BBC Salaries – The ‘Market Rate’ Argument Is Again Deployed To Defend Greed and Discrimination.

The grotesque salaries paid to BBC presenters including  more than £2.2m to Chris Evans who flopped as a Top Gear presenter (in an echo of banker-like huge rewards for failure) and Gary Lineker at over £1.75m has focussed attention on what is fair reward in an age of austerity.  The eye-catching issue is the gender pay gap which has, rightly, prompted a public outcry and a legal case. But I want to consider a broader aspect of this issue which necessarily impacts the gender inequality and illustrates a number of problems with our broken socio-economic model.

I want to focus on a tired old excuse that has been trotted out once again.  This time the culprit was Today presenter John Humphrys.  Now, to be fair to Mr Humphrys, he was prepared to be interviewed about the salary scandal, unlike some other presenters who mumbled incoherently as they pushed past journalists. Nevertheless the answer was depressingly familiar. ‘Its the market rate’! He said:

I cant explain it but I’ve been with the BBC a long time and its gone up and up and up. I’ve no idea whether I am worth it. However we operate in a market place and I think its difficult for the BBC, Society sets these rules.

But we must ask what is the market in this case?  White male radio presenters able to get up early and ask ill-informed and sometimes ill-judged questions (I heard the Konta interview)? The BBC must remember that it is entering the ‘market’ on our behalf while at the same time itself distorting the market by doing so. Moreover, who defines what ‘the market’ is and what constitutes good value in this market. Would it be white middle-class men?

The real problem is that Humphrys then goes on to contadict this ‘market rate’ defence by saying that, aside from two occasions when they actually cut his salary (so goodness knows what is was before!), the BBC have been simply pushing up his salary since he joined 50 years ago.  Start with £2k and after a while no one notices the gigantic payment. So less ‘market rates’ and more ‘mates rates’!. As with banking and other senior jobs the market place argument is an attempt to deceive, to imply a commercial rigour which simply does not exist! But Humphrys does have one point.  It is the senior managers of the BBC who must be held accountable for these salaries.

Once again market rates are justified in grossly inflating the salaries of the already wealthy and powerful while justifying oppressing those less well-off with little influence. The ‘market rate’ argument is curiously rejected for teachers and nurses who are leaving their profession in droves.  I am in favour of the BBC. I consider that there is a place for a medium which is not dependant upon commercial interests. But the needs to be a radical reform of the BBC, just as there needs to be a radical reform of private sector corporate governance.  What has been revealed at the BBC must also be revealed in the commercial world.

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 appeared 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 done. 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!

JD Sports, Poverty Conditions and the Zimbardo Experiment

stanford
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”

A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.

We Need a Democratic Revolution of Investment Potential

The death of one of the richest men in the UK, Gerald Grosvenor the 6th Duke of Westminster, earlier this year (August 2016) threw into relief the gross inequality of wealth in the UK. The Grosvenor estate was established by Hugh Ardley in the 17th Century, who was no shrinking violet as can be seen from this ‘way to riches’ biography of his life. The outrageous aspect of the Grosvenor estate is that via a system of trusts the Estate pays almost no Inheritance Tax! It is a strong temptation to call for the state to simply seize the Grosvenor Estate and bring it into public ownership.  While I am all in favour of abolishing hereditary titles, such a call actually reveals a much more widespread and deepseated problem with in our current neo-libertarian approach to economics, that of exactly who controls the means of investment. Supposing we did in fact ‘nationalize’ the Grosvenor Estate. That means the Government will possess over £9bn worth of property which will be practically worthless unless the assets are sold.  So an equally important question is not only who controls the assets but who controls the investment potential generated by those assets.  Clearly by avoiding taxes the Grosvenors themselves are actually enjoying the full investment potential of the estate.

Investigating the ownership of investment potential as well as the assets reveals the true extent of the gross unbalanced nature of our society. An example from a different domain is the contract for controversial nuclear power station Hinckley Point C.  The construction of an as yet unproven model of power station is being funded by the French EDF power company but only on the basis that the UK electricity consumer (yes us again) buys the electricity at much above market rates for decades to come. But what if the unproven reactor design requires extensive and expensive modification?  Will the government really hold EDF to its contract and possibly bankrupt the company? The substantial potential returns on the installation are privatised while it appears that the risk is, once again, borne by the public.

But there are other models of investment, some of which operate in the United States which is often held up as a paragon of private owner capitalism.  A closer view reveals a more complex interaction of public and private ownership, a particularly interesting example being the New York Power Authority. The NYPA is a publicly owned power generating company in New York State which claims to be one of the most efficient generators in the US, tasked with developing renewable sources and providing cheap power to not-for-profit organisations and small businesses.   But we can go further than this with the massive potential in Pension Funds and other schemes.  Open up these funds to the control of their investors and a more democratic system of investment becomes possible. The question of the democratization of investment potential is every bit as important as who actually controls wealth with which, of course, it is inextricably linked.

‘Ye are many, they are few!’; More Inspiration From the Poet Shelley

shelley masqueThe anniversary of two events of primary importance in our radical history occur in August; the birth of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 4th (in 1792) and the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England on the 16th (in 1819).  Last week my thoughts Shelley’s great Poetical Essay on the State of Things was published on openDemocracy and it is a suitable moment to consider the relevance of another of his great works inspired by events in Manchester, the Masque of Anarchy (you can read it here).  Like the openDemocracy article, this post is neither intended as a literary study of Shelley’s work nor an account of the origins of Shelley’s radical opinions. There are many people far better qualified for this task and I can only draw your attention to two examples, Paul Foot’s excellent article from 2006 or the materials on this fascinating blogsite by Graham Henderson. In both my openDemocracy article and the present post I have two aims. Firstly to outline my claim to Shelley as part of the tradition with which I identify and secondly to assess the importance of Shelley’s work and the invaluable lessons it has for us now.

Although popular pressure had been building for reform since the start of the French Revolution in 1789, economic depression and high unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 intensified demands for change. In 1819 a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn. The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial.

Shelley was in Italy when news reached him of the events in Manchester and he set down his reaction in the poem Masque of Anarchy (sometimes Mask of Anarchy) which contains the immortal lines contained in the title of my post. The work simmers over 93 stanzas with a barely controlled rage leading to a call to action and a belief that the approach of non-violent resistance (an approach followed by Gandhi two centuries later) would allow the oppressed of England to seize the moral high ground and achieve victory. Such was the power of the poem that it did not appear in public until 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act which extended the voting franchise.

Anarchy – Chaos and Confusion as a Method of Control

An excellent place to start thinking about the relevance of the poem is with the eponymous evil villain, Anarchy. He leads a band of three tyrants which are identified as contemporary politicians, Murder (Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh),  Fraud ( Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon) and Hypocrisy (Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth).  But Shelley widens the cast of villains in his description to include the Church, Monarchy and Judiciary.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

The promotion of anarchy with its attendant fear of chaos and disorder was one of the most serious accusations which could be levelled at authority. The avoidance of anarchy was also a concern of English radicals ever since the Civil War in the 1640s and Shelley was making the gravest personal attack  with his explicit individual accusations.  But Shelley’s attack is pertinent, the implicit threat of confusion and chaos to subdue a population for political ends is something which we experience today.   The feeling of powerlessness which can result from an apparently confusing and chaotic situation is something which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’.  In our own time he has identified recent Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as deliberately using such a tactic. Likewise the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been variously accused of being a threat to national security or a threat to the economy .

The 1819 Peterloo massacre occurred at a time of hightened external tension with fear that the French revolution would spread to Britain. The fear was not unfounded and various groups around the country emerged with such an intent, in many cases inspired by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man which the Government had been trying to unsuccessfully suppress. The existence of an external threat combined with homegrown radicals was explicitly used as a reason for a policy of political repression and censorship. Likewise today an external threat, Islamic State combined with an entirely separate perceived internal threat (employee strike action) has been cited as justification for a whole range of measures including invasive communication monitoring (so called ‘Snoopers Charter’) without requisite democratic controls and a repressive Trade Union Bill seeking to shackle the ability of unions to garner support and carry out industrial action.

The Nature of Freedom

The nature of freedom is a problem which has bothered both libertarians and republicans for generations. In Masque of Anarchy where Shelley is enumerating the injustice suffered by the poor he clearly defines freedom in terms of the state of slavery, a core republican premise:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own

The essence of freedom which has financial independence as a core component is clearly articulated over a number of stanzas, starting with:

‘’Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

‘So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

In our own time freedom is frequently constrained by insufficient financial resources as a result of hardship caused by issues such as disability support cuts, chronic low wages and a zero-hours contract society. Shelley would have no problem with identifying Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, playing with multimillion pounds football clubs while his workforce toil in iniquitous conditions for a pittance; or Sir Philip Green impoverishing British Home Stores pensioners to pile up a vast fortune for his wife in Monaco. Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Masque is the cast of villains, the substance  is unchanged!.

Non-Violent Resistance – A Way Forward

I pointed out that in the 1811 Poetical Essay, Shelley was searching for a peaceful way to elicit change in an oppressive hieracrchical society.  By 1819 Shelley has settled on his preferred solution of non-violent resistance.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

‘And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Nonviolent resistance is not an instant solution and takes years of persistent and widespread enactment to be successful. A partial victory was secured in the 1830s with the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Abolition of Slavery Act (1834). But history has proved that it is a viable strategy, the independence of India being an eloquent testament.