“My friend the BNP candidate”

April 22, 2010 at 11:00 pm (Champagne Charlie, fascism, immigration, poverty, Racism, workers)

 The Morning Star today carries an interesting and thought-provoking article.  I’ve no doubt that many readers of “Britain’s only socialist daily paper”  will also find it quite a shocking article, because at a certain level it appears to express some sympathy with “decent working class people” who support the BNP. The author, Mick Hall, writes about “my friend, the BNP candidate“, a bright working class lad who became a BNP member and stood for them in the local elections four years ago.

Hall attempts to explain why such a person (called “Marty” for the purposes of the article)  would be attracted to the far right, mentioning both personal factors like the death of Marty’s wife, and economic factors like the factory closures, unemployment and poverty to be found in the sink estate where he lives. Hall also notes that the Labour Party and the  “left” have failed to offer any real alternative.

The article is a serious attempt to address some of the economic and political roots of  contemporary British fascism, and makes a refreshing change from the popular frontist moralistic posturing of much of the left’s anti-BNP campaigning. But Hall is evasive on a number of issues, noteably where exactly he stands on immigration. He writes:

“Yes, immigration is a topic of conversation, as it is amongst all social classes. There is nothing wrong with that, it is an issue that affects peoples lives in all sorts of ways, housing, schooling, work, health care, etc. To deny this fact is infantile, the left needs to take a position on this subject, not hope to push it under the carpet and blame the most economically disadvantaged section of the working class for its ‘ignorant racism’.”

Fair enough, as far as it goes: but what position on immigration does the author advocate?

And however sympathetic you might feel towards an individual working class BNP supporter from a deprived area, who was once a good friend, would you really want to shake his hand?

“After our conversation Marty and I shook hands and parted. As I watched him go I felt sad that such a bright shooting star had been reduced to being a carthorse for Nick Griffin and co. He was, and is, much better than that.”

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Why faith-based welfare doesn’t work

June 1, 2009 at 1:20 pm (Andrew Coates, Max Dunbar, poverty, religion, welfare)

bastilleYou may or may not be aware of the government’s strategy to have state-run social welfare taken over by various religious charities and groups (since it worked out so well in Ireland). One example is the Ipswich-based jobseeker training course which is run by the YMCA – specifically, YMCA Training. The scheme appears to consist of having claimants spend thirty hours a week in a YMCA office looking for jobs on computers. Comrade Andrew Coates has been lucky enough to experience this shining example of faith-based welfare in action.

The YMCA  promises high quality services. It says that ‘We are dedicated to inspiring individuals to develop their talents and potential and so transform the communities in which they live and work.’  There are two centres in Ipswich, one for young people on the town outskirts. The other, Dencora House (popularly known as ‘the Den’) on an industrial-commercial estate in another far-flung suburb, Whitehouse. After varying periods of unemployment (dependent, for example, on age), the workless are assigned, in their majority, to a ‘course’ of thirteen weeks at these units. In theory, after a short period of CV and presentation skills induction, participants should be sent on ‘placements’ in various enterprises, local government, or the voluntary sector. The latter is an important growth area. In many cases taking over from  ’community service’ ordered by the Courts. Then you have to attended a session back at ‘the den’ to do ‘jobs search’ – sit in front of computers (never enough available) looking at a page of ads, filling in a few forms – in fact what you would normally do anyway if you’re looking for work.

The last time I was obliged to undergo this rigmarole there were the following complaints. Dencora House is in the middle of nowhere. It is very hard to get to from a lot of East Suffolk (its catchment area). It costs £1,70 pence each way on the bus there, from Ipswich that is. From other places, plenty of rural districts,  it’s double, even treble. Dole is just over £60 pounds a week, New Deal is £15 plus, minus (yes) the first £4 of your travel expenses. The rest of the journey’s cost is covered. But you had to queue up every Friday with all your tickets to get this back. In some cases this meant £30 to £40 – laid out beforehand on the Dole money just mentioned. Next, placements have been known to be thinly disguised exploitation of free labour. A training scheme offered for some over 55 year olds was on learning to ‘lay bricks’ (guess what the qualification is worth). Then there was the fact that even then some people never found placements and were stuck in the Den all week, doing little. At around forty people there during peak days there was also the question of health and safety – one men’s toilet for about 35 men. Anyone getting stroppy was threatened with being ‘exited’ (charming word) – that is suspended form all benefit whatsoever. Finally there was the simple fact that the process rarely lead to work for anyone who was not already highly employable.

Switch to the present. Numbers of those thrown out of work swell and swell, even in relatively prosperous East Anglia. Yesterday I was told by someone on his way to ‘the Den’ that there on many days there are around 170 people there. Sometimes just two members of staff. The jobs supplement of the Ipswich Evening Star has roughly five pages of ads – at most. Those at ‘the den’ have to work through them – there is an even worse ratio of participants and computers. Many, hell of a lot in fact,  are now obliged to spend their whole 13 weeks at Whitehouse. Even those with a placement promise spend weeks waiting for it to be processed. Staring at the walls and the odd screen. Waiting for the few toilets to be free (large waiting list there as well). They are thrown out at lunchtime for an hour. Believe me the charms of ASDA, a chippie and a small café are about all the area has to offer. Any complaints? Exit! Get really angry? Exit! Want an alternative? Exit!

Personally, I’d rather starve.

Commenter Dan adds:

Yeah, you are supposed to be there for 1 week of induction then get stuck in a placement… everyone seems to be doing 30 hours job search a week… not far from full time hours. Then the job search sessions are not supervised anyway! Always under staffed.

And again:

4 pages of job search sounds good… then when you realise that only one page are small adverts (the rest are big box adverts) then short list out jobs you can do (there seems to be a lot of caring jobs etc. around which aren’t applicable) you end up with just 3 or 5 jobs to apply for and everyone applies for them so you stand no chance even though you apply for them anyway as you need a job (better then staying there and getting so little money)

I am quoting loads but you should read this post in full and also the comments. I’ll just quote some more from Dan.

Dencora House is understaffed and over populated with people. YMCA Training loves exiting people for silly reasons to narrow this number down. Please Note: They are still paid for the whole 13 weeks whether you spend one morning or an entire 13 weeks there.

YMCA Training do not have a good relationship with a good pool of businesses – even though in Ipswich alone they have (or did have) around several members of staff working placements out. Over the last 5 years both the Jobcentre and YMCA Training have employed over paid staff (I applied for information of the YMCA Training one) to engage in partnership with businesses and the Jobcentre. The Jobcentre had a controversial post (in my opinion) of a salary over £30,000 a year to bring more businesses on to the database. I only see about 40% of the jobs advertised in the Evening Star (expensive) on the Jobcentres database (free).

I can recall a JCP staff member coming into an crowded room of Jobseekers to do a speech (planned by YMCA Training) into giving us a firm talking to into not getting ourselves exited from the course to cause them more work as she is sick of all the overtime she was getting dealing with new claims. hello? We would all love to help you out and get into paid employment.

YMCA Training do not have a good relationship with a good pool of businesses – even though in Ipswich alone they have (or did have) around several members of staff working placements out.

YMCA Training has severed a lot of ties with local employers and this has become the main reason why people are not offered on to work placements.

I would say that staff members (when in) reading out ‘activities’ on ‘Write down the names of the companies next to the logos’ and ‘What are the name of these companies that used these slogans on TV adverts?’ as a time wasting activity are not beneficial to the job seekers or learning or training these people anything let alone anything transferable into a job. It makes you (whether you are 18 or 60) feel so small like you are back at nursery school with those child-like classroom activities.

The [OFSTED] report also concluded about the lack of availability of computers and lack of private use of telephone.

There is even more on the Ipswich Unemployed Action site.

We are not moaning about having to attend a course – generally we all like to develop ourselves and meet new people – but your treatment on the course is like being an object – a ‘thing’.

Many people are dismissed for trivial reasons and lies to lower the numbers of the already overcrowded rooms in the centre.

Going to the toilet or getting a drink of water outside allocated breaks is a possible dismissal offence and so is taking a plastic cup of water or cup of tea or coffee outside the centre (the small break-out areas are not enough to hold the people in attendance so people venture outside).

This kind of thing isn’t new – it is called ‘customer feedback’ and most organisations value it. YMCA Training do not. Andrew provides the punchline.

This morning I went to Dencora House, Ipswich. For my ‘New Deal’ induction at YMCA Training. A little while in and I was summoned. YMCA manager and colleague. Copies of this Blog, and the Ipswich Unemployed Action’s, on the table.

Apparently, the chief said, some people are upset about this kerfuffle. Deary me.

The upshot is I face being suspended from all benefits for exercising my (see YMCA Induction Pack), ‘freedom of conscience’. Apparently human rights do not apply to the out-of-work on the New Deal. Still no doubt they’ll find some way of justifying themselves. YMCA Mission Statement, ‘Motivated by its Christian faith, YMCA Training’s mission is to inspire individuals to develop their talents and potential and so transform the communities in which they live and work.’ Needs some creative re-writing.

I am really hacked off about this. Obviously we need sanctions for claimants who abuse the system, but cutting off someone’s benefits because they wrote about the system on a blog?

If we’re getting the whole story from Andrew – and he doesn’t strike me as a bullshitter – then this is an illuminating case study of faith-based welfare in action. ‘This is our basic service, and if you don’t want to use it or if you raise questions or challenge us in any way, we will cut off your income. Stop writing or starve.’

This is why faith-based welfare doesn’t work, won’t work, can’t work and shouldn’t work.

Andrew, stay strong. Keep up the good work and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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May you live in interesting times

March 15, 2009 at 1:53 pm (capitalist crisis, labour party, Max Dunbar, Obama, parasites, plutocrats, poverty, welfare, workers)

I know I’m a naive optimist but aren’t the general public getting pissed off with inequality? The spectacle of incompetent businessmen walking off with pensions equal to the GDP of a developing nation while hardworking families are forced into the black market at sub minimum wage is so glaring an injustice that it is making an inroad into the UK’s normally servile working class.

I used to rant about executive pay during the boom years and people would tell me, ‘Well, maybe he’s worked hard for that money’. You can’t imagine that defence being used now. The boom years carried a deferential faith in the wisdom and benevolence of the aristocracy of wealth that has, like the bubble, burst.

Studies are showing that unregulated freemarket capitalism is perhaps not the best way to run societies: moreover, people tend to be happier and more successful in societies run along egalitarian lines.

Gaze across the pond and you realise what we’re missing and what a chronicle of wasted time the last decade has been. Barack Obama has repealed several of Bush’s anti-labour laws plus the religious conscience law, he has legalised stem cell research, he has ordered the closure of Guantanamo and the secret CIA prisons, he has ended rendition, he has lifted Bush’s restrictions on funding for family planning NGOs, he has expanded state health insurance, he has made it legal for women to sue for equal pay, he has capped executive pay, he has scrapped Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy… and the guy was only elected in, like, January. Radical journalist Greg Palast looked on in astonishment:

Then came Obama’s money bomb. The House bill included $125 billion for schools (TRIPLING federal spending on education – yes!), expanding insurance coverage to the unemployed, making the most progressive change in the tax code in four decades by creating a $500 credit against social security payroll deductions, and so on.

Look, don’t get your hopes up. But it may turn out the new President’s … a Democrat!

It’s been argued on Shiraz Socialist that Obama has achieved more ‘in the course of the past few weeks than the free-market lackeys of our so-called ‘Labour Party’ have managed in nearly twelve years’.

All this is registering. As Will Hutton says:

[W]hile a clear majority do not like current levels of inequality, support for doing anything about it is falling, at least through the tax and benefit system. Rather than doing as we would be done by, the British have a keener-than-ever awareness of being cheated by benefit frauds and unjust claimants and are not minded to pay up for more redistribution.

This isn’t ‘troubling’. It’s common sense. The Great Crunch has shown us that the tax burden falls overwhelmingly on the middle and working classes. Why should they pay to sort out the mess that the rich have got us into? People hate benefit fraudsters but also, now, billionaire tax dodgers. Labour’s best chance of winning the next election is to assume that it will lose and to go down fighting on a honourable programme of redistribution of wealth.

Of course my optimism could be misplaced – as David Toube pointed out, hard times make for ugly politics and ‘there is every reason to believe that the defining themes of the present economic downturn will be xenophobic, anti-immigrant and racist’. We have to be ready to challenge and fight this when it appears but, overall, I think there’s scope for hope as well as hate.socialism-rich

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Thoughts on welfare reform

March 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm (capitalist crisis, labour party, Max Dunbar, poverty, Tory scum, welfare)

The first thing to be said about welfare reform is that there is probably a case for change.

You can’t live on benefits. You’re not supposed to. The hate figures in the tabloids are almost certainly funding their lifestyles from crime rather than welfare. But the way the system is structured means that going on benefits has to be a lifestyle choice, rather than a short-term necessity.

Example: You are one of the UK’s 1.4 million temporary workers. You are a good professional but suddenly the work dries up. The agency says there are no assignments for two weeks. Can you claim JSA for that time? Fuck, no! It’ll take that long to get the forms sent out, never mind collect any money.

Or you get some weird virus and you can’t work for three months. In theory you can apply for incapacity benefit to cover this, but in practice, again, it’ll take at least that long to process your claim. In the words of one CAB adviser, it is ‘a really shit system’.

I know a lone parent. She has a part time job and her own business as well as an ongoing postgraduate degree. She gets some help in terms of housing benefit and tax credit but it’s a struggle. She doesn’t want to be on benefits full time. The kid is great but she can’t spend all day with only a two year old for company. It drives her nuts.

My friend did a calculation to see if she would be better off, financially, if she claimed full time or worked full time.

My travel business went well over the summer; it wasn’t the best it has ever been but I earned plenty to keep us afloat… Imagine my relief in September when XL collapsed and the travel industry started to take a massive downturn – I had my new job to fall back on. The money I earn from the part-time job isn’t really enough, so I have to keep my travel business running alongside it, something I tell myself will be worth it next summer when business improves. As my job at the university falls on Saturdays, I have to pay a childminder a weekend premium to look after Leo. This means get slightly more tax credits to put towards the childcare, but nowhere near enough to cover it. Housing Benefit, however, take this into account as extra income. The end result of a very complicated and tedious scenario is that I am worse off, much worse off than I was before.


I have a horrible feeling I am going to be told that I will be better off financially if I give up work altogether. I really don’t want to have to do this.

The Tory press are all over this issue. A conservative would say that if people are better off on benefits than going to work then we should scrap the welfare state altogether. This is the glaring subtext to most of their attacks on benefit claimants.

Work is not necessarily, in fact not often, a route out of poverty. The progressive approach should be that, since there are always going to be people who genuinely need state assistance, we should concentrate on making work pay rather than slashing benefits to force claimants into dead-end, low-paid, nonunionised service sector jobs.

Is that what this government is doing? It’s hard to say. There are some good ideas. Free therapy for the unemployed is one. Enforced idleness is bad for your mental health. The DWP has lots of positive sounding plans to help people train for job interviews and find voluntary placements to improve their skills but these are always presented as sanctions, rather than opportunities: threats over promise. I wonder why.

Most of the welfare reform legislation was drawn up years ago and doesn’t take the recession into account. Getting people off incapacity benefit is a good idea. As the government always reminds us, the Tories shifted loads of dole claimants onto IB so that the jobless figures wouldn’t look so scary. Again, there is a case for change.

But according to the rules of freemarket evangelism, change must be carried out by private firms working on commission rather than public sector job centres. The Observer got hold of government papers confirming that the policy is absolutely fucked: 

A report marked ‘restricted’ revealed how the private companies placed just 6% of incapacity benefit claimants on their books into work, rather than the 26% they had claimed would be possible when they bid for contracts.

I also don’t like the sound of this ‘workfare’ bullshit. JSA is sixty quid per week, working out at £1.73 for a standard 35-hour week. Humanitarian objections aside, this is surely going to put the minimum wage at risk, particularly if we get a Conservative government likely to let it simply ‘wither on the vine’. Contractors cannot compete with what is, effectively, forced labour provided by the state.

The most obvious question: where are the jobs going to come from? Welfare debate is always framed in terms of ‘making a contribution’ to society. But what if no one’s going to pay you for your contribution? What do you do – voluntary work? And if there’s no voluntary positions available – then what? Individuals have their own lives to lead. Everyone has free time that the state is not entitled to. Should we just have people standing in the road all day, filling up potholes, like some version of North Korea?

And even that might not be enough. As Sunder Katwala points out:

The arguments of 1909 were the same ones debated about the ‘broken society’ today. Are the poor to blame for their poverty, or are the causes structural? Would the state crowd out charity, or must a basic minimum be a condition of citizenship? There were Daily Mail campaigns against the costs to the ratepayer and the palatial conditions of the workhouse.

Governments seeking to satisfy the Tory press forget that, by their nature, nothing is ever enough for these people.


Scroungers enjoy roast chicken, caviar and champagne at Gordon Brown’s luxury ‘workhouse’ – on YOUR money

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Deer Hunting with Jesus

January 19, 2009 at 3:57 pm (capitalism, literature, Max Dunbar, poverty, United States, workers)

bageant1A couple of years ago liberal New York journalist Joe Bageant returned to his working-class Virginia town and wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus, a savage journey through the lives of the American working poor. In this book Bagent visits Virginia’s bars, factories, diners and gas stations, chatting with the characters and casualties of his youth, and weaves their personal stories into a series of compulsive essays on the losing side of the American Dream.

Like Thomas Frank, whose What’s The Matter with Kansas explored the backlash politics that turned his home state from a land of abolitionist radicals into a province that returned the GOP in every election, Joe Bageant writes of the doomed pride and integrity that leads the US working class – like the British working class – to ‘use the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellation.’ At some places the book is heartbreaking: these are people to whom the words ‘land of the free’ have become laughably, appallingly irrelevant.

There’s also essays on the shocking state of what passes for America’s healthcare system, a prophetic account of the rise of predatory lenders setting up exploitative loans for people who can’t possibly pay the money back, and a chapter on gun control so thoughtful and well written that it actually changed my opinion on gun control.

Indeed, Bageant’s strength is his writing. He has been compared to Hunter S Thompson, and he lives up to it – not the manic, flailing HST of the Gonzo years, but the tight and careful prose of Thompson’s early journalism. At some points, Bageant’s writing transcends journalism altogether: it becomes Faulknerian, something Truman Capote would write if he’d been born at a lower station in life. Or the book Thompson tried to write but never managed: The Death of the American Dream.

Deer Hunting with Jesus seems to have barely made a blip on the radar of American letters and that is unjust. I’d recommend the book unconditionally, and there is an excerpt here:

It’s going to be a tough fight for progressives. We are going to have to pick up this piece of roadkill with our bare hands. We are going to have to explain everything about progressivism to the people at Burt’s because their working-poor lives have always been successfully contained in cultural ghettos such as Winchester by a combination of God rhetoric, money, cronyism, and the corporate state. It will take a huge effort, because they understand being approximately poor and definitely uneducated and in many respects accept it as their lot. Right down to being sneered at by the Social Security lady. Malcolm X had it straight when he said the first step in revolution is massive education of the people. Without education nothing can change. What my people really need is for someone to say out loud: ‘Now lookee here, dammit! We are dumber than a sack of hair and should’a got an education so we would have half a notion of what’s going on in the world.’ Someone once told me that and, along with the advice never to mix Mad Dog 20/20 with whiskey, it is the best advice I ever received. But no one in America is about to say such a thing out loud because it sounds elitist. It sounds un-American and undemocratic. It also might get your nose broken in certain venues. In an ersatz democracy maintaining the popular national fiction that everyone is equal, it is impermissible to say that, although we may all have equal constitutional rights, we are not actually equal. It takes genuine education and at least some effort toward self-improvement just to get to the starting line of socioeconomic equality.

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NuLab and the Social Fund: what the hell were they thinking of?

December 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm (capitalist crisis, Christmas, class, Gordon Brown, Jim D, labour party, poverty, welfare)


Bah, humbug!

If someone wanted to devise a scenario to make the government look as bad as it is possible to look just before Xmas , they could scarcely have done better than this. Publish a “consulation” paper that contains a proposal to charge interest of nearly 27 per cent on loans to the very poorest and most desperate people in the country – Social Fund claimants.

These loans presently get paid (or not paid, as the case may be) by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to people who have no other means of obtaining the most basic essentials – chairs and tables, a bed and bedding, basic carpeting, a reconditioned cooker. But a fridge is unlikely to be allowed, because it’s not considered “essential” unless you have a medical condition. And even then, you’ll only get a payment if the DWP calculate that your Jobseekers Allowance or Income Support is sufficient to cover the repayments within a strictly limited time period. The only good thing about a Social Fund loan is that it’s interest free – and now the government is talking about changing even that! Or at least they were until a public outcry that had even the Tories (for Chrissakes!) accusing them of acting like “loan sharks” forced a humiliating climb-down. It was only ever a “consulatation” , not a serious proposal, bleated junior Minister  Kitty Usher while her boss, the uber-Blairite John Hutton blustered on about how the proposal wouldn’t “necessarily” mean the poor being forced to pay interest on loans. So what, exactly, would it mean? No-one’s clear, except that the proposal involved handing the administration of Social Fund loans over to credit unions, the community savings organisations who are already on record as saying that they want nothing to do with such a scheme.

New Labour at its worst: floating yet another privatisation scheme in the form of a “consultation”; proposing a further attack on the very poorest at a time when fat cats are being given hand-outs; and doing all this in the run-up to Xmas in the middle of a recession!  Just as Brown has been showing some signs of recovery in the polls, too. They really do have a death wish, don’t they?

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March for Jobs, 2009

December 14, 2008 at 5:34 pm (anonymous, capitalism, capitalist crisis, class, Jim D, left, poverty, socialism, unions, workers)

Bloody hell! A blogger putting forward a practical suggestion that involves leaving the house…

March for Jobs 2009


The issue:


Across industry workers are facing lay offs, short time working, redundancies and closures. Against the background of a world slump the employers are demanding further ‘sacrifices’ from those who are still in a job. Pay, benefits and terms and conditions are under attack across the board. Public services, jobs, pay and conditions are also under attack in the public sector with plans to introduce billions of pounds of cuts in order to finance the bail out of the banks.


 The trade union movement needs to rally together in the face of this and put forward our own alternative agenda.


In particular we will seek to highlight the need for:


  • A massive crash programme of public works including a council house building programme to provide jobs for the unemployed
  • Urgent government support to prevent closures and mass redundancies including public ownership as an alternative to plant closures
  • A massive expansion of spending on our schools hospitals and social services
  • Support for all workers involved in action to defend jobs, pay and services 


To that end we propose to work together with other trade union and labour movement organisations to organise a nationwide March for Jobs 2009. The aim is to provide a framework of activities that would provide a platform for the trade union movement to get over our message. We look to organise rallies, meetings, lobbies and other protests as part of a nation wide movement that will converge on London in a national Demonstration.


To make progress with this initiative we are calling an open national planning meeting for all interested trade union and labour movement bodies on:     (details to be arranged).


…Any takers? 

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Shannon: the working class heroes

December 4, 2008 at 10:11 pm (Jim D, labour party, poverty, Uncategorized, welfare, workers)

Now that Matthews and Donovan have been found guilty, prepare for the middle class denunciations of “chavs”, benefit “scroungers”, the “dependency culture”, etc, etc. Because of those two scumbags it will be open season on the white working class.

But never forget the working class heroes of that run-down Dewsbury estate who rallied round, joined the search, donated money they could ill-afford and showed just what solidarity means. The fact that they were duped by an unscrupulous and/or dysfunctional pair of lowlifes doesn’t detract from their contribution. That’s what we need to remember while the Mail  and the Sun rant and the Government presses home its benefit “reforms“.

As local MP Shahid Malik says, “We’ve got something to be proud of here despite all the negative stories.”

police search for missing shannon matthews Local residents distribute posters as they start their second night of searching

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Sex Workers: Practical Help, not Puritanism

November 16, 2008 at 5:20 pm (drugs, Feminism, labour party, media, mental health, politics, poverty, puritan, sex workers, Uncategorized, voltairespriest)

Sex Work is Work!I was going to write about the proposed ban on happy hour, another part of the current government’s reactionary and moralistic social agenda, but then this issue came up instead. So the defence of the £3 six pack of Carling will have to wait for another day, though suffice it to say that I think Roosevelt hit the nail on the head when it comes to drinking in times of economic downturn. Anyway, let us turn to a more important subject than drinking, and a more vulnerable group than alleyway pissers and alcopop-swilling morons.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, seems to have come over all full of moral fire and purity with her latest set of proposals to criminalise the buying of sex from a woman (or man, presumably) “controlled for another person’s gain”. That definition would apply to 95%+ of street sex workers, whether the person doing the controlling is a dealer, a pimp or even a partner with a drug habit that the woman concerned is working to fund. All very noble, one might think: after all it is the punters being criminalised and who could possibly want to come to the defence of greasy kerb crawlers? There have been various voices supporting the measure, of varying quality – witness Mary Warnock’s ghastly, moralistic article in today’s Observer, which could have come from Richard Littlejohn if it one were merely to substitute the word “immigration” in place of “sex trade”. On another level, Cat at Stroppyblog puts a more radical case for supporting the measure which, whilst still not correct in my view, is at least worthy of debate.

To me, most obvious issue with this measure is that it will have precisely the opposite effect to the one which is supposedly intended. The very nature of the current sex trade is that it exists in the shadows, away from the public sphere and the checks and balances of everyday life. That’s fine if you’re the punter, who in most cases has a warm home, partner/wife and family to return to after taking your walk on the wild side and parting with fifty quid. It’s not so good if you’re the sex worker, trying to remain alive whilst dodging law enforcement, criminal predators and often carrying psychiatric issues, a drug habit or both. It also makes life more difficult if you’re a worker from one of the various organisations which try to put support services in place for sex workers and their attendant issues. To put it bluntly, you cannot help people that you cannot see, and the criminality of sex work leaves it in a netherworld which is very hard to reach into in order to provide support for those vulnerable individuals who work within the industry. No amount of bleating from the government about this law “targeting punters” will change the fact that its effect will be to drive vulnerable sex workers further into the impenetrable darkness that already surrounds their work. Drug habits and pimps don’t go away just because “men paying for sex” has been made into an illegal activity, but working environments for sex workers certainly do become even more dangerous as a consequence of the measure.

The reaction to Smith’s proposals also offers up a rather more general and damning indictment on various strands within liberal and radical feminism. Whether one agrees with Smith’s stance or not, I think it’s fairly obvious that it isn’t in and of itself “progressive” or “feminist”. It’s the sort of proposal which could just as easily have been put forward by a Conservative administration, and indeed would fit in rather well with the sort of government-as-moral-actor model favoured by religious conservatives within the US Republican Party. Seen in the wider context of this government’s clampdowns on internet freedom, banning of “anti-social” activities in public and assaults on civil liberties, it can be seen as part of a much wider and more authoritarian social agenda. It isn’t really about any kind of emancipatory politics at all, a fact that seems to be lost on certain feminist (and other centre-left) commentators.

Why is it that some feminists seem determined to back this, in spite of the voices of advocacy groups for sex workers clamouring against it and the vast amount of qualitative evidence which suggests it would not work? I think it actually comes down to strands within feminism (and I am not speaking about all feminists here by any stretch) which seem to think that members of oppressed groups who also happen to be women are essentially passive “victim figures” incapable of any emancipatory activity which is not prescribed by their more enlightened (usually white, often middle class) sisters in the media or academia. There is an inherent conservatism there which patronises and marginalises voices which do not fit the expected norm, and I think there is a little of that at work here.

What, then, actually would work? I think the problem is that the system’s failings in dealing with the issues presented by sex workers are multi-faceted and not easily reduced to either media-friendly soundbites or simplistic moral platitudes about “nasty men paying for sex”. It isn’t simply a matter of cutting off demand by criminalising punters (even if that weret the effect of the measure, which it won’t be). I think what is needed is to address the issues which drive women and men into street level sex work in the first place. One such measure should be a massive programme of public investment in effective drug therapies. One of the most poisonous shifts of Whitehall goalposts within the past decade was the abandonment of “drug free” as the objective by which standards of drug services were judged. This was replaced by “in active treatment”, meaning that someone parked on Methadone treatment for fifteen years is seen as a “positive outcome” when reports are given to the press. The knock-on effect of this has been a rise in the street-level availability of methadone for illegal purchase. The fact is that class A drug addiction is a major root of street sex work, and that effective therapy and novel treatments (ranging  from residential rehab to “chemical washes” with modern opioid receptor antagonists such as Naltrexone) <i>can</i> produce drug free outcomes. Freedom from a drug habit makes gaining freedom from sex work much easier.

Another area where sex workers are made vulnerable is by their immigration status if they are trafficked into the UK. It is nothing short of criminal that women should be scared to access services for fear of deportation. Give them all unlimited leave to remain, full recourse to public funds and a work permit. Once more the gaps through which helping hands can reach, will open up.

And of course, there’s the biggie. Legalise sex work and grant sex workers the full right to unionise in the workplace. Making the sex trade publicly visible means that the oppression which it brings into the lives of sex workers can be tackled head on. Unionisation gives those workers the right to forge their own emancipation within the protections offered by the law and the labour movement. I fail to see why we would deny rights to sex workers which we ourselves would demand as of right. The right to work safely and without fear of attack or criminalisation is one which I am prepared to fight for in my own workplace, and I think therefore that sex workers should be able to do the same.

Will any of those things happen? They’re certainly recognisably more radical than Smith’s proposals, and in my view (and others’) would be more effective. However none of them chime in with the current government’s authoritarian agenda. Furthermore, all of them would be politically unpopular with a populace under the thrall of memes about “dirty junkies” and “whores” taking money from the state. Therefore the government will probably stick with what it is currently doing. I for one though see nothing within that agenda that I could possibly support, and it amazes me to see some of my fellow “progressives” doing so.

For more information on the struggle to unionise sex workers, look at the International Union of Sex Workers website.

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Unjust Rewards

September 27, 2008 at 9:48 pm (capitalism, Max Dunbar, poverty, socialism)

We tend to see inequality as man’s natural state, but for most of the twentieth century people’s incomes became more and more equivalent. It’s only during the last three decades that society has gone galloping the other way. Thatcher’s cabal of free-market evangelists removed all conceivable obstacles to businessmen’s ability to become as rich as possible. Selling this to the public, the elites of Britain and America used the analogy of a ‘trickle-down effect’; if the rich were allowed to create and keep as much wealth as possible, some of this wealth would make its way down to the middle classes and the poor – perhaps by a kind of osmosis.

It was a myth: the lie of the century. The wise rich invest or save money rather than pump their cash into the economy in a way that others can benefit from it. (State handouts, on the other hand, roll into bank accounts and then roll straight back out again to be spent on rent, utilities, drink and food.)

For all the talk of freedom and opportunity, social mobility ground to a halt. Nick Cohen describes the current state of affairs:

Jo Blanden of the London School of Economics, Stephen Machin of University College London and Paul Gregg of Bristol University examined the two big generational surveys from the last half-century – the National Child Development Study of 1958 and the British Cohort Study of 1970 – which followed newborn babies through schooling and into adulthood. They looked at how children had done compared to their parents; whether they had risen or fallen in the pecking order, or stayed pretty much where their mothers and fathers once were. They found that, on average, a boy born to a well-to-do family in 1959 earned 17.5 per cent more than a boy born to a family on half the income of the rich boy’s parents. If the equivalent Mr and Mrs Moneybags produced a son in 1970, he would grow up to earn 25 per cent more than his contemporary from the wrong side of the tracks.

In other words, the rags-to-riches journey is harder today than it was in the 1950s. Destinities are set early and set in stone. In Unjust Rewards, their seminal polemic on the mess we’re in, Polly Toynbee and David Walker reveal that life’s courses are laid in ways we don’t even consider. Like vocabulary:

By the age of four the child from a professional family will have had 50 million words addressed to it. A working-class child will have heard 30 million, but the children from families on welfare will hear 12 million. Here was another shocking fact: by the age of three the child of the professional family will have a bigger vocabulary than the adult parents of the welfare child.

The divide has become so pronounced that even the Daily Mail rants about ‘fat cat’ executives and boorish City traders. The gap between the middle class and the rich, and even between the rich and super-rich, is as wide as the historic chasm between rich and poor – itself encapsulated in the recent story of the private equity manager complaining that he paid less tax than the person who cleaned his office. Old money is worried: ‘the toffs or would-be toffs of the Tatler are willing the Tories to say that exponential incomes are socially damaging, corrosive and destablising.’ Middle England, too, ‘thinks the rich should pay more tax.’ Yet government spends far more time and resources going after petty benefit fraudsters.

I don’t know who coined the phrase ’socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor’ but its author deserves a knighthood. We know that tax planning schemes are employed by the top percentile to help them avoid making a substantial contribution to the society in which it makes its money. We know that government is soft on high-end tax fraud because it fears that Britain would collapse without the Belgravia set. We know about the ridiculous bonus culture in which high earners are given additional rewards just to do their jobs. Toynbee and Walker ask us to do a thought-experiment:

Imagine if workers had to be bribed with extra cash just to carry out their contractual responsibilities. Jobseeker’s Allowance would be raised and raised again in order to make the people getting it strive harder to find work. Hospital cleaners would be paid a bit more every week, to make them scrub harder. But in the real world the logic of low pay runs in the opposite direction. At the poor end, benefits are cut to encourage more endeavour in job-seeking; cleaners’ pay is kept low to clock up higher productivity per pound spent on the NHS.

They go on to argue that serious redistribution of wealth would not only be morally right, it would also save the taxpayer millions of pounds of public money that we spend on prisons, doctors, mental health teams and other agencies picking up the pieces of broken lives.

There has been some redistribution but not enough. The authors point out that the minimum wage is not a living wage – the true figure is around £7:20. £200 a week doesn’t make work a route out of poverty, especially factoring in transport costs – many low-paid jobs are based in supermarkets and call centres far from residential areas.

Class is the one prejudice no one talks about. At my comprehensive school the biggest targets for bullies weren’t the black or Asian kids but the poor kids. It was social death to be labelled a ’scrubber’; and our uniform didn’t conceal the class differences: as Toynbee and Walker write: ‘[I]t doesn’t take long in the playground to sort out where they stand in relation to the rest.’

Different classes are like different worlds, and the triumph of their book is in showing the gap not just in income but perception. As part of an aspirations programme group of working class pupils from Brent were taken up the road to Oxford University. ‘What had they imagined university to be? They said ‘like a prison,’ ‘really hard work and no social life,’ ‘horrible, worse than school and locked in all the time.” Undergraduates showed them the halls of residence.

At home the Brent pupils shared rooms with siblings but here was a room of their own, with their own bathroom, use of a kitchen and common room… were students ever allowed beyond those great college walls? Yes, all day and all night. They asked if they could have visitors and if their parents could come and see them? Yes, any time and even have a cheap room to stay in overnight. And was term time just twenty-four weeks of the year? Yes, but they could stay on in the holidays if they liked. They could even have people to stay in their room too, if they signed them in. The opposite sex? Yes! Wow!

This little anecdote shows us that maybe the way forward is to close this gap of perception. As Irvine Welsh said, the key to who wins in society isn’t money or connections. It is the power of expectation.

(And on that note, a big welcome to our newest contributor Max Dunbar, who can also be seen at his own blog and at the marvellous Butterflies and Wheels. We’re very glad to have him – VP)

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