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Archive for April, 2012

Unrealpolitik

April 25, 2012 1 comment

What does it take to be a senior minister in the current government? Political intelligence? Clear thinking and well focused policy ideas? Public school education? A few million quid? I ask as it is increasingly clear that the current shower is possibly the worst we have ever had. I say this not only in terms of tribal politics or ideology, but with regard to just how staggeringly bad they are at justifying and implementing their plans to destroy society and place neoliberal capitalism at the heart of everything that runs our lives.

As an olde worlde club comedian might have said, take George Osborne. Please. Now, I’m no economist, but neither is he. And yet this clueless charlatan, a localised black hole for charm and charisma, is making the decisions that will ‘safeguard’ the UK’s financial future. Nobel winning economists and practical examples be damned, austerity is the way forward. And we’ve just slipped back into recession – how’s that working out for you, Gideon? Well, nicely enough as it happens as he has his tax avoiding, multi million trust fund to fall back on. Gideon also claimed to be shocked at the level of tax avoidance being carried out by the richest in the land. Really, G? Stupid, disingenous or an outright liar? You decide.*

Earlier this week Andrew Lansley took time out from destroying the NHS to state that he feels it would be ok to implement regional pay for nurses and hospital ancillary staff. Not the managers, mind, they must be ‘incentivized’ in order to attract the very best. For my views on the infiltration of private sector management methods and ethos into the public sector please see previous posts. Suffice to say, it hasn’t had a positive effect on the ‘service delivery’ that Lansley is so keen on.

This race to the bottom is of course justified by the word ‘competition’ – by driving down public sector wages the private sector will be better able to ‘compete’. No mention of looking at how private industry exploits and underpays its workers. No mention either of how in many areas the public sector is a major part of the local economy – hit the workers financially and you’ll hit the whole area, even the private sector seen by Lansley and his ilk as our saviour. It’s simple cause and effect. Public sector workers are already being hit by wage freezes, in effect cuts, and changes to their pensions – are we now to further penalise people for the simple act of what postcode they live in? Silly question: as most of these postcodes never return Tory candidates, of course we are.

Moving onto Grant Shapps, that paragon of ineptness and flim-flammery. It emerged this week that outlying and more deprived boroughs in London are starting to feel the effect of benefit changes as the low paid and unemployed are cleansed from the more affluent parts of the city. To this end Newham council has attempted to strike a deal whereby people on its housing register can be rehoused. In Stoke-on-Trent. Shapps decried this move and claims Newham is trying to make political capital – this may be true, but it is also a very real thing that is happening. To bolster his viewpoint Shapps offered that he had taken a “quick look” at the website of an East London estate agent and found 1000 “suitable” properties available to rent within 5 miles of Newham. Any questions? Well, yes. How does Shapps define ‘suitable’? How many of these properties are fit for purpose? Are the landlords willing to accept tenants claiming benefits? Why pay large amounts of housing benefit to private individuals rather than smaller rents to councils or RSLs where the money is ‘recycled’ into the local economy? Why ignore the hugely negative impact that fetishization of home ownership and the falsely inflated market it engenders has had? Why relaunch Right to Buy when it has devastated social housing and reduced available, properly affordable housing by over a millions homes? I could go on, but Shapps is the man who suggested that a practical solution to the housing problem was for people to live on boats.

It’s all bollocks, isn’t it? Divorced from reality, ignoring the real issues and aimed at establishing the ruling elite for decades to come. The justifications are weak and can be skewered by a marshmallow, and yet still they come, aided by a weak and quiescent media. For all that I think Paul mason is one of the few decent senior journos left at the BBC, I’m frustrated that he simply doesn’t turn to camera and say “This is just fucking mental”.

One last example of how far this government is removed from the real world? Last night Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared on Newsnight to defend with crass ineptitude the Hulture Secretary, Jeremy Cu… – Louise Mensch, herself such a force for weakness in the Leveson enquiry, declared on Twitter that Rees-Mogg is ‘a legend’. This is just fucking mental.

* the correct answer is ‘all three’

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Spinning into Oblivion

One night a few weeks ago, having paused my Freeview+ box as I was busy doing something, I found myself flicking through the five (no longer) ‘terrestrial’ channels. These can be considered the prime channels in the UK although how long this will be the case once full digital switchover is completed and ingrained viewing habits have adjusted is open to debate. For now, though, these are the channels that attract the highest viewing figures and that most people, almost by default, will turn to first in their quest for televisual nourishment.

On BBC1 there was football, on C4 I can’t really remember. On BBC2 there was a film starring Val Kilmer and I found myself muttering “What is this rubbish with Val Kilmer in it?”, a phrase said every second by someone somewhere across the globe. ITV and Five, however, were both showing the same type of programme, that being TV roulette. These programmes involve attractive presenters presiding over a ‘real table’ where viewers are invited to try their luck every two minutes or so. There are graphics explaining how to bet, different types of bet, table history and also the lucky winners. Meanwhile the presenters gush enthusiastically about how much fun it all is, ever present smiles plastered on their happy faces. But is it all just a bit of fun?

I was watching at just turned midnight on a Saturday, a time when many people will still be up, having returned from the pub or just enjoying the chance for a late night before the Sunday lay in, and here we had 40% of the main TV channels exhorting us to part with our money on a game where the odds are stacked against us. At one point the presenter on the ITV show, Kay, gleefully told us that Jackpot247 had ‘paid out’ nearly £14m in March alone, as if it was some kind of philanthropic organisation such as those headed by socially concerned Victorian capitalists in days gone by. And you could register and receive ‘free money’ to play with! And your first deposit would be matched 100% by Jackpot247! It’s almost as if they’ll be paying you to enjoy all the fun of the spinning wheel. There are other businesses that use the offer of free or cheap initial purchase in order to entice you to use their services, it’s a well known strategy – money off deals at gyms, cheap magazine subscriptions, and of course, drug dealers.

What? Drug dealers, you say? How can you equate a harmless bit of fun with an ‘industry’ that causes so much harm and despair? Look! The smiley woman is smiling, there’s free money, and the on screen stats show us that people are winning. If we register now we could soon see our names up there, Kay told us that, and she’s attractive and smiley. Just as not all drug users are junkies, not all who gamble are compulsive gamblers. There are those who will use narcotics to enhance their fun or help wind down, and there are others who see games of chance as just that, games. Put the money down and you win or lose, either a brief thrill or slight disappointment but nothing more. But what about those who come to need more?

Russell Brand recently stated that addiction is an illness and should be treated as such. He’s right – it’s a mental illness. Be it drugs, drink, gambling or whatever poison that grabs you, a chronic need to indulge in something that is harmful to a person and those around them cannot simply be dismissed as a ‘choice’. In the most severe cases people die because of their addictions, and people do not ‘choose’ to die unless they are suffering and can see no other way to end the pain, or their illness has clouded all reason and they can no longer be held accountable for their actions. Just as someone with a chronic physical illness needs outside help, addicts must be considered similarly vulnerable.

So what drives this illness? There may be different factors but a major player is likely to be a pre-existing vulnerability to mental health problems. Many addicts will already suffer from or be pre-disposed to depression, low self esteem, or anxiety to name but a few conditions. Then we factor in socio-economic conditions and environment, chuck the whole lot in a pot, and a recipe for personal disaster is merrily bubbling away. The final, key ingredient is availability, and for compulsive gamblers this has become the unkindest cut of all.

There is a junction in north London N17 where a road called The Roundway meets Downhills Way, the junction crossed by Lordship Lane. On one corner there used to stand a pub which is now a Paddy Power bookmakers. The opposite corner has a relatively new block of flats at the bottom of which is a Ladbrokes, despite prospective buyers being told at the time of development the retail space would be filled by a Tesco Express or something of that ilk. Just a few doors along from Paddy Power there is a William Hill, again relatively new. Within 50 yards of each other there are three large bookmakers. This junction falls within the borough of Haringey which also contains Wood Green High Road. The stretch of the High Road between Turnpike Lane and Wood Green tube stations, a five minute walk, has eight bookmakers, three of them being Ladbrokes and two William Hill – oh, there are also three ‘amusement’ arcades on the same stretch of road. It has been estimated that Haringey has more than 40 bookmakers in its environs with neighbouring Hackney having a similar number.

It used to be that in order to play roulette you would have to make a trip to one of the few casinos in a city centre, be signed in or recommended, undergo an application process and a waiting period – now you can just visit your local bookies or watch late night television. It doesn’t stop there as the television ‘games’ are all based on websites which can be logged onto and played upon at any time of the day – of course, the high street bookies all have a significant internet presence as well, so you can have ‘fun’ on the roulette table every minute of every day of the year. Of all addictions gambling has become the most accessible, and it is now focused on those who can least afford it.

I mention above socio-economic factors and environment and it is no coincidence that bookmakers are targeting more deprived areas such as Haringey and Hackney. It is in these areas that desperation and a need to ‘escape’ will be found, and the chance of a big win at the local bookies can be irresistible. A combination of poverty, relative or otherwise, need, the aspiration foisted on us by society and availability can be a potent mix, just look at the enduring popularity of the Lotto and its accompanying scratchcards (speaking of which, a current advert joyfully tells us of 2 billion winning cards since their inception, no mention of how many losing cards). As a comparison with Wood Green High Road, the (notoriously) affluent Hampstead High Street has one bookies, a Ladbrokes divested of its ubiquitous red livery in order to ‘fit in’.

People living with day to day money problems will be more prone to anxiety or depression; those who take in the lifestyle aspirations thrust upon them by television and other media and measure their own lives by these images will be taking a hit to their self worth; and there will be people already suffering whose conditions will be exacerbated by their circumstances. Looking for a way of escape but don’t fancy drugs or booze, well now you have “the crack cocaine of gambling” mere yards from your doorstep: no need for applications or waiting periods, just walk in and you can slap a hundred quid on the ‘tables’ straightaway.

As the societal/financial pressures that foster this addiction grow, and the opportunities to feed it increase, small advances have been made in the treatment of problem gambling. A national centre which views the problem as the illness it is and treats it accordingly has been established in central London. The centre does not only apply clinical methods to ‘cure’ problem gambling, it also addresses the other, very real mental health causes that often trigger the effect. There are other centres in… oh, wait, there are no other centres. Never mind, people can always try to solve their problems or escape from them by searching for that elusive win – for those who suffer from this addiction there really is no other choice.