Monday, 30 June 2014

The peasants are revolting.

"What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the push of a button?... What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment. 

I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine. "How despicable we must seem to you" he says."
- The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Dystopia is my favourite genre of book, having begun my love affair with it whilst reading George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" as an A level English Literature student. The latter remains my all-time favourite book to this day. I recently read "The Hunger Games" trilogy and was struck by what an interesting analogy it makes for modern politics - not so much the whole annual fight to the death, but in the narrative about the enormous and self-perpetuating divide between the wealthy privileged elite who reside in "the Capitol"  and the poverty-stricken "Districts" that surround it. In a post-revolution society where the state emerged victorious over the rebelling masses, the President of "Panem" expends an enormous amount of money and effort to maintain a discourse that keeps the poor in their place and reminds them that, not only are they eternally subservient to the state, but that they should be grateful for their meagre and miserable existence.

That same narrative is insidiously working its way through contemporary UK politics, via the construct of the "benefits scrounger", whom the right-wing would have you believe is hungrily devouring government resources, refusing to work and forever seeking ways to cheat and manipulate the welfare system. 

It would be laughable if it wasn't so pervasive.

While the government are eager for us to believe that benefits claimants look like the cartoon below, the truth is that, according to two recent studies, and the government's own expenditure data, a fraction of benefits are paid to the unemployed while the majority tops up the incomes of working families who face poverty in spite of having at least one full time earner per household.

This widespread rhetoric serves but one purpose. It gives the voting public a scapegoat at which to direct their umbrage and creates a smokescreen for the far more damaging tax avoidance and mishandling of finances by the wealthiest. 

From "The Socialist Paper", May 2013
Even taking the more conservative (pardon the pun) HMRC estimate of £30billion unpaid tax, when this is compared to the figures of benefits fraud and overpayment (£2.6billion combined), the latter is absolutely dwarfed. 

Why is this not reflected in the commentary offered up by mainstream politics? Four out of five of the main parties repeat this same narrative of "cracking down" on welfare, urging benefits claimants "back into work", making austerity cuts because they are vital for economic recovery. I'm trying so, so hard not to swear here, but it is plain to see that it's all bulltwang. Whose interests are served by this? Why the wealthy minority, of course. If you tell a big enough lie and tell it often enough, you can get away with it. Orwell called it Doublethink, and in this case that lie enables the self-serving, pocket-lining toffs to continue voting for parties whose policies have caused the biggest decline in living standards since the Victorian age.

Since getting more actively involved with politics, I've had the opportunity to talk to politicians from all around the political sphere. What has absolutely fascinated and horrified me in equal measure, is how earnestly the right wing believe their own discourse about the undeserving poor. Their outlook is what I call a Top-Down perspective; that is, that they approach social issues from a higher socio-economic position of wealth and status and see that as the benchmark to which all lower status people should aspire. If you're poor, you simply work harder to amass more wealth and get yourself out of that situation. And if you continue to be poor, it's only because you're not trying hard enough,  for which you only have yourself to blame. Dependence on the state for handouts to support you is unacceptable, and they really, really believe that this breeds a calculated and deliberate ethos of choosing to rely on benefits rather than earning your own keep. 

It's an outlook which is so far removed from the human element of life in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that these people live on the moon.

What this perspective also fails to accommodate, is that for capitalism to work, there needs to be a workforce supporting the bottom of the pyramid. As a wise friend recently put it:

"It doesn't wash to say that everyone has the opportunity to "better" himself, to pull himself up by his bootstraps and become successful and affluent. That cannot work. Capitalism REQUIRES a menial and manual working class to man production. If we all bettered ourselves, the owners of the factories and businesses would be f***ed."

That makes perfect sense, yes?

We need doctors to look after our health; without people willing to put the time and effort into training as doctors, disease would be rife and the life expectancy and quality of life for all would suffer.

We also need bin men and street sweepers; without them willing to venture out daily in all weather conditions, carting away the bags of dirty, smelly rubbish from all our households, disease would be rife, and the life expectancy and quality of life for all would suffer.

According to the National Careers Service website, the starting salary for a Refuse Collector is £15,000pa, rising to £19,000pa for drivers. Let's just put that into perspective with findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

There it is, plain and simple. A refuse collector with two children could not earn enough to afford the minimum acceptable standard of living - not a comfortable standard, just the minimum. This is the sort of person who would then need to claim the likes of housing benefit and tax credits to top up their wages in order to meet the cost of living. THIS is the sort of person the government simultaneously harms with cuts to welfare and denigrates with the "benefit scrounger" rhetoric.

Let's look at a handful of other examples:

Even as a single person, someone earning the bottom end of any of those salary ranges could not afford the minimum standard of living, which the JRF say would require earnings of £16,300 a year.

This is not an issue of laziness. This is not simply solved by humiliating low-paid workers, calling them workshy and telling them to get better jobs. We NEED people in these jobs, and we should ensure that those workers are able to afford not a "minimum" standard of living, but a good one.

Austerity cuts are not working. The government's attack on the poor is morally abhorrent and will achieve nothing to improve the UK economy.

I haven't even touched upon unemployment and the despicable sanctions placed on benefits by the Job Centre. That requires a post of its very own, as does the topic of immigration, disability, and the role of the mainstream media in perpetuating myths regarding all of these areas.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The People's Assembly "No More Austerity" demonstration.

Yesterday, June 21st 2014, fifty-thousand people marched through London as part of The People's Assembly march against austerity cuts to public services and welfare imposed by the coalition government. 

Along with other members of Milton Keynes Green Party, I joined them alongside representatives from organisations such as National Union of Teachers, Unison, Fire Brigades Union, Socialist Workers Party, Left Unity, RMT, and many, many others. 

Me with other MK Young Greens members, getting ready to march to Westminster

Chorusing chants such as "No ifs; No buts; No public sector cuts!", "Hey - ho, Michael Gove has got to GO", "They say CUT BACK, we say FIGHT BACK", the crowd set off from outside BBC headquarters on Portland Place and walked along Regent Street, through Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, and then down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament, stopping briefly outside Downing Street to call "Con-Dems OUT!". Passers-by took photos, cheered us on and some walked along side us. Cars driving by tooted their horns to show their support too. 

When the march had concluded at Parliament Square, speakers took to the podium to talk about the issues that had driven us all to take part in this demonstration. While the few media outlets who have covered the day's events chose to focus on Russell Brand's speech, there were many others worthy of attention. This from Caroline Lucas, for example:

If I learned anything from the day, it was that the number of people disgusted with the government's financial tactics over the past few years is higher than I dared to imagine. It is an anger that has united many and varied groups and organisations in the UK, all of whom demand an end to the demonisation of the poor, the exploitation of the vulnerable, the contempt for public sector workers, and the greed of the corporate elite and their government allies. 

This was not a standalone action. There are strikes to come, further demonstrations later this year and a committed campaign from The Green Party - who are the only mainstream political party with a manifesto that promises fair and equal treatment for all, regardless of wealth or status. 

The BBC and most mainstream media outlets elected not to give even a whisper of coverage to yesterday's demonstration. While I'm not surprised by the likes of the Daily Mail or Telegraph failing to bother with it, we should all be dismayed that the BBC, who claim to be a politically impartial news source and who are publicly funded by the licence fee - are clearly operating a right-wing, pro-coalition government agenda by covering up the people's endeavour to make heard their objections. 

Social media is a powerful tool, and many others like myself are trying to raise public awareness of yesterday's action and forthcoming events. Wherever you see a photo, blog or lesser-known news story about the demonstration, please share it and keep on sharing it. We don't have the luxury of mass media on our side to tell those who are sitting at home - frightened and desperate because they're suffering due to savage austerity measures - that there are people out there fighting for them, trying to stop an already dreadful situation from being made worse. We can only give a voice to the voiceless if we come together and don't stop telling the world that enough is enough and that things must change. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Enough is Enough

I don't actually know where to start today. The content of this post should probably come under several different topics, but in my head right now it's all part of a big spectrum of Stuff I Think Is Just Wrong. Forgive me if the following stream of consciousness is a little jumbled. 

There's a protest in three days' time, called by the People's Assembly, against the coalition government's programme of austerity cuts to public services and benefits. I'm going, as are several of my peers, because I want to join my voice to those who are trying - really trying - to change people's lives for the better and protect vital public services like the education system, the NHS, trade unions, etc. from budget cuts and frankly insane changes to legislation which erode the quality of life and basic civil rights of ordinary folk like you and me. 

I have been urging everyone I know to join and support this demonstration; to show those in power that the voices of the many condemn the actions of the elite few. If ever there was a period in history where the ordinary people had the means to consolidate their collective anger at the government and pressure them to alter their course of action, it is now. We have the internet right at our fingertips to spread information and arrange demonstrations all over the country. We don't NEED to rely on corporate-controlled mainstream media to tell us what's happening in the world and whose fault it is. We COULD go out there and get the real information for ourselves, free from any elite bias or right-wing political influence. 

So why don't we? Why is electoral turnout at an all time low? In the recent local and European elections, national average turnout was 35%. More than half the eligible electorate didn't even bother to vote. Even in general elections, turnout averages around 65% - so one third of voters just abstain. I hear the "well I'm not voting because all politicians are the same" logic and want to bang my head into the wall. 

Political apathy enables things like this to happen:

From: Another Angry Voice

Industrial action is a necessary tool for employees of public services to demand fair pay and treatment. This legislation undermines that fundamental right, and is proposed by politicians whose election is not representative of what the public actually want because hardly anyone turned out out to vote for or against them. That is how people like this get into power and damaging legislation is passed. The point at which we start to get angry about it is too late. 

Here's another one for you. You may or may not be aware of the creation of "Summary Care Records", that is, an electronic copy of your medical records which is stored on a central database and - crucially - available to third parties. Confidentiality? Nope, not anymore. Did you know you could opt-out of this? The deadline has since passed, and one major criticism of the database system is the inability to delete a record once created and viewed, so it is absolutely, irrevocably too late now. We were ALL supposed to receive an opt-out form in the post, ensuring that every one of us could make the choice as to whether or not to be included in the scheme. Did you get a form? I didn't. I had never even heard of such a form until last night. 

Information taken from
There is still an opt-out form which you can download, fill in and send to your GP but in all honesty I don't know what possible efficacy it could have:

One final thing I learned today that made me sick to my stomach:

Information from the DWP

Wait - what??? So someone from the DWP can just turn up - unannounced - to a person's home, and demand to see personal documents and financial information? What exactly happens if that person refuses to divulge said information, y'know, because they value their right to privacy? Why exactly does someone from the DWP need an hour to check through all this information? And before you tell me it's to prevent benefit fraud, let me remind you that fraud comprises 0.7% of benefit claims, meaning that more than 99% of claims are legitimate. What does this really achieve then? Well it fulfills the government's agenda of dehumanising benefit claimants and reminding them that they have forfeited the right to autonomy because they had the temerity to claim benefits. Let me also point out here that a minority of benefits are paid to the unemployed; most go to working families and pensioners. Actually - just read my blog post on this very issue: "Oh Mr.Cameron" 

How does this all relate to Saturday's protest then? It is all about getting active. I can sit in my armchair, write ranty blog posts about stuff I think is Wrong, but it doesn't achieve anything. It might get some more information out there and express solidarity with other people feeling the same way I do, but it doesn't change anything. You can sit in your armchair, read my ranty blogs and feel just as frustrated as I do - but it doesn't change anything. 

As long as people are apathetic about voting in elections and actions against unfair and discriminatory legislation, the privileged minority who make up our government will continue to implement austerity cuts and regulations which further erode our basic rights and quality of life. It won't change until our attitude to action does.  

I will end with one final plea to engage with those who are trying to change things for the better. Come along to the demonstration on Saturday. Make it known that the government's current course of action is unacceptable - forcing people out of their homes, causing soaring rates of suicide and depression, decimating the very institutions on which British life is founded. Enough is enough. There IS another way.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

BBC - Biased Broadcasting Corporation?

Political bias in the media is nothing new, and I'm not even the first person this week to suggest that the BBC are as susceptible to it as any tabloid or broadsheet newspaper. An online petition currently boasting over 40,000 signatures condemning the BBC's failure to adequately cover the Green Party's successes in the recent elections, coupled with some 1200 complaints regarding the matter made directly to the BBC have certainly put the issue into the public domain.

I have to confess that, perhaps naively, I feel really let down by the BBC over this. In my youth, I looked to the BBC for fair, factual, concise and impartial reporting of current events. Everyone knows that the Daily Mail is the go-to paper for sensationalist right-wing gibberish articles. Likewise, the Guardian has a reputation for being lefty and having a distinct whiff of muesli and yoghurt about it. But the BBC.... they were supposed to be the ones firmly on the fence, carefully presenting the facts without any intentional swing to one political side or the other. Even the staff's identity cards proclaim that first and foremost, they are to strive to be independent, impartial and honest!

Historically, criticism of the BBC has been that of a liberal-left nature - in fact, as recently as July 2013, senior Trust members stated that they felt issues relating to immigration and the EU had been represented with a definite liberal bias, and prior to that a 2007 report on Safeguarding Impartiality again focused on steering away from any left-wing tendencies towards a more central position. 

Well. In the wake of the 2014 UK local and European elections, I can definitely say I fail to observe any trace of liberal lefty influence. 

A crude example of this; a quick visit to the BBC News home page to type "UKIP" into the search box returned 897 news article results from the last 6 months (3rd December 2013 to 3rd June 2014).  Repeating the same search for the Green Party yielded just 247 results.

Impartial? What?

Taking the media-wide coverage of UKIP's "success" at the recent elections at face value, one could superficially justify this by saying that UKIP have done So Very Well and really have caused a political earthquake... Only, they haven't. 

UKIP still have no MPs (granted, this may yet change at the next general election). Nevertheless, they still don't have overall control of a single council in England, Wales or Scotland. Having 163 councillors up and down the country is much less impressive once you break that down into there being only 1 or 2 in the vast majority of towns and cities. They have not even established ground as the official opposition in any area, whereas the Green Party are now the opposition in Solihull, Liverpool, Islington, Lewisham and Norwich. Couple this with the Green Party's presence of 162 councillors across 56 councils, and it becomes immediately apparent that the much more established role of the Green Party at least equals the newly gained territory of UKIP. What earthquake?

But WHERE is the BBC coverage of this? 

Looking at the specific guidelines drafted for the 2014 elections by the BBC Editorial Guidelines board, there should have been:

 "impartial and independent reporting of the 
campaign, giving fair coverage, rigorous scrutiny and due weight to the 
policies and campaigns of all parties and candidates."

Please excuse me while I laugh until I cry. 

Stepping away from the BBC News website for a moment, I was dismayed to see Nigel Farage on the Andrew Marr show this Sunday, enjoying a very pleasant chat with the host. A little bit of banter, some gentle teasing about whether or not Farage will challenge Nick Clegg for his Sheffield constituency in the general election next year - not a trace of the usual roasting given to prominent politicians on this programme. With Andrew Marr's help, Farage came across in a very good light indeed. "What a pleasant bloke. I'd like to go for a pint with him." choruses the mindset of the electorate. The conspicuous lack of a manifesto for the European elections should have been a red flag to all and should have been subject to "rigorous scrutiny". Instead, we may as well have been watching a popular quiz show for all the camaraderie displayed within.

Even Question Time has fallen into this trap, having welcomed Nigel Farage no less than 16 times since 2009, while Natalie Bennett and former-Green Party leader (and current MP) Caroline Lucas total half that number of appearances between them. Once again, UKIP have no MPs but the Green Party do. 

No, accusations of pro-UKIP, anti-Green media bias are not exclusive to the BBC. But the other media outlets are not publicly funded by a licence fee, and the BBC's own charter and specific guidelines explicitly pledge to deliver bias-free reporting. Consequently, I hold them more accountable for the obvious - and it is obvious - right-wing slant to the recent election coverage. 

Should they have ignored Farage and UKIP altogether? No, because that wouldn't be "fair coverage" or "due weight" either. But to have completely sidelined the Green Party by lumping in results with the "Other" category, by giving ten minute interviews with defeated Liberal Democrat members immediately after the Green Party pushed them into fourth place in the European elections, by publishing daily articles on the antics of UKIP candidates, members and supporters and thus keeping UKIP more on the population's radar than any other party - that has wholly and entirely deviated from their own guidelines. 

I strongly suspect that a "rigorous scrutiny" of the BBC's election coverage guidelines compared to the actual output from the past two months would demonstrate a gross deviance and generate many more than the current 1200 complaints on the matter. In an age where two-thirds of the eligible electorate didn't even bother to show up and vote, the role of news media in communicating the policies and values of each and every party cannot be underestimated. As a publicly funded body, the BBC owes its readers and viewers a truthful representation of who will offer them what, and not some circus act propaganda for who will, inevitably, turn out to be a very dangerous party with some very dangerous ideas.