Thursday 31 January 2013

The Break-Up of the WRP

Absolutely shocking:
One of my abiding memories of 1985 is of a members’ meeting in Scotland, where I lived, held in the week when Healy’s supporters comprised a faction, i.e. after the charges had been tabled but before they had been heard. The meeting was addressed by the late Corin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa), for the CC minority, and myself for the CC majority. Redgrave opposed charging Healy, on the grounds that it would damage the revolutionary leadership. In discussion, a veteran member of the Scottish organisation asked Redgrave whether he could “look me in the eye and tell me, honestly, that these charges are to your knowledge utterly without foundation”, i.e. should not be brought because they were false. Redgrave replied by citing the WRP’s achievements (publication of a daily Trotskyist newspaper, building of a big youth movement, influence in trade unions, etc) and concluded: “If this is the work of a rapist, let’s recruit more rapists.” (In other words, he knew the charges had substance, but thought they should be dropped because Healy’s “party building” achievements rendered them irrelevant.) This statement deeply shocked those present, and we only managed with some difficulty to continue the meeting in good order.
Read the rest of this post here.

Of course, nothing like that could happen on today's far left, could it?

Tuesday 29 January 2013

SWP Resignation Via the Medium of Song

Too good for Socialist Unity to have it to themselves.

If only Lenin had rounded off his April Theses with a little tap number, eh?

Bedroom Tax: No Answers

Some lowlights from yesterday's DWP session in the Commons. Dignifying Ministers' replies with the appellation 'answers' is to duff up the English language. I've focused on the landlords' subsidy and the bedroom tax for this sorry selection from Hansard. Studious straight-answer avoidance and whataboutery rules the roost. They treat it like a game because, for the government, it is. I guess you can expect this from a snake oil merchant like IDS but Steve Webb (pictured), the LibDem minister for pensions, is supposed to be some kind of "lefty". Oh really? Then I'm a hatstand.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Last week in Westminster Hall Ministers made great play of the savings that the Government might expect from the bedroom tax. In Wales there is a chronic shortage of smaller houses, so why will the Secretary of State not admit that those who are hit by this cruel policy in Wales will have to go into the insecure private sector where rents will be higher and local housing allowance rates will cost more?

Mr Duncan Smith: What the hon. Lady and her party presided over when they were in power was a complete mess in housing—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to shout like a bunch of discombobulated monkeys bouncing up and down on the Benches; the reality is that their housing benefit record left many thousands of families unable to find housing because they were in a queue, while others occupied housing that had far too many rooms. We have to put that right, and that is what we are doing. The Labour party never did that when it was in government.

Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect on low-income families of planned changes to housing benefit eligibility in respect of under-occupancy in the social rented sector. [139395]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Our impact assessment shows that of the 3.4 million social sector tenants receiving housing benefit, up to 660,000 could potentially be affected by this measure.

Mr Hepburn: Do this Government ever get fed up of hammering the poor of this country? Punishing the poor seems to be the mandate that is running this Government. In my constituency, 2,000 households will lose anything up to 25% because of this bedroom tax. Will the Minister change this callous measure now, or will he wait until it becomes this Government’s poll tax and comes back to haunt them?

Steve Webb: If we leave aside the issue of people in his constituency who are living in over-crowded accommodation, who would very much like the opportunity to live in one of these houses, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that for many years under Labour people who rented in the private rented sector were not allowed a spare bedroom. Why is it fair not to allow private renters a spare bedroom, but to allow social tenants a spare bedroom?

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): The bedroom tax will have an impact on thousands of people in Telford. Many might want to move to smaller accommodation, but it is not available and the Government know it is not available. The policy is designed to penalise people—it is nothing to do with the housing market.

Steve Webb: There is a danger that this is viewed in a very static way. Many of the best housing associations are looking at groups of constituents, some of whom are over-occupying and are overcrowded, and are moving people around to create space. In the longer term, we need a housing stock that better meets the needs of people on the waiting list, and it is time that successive Governments addressed that.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Because of the shameful under-investment in social housing by the previous Government, there are simply not enough properties for people to downsize to. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the number of families who will end up moving to smaller, more expensive accommodation and end up receiving more in housing benefit?

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend is right: successive Governments have failed to build enough affordable housing. It is worth stressing that moving is one option, but only one option, for those in work. Just two or three extra hours on the minimum wage would cover this deduction. There are a range of options—going into work, taking in a lodger or sub-letting—and good housing associations are working with their tenants to achieve best outcomes.

Monday 28 January 2013

Market Populism

The market and the people - both of them understood as grand principles of social life ... were essentially one and the same. By its very nature the market was democratic, perfectly expressing the popular will through the machinery of supply and demand, poll and focus group, superstore and internet. In fact, the market was more democratic than any of the formal institutions of democracy - elections, legislatures, government ... The market was infinitely diverse, permitting without prejudice the articulation of any and all tastes and preferences. Most importantly of all, the market was militant about its democracy. It had no place for snobs, for hierarchies, for elitism ... and it would fight these things by its very nature.
From Thomas Franks, One Market Under God 2002, p.29

Sunday 27 January 2013

Star Control for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

On its release for Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis in 1991, Star Control was immediately noteworthy for a couple of things. At that time it was the largest game cartridge to appear for a home system in the West - it weighed in at a whopping 12 megabits (1.5 megabytes, give or take). And it, along with a batch of rather average games published contemporaneously by Accolade, successfully challenged Sega's restrictive third party licensing procedures.

Star Control is also a game of some nostalgic import to me. After salivating for weeks over reviews, on the very day I picked up my Mega Drive I promptly visited my favourite game store and took it off their hands for £39.99.

The game involves you piloting one of 14 different space craft in a one-on-one duel to the death Space War-style. The three available game modes are 'practice', which allow you to pit any ship against any ship; 'melee', where squadrons from the two warring protagonists - the Alliance of Free Stars and the Ur-Quan Hierarchy - face off in ship-to-ship combat; and the full game, of which more in a moment.

Each ship, representing a discrete alien race aligned to one of the two game's galactic powers, has a basic weapon and special ability. These vary with potency depending on the vessel's strength and price in the full game. At the top of the tree is the Hierarchy's Ur-Quan Dreadnought, here in action against a series of ships in Star Control II. Likewise, here's the Alliance's main capital ship, the Chenjesu Broodhome taking on all-comers. Obviously, some ships are better than others, and some are better utlilised against certain opponents. It's up to the player to choose what's most appropriate.

The full game introduces a strategic element. With 15 scenarios to choose from, the player is presented with a rotating star field and a set of objectives. Typically, you have a star base and a number of ships and to win you colonise, mine and fortify star systems. These bring you income for better ships, enable quicker movement between parts of your empire, and slows down enemy movements as they invade your space. When a Hierarchy and Alliance ship meet battle commences as above. Victory is yours if you destroy your opponent's manufacturing facility, or wipe out all their forces.

Back in 1991, it kept my 14 year-old self entertained for hours on end as all the ship combinations and scenarios were played to death. It's still worth a quick blast now and then. But really, its lasting appeal lies in the two player mode. Whether rushing to bury your opponent by out-producing them, or dancing around their ships with your fast, manoeuvrable craft, that's where the real replay value lies.

Graphically Star Crontrol hardly stretched the Mega Drive even by the standards of an early release. The in-game sprites were functional, but the starship spec screens were rather nice. The sound though was where the game comes into its own. The 12 megabits were rammed with some of the finest samples ever squeaked out by the Mega Drive's underpowered sound chip. In fact, I think every single blast, shot, collision - absolutely everything - is sampled. When you finally blow a particularly annoying opponent to bits, it's especially satisfying to be treated to a meaty-sounding explosion.

Running through the game are tongue-in-cheek rip-offs homages to science fiction shows, novels and memes. For example, does this Earthling Cruiser remind you of another, more famous series of starships? Hmmm, where have I seen those warp nacelles before? And when you actually play as or against the humans, it turns out the ships' captains have familiar recurring names, like 'Pike' and 'Adama'. And 'SDI surplus' as well. How very 80s. Interestingly, one of the scenarios highlights the cruiser being a cheap and cheerful Fordist assembly effort constructed in the Detroit shipyards no less.

So really, what is the point of revisiting Star Control on the Mega Drive? It is hardly canonical, though its sequel is very fondly remembered. As such, Star Control is probably the most obscure classic video game to have featured on this blog. But there's more to just me having a self-indulgent nostalgia kick (though, of course, all these pieces on old games are just that). Star Control is important because it crudely condenses and reworks problematic sci-fi tropes that still find an echo in modern video games.

The first and most obvious could have been lifted straight out of He-Man, Thundercats, etc. The baddies - the Hierarchy - are ugly. The races are respectively insectoid (Ur Quan, Ilwrath), crustacean (Spathi), blobs (Umgah), green tentacled space monsters (VUX), and fungi (Mycon). The one race that isn't - the Androsynth - are human clones gone rogue. They are ingrate knock-offs of the real thing.

The Alliance on the other hand are humanoids (humans, Syreen, Arilou), proud animals (Yehat, Shofixti), and non-organic (Chenjesu, Mmrnmhrm). No slime here. Just like Star Trek, each race exhibits some kind of essentialised human trait. All Spathi are cowardly, all Ilwrath are murderous, all Shofixti are honorable warriors, and all Chenjesu talk philosophy. And, in a variety of ways, their alien psychologies are inscribed on their physicality.

In the finest traditions of poorly-realised sci-fi, these essentialised qualities are emphasised to an absurd degree when gender enters the equation, as it does with the Alliance-affiliated Syreen. To put no finer point on it, this is a race of blue-skinned alien space vixens. And this, pictured, is their ship, the Syreen *Penetrator*. That's right, these women fly about the cosmos in a great big space dildo. With ribs. Oh to include a ship that wouldn't have gone amiss in Flesh Gordon, the larfs the creators must have had. Their ship also fires a "particle beam stiletto" at its enemies. Stiletto? Why not a dart? Last but not least their secondary weapon is a hypnotisation field. Modeled loosely on the Sirens of ancient Greek mythology, as they sang to lure weary crew members to a watery doom, so the Syreens' song throws enemy crews of all races into a lustful frenzy. They hurl themselves out of their airlocks to be picked up by the Syreen ship and added to their complement, enabling the Penetrator to absorb more damage. So yes. This race of women use sexuality as a weapon.

You could leave it there and say nothing else about it. Except that one of the biggest sci-fi franchises of this generation of games consoles - the Mass Effect trilogy - possesses its own race of blue-skinned alien babes. About 17 years separate the first titles in their respective sequences, but there is little basic difference. Mass Effect's Asari are sexually beguiling and use their femininity to secure their position among its universe's constellation of races. But worst of all, what defines the "alien-ness" of Syreen and Asari alike is the fact they are essentialised women. Is this a coincidence?

Star Control on the Mega Drive is a jolly little game (and quite a rare one if eBay prices are anything to go by). But its importance lies not in the "aah, nostalgia" factor of 20 year old video games, nor the two niche slots it occupies in the history of the Mega Drive. It's the fact that the ideological underpinnings of its alien races and game universes still stroll about the heads of video game producers in all their stunted and unimaginative glory. Star Control offers a frame that can be used to dissect subsequent treatments of gender, race and essentialism and it's one that, depressingly, is yet to exhaust its utility.

Saturday 26 January 2013


This week's favourite tumblr has to be Fuck Yeah Brutalism. Check out these lovelies:

Absolutely bloody brutal.

There would have been a time when this sort of thing would have made me bristle. After all, you don't have to be royalty to have an opinion on the "monstrous carbuncles" of post-war architecture. But I don't know. As I've got older I've begun finding something defiant and romantic about the sharp angles, the dour concrete, and the no-shit determination to scar a skyline. Like the very best art it kicks you in the guts and demands you acknowledge its presence.

As the tumblr's author notes:
My intention isn’t that ... you start designing Brutalist architecture, but that some of you begin to treat this (admittedly quite nebulous and often misunderstood) mode of building with a bit of respect. Brutalism was and is an essential episode in the history of modern architecture, and the more evidence of its presence we lose through negligence and demolition, the harder it is to see a complete picture of that history.

If one finds these buildings unwelcoming and discomfiting, remember the visceral feeling they engender, and reflect on the powerful yet subtle effect that architecture can have on your daily life. That is all.
Can you see the "beauty" in brutalism? Think it's worth preserving? Then sign the petition to save Preston Bus Station.

Friday 25 January 2013

Is a 'Left UKIP' Possible?

One of the welcome outcomes of the SWP's self-immolation has been a resumption of strategic debate among the 'inside' and 'outside' left. Andy Newman has written about a socialist campaign for Labour victory, Owen Jones has discussed a new movement of the left, and this in turn has spurred responses from Alex Snowden and the inimitable Luke Akehurst.

One of the things to come out of the exchange of polemic is the idea of a 'left UKIP'. This isn't literally a left wing europhobic organisation, but rather a small left populist party outside Labour that could pose just enough of a threat to drag its politics and that of wider society in a socialist direction. Just as UKIP has managed from the right with its toxic brand of little englandism.

Before looking at the viability of a populist left alternative, allow me an aside. In case there is a smidgen of doubt, I remain firmly of the view that the best place for socialists is inside Labour. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Nor do I share the view that a left UKIP is particularly desirable. The energy expended in building something new would, in my opinion, be better channelled into renewing and deepening the thousands of formal and informal links Labour has with the trade unions and the working class at large, as well as articulating the sorts of socialist policies that can appeal to enough people to make Labour the electorate's preferred party of government. If you are broadly of that view and aren't a party member yet, join here.

But, as many people are fond of saying, we are where we are. And it is a fact of life there are thousands of active trade unionists, community campaigners, and activists (not to mention many more who are inactive, for whatever reason) outside Labour and Britain's marginalised far left who aren't likely to join either any time soon. And having once been among their ranks, I know many would quite like a political home. So there is a desire, but do the means exist for a left alternative to come together?

Yes. And no. I want to concentrate here on two aspects of what is a multi-faceted question: organisation, and electoral/political space.

I suppose the first question to ask is if the left alternative exists already? There are certainly alternatives. Groups that resulted from some kind of rapprochement process on the far left regularly turn up in by-elections. Respect is probably the best known, but the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Socialist Labour Party, and Scottish Socialist Party are also out there vying for votes. But each have a chief weakness (or weaknesses) that hold back their development. Without expending too much time and trying the reader's patience, Respect's chief strength and weakness is George Galloway. At his best he's an articulate enemy of the rich and powerful. And at his worst, well, he's at his worst. Galloway is far too much a marmite figure for the Outside Left to rally around. The SLP is pretty much an organisation that exists only on paper, its potential squandered in a successive purging of activists who earned King Arthur's ire. With the collapse of Tommy Sheridan's Solidarity into nothing and the retreat of his backers (Socialist Party Scotland and the SWP) into their own projects, the SSP more or less has the far left electoral space north of the border to itself. The heady days of 2003 and six MSPs are a long way off now, so it remains to be seen whether it can overcome the trauma Sheridan inflicted on what was a project that briefly broke out the left ghetto. And lastly, TUSC is basically the old Campaign for a New Workers' Party (remember that?) with the RMT, SWP and sundry independents bolted on as semi-detatched affiliates. It is unlikely to become more than the sum of its parts because TUSC remains an optional extra to the party-building projects of the SP and SWP.

I don't think any of these could become a home for the bulk of the outside left because of their reputations, their histories, and their likely trajectories. But should a new formation arise independently existing organisations would have to be dealt with via yet another alliance of convenience, or outright absorption. The former, though possible, could still see Life of Brian-style competition - the 135 candidates fielded across 120 seats in the 2010 general election says it all (particularly so as the SLP is constitutionally bound not to enter into alliances with others). But also, because of the differences, the egos, and the self-righteous rectitude of many leading members within the actually-existing organisations/alliances, only a mass movement of tens of thousands would sweep them into a new left alternative. And even then, it's by no means certain. The SP and SWP Greek co-thinkers, for example, are both outside SYRIZA where, to all intents and purpose, a new left alternative has displaced the traditional social democratic party of Greece's working class.

If thousands of left wingers find what's presently on offer unpalatable - and they do - there is nothing else for them to cohere around. 'Sexy' movements like UK Uncut are unlikely to embark upon an electoral turn, and trade unions just do not command the kinds of active political identification among working people that enabled them to set the Labour Party up over a hundred years ago. The RMT's backing has brought TUSC (and before it, No2EU) little joy, for example. And the left inside Labour is amorphous and diffuse (a post on that another time) and will not desert the big tent for the deadening chill of electoral oblivion outside. There may be some will. But is there a way?

So much for organisation. What about political and electoral space? Only the most blinkered would believe nothing has changed with the election of our grotesquely incompetent and openly sectional LibDem-supported Tory government. Since May 2010, Labour has been the main beneficiary of the anti-Tory, anti-LibDem protest vote. The axis of anti-government politics has swung away from railing against the centre left to the centre right. So the electoral space for left-wing disaffection is smaller than it was in the Blair/Brown years. But a space there is.

I've often noted that when it comes to elections, the far left can reasonably expect something in the one to two per cent range. If they get below, by their own standards they're failing. If they get above, then they're doing well. If you look at the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition's results for the 2012 local elections, TUSC did well polling 6.2% across the 133 English and Welsh wards they contested (even if you strip out the "TUSC" candidates who stood under other names, or were their top performers, they still polled well above 2%). If anything, Respect's vote is even more uneven, ranging from winning seats to trailing the Monster Raving Loonies. So existing performance indicators are suggestive of an electoral space - the kinds of votes already being achieved are not qualitatively behind the BNP at its height, for example.

But electoral space and political space do not quite map onto each other. The profile the BNP had, and the wave UKIP are currently riding was/is overwhelming the result of the fuel the media are pouring into them. If Farage was banished from Newsnight and Question Time, if the media chose to obsess over the NHS, the economy, or crime in the same way it indulges Europe, UKIP would wither on the vine. Similarly, despite having much less of a political presence, the Greens have an MP, actually run a council, and possess many more local authority representatives than UKIP does.

A left alternative would have to find a way of presenting an identifiable presence in both. Respect have to a degree, as did the SSP - but for both they were as one-man bands. UKIP have managed it on the basis of pushing a charismatic leader (Farage, and before him Kilroy), cornering an issue that plays well with the media's preoccupations and is also a source of deep differences in a mainstream party. Iraq may have done that 10 years ago for Labour, but what does now? True, TUSC have tried to corner 'no cuts', but face competition from the media-friendly (and media-savvy) UK Uncut, the hundreds of campaigns that have sprung up around the defence of one particular service and indifference in the face of wide acceptance that cuts "have to be made".

So, by way of a quick summary, the numbers of activists exist to make a left UKIP a real proposition. In fact, I would hazard a guess that there is a potential pool larger than that commanded by UKIP itself. There is clearly some level of support for electoral Outside Left activity beyond the 1-2% far left range. And there are organisations with experience of tackling its inhospitable terrain. But the existence of those organisations present a barrier to be overcome, or a challenge to be negated. The issues they are fighting on do not translate into votes at present, and the bulk of the unaligned Outside Left are not enamoured with what the four existing parties/alliances have to offer for a whole host of reasons.

That is my reading of the left-of-Labour space as it stands now, and is always subject to events. These constellation of factors are freeze frame snippets of a continuing process, but the ultimate fate of that process, whether it produces something new or leads into a political cul de sac will largely be determined by developments elsewhere.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Public Sector Debt Under the Tories

Thought the Tories were going to sort out public sector debt? Think again:

Source is The Spectator's Fraser Nelson.

The burn must hurt so much more when it comes from your own side.

If you would like to see that in context, go here.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

The Work Programme: Still Worse than Useless

The Work Programme is useless. Don't take my word for it, this was the opinion of the Daily Telegraph back in November. Their piece observed that according to the government's own calculation, around five per cent of long-term unemployed people (i.e. those out of work for over a year) would be able to find work if left to their own devices. The government's flagship Work Programme managed a less than stellar rate of 2.3%.

The Work Programme, for readers fortunate enough not to have sustained engagement with the social security system, is supposed to help people who've been out of work for long periods back into the labour market. It replaced Labour's 'New Deal' programme, which introduced an element of compulsion into Jobseekers' Allowance (i.e. either get with the programme, take a job, or get your payments cut). The New Deal wasn't without its problems, but its youth component - New Deal for Young People - managed to find jobs for around 42% of participants between 2001 and 2005. What the pay and prospects of the majority of those jobs were I'll leave for others to determine.

The Work Programme is similar, but "tougher" and is delivered by a number of "providers". These include the usual big beasts who gather around the public sector watering hole, like Serco, G4S, and notorious troughers, A4E. But to make things look good arms-length public sector bodies, like networks of FE colleges, and the 3rd sector can also provide training. These providers are paid by results. They receive payments from monies saved for every period of employment lasting between 13 and 26 weeks, and additional cash on top for every four weeks served.

But that is not all it does. Participation in the Work Programme requires people to basically work for their JSA payments. Readers will recall there was something of an outcry last year when it was revealed large retailers were profiting from taxpayer-provided workers.

I am sure no one has any objection to the availability of retraining for anyone who find themselves out of work. It is also sensible that a guaranteed job is provided after a period of time on the dole. Though it remains to be fully thought through, the principle of Labour's job guarantee is a step in the right direction.

However, the figures for the Work Programme continue to show it is a dismal failure. While Dave was happy to trumpet today's in-work figures (though, of course, studiously avoiding the precarious and part-time nature of many of the new jobs), the performance of their flagship welfare-to-work scheme remains woeful. According to the stats compiled by the Office of National Statistics, between June 2011 and May 2012 (the latest period of time for which a dataset is available), in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central some 1,510 long-term unemployed people were referred to the Work Programme. Of that number, just 30 - two per cent - got a job as a result! It's not that Stokies are no-hopers. Down in more affluent Stone constituency, 10 out of 290 people who went through the scheme got a job. In Dave's Witney constituency, it was 10 out of 330. In wealthy Kensington only 40 out of 1,660 were successful.

If the job market is as buoyant as official figures suggest, then why does the Work Programme's results tail the 'do-nothing' figure - an estimate drawn up to take continued economic turbulence into account? There is only one possible answer: that it is broken, irrevocably. By the Tories' own questionable standards of competence, to produce a programme that is worse than doing nothing is really something.

(Image source)

Tuesday 22 January 2013

"Tough Choices"

Pinched from Tom Powdrill:

From Tony Judt's Ill Fares The Land:

When imposing welfare cuts on the poor... legislators in the US and UK alike have taken a singular pride in the 'hard choices' they have had to make.

The poor vote in much smaller numbers than anyone else. So there is little political risk in penalising them: just how 'hard' are such choices? These days we take pride in being tough enough to inflict pain on others. If an older usage were still in force, whereby being tough consisted of enduring pain rather than imposing it on others, we should perhaps think twice before so callously valuing efficiency over compassion.
Applied to our government, it would have been hard for Dave to have kept the 50p tax, not give away more corporation tax cuts, and provide a proper plan for jobs and growth. But he didn't. He has taken the easy way out by kicking the poor and making working people pay for a crisis not of their making.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Natalija Belova and The Sun's Benefit Lies

The Sun is to journalism what syphilis is to good sexual health. And the latest proof is this deliberately misleading, scurrilous article. Entitled 'You're a Soft Touch' and with the webpage by-line "IMMIGRANT sponger living off handouts REFUSES full-time job" (caps theirs), The Sun tells us how Lithuanian Natalija Belova (pictured) has been in receipt of £14,500/year worth of benefit payments that, in the paper's words, "fund her love of designer clothes, jaunts to the Spanish sun and nightclubbing". Contributing in its inimitable manner to a fair and reasoned debate about migrant labour and social security, The Sun adds "Her astonishing benefits bonanza emerged as Britain braces itself for thousands more swarming here to join a gravy train they could only dream of in their homelands." Apparently there are 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians champing at the bit to up sticks and live a life of riley here in Britain.

Unfortunately for The Sun, their "exclusive" is a load of mouldy old bollocks.

I wonder how its loyal band of dwindling readers would have reacted to the story if they knew Ms Belova was in fact an actor? Surely The Sun wouldn't mention her chosen profession because it might have cast aspersions on her story? After all, we've been assured repeatedly over Leveson that the press can be trusted to regulate themselves. They are, apparently, mature enough to police their own journalistic standards to ensure stories only of the highest quality that are in the public interest appear. Clearly, pieces like this show they aren't anything of the sort.

But okay, let's pretend for a moment that Belova's profession does not matter and is incidental to the substance of the story. THE SUN'S ARTICLE IS STILL FULL OF LIES.

Belova "rakes in" over £1,000/month, yielding £14,508 every year. She receives £125/week from her job which, it is said, "boost her income to £400/week". Then to help explain things, a table is provided to demonstrate "how the weekly cash stacks up". It breaks down as Child Tax Credit (£56), Housing Benefit (£183), Child Benefit (£20) and Council Tax Benefit (£20) - a princely £279 every week.

But The Sun is deliberately lying. Belova does not receive an income (remember, they explicitly stated *income*) of £400 plus because she never sees two of the benefits payments. Until April, Housing Benefit is paid directly to her housing provider and the Council Tax payment bypasses her and goes to the relevant local authority. What is left, just £76, on top of her £125/week from her job gives her a *real* income before tax of £201 - about half of what The Sun's says she pockets. One wonders how a single mum with a small child can afford luxury holidays and designer clobber on such a modest income, especially when in a year she actually receives just £10,452.

That's right, *£10,452*. 

Two minutes with a search engine digs up very little about Dulcie Pearce, the creature that wrote this despicable piece. No Twitter, no Facebook. Not much stuff of a personal nature at all. It's almost as if she'd done that deliberately. But it's worth noting this snippet from 2011 reporting her elevation in The Sun's hierarchy. The above isn't a hatchet job by a struggling hack forced to write the most appalling copy to earn a crust. It's by someone who is happy to advance their career on the back of lies told about some of the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised people in Britain. What a cowardly, despicable way to make a living.

Bill Cash's Stone Constituency

An observation.

Here is a map of the so-called 'Second Reich', the German Empire of 1871-1918.

The borders were established in the victorious wake of the Franco-Prussian war which, once and for all, affirmed Prussian hegemony over the patchwork of petty states that comprised the Germany of the time. The House of Hohenzollern rose to the imperial throne, but retained their sovereignty over the Kingdom of Prussia until the house fell from power in 1918. The borders of the German Empire officially ceased to be with the Treaty of Versailles one year later. Interestingly, though the Federal Republic does not recognise it the Hohenzollerns have never relinquished their claim to the Prussian throne.

Here is a map of Stone constituency, home of anti-EU tub thumper, Bill Cash MP.

Received political wisdom in North Staffordshire has it that Stone constituency was drawn up especially to provide a safe seat for Mr Cash. Its tortuous shape encompasses large parts of the county's rural hinterland and abuts the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stafford, Market Drayton, and Uttoxeter. Simply put, it's a gerrymander (though, of course, by no means the worst example). Bill Cash has been returned to parliament by the good voters of Stone constituency with widening majorities at each election since 1997. At present he sits on a cushion of 13,000 votes. And with the death of Dave's boundary review, Bill isn't going anywhere unless he wishes it.

Okay, am I the only one who can see a similarity between the two entities? The east of Stone resembles Imperial Germany's East Prussian and Silesian territories. The part curling up towards Newcastle has a hint of Schleswig-Holstein about it, the south Bavaria and, being a bit cheeky, it is also redolent of the 3rd Reich following its annexation of Austria in 1938.

So. Are Stone's borders purely a result of electoral arithmetic carried out by the Boundary Commission (and subsequent reviews) since the mid-90s, or was someone having a laugh? After all, the honourable member has long been known for his concerns about German domination of the EU. Did a boundary nerd decide to have a little fun at his expense? I guess we will never know.

And please, no jokes about Kaiser Bill.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Snowmageddon and Sociology

The end of the world never came last year, but the way the news media are carrying on you could be forgiven for thinking it's The Day After Tomorrow outside. Yes, snow has fallen and Britain is convulsed by paroxysms of crisis. Schools and colleges up and down the land shut, planes and trains were cancelled, and millions of people had an unexpected but welcome long weekend ahead. And, of course, the weather may yet prove a useful foil should poor economic figures require it.

The idea of snow as a doom-laden crisis recurs every winter. So what's going on? Why has this notion of 'snowmageddon' got such traction, and where does it come from? Here are some sketchy thoughts:

1. We may get snow nearly every year, but compared to the British Isle's default setting (mild, dull, with a hint of rain) there is something quite rare and exotic about it. In his famous 1967 book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel discusses what he calls "breaching experiments". These were occasions where his students were encouraged to disrupt the taken-for-granted social situations of everyday life to show how people (or 'members' in Garfinkel's terminology) construct and make sense of the out of the ordinary, and how they also constitute the standard and mundane aspects of social life. For example, Garfinkel's Wikipedia entry illustrates this with the disruption one of his students visited upon standard small talk with her husband. Another famous example/ethnomethodological urban legend was the releasing of chickens into rush hour traffic (not something I'd recommend trying for all sorts of reasons).

In many ways snow in Britain, and particularly for the heavily urbanised population of England, is a meteorological breach in the standardised practices of everyday life. All of a sudden, they are thrown out of the window. Work is, for many, disrupted and shortened. Children get a day or two off school. The sledges come out. Streets become scene to pitched battles of snow and ice. Up pop snowmen in gardens and back yards. And the more curmudgeonly among us grumble about the roads, the weather, and yearn for the normal's quick return. It's a bit like a mild outbreak of the carnivalesque, and as such snowmageddon holds a certain transgressive appeal.

2. In the age of 24 hour rolling news, of instant commentary and declining news desk budgets, widespread snow is a positive godsend. The main news channels clutter up their coverage of reporters outside council depots and schools. We've seen journalists embedded with gangs of sledging teenagers and gritting lorries. It's dirt cheap to cover but endlessly newsworthy because of its disruptive qualities. And what is true of the broadcast media works for our beleaguered newspapers too. You don't even have to send anyone out of the office. You can produce accurate reports of the snow by mining radio, regional TV, and social media. Some people might even phone or email in with the travails they've faced getting their car up a hill. Therefore it's easy, costs next to nothing, and convenient to splash snowmageddon absolutely everywhere and, thanks to the sheer volume of snow-related news, adding to the crisis anxiety about it.

3. To do a little bit of violence to Anthony Giddens, he once observed the capacity for societies to be self-reflexive has never been greater, but added the likelihood of that happening has never been more remote. Contemporary culture is founded upon a great deal of anxiety and lament. There has always been such a current running through advanced capitalist societies generally, but it has grown in prominence and weight in Britain and America these last 30 years. As the weight of economic restructuring and cultural change has broken down old communities of solidarity, it has conspired to atomise and individuate us as employees and consumers. At the same time, if the idea of being fundamentally on your own wasn't bad enough, there are all manner of things that threaten to destroy us too. The USSR and the imminent threat of global thermonuclear war went out with overdoing hairspray, but in its place have multiplied all kinds of threats and risks. Terrorists. Climate change. Immigrants. Super volcanoes. Plague. Grey goo. Crime. Europe. Peak oil. Meteors. Zombies. To greater or lesser extents, they contribute to diffuse senses of social anxiety. If they are not already gnawing away at the foundations they threaten to tear away our existence at any moment.

The peculiar characteristic of this anxiety is that we find it entertaining. In the age of extremes, it's no longer the in-thing to ponder your own mortality - only the possible extermination of everyone and everything will do. Our newspapers, particularly those mired in the irrationalism of declining, hard-right conservatism AND the political economy of more-from-less appeal to certain audiences because of the frequency they will feed, and thereby encourage this anxiety.

Snowmageddon, therefore, is a marrying of churnalistic snow reporting and WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!! The 'breach' with standardised social life isn't an opportunity for fun, it's an occasion for social breakdown, accidents, and all manner of unpleasantries. For a significant share of the audience that laps this stuff up, it speaks to those who obsess over the declining significance of Britain. The inability to cope with snow is symptomatic of the liberal rot that has made this Once Proud Nation an island full of muslamic extremists, health and safety consultants, people who recycle, and unmarried women.

Hence we can never just have a bout of snow as we would have a rainy day. Because it is potentially disruptive it must be relayed back to us as being as devastating as possible. Hence snowmageddon is here to stay.

Meanwhile, this is probably what it really looks like.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Wednesday 16 January 2013

The Death of the High Street

To lose one household name during a period of supposed economic recovery is unfortunate, but to lose three is careless. With the collapse of Jessops, HMV, and Blockbuster approximately 10,000 people face a very uncertain future. So what's going on?

If you read the BBC's reporting, it's all just a case of bad management and outmoded business plans. For example, Ajay Bhalia of Cass Business School, City University London says:
The company, like HMV, failed to transform its business model early enough. When it did, it found a fundamentally altered competitive landscape where the platform model had destroyed the traditional retail one.

Firms like Blockbuster failed to face up to the enormity of the change and altered their business model on the fringes (eg selling second-hand products), rather than coming up with an innovative offering. It is shocking that the board and executive management failed to make bold choices.
This is backed up by Steve Musson of Reading University, who also said "the retail businesses that we have seen going into administration since Christmas have a lot in common - they have large numbers of stores and have struggled to adapt to changing retail habits."

In the Darwinist world of retail, none of these companies were able to adapt quickly or adequately enough to the changing environment around them. They died because they were unfit.

Well, I'm sorry, I don't buy this. If you follow Adam Smith, the market expresses the preferences of a myriad of self-interested actors. Left to its own devices, economic development is blindly driven forward by the competition between firms to meet these demands. And success is always conditioned by how well actors respond to the 'signal' the market sends. But despite its dynamic and unconscious character, markets are not a natural force - however much they may resemble one. 

The failures of Jessops, HMV, and Blockbuster cannot entirely be left at the door of their hapless management. Markets always exist in specific institutional contexts and in Britain, the power of the state and the monopoly it possesses on legislating the rules of the capitalist game means it has an unparalleled degree of say over what goes in the British domestic economy, and its direction of travel. In other words, when economics was collectively known as political economy, it was called that for a reason.

The so-called 'death of the high street' we are said to be undergoing at the moment, is no natural demise. It has the finger prints of our LibDem-supported Tory government all over it.

There are two policies (or rather, non-policies) that are driving this process. The first of these is the explosion of internet shopping. Increasingly, we are told, shopping for white goods, video games, DVD/Blu-ray, and music on the web is edging out the traditional chain stores. The reason is, apparently, convenience and price. While undoubtedly true, the reason why some of these internet-based firms - particularly Amazon - are able to undercut their rivals is by dodging tax. Their avoidance is being paid for by monies lost to the treasury, AND the livelihoods of their rivals. So while the government makes a big show about tackling evasion and avoidance, it has absolutely nothing to say on the dodge this particular multi-national pulls. Their failure to act, therefore, is a political non-decision.

The second is the Tories de facto wage deflation policy. Even the dogs in the street have woken up to the idea that by hacking away at the public sector and piling people up on the dole, you suck demand out of the economy. However, as the government likes to point out job losses from cuts have been made good by the growth of private sector jobs - over one million of them in the Coalition's first two years, in fact. True, even though this contains the reclassification of 196,000 FE employees, the uncounted number of people in work placements, and public sector workers transferred to private companies, the job market is indeed growing. However, jobs lost are not being replaced like-for-like. The numbers of part-time workers is at a record high, accounting for half of all job growth. Around 655,000 people on temporary contracts has grown over the course of the last year, and the pay gap between full and part-time workers is widening. As Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Social and Economic Research notes in the Telegraph piece above, "There’s been little growth for two years but the labour market has responded to that very well. We’ve seen employers push through a reduction in hours and wages decreased."

If you take the overall lower wage bill, the prevalence of part-time and insecure working, the forced reductions in social security payments and combine that with rising prices across the board, retail is going to be squeezed. Again, there is nothing stopping the government from addressing this. They could, if they wished, make people more secure in work by legislating for greater workplace protections. Dispensing with the easy-come, easy-go employment culture carefully nurtured by successive governments would yield significant economic benefits as people feel secure and therefore spend more. They could, if they chose, decide against sucking demand out of the economy by not kicking the poor and the vulnerable who are forced to subsist on unemployment, disability and tax credit payments. It is also within the government's gift to pursue a full fledged plan for economic growth instead of hoping for the best.

But they do not and will not do these things. Partly because they stupidly believe that things will sort themselves out, and partly because they and the interests they represent are largely untouched by the austerity foisted on the rest of us.

None of this is natural. The death of the high street and falling wages are the results of deliberate political decisions by a government out of its depth and utterly unsuited to rule. As we stare an unprecedented triple-dip recession in the face, never forget that this is a downturn engineered in Downing Street.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Employment Support Allowance Standard Letter

I reproduce below is the standard letter the Department for Work and Pensions sends to anyone who complains directly to them about their experience of a Work Capability Assessment, subsequent changes to their Employment Support Allowance, or the very real harassment people suffer from so-called "work providers".

Though written by a civil servant and not an explicitly political document, the letter is pretty appalling. Witness the repeat use of ideologically-loaded terms like 'claimant' and 'entitlement'. Notice how the sentences are carefully constructed to undermine the notion that some people are just not physically or mentally capable of having a job. See how immediately it casts people in receipt of incapacity payments as a £13bn burden on the taxpayer. And, of course, the idea that it is the benefits system preventing people from getting jobs, not that there aren't enough jobs (let alone suitable ones for people requiring additional support) is faithfully parroted.

The notion the WCA was devised "in close consultation with experts and disability organisations" is, what is called in the trade, "factually accurate" but is at the same time fundamentally dishonest about what both sets of groups have to say about this joke of a test. And the whole stuff about Atos professionalism is particularly tasteless, given the perverse decisions its "evidence" has led to.

Nevertheless, I hope the below is helpful for readers who are trying to get their heads around the labyrinthine issues of social security payments. While the government may be keen to simplify them in practice, they do very little to bring clarity and evidence to the political argument in defence of their bestial policy.

Dear Mrs Blogs,

Thank you for your recent correspondence about the assessment of entitlement to benefits for people who are not in work because of an incapacity or disability. Government Ministers receive a large volume of correspondence and they are unable to reply personally on every occasion. I have been asked to respond.

The Employment and Support Allowance is now the main benefit for people who are not in work because of a medical condition. Ministers understand the concerns that have been brought to their attention regarding the WCA, which determines entitlement to ESA. Ministers support the principle of the WCA, but have taken steps to address the reservations that they had on taking office about the way it was working.

Currently over 2 million people receive incapacity benefits, at a cost to the taxpayer of around £13bn a year. Ministers believe that many of these people, with the right support, could and indeed want to work but in many cases the previous system did not give them that opportunity. Policy in this area is supported by a large body of evidence that work is generally good for people. Ministers want to assess people as accurately as possible to ensure that they receive the most appropriate support and are able, where feasible, to move toward suitable employment.

Ministers are committed to supporting those who cannot work because of a health condition or disability, but they also want to help as many people as possible to find suitable work. To do this the Department needs a fair and accurate assessment. The WCA is designed to identify those claimants with disabilities or health conditions who remain capable of work given the right support. It does not seek to confirm the employability of a person at the time of undergoing the assessment. The WCA was designed in close consultation with experts and disability organisations.

The assessment focuses on what an individual can do, rather than assuming that a health condition or disability is automatically a barrier to work. Individuals claiming ESA can experience a wide range of functional effects from health conditions. Ministers are determined to ensure the WCA accurately reflects these.

The healthcare professionals who carry out the medical assessments are employed by Atos Healthcare, on behalf of the DWP. They receive training in accurately assessing fluctuating conditions and mental, intellectual and cognitive function. They must have had at least three years of broad-based post-registration experience and be approved by the Chief Medical Advisor to this Department.

Strict audit and quality control measures are in place to ensure that Atos delivers high-quality assessments. However, Atos does not make decisions on benefit entitlement. Decision makers in the Department consider their advice, along with any other appropriate evidence, to make a decision. The contract with Atos Healthcare contains no targets, or expected range or distribution of advice to decision makers for assessment outcomes. Formal complaints procedures are in place. If Atos Healthcare receives a complaint an Atos Customer Relations Manager will undertake a full investigation into all the issues raised and write back within 20 working days.

Following the assessment, people who face the greatest barriers to employment will receive the extra support they need as part of the Support Group within ESA. They can take part in work-related activity on a voluntary basis if they wish. People who could prepare for work, given support, will become part of the Work-Related Activity Group, and receive ESA if the conditions are met. People in this group will receive various forms of support. They may be asked to engage in various forms of work-related activity, including the Work Programme and work-focused meetings. People who are found capable of work at the time of the assessment will be invited to claim JSA if they satisfy the conditions of entitlement for that benefit.

As with most decision on benefits, there is a right of appeal. Decisions can be reconsidered and if they cannot be changed, they can be considered by a Tribunal, which will check that the relevant information has been taken into account and that the law has been applied correctly.

In order to ensure that the WCA is as fair and accurate as possible, the Department is committed to a process of ongoing review and improvement. As part of this Professor Malcolm Harrington, a highly respected Occupational Physician , has now carried out three independent reviews if the WCA. His third review together with the Government’s response, was published on 20th November 2012. Details of these reviews and the Government’s responses can be viewed through the policy/welfare reform/ESA section of the Department’s website.

Monday 14 January 2013

A Farewell to Mick Williams

I was sorry to hear about the passing of Stoke labour movement stalwart, Mick Williams. He died in hospital last Thursday after a short illness.

I never worked closely with Mick, but he was one of those larger-than-life figures whose reputation always preceded him. I therefore recommend readers have a look at the obituary by his friend and comrade Adam Colclough.

I first encountered Mick four or five years ago when I represented Keele UCU on the local trades council along with my erstwhile blogging comrade, Brother S. Despite his slight stature and frail appearance, he had this ability to be able to hold the attention of a room, whether he was making a hard-hitting political point or moving a point of order.

While Mick latterly fell out of the Labour Party following a protracted faction fight, and finally resigned surrounding the controversial selection of Tristram Hunt in 2010, I am sure friend and foe alike would recognise the contribution he made to Labour and the trade union movement over his 50+ years involvement in working class politics. Speaking as the secretary of Stoke-on-Trent Central Labour Party – his old party division - and on behalf of the many members who knew and respected him, our thoughts are with his family, friends and comrades.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Where Now for the SWP?

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but the fate befalling the Socialist Workers' Party is proving to be the exception to the rule. Coverage in the New Statesman, The Indy, and The Daily Mail is bringing the SWP's monumentally fatal decision to a wider audience. Surely other media outlets can't be far behind, even if only as January filler between Celebrity Big Brother and impending snowmageddon. 

I also couldn't help but note The Mail disallowed comments on their piece. If the most stupid and reactionary paper in the land can foresee potential legal difficulties, what does that say of the SWP's Central Committee's foresight, that flower of the British proletariat?

And yet, in this, what is likely to be the terminal crisis for the SWP, if your sole news outlet was Socialist Worker and the ramblings of its website, you could be forgiven for thinking the organisation doesn't stand on the precipice of extinction. Yesterday, paper sales went ahead in city centres like they always have done. And the CC, forced to respond to negative press and blogging, has officially come out and said "nothing to see here."

In the real world large sections of 'the party' are in open revolt. Two of its most prominent public faces, China Mieville and Richard Seymour, are now waging an open political struggle. Off the top of my head, Sheffield and Leeds are pretty much solid oppositionists. The local branch here in Stoke are supportive of the rebellion. And the large (in far left terms) Birmingham organisation is said to be on the verge of decamping en masse. If the SWP were a zombie, we're not talking about skin flakes or fingers falling off. It's chunks of flesh and even limbs that are coming loose.

Nevertheless, the open struggle being conducted by Lenny and co. finds them in an extremely strong position. The CC risks inflicting a massive split on the organisation if its "celebrities" are expelled in the customary cavalier fashion. In fact, Mieville's and Seymour's open defiance is almost goading the CC into action. But also, the leadership cannot counter opposition politically. It can hide behind conference's decision to endorse the findings as much as it likes. They cannot defend themselves even within the norms of "proletarian justice".

The opposition have right on their side, even if their critique of the Central Committee is limited to the party's petty authoritarianism and the disputes committee balls up rather than address whether it was appropriate for the SWP to investigate a rape allegation. Unfortunately for them and the future viability of their politics, they share the same revolutionary conceit as their erstwhile comrades in the leadership. Whatever the immediate fate of the opposition, fundamentally all that's on offer is more years on the Leninist merry go-round.

Apart from the politics of the opposition, there are two insurmountable problems. Regardless of whether you think the SWP operates the "right kind" of democratic centralism or not, it is nigh on impossible to constitutionally replace a vanguard party leadership peacefully (i.e. without a split). As has been noted in discussions on Socialist Unity, the legal and financial apparatus of the SWP as an entity is shrouded in mystery. Who controls the monies, who has access to them, who the trustees are for party property, it's all an extremely shadowy business. With a great deal of money and capital resources at stake, even if the opposition are successful in recalling the central committee there is nothing to stop the incumbent little Lenins marching off into the sunset with what, morally, belongs to the membership. There is as much chance of Kimber, Callinicos et al accepting a majority decision on their collective defenestration than Socialist Worker becoming readable over night. And if any reader who's a member of another far left group is feeling particularly smug about this, ask yourself. Would your own revolutionary leadership submit to being bumped down to rank-and-file status after an open and democratic political struggle?

The second problem is far more serious. To put it bluntly, the SWP is fucked. Two minutes on an internet search by any new member will quickly turn up the dark heart of their organisation. In the wider labour movement, where it does not become a propaganda gift to those who'd like to see the back of the SWP, 'normal' trade unionists, activists, campaigners, all the people the SWP have tried to court over the years will prove far more reticent to associate with them. 

The SWP opposition haven't grasped this either. Even in the best case scenario, if the CC is expunged and replaced by an entirely new cadre of activists AND the culture and practice reformed to something approaching sane politics, the name and brand of the SWP is forever tainted. They are toxic. They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no 'democracy commissions' or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It's game over, comrades.

Where now? The SWP can remain more or less coherent, organisationally, but lose hundreds of activists and dwindle its way to oblivion. Or it can blow apart in all directions in one or several splits. Other organisations will scoop up some of the activists, including Labour, but, as has historically been the case with socialists burned  by the SWP, most will retreat from politics and the labour movement altogether. The responsibility for that outcome lies solely at the feet of its central committee and those stupid enough to blindly follow them.