Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: austerity

Why a New Centre Party Will Fail

It may not be wise nor truthful to think of political (i.e human) activities as driven by uncontrollable forces. But today, as extreme austerity policies lead to ever-worsening harm, it is hard not to see, what Simone Weil called gravitational forces at work. Despite criticisms by the Right-wing of the Labour Party, ridiculous slanders and invented scandals, and the threat of a new Centre Party, the strength of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn continues to grow.

Are we really free at times like this?

Is there “no alternative.”

Spinoza famously proposed that even a stone, falling through the air, would consider itself free:

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.

So Spinoza imagine that a stone – falling headlong – would be thinking to itself:

Great – I’m really glad I chose to head down here!

I wonder what a pendulum would think as it swings back and forth?

This question came to mind while listening to current debates surrounding UK politics, and in particular the claim by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair that:

I don’t think the British people will tolerate a situation where, for example, the choice at the next election is Boris Johnson versus Jeremy Corbyn.

Tony Blair’s personal position (whatever your view of him) is natural enough. He will feel that his own legacy is threatened and also, that as (electorally speaking) Labour’s most successful leader, his views should be given some weight. To a certain group of politicos I am sure all of this seems tremendously important; and I am sure there is a genuine chance that a new ‘centrist’ party will be formed, but as Gary Younge of The Guardian, quoting Heraclitus said:

You can not go back into the same river twice.

Things have changed.

Although, not all things. One of the reasons why the battle within the Labour Party is so vicious is that politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are perceived to have never changed. They supported the movements within Labour that Kinnock and Blair defeated; and as MPs they persistently did not support the policies developed and implemented by Blair and his colleagues. They were always (from the Right’s point of view) going in the wrong direction. It is natural enough that those who went along with the Rightward drift of the Blair years would see them as hopeless outsiders.

However, think about the pendulum. If it were conscious then most of it would be on board with whatever direction it is currently travelling in. If it is Going Right – then most of the pendulum will be on board with the current direction of travel. Only a small minority will still persist in saying:

This is all wrong – let’s Go Left instead!

But for most – Going Right will feel normal and natural. Until it doesn’t. Until the pendulum is pulled back by two countervailing forces: politics (the fulcrum) and reality (gravity). Imagine what the pendulum would say to itself at the point it is about to Go Left after years of Going Right. Most of the pendulum would still be thinking:

This can’t be happening. You can’t be serious. Surely we need to keep Going Right. It’s the only way we can succeed.

This is the point we have reached: the point of change. This is why 2018 is not 1981, and whatever emerges from the Right-wing of the Labour Party will be even less successful than the SDP. The politics of the current situation is different. The Right has been so dominant for so long that, unlike 1981, there is nowhere for them to go other than into self-defeating xenophobia. There are certainly plenty of pro-Europeans who will be turned off by that – but they already have somewhere else to go – the Liberal Democrats – and its pretty clear from the GE 2017 that many pro-Europeans (like me) would much rather support Labour than the Liberal Democrats.

Also, beyond the issue of Europe, what will be the stance of this new centrist party? There’s nothing left to privatise; there’s nothing left to marketise; austerity-lite is not a policy; conditionality, workfare and all the other stigmatising policies of the Blair years have also failed. The Government’s of 2010, 2015 and 2017 have already played the trick of combining vicious Right-wing policies with heart-warming rhetoric. Fewer and fewer people will buy this bullshit a fourth time.

I hear some complain that they are not clear what the policies of Labour will be, as if that was the issue. That is not the issue – when the pendulum swings Left then there will be decades to discuss, implement and explore policies which promote social justice. There will be many issues that good people will disagree about – and many mistakes will be made – all this is natural. Politically the Left has the field of dreams before it: partly because we have now moved to such an extreme Right-wing position.

At this point the details of the Manifesto are not really the issue.

The finite nature of our political options is like the fulcrum that constrains the swing to the Right. But gravity is the other force at work and gravity represents the human forces that must be harnessed in order to win political power. The harm caused by these extreme policies is now unravelling and the balance of power is shifting. Too many people are being left out, harmed, depressed or angered by the swing to the Right – particularly the young.

Blair’s success was certainly partly due to the fact that he managed to offer a kind of Thatcher-lite: he would be a ‘moderniser’ but with a heart. And, although some will see this as harsh, I think it is fair to say that in many ways Blair simply prepared the way for austerity and for the current Right-wing extremism of our Government. For Blair excelled at policies that pandered to the middle – for political success – while often sacrificing the interest of the most disadvantaged:

  • Encourage house inflation – This policy benefits the better-off, enmeshes people in excessive debt and leaves the young increasingly adrift.
  • Subsidise the middle – Policies like tax credits lift the income of middle earners, but don’t deal with poverty nor the structural poverty caused by Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of the North – thus leaving many communities alienated from politics.
  • Blame the poor – Welfare reforms, conditionality policies, sanctions and the rhetoric of stigma were all advanced in Blair and Brown. These policies prepared the ground for horrors of the Iain Duncan Smith era.
  • Privatise and marketise everything – Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) were just one example of the craziness by which public services and assets were given away and in their place were contractual arrangement and ‘internal markets’ that never worked. Instead trust, cooperation and innovation were replaced with profit-taking and centralised management.
  • De-democratise the Labour Party – This policy enabled electoral success, but left growing numbers of people cynical and mistrustful of politics.
  • Fail to reform the constitution – Devolution in Scotland was a policy handed to Labour by the Scots. The failure to reform the House of Lords was symbolic of the cronyism and elitism which grew under Labour, undermining local government and weakening civil society.

It is these failures which prepared the ground for austerity, for the heartless Coalition and for an out of touch Labour Party which, until Corbyn’s election, was actually supporting some of the most regressive ‘welfare reforms’ being imposed by Iain Duncan Smith.

Corbyn has not restored the strength of Labour by inviting back into the party missing Marxists. Corbyn has restored the strength of Labour by telling the truth, by speaking about poverty, inequality and justice and by offering us some hope of actual change. This is why myself and so many people I know have joined the Labour Party – because in England (and with due respect to the Green Party which are owed a great deal of credit) they are only credible hope of a better world.

The pendulum is going to swing back, and after a little while it may even begin to feel normal to care about each other, our communities, all the peoples of the world and even the world itself.

Social Care Car Crash

This week I have been working in the USA, but it’s been hard to get people to understand how severe the cuts to social care (children and adults) have been in England. But here’s my best shot at a metaphor:

A family is crossing a busy road. The traffic lights is red, the family crosses, but a car ploughs into the whole family – children, parents and grandparents are scattered across the road, bleeding, broken and dying. The car stops and a drunken driver leans out of the car window and shouts, “Don’t worry I’ll go and get help.” But when the car arrives at the hospital it smashes straight into the side of the ambulance.

The Government – which keeps promising to help social care – is the primary source of the disastrous cuts to social care – but somehow we keep normalising their destructive behaviour.

Today (in terms of numbers served) adult social care has been cut by 50%.

Graph showing 50% reduction in adult social care since 2009

Severity of cuts in English adult social care

Cuts to children social care have also been vicious.

This is because central government has cut funding to local government by about 60% or more, and these cuts are deepening every year. Since 2010, we’ve been told:

  1. It’s okay we can take money out of the NHS (healthcare) to subsidise these cuts – but funding for the NHS has not been increased to make that possible (and its a crazy way to solve the problem anyway).
  2. Don’t worry we’ll eventually come up with a plan for funding social care differently – but the only plan we’ve seen was to make older people pay more money for it and this was quickly shelved when the public got to hear about it.

As an Englishman there are many deeply upsetting and shameful aspects to what is happening in my country:

None of this necessary or fair. Social care has always been a small, but important, part of government expenditure (about 1-2% of GDP). It is low cost and relatively efficient. It is a preventive service which, when it’s working well, reduces the money spent on healthcare or on forms of institutionalisation.

The UK Government’s policy has also been severely condemned by the United Nations as a breach of human rights, and yet it continues unabated today. Even worse, this policy is just one part of the Hostile Environment created for people and families with disabilities: cuts to income security and housing combined with the growth of mean-spirited systems of assessment, control and sanctions are driving up rates of suicide and depression.

There is still no sense of national scandal and no sense of accountability on the part of our rulers. Grass roots organisations like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) have tried to force this issue onto the agenda but there is still no effective national campaign that combines the many powerful groups and organisations involved directly or indirectly with social care.

It doesn’t need to be this way

If the leaders of opposition parties, trade unions, major charities and local government could open their eyes, listen to people and work together then this policy could easily be reversed and a new direction set.

I would ask everyone who works in the social care sector, but especially those who are likely to retire with a good pension one day, to think about this problem and ask yourself:

What do you want to be remembered for when you’ve gone?

You survived the car crash

Or

You helped turn this problem round

From Cameron to May – Thoughts on the Invisibility of Justice

As we change our Prime Minister I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the battle for justice in the last six years. While I doubt we can expect a significant shift in policy, we must certainly take a fresh look at our strategies and amend them for a new period. The new boss, even if she’s the same as the old boss, can always disown previous policies, while continuing them under a new name.

First we have to accept that, for 6 years, Cameron got away with it, and we failed to stop him. We’ve had 6 years of the most vicious cuts, including direct attacks on disabled people, immigrants and on those in poverty. There is no need here for me to repeat his crimes. The United Nations has already successfully outlined his attack on human rights. Yet none of this ever became a political issue.

It was not Cameron’s injustice that was his downfall, it was his foolish gambling and vanity that brought things crashing down. Extraordinarily – our new Prime Minister has even praised his approach to social justice – Good Grief!

It seems injustice is invisible and his crimes have gone unnoticed.

We can of course blame our rulers. But I suspect that most politicians will say, “Well if this issue is such an important one surely it would have come up more. The electorate seems to care more about immigration and Europe than it does about social justice and equality. You’ve got to be realistic. You can only get elected by paying attention to what the electorate actually cares about.”

In fact one of my family, who I love dearly, is a Conservative and has worked closely with that Party in the past. After I explained to her the impact and unfairness of Austerity she said, “I know, it’s sad, but that’s politics, Simon.” And I know she’s right, this is our country’s politics – blind to injustice.

Austerity was purposefully designed to hurt those with no political voice and in ways that are very hard to see:

  • An array of welfare cuts were marketed as ‘reforms’, despite the deep harm they caused
  • Benefits were attacked by a series of salami slices, with cuts hidden inside complex technical changes
  • The skiver rhetoric played well politically and was used repeatedly on both sides of the House
  • There was no resistance to the attacks on local government, and hence on social care
  • Tax-benefit changes actually benefited middle-income groups
  • Interest rate policy created enormous and regressive benefits for the better off

In fact, for most people, Austerity was not Austerity. Most people do not even know what the term ‘Austerity’ means and never experienced any Austerity. What they did experience was a short sharp shock as the fragility of our debt-laden economy was briefly revealed in 2008. The political consequence of this was not that we started to question our crazy financial and economic system. Instead most went running to any politician who promised to clear up the mess and to safeguard our mortgages.

After this Austerity has just been a smash and grab raid on the incomes and rights of the voiceless. It hasn’t touched most people and it isn’t visible to most people.

But why has mainstream media failed to report on these issues?

Well of course, some of this could be considered corruption. Rupert Murdoch’s world view clearly frames the editorial policy of much of the mainstream media. Meanwhile the BBC seems to have turned itself into Pravda. Even The Guardian has been disappointing (despite some excellent individual journalists).

This may also be partly the result of economics. If the people who buy you, or advertise with you, do not want to think about social justice then why are you obliged to offer them something they do not want. Statistics, stories of hardship, analyses of policy impact – none of this is news, none of this is very interesting or entertaining.

You might be on the road to Hell, but if you go slowly enough it will never make the headlines.

The one honourable exception here, in my opinion, has been the Daily Mirror. Only The Mirror has been willing to call a spade a spade on welfare reform and on the cuts. Perhaps this is because it’s readers are much more likely to recognise the reality of the cuts, the sanctions and the everyday heartlessness of Government policy.

But it is not just economics and corruption that has led the media astray. The abject failure of Labour under Balls and Milliband was also critical. I am sure that many in the media assumed that, if Labour didn’t seem to think cuts, inequality and growing poverty was important, then it probably wasn’t important. Labour’s symbolic role has always been to stand up for social justice; when it doesn’t then the media draws the logical conclusion – nothing too much is wrong.

Assuming that they would continue to get the votes of the downtrodden, Labour marketed themselves to swing voters and pandered to their fear that Labour might prove irresponsible and put at risk their mortgages. In the process they lost votes to the SNP, UKIP and Greens, while convincing hardly anyone to come in their direction (they merely picked up some votes from disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters). Given the gift of the most extreme Right-wing Government in over 75 years Labour’s strategy was to merely legitimise the Coalition’s policies, by offering milder versions of those same policies. Poison is still poison, even when it’s watered down.

There is one more reason why I think we have been struggling to defend justice. Too often we are defending an unlovable version of social justice. When the Government attacks justice it does so by attacking ‘welfare’ and it is true that what people often experience as ‘welfare’ is rather hard to love:

  • Bureaucratic and impersonal systems
  • Incompetent and unaccountable services
  • Disempowerment and rightlessness

The welfare state has been deformed by its centralised and paternalistic starting point. We are all its beneficiaries, but those who come in regular contact with it often experience it as an alien force. It does not feel part of the community and it does not treat us as citizens or as its co-creators. What Hannah Arendt says of ‘charity’ could equally well be said of the post-war welfare state:

“But charity is not solidarity; it usually helps only isolated individuals, with no overall plan; and that is why, in the end, it is not productive. Charity divides a people into those who give and those who receive.”

I can probably keep this finger of blame moving. But in the end it will come back to point at me. What have I done? What could I have done differently? Are we just doomed to injustice? Is the rise of greed and inequality just another phase of our history? Must we turn fatalist or Marxist, and merely await inevitable doom or inevitable paradise?

I don’t think so and there are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort to feed on.

Unite the Union recently created Community chapters, in order to recruit into the trade union, people who were not workers, but who wanted to campaign for their communities. This seems to be a crucial development. It is an example of a trade union thinking beyond the immediate and short-term interests of one group of workers and reaching out to include families, neighbours and allies for justice.

The attempted coup within the Labour Party is, on the surface, a disaster. But in a funny way it’s much better that this all happens now. From my perspective what we are watching is an effort to restore democratic control of the Labour Party to its members. To those who think Blair’s New Labour strategy was a high point for the Labour Party then this will seem like madness; but for those like me who think New Labour is part of the problem, then this process is inevitable. I think it is inconceivable that Labour’s new members or the trade unions will fall for another version of New Labour.

In this respect the Labour Party and the Conservatives are very different. The internal politics of the Conservative Party is always about victory first; for they can divide the spoils afterwards. The rich and powerful know that, whoever is leading the party, they will always get a hearing, if they have the money to pay for it. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything can be purchased.

The same is not true for Labour. Like Odysseus’s crew, they must tie their leader to the ship’s mast, so that he or she does not jump overboard to be drowned by the Swing-Voter Sirens. Policies should emerge from the Party, because the Party represents the people and their experience of life. If the Party has not been persuaded in advance then why should it trust it’s leaders to make the right decisions once they get into power.

I can see why some might want their leader to be free of such a restriction. It is clearly more convenient not to have to worry about what Labour Party members think or want. But such leaders ask too much of us. To have reached the top of the slippery poll is certainly a remarkable trick; but it is no guarantee of integrity or a regard for justice. As G K Chesterton said:

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”

The third crumb of comfort is that we are just beginning to see how the welfare state can be reformed to become a local and citizen-friendly welfare state. Last week I was listening to people in Barnsley explain how they are connecting the Council to real community action. Councillors are becoming community champions, and instead of ‘deploying services’ into their communities they are co-creating sustainable solutions within their communities.

If the welfare state can become loveable then it can be defended. This is not easy, and it is not going to be quick, but it is not impossible.

These reflections help me refine my own understanding of my own path and the path of the Centre for Welfare Reform. Sharing and publishing social innovations or accounts injustice may be fine, but we must increasingly seek to engage directly with the groups and organisations who really care about justice and whose destinies will ultimately be bound up in any positive reforms.

I think the Centre must start to think of the audience, which it must serve with integrity, as:

  • Trade union members and other collective bodies
  • Members of progressive political parties, and this must particularly include the Labour Party
  • Local community groups and umbrella organisations that connect people and communities

I suspect that justice cannot be made directly visible, but the institutions of justice can be seen and these can made more loveable. Simone Weil claimed that only a few things can be loved absolutely: truth, beauty and justice. But when it came to her own country, as its leaders prepared to rebuild France after the war:

“…give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”

Let us try and imagine what might make our country (whatever shape that ends up being), our communities and our institutions worth loving. Perhaps then we can make justice somehow more visible and more defensible.

Image from Darren Cullen

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