Battleground 2015: Protecting our standards of living

A few weeks ago, we learnt that inflation has increased to 2.7 percent, whilst the Bank of England said that it expects inflation to exceed the three percent mark at some point this year. Meanwhile, the growth of pay has been just 1.3 percent and most social security benefits are either frozen or limited to a one percent rise over the next three years. The squeeze on living standards remains a very real issue, and the growing disparity between social security, the rate of inflation and low wage increases means that living standards are put under severe strain. This is despite growing awareness for things like the Living Wage Campaign that have sought to re-focus efforts on dignity in employment. Coupled with low overall economic growth (coasting at pretty much nil since 2010, and achieving only 0.3 percent in the last quarter) the consequences have been alarming for working people.

George Osborne’s recent Spending Review has reinforced those trends and, given the fiscal commitments he has made, the Coalition has now set the terms of debate for the 2015 election. It will be, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed, an ‘austerity election’ because successive governments will have to impose further spending cuts of £23bn between 2015 and 2017. This is a contentious agenda, which will see public expenditure plunge below 40 percent of GDP – and below that of the US, Germany and Japan. Public spending will fall by over 6 percent between 2012 and 2017; in the US, it will fall by just 1.26 percent. The UK is therefore rebalancing its economy in a very drastic way in a short time period compared with other major economies. Labour must challenge this agenda. But it must also ask a basic question about its raison d’être: what is the purpose of the left in a period of austerity, in a period of low economic growth, and in a period of declining support for the welfare state?

From the mid-1990s, Labour could rely on economic growth to redistribute wealth – in other words, correct the problems caused by capitalism without dealing with the cause itself. Looking towards the horizon of 2015, this is clearly not possible from an economic perspective, nor desirable because popularity for the welfare state has waned. It means that Labour must support social justice and equality – both central to achieve fairness – in a different way. Labour can no longer focus on a large state and solely on the redistribution of wealth to achieve its goals. Things such as working tax credits have perpetuated market inequalities, where the government spends billions to essentially subsidise companies for low pay. This is one of the central reasons that we must turn towards a living wage to support people in jobs. The living wage is as much about economic equality as it is about social justice. Labour was founded on such a principle, aiming to improve social cohesion and fighting for the right for every person to have an opportunity at a good life. This was a founding aim for guild socialism, co-operatives and trade unions. We must remember that greater economic justice is not an end in itself, but the mechanism by which we can achieve a better society – a society in which we, as communities, can determine our collective fate and in which we, as individuals, can pursue our conceptions of happiness. Unfortunately, this seems so have been forgotten sometime after the Second World War, possibly somewhere amidst the creation of a bureaucratic welfare state. The Labour Party focused too much energy on correcting the faults of the capitalist economy: it focused on tidying up inequality, rather than challenging its causes.

Labour would do well to look to the principle of living standards as a central guiding force for policy. The protection of living standards is the belief that all individuals have a right to a minimum standard of living through dignity in work, good mental (as well as physical) well-being and reasonably priced public services available for all. In other words, life should be affordable and not a daily struggle for survival. The Coalition government has entirely abandoned these aims: the cost of essential goods has increased by 25 percent since 2008 without ameliorative efforts. Living standards are now at their lowest level since at least 2004-05, and the IFS has concluded that: ‘Prospects for living standards are […] bleak – further falls are likely to be followed by a weak recovery, leaving average income growth even lower in the 2010s than in the 2000s’. [1]

Labour’s alternative to austerity must be a return to the principles of a decent standard of living. Living standards resonate with people, so long as it is associated with the beliefs of dignity in work, social security based on a contributory principle, and a distribution of wealth based on just deserts. The idea of a ‘squeezed middle’, scoffed at by so many a couple of years ago, was a bold move that has since become an important reference point for debates around austerity. It requires the following commitments from Labour:

  • A minimum living wage. This, beyond anything else, will be a test for Labour. The Party must commit to the introduction of a living wage across the country. There are calls for the national minimum wage to be raised to become the living wage, which I would echo. [2]
  • Protection of basic economic rights. Calls from Conservatives suggest that austerity may cause the repeal of employment rights. Tory europhobes, too, want to repeal rights in order to create a more ‘flexible’ labour market. If anything, these need to be strengthened to ensure basic rights for workers.
  • Regulating prices. Our utility companies are hardly subject to competitive frameworks. Water companies have monopolies over certain areas, and energy companies make it difficult to switch to cheaper rates. [3] This must be challenged through a regulatory framework, coupled with a green investment strategy.
  • Social investments. For example, we need to continue to invest in education at all levels (from pre-school support to post-graduate funding). This will balance equality of opportunity as social mobility will increase, and it will also act as an incentive for further investment from businesses.
  • A strategy for growth. Social security benefits are rising because our economy is not growing. A growing economy – that is rebalanced towards sustainability, with regulative frameworks in place – has the opportunity to not only lower social security, but also to strengthen dignity in work.

Labour can be radical in its approach towards living standards. It speaks to a positive vision for what economics is for. It is an approach that moves Labour away from the falsely constructed ‘strivers versus skivers’ debate. Ultimately, this is also not about austerity. This is about using the resources we have to achieve radical outcomes for greater social justice and equal opportunities for all, without the need to necessarily increase public expenditure.

mg

[1] Institute for Fiscal Studies (2013) Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2013, London: IFS, p.28. Available here.

[2] A living wage is important because it would ensure dignity in work for the employed, it would boost the spending power of individuals (gross earnings would be up by £6.5bn) and it would ensure a more productive workforce. Crucially, it would also allow the Treasury to achieve gross savings of £3.6bn if universally applied. See this report by the IPPR and Resolution Foundation for more details.

[3] The Power Book, presented by Caroline Flint at the last Labour Annual Conference was a step in the right direction. For more, see: Local Government Information Unit (2012) The Power Book, London: LGiU.

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Breaking Britain

On 04 April 2013, Mick Philpott was sentenced to life imprisonment for manslaughter. The man caused the death of six of his (many more) children by starting a fire. The Daily Mail’s headline read: ‘Vile Product of Welfare UK’. But it isn’t just the Daily Mail with that view. George Osborne, with the support of the Prime Minister, attributed a role to the welfare state to the rise of Philpott. He said that: ‘I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state […] subsidising lifestyles like that’. Readers of the tabloids, and many politicians besides, strongly believe that the majority of those claiming benefits are either foreigners or fraudsters. This is not surprising, given that citizens are consistently fed myths about those who rely on benefits. The TUC/YouGov Survey from December 2012 is hugely revealing. For instance, respondents believed that 41 percent of the entire welfare budget is spent on unemployment benefits. In a second example, respondents believed that 27 percent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. It therefore comes as no surprise that 59 percent of all respondents of the poll agreed with the following statement:

Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency, whereby many people, and often whole families, get used to living off state benefits; the system needs to be radically changed to get such people to take more responsibility for their lives and their families.

The persistent myths spread by the media have therefore had a huge impact to entrench divisions within society about the nature of welfare (despite the fact that the same respondents also believed (by 54 percent) that the media does not give an accurate account of welfare expenditure or the people that claim social assistance). Here is a pie chart on how the welfare budget is actually spent [1]:

Expenditure of Welfare

What it shows is that less than three percent of the welfare budget goes on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and fraud is estimated to cover roughly 0.8 percent (although ‘fraud’ by definition may not be estimated accurately). What is hugely important to note is how widespread the welfare state supports British families: from young families to pensioners, from the sick and disabled to those on low income. Roughly 64 percent of all families receive some kind of social assistance.

The very idea of ‘welfare’ is now under siege. For many people, the term has connotations of big state, dependency and laziness. It is now even used as an insult, when it was once a source of pride. To take the headline from the Guardian, a ‘war on welfare’ has begun. This ‘war’ is fought amidst growing divisions in British society, in which welfare is linked to the rise of ‘shirkers’ (demonising the unemployed) and connected to the rise of immigration (with consequent rises in xenophobia). These are just two examples of a pervasive trend in an attempt to turn the public against social security in order to legitimise the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

As with the ‘debt versus growth’ debate, the Coalition are winning the argument. The terms of debate have shifted significantly: ‘welfare’ is no longer about supporting those in need; it is now about a ‘culture of dependency’. Setting the agenda in such stark terms means that the Conservatives have been able to pose a particular problem of the welfare state that implies a particular solution: cut welfare and you cut dependency. This narrative has proved to be very powerful – regardless of its faulty analysis. The policy consequences are as radical as the narrative has been powerful. However, the austerity agenda pushed by the Coalition has done far more than changed attitudes to welfare. It has had significant material consequences. A recent report by Oxfam showed that more than 500,000 people are reliant food aid. This is a failure of the social safety net to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. This is a worrying trend, but most disturbingly of all it is almost entirely unopposed. The centre-left, on the whole, has relinquished ownership over the debate on welfare, and the vacuum has allowed the Conservative-led Coalition to fill it. Even Polly Toynbee has given up.

This is despite the fact that the austerity agenda will, as many have already pointed out, disproportionally affect the poor. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies backs this up, epitomised by the following graph [2]:

photo

The inevitable rise in inequality is hugely damaging. It was only a few years ago when the idea of ‘equality’ had a resurgence through the popular book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level. Inequality will have a negative impact on public health, crime and violence, happiness levels, mental health, work ethic and education. [3] Their persuasive arguments were at the top of the political agenda, having the support of David Cameron, Michael Gove, Ed Miliband and Jack Straw – to name a few figures that have publicly quoted the book. Of course, since then, the very idea of ‘equality’ has come under attack. In The Spectator, for example, the book was called ‘junk food for the brain’.

The Conservative Party’s agenda has been hugely effective. It has divided the public and portrayed the Labour Party as squandering public resources on ‘wasteful’ benefit claimants. The story has become one characterised by ‘unfairness’ to hardworking families for the benefit of the lazy. However, this strategy also presents an opportunity for Labour. Using Cameron’s own term of ‘Broken Britain’, which he first coined in 2009, Labour has the opportunity to argue that the Conservatives have further intensified social divisions. Ironically, it is the Conservatives that are ‘breaking Britain’, which Labour must articulate in three important ways. First, it must shift the language from ‘welfare’ to ‘fairness’. This must demonstrate the unfairness of the austerity agenda. Second, it must emphasise the squeeze on living standards and that the Labour Party will protect living standards in a period of low economic growth. Third, Labour must articulate a narrative that unites the public. One Nation Labour must be more than a buzzword; it must show substantive commitment to equality and well-being.

Slowly, the Party leadership has begun to take on this challenge. Last week was hugely important for Labour, and Ed Miliband’s speech was one that delivered. Although nuanced, it hit the right chord for many. Labour cannot win by solely presenting ‘the facts’ of welfare. As Miliband’s speech demonstrated, the Party must be committed to welfare reform with a narrative on social justice (epitomised by the return to the contributory principle), living standards (Miliband once again vowed to push forward with the living wage) and a commitment to equality. This is emblematic of what One Nation must stand for, and it is something that Labour has begun to articulate.

mg

Notes

[1] Taken from A. Coote and S. Lyall (2013) Mythbusters: “Strivers v. skivers: the workless are worthless”, London: New Economics Foundation. Available here.

[2] R. Joyce and D. Phillips (2013) Tax and Welfare Reforms Planned for 2013-14, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. Available here.

[3] R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

mg

[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

You party if you want to; this lad’s not for partying

I’ve had mixed comments for the title alone, so I doubt that the following comments will yield much more consensus. But, in many ways, that’s what politics is for. It has never been for or about consensus, as Margaret Thatcher understood very well.

Margaret Thatcher died on 08 April 2013. Her death was marked as controversially as her policies in government. It has since sparked all sorts of debates and questions about her legacy, her ‘haunting’ influence today, the way she should be buried, and how she has affected the Labour Party. But her death itself has been marked in no less controversial terms: from tributes and mourning, on the one hand, to opening bottles of champagne and death parties, on the other hand. Death parties occurred in Glasgow and London, and even locally in Sheffield. It has sparked outrage from the Daily Mail. It has also seen a curious defence on a Guardian blog.

These parties are sickening. There are numerous reasons for why we should not celebrate the fact that someone has died, and it is not about ‘death etiquette’. It is far more about human dignity and a separation between a person’s moral worth and that individual’s politics. We are, of course, defined by our politics; but that does not mean that we cannot separate an individual from the politics in which he or she believes. Politics may well be personal, but senseless tribalism does much to harm social cohesion and constrains meaningful debate. With regards to Margaret Thatcher, there is a rightful argument to be made that her politics negatively affected Britain (to put it very mildly). Yet, some people have argued that this gives them a right to celebrate her death. Some say it is only natural – even moral – to have an emotion when someone dies.

This position is inexplicable. The policies of Thatcher (which incidentally predated her reign as prime minister) had already occurred. Her power to affect politics was non-existent on 08 April 2013. Her death, then, changed little (if anything). So to express a desire to see a woman dead (a woman who had dementia and suffered from minor strokes at that) seems illogical. So what does a ‘death party’ achieve? What did a sign saying ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ do, other than reinforce misogyny in political culture? How does buying the song ‘Ding Dong: The Witch Is Dead’ affect our political classes into acting any differently against the austerity agenda? Most of those people celebrating her death argue that this is rightful justice; we are showing our anger at Thatcherism and the way she destroyed our country. Do you not think, however, that if you spent your energy on campaigning, protesting, or generally getting involved with politics that this will affect more change than buying a song for 79 pence from iTunes?

There is only one way to justify happiness in the face of death: that, in your opinion, someone deserves to die; and that, without her death, justice is not achieved. It is a justification that makes logical sense, but one that is abhorrent and illegitimate. Because to say that you believe Margaret Thatcher deserved to die, you are saying that some people, in this case someone who made decisions after winning democratic elections, deserves death. [1]

This is repugnant and shows that some people have little moral integrity. I find that repugnant because there is a difference between someone’s politics and someone as a person. Every individual, in my mind, is of equal, intrinsic moral worth; I wish to live in a tolerant society where we can disagree about politics without hating the worth of a person, without a senseless tribalism. This is the foundation upon which democracy rests and to reject this is to reject democratic principles.

People have responded to the above by arguing that the Daily Mail and other papers have celebrated the death of left-wing leaders. That the Daily Mail gloats at death. That the Daily Mail is morally repugnant. But we already knew this, did we not? Since when can we justify our moral acts simply by the virtue of others’ actions. Once again, the argument does not make sense to me. It is, in fact, disheartening to learn that members on the left of politics – who, by and large, believe in dignity, equality and social justice – are making the case against dignity in death and against equal moral self-worth. It is disheartening to learn that people celebrating the death of an elderly woman are basing their justifications on actions from the Daily Mail.

None of this is to say that you cannot debate the legacy of Thatcher and Thatcherism. It is not to say that her actions as prime minister were destructive, wrong and divisive. Because they were. It is right that we discredit the needless privatisation of certain industries, it is right that we denounce her actions that exacerbated a divide between north and south, and, something personal to me, it is right that we resoundingly condemn Section 28. The legacy of Thatcher on British politics from 1979 onwards – to this very day – deserves to be debated and discussed. Some of her acts deserve to be shunned; others deserve to be praised. None of this is to argue against Margaret Thatcher as a person. It is to condemn Thatcherism as a political philosophy.

Thatcher defined her age. But it is questionable that she gets such a high profile funeral. It is questionable, in particular, that the royal family will attend. A bastion of so-called neutrality, the British monarch has only attended the funeral of one other prime minister: Winston Churchill. It is also questionable that parliament was recalled. It surprised the Speaker of the Commons, and arguably caused unnecessary expenses. But to have a party at the death of an elderly woman – that is beyond question abhorrent.

mg

[1] Inadvertently, you are also arguing for the death penalty.

We whip the blame back and forth

We’ve all forgotten about horsemeat. The so-called ‘scandal’ has subsided. It’s off the agenda, replaced with lots of new global disasters (think nuclear annihilation) and domestic issues (think welfare reform). It begs the question: was this really a food crisis? Or was it just a media panic?

In January, the Irish Food Standards Agency found horse DNA in our beef burgers. Since then, there has been an uproar in the media about a ‘scandal’ surrounding our food: the Guardian reports that it has prompted food hygiene fears; the Daily Mail argues that the scandal is a ‘brutal warning’ to British shoppers; and the Daily Telegraph resorts to blaming Europe. Indeed, this idea of ‘the blame’ is intriguing. Blame consists of two elements: (i) the consequence of a perceived harm or loss that could have been avoided and (ii) a perceived responsibility or agency for the harm or loss. [1] Quite obviously, shoppers feel wronged because they have been eating horsemeat when they should not have. This raises the question of who is duly responsible for the deception. The blame has been hurled at many: the FSA, government departments, food labels, supermarkets, cheap food, the poor, ‘the system’, consumer behaviour, farmers, the Europeans, and every individual that’s ever eaten meat. Let’s explore.

The leaders in our play are the Food Standards Agency (FSA), experts and political leaders. They have blamed the ‘complexity’ of the food processing system, which involved abattoirs in Romania, factories in Luxembourg, meat processors in France, and traders in the Netherlands (before arriving in the UK). For a neat summary, see the BBC’s summary here. The FSA has, so far, mainly used a presentational strategy to minimise damage – drawing a line under the scandal and opening up a UK-wide investigation. However, experts have also used an agency strategy to shift blame onto ‘the system’: the complexity of the food processing system, the nature of regulatory governance, and the failure of the FSA to properly regulate meat. [2] One former food auditor has even blamed supermarkets for their ‘massive failure’ to regulate their own products.

Enter our middle-managers: the distributors of our food, popularly known as supermarkets. Food retailers have swiftly called for tighter regulation to rebuke the comments made by the aforementioned food expert. Tesco, for instance, promises to buy more from British farmers and ensure that as many products as possible are sourced from British soil. Meanwhile, Asda warns that this scandal could mean higher prices to ensure that the regulatory system works better. Supermarkets have opted for a policy strategy to prevent themselves from being blamed for the scandal. This is, perhaps tellingly, a strange twist in our blame game: why do supermarkets feel the need to undergo a damage-limitation exercise if they have done nothing wrong and put the blame squarely on ‘the system’?

This ‘system’ is also known as the meat industry. Some newspapers (here and here) have attempted to blame the farmers and abattoirs of Eastern Europe for the crisis. The Romanians, where the horsemeat apparently came from, have denied any wrongdoing. Of course, they do sell horsemeat – it’s just that they have been sensible enough to label it as such. The Romanians are of course very happy to eat correctly labelled horsemeat. This has caused a bit of a stir – are we just being snobbish about eating horsemeat? Is it a poor man’s food? The German development minister has proclaimed that we should give our beef products ‘tainted’ with horsemeat to the poor because ‘We can’t just throw away good food’. Outrageous, of course, but some have argued that the reason we have horsemeat in our food at all is because cash-strapped local councils and poor people can’t afford ‘real’ meat, and so supermarkets are just supplying our demand for cheap food. And so the horsemeat scandal has landed squarely back in traditional British political discourse: this is all about British identity and our obsession with class.

So where are we now? Apparently, we’re turning vegetarian. But aside from that, the outcry of a couple of months ago has not caused a sustained, existential dilemma for the public. At the end of the day, this was not a health crisis, nor is horsemeat necessarily a bad choice for cooking. Perhaps this has just been regulatory failure on a transnational scale. Was this so-called ‘scandal’ just a labelling issue all along? Or is it possible to extrapolate anything more from the headlines?

The tempting prospect is to reply with: ‘neigh’. But that would be horsing around, and doesn’t really delve into the mane issue. The unbridled plethora of news articles and television reports implies that our food industry has been problematised. The horsemeat scandal has raised two questions: ‘who gets what?’ and ‘what should we expect from our food?’. It has raised these two questions precisely because it is not illegal to slaughter, serve or eat horsemeat. This is a cultural and moral issue about our meat consumption. Both questions return us to the critical issue of consumption and the way in which we are willing to shut our eyes and ears to animal welfare and the pleasures of the palate. Our willingness to consume masses of meat – regardless of what kind – has taken its toll on the environment: pesticides and fertilisers have affected local ecosystems, growth hormones have affected food chains, and ranches are destroying forests and depleting water supplies. The price we pay for our food does not reflect its costs – especially not on natural resources, climate and ecosystems. This means that cheap meat continues to stimulate demand and inculcates the belief that to eat meat three times a day is without consequences. In agricultural societies, per capita consumption of meat was rarely above 10 kilograms. By 1950, this has risen to 17 kilograms. And today, it is over 40 kilograms. [3] The public demand meat in most of its dishes, and treats ‘cheap meat’ as a right. Does this imply that the blame ultimately lies with public expectations of food? Was the horsemeat scandal ultimately caused by the public? Perhaps. As Nikolai Gogol once remarked: ‘It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry’. [4]

So, to recap: we’ve seen producers blaming supermarkets, the FSA blaming the ‘system’, economists blaming supply and demand, newspapers blaming Europe, supermarkets blaming the FSA, vegetarians blaming the meat-eaters, and – from today – me blaming you. Have we solved some great crisis here? Or just whipped some blame back and forth?

mg

[1] C. Hood, The Blame Game, Princeton: PUP, pp.6-7.

[2] HC 946 (2013) Contamination of Beef Products, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13 (additional written evidence), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, London: HMSO. Available here.

[3] P. Dauvergne (2008) The Shadows of Consumption, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp.135-67.

[4] Nikai Gogol, The Inspector General.

Pressure on the High Street?

It was not just the fact that HMV announced that it was going into administration that caused me to reflect about the state of British high streets. A few weeks ago, I also took a stroll through Broomhill, in Sheffield, where a countless number of shops had closed and a local coffeehouse was being turned into a Costa. Additionally, I found out my great granddad’s pub had closed down. The stark message appears to be that the high street is slowly dying. What is to blame for this morbid future of town centres?

The changes on our high streets have been accelerated by the economic downturn from 2007 onwards, and probably worsened by the economic policies of George Osborne. However, the long-term cause lies in a much broader shift in consumer culture that has moved from the high street towards larger, out-of-town shopping centres and towards the Internet. Earlier this month, in addition to HMV, we have seen Jessops and Blockbuster go into administration. This follows a number of other businesses including: Woolworth’s, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Optical Express and so on. This is a very small and selective list, but it shows that there are a wide variety of shops that are closing down. More generally, the number of town centre stores fell by almost 15,000 between 2000 and 2009 with an estimated further 10,000 losses over the past couple of years. [1] Without doubt, traditional high streets are in decline, which has seen the emergence of ‘ghost towns’ and ‘clone towns’ across Britain. [2] It means that, first, our high streets are dying and, second, those that remain all look the same, with a generic number of national outlets.

There are those that have little qualms about the decline of shopping in town centres; if anything, ‘clone towns’ have made shopping more convenient (you know what you’re getting from your Starbucks and your H&M wherever you are across the country), and better still, online shopping means you don’t even need to leave the house (hush about the tax avoidance from the likes of Amazon.co.uk though). Ultimately, however, high streets do matter. This is not just about nostalgia for an age of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; this is about a vibrant local economy (although I do love a good cake). The problem is that national retailers suck out economic capital in town centres and take it straight back to their headquarters. Rarely do profits return to the local economy. The growth of tax avoiding retailers has further reduced the tax base for investment, which is further exacerbating the problem. Whether town and city centres are labelled ghost towns or clone towns, it damages the local economy. Communities become dependent on state-led investment, something which would be less likely in a locally independent economy where small- and medium-sized businesses work interdependently. [3]

A more fundamental point, however, is that British high streets are about public space. The space of the town centre is becoming marginalised and soulless – which may sound rather fuzzy, but is based on the idea of social capital. The problem facing our high streets has surpassed retail. It is also about our ability as citizens to contribute to the public spaces we occupy, which suggests that we need to reclaim town and city space. In other words, strong town and city centres matter because they contribute towards a dynamic economy, and they also help to strengthen and maintain a sense of social capital. We must recognise that the role of high streets has changed from a pre-dominant retail role towards one that should emphasise a social one. It entrenches a sense of belonging and localism, which is preached by both the main parties in their own ways [4]. As Jan Gehl points out:

Wanting to go into town is different from wanting or needing to shop. It is about an experience. It is about sociability and relaxation, creativity and being part of something you cannot get at home or work. [5]

To echo the points made by Mary Portas’ independent review from 2011, high streets should be bustling with people, services and jobs. They should be vibrant places that people choose to visit. They should be destinations. This is not about nostalgia – it is about social capital and sustainable economic growth.

The question, therefore, revolves around how we can improve the confidence and strength of high streets. ‘Localism’ has become a key word for this to happen. Local councils have always been marginalised in the British political system, for a range of reasons that go beyond this article’s remit. The broad point, however, is that local politics must matter to people; and the best way to do this is to empower local councils. [6] Local councils need to be at the heart of local decision-making, which includes the local economy – something which has been hoarded by central government for too long. Councils need to think more creatively about parking spaces, improving public transport and improving consultation with local businesses. The success of Business Improvement Districts is one important development (mechanisms where local businesses contribute to joint business plans), which demonstrates that working together is an important dynamic of the future. [7]

In terms of economic policies, a number of choices are available:

  • First, the model of business rates is out-dated and out of proportion. For example, the business rates for an ASOS distribution centre in Barnsley is around £40 per square metre; for a unit in a Rochdale shopping centre, this is £1,080 per square metre. This has led one commentator to question if business rates are taxing the high street out of existence. Business rates need to change.
  • Second, big businesses need to be regulated so that smaller, independent shops can grow. A diverse high street means that large supermarkets and hypermarkets must be limited in space and size, and regulated in terms of products. Changes in planning law should reduce the power of the likes of Tesco, Asda-Walmart, Morrison’s and so on. [8]
  • Third, the introduction of a ‘Small Business Saturday’. This has been introduced in the United States, and proven to be highly successful. Figures suggest that more than £3.4 billion were spent that day in 2012. This idea was sponsored by social media and supported by celebrities. It suggests that there is a lot of potential for this to work in the UK.

These are just three ideas, and many more should be looked at – reducing red tape, creating local enterprise zones, and setting up a Post Office Bank. However, none of these measures will be enough. The national economic policies of the current Coalition government are preventing the growth that is desperately needed. Austerity is simply not working. We are now on the brink of a triple-dip recession – an unprecedented and bleak outlook for the future that must be tackled. All of this makes the emphasis on local, sustainable growth even more important.

mg

Notes

[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/GenEcon (2011) Understanding High Street Performance, Leeds: GenEcon, paragraph 21 (available here).

[2] See New Economics Foundation (2005) Ghost Town Britain, London: NEF (available here), and New Economics Foundation (2005) Clone Town Britain, London: NEF (available here).

[3] See, for instance, New Economics Foundation (2002) The Money Trail: Measuring the impact on your local economy using LM3, London: NEF (available here).

[4] The Conservatives, for example, have focused much on the ideas of the Big Society: see among others: D. Cameron (2011) Speech on the Big Society, London (available here). See also: Conservative Party (2009) Control Shift: Returning power to local communities, London: Conservative Party. The Labour Party has focused on One Nation as its main alternative starting point for localism. See J. Cruddas (ed.) (2013) One Nation Labour: Debating the future, London: LabourList (available here).

[5] J. Pehl, quoted in M. Portas (2011) The Portas Review, London: BIS, p.15 (available here).

[6] See J. Wilson (2012) Letting Go: How Labour can learn to stop worrying and trust the people, London: Fabian Society.

[7] Portas, p.21.

[8] New Economics Foundation (2011) Ten Steps to Save the Cities, London: NEF (available here).

These are mindless riots, but that doesn’t make them pointless

Sorry to point this out to you, but these are not pointless riots. Yes, they are sickening, and I condemn them wholeheartedly. But this does not mean that there are no underlying problems in British society that are likely to have accentuated these violent conflicts. Thuggish looting on our television screens demonstrates a group of people that have lost confidence in the institutions of both state and society. Does this make these riots explicitly ideological? No, it does not. However, I challenge anyone with the ignorant claim that there is nothing more to it than ‘mindlessness’.

Thugs have taken on the British police – constabularies which have never used rubber bullets in mainland UK, yet now have the opportunity to do so. How can rioters have become bold enough to take on the British law enforcement agencies? Does this not suggest something more than anarchic opportunism? To me, it shows that there is a deeper crisis of authority. Internalised conflicts have simmered through in a brief moment over the past few days from long-term problems of neglect, inequality and disaffection. As riots hit Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, we really have to ask ourselves whether we can be ignorant enough to simply call this mindlessness. It may not be ideological, and it may not be particularly well thought-through, but that does not mean that these riots are not making a point:

Riots don’t tend to happen in affluent areas: they tend to happen where there is deprivation, where there is no trust in government or its policing methods, or where the perceived gap between rich and poor seems to be widening. (Prospect, 09 August 2011)

This is a simple, yet important, fact. I repeat that I wholeheartedly condemn these riots. However, we need to understand its roots, which go far beyond opportunism and theft. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

A riot is the language of the unheard.

The people who have committed these atrocious acts of violence and destroyed the livelihoods of so many law-abiding citizens are adopting a despicable code to voice their concerns. They have, in part, been driven to this. They are ostracised from mainstream society and asking one question: what is our place in British society? Marginalised communities are acting in a moment of (sickening) violence; young people not in education, employment or training (i.e., NEETs) acting in an unjustifiable and brutal way. Commentators have claimed that these thugs are doing this for ‘fun’ – this suggests something more than anarchy; this suggests a systemic failure to protect younger people over generation and generation from the harsh reality of living in bleakness. These are ‘style riots, boredom riots, feel-good riots, look-at-me riots’ (not post-political riots). They may be aggressive, consumerist gangs, but this does not mean that this is not a sign of political, social or economic failure. We must confront this challenge, and defeat it.

Defeating these conflicts will be arduous in the medium- to long-term. Quelling riots will be relatively easy compared to the mountainous task of re-building these communities. Our society has become increasingly divided from the 1980s right up to today. This, unfortunately, lies at the heart of the present situation. Our society has been battered repeatedly in the recent past: from MPs Expenses to bankers’ bonuses to the false moral economy. This broader picture is important, because it engenders a sense of hopelessness and despair. These were not the direct cause of these specific riots, I accept that. However, I believe that this is the culture in which many uneducated young people in poorer inner cities feel at the moment. [1]

This is why we must have a considered approach in how we proceed, a point made well here. I believe that UK constabularies should be allowed to use tear gas, and in the worst case a water canon (although, see possible outcome here). Rubber bullets will reinforce the feeling of a war zone. A curfew will do nothing other than instigate fear of ‘what’s out there’. Tapping mobile phone networks hardly seems effective (other communications media exist). The army should be out of the question – they would accentuate the problem of the rejected versus the (perceived) elite. Mixing state security organs with internal civil ones hasn’t been a useful move in the past in other countries, nor will it be here. We need more belief in our police force. Yes, they’ve made mistakes – but they aren’t ‘namby pamby’. I’m happy that police numbers have been trebled (not so much that they will be cut by 16,000 by 2015). We need a strong, hard and fast response to condemn these rioters. We need clarity on the causes, but we do not need violence to demonstrate the symptoms. Only when the violence has calmed down and the dust has settled will it be possible for us to move forward from these truly sickening acts. Criminals, looters and rioters need to face the full force of the law.

In no way have I tried to justify any of these chaotic, criminal actions by the rioters in any of our cities. I have tried to set out a defence of clarity, because this is not a mindless mob. If we subscribe to a view that there is nothing to it, then we are shutting down debate and we are condemning these riots to the dustbin of history. The problem is that if we do not confront the problems, they will happen again and again. We need to tackle the underlying issues that have been described above: inequality of opportunity, political disaffection and personal responsibility.

[1] I can only partly verify that through the news reports, interviews, columns and such like that I have come across, being a student in Sheffield.