Posts Tagged ‘Sainsbury’s’

From 25 Years Ago: Private Eye on the Failings of the Privatised Water Companies

July 13, 2020

A few days ago I put up a piece about a report in the I that stated MPs had criticized the regulatory authorities for their failure to ensure that the water supply is adequately maintained. According to the I, the supply is in such a terrible state that within 20 years England may run out of water.

This isn’t exactly surprising, as environmental scientists, ecological activists and archaeologists have been warning about the terrible possibility of a global drought as the world runs out of supplies of drinking for over two decades. And in the 1980s the SF author Alfred Bester set his last book, Golem 100, in the ‘Guf’, a sprawling metropolis covering America’s eastern seaboard somewhat like Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1. Society in the Guf was decaying, with different areas controlled by various gangs and terrorist groups. Crime was rampant, and in addition to the social and political decline and fragmentation the huge megacity also suffered from a shortage of drinking water.

The regulatory authorities aren’t solely to blame for the deleterious state of England’s water. The industry is also responsible, and particularly its privatization in the 1980s and ’90s by the Tories. This was supposed to bring new investment. This hasn’t materialized in the privatized utilities, either here or in the US. In this country, these industries owners are foreign companies, which put the minimum into maintaining them while taking the profits out of the country.

Private Eye was a sharp critic of the Tories privatizations when they were being pushed through by Maggie Thatcher and then John Major. And one of their criticisms at the time was that the Tories appointed as heads of the new regulators, such as Ofwat and the Environment Agency in the case of water, people from the private sector, who shared the Tories view that government should leave industry to regulate itself. This was the beginning of the corporatist system, in which private industry is entwined with government to the point where it dictates official policy. This became notorious under Tony Blair, with leading industrialists like David Sainsbury of the supermarket company given posts on government bodies, that Guardian hack George Monbiot wrote an entire book attacking it, Captive State.

I found three reports of some of the antics of the privatized water companies in the ‘Privatisation Round-Up’ column in an old copy Private Eye from 25 years ago, Friday, 16th June 1995. They were as follows:

It’s tough at the top of a water company – especially if you are William Courtney, chairman of Southern Water, and all you hear are grips about your salary, your £250,000 share options (cashed) and the increasing cost of water in your area.

The public probably doesn’t realise how hard Mr Courtney works. In his capacity as director of Waterline Insurance, for example, a major subsidiary of Southern Water, he recently had to attend a long conference. As did his long-suffering wife Margaret; his diligent finance director at Southern Water, Ray King; and Ray’s long-suffering wife Sandra.

The relevance of the conference – on “international risk management” – may not be immediately obvious to Southern Water consumers, who will ultimately foot the bill; but the surroundings were relevant. Hard-working Mr Courtney and Mr King and their spouses attended the five-day conference at the luxury Marriott’s Castle Harbour Hotel in Bermuda – and as everyone knows Bermuda is surrounded by, er, water.

OFWAT, the water regulator, likes ot boast of its own successes, but the residents of Clyst St George in Devon are not convinced. Their case has been sitting in OFWAT’s tray for three years.

Their argument began when the National Rivers Authority ordered a clean-up of local ditches which acted as open sewers for septic tanks. The bill for householders could have run into the thousands. When the case finally ended up in court it was ruled that the responsibility fell on South West Water to bring the ditches up to modern hygiene standards.

South West Water had better things to spend the money on – like share options worth £144,95 for its managing director. The consumers turned to the apparently powerful watchdog OFWAT to force South West Water to take action. Finally, after no encouragement from OFWAT, the company is now thinking of installing the new sewerage system. But it still refuses to foot the bill and has approached the residents for a financial contribution towards the clean-up.

The European Union, meanwhile, is investigating why Yorkshire Water, which is now trying to buy up its own shares, was once given £23 million of regional aid to fatten it up for privatisation when the sold-off company now makes profits of more than £140 million a year.

The money, from a fund earmarked regenerating regional economies in the EU, was spent on improvements to three sewage works – improvements that had to be carried out in any event. When the EU bureaucrats sent the cheque, perhaps they forgot to point out that regenerating local economies does not mean boosting shareholders’ dividends and executive salaries.

I have a feeling that Yorkshire Water was hit by so many scandals that it ended up re-branding itself as Kelda.

These stories are an example of why English water is in the terrible state it is: greedy senior management doing as little as possible to maintain or improve the supply, awarding themselves grossly inflated pay and benefits and flitting off to foreign junkets and complacent and apathetic regulators doing as little as possible to protect the interests of these companies’ customers.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party were quite correct to demand these companies’ renationalization, along with other utilities. And it can’t come soon enough.

Boris Johnson Is Not the New, British FD Roosevelt

July 1, 2020

It’s the first of July, the beginning of a new month, and a new set of lies, falsehoods, spin and propaganda from our clownish and murderous government. Yesterday, BoJob announced he was going to spend his way out of the recession caused by the Coronavirus lockdown. £5 billion would be spent on public services. Michael Gove hailed this as a ‘New Deal’, like F.D. Roosevelt’s for ’30s America.

No. No, it isn’t. Mike and Zelo Street have both published articles tearing great, bloody holes in this latest piece of monstrous spin. Zelo Street’s concentrates on the failings of Roosevelt’s original New Deal. Apparently it didn’t really begin to pay off until Roosevelt’s second term, because the great president was himself too committed to the economic orthodoxy of the time. This was to reduce government spending during a recession. Mike’s article, from what I’ve seen of it, dismantles Johnson’s promises. How much can we really trust them? Remember those forty hospitals Johnson told us the Tories were going to build. They weren’t, and aren’t. It was more lies and the number that were actually going to built was much, much lower. I think about six. The rest were going to be additions to existing hospitals, that had already been planned. And the numbers that were going to be built were far lower than those which were to be closed, either wholly or partially.

Everything says that this latest announcement of Johnson’s is exactly the same. More lies, and more promises that are going to be quietly broken later on.

And then there’s the matter of the amount Boris has said he intends to spend. £5 billion is an enormous amount, but Johnson has proudly boasted of spending such sums before. Like when he announced he was going to splurge out on renovating the country’s rail network. Zelo Street then put up an analysis of the figures and how much actually building new stations would actually cost, and the amount fell far, far short of what Johnson was actually claiming. I suspect that the £5 billion Johnson is now trying to get us all to believe he intends to spend is similar. It’s an impressive amount, but in reality much, much less than what’s actually needed.

And you can also bet it’s going to be lower than what our former partners in the EU are spending to get their economies started again. Recently, Private Eye published a piece attacking the Tories’ previous claim that leaving the EU would allow us to spend more on our economy. They compared what our government was spending with what France, Germany and some others were. They’re actually spending more than we are, which also demolishes the Tories’ claim that it was EU legislation that was preventing the government from spending more on the economy. No surprise there. The Tories have consistently lied about the European Union being the source of the country’s ills when the reverse has been true, and they themselves are responsible for the disastrous policies that have decimated our country and its people.

And when a right-wing British politico starts shouting about a ‘New Deal’, it’s always bad news.

Tony Blair similarly announced his new deal to tackle unemployment at the beginning of his government. He was going to introduce new reforms to encourage firms to take on workers. In fact, this was the wretched ‘welfare to work’ or ‘workfare’ policy, in which the unemployed would be sent to work for corporate giants like the supermarkets in return for the Jobseeker’s Allowance. If they didn’t go, no unemployment relief. As was documented by Private Eye, inter alia, the scheme does not help anyone get jobs. In fact, in the case of a geography graduate it actually stopped her getting the job she wanted. She was looking for work in a museum and had something in that line arranged as voluntary work. But the DWP insisted she work stacking shelves for Tesco or Sainsbury’s or whoever instead. It’s actually been found that if you’re unemployed, you are far more likely to get a job through your own efforts rather than through workfare.

And there’s another huge difference between the Tories and F.D. Roosevelt:

Roosevelt laid the foundations of an American welfare state. The Tories are destroying ours.

Roosevelt introduced some basic welfare reforms, like state unemployment relief. It wasn’t extensive, but it was something. The Republicans in America and the Tories over here hate the welfare state with a passion. It’s supposed to be subsidizing idleness and responsible for cross-generational pockets in which whole communities haven’t worked. The libertarianism which entered the American Republican party with the victory of Ronald Reagan was at heart concerned with reversing Roosevelt’s welfare reforms. Although it’s very carefully obscured now, it’s why the Libertarian’s magazine, Reason, in the mid-70s devoted an entire issue to denying the Holocaust. This featured articles by genuine neo-Nazis. This was vile in itself, but it was motivated by an underlying desire to undo Roosevelt’s legacy. FDR had been the president, who took America into the Second World War. This is seen as a good war, because of Nazis’ horrific genocide of the Jewish people, as well as others, though they rarely get a mention these days. If the Libertarians and their Nazi allies could prove that the Holocaust didn’t happen, it would discredit America’s entry into the War and make further attacks on Roosevelt and the New Deal plausible.

One of the reasons why he introduced unemployment benefit, such as it was, was because if you give money to workers during a recession, their spending will stimulate the economy.

But the Tories hate the idea of unemployment benefit and the workers actually having any money. They are the party of low wages, conditionality and benefit sanctions. Thatcher viewed the Victorians’ attitude that conditions should be made as hard as possible for the poor to encourage them not to rely on state assistance and agree to take work no matter how poor the wages and conditions as a ‘virtue’. It was one of her wretched ‘Victorian values’. During her reign, you couldn’t get away from her and the rest of her scummy party prating on about rolling back the frontiers of the state and the need to abolish the welfare state. The rhetoric has since quietened down and been modified, so that instead of abolishing the welfare state they talk about reforming it to target those who are genuinely in need. But the ideology hasn’t changed.

As a result, the British welfare state is in tatters. One organisation dealing with poverty and hunger in this country has stated that they’ve torn such great holes in it that it no longer functions. You can see this by the way unemployment has shot up so that one in four people is now claiming Universal Credit.

This isn’t just due to the Coronavirus. It’s due to the forty-year long Tory assault on the welfare state.

Johnson isn’t the new FDR. He’s the exact opposite – the destroyer of unemployment benefit and killer of those who need it.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/06/bozo-is-not-franklin-roosevelt.html

New deal? No deal! We can’t accept a plan for the future from the failed PM who deliberately wrecked it

Helping Labour to Win in the Countryside: Encouraging Rural Industry

December 16, 2018

As well as helping to bail out farmers, Labour could also help to reverse the decline of the countryside by encouraging businesses to relocate there. Shirley Williams, the former Labour politician who defected to found the SDP, which merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems, discusses this possibility in her 1981 book, Politics Is For People, published by Penguin as an example of what may be done to promote small businesses. She writes

The Wilson Committee jibbed at setting up a Small Business Agency, though the case for its seems strong. What the Committee did propose was a loan guarantee scheme, under which loans to small businesses would be partially underwritten by the banks, and an English Development Agency with similar powers to those of the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies in relation to small firms. Thresholds for government support schemes which small firms are unable to cross, the Report said, should be reviewed.

This would be a useful start, but if the long drift towards concentration is to be reversed, much more is needed. The new agency should positively go out and look for products and services which small firms can produce, as COSIRA (Council for Siting Industry in Rural Areas) has done so successfully in rural areas. New firms should be able to qualify for capital loans at a subsidized interest rate, and they should be entitled to similar help when they reach the breakthrough point of rapid growth. This is the stage at which many small innovatory firms go under, because they cannot finance expansion on the scale needed to meet demand. Good legal and accounting services should be readily available through the new agency, which should also offer advice on government schemes that may be helpful. Red tape and form-filling needs to be kept to a minimum, since small firms rarely have the bureaucracy to cope with complicated application forms. The Microelectronic Applications Project introduced by the Labour government of 1976-9 has been successful in attracting several thousand requests for its consultancy scheme, not just because the government met the first 2,000 pounds of the consultant’s fees, but because the procedure for applying is so simple. (p. 121).

Williams is far from my favourite politician because of her role in founding the SDP and its subsequent move to the right. She is also personally responsible for helping the passage of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care bill, which is part of the Tories’ continuing privatization of the NHS, through parliament by voting for it when others, like Dr. David Owen, voted against. But the book has interesting ideas. It struck me that IT is industry that could easily me moved to the countryside, if only in the form of software developers, who may not need quite so much expensive plant.

Many working people have dreams of running their own businesses, and G.D.H. Cole in one of his books on socialism argued that socialists should make common cause with small businesspeople against the threat of big business. And it is big business that is also threatening the countryside. As George Monbiot has described in his book, Captive State, the big supermarkets drive out the small businesses in their areas. This has a devastating effect on the area generally, as these industries employ more people than the supermarkets themselves. Furthermore, the supermarkets use very exploitative contracts to force their suppliers to provide them with goods at very low prices. New Labour and no doubt the Tories after them have done much to harm the country generally as well as rural areas by supporting the big supermarkets, like Sainsbury’s, against local shops like grocers.

Gove Thinks Poor People Eat Junk Food to Get ‘Solace’ in their ‘Difficult Lives’

June 7, 2018

Mike today has put up a piece commenting on articl3e in Mirror Online attacking Michael Gove for yet another utterance showing how completely out of touch he is. The Minister for the Environment, in charge of Britain’s food, has declared that the reason poor people eat unhealthy junk food, is not because healthy food is too expensive. No, it’s because eating unhealthy food makes them feel better. Gove said

“If you have got a difficult life and you have less money, then one of the things that can be a source of comfort, solace and pleasure will be buying and eating and consuming food that is not always going to be best for you in the long term.”

The Mirror article goes to state that critics have been lining up to point out to him the reality of the situation. And Mike comments, after pointing out that this is the man Some Tories want to take over from Tweezer after she’s forced out of Downing Street,

Michael Gove’s comments are typical of the privileged, entitled, out-of-touch toffs who currently hold the UK in a vicelike death-grip.

His words deny a simple fact of life for poorer people – that healthier food is more expensive and they simply cannot afford it, because Tory ‘reforms’ of benefits and wages have put it out of their price range.

He goes further, and says that if Gove really does believe this, then he must be a sad, squalid, blinkered little creep, and ends his article with the statement

This is certainly not the kind of man who could be hailed as a future leader of this – or any – country.

https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/06/07/hopelessly-out-of-touch-michael-gove-claims-poor-people-eat-junk-food-to-find-solace-in-their-difficult-lives/

Mike’s exactly right about this, and the way it reflects the received wisdom in the Tory party. And this goes back decades. Way back in the 1990s I used to listen to Joe Queenan’s Postcard from Gotham on Radio 4. This was a programme talking about current events in America, hosted by the American comedian, Joe Queenan, and his guests. On one edition they were discussing the obesity epidemic then beginning to hit America. One of the other voices on the programme was a journo from the Torygraph, who said pretty much exactly what Gove has said: that poor people eat fatty, junk food, like chips, burgers and pizza, to make themselves feel better. This was about 20+ years ago, so it shows how long that attitude has been around in Tory circles.

There’s an element of truth there, in that people do ‘comfort’ eat when they’re low or under stress. But as Mike points out, it isn’t really an explanation for the poor having a bad diet. Low ages and the greater expensive of healthier food is. And there are other factors as well. A few years ago, Jamie Oliver rocked up in Manchester or one of the other northern towns to teach the local people how to cook healthy food. He criticised one mum, who had joined the scheme, for not including many vegetables. This upset her, because she had no choice: there wasn’t a greengrocer near her, and she had only been able to buy from the shops she could reach, which didn’t stock much in the way of greens. And I’m sure this woman isn’t alone. We have seen the decline of local shops since the growth of the big supermarkets. When I was at school the local shops on our estate included a greengrocers and butchers. Now there are very few independent butchers around, and the greengrocers, at least in my neck of Bristol, seem to be similarly disappearing. There was one over on the rank of shops on the neighbouring estate, but they closed last year. If you want vegetables, you have to go to the local supermarket. And this might be difficult for some people.

Another reason why those on low incomes may be more inclined to eat junk food is because they’re quick and convenient. Not only have wages been held down, but working hours, for many people, are very long. Not everyone may have the time to cook a proper meal. And so for the temptation is buy a takeaway instead.

And there are also probably other reasons why Gove doesn’t want to go too far in trying to understand for himself why the poor, or some of them, eat unhealthily. And those reasons may be to do with corporate political funding and the power of the fast food companies. The Tories get much of their money from donations from big business. It’s why they ignore the wishes of their grass roots, to the point where many constituency Tory parties have either closed or are moribund, and concentrate instead on doing what their donors want. And you can tell just how powerful the fast food industry is by some of the adverts that appear on television and on hoardings. If you look at the adverts on TV, amongst the various car and perfume adverts are those for pizzas, KFC and McDonald’s. This advertising costs, though I don’t doubt that if someone suggested it should be banned, as happened with alcohol, the fast food industry would immediately respond with specially commissioned research claiming that they have no effect on how people eat at all. Way back in the 1990s Private Eye revealed in one of its issues just how many Tory MPs were connected to the drinks industry. There were calls to regulate alcohol advertising then. This has succeeded, but it’s only recently that some parts of Britain, like Scotland, have put the price of booze up in order to discourage binge drinking. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a large number of Tory MPs were either on the boards, or getting donations from companies like McDonald’s.

But Gove isn’t about to criticise them, despite the fact that one of McDonald’s salads was actually found to have more fat in it than their burgers. The Tories believe in unregulated capitalism, consumer choice, as repeated ad nauseam by Maggie Thatcher, and that whatever happens to you in the name of free enterprise is your own fault. And so they aren’t going to admit that the reason the poor may not eat as well as they could is because of low wages and long working hours. Indeed, I’m amazed that Gove even admitted that they have ‘difficult’ lives, considering how the poor have been demonised as feckless, ignorant, lazy chavs by both the Tories and New Labour, and particularly by the Daily Heil. They also aren’t going to criticise the supermarkets, which have killed off many community small businesses, because of the way Sainsbury’s and the rest have contributed very handsomely to party coffers. And the last thing they want to do is stop all those valuable donations coming in from the fast food merchants themselves.

So instead of placing the blame on poor working conditions and practices, and changes in retail capitalism, Gove did what the Tories always do: blame the poor. Just as they’ve blamed them for eating badly for decades.

This shows not just how unfit Gove is to succeed May, but how the entire Tory party – and corporate New Labour, when it comes to it – are for government. They don’t have any solutions to the real causes of poverty and obesity, only cod psychology. Get them out. Now.

End Workfare Now! Part 1

June 20, 2017

This is the text of another pamphlet I wrote a year or so ago against the highly exploitative workfare industry. As the pamphlet explains, workfare, or ‘welfare to work’, is the system that provides industry with cheap, unemployed temporary labour under the guise of getting the jobless back into work by giving them work experience. If the unemployed person refuses, he or she is thrown off benefit.

These temporary jobs go nowhere, and it’s been proven that the unemployed are actually far better off looking for jobs on their own than using workfare. And it’s very similar to other systems of supposed voluntary work and forced labour, such as the labour colonies set up in Britain in 1905, the Reichsarbeitsdienst in Nazi Germany, and the use of forced labour against the ‘arbeitscheu’ – the ‘workshy’, as well as the compulsory manual labour required of all citizens in Mao’s china during the Cultural Revolution, and the Gulags in Stalin’s Russia.

Mike over at Vox Political has blogged against it, so has Johnny Void and the Angry Yorkshireman of Another Angry Voice, and many other left-wing bloggers. It’s another squalid policy which New Labour and the Tories took over from Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Jeremy Corbyn has promised to get rid of the work capability tests. I hope also that under him, the Labour party will also get rid of this vile policy, so that big corporations like Poundland and supermarkets like Tesco’s will have to take on workers and pay them a decent wage, rather than exploiting desperate and jobless workers supplied by the Thatcherite corporate state.

End Workfare Now!

Workfare is one of the most exploitative aspects of the contemporary assault on the welfare state and the unemployed. It was advocated in the 1980s by the Republicans under Ronald Reagan in America, and in Britain by Thatcher’s Conservatives. In 1979 the Tory party ranted about the need to ‘restore the will to work’. Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, declared that ‘The Government and the vast majority of the British people want hard work and initiative to be properly rewarded and are vexed by disincentives to work’. At its heart is the attitude that the unemployed should be forced to work for their benefits, as otherwise they are getting ‘something for nothing’. Very many bloggers and activists for the poor and unemployed, including Vox Political, Johnny Void, Another Angry Voice, and myself have denounced it as another form of slavery. It’s used to provide state-subsidised, cheap labour for big business and charities, including influential Tory donors like Sainsbury’s. And at times it crosses the line into true slavery. Under the sanctions system, an unemployed person is still required to perform workfare, even if the jobcentre has sanctioned them, so that they are not receiving benefits. Workfare recipients – or victims – have no control over where they are allocated or what jobs they do. The government was challenged in the courts by a geology graduate, who was forced to work in Poundland. The young woman stated that she did not object to performing unpaid work. She, however, had wanted to work in a museum, and if memory serves me correctly, had indeed got a place at one. She was, however, unable to take up her unpaid position there because of the Jobcentre’s insistence she labour for Poundland instead. A young man also sued the government, after he was sanctioned for his refusal to do 30 hours a week unpaid labour for six months for the Community Action Programme. The High and Appeal Courts ruled in the young people’s favour. They judged that the government had indeed acted illegally, as the law did not contain any stipulations for when and how such work was to be performed.

Iain Duncan Smith, the notorious head of the Department of Work and Pensions, was outraged. He called the decision ‘rubbish’ and said, ‘There are a group of people out there who think they are too good for this kind of stuff .. People who think it is their right take benefit and do nothing for it – those days are over.’ This is rich coming from IDS, who was taking over a million pounds in farm subsidies from the EU. Eventually, Smith got sick of the criticism he was taking for the government’s welfare policies, and flounced off early in 2016 moaning about how unfair it all was that he should get the blame, when the notorious Work Capability Tests inflicted on the elderly and disabled were introduced by New labour.

Those forced into workfare are in no sense free workers, and it similarly makes a nonsense of the pretense that this somehow constitutes ‘voluntary work’, as this has been presented by the government and some of the participating charities

The political scientist Guy Standing is also extremely critical of workfare in his book, A Precariat Charter, demanding its abolition and making a series of solid arguments against it. He states that it was first introduced in America by the Republicans in Wisconsin, and then expanded nationally to the rest of the US by Bill Clinton in his Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It was part of his campaign to ‘end welfare as we know it’. Single parents receiving social assistance were required to take low-paying jobs after two years. Legislation was also passed barring people from receiving welfare payments for more than five years in their entire lives.

David Cameron, unsurprisingly, was also a fan of the Wisconsin system, and wanted to introduce it over here. In 2007 he made a speech to the Tory faithful at the party conference, proclaiming ‘We will say to people that if you are offered a job and it’s a fair job and one that you can do and you refuse it, you shouldn’t get any welfare.’ This became part of Coalition policy towards the unemployed when they took power after the 2010 elections.’ Two years later, in 2012, Boris Johnson, speaking as mayor of London, declared that he was going to use EU money from the Social Fund to force young adults between 18 and 24 to perform 13 weeks of labour without pay if they were unemployed. In June that year David Cameron also declared that there was a need to end ‘the nonsense of paying people more to stay at home than to get a job – and finally making sure that work really pays. Ed Miliband’s Labour party also joined in. Liam Byrne, the Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, declared that

Labour would ensure that no adult will be able to live on the dole for over two years and no young person for over a year. They will be offered a real job with real training, real prospects and real responsibility … People would have to take this responsibility or lose benefits.

This was echoed by Ed Balls, who said

A One Nation approach to welfare reform means government has a responsibility to help people into work and support for those who cannot. But those who can work must be required to take up jobs or lose benefits as such – no ifs or buts.

Forced Labour for the Unemployed in History

Standing traces the antecedents of workfare back to the English poor law of 1536 and the French Ordonnance de Moulins of twenty years later, which obliged unemployed vagabonds to accept any job that was offered them. He states that the direct ancestor is the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the infamous legislation that, under the notion of ‘less eligibility’, stipulated that those receiving support were to be incarcerated in the workhouse, where conditions were deliberately made much harsher in order to deter people from seeking state
support, rather than paid work. This attitude is also reflected in contemporary attitudes that, in order to ‘make work pay’, have demanded that welfare support should be much less than that received for paid work. This has meant that welfare payments have become progressively less as the various measure to make the labour market more flexible – like zero hours contracts – drove down wages. The workhouse system was supplemented in 1905 by the Unemployed Workmen Act, supported, amongst others, by Winston Churchill. This directed unemployed young men into labour, so that they should not be ‘idle’ and be ‘under control’. Nor were leading members of the early Labour party averse to the use of force. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, two of the founders of the Fabian Society, were also in favour of sending the unemployed to ‘labour colonies’, chillingly close to the forced labour camps which became such as feature of the Nazi and Communist regimes. Weimar Germany in the 1920s and ’30s also developed a system of voluntary work to deal with the problems of mass unemployment. This was taken over by the Nazis and became compulsory for all Germans from 19-25 as the Reicharbeitsdienst, or Imperial Labour Service It was mainly used to supply labour for German agriculature. Because of its universal nature, the Reicharbeitsdienst had no stigma attached to it, and indeed was seen as part of the new, classless Germany that was being created by Hitler. In a speech to the Service’s workers, Hitler declared that there would be no leader, who had not worked his way up through their ranks. Much harsher was the Nazi’s treatment of the serially unemployed. They were declared arbeitscheu – the German word, which forms the basis of the English ‘workshy’. These individuals were sent to the concentration camps, where they were identified with a special badge on their pyjamas, just like those marking out Jews, gay men, Socialists and trade unionists, and so on.

Liam Byrne also harked back to the Webbs to support his argument for workfare as Labour party policy. He stated

If you go back to the Webb report, they were proposing detention colonies for people refusing to take work … All the way through our history there has been an insistence on the responsibility to work if you can. Labour shouldn’t be any different now. We have always been the party of the responsibility to work as well.

The Workfare Scheme

The result of this is that many unemployed people have been placed on the Mandatory Work Activity – MWA – scheme, which requires them to perform four weeks of unpaid work for a particular company, organisation or charity. The scheme also includes the disabled. Those now judged capable of performing some work are placed in the Work-Related Activity group, and required perform some unpaid labour in order to gain ‘experience’. If they do not do so, they may lose up to 70 per cent of their benefits.

This has created immense fear among the unemployed and disabled. Standing quotes one man with cerebral palsy, who was so afraid of being sanctioned for not performing the mandatory work, that he felt physically sick. Mental health professionals – psychiatrists and psychologists, have also released reports attacking the detrimental effect the stress of these tests are having on the mentally ill. So far they have estimated that upwards of a quarter of a million people with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety have had their condition made worse – sometimes very much worse – through the stress of taking these tests.

The system also affects those in low-paid part-time jobs or on zero hours contracts. These must prove that they are looking for more working hours or a better paid job. If they do not do so, they may lose benefits or tax credits. In 2013 the Tory-Lib Dem government made it even harder for people to claim tax credits by raising the number of working hours a week, for which tax credits could not be claimed, from 16 to 24.

End Workfare Now! Part 2

June 20, 2017

Arguments for Workfare

The arguments trotted out to support the workfare policies are these.

1. Everyone has a duty to work. Those who take money from the state have a reciprocal obligation to work for the support they have received.

2. Following Moynihan in America, it’s argued that part of the problem of poverty in society is communities, where there are families, which have not worked for generations. In order to break the cycle of poverty, these people must be forced into work.

3. It’s also argued that many individuals have also been unemployed for so long that they, too, have lost the habit of working. These people must also be forced to work.

4. The unemployed are also socially marginalised and excluded. Workfare helps them, its supporters argue, become integrated into society and so become productive members of the community once again.

5. It is also claimed that workfare allows people to acquire new skills. In 2012 a report was published on the exploitation of the people forced to work for free as security guards for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. A spokesman for the ConDem coalition responded to the claim by stating: ‘The work programme is about giving people who have often been out of the workplace for quite some time the chance to develop skills that they need to get a job that is sustainable.’ As Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols sang back in 1977 ‘God save the Queen and the Fascist regime.’

6. Workfare somehow reduces government spending on welfare programmes. Liam Byrne, New Labour’s advocate for workfare, who was quoted in the first part of this article, said ‘The best way to save money is to get people back into work.’

In fact there are serious arguments against just about all of these points, and some of them simply aren’t factually true. Let’s deal with each of these arguments in turn.

The Duty to Work

If people have a duty to perform free work for the goods and services that are provided freely by the state, then the middle classes and the elite should particularly be targeted for workfare, because they use the state infrastructure and its services more than the proles and those at the bottom of society. But the middle and upper classes most definitely are not required to perform these services. One of the worst policies of Mao’s China during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 1960s and ’70s was the policy of taking skilled workers, intellectuals and artists away from their work to perform manual work elsewhere in that vast nation. It was bitterly resented, although at the time it was in line with the idea of creating a classless ‘workers’ state’. The respected TV critic and broadcaster, Clive James, in his column for the Observer, reviewed a programme that exposed this aspect of Chinese Communism. James was horrified at the effect this had had on breaking the health and skills of those sent to labour in the fields, such as a dancer for the state ballet. But if such forced labour is unacceptable for the middle and upper classes, it should also be so for those, whose only crime is to be without a job.

Furthermore there are also strong objections to performing workfare for a profit-making company. Those who do so, like those poor souls working free of charge for the big supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, are helping to make these companies even more profitable. It isn’t society that profits from their work, but extremely wealthy individuals like David Sainsbury and his shareholders, and the people running his competitors, for example. This parallels the exploitative nature of Stalin’s gulags and the Nazis’ use of skilled Jewish workers by the SS. The gulags were the immense archipelago of forced labour camps used to punish political prisoners and other victims of Stalin’s regime. Over 30 million Soviet citizens are estimated to have been imprisoned in them at the height of the terror. The vast majority were totally innocent. The system was used to industrialise the country, whose economy had formerly been dominated by agriculture. Under Stalin, the heads of state enterprises would supply lists of the types of workers they needed to the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, the state secret police. The NKVD would then arrest workers with those skills, and supply them to the businesses as requested. In Nazi Germany, the SS also formed an enterprise to exploited the skilled Jewish workers, such as jewelers, they had imprisoned. They were put to work producing luxury goods, which were then sold by the SS. They even produced a catalogue of the products made by these slave artisans.

This claim also implies that low income people have a duty to work in an inferior position for the benefit of their social or economic superiors in a master-servant relationship. This is a distortion of the concept of duty. The same idea also leads to the view that if you are unsuccessful in the labour market, you therefore have a duty to work for nothing, a view of society that is both regressive – harking back to some of the worst aspects of the Victorian era – and alienating. On the other hand, if you are performing work that is unprofitable, then there should be no duty to perform it. If it is genuine, valuable work, then the people performing it should be paid the current market rate, not simply provided with unemployment relief.

Standing also makes the point that the concept of duty has led to the belief that people should be forced to find work. But the use of coercion is divisive and actually undermines the commitment to work. He also argues that it actually amoral, because it takes away from workers their ability to choose for themselves whether to be moral. Plus the fact that workfare is not levied on the idle rich, or the friends and relatives of the politicians forcing it on others

Multigenerational Families of the Unemployed

The number of families that actually fit this description is so small as to be negligible, both in America and over here in Blighty. The academics T. Shildrick, R. MacDonald, C. Webster, and K. Garthwaite examined this issue in their Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low Pay, No Pay Britain (Bristol: Policy Press 2012). Their research revealed that only 1 per cent fitted the description of a family in which two generations were unemployed. Official attempts to find these pockets of intergenerational unemployment have similarly turned up next to zilch. The whole idea is rubbish, but that hasn’t stopped papers like the Daily Fail claiming it’s true.

Getting People out of the Habit of Not Having a Job

Researchers have also looked at this one, too, and guess what? Yup, it’s similarly rubbish. There are very few people like this. But rather than acting as an incentive to find work, actually being forced to work unpaid in poor conditions may actually act as a deterrent. The Anarchist activist and writer, Alexander Berkman, made this point about work generally in his 1929, What Is Anarchist Communism? He made the point that much poor work was caused by forcing unwilling workers to perform jobs that they did not want and weren’t interested in. He pointed to the experience of prison labour, as an illustration. In prison, those workers, who were forced to perform such jobs did so badly. However, if they were given a job they enjoyed, then their work rapidly improved. He also made the point that Standing also makes about poorly paid but necessary work, that instead of forcing people to do it, wages should be increased to encourage workers to do them, and increase the social respect for those, who did those jobs. In a very stretched comparison, he described how both road sweepers and surgeons both helped keep people health. Surgeons, however, were given respect, while road sweepers are looked down upon. He felt this was simply a question of money, and that the social stigma attached to cleaning the streets would be removed, and the two professions given equal respect, if road sweepers were paid the same amount. This is too simplistic, as the surgeon is far more skilled than the road sweeper. But sweeping the streets and related dirty jobs would undoubtedly be more attractive if they were better paid.

Integrating the Jobless Back into Society

Far from being calculated to help the long-term unemployed back into society, the type of work that they are forced to do under workfare is humiliating. In many cases, this is quite deliberate as part of the government’s ideology of ‘less eligibility’ and dissuading people from going on benefits. And studies by the researchers and the DWP itself have also found that workfare makes absolutely no difference to whether a claimant gets a job afterwards.

Enabling the Unemployed to Acquire New Skills

This is also rubbish, as the type of menial work people are giving under workfare, in which they sweep the streets or stack shelves, are by their nature unskilled. And if a skilled worker is forced to perform them for months on end, this type of work is actually like to make them lose their skills.
Workfare Cuts Government Spending

This is also rubbish. In fact, workfare increases government expenditure on the unemployed, as the government has to pay subsidies to the firms employing them, and pay the costs of administration, which are actually quite heavy. And the work those on the programme actually perform doesn’t produce much in the way of taxable income, so money doesn’t come back to the government. Furthermore, most of the people on benefits are actually working, which makes Liam Byrne’s statement that the best way to save money is to get people back into work’ a barefaced lie.

In addition to demolishing the government’s arguments in favour of workfare, Standing also provides a series of further arguments against it. These are that the jobs created through workfare aren’t real jobs; workfare is unjust in its treatment of the unemployed; it stops the unemployed actually looking for jobs for themselves; it lowers their income over their lifetime; it also acts to keep wages down; it keeps the people, who should be working at those jobs out of work; it’s a dangerous extension of the power of the state; and finally, it’s a gigantic scam which only benefits the welfare-to-work firms.

Workfare and Real Jobs

According to the ideas of the market economy developed by the pioneer of free trade, the 18th century philosopher Adam Smith, workfare jobs don’t actually constitute real jobs. Smith believed that the market would actually produce higher wages to entice people into performing unpleasant jobs. On this reasoning, if workfare jobs were real jobs, then they would have a definite economic value. They would be created through the operation of the market, and the workers in them would also be paid proper wages for performing them.

There are also moral problems in the definition of what constitutes a ‘real job’ that someone on workfare should have to perform. If it is defined as one paying the minimum wage, then workfare is immoral as it puts downward pressure on the wages and conditions of the people already performing those jobs, forcing them into poverty. If those ‘real jobs’ are defined as those which are dirty, dangerous, undignified or stigmatizing, and so unpopular, they would have the opposite effect of what the advocates of workfare claim – that they are encouraging people to find work.

The solution for progressives is to make the labour market act like it is supposed to act, rather than it actually does in practice. Adam Smith was quite wrong about wages adjusting upwards for unpopular jobs in a market economy. The wages provided for work should match both supply and demand, and people should not be made into commodities as workers. They should have enough economic support to be able to refuse jobs they don’t want. Instead of assuming that people need to be forced to work, there should be the presumption instead that most people actually do. It is arbitrary and ultimately demeaning for all concerned to try to identify people who are somehow ‘undeserving’. Genuine supporters of equality should want the wages in unpleasant jobs to rise, until there is a genuine supply of willing labour.

How Labour Can Become a Party of the Countryside

April 2, 2017

Last Thursday Mike put up a piece asking ‘How can Labour become the party of the countryside again?’, following the announcement by the Fabian Society that it was launching a project to investigate ways in which the Labour party could start winning over rural communities in England and Wales. The Society stated that the government had promised to match the subsidies granted to farmers and rural communities under the Common Agricultural Policy until 2020. However, farmers are faced with the devastating prospect of losing access to European markets, while being undercut by cheap foreign imports. Environmental regulations are also threatened, which also affect the continuing beauty of the English and Welsh countryside.

The Society recognises that agriculture isn’t the only issue affecting rural communities. They also suffer from a range of problems from housing, education, transport and the closure of local services. Rural communities pay more for their transport, and are served worst. At the same time, incomes in the countryside are an average of £4,000 lower than in the towns, but prices are also higher. Many market towns, pit villages and other rural communities have been abandoned as their inhabitants have sought better opportunities in the towns.

The Society is asking Labour members in rural communities to fill out a survey, to which Mike’s article is linked, and give their views on how the party can succeed in the countryside.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/03/28/how-can-labour-become-the-party-of-the-countryside-again/

This is a fascinating project, and if successful would see Labour challenge the Tories and Lib Dems in their heartlands. The Tories in particular seem to see themselves as the party of the countryside since the 18th and 19th centuries, when they represented the Anglican aristocracy, who tried to emphasise the rural traditions of a mythical prosperous ‘merrie England’ against the threat of the towns of the growth of the Liberal middle class.

Mike states that one of the problems he’s faced as a Labour party campaigner in his part of rural Wales is the myth that ‘Labour wants to nationalise farms’. Clearly, this is the part of the same complaint I remembering hearing from middle class children at school that ‘Labour wanted to nationalise everything’. It was to allay these suspicions that Blair went off and got rid of Clause 4 as part of his assault on Labour as the party of the working class. But even before then it was nonsense.

Following Labour’s defeat in the 1950 elections, the party halted its programme of nationalisation. Labour was in any case committed to nationalise only when it was necessary and popular. Thus, Atlee’s government set up the NHS and nationalised the utilities, with very little opposition from the Tories, but did not proceed further. And the Social Democratic section of the party, led by Tony Crosland, argued very strongly against nationalisation on the grounds that it was not only unpopular, but the benefits of nationalisation could be achieved in other ways, such as a strong trade union movement, a welfare state and progressive taxation.

This held sway until the 1970s, when the Keynsian consensus began to break down. Labour’s response in 1973 was to recommend a more comprehensive programme of nationalisation. They put forward a list of 25 companies, including the sugar giant, Tate & Lyle, which they wanted taken into public ownership. How large this number seems to be, it is far short complete nationalisation.

The party was strongly aware of the massive problems the Soviet Union had in feeding its population, thanks to the collectivisation of agriculture. Most of the food produced in the USSR came from the private plots the peasants were allowed on their kholkozy – collective farms. Tito’s government in Yugoslavia had attempted to avoid that by letting the farms remain in private hands. At the same time, only companies that employed more than 20 people were to be nationalised.

Even in the 1930s and 40s I don’t think the nationalisation of farmland was quite an option. Looking through the contents of one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham, I found an old copy of Production for the People, published by the Left Book Club in the 1940s. This explored ways in which Socialists could raise production in industry and agriculture, to the benefit of working people. The section on agriculture was almost wholly devoted to the question of subsidies and suitable government infrastructure to support farmers. I can’t remember there being any mention of nationalisation. The closest the book came was to argue for an expansion of rural cooperatives.

This project may well embarrass the Fabian Society. I’ve got the distinct impression that the Society is now staffed very strongly with Blairites, and it is Blairism as a barely left extension of Thatcherism that is at the heart of so many of the problems of rural communities. Blair, for example, like Major and now the administrations of Cameron and May, strongly supported the big supermarket chains. But the supermarket chains have done immense damage to Britain’s small businessmen and farmers. They force small shopkeepers out of business, and impose very exploitative contracts on their suppliers. See the chapter on them in George Monbiot’s Captive State. Yet national and local governments have fallen over to grant their every wish up and down the country. David Sainsbury even had some place in one of Blair’s quangos. I think he even was science minister, at one point.

If Labour would like to benefit farmers and traders, they could try and overturn the power of the supermarket chains, so that farmers get a proper price for their products and are not faced with the shouldering the costs while Sainsbury’s, Tescos and so on reap all the profits. At the same time, your local shops together employ more people than the local supermarket. So if you cut down on the number of supermarkets in an area, you’d actually boost employment. But this is unlikely to go down well with the Blairites, looking for corporate donations and a seat on the board with these pernicious companies when they retire or lose their seat.

At the same time, rural communities and livelihoods are also under attack from the privatisation of the forestry service. Fracking is also a threat to the environment, as is the Tories campaign against green energy. A number of villages around Britain, including in Somerset, have set up local energy companies generating power from the sun and wind. But the current government is sponsored heavily by the oil and nuclear companies, and so is desperate to close these projects down, just like the Republicans are doing in America.

The same goes for the problems of transport. After Maggie Thatcher decided to deregulate bus services, the new bus companies immediately started cutting unprofitable services, which included those to rural areas. If Labour really wants to combat this problem, it means putting back in place some of the regulations that Thatcher removed.

Also, maintaining rural communities as living towns and villages also means building more houses at prices that people in the countryside can afford. It may also mean limiting the purchase of housing stock as convenient second homes for wealthy urbanites. The Welsh Nats in the ’70s and ’80s became notorious for burning down holiday homes in Wales owned by the English. In actual fact, I think it’s now come out that only a tiny number – perhaps as low as 1 – were actually destroyed by Welsh nationalists. The rest were insurance jobs. But I can remember my Welsh geographer teacher at school explaining why the genuine arsonists were so angry. As holiday homes, they’re vacant for most of the year. The people, who own them don’t live locally, and so don’t use local services, except for the couple of weeks they’re there. Furthermore, by buying these homes, they raise the prices beyond the ability of local people to buy them, thus forcing them out.

This is a problem facing rural communities in England, not just Wales, and there are some vile people, who see nothing wrong with it. I’ve a friend, who was quite involved in local politics down in Somerset. He told me how he’d had an argument on one of the Somerset or rural British websites with a very right-wing, obnoxious specimen, who not only saw nothing wrong with forcing local country people out of their homes, but actually celebrated it. This particular nutter ranted on about how it was a ‘new highland clearances’. I bet he really wouldn’t like to say that in Scotland!

Labour may also be able to pick up votes by attacking the myth of the fox hunting lobby as really representing rural Britain. Well, Oscar Wilde once described them as ‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible’. Which about accurately describes them. They were resented in the early 19th century, when some farmers and squires started ‘subscription hunts’. Their members where wealthy urban businessmen, off for a day’s ‘sport’ in the country. At the same time, harsh laws were passed against poaching, which saw starving farm workers transported.

Mike’s put up statistics several times on his blog, which show very much that very many, perhaps even the majority, of rural people do not support fox hunting. And I know people from rural Britain, who actively loathed and detested it. I had a friend at College, who came from Devon. He bitterly hated the Tories and the fox hunters, not least because the latter had ridden down a deer into school playing field and killed it in front of the children.

Another friend of mine comes from East Anglia. He told me how many of the tenant farmers over there also hated the fox hunting crowd, not least because of the cavalier way they assumed they had the right to ride over the land of the small farmers in pursuit of the ‘game’.

The fox hunting crowd do not represent rural Britain as a whole, and their claim to do so should be attacked and shown to be massively wrong at every opportunity. As for the Tories’ claim to be the party of the countryside, they have represented the interests only of the rich landed gentry, and the deregulation and privatisation introduced by Maggie Thatcher and carried on by successive right-wing administrations, including May and Cameron, have done nothing but harm real working people in rural Britain. The bitter persecution of the farmworker’s unions set up in the 19th century clearly demonstrate how far back this hatred and contempt goes.

In Defence of Left-Wing Anger

August 17, 2016

I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest for a little while now. One aspect of the anti-Corbyn Labour MPs that really annoys me is the hypocrisy that comes with their constant playing at being the victims of terrible abuse by Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn. Every so often they make pleas for political discourse and exchange to be made kinder or more genteel, while showing precious little of such qualities themselves. Jess Philips, according to the Groan, is having a panic room installed at her constituency office. But Mike’s already stated that she herself is an abrasive character online. This doesn’t justify any threats against her, but it doesn’t make her quite the innocent victim she claims either.

I’ve reblogged a video several times made by a couple in Angela Eagle’s constituency pointing out that Eagle’s story about the brick being thrown by Jeremy Corbyn supporters through her constituency window is a load of hogwash. It begins with footage of Eagle giving her story to the press. She concludes by saying that ‘We need a kinder, gentler style of politics’, before turning smartly on her heel and marching off, surrounded by her aids. This little piece has infuriated me ever since I’ve seen it. Firstly, it seems more than a little imperious. It’s bit of ‘I, the Great One, am speaking. Mortals listen!’ I also object to it on the grounds that it seems to be trying to deny the fact that her critics and opponents just might have entirely justifiable reasons for their anger. She seems to want to have the kind of exchange where everything is calm and mild. Now this is the kind of exchange I prefer. I honestly don’t like abuse and trolling. But on certain issues, if people do become abusive, it can be because the issue they’re discussing has all too real implications and consequences for them.

And many of the policies enacted by the Blairites have had terrible consequences for Britain as a nation, and specifically for the poor and working class. Let’s go through them.

Firstly, Blair took Britain into an illegal war in Iraq. The country had not threatened us, and at the time we invaded, Saddam Hussein was pretty much a joke to the rest of the Middle East. He was a thug, but he was contained. And the country over which he ruled was relatively prosperous, and with an advanced welfare state and educational system, at least for the region.

This has all changed. A quarter of a million Iraqis have died, and the country degenerated into a bloodbath of competing factions. Their economy has been wrecked, and ISIS and related death squads have terrorised its population. Our squaddies have been sent to fight and die, not to keep the world safe, but to produce even greater profits for the oil companies and American multinationals wishing to get their mitts on the country’s appetising state industries. Domestically it reinforced the view of many Muslims that the country was being targeted simply because it was Islamic. So it’s increased more racial and religious friction and intolerance over here. Is the Iraq invasion a good reason for people to get angry. Yes.

Then there’s the privatisation of the NHS. Blair, Brown and the others in New Labour took over the Private Finance Initiative and massively expanded it as official labour policy. They also began to split up the NHS into different commissioning groups, with the intention of creating competition. These commissioning groups were to provide healthcare not only from the NHS, but also from private healthcare companies. Hospitals and doctors surgeries have been taken over by private hospital chains. More than half of all hospital treatment is now commissioned from private healthcare providers. The ‘walk-in’ centres, or polyclinics, that were set up were also intended to be privately run. New Labour took as their care model a private American company, Kaiser Permanente. These policies have been taken over and further extended by the Tories after they won the 2010 election. Now it’s almost set to be totally privatised. Frankly, this makes me absolutely furious.

Let’s take the Work Capability Test. This was adopted by Blair and co. because they uncritically swallowed the Tory rubbish about most disabled people, the long term sick were malingerers and scroungers. They took over a tick-box questionnaire approach to examining people’s health pioneered by Unum, an American health insurance company that was guilty of some of the biggest insurance frauds prosecuted by the American state. The questionnaire used, and its underlying assumptions, are scientific nonsense. The policy is so notorious, that Atos decided to throw in the towel early, and were released from their contract a year before it was due to expire.

But the policy goes on, and it has had terrible real world consequences. Seriously ill people have been thrown off their benefits, and in some cases, have actually starved to death through lack of an income. Those with mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, have become worse, often much worse. As an example of how farcical this is, you consider some of the worst incidents, where people terminally ill in comas have been told they should find a job. Or when an amputee was asked when they expected their limbs to grow back. People are suffering and starving because of this. This isn’t a case of abstract policy, an interesting intellectual puzzle, which has no clear consequences for people’s lives. It makes a different over whether people are actually able to put food on their tables, or have a roof over their head, or can live out their lives with dignity.

It’s the same with the issue of benefit sanctions. Thanks to them, and the flexible employment policies Blair and Brown were so keen to employ, there are about 4.7 million people living in ‘food poverty’ in this country. There are cases where mothers are starving themselves, because it’s the only way they can afford to feed their children. And I can remember an incident I read on one of the other blogs, about how people in one town came to the aid of a young man, after he broke down in tears outside the Jobcentre, because they wouldn’t help him. As with the Work Capability Test, this is an issue that all-too real consequences for millions of people. And when nearly five million are going hungry in the fourth richest country in the world, you bet people have a right to be angry.

You can expand this to include the way the treatment of jobseekers has been deliberately made as humiliating and degrading as possible, with the imposition of workfare, capitalist forced labour brought to you by Sainsbury’s and the myriad other firms using it to cut down on labour costs. This was introduced as part of Margaret Thatcher’s return to ‘Victorian values’, which in this case meant the same values on which the workhouse system was established. The DHSS and the Benefits Agency always had an element of danger with them, because claimants naturally got angry with the state bureaucracy that could deny them money. People are left angry, despairing and furious with their treatment by the Jobcentre. But they also have a right to direct this rage at the politicians, who created the system.

And here New Labour have also shown themselves to be despicable. Cameron introduced workfare, but Ed Miliband ordered his cabinet not to oppose it, in case the Labour party should be seen to be soft on ‘benefit scroungers’ by the Tory press. Again, people have a very definite right to be angry.

I also think part of what makes me angry about Eagle’s behaviour, is her manner. It’s as if she seems to be completely insulated from the grim reality of the suffering New Labour have inflicted. She sounds to me like a bureaucrat or manager, completely obsessed with administering the policies that have been set, and getting irritated because somebody, somewhere, has had the temerity to object to it. I’ve remarked before that many of the Blairites seem to come from affluent, privileged, middle class backgrounds. My guess is that they genuinely don’t appreciate the harm they’re doing, because they’ve never experienced it themselves. They’ve only ever seen these policies from the vantage point of people, who’ve taken on the task of carrying them out. And they find it confusing and intensely infuriating when the masses don’t just accept what’s being done is for their good.

I am not saying that people have a right to abuse politicians or Jobcentre staff, or threaten them, let alone attack them or try to damage their property. I am very definitely against all of that. But people do have a right to be enraged at what has been done to them by the Thatcherites, both in the Tories and in New Labour.

And anger, as John Lydon sang, is an energy.

The gaol should now be to use this anger, this resentment against an unfair and deliberately cruel and exploitative system, to argue, research, expose and organise and keep the pressure on relentlessly to overturn these policies.

Guy Standing’s Arguments against Workfare: Part 1

August 8, 2016

Workfare is one of the most exploitative aspects of the contemporary assault on the welfare state and the unemployed. It was advocated in the 1980s by the Republicans under Ronald Reagan in America, and in Britain by Thatcher’s Conservatives. At its heart is the attitude that the unemployed should be forced to work for their benefits, as otherwise they are getting ‘something for nothing’. Very many bloggers and activists for the poor and unemployed, including Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman, and myself have denounced it as another form of slavery. It’s used to provide state-subsidised, cheap labour for big business and charities, including influential Tory donors like Sainsbury’s. And at times it crosses the line into true slavery. Under the sanctions system, an unemployed person is still required to perform workfare, even if the jobcentre has sanctioned them, so that they are not receiving benefits. Workfare recipients – or victims – have no control over where they are allocated or what jobs they do. The government was challenged in the courts by a geology graduate, who was forced to work in Poundland. The young woman stated that she did not object to performing unpaid work. She, however, had wanted to work in a museum, and if memory serves me correctly, had indeed got a place at one. She was, however, unable to take up her unpaid position there because of the Jobcentre’s insistence she labour for Poundland instead. A young man also sued the government, after he was sanctioned for his refusal to do 30 hours a week unpaid labour for six months for the Community Action Programme. The High and Appeal Courts ruled in the young people’s favour. They judged that the government had indeed acted illegally, as the law did not contain any stipulations for when and how such work was to be performed.

Iain Duncan Smith, the notorious head of the Department of Work and Pensions, was outraged. He called the decision ‘rubbish’ and said, ‘There are a group of people out there who think they are too good for this kind of stuff .. People who think it is their right take benefit and do nothing for it – those days are over.’ This is rich coming from IDS, who was taking over a million pounds in farm subsidies from the EU. Eventually, Smith got sick of the criticism he was taking for the government’s welfare policies, and flounced off early in 2016 moaning about how unfair it all was that he should get the blame, when the notorious Work Capability Tests inflicted on the elderly and disabled were introduced by New labour.

They are in no sense free workers, and it similarly makes a nonsense of the pretense that this somehow constitutes ‘voluntary work’, as this has been presented by the government and some of the participating charities.

The political scientist Guy Standing is also extremely critical of workfare in his book, A Precariat Charter, demanding its abolition and making a series of solid arguments against it. He states that it was first introduced in America by the Republicans in Wisconsin, and then expanded nationally to the rest of the US by Bill Clinton in his Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It was part of his campaign to ‘end welfare as we know it’. Single parents receiving social assistance were required to take low-paying jobs after two years. Legislation was also passed barring people from receiving welfare payments for more than five years in their entire lives.

David Cameron, unsurprisingly, was also a fan of the Wisconsin system, and wanted to introduce it over here. In 2007 he made a speech to the Tory faithful at the party conference, proclaiming ‘We will say to people that if you are offered a job and it’s a fair job and one that you can do and you refuse it, you shouldn’t get any welfare.’ This became part of Coalition policy towards the unemployed when they took power after the 2010 elections. Two years later, in 2012, Boris Johnson, speaking as mayor of London, declared that he was going to use EU money from the Social Fund to force young adults between 18 and 24 to perform 13 weeks of labour without pay if they were unemployed.

Ed Miliband’s Labour party also joined in. Liam Byrne, the Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, declared that

Labour would ensure that no adult will be able to live on the dole for over two years and no young person for over a year. They will be offered a real job with real training, real prospects and real responsibility … People would have to take this responsibility or lose benefits.

This was echoed by Ed Balls, who said

A One Nation approach to welfare reform means government has a responsibility to help people into work and support for those who cannot. But those who can work must be required to take up jobs or lose benefits as such – no ifs or buts.

Standing traces the antecedents of workfare back to the English poor law of 1536 and the French Ordonnance de Moulins of twenty years later, which obliged unemployed vagabonds to accept any job that was offered them. He states that the direct ancestor is the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the infamous legislation that, under the notion of ‘less eligibility’, stipulated that those receiving support were to be incarcerated in the workhouse, where conditions were deliberately made much harsher in order to deter people from seeking state support, rather than paid work. This attitude is also reflected in contemporary attitudes that, in order to ‘make work pay’, have demanded that welfare support should be much less than that received for paid work. This has meant that welfare payments have become progressively less as the various measure to make the labour market more flexible – like zero hours contracts – drove down wages. The workhouse system was supplemented in 1905 by the Unemployed Workmen Act, supported, amongst others, by Winston Churchill. This directed unemployed young men into labour, so that they should not be ‘idle’ and be ‘under control’. Nor were leading members of the early Labour party averse to the use of force. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, two of the founders of the Fabian Society, were also in favour of sending the unemployed to ‘labour colonies’, chillingly close to the forced labour camps which became such as feature of the Nazi and Communist regimes. Liam Byrne also harked back to the Webbs to support his argument for workfare as Labour party policy. He stated

If you go back to the Webb report, they were proposing detention colonies for people refusing to take work … All the way through our history there has been an insistence on the responsibility to work if you can. Labour shouldn’t be any different now. We have always been the party of the responsibility to work as well.

The result of this is that many unemployed people have been placed on the Mandatory Work Activity – MWA – scheme, which requires them to perform four weeks of unpaid work for a particular company, organisation or charity. The scheme also includes the disabled. Those now judged capable of performing some work are placed in the Work-Related Activity group, and required perform some unpaid labour in order to gain ‘experience’. If they do not do so, they may lose up to 70 per cent of their benefits.

This has created immense fear among the unemployed and disabled. Standing quotes one man with cerebral palsy, who was so afraid of being sanctioned for not performing the mandatory work, that he felt physically sick.

The system also affects those in low-paid part-time jobs or on zero hours contracts. These must prove that they are looking for more working hours or a better paid job. If they do not do so, they may lose benefits or tax credits. In 2013 the Tory-Lib Dem government made it even harder for people to claim tax credits by raising the number of working hours a week, for which tax credits could not be claimed, from 16 to 24.

Guy Standing’s Arguments against Workfare: Part 2

August 8, 2016

The arguments trotted out to support the workfare policies are these.

1. Everyone has a duty to work. Those who take money from the state have a reciprocal obligation to work for the support they have received.

2. Following Moynihan in America, it’s argued that part of the problem of poverty in society is communities, where there are families, which have not worked for generations. In order to break the cycle of poverty, these people must be forced into work.

3. It’s also argued that many individuals have also been unemployed for so long that they, too, have lost the habit of working. These people must also be forced to work.

4. The unemployed are also socially marginalised and excluded. Workfare helps them, its supporters argue, become integrated into society and so become productive members of the community once again.

5. It is also claimed that workfare allows people to acquire new skills. In 2012 a report was published on the exploitation of the people forced to work for free as security guards for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. A spokesman for the ConDem coalition responded to the claim by stating: ‘The work programme is about giving people who have often been out of the workplace for quite some time the chance to develop skills that they need to get a job that is sustainable.’ As Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols sang back in 1977 ‘God save the Queen and the Fascist regime.’

6. Workfare somehow reduces government spending on welfare programmes. Liam Byrne, New Labour’s advocate for workfare, who was quoted in the first part of this article, said ‘The best way to save money is to get people back into work.’

In fact there are serious arguments against just about all of these points, and some of them simply aren’t factually true. Let’s deal with each of these arguments in turn.

The Duty to Work

If people have a duty to perform free work for the goods and services that are provided freely by the state, then the middle classes and the elite should particularly be targeted for workfare, because they use the state infrastructure and its services more than the proles and those at the bottom of society. But the middle and upper classes most definitely are not required to perform these services. Furthermore there are also strong objections to performing workfare for a profit-making company. Those who do so, like those poor souls working free of charge for the big supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, are helping to make these companies even more profitable. It isn’t society that profits from their work, but extremely wealthy individuals like David Sainsbury and his shareholders, and the people running his competitors, for example. This claim also implies that low income people have a duty to work in an inferior position for the benefit of their social or economic superiors in a master-servant relationship. This is a distortion of the concept of duty. The same idea also leads to the view that if you are unsuccessful in the labour market, you therefore have a duty to work for nothing, a view of society that is both regressive – harking back to some of the worst aspects of the Victorian era – an alienating. On the other hand, if you are performing work that is unprofitable, then there should be no duty to perform it. If it is genuine, valuable work, then the people performing it should be paid the current market rate, not simply provided with unemployment relief.

Standing also makes the point that the concept of duty has led to the belief that people should be forced to find work. But the use of coercion is divisive and actually undermines the commitment to work. He also argues that it actually amoral, because it takes away from workers their ability to choose for themselves whether to be moral. Plus the fact that workfare is not levied on the idle rich, or the friends and relatives of the politicians forcing it on others.

Multigenerational Families of the Unemployed

The number of families that actually fit this description is so small as to be negligible, both in America and over here in Blighty. The academics T. Shildrick, R. MacDonald, C. Webster, and K. Garthwaite examined this issue in their Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low Pay, No Pay Britain (Bristol: Policy Press 2012). Their research revealed that only 1 per cent fitted the description of a family in which two generations were unemployed. Official attempts to find these pockets of intergenerational unemployment have similarly turned up next to zilch. The whole idea is rubbish, but that hasn’t stopped papers like the Daily Fail claiming it’s true.

Getting People out of the Habit of Not Having a Job

Researchers have also looked at this one, too, and guess what? Yup, it’s similarly rubbish. There are very few people like this. But rather than acting as an incentive to find work, actually being forced to work unpaid in poor conditions may actually act as a deterrent.

Integrating the Jobless Back into Society

Far from being calculated to help the long-term unemployed back into society, the type of work that they are forced to do under workfare is humiliating. In many cases, this is quite deliberate as part of the government’s ideology of ‘less eligibility’ and dissuading people from going on benefits. And studies by the researchers and the DWP itself have also found that workfare makes absolutely no difference to whether a claimant gets a job afterwards.

Enabling the Unemployed to Acquire New Skills

This is also rubbish, as the type of menial work people are giving under workfare, in which they sweep the streets or stack shelves, are by their nature unskilled. And if a skilled worker is forced to perform them for months on end, this type of work is actually like to make them lose their skills.

Workfare Cuts Government Spending

This is also rubbish. In fact, workfare increases government expenditure on the unemployed, as the government has to pay subsidies to the firms employing them, and pay the costs of administration, which are actually quite heavy. And the work those on the programme actually perform doesn’t produce much in the way of taxable income, so money doesn’t come back to the government. Furthermore, most of the people on benefits are actually working, which makes Liam Byrne’s statement that the best way to save money is to get people back into work’ a barefaced lie.