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.

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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.

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Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!

Review: Affluenza, Oliver James

This book review is part of Lippy’s re-launch in September. For more details, click here and here.

I opened the first few pages of this book with a sense of promise that this would be an interesting read, particularly given the title’s mix of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’. I read the prologue and was satisfied that James would make a good author with intelligent points. For example, he characteristically dropped ‘mental illness’ and replaced it with ‘emotional distress’ – rejecting the idea that our personalities are physical diseases that could be treated with a pill or two (p.xx).

From the outset, the author argues that we have become obsessed by consumption, and that our mental well-being is in the process of severe damage due to our superficial interests in money, success, and status. Individuals do not judge people based on integrity or personal values (if people should judge at all), but rather focus on their monetary gains and material goods. How often do people ask: ‘So what do you do?’ and you reply with your job title and industry that you work in? Have we sacrificed our senses to industrial pursuits, medicated through buying ‘things’ and supplemented by a long-term sense of anxiety, hyperactivity and/or depression (p.15)? This message is a powerful one. Unfortunately for Oliver James, he failed to articulate this at all. Whilst he does indeed set out to demonstrate that this is what is wrong with Western civilisation, which he calls ‘Selfish Capitalism’, his message is poorly phrased and long-winded. 510 pages could easily have been condensed into a 300 page work that would have probably made the point more succinctly. For starters, James runs out of steam by page 209, in which he spends the sixth chapter re-hashing and re-formulating the previous five chapters. Moreover, there are large tracts of autobiography that simply needn’t be there: for example, he uses six pages to recall a dream and go into family history to make a mediocre point about how property is seen as an extension of one’s identity (pp.214-20). His writing style isn’t the best in the world with random capitalisations for words he deems are really important. His gimmicky ‘vaccines’ to solve all our problems also seem a little out-dated.

All of this is a shame, because his central idea is well thought-through, and one can easily identify with his points about the so-called Affluenza Virus and how this pervades the English-speaking world. People work themselves to death in order to consume insatiable desires that lie far beyond one’s means – mortgages spring to mind immediately. At times, however, even this message was lost through James’ own moralising mission. It is fine to make the generalisation that people who hate their job and work only for material goods and to pay off a mortgage are probably suffering (for a start, they aren’t enjoying their job). However, James judges far more than the stressed workaholic. He attacks ambition and argues that success is a hollow, temporary boost to our self-esteem (p.38). Perhaps, but does this mean that we can’t strive to make our dreams come true? He goes on to attack people who care about their appearance, who work really hard for its own sake and scorns those that are ‘oblivious’ to ‘basic needs’ of emotional intimacy (p.88-95). I find this hugely frustrating. Who is to say that someone who passes by emotional intimacy due to the interest in their work that they are emotionally illiterate and fail at the ‘basic’ things in life? Are people not allowed to work hard if this is what they enjoy? Luckily James redeems himself somewhat later in the book when he argues that intrinsic motivation for a challenge is a good value. This in itself suggests a poorly structured book, something which happens all over the place (for instance, he later re-hashes his criticism of appearance so that we must seek to be ‘beautiful’ and not ‘attractive’).

Later chapters focused on education and parenting. I gleaned from them that children must have their emotional needs met early on in life which would otherwise leave the grown-up adult wanting and frustrated all their life, always feeling guilt or shame for whatever reason their needs were not met as a child. This is partly where I find Oliver James most interesting. He seems far more passionate and can come across a great deal more wholesome on the issues of parenting than any other subject. It is also the parts that which I thought make interesting reading (interesting in the sense that it actually seemed worthwhile). There is also a lot of sense from his ideas on education, in which the system ought to focus a great deal more on the well-being of pupils and students alike and far less on passing exams and creating a workforce.

Having said all of that, James’ book so far presents a mixed message: a clear premise to uncover the horrors of neo-liberal capitalism that have their roots in Thatcherism and Reaganomics. That was the good part. The bad part was how poorly he wrote it and how unstructured his book became. His solutions hardly deserve comment, all of which seem out of the world. He wants to ban attractive models from advertising and have a single ‘government estate agency’ to set all prices for property. I don’t think so.

No doubt on reading this you will be no better off in thinking ‘should I read this book, then, or not bother?’. Well, if you like the idea and can see past the writing style, then go for it. In the end, James does make some valid points. And it adds to a growing weight of criticism on neo-liberal consumer society. It is hugely disappointing that they are veiled in a questionable methodology and poor execution by the author.

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.