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Auntie Behaving Badly

October 31, 2011 2 comments

Yesterday I read an article in The Spectator. It was by Douglas Murray. Yes, I’ll wait until you’ve finished vomiting in fury.

Better now? Then I’ll continue.

The article concerned his visit to OccupyLSX at St Pauls and was the usual ill researched and specious ‘opinion’ piece which denigrated a worldwide movement based on appearance and the author’s own festering prejudice. Below the line the Thatcherite monkeys hooted agreement and threw their shit at each other but one comment stood out for me:

“Who needs the echo in St Pauls when you have a national Marxist echo chamber in the BBC?”

I know, laughable isn’t it? As with Murray’s own assertion that the SWP are seeking to bring about ‘Stalinism’ and another commenter worrying about the noise from anti war protester Brian Haw’s megaphone in Parliament Square (Haw died earlier this year), it’s just another example of how ludicrously detached the Spectator and its readership are from reality.

My snorts of derision were hollow ones, though, as the BBC does seem to be an echo chamber at the moment, but for the neo-liberal discourse spouted by the government, and in all honesty Labour, although perhaps to a slightly lesser degree than under Blairism.

Back in March I wrote a piece on on the huge march and rally against the cuts. Unable to attend I instead sat in front of my PC and BBC News 24 and watched events unfold. It was an inspiring occasion with half a million people taking to the streets to protest the ideological chainsaw the government is taking to public services, but one of those very services was doing its best to hold the government line. First up on the BBC we had a representative of the Taxpayers Alliance (whose leader lives in France, I believe) who actually uttered those three nonsensical words: “gold plated pensions”. Then there was Francis Maude, tieless and chummy, declaring his sympathies with the protesters, but, you know, it was all Gordon Brown’s fault. These two interviews went unchallenged despite there being plenty of evidence available to do so.

I am but a mere citizen who sometimes spews his thoughts on to the interweb and yet I was aware of the counter arguments out there, and not just from lefty ‘anarchists’ like me, but from major unions and Nobel Prize winning economists. There was an interview with an anti cuts campaigner, but this was conducted via a link to the heart of the march, not in a comfortable studio, and the answers given were openly challenged and implicitly derided by the BBC journo on duty. Meanwhile, the comments of the Taxpayers Alliance and Francis Maude were repeated every half hour or so, hammering home the ‘necessity’ of the cuts and how it was all Brown’s fault. I imagine that in 2019 when a scandal involving a senior Tory is announced, all they’ll need to do is stand up and say “It’s Brown’s fault” and they’ll be off the hook.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how the political discourse has shifted significantly over the last 30 years or so to the extent that what you couldn’t imagine even a Tory MP openly saying, such as increasing tuition fees or privatising healthcare, is now said openly by Labour MPs. Neo-liberalism with its hatred of public services and championing of the ‘individual’ and the markets is now the lingua franca of Western politics, and the main parties in the UK have embraced it. If it is clear to me that the last three decades have seen gradual creep of an ideological project started by Thatcher and her advisers, not even challenged but continued by Blair, and jumped on with gleeful relish by Cameron, then surely the better qualified and placed journalists/commentators of the BBC can see it. And yet there is no acknowledgement of the neo-liberal project’s role in our current predicament, of how lack of regulation and, indeed, blatant pandering to the markets brought about crisis. Meanwhile the IMF, World Bank and WTO merrily chuckle as the strife they have caused is blamed on ‘public spending’ and sharpen their ideological axes.

The meek acceptance and amplification of this discourse by the BBC continues apace with its current programming. Last week we were given John Humphrys’ take on ‘welfare Britain’ wherein we were treated to much anecdotal ‘evidence’ but no hard facts. The BBC and television in general likes these programmes as they can be presented as ‘hard hitting’ factual pieces fulfilling a remit to ‘educate’. In reality they’re a cheap (in all sense of the word) way to fill a prime time slot with a guaranteed audience, cos we all like kicking downwards, don’t we? There was also the series ‘Saints and Scroungers’, and we’re soon to have a ‘special’ on benefit fraud. Ask yourself this, who has taken more out of the economy: benefit ‘cheats’ or tax ‘avoiders’? I wonder if we’ll see a programme where Philip Green is filmed undercover and then when confronted stammers that it was so much harder to live on £250 million than £500 million, and, well, everyone was doing it so why not him?

This spate of implicit attacks by the BBC on the welfare state also suffers from somewhat iniquitous timing, coming as it does when the coalition is feverishly pushing the Welfare Reform Bill thought parliament. Coincidence?

What to do? A boycott of the BBC has been suggested, but the problem there is that it does so much good otherwise: the excellent documentaries on BBC4; Frozen Planet on BBC1; a five part series on words (yes, words!) on BBC2; News Quiz on R4; comedy gems that shine through the dross. A highlight of the week for me is Monday evenings where University Challenge is followed by Only Connect, two erudite and challenging quizzes that test me and give an inordinate sense of well being when I get a question right (bloody hell, am I middle class?).

Perhaps another tack would be to ask those sympathetic to the cause to withdraw their services, such as the wonderful likes of Josie Long, Mark Thomas, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel etc.?

It’s a true dilemma because I genuinely love the BBC and fervently believe that it offers something for everyone at what is a very reasonable price, especially when you consider what people pay for the likes of Sky and Virgin, and the built in costs of advertising we all pay for goods and services that tout their wares on commercial television.

In its attempts to ‘rationalise’ the cuts it is making, the government has embarked on a campaign to demonise ALL who claim any sort of ‘benefit’, aided by comments about the deserving and undeserving poor from Ed Miliband. It is to be expected that the explicitly right wing media would join in, but the BBC as well? The shame is that of all the hundreds of journalists and commentators currently employed by the BBC I only really have respect for one, that being Paul Mason. That can’t be right, surely? Perhaps the death of Jimmy Saville is being mourned by a BBC commissioner this week as that idea of bringing back ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ has to be shelved. In the new incarnation Jim would grant benefits and council houses to his correspondents, but only to those who deserve them.

See below some links relevant to this piece:

Letter to the Guardian on BBC anti welfare bias

Sue Marsh’s excellent blog

Left Foot Forward on why John Humphrys is wrong

Back to reality…

October 24, 2011 1 comment

Is there anything more enjoyable than sitting in the park on a sunny morning listening to music? This thought crossed my mind today as a pair of happy labradors gambolled past the bench I was sitting on and Afrique’s ‘House of the Rising Funk’ came on my headphones. Well, there are possibly a fair number of things that are more enjoyable, but after a few days of being unwell it felt grand enough to me.

I’m not sure what was wrong with me. I walked the mile to the park this morning with ease whereas on Friday I was wobbly two minutes after leaving the flat. And then the depression kicked in as well. As fellow sufferers will be aware, there’s nothing to ratchet up the low mood than a bout of physical illness. Thus the weekend passed with snatched bouts of unsettled sleep interspersed with hours of melancholy nothingness – I couldn’t even find the energy to try and distract myself with the internet; it was that bad.

This worried me as I may well be starting my new job next week, assuming my references and other bits and bobs are OK, and I need to be fit for that. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that my sudden revival led to such feelings of contentment this morning, fleeting as they were.

I’ve learned that depression, the form I have being cyclic rather than reactive, can strike at any time regardless of what’s happening in my life. Right now I have a new job to look forward to after the two and a half years of hell my former employers put me through, so life is good, right? I know that what happened to me at my old workplace is still affecting me as when I did sleep I dreamed I was back there doing my old job. I’ve also learned that depression can affect me physically and so perhaps the ‘illness’ I had was a manifestation of my mental state, speaking in Freudian terms.

Having said that, after picking up an Auster and a book on Anarchism from the library, I arrived home with a limp and a sock drenched in blood, but that’s another, slightly gruesome story. Despite that, today was a good day after a weird weekend of listlessness, lethargy and melancholy. With depression, it’s vital to try and remember that for every down there’s an up. Usually. It’s good to be back.

Photos from OccupyLSX 17/10/11

October 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Go get organized!

October 13, 2011 Leave a comment

In 2004 the fragrant Oliver Letwin reportedly told a private meeting that “the NHS will not exist” within five years of a Conservative government being elected. Letwin ‘furiously denied’ that he had said any such thing and that the Tories were in no way planning massive public spending cuts should they come to power (although he freely admitted earlier this year that public sector workers should be “scared and disciplined”).

And yet here we are.

The relatively untroubled (at least within Westminster) passage of the government’s NHS reform bill means that we are one step closer to the beginning of the end of what is globally recognised to be one of the finest health services in operation. It was closer than it could have been, thanks to strenuous campaigning; as 38 Degrees have pointed out, it would have taken just 35 Lords to vote for Lord Owen’s amendment for the bill to have been passed to a special committee, something the government have conceded would have all but killed off the bill. In the end the Labour and Tory Lords voted as to be expected, the cross benchers were evenly divided, but 80 Lib Dem Lords voted against the amendment with only two voting for. Clegg and his fellow quislings have truly sold their souls to the devil and seem hell bent on sowing the seeds of their future destruction in exchange for some fleeting ‘glory’, to be seen as true power brokers after nearly a century in the political wilderness.

The selling off of the NHS is not a new scheme for the Tories – they first started planning it in the early Thatcher years as part of a tranche of such schemes colloquially known as “selling off the family jewels”. The 80s saw national behemoths such as the utilities companies, already paid for and operated by public money, sold back to ‘us’ in the name of the markets. Twenty plus years on we now see those companies declaring ever greater profits while charging ever higher prices. The Tories realised that doing the same to the NHS would be a much harder task and so concentrated on the ‘assets’ that were easier to dispose of. Once Thatcher was ousted, while the political will may have remained, the gradual disintegration of their government over the following six years meant that the NHS was ‘safe’.

However, the first inroads had been made and the ‘internal market’ was introduced in 1990, the first sign of competition within the NHS. Labour loudly denounced this move and declared the Tories’ intent to privatise the NHS, and on coming to power in 1997 Tony Blair promised to remove the internal market saying in December that year:

“The White Paper we are publishing today marks a turning point for the NHS. It replaces the internal market with “integrated care”… Our approach combines efficiency and quality with a belief in fairness and partnership. Comparing not competing will drive efficiency.”

Surprise surprise, by the time of his second term Blair had renounced this and instead looked to the internal market as a key part of his plans to modernise the NHS. Since then many internal services have been ‘outsourced’, for which we can read ‘privatised’. Most notable to the public among these have been the cleaning and catering services, today two of the most criticised aspects of the NHS.

Another branch of this creeping privatisation of the NHS has been the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). First introduced under the Tories led by John Major in 1992, PFI was again roundly denounced by Labour in opposition but by the time they achieved power in 1997 it had suddenly become a good thing. Doublespeak, anyone?

The point to be made here is that we cannot solely blame the current government for what’s happening. It has a direct lineage from the Tories in 1979, or even earlier under Labour when Denis Healey went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and obtained loans but only in exchange for severe cuts to public services. The IMF, along with the World Bank (both are proponents of PFI), attempts to impose its neo-liberal pro-markets, anti-public sector agenda wherever it sets foot and it is this neo-liberalism which has been at the forefront of UK politics for the past three decades or more, regardless of party colours. One of the main reasons the Tories are attempting to push through the slash and burn reforms to the public sector is that there was no repeal by Labour during their years in power of what had been started under Thatcher; Blairite New Labour instead stood for neo-liberalism and the markets as much as anyone else and so left the path clear for Cameron to ‘purge’. In essence, Labour gave Cameron a head start.

The past 30 years have seen a dramatic change in UK political discourse so that the draconian ‘reforms’ being enacted on us are seen as being ‘common sense’ and ‘practical’, and any opposition is seen as being idealistic and naive. Gordon Brown, far from the overspending saviour of the public sector he is portrayed and often accepted as, said of PFI that its rationale is to:

“…declare repeatedly that the public sector is bad at management, and that only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”

This political discourse is repeated ad nauseum by the mainstream media, from Sky News to the BBC, the intention being to marginalise and disenfranchise those who oppose ‘common sense measures’. Imagine 30 years ago a Labour or Liberal MP suggesting that university grants should be abolished and fees charged; and yet Labour introduced the first charges and the Liberals as part of the coalition have voted for their potentially crippling increase. In those same 30 years we have seen social housing devastated by Right to Buy while neo-liberal policies created and maintained an artificial housing bubble to aid the markets – the result is that not only is buying a property impossible for many, the attendant severely unregulated private rental sector combined with the depletion of social housing stock has left even greater numbers paying unjustifiably high rents for private accommodation of an increasingly bad standard.

The battle at present is understandably focused on the NHS, but the war must be against neo-liberalism. It is this selfish ideology that has led us to our current position where we are told that to want a just and equal society is too idealistic, that we must succumb to ‘common sense’. I can’t accept that. Where I will admit to some naivety is in thinking that Labour would start shrugging off the shackles of neo-liberalism and remember their roots and the achievements of people like Nye Bevan; but with their fear of being seen to back ‘radical’ actions such as the huge March 30th demo and the mass strike action, and their admitting at conference that they will not reverse actions being taken by the coalition, it is clear that they are still part of the neo-liberal discourse that now dominates our lives.

Today we have seen the publication of two reports focusing on the ‘failings’ of the NHS. A cynical person could say that the timing of these reports is somewhat coincidental what with yesterday’s vote in the Lords; that these reports show the need for ‘reform’ in the NHS. While I am cynical, I would agree that there is need for ‘reform’; that the systemic failings shown in these reports are the consequence of the de facto privatisation which has already happened, and that further marketisation of the NHS can only make things worse. I wonder how it will be reported in the mainstream media…

We must now look to ourselves to be the agents of change. Mass actions have already happened and will continue to do so, and we must make them matter. Without the pressure applied by the half a million people signed up to 38 Degrees’ campaign to save the NHS, the bill may have already been passed. I have listed some links below that give ideas of what can be done, and there are many others out there to be found. Please read them, share them, get organised, and make a stand. This is happening all over the world, make it happen here.

An excellent piece on activism by Tim Hardy

Stuart Hall on neo-liberalism

The 38 Degrees website

The TUC website

UK Uncut

The Global Nonviolent Action Database

The Coalition of Resistance

Occupy London

Occupy Manchester

Back to life…

October 7, 2011 1 comment

It was Wednesday morning when Snowboy’s ’24 For Betty Page’ started playing. As it’s the ringtone for my phone I thought I’d better see who was disturbing my melancholy stupor. A quick look at the screen revealed that the call was coming from the local council. I answered.

Two minutes later, pending HR’s various machinations, I had a job. Can I tell you how I felt immediately after disconnecting the call? Probably not, words can’t do it justice.

Following redundancy from my housing officer post I’ve been unemployed for 6 months now. The first couple of months were spent pretty fruitlessly before I eventually discovered the various ‘tools’ available to me in my quest for validation as a sentient being. Then I started getting interviews; I’ve had three, the last being the successful one. Judging by the thwarted efforts of others to find work it was indeed a case of third time lucky.

The first interview was just for ‘ a job’, no real interest in the work, but it was near to home and it was something. Then I had an interview for a role in housing in an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO). I had doubts about this as I am opposed to ALMOs, a device brought in by Blairite Labour which is essentially the first step to privatisation of council stock; it was also not the kind of housing work I would prefer to do and am good at (he said modestly), but it was a housing job. Anyway, my doubts proved unnecessary as I didn’t get it, but I was told I had done well to reach the last eight out of two hundred applicants. That’s right, TWO HUNDRED applicants for one job. An indication there of just how difficult it is to find work and, perhaps more pointedly, how difficult it will be for public sector workers to find work in their chosen field.

My third interview was with the library service of my local authority. This one I wanted. It wasn’t housing but it was working for something I passionately believe in. The first part of the interview was a role play (eep!) wherein I had to recommend a book to a ‘punter’. They gave me a choice of three and five minutes to prepare – I went for the Hunchback of Notre Dame and proceeded to natter on about themes of love and acceptance, Quasimodo being a prime example of the grotesque in literature etc., and got through it. I then waffled on about how great libraries are and about my excitement at getting my very own library tickets when I was seven. I say ‘waffled’ but it was all genuine; I do think libraries are great, to the extent that the panel must have thought they were interviewing a hyper enthusiastic over sized teddy bear. Or something.

And it worked! I got the job!

I’m under no illusions that there will be a certain amount of shelf stacking and other such dreary tasks, but I had to do a lot of filing as a housing officer as well. Such mundanities are essential to the running of important services. I was proud to be a housing officer, and I’ll be proud to be a librarian. My grin is as wide as that of the Unseen University’s head librarian.

Me, on Wednesday

Despite my own good fortune, my thoughts are with the countless number of people who are suffering and will suffer the consequences of our neoliberal leaders and their financial follies. Cameron and Clegg tell us we’re all in this together but it’s not them or their corporate and finance friends who are paying the price, it’s us. That’s why one of the first things I’ll be doing is joining the union, and one of the next things is striking on November 30th. We must continue to show our opposition to the unfair and unwarranted attack on our society by government and its global paymasters. I may soon be back at work, but I’ll never be alright, Jack, while injustice and inequality exist.