Here is the link to my article published in the New Internationalist
Forget the establishment, Russell. The real enemy is the bloody liberal majority.
The recent production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People by the Berlin Schaubühne at the Barbican identified the ‘bloody liberal majority’ as the real problem. Russell Brand’s call for revolution has put him on a collision course with the establishment. The backlash has been ferocious but it is the response from liberals, which is most revealing. One by one they have queued up to have a pop at him. Piers Morgan took the first swipe. Then Stewart Lee wrote a piece in The Guardian satirising him as a Christ-like figure. Next up was an unexpected attack from Johnny Rotten formerly of the Sex Pistols in an interview with Polly Toynbee. Rotten described Brand as ‘idiotic’ for encouraging young people not to vote. And now the internet trolls are harassing him after he did not adhere to interview etiquette on Newsnight.
Far from liberals applauding courage and integrity for speaking truth to power, they have cynically tried and failed to take him down. Brand is prepared to bite the hand that feeds him unlike the platoons of self-serving A-Z list celebs. He is not satisfied to take the fame and money and pucker up. If only more figures in our media would learn from his example. Piers Morgan does not really deserve a response. Brand’s Messiah Complex tour has already pre-empted Stewart Lee’s satirical bent. And as for a so-called anarchist like Rotten, Brand was not encouraging young people to disengage from politics. In fact, he has galvanised thousands switched off from the Westminster farce. Brand appears to be fully cognizant of the implications of this ambush from the liberals. At last week’s Guardian Live event in conversation with Owen Jones, he pointed to the Guardian logo behind him and jokingly announced, “This lot are the worst”.
The funny thing is that these venomous attacks are always personal deflecting away from cogent arguments. Take the character assassination of Julian Assange. The intent is to neutralise any possibility of real discourse on the Wikileaks cables. For one that the Iraq and Afghanistan logs reveal war crimes. In the case of Bradley Manning, it was the old ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ chestnut that he was an unstable loner seeking exposure. Which is why Edward Snowden managed his entrance on the world stage with a down to earth and likeable interview. Of course, there had already been attempts to defame him with lurid revelations that his girlfriend had worked as a stripper. In the case of Brand, the charge is that he is a narcissistic egomaniac. As if our glorious leaders are somehow beyond reproach.
Should we be surprised? Not really. After all, liberals have always fucked everything up. Blair’s New Labour signalled the castration of Old Labour as the voice of ordinary people. Thatcher described it as her greatest achievement. Likewise the Lib Dems. The first whiff at power and they jumped into bed with the Tories thus enabling the destruction of the NHS and the dismantling of the welfare state. All of which could not have happened without the votes of Lib Dem MPs.
And as for the bloody liberal majority. Yes we are also part of the problem. As Brand puts it, if you are fed up with foreigners coming over here, taking freebies and not paying taxes then you’re right – Amazon, Google, J P Morgan, Goldman Sachs. These are the real parasites. We may eat organically and recycle. But we’re not prepared to get off our liberal asses. Because we’re too busy incubating our nest-egg cashpile homes in the real-life game of Monopoly hoping to make it with the big boys. Until we too begin to feel the heat. And make no mistake about it, once the elite have finished feeding off the poor, they’re coming for the middle classes next as Alex Proud pointed out in the Daily Telegraph recently. So engage, be the change you want to see in the world.
Like him or loathe him, Brand has the truth on his side. And people are suckers for the truth, bubba. In Britain today, the 5 richest families have as much wealth as the poorest 12 million. 5.2 million people are in low pay jobs. Over 1 million people have used food banks in the past year. There are more people below the poverty line in-work than out of work. Poverty has doubled in Britain over the past thirty years according to the largest study of its kind by the Poverty and Social Exclusion Project. Globally, the richest 85 people have as much wealth as the bottom half or 3.5 billion people. The top 1% in the world own nearly half the world’s wealth. More important than all of this is climate change or the ecological catastrophe that is killing our planet. Ironically, it may be this that catalyses the change needed to save us from turbo-charged capitalism.
In other words, the economic system is not working for ordinary people in the developed world. And neither is representative democracy. Because it has been co-opted by the corporate elite through funding, lobbying and the revolving door. Hence why the political parties are identikit. Yes there are shades of grey but it’s like choosing between death by a hundred or a thousand cuts.
So what is to be done ask the cynical liberals? As if Brand’s failure to come up with an alternative socio-economic system signals game over. Lenin’s question, though, continues to haunt us. It is precisely Lenin & co , who are considered the bogeymen of the left. As Brand puts it, we do not want a demagogic figure telling us what to do. The problem with horizontalist movements like Occupy is that the lack of a revolutionary vanguard or leadership may be democratic but it is often impotent. The various coloured revolutions and the Arab spring have demonstrated that they are all too easily hijacked by the counter-revolution. And, in the case of Ukraine and Syria, this has led to civil war, bloodshed and chaos. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The alternative Brand posits sensibly would be for us to organise, localise and collectivise. After all, world hunger can be solved through something as simple as local, organic farming. Who stands in the way? Agri-business and transnational corporations. Again Brand hits the bullseye. These corporations only exist because we allow them to. We can revoke their charter at the time of our choosing.
Whatever we choose to do, though, we need to act fast. The left no longer has the luxury of playing the waiting game and needs to gets its act together. Another 10 years of capitalist crisis and economic stagnation and the political landscape may be unrecognisable. If progressive parties do not seize the moment with alternatives that appeal to the majority then the far right will. Are you listening Ed Miliband? And the result will be not revolution but repression.
Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling suggests that Labour will win with a comfortable majority in 7 months. And so Big Dave’s last conference speech as both PM and leader of the Conservative Party was a poignant occasion. It was also a masterclass in PR (or BS as it’s known in the industry) from the former Carlton man. As you might expect from the final concert of a crowd pleaser, it was a catalogue of greatest hits. And the Tory faithful loved it. Tax cuts. Tick. Scrap the Human Rights Act to appease the nutty Euro-sceptics before we haemorrhage any more MPs to UKIP. Check. Have a go at Ed Milipoos. Yup. Attacking benefits scroungers. F*** yeah!
Dave left the best bit for last. The Conservative party as the trades union for hard working people. Did he really just say that? Remember those things. Trades unions; they used to represent ordinary people like you and me. Wait a minute. The Tory Party. Trades unions. In the same sentence. Now I’ve seen everything. I know what you’re thinking. Surely he must be kidding. Well, I’ve played that bit over and over. Nope. Not even a hint of irony; not so much as a glint in his eye. After that, I popped some anti-emetics just to be on the safe side.
To be fair, Dave probably doesn’t even know what trades unions are. Fifth cousin twice removed from the Queen and all that. Explains how he can get away with describing Queenie purring down the phone. He was apparently too busy watching Neighbours at Oxford in the 80s to take notice of the fact that Maggie was dismantling the unions. Before the call from Tory HQ came that is and then Dave started paying a bit more attention to the world of oiks. The Tories will probably try the same trick with the NHS and the welfare state when they too are distant memories and you can turn them into a meaningless sound-bite to throw to the plebs in a conference speech in the year 2030.
It was almost as if the last four years had never happened. Remember that Labour ad. ‘Fire up the Quattro It’s time for change’ with Dave sitting on the bonnet in the Gene Hunt pose. A bit like that. Or like Back to the Future but without the happy ending. It’s as if we had got into a time capsule with Dave and gone back to 2009 when they made all those ludicrous statements about the NHS is safe in our hands, hug a hoodie, sledging with huskies and compassionate conservatism. And some of us, the ones born after the 80s that is, believed them. The problem Dave is that you can’t pull that trick off twice. Looks like Quentin or Spencer up at HQ forgot to pick up on that. Do you remember how the Tory annual fund-raising bash was packed with so many billionaires and oligarchs that you couldn’t put a Black Am-Ex card between them and how the bouncers were chucking out anyone with less than 9 zeros in their bank account? Yes you heard me Simon Callow. Now eff off! ( I’ve always wanted to say that anyway). Well you have to give it to Big Dave. He’s got cahunas to stand up there and try to pull that kind of s*** off about being on the side of hard working people.
And as for the bit about going to bed with Nigel Farage on May 7th and waking up with Ed Miliband in the morning. I’m not sure I can get the image out of my head of a love child that is the offspring of an orgy between Milipoos, Farage and some frightful voter in the Shire. There are children watching for godsakes man. I was in the process of dunking a donut in my coffee at 11:45. Totally ruined it for me! Dave, that kind of unpalatable imagery should not be served up before the watershed.
Pretty much every aspect of the speech could be taken apart. Sky News kept flashing up graphs from Full Fact to try and lend some legitimacy to Dave’s outrageous claims. But this speech was fact-proof. It came from the good ol’ George Bush school of gut politics. I feel it somewhere above my belly button that benefits cheats and immigrants are to blame for everything because that’s what the Daily Mail has been saying for the past 30 years.
Dave started off with the feelgood schtick about the fastest growing economy in the world and all that. The thing is that I remember how the economy was actually growing in 2010 before Georgey boy’s austerity medicine made it nose-dive into a near triple dip recession. So when you’re starting from rock bottom then of course it’s the fastest-growing economy, stupid! It’s like saying that zero to one is an infinite improvement. It’s logic for dummies. He then followed it up with the whole bogus narrative about Labour to blame for everything. For the deficit. For the crash. For ISIS. What about the banks Dave? What about the banks? And which part of GLOBAL financial crisis do the Tories fail to understand? How on earth have they got away with selling this dummy to the public that excessive public spending and not the financial sector is to blame?
After the feelgood stuff, he moved on to the benefit bashing. But that was also feelgood for the Tory faithful. Really tickling their erogenous zones! Oh Dave, yes Dave. Yes, yes, yes. More dave, more! More punishment! Spank me more! (Now we know what the Sam Cam would show) Except who are these Tory party members? Are they all in the 1%? Do they not live in the real world and are squeezed by stagnating wages and the rocketing cost of living? Or perhaps they’re all S&M, 50 Shades of Grey fans. As Sam Beckett once put it; I can’t go on, I’ll go on. A something for nothing culture etcetera etcetera drone drone drone. Where was the full fact stuff when you really need it?!!!! Where Sky News? And then he came back to the real feelgood stuff. About tax cuts and raising personal allowance. Now he was reaching for their collective G-spot. But Georgey boy had just told us on Monday there would be £25 billion more in cuts. Which means that the poorest third of working families with children will be hit hardest. So which is it Dave? Whose side are you on? “Don’t make me LAFF!” as Brad Pitt puts it at the end of Killing Them Softly.
It was a litany of untruths; a catalogue of chicanery and deception. The fibs came so thick and fast that it was embarrassing. I didn’t know which way to look. The political spin was so vertigo-inducing I felt nauseous. It is patently clear that neither David Cameron nor George Osborne believe this stuff. No-one with a decent education or a couple of brain cells could buy this. Apart from the great British public that is. And Iain Duncan Smith of course. And the gutter press, who lap this stuff up and shovel it back down our throats.
This speech could have only been more farcical if Dave had made a bid to imitate the high oratory of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar with the opening gambit of ‘Friends, Brummies and countrymen lend me your ears’. I don’t think we’ve heard so much bollocks since last week. The thing is that modern politicians are basically actors. They’re professional jobbing actors. They’re paid to persuade us that everything they do is for our own good. Even when it seems like the complete opposite, it’s actually our interests that they have at heart. No pain, no gain and all that.
They win elections on the basis of how convincingly they can lie to the public. It’s about selling a persona; an image, schmoozing with the media, making love to the camera. It started over in the US of A with JFK and nobody has been as good at it since. They’ve all been pale imitations. Think of Hugh Grant as PM in Love Actually and multiply it by ten – that’s how good JFK was. A movie star president. A rock star leader. Imagine George Clooney as President but even better. We’re a bit late at catching up with the Yanks on these things so it started with Tony here. Then we had a break with Gordon and now Dave is at it. In Europe, judging by Francois in France and Angela in Germany, they couldn’t give two hoots about this kind of crap. Perhaps Europeans actually care about policies rather than personality.
And who were these grinning faces in the crowd, these gormless folk inanely waving their flags and cheering everything Dave pronounced on. Like so many of our dear, fellow citizens, they clearly could not read between the lines. I’m privatising the NHS but I’ll tell you it’s safe in my hands. Hooray! I’ll dismantle the welfare state because of those feckless benefits’ claimants even though actually most people on benefits are working and half of the benefits bill goes on pensions. Woo hoo!
The surprisingly funny impersonation of William Hague’s Yorkshire accent was about the only highlight in a speech that dribbled on for over an hour like a weak bladder. Dave and his advisors must have worked on that one for weeks. Proper method acting. Voice coaching. Accent training. The works. Looks like it was time well spent. Well done old boy! They’re all at it these days. Andrew Marr’s excellent impersonation of Gordon Brown’s gruff tones the other week. Dave was so chuffed with his impression that he followed it up by saying, ‘I won’t give up the day job.” No please do. Actually don’t worry, we’ll chuck you out on May 7th. And if that was the high point then the low point undoubtedly was Dave using the example of his disabled son Ivan, who passed away in 2009, to persuade us that the NHS is safe. Even though the Health & Social Care Act that his government passed essentially abolishes and privatises the NHS. I mean how low can a man go?
The combined membership of the three main parties is now lower than that of the RSPB. In other words, people are more interested in birds in this country than what affects their everyday life. It’s the kind of statistic which makes you realise how f***ed we really are. Russell Brand is right; that is how disengaged from the political process we have become. Which makes me wonder where did they even find the people to fill the ICC hall from? Were these poor, hapless Brummies grabbed off the streets at gunpoint and frogmarched in by Theresa May and her Tory goons. Were they threatened with having their benefits frozen? Or were they farmed in from the Home Counties. Surely no right-thinking Conservative would travel further north than the Watford gap. All the way to Brum. You must be kidding! Right into the heart of enemy country.
So what will Dave do in early retirement at the age of 48 come June 2015. No doubt he can join Tony on the public speaking circuit and the board of J P Morgan. After all, being PM these days is merely a stepping stone on one’s CV. He could perhaps set up a bespoke advisory service for Central Asian dictators. Actually that niche in the market has already been taken Dave. Rumour has it that his predecessor Gordon Brown was so crushed by his failed prime-ministership that he has retreated from the limelight into a hermetic existence. Maybe this is the fate that awaits Dave. Although it is hard to imagine those apple-faced, puffed-up cheeks looking dour or those plum tones sounding too down in the dumps. Perhaps he could set up a charitable foundation (like the Clintons) to save Gordon and rehabilitate him back into public life. Now that sounds like a worthy cause, Dave.
There are however two specific areas worth discussing in detail – housing benefits and tax credits. Why has the housing benefits bill broken through the £20 billion ceiling? Is this really down to families living in palatial residences as the tabloids would have us believe? David Cameron reiterates that the problem is not the housing market. Ministers talks about the soaring housing bill as if it has spiralled out of control implausibly. Have a look at reports by those in the know, such as Shelter or Crisis, and a different picture emerges. Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme for council homes – an apparent democratic act of empowering home-ownership – contributed to the decline in social housing stock. House prices have stratospherically risen pricing out first-time buyers. As Polly Toynbee points out, Shelter’s startling comparisons say it all: a chicken would cost £51.18 if its price had risen at the same rate as housing in the past 40 years. The number of years required for low to middle income households to save for typical first time buyer deposit has jumped from 3 years in 1983 to 22 years in 2012. For the first time, the majority of under 35s in the low to middle income group now live in the private rented sector. But rents have escalated in the private housing sector after they were deregulated in the 1980s. Rents in the private rented sector rose by 70 per cent between 1997–98 and 2007–08 compared to CPI inflation of 20 per cent.
This toxic combination of a lack of supply together with rocketing house prices and rents is at the heart of the problem. As the London Review of Books put it, ‘What characterises the welfare state, in fact, is the increasing dependence of working households on child and housing benefit. In December 2011, for instance, a quarter of in-work households in rented accommodation were dependent on housing benefit. That figure will almost certainly continue to rise.’ According to Shelter, it is estimated that the rising caseload from the private rented sector is responsible for more than half of the recent increase in housing benefit expenditure. Housing benefits thus prop up a dysfunctional housing system.
What are the Coalition’s answers? Local housing allowance (LHA) caps and the now infamous bedroom tax. However LHA caps will not solve the root causes of unaffordable private rents and limited access to affordable housing. Around 1.8 million households are now on council waiting lists. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that £1.88bn has been spent on renting temporary accommodation in 12 of Britain’s biggest cities over the past four years. As for the bedroom tax, two thirds of those affected will be disabled. As Polly Toynbee points out, ‘promised housing benefit savings of £465m are only realised if tenants don’t move out but take the £700 a year hit to their meagre living standards. If they do move, they go into the private sector where a smaller home costs the housing benefit budget more.’ Recent data from 107 local authorities shows 86,000 households have been forced to look for one-bedroom homes, of which only 33,000 have become available in the past year. The government’s impact assessment warned that 35% of claimants affected “would be quite or very likely to fall into arrears if their housing benefit were to be reduced”. The real solutions are to build more social housing and introduce Northern European style regulation of rents in the private sector. Recently, the UN’s Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik caused a furore amongst Cabinet ministers for simply pointing out that Britain was now exhibiting all the signs of a full-scale housing crisis with limited access to social housing as well as problems of affordability not only for low-income but also middle-income citizens. She also labelled recent housing policy as retrogressive given how Britain’s previously high numbers of social housing stock have dwindled. 5
The second area of interest is tax credits. Why is the amount spent on tax credits nudging £30 billion? Britain has one of the largest low wage economies in the developed world. Only the US has a greater share of low paid workers. While only 2.6% of the benefits budget is actually spent on the able-bodied unemployed, over 20% subsidises those on low wages. As the New Economics Foundation put it:- “For the first time ever, in-work poverty has overtaken workless poverty. One in five people employed in Britain are on low pay. There are 6.1 million people in working households living in poverty”.
Typical wages stagnated from 2003 and then fell in the downturn. In fact, wage stagnation is a phenomenon across major capitalist economies including Germany and Canada and has been the case for a generation in the US. In the US, government subsidies to low-income workers averaged $243 billion each year between 2007-2011. 6 According to the IFS, wage contraction during this recession is unprecedented. The TUC found pay in some parts of the UK had fallen by more than 10% since the start of the downturn in 2007. Figures from the Resolution Foundation show the widening income gap: 1% of people now take 10% of all income while the entire bottom half receives only 18% of national earnings. Wages are falling and wealth is siphoned upwards. As Seumas Milne puts it, ‘welfare has become a prop for the failure of neoliberal capitalism to deliver jobs or decent wages’. In essence, much in the same way as housing benefits subsidise landlords, tax credits subsidise employers. A living wage across the economy would go a long way to cutting the tax credits bill.
The misconception that those on benefits are scroungers belies the fact that the majority of people receiving benefits are in work. This misconstrual has been carried into the Coalition’s welfare reforms. Hence, the new benefits and tax credits cap will actually hit strivers – more than 60% of those who will lose out are in work according to the government’s own impact assessment. The same document reveals that the hardest hit will be the poorest and more likely to be disabled with the poorest tenth of households seeing the biggest income drop in real terms and the second poorest tenth seeing the biggest fall in cash terms.
As a result of the Coalition’s austerity policies, the poorest will be hit the hardest. According to work by the IFS, incomes for the poorest tenth of the population will drop 4.5% leaving these households with £224 a week to live on by April 2016. By contrast, the richest 10% will see their weekly incomes rise by 1% to £920. The Coalition has decided to uprate most social security benefits and tax credits by a sub-inflation 1% for 3 years and to decouple benefits from the higher Retail Prices Index (RPI) and peg them to the lower Consumer Price Index (CPI). These decisions have been justified on the basis of frozen public sector salaries and wages declining in real terms. According to the IFS, the latter will have the single biggest impact out of all the reforms.
Low-income households are more likely to spend their money on commodities (food, fuel etc), which are rising faster than average prices as represented by the CPI – what is termed an “inflation premium”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) finds that families are facing an “unprecedented erosion of household living standards”. The JRF have developed an annual Minimum Income Standard (MIS) based on the goods and services members of the public think people need in order to have a minimum acceptable standard of living. The cost of the MIS basket has increased by 25 per cent since 2008 compared with 17 per cent for CPI. According to the JRF, a single person earning £13,000 would have reached the minimum in 2008. If their wage had risen in line with average wage increases, they would now earn £14,000 – well short of the £17,000 salary needed to cover higher living costs in 2013. Childcare costs have risen over twice as fast as inflation at 37%, rent in social housing has gone up by 26%, food costs have increased by 24%, energy costs are 39% more and public transport is up by 30%. With prices growing faster than wages, the median wage fell by £3,200 since 2009 to £21,700 according to the Resolution Foundation. So it is not surprising that the Trussell trust reveals a million Britons have turned to food banks.
The Social Policy research Unit at the University of York points out that whilst pensions have more than doubled in real terms since 1948, unemployment benefits have fallen from 20% of average earnings in the late 1960s to 11% in 2011. Thus benefits have already been eroded in real terms for many years. Not only this but in the 2013 Spending Review, Osborne moved towards capping annually managed expenditure by putting controls on housing benefit, disability allowance and tax credits although this would not include state pensions. Presumably this will mean that regardless of demand, there will be a finite pot to go round. Again such punitive measures deal in the irrational rather than remedying the root causes for rising welfare budgets.
All in all, these are poverty-inducing measures. The IFS predicts an increase in poverty of the order of 2.3 million by 2020. They also predict that the number of children living in absolute poverty is set to increase by 500,000 by the end of the current Parliament. A recent report from Sheffield Hallam University documents how the poorest places in Britain will be hit hardest. Condensing their findings to a few key bullet points, they surmise that when the welfare reforms have come into effect, they will suck over £18 billion a year out of the economy
– equivalent to around £470 a year for every adult of working age in the country.
– The worst-hit local authority areas lose around four times as much as the authorities least affected by the reforms.
– Britain’s older industrial areas, a number of seaside towns and some London boroughs are hit hardest. Much of the south and east of England outside London escapes comparatively lightly.
– Blackpool, in North West England, is hit worst of all – an estimated loss of more than £900 a year for every adult of working age in the town.
– The three regions of northern England alone can expect to lose around £5.2bn a year in benefit income.
– As a general rule, the more deprived the local authority, the greater the financial hit.
Individuals adversely affected by incapacity benefit reforms can expect to lose an average of £3,500 a year and those losing out as a result of the changeover from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments by an average of £3,000 a year. In fact, by 2016, an estimated 500,000 will lose out in this switch, squeezing an estimated £1bn a year out of the incomes of disabled people. The losses for households affected by reductions in housing benefits – often £1,000 a year – are also large. In their concluding remarks, the Sheffield Hallam group point out that this economic geography overlaps strongly with Britain’s political geography; in other words the Coalition is presiding over welfare reforms that will impact principally on those regions outside their heartlands.
5) UK’s bedroom tax and housing crisis threaten human rights, says UN expert Guardian 11/9/13
LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF – YOUSSEF EL-GINGIHY
We’ve heard it all before. Welfare is not working. A something for nothing culture. Britain is broken. Why? Because Labour created this mess by maxing out the nation’s credit card. They went on a spending spree, splashing out on skivers and scroungers whilst the rest of us were working hard. So what is to be done? We have to deal with our massive debts like any sensible household. Austerity may be a nasty medicine but there is no alternative. Besides, we’re all in this together.
It’s certainly a seductive story. The slogans deployed have scored precision hits against the social democratic consensus. The devices and framing of the austerity narrative have embedded into the public’s consciousness to the degree that rebuttal with mere facts is not enough to dislodge opinion. It also goes some way to explaining how the most radical upheaval of the welfare state since its inception, cutting £18 billion a year in benefits by 2015 (to be followed by a further £10 billion a year projected for the next parliament) in the context of the largest post-war public spending cuts, should be met with such equanimity by the public.
In fact, polling shows that the Coalition’s flagship policies on welfare reform are popular. It seems we have all become advocates of a fetishistic tendency for sado-masochism a la Fifty Shades of Grey. The Conservatives appear to have played a blinder. Miliband’s team and the Labour policy circle have skirted cautiously round the welfare debate; aware of how politically divisive it has become. All three main parties vie to outgun each other in testosterone machismo cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of the ascetic necessity for cuts and talking tough on welfare. Osborne has declared that austerity cuts may be extended until 2020 whilst Ed Balls plans to extend spending cuts should Labour come to power in 2015. Such connivance has made the bitter pill of massive cuts palatable for the public.
Which brings us to the million-dollar questions. How did the welfare debate become so toxic? When did the idea of claiming benefits become equated with being a social pariah? If the welfare system is indeed broken then what does this actually mean? Is the Conservative diagnosis and prescription the correct one or are we in the territory of smoke and mirrors in which we are being deflected from other realities; in which the very notion of benefits scroungers has become a proxy for the real problems?
No less a reputable body than the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has demonstrated that the reasons for the increase in the deficit were not due to excessive public spending pre-2007 but, unsurprisingly, down to the effects of the financial crisis. The Tories have succeeded in converting a private sector crisis in financial services into a public sector crisis centred on excessive spending. This translation would appear to be at the heart of the entire policy debate. Despite this horribly flawed basic premise, Labour have been hapless at correcting this fallible revisionism of recent history.
An unrelenting campaign from the right-wing press has demonised the welfare state to the point that it has become a pejorative term. Professor Martin McKee has pointed out that, through the near-constant deployment of negative imagery, the automatic word association of benefits and scroungers has become deeply entrenched in the public mind. A deceptive picture of modern Britain has been created in which a large underclass of benefits scroungers are parasitically living off the fat of the land whilst rampaging hordes of migrants are besieging this sceptred isle. Once this hostile rhetoric is peeled away then it becomes apparent that reality has been unrecognisably distorted and the electorate manipulated.
In his Conference speech in 2012, Osborne painted a picture of hard-working people – the strivers – in opposition to benefits claimants – the skivers – that chimes with a substantial section of public opinion.
“Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits? When we say we’re all in this together, we speak for that worker. We speak for all those who want to work hard and get on… They strive for a better life. We strive to help them.”
That the strivers versus skivers dichotomy is over-simplified and misleading is self-evident as the New Economics Foundation (NEF) have shown in their Mythbusters series. Yet it is the comic resonances of Osborne’s sketch that seem to pull one in. The notion that the topography of urban 21st century Britain regularly juxtaposes middle class strivers and the underclass of benefit skivers on the same street perhaps reflects how cut off from the real world the Conservative top brass are. As the full force of welfare cuts come into effect with consequential social segregation as central London and other affluent centres become unaffordable for benefits’ claimants then the possibility of neighbourly strivers and skivers will have become a distant memory of a bygone age.
Based on the Coalition’s aggressive programme of cuts, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the UK’s share of public expenditure as a proportion of GDP is set to fall from mid-table (compared to other major capitalist economies) right to the bottom. In other words, Britain will have proportionately the smallest public sector; smaller even than the USA. The IFS predicts that 1.2 million public sector jobs will eventually go by 2018 and have stated that, ‘The cuts announced were part of the biggest fiscal consolidation since the war. At any other time they would have been considered extraordinary. And there is much more to come’. The Coalition is embarking on an accelerated neoliberal programme of state shrinkage and downsizing of the public sector. And the IMF knows a thing or two about that.
So what are the hard facts about benefits once we peel away the flimsy carapace of propagandist rhetoric. Let’s start with that tabloid favourite – the genus of benefits’ fraudster. When the TUC polled the British public on welfare, the results revealed huge discrepancies between perceptions and reality presumably in some way linked to being on the receiving end of years of unrelenting propaganda. The average Briton thinks that 27 % of the welfare budget goes on benefits fraud. The reality is 0.7% according to the government’s own figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or £1.2 billion. To put that further into perspective, the DWP’s figures show that the amount underspent on benefits due to error (ie. claimants receiving less than they should have) was greater at 0.9% of the budget or £1.4 billion thus more than cancelling out benefits fraud.
Nigel Farage and UKIP have made much political capital out of exploiting the public’s fears on uncontrolled immigration and how this impacts on public services and welfare. Again the data presents an almost diametrically opposed picture to the one we are accustomed to. The Economic & Social Research Council has shown that the net fiscal impact of immigrants is positive. To take a few examples, Eastern European migrants pay in 30% more than they take out in benefits. 2 million net Eastern European migrants moved to the UK between 1997-2009 and yet, in 2011, only 13,000 were claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance. Migrants are less likely to take out benefits than British nationals. Of 5.5 million benefit claimants, only 6% are non-EU migrants. And on it goes.
These figures and patterns are corroborated by various studies. The Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at UCL ‘concluded that between 1995 and 2011, immigrants from the European Economic Area contributed £8.8bn more than they received in benefits. That compared with a drain on the nation’s finances of £604.5bn by native Britons’. “Between 2001 and 2011, recent EEA immigrants [had]….a net fiscal contribution of about £22.1bn”. Non-EEA migrants were also net contributors, albeit more modestly, putting in around 2% more than they took out. Whilst the National Institute for Economic and Social Research ‘concluded that those industries with higher shares of migrant workers had higher labour productivity’. 1
There has been an ongoing spat between the Conservatives and the EU, which has demanded evidence for the claims of ‘benefits tourism’. The European Commission’s latest study again emphasises that EU migrants are net contributors to the UK welfare system. They also point out that Iain Duncan Smith’s claim in 2011 that EU citizens were costing the UK £2 bn in benefits has been revised down to £150 million and even the evidence for this figure has not been forthcoming 2. The same study points out that ‘jobless EU migrants form 1% of the total EU population. In the UK the figure was 1.2% in 2011 and 2012’. Meanwhile, ‘non-active EU migrants account for 0.2% of total health spending in the EU, on average’ again underlining how health tourism is largely a myth. 3
And what of that hobby horse of the anti-benefits squad – unemployment benefits. In the TUC’s polling, the average person thinks that 41 per cent of the welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, while the true figure is under 3 per cent. Job Seeker’s Allowance is currently at around £71 and thus represents one of the least generous rates in comparable economies with one of the steepest falls from average earned income. As Ian Mulhearn from the Social Market Foundation points out, on becoming unemployed, a single childless person on average earnings in the UK faces the biggest drop in income of any jobless person anywhere in the OECD. Hardly the life of Riley then. Again, Mulhearn’s work disproves and dispels some of the common myths and misconceptions. The majority of JSA claimants are back in work within a year. Furthermore, three-quarters have spent less than a quarter of the past four years on the dole and 40 per cent of claimants have an otherwise unblemished employment history. For all the machismo about talking tough on welfare, it appears to be the Conservatives, who can’t handle the truth.
IDS’ team state that Disability Living Allowance is spiralling out of control with 3.1 million claimants being triple the amount when it was introduced in 1992. However, claimants keep DLA when they retire so as the number of people retiring increases so does the number of DLA claimants. The numbers of people with physical conditions claiming DLA have not increased, in spite of a larger population, due to the decline in heavy industry. However, there has been a real growth in numbers of people with learning disability for example as premature babies survive and life expectancies increase with improved medical care. As for mental illness, 7% of people are seriously ill enough to claim but only 1% do with psychosis being the most common cause. The pattern of disability mirrors the patterns across the OECD. 4
So how about the notion of a something for nothing culture; that benefits foster an ethos of dependency and fecklessness. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), under 1% of workless households might have two generations who have never worked – about 15,000 households in the UK. To quote the Economist: “Though most of them seem to end up in newspapers, in 2011 there were just 130 families in the country with 10 children claiming at least one out-of-work benefit. Only 8% of benefit claimants have three or more children. What evidence there is suggests that, on average, unemployed people have similar numbers of children to employed people … it is not clear at all that benefits are a significant incentive to have children.” Of course reading the tabloids, you would be forgiven for thinking that we are living in the midst of one of the great epidemics of modern times; a bubonic plague of benefits scroungers of unmanageable proportions. In fact, spending on welfare as a proportion of GDP has been remarkably stable. To the extent that there has been an upward trend, this is due to increasing numbers of pensioners. Benefits spending on those of working age and children has actually been flat; rising and falling in and out of recessions. The number on out of work benefits is a full million below its peak level in the 1990s.
It is astonishing that this pernicious web of lies has been spun largely unchallenged; that the construction of this vast edifice of fabrication has been permitted. Yet the powerful mythology surrounding benefits comes tumbling down with the slightest pressure; crumbles at the gentlest application of logic or rationality, shatters and splinters on exposure to mere facts.
PART 2 TO FOLLOW….
- Immigration brings economic and fiscal gains for UK, reports show FT 5/11/13
- David Cameron and Europe at odds over benefit tourism issue – Guardian 15/10/13
- EU study on migrants rebuffs ‘benefit tourism’ claims – BBC SITE 14/10/13
- Ideology meets idiocy in these brutal disability cuts – Guardian 29/10/13
I’m reposting my Guardian article from Easter on the dismantling of the NHS. Please see the link below….
HOW TO DISMANTLE THE NHS IN 10 EASY STEPS by DR YOUSSEF EL-GINGIHY – The story of how your NHS was sold off to private healthcare & why you’ll have to buy insurance soon – PUBLISHED BY ZERO BOOKS
Over the past 30 years, the NHS has been insidiously converted into a market-based healthcare system. This process is accelerating under the Coalition government and the very existence of a National Health Service is in danger. How did it ever come to this for Great Britain’s most cherished institution?
1) Create an internal market
Speaking at the 60th anniversary of the NHS in 2008, Kenneth Clarke remarked that “In the late 1980s I would have said it is politically impossible [to do what we are now doing.]” It being the conversion of the NHS into a market-based system. After 30 years of neoliberalism, the impossible has become possible. That’s progress for you. As Health Secretary under Thatcher, Ken Clarke got the ball rolling by introducing the internal market into the NHS. As a direct result, overhead costs rose substantially; in the main due to increased administrative and managerial staff. In 2009, it was estimated that spending on management consultants alone was upwards of £300 million a year. New Labour’s NHS Plan (2000) resulted in the internal market expanding into an extensive market based on the premise that the private sector would introduce choice and competition.
2) Public-private partnerships
In 2000, a ‘concordat’ between the NHS and private health firms paved the way for the provision of elective care and diagnostics; paid for by the NHS. Tim Evans, who negotiated the Concordat, on behalf of the private sector, said he looked forward ‘to a time when the NHS would simply be a kitemark attached to the institutions and activities of a system of purely private providers’.
New Labour expanded Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) to build and run infrastructure projects. These projects were tendered out thus reducing government borrowing costs. The completed PFI projects have been leased back with repayments at high interest rates. The net capital worth of the Department of Health PFI projects is estimated at £11.6 billion. The repayments however are projected to reach approximately £80 billion. PFIs came with strings attached in which “facilities maintenance” was also subcontracted out. A Daily Telegraph investigation flagged up several examples– one hospital was charged £52,000 for a job, which should have cost £750.
The total PFI tab for the taxpayer will top £301bn despite a net capital worth of £54.7bn. That’s a difference of nearly £250 billion lining the pockets of PFI executives and shareholders. Just think what that could buy you? Well it would pay for all 350,000 nurses, all 40,000 consultants and all 40,000 GPs in the NHS for 10 years. Training the next generation of surgeons would cost a further £7 billion. You would then still have more than enough left over to build 80 state of the art hospitals and pay for 100,000 cancer patients over 4 years. If you wanted to keep it simple then it would cover the entire NHS budget for nearly 2 and a half years. And there would still be enough loose change to cover Wayne Rooney’s salary should Manchester United ever require a government bail-out. Or George Osborne’s first class train fares until the next election.
3) The corporate takeover
From 2003, foundation trusts were introduced. This empty-sounding label essentially converted hospitals into semi-independent businesses with financial and other freedoms. The flip-side is that foundation trusts are allowed to ‘go bust’ as they are no longer eligible to be bailed out by the Department of Health (DoH).
One bandies around the platitude that you never know when you will need the NHS. But as a fit young man, you don’t seriously believe it. Until something happens; as I discovered recently when I ruptured my Achilles’ tendon playing football – the textbook injury of the dilettante weekend sports-player. I was recently invited to a patient workshop at a large, central London teaching hospital at which one of the consultants spoke of the increasing numbers of patients and how this would be good news if only they were a business. The irony did not pass by unnoticed as I thought to myself gosh you are a business in all but name. As a foundation trust, they are paid by results in a market based system. They are free to make partnerships with companies and up to half their beds can be occupied by private patients.
The GP contract was also renegotiated in 2003. This allowed GPs to opt out of Out of Hours (OOH) care whilst opening the door for the corporate takeover of OOH by companies like Harmoni and Serco, which have since been beset by allegations of cost-cutting and sub-standard care. It also facilitated GP services to be run by private companies, such as UnitedHealth. Virgin claims to employ 1500 GPs looking after 3 million patients. Astonishing figures when one is accustomed to thinking of the NHS as an impervious and timeless institution. As of 2010, there are around 230 privately-run GP centres. The NHS is fragmenting before our eyes.
4) Legislating for the dismantling of the NHS
Professor Martin McKee dubs the Health & Social Care Act’s complexity as the Jackson Pollock effect. The Act is said to have been drawn up by a group of corporate lawyers and this explains the need to decipher the legalese. McKee also compares it to the Schleswig-Holstein question – an arcane complex of diplomatic issues arising in the 19th century relating to the two eponymous duchies. It was the British prime-minister Lord Palmerston, who is reported to have said “Only three people…have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
In other words, the act amounted to deliberate obfuscation that left critics floundering whilst the government gets on with the real business of carving up the NHS. Don’t take my word for it. Those are the words of Mark Britnell, who became one of the most powerful civil servants in the Department of Health. As James Meek has assiduously documented in the London Review of Books :– Britnell went on to work as “global head of health for the consultants KPMG. In 2010 Britnell was interviewed for……a conference in New York on how private companies could take advantage of the vulnerability of healthcare systems in a harsh financial climate. ‘In future,’ Britnell said, ‘the NHS will be a state insurance provider, not a state deliverer … The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.’ ”
That Britnell was a serious candidate for the most important position in the NHS is a damning indictment. The Coalition emphasised the motifs of the Health & Social Care Act as improving patient choice, empowering doctors, cutting management costs. All of which is nothing less than a smokescreen for the implementation of free market reforms opening up NHS contracts to providers from the voluntary and private sectors. Already, £250 million of NHS services have been tendered with 105 private firms awarded Any Qualified Provider status. Coalition plans to force open a further £750 million of services to competitive bids were pencilled in for this year. Private providers will “cherry-pick” lucrative contracts; taking away income from NHS providers.
I spoke to Clive Peedell – a Consultant Oncologist in Yorkshire and co-founder of the National Health Action political party. I posit to Clive the Cameronista line on why does it matter who provides your care as long as it remains free at the point of delivery? He replies that “NHS hospitals [will have] less money….to provide comprehensive services.” This will lead to “rationing…..tighter budgets leading to waiting lists going up and patients going private plus foundation trusts effectively operating as partially privatised entities – rather than NHS hospitals – treating up to 49% of patients privately”.
5) The revolving door
How did all of this happen? The short answer is the revolving door. Two successive secretaries of state for health (Milburn & Hewitt) and one minister for health (Lord Warner) went off to work for the private healthcare sector after leaving government. Further down the pyramid, Simon Stevens – the new chief executive of the NHS – went to work for UnitedHealth after a stint as Blair’s senior health policy advisor as did British Medical Journal editor Richard Smith. And the revolving door, of course, turns smoothly in both directions. The top tiers of the Department of Health and NHS management were infiltrated by management consultants. This is how the health policy community was hijacked. The notion of a boundary between the public and private sectors, which should be policed in the public interest, has long been expunged. Monitor, the new independent regulator for the NHS, exemplifies this culture of regulatory capture with virtually the entire board having a corporate background.
6) Cui bono?
A new book NHS SOS traces the story of the marketization of the NHS. It is co-edited by Dr Jacky Davis – a Consultant radiologist and one of the founders of Keep Our NHS Public – and Raymond Tallis – the philosopher and writer. It’s garnering good reviews and has been featuring in various booksellers’ charts. Somewhat surprising as the NHS is not usually the staple of bestsellers. Perhaps an indicator that these are not ordinary times for the NHS.
Raymond Tallis trained as a doctor and neuroscientist. I managed to catch up with him at a book launch in Edinburgh for NHS SOS. He describes to me the Damascene moment at a British Medical Association meeting when the scales dropped from his eyes. At the launch, Raymond speaks of a democratic deficit and a banana republic, “We need to be tough on Lansley and tough on the causes of Lansley”, which raises an almighty laugh from the audience. This I take to be a reference to how Care UK – a private healthcare company – were caught red-handed funneling funds into Andrew Lansley’s office. Care UK have since gone on to win several contracts. It is difficult not to concur that something is indeed rotten in this unsatisfactory state of affairs.
The largest contract yet is for older people’s services in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and could be worth up to £1.2 billion. It is attracting bids from Virgin, Circle & Serco amongst others. The Financial Times recently reported that private sector companies are engaged in an “arms race” to win NHS contracts. In future, it is quite conceivable that a diabetic patient will attend education courses hosted by Serco, be registered at a GP surgery run by UnitedHealth and have his eye screening done by Specsavers. The prospect of sexual health services run by Virgin should be a gift to news editors. Integrated care may be the buzzword de jour but this will surely lead to fragmentation.
7) Run a PR smear campaign
A day hardly seems to go by without a new story casting the NHS in an abhorrent light. Certainly the Francis report into Mid-Staffs as well as the failings at other hospitals require urgent remedies and soul-searching. But the British public is on the receiving end of a hideously distorted picture. Following Bruce Keogh’s recent report, the Conservative PR machine went into overdrive wilfully distorting the facts in order to tarnish New Labour’s achievements in the NHS. So much so that Sir Bruce felt it necessary to apologise to Andy Burnham. The government’s case for change largely rests on the premise of the NHS no longer being affordable and that it needs to be modernised. While there is evidently room for improvement, research debunks this picture and overwhelmingly shows the NHS performs well internationally, is cost-effective and rated highly by patients.
Andrew Lansley’s departure in the cabinet reshuffle was almost inevitable. That his successor was Jeremy Hunt is a V sign to the NHS – the man officially on record as saying that the NHS should be privatised. Back in 2009, Hunt co-authored with Michael Gove, Tory MEP Daniel “the NHS is a 60 year old mistake” Hanaan and Greg Clark a book called Direct Democracy in which they called for the NHS to be dismantled. It’s touching to think that a few years ago, in freezing winter, Jeremy Hunt – then a little known MP – joined constituents for a vigil outside Parliament to highlight that his local hospital was at threat of closure. Even the leader of his party, an apple-cheeked, smooth-faced David Cameron, dropped by to lend his support. How power doth corrupt. It’s no surprise really that Jeremy Hunt looks so guilty the whole time.
8) The plot against the NHS
Dr Lucy Reynolds – a public health academic and health policy analyst – has written extensively on NHS reforms. Her recent work highlights the germinal role of a series of 1980s thinktank papers (one of which was authored by Conservative MPs Oliver Letwin and John Redwood). Virtually every concept over the past 25 years was hatched in these documents; from the internal market, public-private partnerships and foundation trusts to the prospect of introducing universal health insurance in the UK. It makes for jaw-dropping reading. If this sounds like the stuff of 1970s political conspiracy thrillers then you can check it out for yourself – it’s all a mouse-click away in the digital age. That something can be so faithfully executed over a quarter century is testament to Machiavellianism.
9) The perfect storm
There are now at least 20 NHS trusts, comprising around 60 hospitals, in danger of going bust with PFI debts as a major contributory factor. This is very much watch this space territory. Monitor has earmarked a £300 million failure regime fund with the money being siphoned to the McKinseys, PWCs and Deloittes to administer the final rites. An image of vultures circling round the carcass springs to mind. Yet hope springeth eternal. The Lewisham hospital campaign aided by 38 degrees has defeated Jeremy Hunt and the government in the High Court. A judicial review ruled that government plans to close down Lewisham services after neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust went bust (in large part due to £2 billion in PFI debts) are illegal. This sets an important legal precedent that when PFI trusts are bankrupt, they should not be restructured at the expense of their neighbours. Similar plans at the Whittington hospital in North London have been shelved following a vociferous campaign. Bartshealth NHS trust, the largest trust in the country and home to the most expensive PFI, has been the latest casualty announcing it is in dire financial trouble and will be forced to make redundancies and cut services.
The government consistently claims the health budget is protected. In reality, the NHS is being forced to make cuts dressed up as efficiency savings of up to £20 billion by 2015. Tens of thousands of NHS staff are being made redundant with more to come. A picture of service cuts is steadily emerging across the country. To take just one example, NHS North-West London has recently made the decision to downgrade four A&Es with plans to virtually close down Ealing and Charing Cross Hospitals. This means there will be no A&E for the boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Ealing and Brent – a population of 750,000 or a city the size of Leeds. The prospect of 1,000 bed cuts by 2015 in North West London without investment in local community & GP services is surely the recipe for pushing already overstretched resources to breaking point. The Royal London Hospital recently had to close its doors for 2 days due to a bed crisis. In the light of the recent A&E crisis hitting fever pitch, this winter is likely to spell trouble ahead.
And yet it seems that these efficiency savings will be extended beyond 2015 for years to come. The Nuffield Trust recently produced a document entitled A Decade of Austerity? (the question is presumably rhetorical) in which cuts are projected into the next decade. Recent soundings have also focused on a £30 billion funding gap in the NHS by 2020. Never mind that buying out or renegotiating PFI contracts would solve this problem at a stroke.
10) The final act
How will all of this play out? Once you combine all of the above factors then you have a perfect storm in which the NHS withers away. Rationing of care will become more widespread until we have a two-tier system in which the haves will be forced to take out private insurance and the have-nots will be looked after by a third-class health service.On the horizon lie personal health budgets and user charges. Right now user charges are mooted to be restricted to migrants but they will facilitate the introduction of a charging mechanism within the NHS. They have already been touted as one way of reducing GP and A&E visits.
So where to from here? Tony Blair’s hushed advice to the Coalition was to apparently ram through the Health & Social Care legislation as quickly as possible because it would be forgotten by the time of the next election. This prophecy is unlikely to be fulfilled. The NHS has barely been out of the headlines this year mainly due to the relentless smear campaign. Expect more of this. But also expect the performance crisis to continue unfolding. And, with more trusts hitting the buffers and hospitals facing closure, expect greater resistance as the NHS campaign takes off nationally. The legalese of the Health & Social Care Act was a Tory wet dream – far too amorphous and abstract for the public to grapple with. Yet when faced with the visible threat of the hospital down the road closing, the Lewisham campaign demonstrates that people can mobilise and quickly. Even the Daily Mail gets hot under the collar and launched its Save Our Hospitals campaign. The government has shown that it can handle a few lurid headlines not to mention the opposition of whole swathes of the NHS. But there is one thing that utterly terrifies them and that is people taking to the street to defend their NHS.
Testing the new blog…..