After Grenfell We Need A Complete Rethink of Rights and Resources – Not a Government Whitewash

The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame.  Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks.  But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.

The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country.  During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.

Firstly the terrorist attacks.  As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers put in an appearance in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough.  Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.  Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities.  The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers.  Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.

Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions.   Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed.  But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change.  What is needed is a nationwide culture shift

So again, it is an issue of resources.  The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things don./ The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost.  Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell.  Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.  The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK  the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).

Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies.  Time for true methods of contestability in this country.

Being Lectured by Beneficiaries of Inherited Wealth is Bad Enough, but the Hypocrisy is Worse!

We are constantly lectured by people who live with the advantage of signifiant inherited wealth.  There was George Osborne telling us how we needed austerity to make everything well again in the economy, Ian Duncan Smith saying how disabled and other vulnerable folk needed to be ‘encouraged’ or ‘incentivised’ back to work and Jacob Rees-Mogg banging on about how the Victorians would not have stood for all this welfare nonsense, They extol the virtues of hard work, thrift and standing on your own two feet while easing back on significant assets culled from someone else’s hard work which was simply handed down to them.

I am assuming the assets were gained by hard work, but as we know this is only occasionally true. The Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Estate for example, was established by Hugh Audley, a kind of seventeenth century asset shark and rip-off merchant.  Strangely these people are not keen on developing schemes which would give everyone these sort of advantages, no matter how small, initially. So I suggest levelling up the playing field a little.

Take the Children’s Trust Fund (CTF) set up in 2002 by Gordon Brown.  Until the Coalition Government scrapped the scheme in 2011 this provided a tool to make a start.  The idea behind the CTF was simple, when a baby was born a fund was set up with the Government putting in £250, additional private contributions being allowed but limited to about £4000 per year.  At age 18 the fund was turned over to the young adult.  Of course the scheme was ended by just those politicians from privilege backgrounds who said we couldn’t afford it, but the Money Advice Service have a brief description of the scheme.

So the ideas are already there, we just need to bring them back, but this time make it meaningful. Lets start with the Government giving starting each account with £2000 and adding a further £2000 at age 14.  Additional private payments should be strictly limited.  The whole scheme could be funded by increasing inheritance and other forms of wealth tax.  By the way, in the USA authors Ackermann and Alstott in their book The Stakeholder Society suggesting paying each American $80,000 at age 18!  Even allowing for growth of assets we would be struggling to get our initial £2000 anywhere near the equivalent in 18 years but it is an aspiration. If there is any doubt about whether someone will act responsibly with the fund, bear in mind that no-one assesses whether the Duke of Westminster, Duncan Smith or Rees-Mogg were ‘responsible’ enough to control significant assets?

Is this post simply based on jealousy?.No.  It has long been understood (since at least the 17th Century) that freedom is inextricably linked to the availability of sufficient personal economic and social resources. Financial domination and oppression can be equally as damaging as political domination and are frequently interlinked (as we can see!). These issues are, of course, tied in with the traditional radical concerns with greater equality and inclusion in society. Basically, to be genuinely free and allow an exercise of citizenship you need assets.

The re-establishment of a ramped up CTF is a very small start and politics will not be suddenly full of people from normal backgrounds elbowing the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Rees-Mogg aside. It should be part of a range of actions including the increasingly popular Citizens Basic Income for one. The fact that even small schemes to provide the sort of help enjoyed by the wealthy boys and girls are trashed the very people who already benefit is, sadly, no surprise. But that does not mean we should put up with it!

‘Let It Shine’ – On an Unsavoury World of Grace and Favour

graftFor the past month the focus of the world’s press has been on the new incumbent of the White House.  Understandably, much concern revolves around the firewall which separates Donald Trump the President from Donald Trump the businessman. The gossamer nature of this separation is, of course, worrying to those who value the liberty and dignity of citizens, since through the ages autocratic leaders have effectively facilitated the use of slave labour in private enterprises through tight political control.  But rather than looking  askance at the manipulation of the US institutions for personal gain it is worth considering an example much closer to home. Although in no way approaching the scale of Trump. the recent career of entertainer Gary Barlow provides a model of how a system of autocratic patronage operates and how it serves to subvert the aims and ambitions of an open society.

The murky background to Let It Shine

I am not a fan of Gary Barlow so I am poorly placed to judge whether his new primetime Saturday evening show, Let It Shine is good or otherwise. Undoubtedly he is a popular entertainer with musical talent as his many awards testify, but the quality or ability of Barlow as an artist is not the point of this post.  Rather, it is the place which he occupies in the British establishment and the effect this has on our society. Now, as this article by Hannah Furness in The Telegraph shows, I am certainly not the first to query the wisdom of the BBC in giving Barlow a brand new series. The problem is not wholly to do with Barlow’s tax-dodging past, although that will feature in my argument a little later.  The main issue is that the BBC is once again following a format (for example Any Dream Will Do) of using the production as a talent spotting content for a putative musical show planned by Barlow called The Band. This is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of the rise of boy band Take That, which projected him to wealth and fame.

As far as we can tell the BBC has no commercial stake in the forthcoming musical so our money is being used to provide national advertising for a private production. This issue has been raised before, most pointedly in 2008 by none other than director of the Old Vic Theatre Kevin Spacey who protested at the free promotion being given to Andrew Lloyd Webber (Lord Webber, by the way. one of Barlow’s collaborators) musicals, especially Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Was Spacey justified? Apparently, as Furness points out, he was:

At the time [2008], a study by the Society of London Theatre found theatregoers were 47 per cent more likely to go to shows after seeing the musical television tie-in, dubbing it the “Saturday night TV effect.  

The Band musical is being produced by David Pugh Ltd and as no details have been released on funding or budget profile we are effectively ignorant of the commercial aspects of this enterprise.  We cannot know whether our licence money is directly lining the pockets of the less than socially conscious Barlow. The essential question is whether the BBC itself has any idea since it was they who approached Barlow to make Let It Shine!

A World of Grace and Favour

Should we have concerns about the financial activities of Barlow? I think so. It is less than three years since Barlow, along with two other members of Take That, was found to be putting money into a scheme ruled by the courts to be a tax dodge. The three band members were ordered to pay back  £20 million (!), a sum which they were clearly not keen to refund almost a year later as this report from April 2015 indicates. Bizarrely the BBC themselves highlighted a central issue of the debate which was the question of whether Barlow should be made to relinquish his OBE given to him by Elizabeth Windsor after he organised her ‘Diamond Jubilee’ concert in 2012. I have blogged previously about the iniquities of the honours system but here was a clear example of someone getting a gong for services rendered,  presumably the grotesquely privileged equivalent of mates rates!  Predictably, then Prime Minister David Cameron opposed a suggestion by Margaret Hodge, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of removing the honour.

At this point it is worth remembering the citation of the OBE which states it was awarded to Barlow for services to the Entertainment Industry and to Charity. The argument advanced by Cameron and others  was that his tax-dodging antics had nothing to do with his charitable work so the OBE should still stand.  But things are not so clear cut and charities actually receive a lot of funds from the public purse. As Zoe Williams succinctly put it in an article:

In fact, paying tax and giving to charity are connected, and if you avoid the former, you leave a gaping hole in the social fabric that must be darned by the latter. It’s like overlooking all the landmines a person planted, then giving them an MBE for money raised in the service of prosthetic limbs.

Williams goes on to make the point that there were precedents for stripping titles under similar circumstances (e.g. removing Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s knighthood) so this action was entirely reasonable.

So its now possible to see just how the system works. Gary Barlow is famous through his membership of the boy band Take That which makes a lot of money partly because of the BBC (just as for most popular UK artists). Barlow’s fame gets him the gig to organise Elizabeth Windsor’s Golden Jubilee concert,  which favour nets him an OBE. As a by-product of all this Barlow is wealthy enough to employ experts and participate in a tax scheme which diverts money legally belonging to the public purse. Barlow is recently approached by a BBC, angry at losing The Voice show to ITV and prepared to overlook Barlow’s misdemeanours in an attempt to chase ratings, despite being told by politicians not to do so. Barlow’s Let It Shine is generating free publicity for his new stage show which will virtually guarantee its success.  The BBC is thus complicit in boosting audiences for a private venture, the funding of which is unknown (possibly even to the BBC).  The continued possession of the OBE effectively justifies the whole putrid arrangement.

What links Gary Barlow to the Windsors and much of the rest of the British establishment is the desire for a grace and favour society in which they choose which social causes receive support (and who should get honours!).  But such a society where resources are allocated on the whim and predilection of the wealthy and privileged  is inimical to an open society where we all decide where resources should go and, in turn, we can all canvas public support for causes which are important to us. As I pointed out at the start, Barlow’s activities are trivial compared with the possibilities which may open up to Trump. But bear in mind that Barlow is merely one example, though a useful one as the facts are in the public domain allowing us to see the mechanism in operation. Grace and favour should have died with the nineteenth century!

Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

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Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
    dust,
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
    ban,
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”

JD Sports, Poverty Conditions and the Zimbardo Experiment

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Zimbardo Experiment

For years we have been warned that Government policy was returning us to Victorian era working conditions. While things are clearly different in many respects, such as no child labour and greatly reduced physical risks to name but two, there is evidence that in the social sphere this has now happened in some areas of Britain. But it is not in terms of the palpable outward employment conditions that this manifests itself nost starkly, but in the attitude of the various layers of worker, supervisor and owner.

JD Sports:  Queuing to get in and out of ‘Prison’

Following the revelations of working conditions at retailers Amazon and Sports Direct the December 14th Channel 4 News special report on working conditions at JD Sports confirmed what we already suspected.  Oppressive working conditions in many major retailers are the norm rather than the exception with practices which are at best borderline illegal. The report contained shocking footage of low wage workers being forced to queue for hours in the cold to get in and out of the Rochdale distribution warehouse. Employee contracts state that such queueing had to be undertaken in their time thus reducing the actual wage rate per hour for the job below the statutory minimum. With the cost being borne completely by the worker there is no incentive for the company to either improve its practices or review its draconian security arrangements.

Aside from the physical hardship there were two particularly disturbing aspects of the report involving the attitudes displayed by both the agency staff (supplied by Assist Recruitment) and their supervisors. As the lowest rung of management the floor supervisors themselves can be earning only a little more than the minimum wage agency staff who comprise their charges.  Yet on a number of occasions in the report, bourne out by subsequent anecdotal reports, the supervisors could be seen behaving in ways both oppressive and, at times, inhuman .  The second disturbing aspect was the use of the word ‘prison’  to describe conditions at the Rochdale warehouse. I consider these two aspects are related and create a toxic environment of working conditions which are similar to those of Victorian mines and factories.

The 1971 Stanford University Experiment

In 1971 a notorious psychological experiment was carried out at Stanford University in California by Philip Zimbardo.  Funded by the US Government via the Navy its aim was to study the the evolution of norms and the effects of roles and social expectations in a simulated prison (actually the basement at Stanford).  The details of the setting up, running and conclusions of this highly controversial experiment are beyond the scope of this blog and I can give only the briefest of outlines.  Further information is freely available including this helpful website associated with a documentary film of the experiment. and this very readable desription.

Continue reading “JD Sports, Poverty Conditions and the Zimbardo Experiment”

What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn

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Thomas Rinborough

In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:

..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;

All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can  learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:

I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.

As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason.  Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.

Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values

Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.

Continue reading “What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn”

Senator Bernie Sanders is Right About Oligarchy; But the Warning is Over 2 Thousand Years Old!

We humans pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt. So it must be a triumph of greed over intellect that well we fall into the same traps despite being warned about them for over two thousand years!!. Nowhere is this more stark than with the rise of oligarchy, the problem where a small group of people gain control of a country or an organisation. Writing as long ago as the 4th Century BC the philosopher Aristotle identified oligarchy as a deviant form of aristocracy and pointed to  two specific aspects which concern us at this time.  Firstly he regarded wealth as the important issue in the rise to prominence of a few powerful rulers.  Secondly, he regarded an oligarchy as ruling solely for its own benefit (hence deviant), disregarding the plight of the poor and dispossessed.

So its worth spending a little time finding out what we can learn from the beardy old Greek thinker. Aristotle warned that rule by the few alone (just like the rule of an absolute monarch or unrestrained democracy) is unstable and liable to collapse. In fact in America and Europe today the power of the few has grown markedly while the power of democratic forces have been consequently in decline.  In the US this is exactly the danger which former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been warning about.  As a result, aside from the election of Trump, it has brought about an increased threat of instability and authoritarian government in almost every western country.

But we can learn a lot more from those old Greeks.  For a start, Aristotle was writing from experience of oligarchic rule which mobilised sages, poets and artists in the maintenance of their power.  Discussing public speech in a republic, Barry Strauss noted that:

The Sophists, with their corrosive relativism, taught rich and talented young greeks that power was better than truth.  Socrates [Aristotle’s illustrious predecessor] sat out the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian war’.

Who were the Sophists? They were peripatetic intellectual coaches who taught the children of wealthy ‘excellence’ in order to gain power and fame. So little difference from our modern day Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, apart from the fact that the students travel to them rather than the other way around!  Strauss’s point about corrosive relativism is telling with ancient poets and artists now being replaced by journalists, branding and PR experts employed in media outlets.  Today we call it ‘post-truth’ journalism, beloved of both the hard copy media such as The Sun newspaper and online outlets such as Breitbart. Socrates may have ‘sat out’, as Strauss puts it, the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy, but such disengagement is not advisable in the modern age or we may experience the reappearance of the find the mass slavery of his time.

In the Spirit Level book Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out how initial wealth inequalities become entrenched into a class system.  They state:

Over time,  crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity. Think for example of how the comparatively recent emergence of huge income differences in Russia will come to affect class structure.  when the children of the new Russian oligarchs have grown up in grand houses, attended private schools and travelled the world they will have developed all the cultural trappings of an upper class.

Apart from Russia, there are many examples of this happening, especially in the United States.  Already some members of the Democratic Party speak of persuading the Clinton daughter Chelsea to stand for President thus proving that at least some are intent on repeating the disaster of Hillary’s candidature. The only saving grace is that the Trump family look to be making the same mistake with daughter Ivanka raising eyebrows with her presence at some early high level meetings alongside her father. To the great surprise of almost no-one, rather than ending the Washington oligarchies, Trump is simply replacing them with new forms including his own family.

In the UK we have lived with this reciprocal arrangement of wealth and power for a long time.  The House of Lords, once the bastion of aristocratic power (though to what extent they fulfilled Aristotle’s claim of wielding power with the poor in mind is, to say the least, doubtful) is rapidly in the process of turning into a seat of oligarchic power. The fact that the transformation is not yet complete can be seen in their flat rejection of George Osborne’s punitive Tax Credit cuts.  But time is short and reform is now desperately urgent in the over bloated chamber.  The scandal of rewarding corporate donors with seats in the Lords is a well-known scandal.

So can we do anything about oligarchy as individuals. Unfortunately this is where the Greek experience can no longer help us since their solution was to apply their advice to prevent oligarchy arising in the first place and civil war is hardly a recommended remedy. But we are not powerless. Firstly, we can overcome ‘post-truth’ politics by looking at a variety of news media, combined with twitter and other online sources. Also, combine it with what you actually see in your daily life. Are people sleeping rough, what are NHS services like, and so on.  Then draw people’s attention to it.  Secondly, there is an idea gaining ground that voting changes nothing.  But tell that to Trump’s supporters! Make no mistake the current economic system was facilitated by politicians. Claiming they are powerless is a convenient distraction from this simple truth. A different system can be instigated by electing more egalitarian-minded politicians. Ownership of news media can be restricted and the rules on corporate board composition can be changed. ‘Too big to fail’ banks can be broken up. In reality it will take an international change to bring about profound and lasting improvement, but the UK with the City of London means that we can punch way above our economic weight in controlling corporations. So, whenever possible vote for a representative in any General or By-Election whom you think represents the best chance of change irrespective of their party. Vote for an individual, not a party. Finally join and support a party whose aims are to being about the end of oligarchy. Don’t be like Socrates the philosopher, don’t give up and sit this out!!