for the future that will cancel out any savings made now.

I believe the Green Party can provide a real alternative for dissatisfied voters in Stoke-on-Trent, because ours is a party that believes politics only works when everyone works together for the common good.

Something has gone seriously wrong in the political life of our city, the plans to move the Civic Centre against the wishes of the majority of the public have soured relations with the council; many people no longer trust their elected representatives to listen to let alone speak up for their concerns. A swanky light fitting burning wastefully in the daytime is an apt metaphor for a Labour group that has grown too complacent, too distant to represent the people of this city; it is time we put the lights out on them both.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The political elite squabble while the poor go hungry.

The Red Cross is to start collecting donations of food to distribute to needy families across the UK this winter; something it hasn’t done since the darkest days of World War Two.

The Geneva based charity will work with FareShare and the Trussell Trust to distribute donations through food banks across the country from late November as part of a Europe wide programme to support people his hard by austerity measures.

Belka Geleta told the Independent, the newspaper that broke the story in the UK, ‘We fully understand that governments need to save money, we strongly advise against indiscriminate cuts in health and welfare as it may cost more in the long run.’

Juliet Mountford, the head of the Red Cross UK Service Department said the charity was responding to ‘strong evidence of an increased need for support on food and poverty issues.’

Reacting to the news Chris Jones, UK poverty director for Oxfam told the Independent he was ‘genuinely shocked’ that the situation had become so serious. Maria Eagle, Labour shadow Environment Secretary said this was a ‘warning about the growing number of families facing a lack of nutritious food in Britain’, she went on to say it was a ‘wake up call to David Cameron over his failure to tackle the cost of living crisis.’

Senior figures in the Tory Party have previously tried to dismiss suggestions of a ‘crisis’ relating to the rising cost of living. In June Lord Freud claimed in June that families using food banks were just after a free meal; last month Michael Gove said they simply couldn’t manage their money properly.

On Friday a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said there was ‘no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks’ and that the government would be supporting vulnerable people with cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance.

The Red Cross is sending food aid to people living in the UK, that’s a sentence I thought I’d never write; mostly because it is something I thought would never happen. We’re a ‘big’ country, we’ve got a seat on the UN Security Council, we had the Olympics here last year; we send aid to other people dammit!

Amongst the detritus on my desk is a small pile of cuttings from the local newspaper that prove the above assertions wrong. Two thousand more people are in rent arrears this year than last thanks to benefit cuts, council tenants are being forced into the private rental sector due to the ‘bedroom tax’, levels of mental illness are rising as people struggle to cope with the stress caused by financial problems; the list goes on.

Maria Eagle is right, this should be a massive wake up call, not just to David Cameron though; the whole political class should have a collective migraine from the racket made by the alarm bells ringing. They haven’t though; they’ve been far too busy doing anything but notice the lives of the poor imploding.

Busy doing things like taking part in the seemingly endless squabbling over the Leveson Report. Rather than using the more than adequate laws already on the statute books to regulate the behaviour of the press they want to lavish time and effort on writing yet more for clever lawyers to manipulate in the interests of wealthy people.

Busy doing things like getting all hot and bothered about the tedious charade of the cabinet reshuffles. In brief David Cameron has brought in a few people from ‘humble’ backgrounds to show us he isn’t a toff; Ed Milliband has purged the last few Blairites to show he’s his own man, no really he is. The public remain largely indifferent because they know noting has really changed, the same clique of hapless careerists are still in charge of both parties.

Busy doing noting in fact; noting that connects meaningfully with the concerns of the public anyway, in place of political debate we’re given playground name calling; in place of an alternative vision of how the country might be run the opposition offers us vague promises that their cuts will be somehow ‘nicer’ than Tory ones. If the situation wasn’t so dire it would be comical.

The complacent political elite think they have largely got away with things, this isn’t Greece, our riots back in 2011 were a damp squib. Faced with hardship the British tend to grumble and get on with things telling themselves this is the ‘Blitz spirit’, quite mistakenly since in 1940 the country burned with the desire to fight back and had a leader capable of inspiring its people to do so; fat chance of the latter from any of today’s party leaders.

If things have got so bad that the Red Cross has to step in to help people our own government either can’t or won’t help then something serious has changed. There is a real risk that apathy could turn to anger.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

There are no new notes in David Cameron’s dog whistle symphony.

David Cameron promised in his speech to the Tory Party conference in Manchester last week that his government was going to make Britain into a ‘land of opportunity for all.’

In a speech that saw him abandoning the ‘off the cuff’ pretence of previous years in favour of standing austerely behind a lectern he touched all the bases his audience expected him to. Along the way he turned a few neat lines, such as ‘the land of hope is Tory’, as opposed to the ‘land of despair’, which is, obviously, Labour.

He laid into Labour plans to freeze energy prices if returned to office and to raise taxes for big companies, saying they were ‘all sticking plasters and quick fixes cobbled together for the TV cameras- Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy.’

Ouch! Am I the only voter of a certain age who heard this and immediately thought of Ed Milliband clad in seventies TV regalia of flares and tank-top being dragged around a studio floor by a naughty elephant?

He went on to say that ‘if Labour’s plan for jobs is to attack business, ours is to back business.’ All of which was building up to his shot at the ‘vision thing’, here it is, he wants to build a country where ‘in place of the casino economy’ there is ‘one where people who work hard can actually get on’; a sceptered isle where ‘in place of the welfare society’ there is ‘one where no individual is written off’ and where the ‘broken education system’ there is ‘one that gives every child the chance to rise up and succeed.’

Over the years David Cameron has proved himself to be the most adept of the three main party leaders at working the conference season for all its worth. He truly is the heir to Blair in that respect, a shameless ham able to be Mr Sunshine dispensing cheery bromides about how we all need to be nicer to each other; an evangelist whipping the faithful up into a frenzy or a grave statesman promising a sure hand at the helm as the mood of the moment demands.

This year he was David the stern statesman sharing our pain but determined to do the right thing. The trouble was what he had to say wasn’t remotely statesmanlike; it was, in essence, an assemblage of prejudices designed to push the buttons of his audience. A symphony on the dog whistle composed by Lynton Crosby that will warm the heart of Daily Mail readers and make metropolitan liberals choke on their free range chardonnay.

Fair enough, if they serve any purpose at all these days party conferences are glorified rah-rah meetings staged to gee up the faithful. You can’t help wishing though that just once in a while someone would throw out the play-book of clich├ęs and say something they actually mean.

Sadly this year that didn’t happen, what we got instead were fatuous assertions from the Prime Minister that the Tories are on the side of business while Labour aren’t, actually both parties court the same few huge corporations, turning a blind eye to their tax avoidance whilst letting smaller businesses wither through lack of investment.

Bashing the unemployed was popular too, George Osborne talked about people who are out of work being ‘forced’ to take jobs, though where said jobs are to come from seems to be a detail too minor for him to bother with. Iain Duncan Smith meanwhile announced plans to make the long term unemployed attend the job centre eight hours a day five days a week, what they’re supposed to whilst there wasn’t mentioned; never mind though the sillier tabloids will love it.

What went ignored was the yawning gap of inequality opening up in our society, the food banks that have become a feature of weekly life for many Britons; the families split up by the ‘bedroom tax’ and the million plus young people kicking their heels without a job. The only solution the government has to this last problem is to ‘nag’ them into taking jobs that don’t exist.

If there were a credible opposition none of this would matter, the Tories could be as ‘nasty’ as they like and when the public grew tired of their antics they would vote them out of office. Unfortunately there isn’t one, the Liberal Democrats have settled for a role as the perpetual prop to whoever can form a coalition and Labour, despite the boost delivered by an eye catching policy, are saddled with a dud leader and have nothing original to say.

There are alternatives on offer from the smaller parties, but our first past the post electoral system keeps them forever on the fringes.

That means the Tories can stoke up the fires of division and resentment, dressing their cynicism up as hard headed pragmatism and at worst finish as the major partner in another coalition, they might even sneak in with a small majority. Even if David Cameron’s assertions are correct though and the economy has ‘turned the corner’, we cannot hope to be a happy or cohesive nation when so many people are liable to be left behind.