Sunday, 19 June 2016

Its taken a tragedy to remind us that politicians are people too.

Last week on the streets of Birstall, a market town in West Yorkshire Jo Cox the Labour MP for Batley and Spen was murdered by a 52 year old 'loner' named Thomas Maier.

Mrs Cox entered parliament in 2015 and in a little over a year had managed to make a lasting impression on her colleagues and constituents. In other circumstances were the Labour Party to some day emerge from its endless internal squabbles she could have been one of the people it turned to in search of a new, more positive direction.

The tributes to her were as prompt as they were heartfelt. A day after her death Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn travelled to Birstall to lay a wreath in her memory.

Speaking to the BBC Mr Cameron called the murder of Jo Cox an 'attack on democracy', it has been suggested that Maier held far right views and was angered by her support of the 'Remain' campaign. He added that if people wanted to 'honour' Jo Cox's memory they should recognise the values of 'service, community and tolerance' she had lived and worked by.

Mr Corbyn said Cox was 'an exceptional, wonderful, very talented woman, taken from us in her early forties when she had so much to give and so much of her life ahead of her.'

Tributes were also paid by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron who called her an 'outstanding representative who stood up for her community diligently', Commons Speaker John Bercow said Cox was an 'outstanding' MP and that fellow parliamentarians had come to admire her talent and passion.

Words like tragic and heroic have been overused to the point where they have lost much of their impact, yet there was true tragedy in the way Jo Cox met her death; more importantly there was something decidedly heroic about the way she lived her life.

She was, by all accounts, a woman who lived for others without being either a pedant or a scold, that she did so for its last year in a profession often seen as an exemplar of cynicism and self interest makes her even more remarkable.

The death of Jo Cox has reminded us of something we've always known, but have chosen to forget in recent years. Although they might not all have her qualities most MPs are a long way from being the cheating caricatures the media makes them out to be.

Most work hard, try their best and receive little in the way of thanks for their efforts, if this shocking crime has forced we the public to examine some of our lazier assumptions some good may have come from a bad thing.

What it shouldn't do, and the temptation very much there, is allow us to turn an understandable sense of outrage in to a moral panic accompanied by a knee jerk reaction. There will be an entirely appropriate re-examination of the level of security surrounding MPs as they go about their constituency work.

To this must be applied a sense of proportion, something the British sometimes struggle with applying in stressful circumstances.

The last thing we need is for Britain to become the sort of country where politicians shuttle from one secure location to another surrounded by an entourage of hired muscle in mirror sunglasses, where the only voices they hear are those of sycophants.

To represent their community in anything like a meaningful way politicians have to be part of that community. If they are going to speak for the people they must first have listened to what they have to say, even when it isn't necessarily what they want to hear.

The idea that politicians, or members of any other profession, merit deference should be packed away in the attic along with Grannies wedding dress, but if they make themselves accessible to the public then the public should treat them with respect.

There should always be a robust debate, but it only works if all concerned get a fair hearing and holding an opposing opinion isn't a risk to life and limb.

Few members of parliament are as talented or inspiring as Jo Cox, but like her they are all human beings, imperfect but for the most part trying to do the right thing. Remembering that might be the most lasting memorial to the life she lived so well and lost too soon.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Swiss vote shows the way on a basic income

It might have been defeated by a comfortable margin of 77% to 23% but the [proposal put to a referendum in Switzerland to pay every citizen a basic income points towards a new approach to tackling inequality.

The proposal would have seen every adult citizen paid £1755 per month with a smaller payment given to children.

This, supporters claimed would recognise the huge amount of unpaid work done by carers, Che Wagner of campaign group Basic Income Switzerland told the BBC "In Switzerland over 50% of total work that is done is unpaid. It's care work, it's at home, it's in different communities, so that work would be more valued with a basic income."

Supporters said a basic income would also address the 'march of the robots'' as ever more jobs are automated.

At the 2015 general election the Green Party campaigned on a manifesto proposing a reform of the tax and benefits system that would see most existing benefits, apart from housing and disability benefits, scrapped along with the personal income tax allowance.

In their place every man, woman and child legally resident in the UK would be paid 'resident in the guaranteed, non-means-tested income, sufficient to cover basic needs – a Basic Income.'

Like the proposed Swiss basic income this would recognise and reward work done outside the formal economy and help to address social inequality, it would also help with the necessary transition to a more sustainable economy.

Switzerland is the first country to vote on a basic income, other European countries are looking at something similar. The Finnish government is considering a trial programme to give a basic income to 8000 people from low income groups, the Dutch city of Utrecht is also considering a similar pilot project set to begin in January 2017.

The Swiss electorate may have rejected a basic income on this occasion, the idea behind the proposal is still relevant.

It prompts us to think about how we reward unpaid work like caring, our response to technological change and how we share wealth and resources fairly.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Are we flushing away the idea of civic society?

In local government issues of state and the great ideological struggles tend to be conspicuous by their absence, it is all about the small things, the detail. The mundane run of things like where to situate a new taxi-rank or what colour to paint the benches in the local park.

Mundane they may be, but more often than not such concerns can point to important shifts in our society.

That is certainly the case with an issue that, on the face of things sounds mundane in the extreme, the decision by the council to demolish the recently closed public toilets on Crown Bank in Hanley.

They have in the past been the scene of anti-social behaviour and are now deemed not to be in keeping with the proposed £10million revamp of the area as a funky market for fashionable people who wear designer clothes and have hipster beards. In their place there will be a couple of TARDIS style pay toilets on Percy Street.

This instance of a public convenience becoming that little bit less convenient is just the latest in some 1782 closures of public toilets across the UK over the past decade. Local businesses aren't happy, their owners fearing being besieged by people wanting to 'spend a penny', without spending any actual money.

The North Staffs Pensioners Convention aren't pleased either, Chair Andy Day told the Sentinel on Wednesday 'everyone young and old, from disabled people to young mothers needs easy access to such facilities.' They've got some impressive form when it comes to fighting for access to toilets, last year they forced the council to back down over charging to use the facilities in the new bus station.

It's only a loo I hear you say, nobody is going to go to the barricades over something like that. Reasonably adequate alternative provision has been made and if we want clean, safe public toilets then we'll all have to get used to paying to use them.

Fair enough,but look at it another way and you could see this as yet another nail in the coffin of civic society. Remarkably given the public health implications councils have no obligation to provide public toilets, in the past most have done so though because it was the right thing to do.

It still is, the customers of the chic coffee shop or the funky pop-up boutique may be able to spend their penny elsewhere but pensioners and parents with small still need public conveniences that are, ahem, convenient. To deny them access plays into the continued dismantling of the idea that society is a shared endeavour; when we aren't really all in it together the most vulnerable people are the ones who lose most.

The council are, to be fair, doing their best to meet their responsibilities, but are being trapped between a rock and a hard place by the demands of balancing a budget. Last year they bought themselves time and popularity by using money from reserves to avoid making unpopular choices, this could be the first small step down a more difficult and divisive road.