Wednesday 31 October 2012

Top Five Most Popular Posts for October

The most read posts of the month were:

1. It's Time to Bash Benefit-Bashing
2. Marx on the Box
3. On Jimmy Savile
4. The Utopia of "Everyman" Toryism
5. Introducing iPad Ellis

A kind retweet by Owen Jones helped the winner clamber atop of the chart with a thousand page view lead over its nearest rival.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Racism and Stoke-on-Trent

Tonight saw 50 people turn out for a public meeting to discuss John Burnett's report, The New Geographies of Racism: Stoke-on-Trent. Though a year old, some of its arguments have been thrown into sharp relief after it was reported race and other hate-related crimes have recently  increased across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire. The meeting was therefore concerned with the roots of racism, its relationship to the far right, and what can be done to fight it. The meeting was called by the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF).

First to speak was Cllr Olwen Hamer who prefaced the discussion with the Labour-controlled City Council's efforts at tackling racism in the city. Since the BNP were routed from the Chamber last year, the local authority has undertaken a series of measures aiming to snuff out racism and promote more integration through sponsorship of community projects such as the 'Game On' initiative, and 'Democracy Week' for local schools that see students come into the Council to learn about politics and how it can make a difference. In addition to all this, the Council have embarked on an ambitious programme of economic regeneration to attract businesses and jobs, which, as a consequence, would cut at the persistent material roots of the far right in the city.

Our second speaker was John Burnett himself. To begin with, he felt it necessary to issue an apology of sorts. His aim was not to demonise or denigrate Stoke: its problems are by no means unique. As I'd read the report a while back, this was welcome. I felt the pudding was over-egged to the extent I didn't recognise my city, but I digress. What John had tried to do was convey a sense of how racism had changed. For example, while all of the mainstream press hailed the Steven Lawrence verdict and eventual prosecution of his killers as some kind of anti-racist national victory, simultaneously most of that media was stirring up prejudice against asylum seekers and Muslims. The main parties have also clambered on the bandwagon, with a dog whistle here, and a "sincere expression" of doubts about  multiculturalism there. In Stoke, the BNP were able to feed off this noxious soup, which contributed toward local election success. But also, locally, it prepared the ground for the EDL's visit to Stoke and the attempt to blow up Shelton Mosque. John also noted how there are greater "opportunities" for racist attacks: like most cities, the night time economy of taxis, takeaways, late shops and service stations find disproportionate numbers of minority workers not only taking up these jobs, but often in conditions of personal isolation: small wonder taxi drivers bear the brunt of racism and violence. Lastly, he suggested the far right cannot be combated by ceding political ground to them and that the mainstream parties have to realise a political culture that allows racism can engender a racist popular culture.

Next to speak was Jason Hill in his capacity as President of North Staffs TUC and NorSCARF secretary. He spoke about how the group was formed in the 70s to combat local electoral interventions by the National Front. However, after the NF were put to flight NorSCARF recognised the persistence of racism and the need to root it out. Therefore, one of its key achievements of the time was a victorious campaign for the founding of the Community Relations Council, which later became the Racial Equality Council, until it closed its doors in 2009.

Winding forward to the turn of the century, the BNP's ditching of bovver boots and punch ups in favour of door knocking, leafleting and "community work" began paying dividends. Under the public face of Steve Batkin, the BNP came within a whisker of winning the 2003 Mayoral election, and later went on to win nine councillors over the course of subsequent campaigns. NorSCARF re-formed shortly before the mayoral campaigns got under way and worked tirelessly to undermine and whittle them down. While all their councillors have gone, the rise in racist incidents and hate crimes against LGBT and disabled people demonstrates that much still needs to be done. Jason therefore called on the Council to back the creation of a new Equality Council under the terms of its Mandate for Change programme.

Jude Haws of Challenge North Staffs spoke about her work with the hate crime reporting network. She began on how key events have changed the complexion of hate crime. Before the Stephen Lawrence case gained prominence, if anything it was seriously underreported. The publicity around the case changed that. But the September 11th attacks changed the face of racism. The number of incidents, increased, steeply so in the case of Muslims. These then peaked and plateaued over 2003-4, and then declined. In this context the recent hate crime increase is not large, historically speaking. Part of it could reflect rising frustrations finding a racist expression, but, Jude also noted, Challenge had been engaging in outreach work with what she describes as 'hard to reach' communities. Victims may have felt more encouraged to come forward and make complaints.

In conclusion, reflecting on the picture of Stoke portrayed in the report Jude reported the results of a survey Challenge undertook of 97 asylum seekers. Asked 'Why Stoke?' they replied the cheap prices and it being a good place to find work as reasons to recommend it, but most surprising of all, they regarded it as "small, quiet, and safe".

Bill Dixon of Keele's Criminology and Sociology Department made a three-fold contribution by way of replying directly to John's report. His first point was methodological: by his own admission, John drew on reports of publicised cases, which in turn tend to be violent and spectacular to meet the sensational expectations of media managers. As such, the public prism can distort how racism truly manifests itself. The second methods issue is how do you interpret statistics. For example, is an 11.4% increase in reports a good thing in the sense these are getting reported?

Bill's second point wanted to tackle the political explanation for racism John put forward. While accepting the dog-whistling of mainstream parties can contribute to far right success, it overlooks the strategy of the far right themselves. Griffin went out of his way to clean up the BNP's image and rebrand them as a constitutional, peaceful outfit. The fact it wasn't any of these didn't matter - the electoral turn worked, for a while. The second point was the attitude of voters themselves: many weren't turning to the BNP because of their racist rhetoric, rather they portrayed themselves as the anti-establishment outsiders. They were the nuclear option of protest voters and where it was pressed repeatedly, politics generally and the labour movement in particular were forced to respond. Finally, core support for the BNP could not be read off from social structures, but found certain core features of am activist's biography was the key factor in getting them on board.

Lastly, Bill reiterated the point about a different Stoke. To underline it, he raised the Cobridge Riots of 2001, which was (as per the Graun piece) passed through the media's race riot filter. In fact, he claims it was nothing of the sort. Black, Asian, and White youths all came out to face down a rumoured BNP/NF march that never materialised. The violence that did ensue was primarily one of young people vs the police rather than resembling a page out of The Turner Diaries. Similarly, Bill wondered whether in-your-face 'Don't vote Nazi'-style campaigns are particularly effective, especially when it came to splitting softer elements from the more hardcore fascists.

And with that came a number of points and contributions from the floor. Participants reported their own experiences of reporting racist incidents, the positive effects of the Love Music Hate Racism festival of three years ago, need for continued resistance, the internationalist heritage of Stoke exemplified by its role in the Lidice Shall Live campaign, and the dodgy electoral pact between the BNP and UKIP that, up until recently, carved Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme respectively into spheres of exclusive influence.

Of the points that stood out, Gavin Bailey observed that presentation of the facts is a good proportion of the story. For example, Norfolk has a greater number of racist incidents per head than Stoke, but we never hear about what an awful pit of bigotry it is. There is also the hard-to-avoid tendency of talking racism up when, as crimes go, it remains comparatively rare. The media and anti-fascist activist therefore have a difficult tight rope to walk: we have to be publicly intolerant of racism, but we must also talk about its rarity. Blowing it up can damage relations between different communities. Our starting point has to be protecting the existing position of trust.

Tony Walley paid tribute to the role played by Joy Garner in bringing local BNP fuehrer Michael Coleman to book over a number of inflammatory racist remarks made on his blog. Tony doubted the Tory PCC candidate for Staffordshire would stand up to the fascists in the same way Joy had done. He also observed that the BNP were able to make headway locally because the left and the labour movement had taken their eyes off the ball. His dad, who hasn't a racist bone in his body, was attracted to the 'old labour'-sounding elements of the BNP's platform. The recent success of the SNP in Scotland demonstrates the significant pull social democratic politics can have.

Joy spoke about the 'soft-soaping' approach Griffin promoted, and said that Coleman was particularly effective at the friendly-neighbourhood fascist routine. While she argued that if the BNP really cared for its voters it would work to ensure local public services are delivered and remain accountable, the councillor as a hard-working community representative is something everyone should emulate. Joy also expressed disappointment at The Sentinel's defence of Coleman on free speech grounds. Taken out of context, Coleman's comments could be taken as the ravings of a political lunatic. But these comments were made in the immediate aftermath of last year's summer riots - his opinions on "rioting darkies" and the like were obviously attempts to stir up and incite trouble.

I am not able to convey the full range of the evening's discussion, but to openly thrash out differences between anti-fascists made the debate extremely welcome and useful.

Photo credit: Socialist Worker

Monday 29 October 2012

iPad Ellis Revisited

One of the many fringe events I attended at Labour Conference this year was 'Deeper Democracy: Can Parties Reconnect People and Politics?' Hosted by The Fabians, it presented some polling evidence from YouGov's Mr Public, Peter Kellner, on the anatomy of the 16m registered voters who don't vote. This is variously comprised of people who aren't interested, are seriously alienated from politics, or couldn't cast a vote because of long-term health issues or has just moved house. Approximately seven million people, however, had voted previously no longer bothered. 50% of this group didn't because of political reasons: disillusionment, identikit candidates, MPs expenses, and so it goes. One thing that turned this group of people off was the lack of straight talking, and faux passion or anger.

It was the memory of the latter point that immediately came to mind this evening when I cranked up Twitter and found these awaiting me:

"Shame on you & your vile writing!" Brilliant.

While I'm sorry to hear Cllr Ellis lost some irreplaceable memories because of a crime committed against him, here you have an almost text book example of someone evading a point and using outrage to cover a refusal to respond. Perhaps Cllr Ellis would like to compare the ratio of words expended in the previous post suggesting his affluent lifestyle might have something to do with his being out of touch, to those that give his platform and record a political going over. I'm sure readers are capable of making up their own minds concerning the personalist tone or otherwise of the piece.

That said, this twitterly episode demonstrates how thin-skinned he is. If a seldom-read blogger from the backstreets of Stoke-on-Trent can show him up, what happens when bigger media beasts than I get their claws into him over the inevitable iPad and privatisation cock ups? Hopefully we'll never get to find out and the people of Staffordshire elect Joy Garner on November 15th for her sensible policing plan.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Introducing iPad Ellis

The gentleman to the left is Councillor Matthew Ellis. He represents Lichfield Rural East on Staffordshire County Council, and was until recently the local authority's cabinet member for Adults' Wellbeing - the fluffy sort of human resources speak all councils use to describe social services and public health. Why then am I expending blogging time on an obscure Tory like Cllr Ellis? Because he is Labour's Conservative opponent in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Staffordshire.

I have already written a little about these elections and why readers should place their crosses next to Labour candidates. But it's only right we take a look at the platform Cllr Ellis is offering the good people of our county. 

A PCC will be responsible for, among other things, the formulation of a county-wide crime plan and holding the police accountable in their delivery of it. It would therefore be preferable if successful candidates had a handle on the different types of policing different communities require, and have experienced how that policing plays out on the ground. Joy lives in and represents an inner city ward - she just has to walk out her door to see how policing makes an everyday difference to the people of Burslem. Matthew (who I'm told lives in a house, a very big house in the country), is, to a degree, insulated from this by his wealth and the area he lives in. Unlike Joy, most readers, and working class communities generally, crime, the fear of crime, and policing cannot impinge on his day-to-day life in the same way.

Unfortunately for Cllr Ellis, his cushioning from everyday life can lead to some ridiculous pronouncements. For example, at a local PCC hustings here in Stoke at the end of September, the man who would run the police informed the audience that Hanley (Stoke's city centre, for those not familiar with its peculiar geography) is, apparently, a "no-go zone". For someone who's been in and out of Hanley at all hours for the last 17 years and not experienced one iota of trouble, this came as news to me. The Bronx it ain't. If Ellis believes the fantasy that crime really is that appalling in the Potteries, it's a wonder he didn't attend the hustings in a stab vest.

Being out of touch is the only way you can explain the centrepiece of his policy platform. While Joy's big concerns are tackling anti-social behaviour, improving victim support, and opposing police cuts, the priority for Cllr Ellis is ... giving police officers iPads. According to "iPad" Ellis, spending £1.1m to equip the Staffordshire force with said gadget would free more police for the front line and yield significant savings. Oh really? How is the money for the outlay to be found when 20% budget cuts are coming down the line? How are the police expected to carry round these things out on patrol? How much will be spent on the necessary IT infrastructure, maintenance, replacements and upgrades? What happens when they become obsolete? And what impact could this have on the presentation of evidence in court?

It would seem the initial cost is to come from the perennial Tory favourite: "cutting red tape". No one objects to curbing unnecessary administration, but to find over a million quid from a budget already hammered by Tory cuts is going to be a tough call. But that's okay, because Ellis and his County Council colleagues have a novel way of driving down costs: wholesale outsourcing. In his capacity as Adults' Wellbeing supremo, Ellis earlier this year handed over the £137m social services department to an external Trust. In people terms, that's 1,000 social workers removed from public transparency and democratic accountability.

More worryingly, the next job lot of privatisation Ellis's colleagues are promoting has more than a whiff of sleaze about it. The Council is rushing to privatise £2bn worth of education services before next May's County Council elections. The council manager who designed the tendering process left his post only to pop up again at Carillion as their head of local government business development. Entirely by coincidence, the tax-dodging company is a preferred bidder for the contract.

With such a track record, how long will it be before a Commissioner Ellis cuts up bits of Staffordshire Police and serves the tastier morsels to some private provider?

The character of the Labour and Conservative campaigns could not be more stark. You have Joy's platform, which addresses the policing priorities of normal, everyday folk from across the county. And you have Matthew's campaign, which is big on IT gimmickry but quiet on the privatisation subtext. One is about policing. One is ultimately about the money that can be made from policing.

That's the choice before Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent voters on November 15th.

Friday 26 October 2012

It's Time to Bash Benefit-Bashing

I've had enough. BBC Question Time yesterday evening was the last straw. In a debate about IDS's ludicrous suggestion that poor people should be limited to two children before losing their benefit, sadly, unfortunately, it appeared that for once the Tories were in step with public opinion. As a kite flying exercise, it went down quite well in the studio. Sure, there was shock among the Twitterly  #BBCQT-watching audience, but it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. I started reading newspapers in the late 80s (The Sun, The Star, and News of the World in case you were wondering). There has scarcely been a day since then when these rags did not print something decrying scroungers of one kind or another. Back in the day, single mums were vilified. Asylum Seekers, the unemployed, the disabled have each had their turns since - sometimes discretely, at others all simultaneously. In all likelihood, if IDS gets his way with child benefit and tax credits, single mums will be in the firing line again.

But it's gone on too long. I am sick and tired of having benefit bashing shoved down my throat whenever I look in a paper, turn on the telly, or venture onto most mainstream political websites. It's time it was taken on. Aggressively.

We know why the right wing press do this. Apart from providing lurid filler and opportunities to lecture the evil poor on morality, it is an integral part of the 30-year campaign to dismantle the welfare state. Systematically the powers-that-be have turned groups of workers and claimants against one another. As one bloke put it who came to see me the other day about his housing and council tax benefit, why should he have to face a 20% payment cut when he'd paid into the system for 25 years? He was, apparently, different to the young lads who hung round Longton shopping precinct sitting on benches with their phones and their fags. Neither had he anything in common with asylum seekers who come here and take benefits off hard working folk. Of course, he was quick to add he wasn't being racist.

Facts are stubborn things. But so is the accumulated weight of evidence-free prejudice. It doesn't matter that, right now, around 300,000 vacancies are being chased by approximately 2.6m people. It's not the labour market that's failing, it's the supposed 'cultures of worklessness' that's to blame. There's the spiralling housing benefit bill - it has nothing to do with the unregulated rents charged by private landlords, but people living above their means. Benefit fraud: the DWP put it at £1.3bn, or 0.7% of the total benefit spend, but papers and politicians alike assure us it's rife. They forget to mention that about £12bn in income-related benefits alone go unclaimed. There is literally a mounting pile of unclaimed cash that could make a real difference to the lives of our poorest people who, for whatever reason, choose not apply for it. If this does not prove how benefit averse we as a society are, I don't know what can.

Sadly, these arguments seldom wash. Not because they're wrong or people are too dumb, it's because the drip-drip fantasy of benefit-funded luxury chimes deeply with the everyday experience and outlook of working people. It's not that everyone has a ready example of a lead-swinging scrounger, it's the very idea that someone, somewhere is living off the backs of your labour without making a useful contribution themselves; that someone is is living a profligate, responsibility-free life while you work to make ends meet and watch every penny you spend. And it's the idea someone is getting away with it while you're being taken for a mug.

If you want to get a little bit Marxist about it, you might say this is a negative manifestation of working class consciousness. Working people are being appealed to on the basis of their common identity as labourers (be it by hand or by brain). As class-based appeals go, the success of benefit bashing has the reach and power Woolfie Smith could only dream of. But this consciousness is being manipulated against the interests of working people. A little bit taken off housing benefit here, an extra criteria for ESA there, all these add up to making life for those whose income is supplemented by benefits more precarious. Those who really get wealthy through the labour of others would much prefer to see benefits cut to the point where people are always better off in work, regardless of how low the pay, than taking the poor out of the poverty trap altogether by paying a decent wage.

That, in schematic form, is the nuts and bolts of it. But how to turn it around? There are two ways benefit bashing can be put on the back foot. The first is trying to change the terms of the popular conversation on benefits. For example, we are seeing the rebounding of public anger against cheats and scroungers back onto the heads of the establishment who encouraged it. Who could have foreseen the Tories desperately trying to appear tough on tax avoidance?

Whataboutery can only go so far. On the discourse of benefits themselves, we can begin to make inroads. Despite Tory and press nonsense on Housing Benefit (of which 90% of claimants are in work), there appears to be a growing realisation that this is a tax payer-funded subsidy for property speculation from which unregulated private landlords profit. Similarly for working and child tax credits, what are these if not subsidies that allow employers to get away with paying meagre wages? Their argument has to be matched by our argument. They demonise, condemn and blame those who claim benefits. We must demonise, condemn, and blame those parties, companies, and institutions that force people into claiming benefits as the only way to survive.

But, unfortunately, rhetoric is never enough. It is no accident the rise of benefit bashing coincided with the declining fortunes of the labour movement. Look back to the press of the post-war period. With arguably more generous and easy-to-access welfare provision, the benefit-funded underclass was not even a twinkle in the headline writer's eye. We can deploy as many incisive arguments as we like, we will ultimately not get anywhere unless the institutions and movements of working people - the labour movement - is rebuilt. The greatest practical step an individual can make in combating the unceasing attacks on the most vulnerable people in our society is signing up to their trade union, joining the cooperative movement, and, yes, filling out a Labour Party membership form.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Another Look at Bernstein

Readers committed to a reenactment of the 1917 Russian Revolution might want to look away now, for this is a post that will have Trots and Stalinists recoiling in horror. 

It is 113 years since a famous (or notorious, depending on how you look at things) book rolled off the presses of the German workers' movement. The author's name is still enough to bring a derisive snort forth from many a Leninist nostril. He is the original renegade, the high priest of ex-left degenerates everywhere: Eduard Bernstein.

Bernstein is castigated by many a would-be revolutionary for suggesting that the perspectives advanced by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party might need revising in the context of the Imperial Germany of 50 years later. Bernstein also argued that not only could a socialist society come about through peaceful means that avoids a revolution, but also (horror of horrors) that a revolution isn't a particularly desirable thing to happen either.

These are so much red rags to the ever-shrinking bolshevik bull, and why his latter day opponents still strive to inoculate the cadre against his ideas. Of course, Bernstein was not without problems and these will be examined in the course of the series, which will be a rereading of his heretical Evolutionary Socialism. And by way of a postscript, we may take a look at Rosa Luxemburg's famous (and canonical) reply, Reform or Revolution.

Long-term readers carried over from A Very Public Sociologist 1.0 will know this blog has laid many acres of text analysing and discussing the problems of socialist strategy today. Needless to say I don't think sitting back and letting history take its course is going to grind out socialism. I also think self-described revolutionary parties are down a historical cul de sac. Attempting to build a Labour Party mk II in opposition to Labour, and calling for general strikes at a time our unions are weak underlines the political dead end they're stuck in. But whatever floats your activist boat, I guess.

Despite bringing many socialists out in a rash, a reexamination of Bernstein's contributions can shine an interesting light on many of the problems facing us. Even if little of value can be gleaned from his writings, he might have said the end point is nothing, but the 'movement'; the process of discussing and evaluating the arguments, is everything.

The format will follow the extended discussions of Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, and Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks. All contributions will be collated below.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Unwelcome Truths from the American Rust Belt

Folk in and around the North Staffordshire area may be interested in this event, due to take place on November 1st:

I am writing to invite you to a public discussion on the future of Stoke-on-Trent and its housing needs on Thursday 1st November 2012 at 6:30pm in the North Staffordshire Conference Centre, Hartshill Road, Stoke-on-Trent, ST4 7NY.

Earlier this autumn, Len Gibbs, Director of the Epic Housing association in Bentilee, went on a research trip around the American rust-belt cities of Buffalo, Detroit and Pittsburgh. This will be his report back to The Potteries on the harsh lessons we need to learn so we don’t end up with the kind of wastelands which America’s post-industrial cities face – with acres of boarded-up housing, extensive depopulation, and racial segregation. But he will also be presenting some challenging and interesting new policy ideas for getting Stoke’s housing needs solved and, with it, some much needed economic regeneration.

Responding to Len’s presentation will be Dr Alexandra Jones, director of The Centre for Cities. Alexandra has worked extensively on the North Staffordshire economy and now leads the UK’s leading urban affairs think-tank. She is very well-placed to comment on Len’s report and its meaning for cities like Stoke-on-Trent.

The floor will then be opened for public debate and discussion to question Len further and test the relevance of his analysis.

I hope the evening is able to offer some new perspectives on the City’s future housing needs and prompt a productive discussion within the community about options for meeting these future challenges. It would be a great privilege if you felt able to join the evening’s debate.

As spaces are limited, I would ask that you RSVP if you wish to attend this event, as soon as possible. Please email or phone the office on 01782 410455 to confirm your attendance.

By way of prefacing his presentation, Len had this to say:

In September this year I visited the cities of Cleveland, Buffalo, Youngstown, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These are all cities which have gone through severe economic and social transitions – from wealthy to poor; from growing to shrinking; from busy to quiet; from White to Black and from big league players to bit part actors in the unfolding drama of America’s wider economic transformations.

All of these cities have faced the same kind of problems that we are dealing with in Stoke. They have seen their core industries close, they have lost population, the suburbs and adjoining areas have stolen their middle classes, their populations have grown poorer and their civic leaders have had to balance diminishing resources against increasing needs.

Of course, America is not Britain – there are some things that are very different but the core problems are very similar. These cities lost their competitive edge and saw their Steel mills, Car factories and coal mines close. These industries also left toxic legacies which have scarred the environment with polluted rivers and land, derelict buildings and low skills and expectations. The geography which stimulated their growth has turned against them as new geographies have emerged – lower transport costs, cheaper labour elsewhere, long distances from the new centres of commerce and a cold climate.

Some of the consequences that these cities are grappling with include:

• Collapsing demand for housing
• Collapsing house prices
• Increasing housing abandonment
• High rates of joblessness and welfare dependency
• The flight of the better off to the suburbs
• Declining infrastructure
• The emergence of gang cultures and ghettos

These cities have had to deal with these problems for a long time and they are pioneering some great work. Their political leaders now talk about right sizing, they are stimulating new entrepreneurs, their educational and medical institutions are playing active roles in neighbourhood renewal, they have great community based organisations and they are pursuing agendas around neighbourhood stabilisation and smart growth.

They are on a long road to recovery and some are further on that journey than others. If there is one key lesson from America it’s this: start at the neighbourhood. Understand that your city is made up of neighbourhoods and that neighbourhoods are made up of people, activities and organisations. Work to stabilise and restore the places that have decent prospects and find new uses for the places that people don’t want to live in.

The road has been a hard one; there have been many mistakes but there are also some fantastic successes. Stoke has now entered the kind of economic and fiscal environment which these cities began to endure 20 years ago. An era of difficult choices is upon us – will we go the way of Detroit or will emulate Pittsburgh’s recovery? It’s time for us to seize the opportunity and learn from others.

Sounds interesting. Expect a post on the discussion shortly after.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Cat Interlude

It is indisputable that cats have taken over the internet. They're everywhere, invading our forums, purring all over Twitter, and clogging up thousands upon thousands of YouTube hours. As evolutionary strategies go, cats have it all sewn up. So, for one day only, this blog has surrendered itself to our moggy. 

His name is Charlie and there are a couple of things you should know about him. He and his tail, Gerald, once tried blogging. And two, for intractable reasons, he's affectionately addressed by his humans as 'Monkey' and 'Shit Bird'.

AVPS for one welcomes its feline overlord.

Monday 22 October 2012

Changes to Jobseeker's Allowance

In September the numbers out of work and claiming JSA were 1.567M people, which is a decline of 4,000 on the previous month. Real unemployment stands approximately a million higher than this, and a further two million have taken on part-time work while seeking a full-time job. The total number of people in employment (irrespective of the character of the job and hours worked) is just under 29.6 million, up 510,000 on this time last year. The fact that employment can be up and economic activity down says all you need to know about the pay many of these occupations offer.

From today, if you’re out of work and claiming JSA or Employment Support Allowance, a raft of tough new sanctions and expectations come into force. According to the blurb circulated prefacing the announcement, we are told:
The Government expects people on benefit to take up the help and support available through Jobcentre Plus or the Work Programme so they can move off benefit and into work … The benefit system has to be fair to people who pay into it through taxation, as well as supporting those who cannot work due to ill-health or who have limited capability for work.
Apparently, JSA recipients will receive leaflets through the post explaining the changes in more detail. These are, in detail:
Higher level sanctions
Payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop if claimants:

- leave a job voluntarily or due to misconduct
- fail to attend a Mandatory Work Activity programme
- are not available for a suitable employment opportunity, or
- refuse or fail to apply for a suitable job

They could lose their benefit for 13, 26 or 156 weeks (three years), depending on how many times they have failed to meet any of these responsibilities in the last 52 weeks.

Intermediate level sanctions
Payments of Jobseeker’s Allowance will stop and they will no longer qualify for Jobseekers allowance if, during their claim, they:
- do not actively seek work ; or
- are not available for work

Benefit will remain disallowed until they do what they have been asked to do. Upon undertaking what they were asked to do they may be sanctioned for a maximum of four weeks for a first failure rising to 13 weeks for second and subsequent failure within a 52 week period.

Lower level sanctions
Payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop if they:
- fail to attend an adviser interview
- fail to take part in an Employment, Skills and Enterprise programme
- fail to comply with a Jobseeker direction
- do not take the opportunity of a place on a programme or training course, or refuse, fail to attend, or lose through misconduct a place on a programme or training course.

They could lose their benefit for four weeks the first time and for 13 weeks for any further times they do not meet these responsibilities in a 52 week period.
Recipients of ESA are seeing their benefit hit with similar sanctions:
Changes to Employment and Support Allowance sanctions
Regulations planned to come into force in December 2012 will introduce a revised sanctions regime for ESA (WRAG) claimants.

If a claimant has been placed in the Work-Related Activity Group and they do not attend or take part in a work-focused interview, or do not carry out work-related activity without a good reason, their ESA may be reduced by £71.00 per week. The additional amount they are paid for being in the work related activity group and any premiums they may be entitled to will continue to be paid in full until they attend the interview or carry out the activity.

Their ESA may also be reduced for one, two or four more weeks after they attend the interview or do the work-related activity. This depends on whether they have already had their ESA reduced in the previous 52 weeks.
As a general rule I accept the principle that unemployment benefit is an element of the social contract, that society affords maintenance payments to the out of work on the understanding they seek employment. Unfortunately, the system the Tories have introduced is overly punitive, unfair, and seeks to penalise recipients for having the temerity to claim. Conditioning these measures is the default policy assumption unemployed folk are lazy good-for-nothings who stay in bed, hang round drinking, or watch (and appear!) on Jeremy Kyle at the tax payers’ expense. With this reasoning in play how a ‘suitable job’ or a ‘suitable opportunity’ is defined without any rigour. Also lacking is clarity over what “voluntarily” leaving a job means. I suspect the DWP does issue guidelines to its decision makers and some Job Centre advisors, but there's a lot of leeway given to separate the deserving from underserving claimants.

Successive governments and the press have scored a victory on welfare that will be hard to come back from. Despite the prevalence of unemployment among the young and women in general, “getting tough” on benefits is a standard feature of received political wisdom and one that enjoys widespread popularity. No party is going to win votes with manifesto commitments to more generous benefits and an easing of sanctions.

Instead, the left must stake out and win a new high ground on welfare. It is not enough to make the case that unemployment has systemic causes and that the benefit changes will consign whole families of the working poor to the abyss. We need to look again at the role of the state in the labour market to rebalance the social contract. A good starting point for a rethink would be to supplement the various training available with a guaranteed job after a period of unemployment.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Womb Tanks and Revolution: Shulamith Firestone

For a generation of feminist activists Shulamith Firestone was at once an inspiration and a provocation. I was therefore sorry to hear about her death back in August.

Firestone's position as a key figure in the emergent Women's Liberation Movement of the early 70s was cemented on the basis of her seminal work, The Dialectic of Sex. The book proved to be a pivotal moment in the development of (radical) feminist politics and remains an important text for activists and students of social theory.

Her point of departure was the argument that sexual inequality could not be reformed away because it is the key foundational principle on which society is based. Engels in his Origin of the Family concurs with this point. As hunter/gatherer societies of prehistory settled into cycles of cultivation and domestication, Engels argues this marks the first time in history when human communities begin producing surpluses over and above what was necessary for the satisfaction of immediate material need. This revolution in social development coincided with a shift from matrilineal kinship groups to more and more discrete patrilineal family groups. This "world historic defeat of the female sex" saw the establishment of gendered privileges accruing to the male head of the household - most crucial of which was the control over sexual reproduction. For Engels, this expropriation reduced women to chattel. Gendered distinction became the first class relationship in human history, of where the labour of women in the household was directed and its social product appropriated by a power outside themselves. It is this set of kinship relations that set in train the subsequent development of the class societies of antiquity.

What Engels does not do is to provide an explanation why it was women and not men who became the original labouring class. Was it merely an accident of history? Firestone's answer was something deeper: biology. She located the stratification of the 'sex class' in biological difference. Because it is women who fall pregnant and give birth, the dependence of the infant on them means men and women were not equally privileged from the beginning. This dependence, which could be socialised to a degree in the environs of the hunter/gatherer band was 'privatised' when settled communities based around households started emerging. Child birth and the raising of children was now controlled by and subject to the interests of the first patriarchs. For Firestone, it follows that feminism needs to do more than concur with socialists in seeking to abolish class society, it must tackle the wellspring of male privilege to stop all the old crap from coming back. And that means the abolition of the sex distinction itself.

Firestone was particularly scathing of what she called 'conservative feminism' in the Betty Friedan mould, which was "content" to secure greater autonomy and rights for women within the existing set up, and she predicted that consumerism would remove only the superficial signs of gendered oppression. Similarly she had little time for Freudianism for whom, in common with many anti-psychiatry critiques of that period, psychological problems were diagnosed in terms of an individual's inability to cope rather than social pathologies stemming from how society is structured.

Firestone was critical of patriarchy within the then black power movement, likening the social situation of black men to white women, albeit one that allows for complicity with the existing order, an alliance against the 'father' represented by white men, or a relation of mutual contempt fuelled respectively by sexism and racism.

She was also extremely sceptical of the radical claims made for the sexual revolution. While 'free love' had broken down the gendered ties that stunted women as sexual beings, she observed that the new freedoms saw imitation of men's sexual behaviour. It also merely preserved the sex-class configuration in a new form.

Most intriguingly, and one reason perhaps why The Dialectic of Sex has hung around in the collective consciousness of social theory was Firestone's advocacy of advanced technologies to abolish the sex distinction. Toward the end of the book she portrays a future socialist society where the link between biological sex and reproduction is broken thanks to the development of, for want of a better phrase, artificial womb tanks. Sounds far fetched? They may be closer than you think. The raising of children is once again socialised, albeit on a higher and wider scale than possible in prehistory.

It might be tempting to treat Firestone's work as a curio from the late 60s explosion in radical ideas. But it would be a mistake to do so. There is Firestone's lasting theoretical contribution: as a revolutionary feminist manifesto, her message does not make clear how to make a revolution. But her engagement with Engels and the situation of her argument within a broad historical materialist framework is a vitally important argument to understanding how sex and class intertwine. And secondly, her emphasis on sexual reproduction and child-rearing has a contemporary resonance as abortion and arguments around women's reproductive freedoms continue to dominate US politics and, increasingly, becoming more of an issue here too. Despite the advances women have made since publication, child bearing and child rearing will not go away. Because of the fundamental role sexual reproduction plays in the structuring of gender relations, I'm sure this would come as no surprise to Firestone.

The Dialectic of Sex deservedly is a must-read classic of radical literature. To mangle Emma Goldman, if I can't have womb tanks I don't want your revolution.

Saturday 20 October 2012

For Labour Police and Crime Commissioners

I didn't go on today's march in London. Therefore, befitting an ongoing political degeneration, your humble scribe eschewed extra-parliamentary action for traditional doorstep campaigning with Joy Garner (pictured), Labour's candidate for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Staffordshire. Happily, our door knockers received a solid response.

It would be fair to say the upcoming contest hasn't exactly captured the popular imagination. With polling due on November 15th the government hasn't exactly gone all out to let the public know about Dave's flagship law and order policy. Small wonder turnout is predicted to reach new, miserable lows, immediately putting into question the legitimacy of each and every successful candidate (regardless of their politics) and of the exercise itself. Well done Tories for ably delivering another shambles.

As far as Labour is concerned, it is the party's settled position that the £30m plus cost of implementing the policy is money better spent on policing itself. That said, quite rightly, as it is happening anyway and because these are powerful political positions, it would be an own-goal to allow Tories and other anti-labour movement misfits a free run.

So what are PCCs for? What's their role in life? According to the briefing pack available from the Home Office, they will:

1) Determine overall policing priorities
2) Oversee and set policing budgets, and hold the Chief Superintendent to account
3) Formulate a plan for policing and crime prevention
4) Responsibility for a victim support strategy

Believe me when I say the documentation available to prospective PCC candidates doesn't elaborate very much on top of that.

There is more clarity where it comes to the PCC's accountability. In between elections they are scrutinised by a Police and Crime Panel, which draws its unremunerated representatives from the local authorities that operate in any given police area. For example, in Staffordshire PCP reps will be drawn from Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Staffordshire County Council, and the various district councils that operate across the county. There is also room for co-optees if the PCP sees fit.

Despite the government's unhelpful lack of direction, taking charge of a Police Force's budget and being responsible for giving it strategic direction is no Mickey Mouse post. This is why as many Labour commissioners need to be returned as possible.

In Staffordshire, the election is a straight fight between Joy and the Conservative candidate, Matthew Ellis. Joy's pledges involve working around the incoming Tory cuts of 20% as much as is practicable. She is opposed to the creeping privatisation of the police service, will protect frontline neighbourhood policing, and will carry on her present work on the outgoing Police Authority to make them more accountable to those communities. Joy is also a long-standing City Councillor in Stoke, a trade unionist (USDAW), and lives in the heart of Burslem. Cuts made to policing will impact her and the community she represents directly.

Fittingly, for a party no longer pretending to represent broad swathes of the population, the Tory candidate, Matthew Ellis represents Lichfield Rural East on Staffs County Council. He is a millionaire ex-businessman. Now, far be it for me to represent this election as a fight between a working class woman and a member of the landed ruling class - after all, as Dave likes to remind us, it's not their background that matters but where they are going.

Unfortunately, the Tory-ruled County Council of which Cllr Ellis is a leading member is a living preview of what awaits Staffordshire Police should he become PCC. Presently a huge chunk of the Council's education infrastructure, encompassing some 5,000 jobs, will be transferred to a private company just before next year's local elections. And this is the beginning of a rolling programme. The Tory Group aspire to hive off other county functions so all that remains is a small administrative core commissioning private providers to undertake services. It ticks the box of their small state obsessions while ensuring public accountability plays second fiddle to shareholder dividends. I wouldn't be surprised if links are established between whatever company scoops up the contract and Tory funders either.

What is happening at Staffordshire County Council exposes the key issue before voters in November. Here and elsewhere you can choose between Labour candidates who will make the best of a funding cut from central government and work to make policing accountable to our communities, or Tory candidates for whom the police is a commercial opportunity. For them, the commissioner part is prioritised over 'police' and 'crime'.

I know who I'll be voting for.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Nick Griffin's Desperate Stunt

On a day that demonstrates the thugs of Golden Dawn in Greece aren't necessarily having it all their way; on a damp, cold island off the coast of North West Europe, a beleaguered co-thinker attempts to stir up some controversy:

It's likely the small band of A Very Public Sociologist readers who've returned to the fold post-reboot have a passing familiarity with the case mentioned by Nazi Nick.

There is more than a hint of desperation to Griffin's tweet. It's hard to believe it's been three years since the BNP was something of a power in the land. In the grand scheme of things its two MEPs, London Assembly member, and 50-plus councillors (including threatening concentrations in Barking and Dagenham, and our very own Stoke-on-Trent) didn't really amount to much, politically speaking, but they attracted coverage way beyond those numbers. The BNP fed off anti-immigrant feeling whipped up by mainstream parties and the press, and sparked off panic right through the political spectrum when it appeared they were making inroads into what some now euphemistically term 'marginalised majority communities'. They congealed the logical end point of widespread immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia, legitimated it to a degree, and then pushed the political spectrum even further to the right on these issues. Looking back now, it's a wonder the BNP didn't do even better.

What a difference a few years can make. When the shine had come off the BNP's polished turd, the party found itself losing its membership database twice, wracked by ruinous local splits, subject to persistent allegations of of fraud, on the receiving end of an expensive and protracted court case, two leadership challenges, and, of course, disastrous election results that saw the BNP's council representation down from 50 to just three councillors.

Then there is the small matter of recent events. You may not have heard about it, but the BNP are undergoing what is probably its most damaging and, possibly terminal split. Fascist "elder statesman" and BNP MEP for Yorkshire and Humber Andrew Brons announced his resignation from the BNP just yesterday. I expect the standing he has among the party's dwindling ranks will encourage a number of core cadre to follow him out the exit.

Saddled with an imploding party and haunted by the spectre of continuing electoral irrelevance, Nick Griffin's tweet is an attempt to jumpstart the BNP's fortunes and, perhaps, distract his remaining loyalists from the crisis engulfing his organisation. As the one party that frequently and ostentatiously styles itself as the champion of Christian Britain (though, arguably, the BNP is the party least in tune with Christian values), and with the Islamophobia market currently cornered by the EDL, Griffin's publication of Michael Black and John Morgan's address and subsequent threat will probably see him arrested. The subsequent outrage and comment, of which this post is part, and the prospect of a court appearance might be enough to scoop up a few hundred gullible recruits and several thousand quid in 'defence fund' donations. But it could also help boost his position as the far right's most prominent personality and, in the event of a conviction, might prevent him from running again in 2014 - giving him the stuff from which to fashion a claim to political martyrdom.

With the run of absurd convictions around offensive and tasteless Facebook posts and tweets, it's hard to see how der Fuehrer won't get his wish.

Whatever happens, it will be a while before we truly see the back of Nick Griffin.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Dance Your PhD

Doing a PhD? Progress struck dead by writer's block? Why not try presenting your opus  as a piece of interpretative dance, like these chaps have done?

The above is a Social Science PhD looking at the evaluation of good governance of resources in rural areas. Dry as regolith on paper, but altogether more sumptuous when set to music.

The above was an Italian entry into the fifth annual 'Dance Your PhD' competition (more here).

About 10 years ago, one of my friends was recommended she perform a paper on feminist deconstruction through the medium of dance at a straight sociology conference. True fact.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Smaller States = Smaller Economies

Who knew a few lines on a page could stand for so much pain. This much-circulated piece from Monday's Graun provides an at-a-glance summary of what the Tories and LibDems are trying to do.

This programme for "shrinking the state", as our neoliberal friends euphemistically put it is nothing less than a wholesale redistribution of wealth from the least well-off to the affluent and wealthy. But if you're a regular reader of this blog, chances are you already have the government pegged as a narrow spectrum of well-heeled interests. A committee for the management of the common affairs of the bourgeoisie this lot ain't.

Their experiment, for that is what it is, shows the violence inflicted when you wind the historical film of social development backwards. There is the misery people forced to depend on benefits face as tougher thresholds and sanctions are introduced in return for less money. There are the lengthening queues outside hospitals and the dole office, the schools being left to collapse into dilapidation and much-loved public services that helped support community life decimated and left to seed.

Quite apart from the pain and suffering, there is the damage inflicted on British capitalism itself by going against the grain of social progress. The various social democratic and Labourist reforms of the post-war settlement made life better for millions of working people. Capital benefited too. From this point of view, it put more money in their pockets that could be spent on things. It therefore stands to reason that if you take money out of the economy it's not going to grow.

If you want a small state, you'll end up with a small economy. It's that simple.

Monday 15 October 2012

On Jimmy Savile

Can much more be written about Jimmy Savile that hasn't already been said? The media are certainly having a good go, seeking women he abused as young girls and linking him to abuse at hospitals, the notorious Haut de la Garenne children's home in Jersey, and now suggestions he may have sexually abused corpses. A day does not pass without new, grim allegations splashing themselves across the headlines. And it is right that Savile's carefully-cultivated image as a national treasure is hung, drawn and quartered by the press. It is just a shame the violence done to his celebrity is scant compensation for the violence he visited upon his victims.

Who knows what else investigations into Savile's crimes might uncover? There are, of course, strong allegations linking him with Gary Glitter, and evidence that eyes were very much averted away from the sexist broadcast culture of the 60s, 70s and 80s that allowed his abuse of under-aged teenage girls to happen. There were plenty of rumours, of course, but the institutionally sexist culture of the time and the aura of celebrity could easily ensure voices raised in accusation were silenced. When it's a teenaged girl's word against a much-loved charity-mongering personality, who in the 1970s would a jury believe? And would it be that much different today?

Pre-Savile, perhaps. But now? As leads are followed and more victims come forward, there will be a few very-much-alive celebrities linked to the abuse starting to feel the heat. And with the collapse of the conspiracy of quiescence at Television Centre comes the rippling effect. Other celebrities with no relationship to Savile but are guilty of equally despicable things, who've paid off victims, bought the silence of accomplices, or are hiding behind expensive lawyers and their gagging clauses now have reasons to be fearful. 

Along with the exposure (and possible extinction?) of this criminal culture, I am also hopeful we could be seeing the beginnings of a cultural step change.

In this old post on the interminable Julian Assange circus, it was noted that "allegations of sexual assault and rape are ... historically under reported due to psychological trauma, shame, fear of reprisal, cultural pressure, and the complex of ties working to keep women in their place." These are ABC's that, unfortunately, this summer's nonsense over Assange's charge-evading antics showed some socialists need reminding of. But anyway. What that sorry episode demonstrated for all to see was how deeply sexism stains contemporary culture - even on the left.

Just for the record, I still believe Assange is innocent until proven otherwise. But I will give his groupies one thing. In defending their hero, they did point out it was most unusual for the British state to pursue someone with this degree of vigour for a crime of this nature. While it no doubt raised conspiratorial eyebrows in some quarters, I think this was a good thing simply because it provides a high-profile precedent for future treatment of crimes of sexual violence. The expectation that rape and assault allegations be investigated with the full weight of the law regardless of the standing of the alleged perpetrator was a consensus position that rallied people from all points of the political spectrum. And with the Jimmy Savile case, we're seeing its repetition and reinforcement in the popular imagination. This time, it's the abuser(s) whose behaviours are unacceptable - the abused are explicitly not positioned as 'asking for it'. For once, the responsibility of the abuse lies solely with the abuser. The shame attached to coming forward and making allegations has, in this case, been suspended. The weight of social opprobrium is temporarily lifted.

Wouldn't it be much better if things changed so this was the cultural default, rather than the exceptional situation facing victims of sexual abuse? Of course, yes. But how to get there? Perhaps the Savile saturation levels are such that among the thousands of people who fall victim to sex crimes every year, some will feel encouraged to report it. Perhaps because of the media attention, many more rapists and abusers will be tried, convicted and sentenced. Perhaps the depressing and disturbing exposure of Savile marks the beginning of a new maturity in how we as a society encounter and handle these awful crimes, and that the notion victims are in some way responsible for their abuse and/or rape is on its way out.


Sunday 14 October 2012

Smash TV for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, so it is that games companies renowned for manufacturing turgid crap occasionally put out the odd gem. And it came to pass in September 1991 that Acclaim released a fine title amidst their usual tranche of commercially high-profile but utterly abysmal games. That game was a conversion of the successful arcade hit Smash TV for the then-ageing (and now 30-year old) Nintendo Entertainment System.

As you can see from this short video, Smash TV is a kill-or-be-killed shooter in the mould of the classic 1982 Robotron 2084 coin-op. This is no accident - Smash TV first appeared in arcades as a re-boot designed and published by Williams, the creators of Robotron.

Smash TV slotted very nicely into the late 80s/early 90s action schlock that framed the cultural horizon of many a teenaged boy. Taking more than a leaf out of the silly Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man, you are a contestant in an ultra-violent game show. The basic aim is to move from room to room, blast away the waves of enemies the game throws at you and make your way to the obligatory end-of-level boss. Along the way you can pick up a variety of time-limited weapons and power-ups. You rack up the points by collecting cash and prizes - among which include holidays, VCR's, sit-on lawn mowers, and roadsters. All very Bullseye.

The NES version could never hope to hold a candle to the arcade original in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is almost perfectly replicated. The developers really pushed the creaking hardware to ensure mobs of enemies appear on screen at once. At times it can be almost too much as club-wielding thugs, robots, and drones crowd in on you. But there is satisfaction to be had by running over a three-way shot or a rocket launcher and despatching the cloying hordes to silicon hell.

The only real gameplay gripe is the control system. If you have two pads (like me), you can use both - one to control the direction of travel and the other to aim your gun (replicating the dual joystick controls of the arcade). That is the best way to enjoy the game. If you have to rely on one, matters are slightly trickier - one button fires while the other shoots in the opposite direction. It does take some getting used to and works okayish, the results are still playable. However, for some reason a similar method did not work so well for Acclaim's abysmal ports to Sega's Mega Drive, Master System and Game Gear.

Smash TV is a game that relentlessly tests your reflexes. It requires very little in the way of thought, so it's not the easiest to get chin-strokey about (unlike more modern games). But perhaps a deep, subversive comment can be dug out from the NES game's bits 'n' bleeps.

Returning to The Running Man, the film has Arnie fighting the corrupt propaganda machine of corporate capitalism through a series of violently entertaining set-pieces. It's a theme well trodden in American culture - shit happens, and a hero resorts to guns and bullets to restore justice and get the girl back.

Smash TV is a peculiar departure from this tried and tested path. Unlike Arnold, who was a victim in the Running Man's universe, your anonymous character is a contestant. He is not fighting for his and others' freedom. You're guiding him waist-deep through gallons of guts for "BIG MONEY, BIG PRIZES" (as the garbled in-game speech puts it). In other words, the violence is just a means to acquisitive ends. Piling up the bodies = piling up the toasters. What Smash TV lays bare is commodity fetishism, in the non-Marxist sense; of the desire to own more and more stuff simply because owning more and more stuff is good. Given the mindless nature of the gameplay, you unthinkingly accept the parameters of the game to amass that all-important high score, up to and including running from one end of the room to the other to pick up the prize before it disappears - almost regardless of the enemies mobbing you. Your lives (you can acquire up to nine) are entirely subordinate to a process of accumulation that measures success in cash and property collected.

Who knew a little-remembered shoot 'em up on the NES could offer an apposite diagnosis of the psychology of consumer capitalism in the early 90s?

NES Smash TV is available on various emulators. Or, if you're sad (like me), you can trying hunting the original down on cartridge at a car boot sale near you.

A contemporary review can be read here.