Nice Guys of the SWP

January 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm (cults, Feminism, Max Dunbar, misogyny, SWP)

Some of us have been banging on about the misogyny of the left for some time. 2012 was the year it became too apparent to ignore. It became clear during the Assange/Galloway furore that a significant part of the left has no time for feminism, sexual freedom or gender equality, which it regards as irrelevant middle class distractions from the glorious struggle against neoliberal imperialism. This is clear in the SWP’s support for far right Islamic fanatics, and it’s long been my contention that many anaemic middle aged leftwing males would rather like a society where women cover up and do as they are told.

Is it a surprise, then, that when rape allegations are made within the party, SWP members rejected the ‘bourgeois court system’ in favour of a hastily convened tribunal consisting of friends of the defendant (but apparently one of them used to volunteer at a rape crisis centre, which makes it okay)? This is a cult. These people do not believe in the rule of law and it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows that they should try to essentially secede from the UK criminal justice system, and treat a serious criminal matter with a bullshit disputes committee process rightly compared to sharia.

Two objections are generally raised at this point. Members have told me that the complainant explicitly stated she didn’t want to go to the police. Maybe so, and that’s her choice. But we also have a duty to listen to people who know the organisation, and have made the choice to walk out. Tom Walker, experienced SWP journalist, has said that:

It is stated that the accuser did not want to go to the police, as is her absolute right if that was truly her decision. However, knowing the culture of the SWP, I doubt that was a decision she made entirely free from pressure.

Do not underestimate the pressure the SWP can bring to bear on members by telling them to do or not do things for the ultimate cause of the socialist society the party’s members are all fighting for.

Objection two is that these are just allegations. The McAlpine rules apply and you can’t convict Comrade Delta in the kangaroo court of public opinion. True again. But there is going to be no due process in this case because the party has decided that there won’t be. Unless the police make an independent decision to investigate, we’ll never know. Even if Comrade Delta is innocent, the whisper of the political village will follow him to the grave.

All this we know. This story ain’t going away and we have not heard the last of this. There have been further rape allegations and so much insight, argument and commentary that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it (although Jim Jepps does his best). I just want to pick up on something Paul Anderson has touched on: that there has been far too much credit and good faith given to the SWP ‘oppositionists’.

The best known SWP writers in the UK are probably the novelist China Miéville and my old friend Richard Seymour. Neither has quit the party as far as I know. Both of them have written long condemnathon posts at Lenin’s Tomb, and Seymour has set up a new blog, International Socialism, featuring posts from the rank and file. Their denounciations of the SWP leadership are welcome. But these guys have been cadre for years. Why has it taken a leaked committee report for them to speak out?

The SWP has a great talent for hyperbole. One post on Seymour’s blog shrieks that ‘The entire working class has an interest in what happens in the SWP… the SWP remains, for all I’ve said, the best thing the British working class has at its disposal.’ During the crisis, it has fallen back on its reputation. ‘Our record on women’s rights is SECOND TO NONE,’ a paper seller bellowed at me in Manchester. (Second to none? ‘YES’.) This is bullshit, of course. Close examination reveals SWP claims as defenders of feminism to be lies. The initial allegation was followed by the worst kind of Unilad slut-shaming. Laurie Penny writes: ‘not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.’

Clearly there has been a misogynistic canteen culture within the organisation for decades. And Seymour and Mieville only notice this at the moment the leaked report detonated onto the internet? As Omar says in The Wire: ‘Nigger, please.’

Fact is, the SWP can’t come back from this. It is finished. As the Very Public Sociologist put it:

They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no ’democracy commissions’ or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It’s game over, comrades.

The SWP recruit predominantly from universities and it can’t do that as the SWP after this. The young people coming up now (and by ‘young people’ I don’t mean bloggers in their thirties, I mean people born in 1985-1995) are strongly feminist. Think of a popular young writer or blogger – Laurie Penny,  Helen Lewis, Zoe Stavri, Juliet Jacques, the Vagenda team, Sianushka, the Nat Fantastic – and s/he is likely to come from a passionate feminist position. Big grassroots organisations are increasingly feminist and any far left group simply won’t get the numbers without them. The only remaining power play for a far left activist is to disassociate completely with the SWP and set up as some kind of new party that doesn’t have the SWP’s black past. Maybe I’m being too cynical and Richard Seymour really does have the sisterhood’s best interests at heart. But ask yourself: can you really trust a man who writes that badly?

Penny writes that ‘Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members’ of the SWP.’ She could have said that most of them became important writers and thinkers after they left the SWP. Paul Richards nails it, in his indispensable essay on the cult:

They sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel. They turn people off progressive politics for life. They stand alongside decent-minded people, subvert their campaigns, and drive them into the ground.

The problem with the SWP isn’t that it acts on naive, utopian and impractical politics, it’s that it actively crushes and destroys human creativity, idealism, hopes and dreams.

A very big rock has been lifted up. Whether it’s Savile, Cyril Smith or the WRP, this stuff always comes out eventually. Thank god for the internet. It exposes everything.


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General Plea from a Libertarian

January 7, 2013 at 6:16 am (labour party, Max Dunbar, strange situations, Tory scum, welfare, whiskey, wine)

Some truly crazy ideas have been bouncing around various Whitehall policy departments. Taken together they give a sense of a general trend.

Back in December we had the welfare card proposal, so that unemployed people couldn’t spend their benefits on cigarettes and alcohol. This week: an idea that fat unemployed people should be ordered to exercise or else lose benefits.

Many people will approve of these ideas, because they would make life difficult for people on benefits. The rationale is ‘You are dependent on the state for your income, so we have a right to dictate how you spend it.’ But there is no way that the government will stop with welfare claimants. Plain packaging, minimum pricing, proposals for legal limits on sugar and fat content will affect working people too. If unemployed people should have a welfare card, why shouldn’t working people get paid in food vouchers? After all, otherwise we would just waste our salaries on Camel Lights, pizzas and red wine. And we are all dependent on the state to some extent. Even Jeremy Clarkson drives on publicly maintained roads.

Under a Tory led austerity government you would at least expect negative freedom. They won’t empower you, or help you out in hard times. You could at least expect them to leave you the fuck alone. But they won’t leave you alone. The Fabian authoritarianism that New Labour brought into public life has not been abandoned: quite the reverse.

So they cut essential services – sickness benefits, debt advice, legal representation, you know, things that people use, stuff that matters – while grasping for more and more control over what people do in their free time.

It is a kind of government by brainstorm or thought camp, where bizarre and silly ideas are implemented with seemingly no thought for the science, the economics or the practical reality of people’s lives.

Of course sometimes we need to be protected from ourselves.

But people also need the freedom to make their own mistakes.


DoH launches new public health poster campaign

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BindelBollocks: The Resurrection

June 13, 2012 at 4:52 pm (Feminism, Max Dunbar)

Julie Bindel asks: ‘What makes some of us uncomfortable with bisexual women?’

She concludes:

I believed then, and I believe now, that if bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men.

Got that, ladies?


(Thanks: Comrade Charlie)

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Ship of Ghouls

April 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm (Beyond parody, class, literature, Max Dunbar)

I mean, Civil War battle reconstructions you can understand.

But this

It might not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday cruise, but today 1,309 passengers will set sail from Southampton on a trip recreating the exact journey the Titanic took on its ill-fated maiden voyage a hundred years ago.

The MS Balmoral will leave Southampton today, with the exact number of passengers as the famous cruise liner and a departure date and location all part of an attempt to create an authentic Titanic experience.

Some of the food served on the ship will be from the menus of the Titanic and the organisers have also arranged a five piece band, who will presumably continue to play if the recreation of the disastrous trip becomes a little too realistic.

The ship is embarking on the 12-night cruise in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Passengers from 28 countries have paid between £2,799 and £5,995 per person for the privilege of retracing the route of the ship involved in probably the world’s most famous maritime disaster.

Miles Morgan, managing director of Miles Morgan Travel, said: ‘This cruise has been five years in the making and every step of the way we have sought to make it authentic to the era and a sympathetic memorial to the passengers and crew who lost their lives.’

At  a dinner on April 13 passengers will eat from a menu made up entirely of dishes which were served on the Titanic and guests will also enjoy a Titanic-inspired dish daily.

The Telegraph has a picture gallery of rich people grinning in period costume.

I’ve just heard about this from my friend Serena and apparently the voyage has run into problems. It seems that a passenger has had a heart attack and the ship has had to turn back to Ireland. Hopefully everything will be okay, but Christ, why would you want to go on something like this? I pity the ship’s crew.

Anyway, here’s George Orwell:

If I honestly sort out my memories and disregard what I have learned since, I must admit that nothing in the whole war moved me so deeply as the loss of the Titanic had done a few years earlier. This comparatively petty disaster shocked the whole world, and the shock has not quite died away even yet. I remember the terrible, detailed accounts read out at the breakfast table (in those days it was a common habit to read the newspaper aloud), and I remember that in all the long list of horrors the one that most impressed me was that at the last the Titanic suddenly up-ended and sank bow foremost, so that the people clinging to the stern were lifted no less than three hundred feet into the air before they plunged into the abyss. It gave me a sinking sensation in the belly which I can still all but feel. Nothing in the war ever gave me quite that sensation.

(Image: Telegraph)

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Intern Issues: The case for payment

July 21, 2011 at 8:32 pm (Max Dunbar, workers)

This is a guest post from Mikey, also posted on The Blog That Must Not Be Named.

This is the first post in a two part series dealing with payment and internships. In this post I discuss why interns should be paid for work. In part two tomorrow, I shall discuss why interns should not agree to work unpaid.

This series came about after from heated discussions surrounding my recent series of posts in relation to a specific matter, one that has been brought up in parliament. In this case, a magazine rescinded an offer of an unpaid internship to a young woman after she had enquired whether her £5 a day travel expenses would be reimbursed.

My co-blogger Libby T responded to my series with a general argument on unpaid internships. She comes down on the side of the free market and against legislation:  “Free people are able to decide if a course of action is in their own interests or not – and to act accordingly.”  This is the most powerful argument in favour of allowing companies to use unpaid interns and it is something that needs answering. That, I aim to do in this post. While this article deals with unpaid internships that are not merely work shadowing, it can be noted that according to a 2010 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the majority (63 percent) of employers do pay their interns at least the National Minimum Wage (NMW).

Interns and the National Minimum Wage

There is semantic difficulty which often causes confusion. The term intern is used to describe a range of different activities some of which very obviously should be classified as work and in this context, interns are frequently a class of worker.  According to the government, “Whether someone is a worker does not depend on what they are called. Being called an intern, non-employed, a work experience trainee or a volunteer does not prevent someone from qualifying for the NMW.” What is relevant is what they are doing.  The government also make clear that someone who spends their time work “shadowing,” but “does not perform work” is not entitled to the NMW.  The National Minimum Wage Act allows an exemption for voluntary workers, but according to Practical Law Company, an online legal resource available via subscription, “it is not open to an employer to engage people to work on a ‘voluntary’ basis without paying the national minimum wage, if they are otherwise within the definition of a ‘worker’”.

Dupsy Abiola, the founder of Intern Avenue, an organisation that connects employers looking for skilled interns only offers paid internships on her site.  She explained to me as follows: “‘Work shadowing’ involves sitting quietly in the background and classically being ‘seen and not heard’ perhaps asking a few questions.  It does not involve writing articles, answering phones, doing research or any other activity which is useful to the company.  There is no lengthy or fixed durations or ‘working hours.’ Where employers are using interns to provide or produce work which is of benefit to their company then the National Minimum Wage will apply.”

The passing of the NMW into the statute books meant that it is established in law that those that work should be paid. There are certain exemptions. Charity volunteers, for example, are not entitled to the NMW and neither I, nor the legislation would want to prohibit, as an example, a retired person volunteering to work unpaid making tea in a local hospice. But the reality is, as the government make clear, “Most workers who are over compulsory school age and are working legally under a contract of employment or other form of worker’s contract, are entitled to be paid at least the NMW.”

Twenty years ago, unpaid internships, where people were working unpaid for months on end to simply gain “experience”, were virtually unknown. It used to be the case that young people commenced work in paid entry level positions. In certain industries, but by no means all industries, it appears that those paid positions have been replaced with unpaid positions and some companies now exploit graduates in a way that was previously unheard. I posit the theory that the reason that this situation has allowed to develop is that the minimum wage legislation is not being enforced.  According to the government, “refusal or wilful neglect to pay the NMW” is a criminal offence and “employers who deliberately fail to pay the NMW may face a potentially unlimited fine.” While there has recently been a successful claim by an unpaid intern to be paid, cases against companies for failure to pay the NMW appear few and far between. In the event HM Revenue and Customs, the government body responsible for enforcement of the NMW, took a more strident approach to serving notices of underpayment and fines on companies that failed to pay interns who carry out tasks that require payment, I suspect that the amount of companies in breach of the legislation would dramatically reduce.

Arguments against unpaid labour generally

The debate on paying interns reminds me of the one on the National Minimum Wage (NMW) that Tony Blair’s Labour Party pledged to introduce if they won the 1997 General Election.  To recall that debate, I have browsed through old copies of The Times. The Chairmen or Chief Executives of Dixons, Burton Group, Asda, J. Sainsbury and GUS had a letter published scaremongering that the introduction of the NMW could lead to up to 1.8 million job losses (The Times, January 23, 1997). The economist Roger Bootle ridiculed the NMW: “The minimum wage belongs to the God, Motherhood and Apple Pie School of Economics” (The Times, March 24, 1997).  Tim Melville-Ross, Director-General of the Institute of Directors, declared the NMW as “nonsense.” He viewed that its introduction would benefit the wealthy and lead to increased unemployment (The Times, April 24, 1997). The British Retail Consortium predicted dire price rises to cope with the cost of paying staff the NMW (The Times, November 4, 1997). Business in Sport and Leisure argued that depending on the level of minimum wage set, up to 90,000 jobs would be lost in that industry (The Times, November 24, 1997). The Times itself thundered in an editorial that the Bill to establish a NMW is “irrelevant, economically illiterate and potentially harmful” (The Times, November 28, 1997).

Despite the fierce objections, the introduction of the NMW in 1999 did not signal the end of the world, far from it. Last year, in a debate on the NMW, Lord Morris of Handsworth was able to tell the House of Lords “none of the predictions of the merchants of gloom and doom have occurred. The hysterical forecasts about economic Armageddon have proved to be totally without evidence and completely without foundation. The reality has been that the introduction and development of the minimum wage was accompanied not by job losses but by rapid job creation.”  The BBC reported (December 3, 2010) that according to researchers at the Institute of Government who polled 159 members of the Political Studies Association, the NMW has been the “most successful government policy” in thirty years, more successful than the Northern Ireland peace process, devolution and Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation policy.

Those who oppose compelling companies to pay interns at least the NMW for working are, by definition, opposed to the NMW. But they have lost this debate. Not only has the NMW been enacted, in their manifestos for the 2010 General Election all three major political parties were committed to its retention. The onus is not on me to justify why the NMW should be paid, the onus is on Libby T and those that think like her to justify why they believe the NMW legislation can be ignored. Do they think that parliament has no legitimacy?

There is a cost to doing business in this country. Those costs include payment of taxes, the cost of compliance with regulations and obeying labour laws including the NMW.  There may be companies who do not want to have to pay for these things but that does not mean that the employment law of this country does not apply.  As many commentators have stated, ‘life is not always fair.’  Companies did not leave the UK because of the requirement to comply with health and safety regulations, likewise hoards of companies are not going to leave the UK because they need to pay their interns.

Weak arguments for non payment

Internships as training

Arguments about training or inexperience clearly do not apply to situations where students and graduates are actively working for the company.  It is disingenuous to suggest that asking someone young (as is true in many cases in media) to write articles, do detailed research, run a website or help reduce the costs of an unprofitable business is ‘training.’   The reality is that professional work experience never ends.  An employee who progresses up any organisation will learn skills which will benefit the organisation.  Companies do not ‘deduct’ this as training because it simply a feature of working anywhere. Consequently, it is also disingenuous to argue that because the intern benefits from the experience, even if that benefit is greater than the benefit the company receives, that the intern does not need to be paid. The logic follows that the cost of the training is irrelevant as to whether or not someone is deserved of the NMW. For example, it might be true that a three month intern in a technology company spends the first three weeks learning how to use a very expensive piece of equipment. The cost of that equipment should not be taking into consideration when determining if the intern is entitled to at least the NMW.

Libby T argues, “Interns often have no skills and even those with new qualifications may have no practical experience. Their use to the company is limited.” Writing in the Guardian, Shiv Malik has pointed that contrary to this claim, according to research carried out by YouGov on behalf of Internocracy, “Almost a fifth of British businesses have admitted to using unpaid interns to ‘get work done more cheaply’ and prop up company profits during the recession.” It can also be noted that some companies seem to rely on unpaid interns. In an interview for a documentary broadcast on BBC2 earlier this year, the joint Managing Director of a PR company that acts for Calvin Klein admitted that out of his 70 staff, 20 are unpaid interns. It is not surprising that he referred to those interns as a “vital resource.”

Company type

Libby T complains that I “lump multinationals, investment banks and struggling niche publications together.” The implication of this is that either small companies should be treated differently to large companies; that certain industries, e.g. media, should be treated differently to others, e.g. finance; or that struggling or unprofitable companies should be treated differently to profitable or successful companies, in a decision as to whether a company should pay interns.  There is no basis in the legislation for any of these claims.

There are plenty of small companies that do pay their interns. Tanya de Grunwald of Graduate Fog has also highlighted that large companies such as Harrods and Reed are included among those that use unpaid labour.

In so far as different industries, Inspiring Interns, a recruitment agency that specialises in finding unpaid interns for companies (and, according to Graduate Fog, charges those companies, £500 per month per unpaid intern that they locate), currently has advertised unpaid internships in finance, in information technology, in cosmetics, and the list goes on.

Impecuniosity is not an excuse for not paying an intern.  Ultimately, a business that cannot afford to pay its staff is not a proper business.  Perhaps the reason why some companies are struggling may be because they have failed to realise that it is their staff (at all levels) that will make or break their company. Organisations which run dubious internship programs with transient and demotivated candidates will inevitably reap what they sow.  Employers are not charities but neither are workers.  Even if we did not have a national minimum wage, smart companies have always paid for quality staff because they deserve to be paid and that is what great business are built upon.  Only a tyrant or a fool would argue otherwise.

Libby T also claims that some companies may have skilled staff who are able to allow young people to shadow them, but no budget to pay interns. She does not feel that it would make any sense to restrict such unpaid roles. In response, nobody is arguing that such positions, unpaid work shadowing, should be banned. But one wonders how this theoretical example from Libby compares to the actual example of Reed, who, last month, advertised for a 3 month intern to work unpaid, but with travel and lunch expenses, as a receptionist. One can also wonder how it compares to a currently advertised position for a trilingual intern to spend three to six month updating a database and translating documents in French and German for no pay. There are countless further examples.

Consensual free labour

Libby T claims “Interns are not in fact slaves – they are free to leave – so if they remain, it must be because they believe they’re benefiting themselves.” This point is misleading and also entirely irrelevant. The law in this regard is clear and has nothing to do with consent. One cannot consent to work in an unsafe work environment and likewise one cannot consent to violate the national minimum wage laws.  What Libby T fails to recognise is that many employers (and indeed interns) are unaware of the legislation. Shiv Malik points out that according to the YouGov Survey, already mentioned, “only 12% of company managers and 10% of young people knew unpaid internships could be illegal under employment law.” Commenting on this, Ms. Abiola informed me that she believes that employers who use unpaid interns are putting themselves at risk.  She refuses to offer unpaid internships on her site.

The pragmatic case for paid internships

The problem with unpaid internships is not the law, the NMW legislation is sufficient; it is law abidance and enforcement.  Away from the legal requirement to pay interns that carry out work entitled to at least the NMW, there are pragmatic reasons for paying interns:

1. A key reason for paying interns is the ability to attract the best.  A senior lawyer at a prestigious US law firm said to me the reason that they pay their interns is because “our internships are part of our recruitment process, and it makes sense to us to ensure that we get the best of the best: not just those who can afford to work for free.” His firm is not the only one. The truth is that the applicants for an unpaid internship are limited to the pool of people who can afford to work for free. Those from less financially well off backgrounds may simply not be able to do so. On a similar basis, the available labour pool is restricted further, because even if a young person can afford to work for free, they may not be able to afford to move elsewhere to work for free. For example, someone who lives in Blackpool might be the best potential recruit for a position available at an organisation in London, but if it is an unpaid position, the person from Blackpool would not apply if they could not afford the rent on somewhere to live within a reasonable commuting distance of the place of work.

Candidates may claim that the main reason they wish to carry out the internship is for experience and not for financial gain. Irrespective of the truth of this, if two competing organisations are both offering similar internships with a difference that one is paid and the other unpaid, then, it seems intuitively obvious that the one offering the paid internship will attract the better candidates.

In the event that it is common practice in an industry to use unpaid interns, then a company that breaks the mould might find themselves with a competitive advantage. If this does not happen, whole industries might lose out of the chance to recruit some very talented people. As an example, I am aware of an exceptionally bright and capable American woman, a graduate of Yale University, who informed me that she took a job in investment banking solely because she “could not afford to work in publishing.

Libby T implies that a campaign to name and shame companies that appear not to be treating interns or intern applicants fairly “will promote nepotism and make ‘who you know’ even more important.”  The reason for this is because companies “will most likely not advertise internships any longer. Instead they will be informally organised through someone who can vouch for the prospective intern.”  Perhaps Libby is correct, companies that act unethically or potentially illegally, should not advertise the fact.  This does not take away from the fact that nepotism is not the most efficient hiring practice. Successful companies hire from broad applicant pool based on merit.

2. The majority of companies pay their interns. These companies are not charities. Staff retention and attraction is a major cost and getting talented staff early is the holy grail. The 2010 CIPD survey concluded: “Three-quarters (76%) of organisations agree that internships can be used as a way to test potential new staff …[and] seven in ten (69%) believe that internships are a good way to develop new talent in an industry.

3. An employment lawyer I spoke to, who wishes to remain anonymous, informed me that companies that use unpaid interns and do not provide them with an employment contract place themselves at substantial risk because they have will have little or no contractual protection against the intern utilising confidential information or intellectual property gained while at the organisation.

4. Organisations that do not pay their interns can damage their brand. Interns Anonymous is a website set up by disgruntled former interns which has generated lots of adverse media attention for offending employers. Stella McCartney is a fashion house named and shamed for its “toxic” atmosphere on Interns Anonymous in a story that was ultimately picked up by both Private Eye and the Daily Mail. Alexander McQueen is another fashion house that has received adverse publicity for its treatment of interns. An employment law expert barrister informed the Guardian that based on the material of which he was aware, he was fairly confident that the company was in breach of the NMW legislation.  Organisations should also be aware of the ease that a disgruntled unpaid intern or a former unpaid intern has to cause damage to their reputations simply via writing derogatory statements about them on social networking sites such as Facebook. Young people know how to use such sites and once a depreciatory comment is written, it might well remain on the internet for ever.

Against this, Internocracy, a self-declared “social enterprise passionate about changing the culture of internships for the better in the UK” encourages interns to write in and recommend employers who provide a worthwhile internship experience.

5. If unpaid interns are not paid and they take the organisation to a tribunal to recover the NMW, the time taken and legal costs that might be incurred defending the case, even if won, could well make it a Pyrrhic victory. Moreover, an employment tribunal hearing is public and therefore can be reported.  Accordingly, if a journalist picks up on the story, as they might, particularly if it is a high-profile employer, it could lead to bad publicity.  It might be simply easier to pay the interns the NMW for the duration of their internship to reduce the risk of such an action being taken.

6. Because there are far more young people staying on in higher education than a generation ago, those entering the work force are, on average, more educated with a commensurate higher skill base now than then. Young graduates can provide fresh energy and ideas to an office. Skills developed at university such as critical thinking or problem solving might be beneficial to an organisation in ways not even thought of before the intern came to the organisation in the first place. This is worth paying for.

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‘They Will Be Moving In Force, And Bringing A Grand Piano’

June 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm (Cuts, homelessness, Max Dunbar, protest, strange situations)

Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an acute awareness of how important it is to have somewhere decent to live.

Seems an obvious thing I know, but part of growing up is learning to appreciate the obvious. I walk home every day reflecting on how lucky I am that I don’t have to share a room with three brothers, that I don’t share a bed with an elderly relative, that I can heat my home and cook and wash, that I have a place to go if I do ever lose the home I rent now.

Many, many people are not in that fortunate position, thanks to the property bubble and a chronic underbuild of affordable housing. There are millions in overcrowded properties, another million homeless or sofa surfing. Waiting lists are now so long that even the Tory-led National Government has had to pledge a token number of new social homes. Unfortunately, its plans have been condemned not just by housing charities but also the construction and landlord industries as being both inadequate and unrealistic.

More and more political debate comes back to housing allocation. Labour leader Ed Miliband, under the evil thrall of Lord ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman, appeared to reject the need-based model of allocation when he praised a project in Manchester that prioritised ‘those who are giving something back to their communities – for example, people who volunteer or who work.’ The subtext here is: ‘Let’s provide homes for Those Who Are Deserving, and not large workless families on housing benefit.’

Here is Ed’s problem. True, people do have children that they can’t support. But that won’t guarantee state help. There was a recent case in Manchester where a woman with six children in a three-bed house had been on the transfer list for eleven years. She won’t get a move because only twelve four-bed homes became available last year and there are nine thousand people on Manchester’s list. There are four and a half million on lists nationwide and there will be another million or so as spending cuts hit.

We need around 240,000 new homes per year to meet demand and are building about half that. Whether we allocate by need or virtue, millions of people are losing out. It is a futile game of musical chairs. And it has become a G-spot issue for people who argue over the few remaining seats without stopping to think who’s playing the music.

If David Cameron cared about this issue, he would go to the IMF and say something like: ‘Look, chaps, here’s the thing. We are a country that cannot afford to house its citizens. I know, I know. It’s simply mortifying. Could we have a development grant or something?’

Maybe there’s another choice. The squatters’ movement had a resurgence in the 2000s when the boom drove up city rents. Perversely, there is a chronic housing shortage plus almost a million void properties. They are empty because owners can’t be bothered to do them up, or are waiting until they can sell them on in a recovered market. Recent reports say that squatters now include families who couldn’t make mortgage payments in the recession.

People invested unhealthy amounts of money and emotion in home ownership only to see dreams crash with the crash. This will become mainstream. Many squatters work on and improve properties they inhabit. It’s not just middle-class hipsterism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The squat in Guy Ritchie’s Fitzrovia place, the HSBC rave, these were great protests and should be celebrated. While the LSE’s religious/totalitarian sympathisers bowed to Gaddafi, the real radical left invaded his mansion and opened it to Libyan refugees. An occupier told Laurie Penny that ‘We are not here to cause any damage… Why would we? It’s our house! It belongs to the Libyan people. We’re here to make sure it isn’t sold to finance more killing.’

Naturally, the government is trying to criminalise it. Cameron has thrown an anti-squatting law into the compromised mess of Ken Clarke’s criminal justice bill. As squat campaigner Paul Reynolds points out, this is essentially the criminalisation of homelessness at a time of housing crisis. I have no idea how this law would be enforced or even if it would be enforced. I think that like so many of this government’s policies, it will be counterproductive, and it will hit them hard.

Housing is where politics becomes real. The British public will put up with just about anything. But I can’t help think that there will be bad consequences for this government if it closes off more housing options for people who have very few options anyway.

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Let’s All Go To Evil University

June 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm (Education, intellectuals, Max Dunbar, students)

I’m in favour of free education at the point of use, including tertiary education. However I am a little bemused at the mad beserker reaction to A C Grayling’s decision to open a tiny and very expensive private humanities college.

If you haven’t heard about this, the college will be based in Bloomsbury, with fees of £18,000pa and some kind of scholarship programme.

From far left reaction you would have thought that Lord Voldemort himself had risen from his Horcruxes to set up a Slytherin Academy of Pure Evil (with Dark Arts BTec).

Here’s an example of what I mean. A couple of nights ago Grayling spoke at a discussion about arts funding cuts held at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross. According to Index on Censorship, which covered the event, Grayling ‘had behaved impeccably in the debate, and had even offered to stay on afterwards to discuss objections to his college.’ Protestors had other ideas:

Not content with calling out ‘You have no right to speak’ and ‘You should be defending public education not deserting it’, towards the end of the discussion one protestor let off a smoke bomb that filled the room with acrid red fumes, forcing the bookshop to evacuate the 100 or so people attending the event.

With this one gesture the activists against Grayling guaranteed that their objections would not be taken seriously. They may as well have danced into the bookshop in waistcoats and doubloons, banging drums, waving feather boas on sticks, and going ‘Flip flip flip’. It is silliness du jour.

Terry Eagleton complains that Grayling is setting a precedent for ‘a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges’ that will ‘relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status.’ But I suspect that there is more to the outrage than the fair principle of defending the public against the private. Eagleton, after all, delivered Yale’s Dwight H Terry lecture and Yale’s press published his pro-faith drivel.

No, there is an ideological thing going on here. Grayling and Richard Dawkins, another lecturer at Evil University, are hated by Eagleton, and similar far left academics, because they stand up to the religious right. Eagleton’s big objection to Evil University is apparently that there will be no theology department, and that Tariq Ali will not be able to get a job there. More:

Grayling peddles a Just So version of English history, breathtaking in its crudity and complacency, in which freedom has been on the rise for centuries and has only recently run into trouble. Dawkins touts a simple-minded, off-the-peg version of Enlightenment in which people in the west have all been getting nicer and nicer, and would have ended up as civilised as an Oxford high table were it not for a nasty bunch of religious fundamentalists.

Would there be the same shrieks of pious rage, I wonder, if a similar university was set up, charging the same rates, but staffed by religious/totalitarian sympathisers of Eagleton’s kind, many of whom have long been riding high on the theocratic petrodollar? I doubt it.

In education what matters is what works. For me the two big requirements of a school, college or university should be that a) it should give bright people from low incomes a chance to shine and b) it should not be a tool for doctrinaires and brainwashers of any kind.

Grayling and his friends deserve a fair hearing, if Saif Gaddafi and some Christian used car salesman get one.

Update: Two interesting and reasonable blog articles on this, one from the lawyer Charon QC, another from the American academic Sarah Churchwell. Plus, update on reactions and developments from the New Humanist.

Welcome to Professor Dawkins Neocon Imperalist University, where we play Quidditch with the heads of postmodernist academics.

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Sharon Shoesmith and Corporate Accountability

May 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm (Cuts, Max Dunbar, unions, workers)

Just as public services come under unprecedented attack, up comes Sharon with her £1 million payoff and her list of self justifications and excuses. The story could have been planted by the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Incredibly, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said that the Court of Appeal’s ruling ‘give a much-needed boost to social workers up and down the country who protect daily thousands of vulnerable children and adults.’ Liberals flung the usual cliches of lynch-mob justice, demonisation and ‘witch hunts’, as if the dismissal of an executive who presided over horrific failure is exactly like what happened to innocent women in sixteenth-century England.

To me the case sums up the anger that so many people feel towards their local authorities, which wasted the regen cash of the boom years, whose jobs are completely closed off to workers from the communities they are meant to serve, and whose directors, when something irrevocable happens, say that lessons have been learned – and they never are. When people die on trains because Railtrack bosses cannot be bothered ensuring the safety of their passengers, we rightly demand accountability, sackings, jail time, heads on plates to go. When a child is tortured to death on the public sector watch, our wagons circle around managers on ministerial salaries.

My Shiraz colleague Jim Denham has commented on Shoesmith’s apparent insensitivity and lack of self awareness. These are traits acquired from organisational politics. When you spend years in the higher ranks of a powerful entity, discussing nothing but pay scales, funding pots and multi agency action plans, a deadly insularity takes hold. A child died with fifty injuries, okay – but what about me? What about my career, my reputation, my family, my life? Defending his company’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP boss Tony Hayward argued that ‘The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.’ Shoesmith told Radio 4 that ‘a child dying does not equal a department in disarray’.

It worries me that the unions do not recognise that the appeal was not about protecting hard working and hard pressed social workers, it was about protecting the pensions and security of the public sector management class. In his report into the murder of Victoria Climbie, another child tortured to death in the same LAA, Lord Laming refused to blame ‘hapless, if sometimes inexperienced, front-line staff’. Instead, he criticised ‘the managers and senior members of the authorities whose task it was to ensure that services for children, like Victoria, were properly financed, staffed, and able to deliver good quality support to children and families.’

It is significant that while a number of junior staff in Haringey Social Services were suspended and faced disciplinary action after Victoria’s death, some of their most senior officers were being appointed to other, presumably better paid, jobs. This is not an example of managerial accountability that impresses me much.

There is a failure of management culture. Baby P and Climbie will happen again unless the culture improves and it will not improve unless there are serious sanctions for corporate negligence. Likewise, the anti cuts movement will fail if it’s seen to be just a pressure group for lazy, stupid, overpaid, negligent council managers.

Update: This isn’t just about one LA of course. The Salford Star reports on a a series of appalling failures to safeguard children in that area. I know there’s a north/south divide, but it still surprises me that these events haven’t had national press.

Because in local government, nothing is ever anyone’s fault

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Silly, Vulgar, Jejune

May 15, 2011 at 12:23 pm (bloggocks, capitalist crisis, Disability, Max Dunbar, media, protest, Tory scum)

Matthew Elliott from the Taxpayers’ Alliance said that yesterday’s ‘Rally Against Debt’ would ‘speak for the normally silent majority who know that, like it or not, spending cuts are right and necessary to cut the deficit and control the national debt.’ It turns out that the ‘silent majority’ consists of around 350 people, plus a speaking line up of some of the silliest personalities in British conservatism – frothing libertarian Paul Staines, climate change denialist Martin Durkin, UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

Is the TPA disappointed with this poor turnout? 350 people – there are cats on Twitter with more followers. It’s a good stat to remember the next time a conservative blogger accuses you of being a liberal elitist who is out of touch with the great British public. The low number is even more striking when you consider the Hardest Hit demo on Wednesday, a protest from disability groups against the government’s welfare reform bill. The Met confirmed around 8,000 on this demo despite the obvious physical difficulties many demonstrators would have to surmount to get to the venue.

I thought it was only a matter of time before we had a proper US-style Tea Party movement in this country, but perhaps I was wrong. It could be that the Guido Fawkes brand of extreme metropolitan conservatism doesn’t resonate with people in the same way that the TUC/UK Uncut demonstrations seemed to.

No one likes the idea of a national debt and no one outside the public sector management class would dispute that there is huge public sector waste. But we are not getting cuts in management consultancy fees and council exec salaries, we are getting cuts to policing, legal aid, welfare payments. The cuts are not just an abstract slogan any more, they are happening now, up here in Manchester there is real uncertainty over the future of libraries, SureStarts, debt advice services and law centres. Meanwhile the screamers in the Tory press complain that the government is not going far enough – Telegraph finance writer Ian Cowie recently argued, in apparent seriousness, that Cameron should take the vote from the unemployed.

The rally also illustrated the disadvantages of this government’s reliance on web-based activism. Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie are big names in the Westminster political class but I doubt they would be recognised outside it. Meanwhile the Taxpayers’ Alliance is looking less like a national grassroots movement and more like another small monetarist pressure group. Why then is it given automatic right to reply on any newspaper story involving public finance?

Finally, I think the political blog is reaching the end of its natural life. The Tories won the internet war, but was it worth winning? The blog form is declining for a multitude of sins. For obvious reasons, trained journalists are much more reliable when it comes to finding actual news and many bloggers are far too partisan in their opinions to deliver interesting commentary and analysis. You get better quality of debate on Facebook and Twitter than on blog comment threads, mainly because most people on social networking sites write under their real names.

The lack of professionalism in even the most respected bloggers is astounding – Conservative Home has just appointed an eighteen year old as Deputy Editor. The best political bloggers – think Steven Baxter, Sunny Hundal, Laurie Penny – have been absorbed into mainstream journalism. Announcing his ‘retirement’ from political blogging, conservative pundit Iain Dale reflected that ‘the mainstream media has eaten up the independent political blogosphere’, and went on to say this:

For whatever reason, the political blogosphere in this country has not met the expectations of many. It has created media careers for a small group of the chosen few – me among them.

The right has more to lose from the death of political blogging because rightwing bloggers have so much more invested in the medium. Check out the breathless and portentous tone of Dale’s piece: ‘When I gave up blogging six months ago, the reaction to it was astonishing. It was akin to being witness to my own funeral. It was considered such a momentous event that I was invited on to more or less every news channel going.’ The Tory blogosphere is full of people who take themselves very seriously and mistake the voices in their head for the Voice of the People.

Despite Dale’s pessimism, he’s thrown himself into a new internet venture, ‘a new online magazine’ called ‘The Daley: Iain Dale and Friends’. According to the Guardian, featured writers include ‘Shelagh Fogarty, BBC 5 Live’s recently departed breakfast presenter, Tom Harris MP, and television personality Christine Hamilton.’

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‘Thank a union guy’

March 13, 2011 at 3:31 pm (literature, Max Dunbar, protest, unions, workers)

Probably my favourite writer, on Wisconsin, the Tea Party and the class struggle in America.

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