Sunday, July 18, 2021

Save Our Democracy

 


How much do you value democracy? Seems an odd question to ask, doesn’t it? So ingrained is the idea that we live in a parliamentary democracy that, rather like the NHS, it will not be until it is gone that people will realise just how much they valued it.


I don’t want to be alarmist but the very fabric of our right to call ourselves a democracy is under a sustained attack, no less far reaching than that of the NHS. The government, with virtually no tangible opposition at all, are pushing through Parliament measures that will take away your rights and the national media, as myopically Tory as ever, have all but turned a blind eye.


Election Bill


The Election Bill currently being pushed through the House of Commons by multimillionaire Home Secretary Priti Patel, is the latest “undercover of darkness” assault on your democratic “rights”. And, were you to stand at a bus stop or at a pub bar, my guess is that the vast majority of people would not have a clue what was happening. And, in most cases would care even less. Whilst the popular media distract us with the Euros, Wimbledon, and demands for lockdown easing, the Home Office has been busy ensuring that Britain is sleepwalking into a one-party Tory state.


In future it will be easier to vote if you have chosen to leave this country than it will be if you actually live here. This is not just about voter ID, but a significant, and ultimately corrupt, change to our democratic systems. It is a deliberate attempt to make elections less fair and less representative. For all those that have wanted PR you are getting it. From now on elections will go to the party with the highest number of Tories in it, which of course does not rule out Labour entirely!


It may surprise you to know how many people who don’t reside in the UK voted in December 2019. It was a record breaking 233,000 according to the House of Commons Research Library. It’s worth remembering that the Tories only gained an additional 200,000 votes in that election but they put one hell of an effort into encouraging overseas voters and postal votes, many of which seemed by a strange coincidence to go their way. Let’s not open up the whole debate about whether the Tories cheated their way to an election victory, after all it was not only the Tory Party that had no intention of allowing Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister, but the point is that if elections are not fair then the whole point of them is undermined.


Defend The Electoral Commission


I am not a big fan of electoral politics for reasons I have outlined elsewhere. But, given the absence of other effective means to make the voices of ordinary people heard they remain something worth defending. The Elections Bill not only makes it harder for people to vote in elections but makes a substantial change to the way in which elections are actually run.


At first sight a change to the Electoral Commission which oversees elections would appear to be just a minor administrative change. The Commission which is nominally independent of parliament is to be brought under a ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ approved by parliament containing guidance they must follow. It also moves to prevent the Commission from bringing criminal prosecutions. By bringing the Electoral Commission under the remit of the Speakers Committee, which takes away the independence the Commission has previously enjoyed. The Speakers Committee is one of those little known, and even less cared about, parliamentary committees which has enormous power and wields it remorselessly. The committee is made up of 9 MPs, five of whom are currently Conservative.


In April this year the Commission announced that it had launched an investigation into the funding of the £200,000 Johnson and his latest wife spent on “doing up” the Downing Street flat. In September 2020 the Commission told Open Democracy that they were concerned about donations to the Tory Party from Russian donors including Lubov Chernuhim, the wife of a Russian finance minister. She has given around £1.7 million to the Conservatives over 8 years. In 2017 the Commission fined the Conservative Party £70,000 after it was found to have underreported election expenses in 2015. Now, you might think it is putting two and two together, but the Tories have been playing fast and loose with election rules for a number of years. Now, they intend to effectively neuter the only organisation that has the statutory duty to hold them to account.


News Blackout


Whilst the mass media are not entirely up in arms about the assault on your rights, they have covered it. The BBC, for example, had a page on their website (on July 5th) with a headline ‘New election bill to “protect democracy”, says government’. Despite the inverted commas it is noticeable that the piece by Lucy Webster seems to have been substantially written by Conservative Central Office and is most concerned about voter ID quoting Labour’s Cat Smith as saying “Voter ID is a total waste of taxpayers' money, set to cost millions of pounds at every election.Voting is safe and secure in Britain. Ministers should be promoting confidence in our elections instead of spreading baseless scare stories which threaten our democracy. First it was using the cover of the pandemic to hand out taxpayers' money to their mates, now it's using the cover of the pandemic to threaten British democracy. These plans must be stopped.” As if Labour would say anything different. In truth the fact that they say anything these days should be headline news. The plans to neuter the Election Commission are hidden at the bottom of the piece and simply note that the Commission said the bill: "represents a strong commitment from the UK government to modernising our electoral system and addressing areas that need improvement.” And, that represents the entirety of the BBC’s coverage to date. The only newspaper that I could find with anything like coverage of this bill was The Observer on 4th July which covered exactly the same ground as the BBC and concentrated entirely on voter ID without even mentioning the fact that the only statutory body currently able to prevent fraud will, in future, be unable to do anything other than what the Government want it to. Well done, the Guardian, that bastion of liberal thought!


It was left to the Constitution Society to point out that “the most concerning are steps which appear designed to limit the independence of the Electoral Commission”, which whilst welcome are hardly likely to rattle the Home Office. The left have been no more vocal. Neither The Socialist (paper of the Socialist Party) nor the Socialist Worker had anything to say on the Bill, whilst the Morning Star did no more than The Guardian repeating a Labour Party press release. If the left media in this country really cannot see that this bill represents a nail in the coffin of British democracy then we really are in trouble.


What is to be done? Clearly, voter ID is an unnecessary and costly way to fix a problem that does not actually exist, but that is not the main thrust of the bill. As always it is necessary to read the small print. By encouraging people who don’t even live in this country to vote the Tories hope to ensure a permanent Toryocracy. At the last election the numbers of overseas voters, those who so love the UK that they decided to leave it, was just short of a quarter of a million. But, this was after a campaign to encourage them to register because in 1985 the number had been around 11,000. It is expected that the numbers could now reach 4.4 million.


Toryocracy


It is worth bearing in mind that in 2005 the last time Labour won, they only had 767,000 more votes than the Tories, in 1997, they won by 3.9 million votes. But the fact is that the constituencies where these votes will be counted will not be spread evenly. The Tories would not be committing £2.5 million of taxpayers money to making sure that these people can vote if they did not benefit them in some of their marginal seats. There is little actual hard data on how overseas voters cast their votes, but you do not have to be abroad long to find a Union Jack bedecked ex-pat bar where pictures of the Queen vie for wall space with Churchill, and where locals who haven’t set foot on Blighty for years will happily regale you with stories about how England (its invariably England, not Scotland or Wales) has gone to the dogs and that most of this is due to the influx of foreigners. If they have a sense of irony it bypasses them as they go full Nigel Farage on you. Okay, you might say that is a stereotype and I have only ever been to a handful of countries outside the UK so it is certainly not scientific, but my point is this: I don’t want the future of the country I live and work in and in which I pay my taxes to be decided by people who have abandoned us, often through their own prejudice and are living in some mythical past where they are part of an Empire which bestrides the World.


Democracy, as flawed as it is, remains worth defending. For a beleaguered left, with an NHS to defend, the right to protest under attack, a Unite leader to elect, anti-racists to root out, and, still inexplicably, a Labour Party to try to get elected in next years local elections, fighting to defend the very democracy that they depend on for their lifeblood may seem abstract. Stopping people from voting or defending the Electoral Commission may not seem an ideal campaign focus but as the very idea of democracy comes under sustained attack around the World (similar moves are afoot in the USA for example) the road to socialism requires us defending and extending our right to vote in fair elections in which our ideas and our side have a fair chance of being heard. That has not been the case for a number of years, and if the Tories are allowed to pass this Election Bill with only the rump of Labour to oppose it then we are on a slippery path indeed.


Saturday, July 10, 2021

Reasons to be hopeful


Generally when I sit down to write an article I’m pretty clear what I want to write about and very clear on the positive note I’m going to end on. But, this week I have been filled with a growing sense of despondency.

A despondency which turned to anger as it began to dawn on me just how selfish and short sighted many of my fellow citizens can be. This week over 100 of my fellow citizens here in the U.K. died from Covid related causes. Over 32,000 new cases every day, and yet what was trending on Twitter #CovidIsOver.

Now I can understand how people are really fed up with the absolute inconvenience of having to wear a 2 inch piece of cloth on their face, but New Zealand which has had a grand total of 26 deaths since the pandemic began is considering making mask wearing compulsory when they have not had a single case of Covid since February.

Freedom Day

Britain is sliding into a very dark period in our history and it is easy to think that the majority of Britons support the authoritarian, yet libertarian direction we are currently taking. Interestingly, though, support for so-called restrictions has had overwhelming support since day one. In January the Evening Standard reported that 79% supported a new lockdown.  Of course, at this time the Government were about to announce a lockdown so the media were, naturally, supporting them. That support though was limited to an acceptance that things would get considerably worse without a lockdown. But as soon as Johnson announced that all restrictions would be lifted on June 21st, amended of course to July 19th, the tabloids have gone into a frenzy over so-called Freedom Day. Surprisingly, none of the major polling companies offer any assessment as to how this is being viewed by the public.

Listen, people who read me regularly, are intelligent, you don’t need me to tell you that the Government have abandoned any pretence that they are following the science. Or that they are gambling, dangerously, with other people’s lives. But this was not the only thing giving me a feeling of despondency this week.

I’m English. It’s an accident of birth and it wasn’t my choice. I’m also a football fan and have been since I was around 9 years old. My Father, who died 18 months ago disagreed with almost everything I stood for politically. But, as he succumbed to dementia in his final years, and as he lost the memory of me and my siblings the one thing we would still be able to chat about was Tottenham Hotspur. No doubt my Dad would not have supported footballers taking the knee because he was a racist to his dying day, but as an English football fan I find myself unable to enjoy the success of the national team because I can’t bring myself to make common cause with people who boo the national anthems of other countries and boo their own team for making a show of solidarity with the likes of Raheem Sterling (their best player this tournament incidentally), Marcus Rashford, and all the other black players who are simply saying that their lives, and those of their fans with black or brown skin, actually matter as much as white people. 

Racist football fans

An Ipsos-MORI poll, taken just before the tournament began, found that less than half of fans supported the players, with 42% suggesting that it was because “the Black Lives Matter movement represents a political ideology that I oppose”. Whilst Ipsos-MORI put a positive spin on the results with a headline that read ‘Almost half of football fans in England support the England team taking the knee at Euro 2020’, the fact that 30% of football fans supported the booing of their own team shows that the fight against racism in England has a long way to go. 

When people say that they oppose the political ideology that BLM supports they are simply repeating the line taken by the racist tabloid press who, accuse BLM of being a Marxist organisation, an appellation the majority of football fans could barely spell, let alone hope to critique. The reality is that a significant number of England football fans are racist and what I find as appalling as that is that the pundits keep telling us that imitating a Nuremberg Rally is what we deserve for 16 months of suffering, as if the pandemic has affected only England. And, you can’t say we want to stamp out racism on the one hand, whilst on the other, completely ignoring overt racism when it is occurring right in front of you.

Whether England win or lose a football match is not really very important. My shame at my country is not related to its highly paid, pampered football stars ability to win a series of matches where they alone were allowed to play nearly every match on home soil. My shame, and what should shame us all, is a growing intolerance, supported and nurtured by our political elite toward foreigners. This week Priti Patel quietly introduced into the Commons the U.K. Borders Bill which when (I no longer assume bad legislation will not make it to the statute books) passed will make “knowingly” arriving in Britain without permission a crime punishable by up to four years in prison. As Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action said, the legislation was “built on a deep lack of understanding of the reality of refugee migration.”  Indeed. But what he is not saying is that the legislation is founded on a deep hatred, by the daughter of a Ugandan immigrant, of foreigners. In short, Priti Patel is a racist.

Draconian legislation

We are witnessing a slide into authoritarianism fuelled by some of the most draconian legislation anywhere in Europe. On the one hand the lying, thieving, corrupt Tories play the so-called ‘freedom’ card in order to abrogate any responsibility for the health of the ordinary people who are too busy celebrating to notice, whilst on the other they are pushing legislation such as the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill through Parliament to ensure that those same ordinary people cannot legally take to the streets to protest as the economy tanks.

The U.K. economy is on the edge of a recession even more severe than the one in 2008, yet all we hear in the press is ‘Freedom Day’, English football, which Minister has been caught shagging his aide and, of course, Diana. We don’t hear about Gaza, Yemen, the mess that is social care, Julian Assange, the selling off, salami style, of the NHS, or the fact that the poor are being robbed by the rich and driven into ever deeper cycles of despair. But I digress. The economy.

It is important to recognise that the economy of the U.K. is not solely in the control of the government but is connected to the World economy. However, whilst most countries, with the possible exception of China, are heading into recession, the U.K. is being doubly affected. Whilst the pandemic is being blamed for the global recession, and it has clearly had a profound effect, the reality is that the recession was being forecast before the pandemic hit. In December 2019 Rabobank’s quarterly forecast was predicting: “In the next two years, we expect the global economy to show the slowest rate of growth since the global financial crisis.

Economic recession

Meanwhile, the British shot themselves in the foot by withdrawing from Europe. In November 2019 the Bank of Englandnoted: “Brexit will fundamentally change the nature of the UK’s relationship with its largest trading partner. The wide range of potential outcomes appears to have both increased uncertainty and made people more pessimistic about the economic outlook. Those effects, which are difficult to separate, are already influencing the UK economy. They have lowered business investment in particular, and may have weighed on productivity and consumption.”

You probably don’t need me to tell you that an economic recession is a bad thing. Business website Oberlo provides a list of what happens in a recession: “ Business profits take a hit and many go bankrupt. People lose their jobs. It becomes difficult to find work and make ends meet. In particular, young people entering the job market find it difficult to secure a job. Wages go down. People reduce their spending, invoking a paradox of thrift. This typically leads to reduction in aggregate demand and, consequently, economic growth  People struggle to pay their debts, which damages their credit scores. This makes it more difficult for many to borrow money in the future – which in turn contributes to more economic stagnation. People default on their debts and families lose their homes, cars, lands, and other assets. Interest rates go down as federal governments attempt to simulate growth.  Most people have to reign in their lifestyle expenses. This means fewer leisure activities, vacations, dining out, etc.”

This has already started, but as we know recessions don’t hit everybody equally. This week the Government of the U.K. decided not to retain the £20 Universal Credit uplift and will remove it from October. As The Morning Star reported benefits charity Turn2Us said the government must keep the uplift or risk facing a “tsunami of poverty, hunger and ultimately destitution.” The charity’s director of impact and innovation Jo Kerr said: “Over the course of the last decade, we have seen our social security system cut, capped and frozen beyond repair. What is left is a threadbare security net.

Fighting back

As Charlotte Hughes wrote in her blog: “The announcement to end the uplift payments was made after ignoring the advice of six former Conservative work and pension secretaries whom have requested that the Chancellor make the £20 uplift permanent. They warned that if they failed to extend the uplift it would cause immense damage to living standards, health and the opportunity to improve their lives.” As Charlotte well knows improving the lives of poor people has never been a priority for the Conservatives. As the Government continue to line their own, their families and their friends pockets from the public purse the poorest and most vulnerable are thrown under the proverbial bus cheered, or perhaps more accurately jeered, by a baying mob intent only on their own narrow, egotistical pursuits.

In a recession it is difficult to fight back. When you cannot afford to feed your family, when homelessness is not just a distant threat but a lived reality, when all around you is devastation, the last thing on your mind is attending a meeting of the local socialist party. Moreover, when businesses are facing multiple challenges just to stay afloat the last thing on their mind is maintaining the planet. Climate catastrophe, even if only 20 or 30 years away is still not today’s priority. The lesson today is: survival. The fact that the means of your survival in the here and now mean that somebody else’s survival in the future is compromised is, well, a problem for the future.

The pandemic, which incidentally came with a warning some 30 years before it happened, has put climate change on the back burner. Unfortunately, nobody has explained this to the ozone layer or greenhouse gases that continue to erode it. The future looks bleak. Is there any cause for optimism? George Orwell used the novel 1984 to remind us “all hope lies with the proles”. In other words hope does not lay with governments nor leaders nor well intentioned philanthropists, but with people like you and I who have most to lose. But for that hope to turn to reality people who can must act. Which is particularly difficult for those of us in a country which scientists writing in The Lancet described as “embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment..

Raping the planet

Many more U.K. citizens will die needlessly through allowing Covid to treat England as a Petri dish, many more will die from stress and starvation caused by the latest, but surely not the last, blitz on benefits. Many more will die needlessly because we (by which I mean the ruling elite) have failed to take the responsibility they wanted seriously and have continued to, in the words of my Socialist Hour guest Azzy Aslam, “rape the planet”. If there is hope - there surely must be hope - then it lies in those like Extinction Rebellion who are prepared to act. It lies with those trying to defend our NHS which at the point it is most badly needed faces it’s gravest threat. It lies with those who take to the streets to declare “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. It lies with every worker who opposes the imposition of worse conditions. It lies with people like you who sign petitions, demonstrate, take to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, give up their time to attend meetings, and do all you can to offset and eradicate the dire consequences of our social system.

If there is hope it does not lie with leaders (no matter how much you may like them), neither with parties regardless of their policies and supposed principles, nor with elections (with their false promises of change), nor with attempts to ameliorate the problems with reforms. We are beyond this. Hope lies, as it always has, in socialism. But not a socialism that tells you how to live your life and demands allegiance to the leader or the party, but rather a socialism that frees the creativity and imagination of ordinary people. A socialism predicated on a society of equals acting together to provide a present for everybody free from poverty and degradation and one in which future generations can take the baton and create a World without profit, but founded on principles of comradeship. A World where everybody was truly free. Now, that would be a freedom day worth celebrating.


This article also appears on The Dangerous Globe as part of a collection of articles under the banner of Creating Socialism. Please check out our collection of socialist writers by following this link.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Is socialism exploitative?


 The great liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith once famously said: “Under capitalism man exploits man. Under communism it’s the other way round.” As Clive Crook wrote in an obituary following Galbraith’s death in 2006: “ If he didn't say it, he might as well have. It has an authentically Galbraithian ring: It seems profound, and it's funny. .. And it is a travesty of the truth.”

Let’s imagine for a second that there is a truth in there, what is it? Obviously the intent is to say that communism, what I would prefer to call socialism (despite the fact that socialism itself has a range of meanings), is essentially the same as capitalism in that both are exploitative social systems. Clearly, if that is the case there is no point in putting our effort into “creating socialism” as it would simply replicate the inequalities that characterise capitalism with a different set of exploiters. But Galbraith’s aphorism, if indeed he ever said it, needs a little addition. 

What it should say is: “Under capitalism a minority of people (a majority of which are probably men to be fair) exploit the majority of people.” Is this true? Defining a capitalist these days is not easy. Everybody who runs a coffee stall describes themselves as a “capitalist”, and actually many people who work think if they like money this makes them a capitalist. People often tell me that the word ‘socialist’ has become a nonsense because it has so many definitions, does anybody seriously think that is not true of the word ‘capitalist’ too? 

Let’s try to narrow this down, who are these ‘exploiters’? I’m going to suggest for sake of simplicity that it is the people who control industry. We all know there are a handful of billionaires in the World, according to Forbes there are currently 2,775 billionaires in the World. There is little doubt that these people are capitalists in the classic sense that they use their capital to make more capital. They are very successful at this Forbes reports that they increased their wealth by $8 trillion in 2020. Yes, 2020 the year when most people were struggling to maintain their standard of living through a pandemic that saw many ordinary workers across the globe with zero incomes and having to spend what small amount of capital they had merely to stay alive.

Billionaires are prima facie cases of exploiters, but they are not entirely alone. There are, approximately, 1.7 million people in World who are Chief Executive Officers of large companies, according to one estimate. I am not sure that all of these are technically capitalists, but they might be exploiters. When we talk about exploiting it tends to have negative connotations but the Labour relationship in a capitalist economy is both exploitative and based on a freely entered into relationship. Many people would argue that so long as the contract is entered into freely then it cannot possibly be exploitative. But, exploitation here just refers to the nature of that labour contract not that you entered into it freely. 

Nobody employs you as an act of altruism. Companies do not exist for your benefit, whatever they might try to convince you. The 50 largest companies in the World employ over 23.5 million people Worldwide. The global workforce consists of approximately 3 billion people Unsurprisingly, there is no list of every person on that list, unlike the lists of billionaires or CEO’s. The absence of a list tells us a number of things. Perhaps, it is because a list of 3 billion people would be unwieldy. Perhaps, given that all of us are on lists for tax, social security or employee lists, it is that our employers are keen to protect our anonymity. More likely, however, it is that the majority of workers do not matter very much. At least to the people who employ them.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) report’Global Wage Report 2020-21 real wage growth in the four years 2016-19 was between 0.9 and 1.6 per cent. But, the report notes that in 3 of the G20 countries real wages fell.Take a bow Italy, Japan and, you guessed it, the U.K. What this shows is that whilst we live in a globalised economy how you are treated in that economy is largely dependent on local conditions. It is unlikely, for example, that the British media will tell you that whilst your wages are falling in real terms in Germany they increased over the same period by 15%. Of course, whether wages are falling or rising, and remember this is on average, is less important than what they are rising or falling from. A 1% increase on a minimum wage is of little help to a family struggling to survive, whereas a 1% decrease on somebody earning in the upper quartile of wages is hardly likely to dent their lifestyle. That’s why what should worry us all is the fact that globally one in five people, 327 million workers, are paid less than the minimum wage.

You might think that people in, let’s say Indonesia, earning below the minimum wage is of little consequence to a person in York, New York or Berlin. But, you are in a globalised economy in which competing capitals are trying to better one another. As I’ve mentioned before every year companies post their profits and each year it is assumed that profits will rise. What this means is that companies are constantly competing with one another for new markets, cheaper production and bigger profits. And, this is one of the biggest contradictions of a capitalist system. Cheaper production inevitably means fewer and less well paid workers. But, whilst that benefits one capital, as you reduce people’s incomes they consume less and other capitals find they are over producing. Companies, quite literally, go to the wall. And, when they do it is the workforce who pay the ultimate price in terms of being driven into poverty. Globally some 197 million people are officially unemployed, millions more simply do not show up on any statistics at all and are scraping by through begging, scavenging or petty crime.

To return, then, to the point. Only a tiny minority of people in the World are exploiting others, whilst the vast majority are being exploited. Now, let me just make the point. In a capitalist economy people are exploited if their labour power is used to produce surplus value for somebody else. Exploitation occurs at the point where the person with nothing to sell but their labour power mixes their labour with raw materials provided by somebody (or something) that owns and controls the means of production. You may think it follows, therefore, that the unemployed - denied the opportunity to use their labour power - are not being exploited. In an economic sense that is true, but what they do is act as a brake on the demands of the employed. Unless you are in highly specialised work, and to some extent even then, unless you have accumulated the wealth necessary to sustain you, then unemployment hangs over you like Damocles sword, ready to fall at any moment.

One final point is worth making. In a social system based on free markets and democracy you are given the illusion of “power” through national elections which allow you to choose between approved political options. The idea is that you are given a choice between a narrow, but pro-capitalist, set of candidates or parties who may offer this or that reform but who can never seriously threaten the ability of individual capitals to continue with business as usual. The idea of universal suffrage (though still age restricted) is now the dominant representative democratic system throughout the World (there are one or two obvious omissions), but electing a government (no matter how ‘radical’ they may appear) simply shuffles those enacting the law. What it cannot do is change the social system itself. The exploiting class are rarely in parliament they are in boardrooms and elections of CEO’s are restricted entirely to shareholders if they are not simply appointees.

So, to return to Galbraith’s “under socialism it’s the opposite”. Far from showing in a witty form how socialism is simply the opposite side of an exploitative coin with capitalism, it offers the possibility of real change. When you reverse the positions what you end up with is socialism as a system where the majority of people exploit the minority. Already a massive improvement. Imagine we could list every single person who was impoverished because that list consisted of only 2,775 individuals? But the reality is that in such a social system exploitation, in a capitalist sense, would not exist. The very idea of socialism is to have production for need not for profit. If you remove the profit mechanism you do not, as is often asserted, remove motivation. People are motivated by all types of things and, for most people, profit is probably low on the list. Of course, in a society where success is measured by wealth people will certainly be motivated by the acquisition of wealth, but with different social relations some of those other motivations, particularly happiness and self-fulfilment, would be able to flourish.As even Forbes, a capitalist cheerleader, notes in a discussion on motivation: “ In the end, happiness is one of the greatest motivations to achieve.  Happiness fuels ones self-esteem and gives people hope for a better tomorrow. ”

Nobody becomes a socialist because all they care about is themselves. People who are attracted to socialism tend to be motivated by a deep concern for those less well off than they are. But, socialism is not a pity creed, it is a recognition that all of us are better off if none of us are worse off. It is a recognition that work is not just a way of filling your hours to earn enough to pay your rent/mortgage and put food on your table (assuming you can afford a table), but is also a way in which we can develop as human beings and nurture parts of our emotional development that require challenges and comradeship. When we turn the World around the role of exploiter will simply not exist because it won’t need to. That is why Galbraith and the millions of people who cling to these dangerously outmoded ideas are so wrong. They underestimate human beings capacity for compassion and thoughtfulnesss, a mistake incidentally, people on my side of the political fence often fall into out of their frustration with their fellow citizens seeming lack of engagement with others suffering.


Sunday, June 27, 2021

What can you do to end poverty


 What are the things that you could definitely not do without?

Think about it. Could you do without your car? Could you do without a new outfit every week? How long could you go without food? Or clean air? Could you go without a foreign holiday? Or perhaps a trip to the pub or theatre? Could you live without these? How about education? How many of these things are essential, how many are luxuries and how many are absolute basic needs?

The clock is ticking

Why, you might be thinking, are you asking me what I could go without. The obvious answer is that at the present rate of decline in our environment we may well be forced to forego a few minor luxuries. Such as food, clean air, water, that type of thing. That's not, however the focus of my thoughts today although it so easily could have been because here's a statistic that should worry all of us. On September 21st last year (2020)  artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd unveiled The Climate Clock which warned that there were 7 years, 101 days until Earth’s carbon budget is depleted, based on current emission rates. 273 days have elapsed since that point. If you are under 90 there is a good chance that the irreversible damage done to the planet by human activity will occur in your lifetime. As the Morning Star reported the latest United Nations report makes sobering reading: "Tens of millions are likely to face chronic hunger by 2050, with some 350 million people living in urban areas at risk of water scarcity from severe droughts at 1.5°C of warming. This rises to 410m people at 2°C.So if anyone is labouring under the illusion that climate catastrophe is a long way off and not worth worrying about yet it really is time to get your heads away from your posterior and face up to what we are collectively doing.

I know that at least some of the people reading this will be thinking: but hang on, aren't you blaming me and people like me for something that is really down to the government? Well, no I'm not, but I would ask which government is it that you want to blame? Climate catastrophe is not happening in any one country and it is not caused by any one bad decision, it is happening across the entire globe and it is a series of decisions which we have been unable or unwilling to reverse that is the cause. I also know that there are plenty of people out there, probably not reading this, who think that climate change, like everything else they don't like, is not really happening. Its all a conspiracy dreamed up by totalitarian governments who want to control us all. Well, thank goodness for QAnon for putting us right on this, but I'll put my faith in scientists who spend a lifetime studying these things thankyou very much.

If you want you can watch videos by failed politicians or people who think the World is being run by lizards telling you that you have nothing to worry about. Some of these people will throw in that Covid-19 is all a hoax too, and just don't get them started on 9/11. On the other hand, you can listen to climate experts from, to name a few: Australian Academy of Sciences, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Sciences, German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, Indian National Science Academy, Indonesian Academy of Sciences, Royal Irish Academy, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy), Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Turkish Academy of Sciences, and Royal Society (UK).

Shortages

In a paper published in Science magazine in 2001 they argued that: "it is at least 90% certain that temperatures will continue to rise, with average global surface temperature projected to increase by between 1.4° and 5.8°C above1990 levels by 2100. This increase will be accompanied by rising sea levels; more intense precipitation events in some countries and increased risk of drought in others; and adverse effects on agriculture, health, and water resources." Now just hold on here when was that published? That's right - 2001. Twenty years later and we are still arguing about what to do. By the way, in case you think I'm being a bit alarmist here, according to NASA between 2001 and 2020 there was not a single year where the average global temperature was not a minimum of 1°C higher than the average for 1951-1980. 

So, I come back to my earlier question: What could you live without? Let's start with an obvious one. Could you live without food? Well, most of us in the so-called developed nations could probably do with losing a few pounds, but the truth is that nobody can live without food. It is, genuinely, a basic need for your survival. Unlike, say, a foreign holiday or for that matter a holiday of any description. Over the past 15 months as Covid-19 has disrupted what we like to think of as normality I have lost count of the number of times I have heard or seen people declaring their "need" for a holiday. Let me be absolutely clear. A holiday may be a nice thing, it may have all sorts of positive outcomes for individuals, but nobody "needs" a holiday. They may want one, but they do not need one. And, in times of great crisis we all have to make sacrifices and that 10 days on a beach in Benidorm is just one of the casualties of our previous lifestyles catching up with us.

But, I’m not here to tell you not to take a holiday, but rather to question whether our collective consumption levels are sustainable. A House of Commons Briefing Paper on Food Poverty published this year tells us that 5 million people were in what they term 'food insecure households'. What that means in simple terms is that 5 million of our fellow citizens in the UK alone do not have sufficient resources to ensure that they or their children have enough food every day. That briefing paper makes a very clear connection between food poverty and income poverty. Who would have thought it. One of the parts of your budget that you have some control over is the amount you spend on food whereas things like rent or mortgage or fuel tend to be fixed amounts. So, when bad times hit, food consumption is often one of the first things that gets cut. In particular, women will very often go without to ensure that their children can eat.

A Global Problem

It would be mildly reassuring to think that these figures were unique to the UK and it was all down to the obvious incompetence of our government. Unfortunately, the UK as bad as it is, is not alone, neither is it among the worst examples of food poverty. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that since around 2014 the number of people undernourished and actually starving has been rising year on year. In 2014 they estimated that 628.9 million people worldwide were undernourished. By 2019 that figure had risen to 687.8 million. These figures are, it has to be conceded, difficult to get your head around. But if you think that in 5 years the numbers of undernourished people rose by, more or less, the equivalent of the population of Britain, you will soon realise that this is a major and endemic problem.

Global warming will inevitably make these figures worse, but they are not solely a function of the climate. Of course, as the climate crisis develops the amount of food being produced will be affected. The Ecologist reports that: "One study conducted by Arizona State University found greenhouse gas emissions could cause the yield of vegetables to fall by 35% by 2100. The reasons for the lower yields varied between factors such as water shortages and an increase in salinity and less filtering of the sun's rays.

It is estimated that each day humans consume about 5.2 billion gallons of water and 21 billion pounds of food. As the population increases clearly those demands will grow at exactly the same time as global warming will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to sustain those figures. In other words, as the demand for food and water, those basic needs we have to meet, rises so the supply will, unless there is some amazing and unforeseen technological or scientific advance, fall. At the moment, as with most things, there is a huge disparity in the consumption of food and water between the richest parts of the World and the poorest.

Distribution not income is the cause of poverty

We have grown accustomed to thinking of poverty as related to income. This, I suggest, is an error. People think that happiness or at least a feeling of comfort can be had by having a few more bucks in the bank. An American survey found that people thought that around $624,00 per year (about £445k) would see them comfortable. Unfortunately, most people are a long way from this figure as the average income is a mere $68,703 (£49,479). Only 10% of Americans earn over $100,000 a year whilst some 34 million Americans are below the poverty line. Poverty has never been about income it has always been about distribution. That said, Michael Roberts, a Marxist economist I have mentioned previously, estimates in his latest blog based on the annual Suisse Credit Report “that the bottom 50% of adults in the global wealth distribution together accounted for less than 1% of total global wealth at the end of 2020. In contrast, the richest decile (top 10% of adults) owns 82% of global wealth and the top percentile alone has nearly half (45%) of all household assets.  These ratios have hardly changed in 20 years.” Note that final sentence. These ratios have barely changed in 20 years. So much for the trickle down effect.

If this situation was only 20 years old it would be an indictment of the 21st Century social system. But, although there have certainly been changes in the way we live the extent of poverty was first mapped by Charles Booth in 1886. Prior to that Karl Marx made extensive use of factory inspector reports in Capital which was published in 1867. Kenneth Galbraith, one of the foremost economists of the twentieth century published ‘The Nature of Mass Poverty’ in 1979, Susan George published ‘How the other half dies - the real reason for World hunger’ in 1986 and as recently as 2019 the United Nations condemned the British government for its austerity programme, a programme incidentally supported by most so-called developing nations. The point is that poverty is not new, and the only conclusion that follows logically is that it is an endemic feature of our social system.As Susan George noted in an oration in 2007: "I believe that the forces of wealth, power and control are invariably at the root of any problem of social and political economy."

A question that moral philosophers often ask their students is this: if you were walking down the street and saw somebody who was obviously starving and you had the means to do so, would you help them? Most students answer that they would, but often get challenged because their peers know full well that they are fairly oblivious to all the homeless people they see on the streets. Nonetheless, the question about being prepared to help has a moral dimension in that regardless of what we do in practice we know what we should do in theory. Now, if you are prepared to help somebody who is hungry if they are in your view the next question is would you be prepared to help somebody who you couldn't see? This is where things get more tricky, of course. Confronted with the inequality which is built into the system many people will give up a few pence to alleviate the worst of those symptoms. But, in a World where the hunger caused by our consumption is often thousands of miles away, the same impulses do not work.

Is charity a bad thing?

There are a number of psychological reasons why this is the case. American psychologist Sara Konrath asked people what motivated them to give to charity. She came up with 6 reasons: "altruism, trust, social, (financial) constraints, egoism, and taxes". There are no great surprises here. But, even if we think that people giving to charity is not necessarily a bad thing, it clearly does very little to alleviate poverty. What charitable giving does more than anything is make people who are already doing a bit better than others feel good about themselves. The other important point about charitable giving is that it simply reproduces the social system that caused the need for charity in the first place. From a socialist perspective it leaves those in poverty as victims unable to fight for themselves whilst those with incomes and jobs are painted as their saviours.

Am I being too hard on charity? I am sure that many readers of this article, and its author, give to charity. But lets take the big fund raiser Children In Need, broadcast on the BBC as an indicator of the way in which charity has become embedded in our social fabric. The first Children In Need was broadcast in 1980 and it raised just over £1 million. Each year the telethon sets itself the target of raising more money and by 1997 it was raising nearly £21 million. In 2017 it raised just short of £61 million, a figure it has since failed to match. In 2009, when Children In Need raised £40.2 million, the Labour Government began closing or merging Sure Start Centres, a policy that the Lib Dems and Conservatives took up with enthusiasm as part of their austerity programme. Sure Start Centres had a budget in 2009 of £885 million. The point is that even if charities can raise millions of pounds each year they cannot hope to replace government funding.

To put this into figures. In 1979 approximately 12.6% of children in the UK were living in poverty, by 1996 it was 32.9%. By 2010, after 13 years of New Labour the percentage of children in poverty  was about 18%. This is seen as a major achievement of the Blair and Brown governments but we should note that it was still 5-6% above the figures Margaret Thatcher inherited. I am not getting into a bunfight with Blairites over the fact that 900,000 children were raised out of poverty, but the point is that 18% of children whilst better than 33% is not really an indication that poverty was ever going to be eradicated. Indeed, raising people above the breadline by various government measures, mainly to do with benefits and tax, whilst desirable in its own right is more a failure to address poverty than a significant success in giving poor people back their dignity. As Mike Stanton says on this week's Socialist Hour: "The Blairites forget the bit about being tough on the causes of crime", he could have added that they also forgot about being tough on the causes of poverty.

Tough on capitalism, tough on the causes of capitalism

If you have a social system founded on the belief in rich people having money to invest in entrepreneurial schemes which create jobs for people lacking such money, it is inevitable that you must have a minimum of two social classes. First a class that has wealth and second a class that has no wealth. In this respect, capitalism is very successful. Not only has it created these two classes, but it has ensured that whilst the first class (lets call them the bourgeoisie for fun) is relatively small and stable, the second big class (lets give them a funny name too, how about the proletariat?) cannot escape from the conditions of poverty or near poverty that the bourgeoisie rely on to maintain their extravagant life styles. There is simply no way that we can have a capitalist system without capitalists. And, therefore, there is no way that we can have a capitalist system without proletarians.

I should explain here since I've thrown in a bit of Marxist jargon, that the proletariat are not the working class, although often Marxists will make that connection. Technically speaking the proletariat are those who are productive workers creating commodities for sale. So whilst all proletarians are working class, not all the working class are proletarians. Not that this really matters for this argument. Even in  a socialist economy some of the problems we are now experiencing would continue if we continue with our present levels of consumption. It would probably be a disaster for the planet if in eradicating poverty we were to bring 687.8 million to the same levels of average consumption as those not currently in poverty. 

And, this is a major problem facing those of us who want to end poverty. We cannot continue the current levels of consumption without severely damaging the planet. But, morally, we cannot continue to support a social system where the unequal distribution is so unfair as to leave millions without sufficient food or shelter. Simply replacing capitalism is no longer the option it once appeared. The task facing socialists is to replace capitalism whilst at the same time winning the argument that we must stop jumping on jet planes for holidays in the sun, or buying rubbish we do not need but still want. Which brings me back to my earlier question: what things are you prepared to give up both to bring other people out of poverty and, equally importantly, to save the planet?

I .

Sunday, June 20, 2021

UNITEd we stand


If Twitter is to be believed the future of the left in the U.K. is in the hands of the 1.4 million members of Unite the Union. Current General Secretary Len McCluskey, a staunch supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and a major figure on the U.K. left stands down shortly and the new General Secretary will be announced on August 26th.

In April 2017 McCluskey had retained his leadership of the union after coming under pressure from both the right in his own union and right wing Labour MPs who felt he had too much influence within the party. McCluskey won 59,067 votes (45.4%), right winger and current hopeful Gerard Coyne won 53,544 (41.5%) and grassroots candidate Ian Allinson took 17,143 (13.1%), on a turnout of just over 12%. For the anti-Corbyn Guardian the result was all about how Coyne came close to beating McCluskey and what this could mean for a Labour leader they wanted gone.

There is no doubt who the right are rooting for. Coyne was their man, and remains so, but the left as ever cannot pick a contender and back them. Oh no, whoever gets the left’s support has to first take on the supporters of other left candidates before getting a run at the prize. The reality is that “the left”, I’ll come to those inverted commas in a moment, are doing a lot of the rights work for them.

Reification

So why the inverted commas? In Marxist theory the term reification is used to describe the way in which social relations are treated as real things. “The left” strikes me as a reification in that “the left” is not an entity in its own right it is a shorthand term for a collection of people, organisations and ideas. Of course, the same could be said of the term “the right”. On more than one occasion this week I’ve seen the term “the left” used as a means of blame shifting. 

A Twitter user I generally agree with, @MerryMichaelW, tweeted about the gradual selling off of the NHS and asked the question: what has the left ever done about this? In another private conversation on the Telegram app, talking about poverty a contributor made the point that people on “the left” are often middle class and care more about their foreign holidays than people dying on the street. I should say that I don’t particularly subscribe to either of those views, though it is certainly true that left social media, if indeed that itself is not another reification, has a fair number of people who are what sociologists would refer to as middle class.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the election of Unite’s new General Secretary? In some ways probably very little, but the idea that it is “the left” who should unite behind a single candidate suggests that there is an entity called “the left” that was like some sort of organism with a group think mindset always moving in unison. That is clearly untrue and it makes unity far more difficult because whilst people on the left pride themselves on their independent thought when it comes to elections those same people can very often demand that we give up our independence to back the leader or party they believe to be the latest contender for “the great left hope”. As the old joke goes “we are going to discuss this fully and everybody is entitled to their view. Then at the end of that process you’ll all agree with me.” Come to think of it, perhaps that’s not a joke.

The left united?

As far as Unite is concerned initially there were three candidates carrying the left banner. Steve Turner, assistant general secretary for manufacturing, politics and legal chief Howard Beckett, and executive officer for organising and leverage Sharon Graham. On Twitter it was clear that those who had previously been Labour Corbyn supporters were behind Howard Beckett. However, if that was the view of the left it was clear that other sections of "the left" were not in agreement. Socialist Worker, for example, were unequivocal in their support for Sharon Graham, citing her commitment to make Unite a workplace based organisation. The SWP of course were founded by Tony Cliff whose refrain "The power of workers is in the workplace" was used in The Redskins 'Go Get Organised'. The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, called for Graham and Beckett to get together and agree one candidate, but they did not endorse either. What was clear was that any support for Turner would be equivocal. Their supporters are now tweeting that Turner was never a left candidate and have thrown their weight behind Graham.

The Communist Party of Britain, who broadly speaking use the Morning Star as their outlet, have endorsed Turner. In a short piece on 26th March they "called on all communists, socialists and trade unionists to support Mr Turner." The problem with Steve Turner is not so much gaining the endorsement of the CP, but rather that he also seems to be the favoured candidate of some who have no left credentials at all. Skwawkbox has been running a campaign for Beckett, much of which was aimed at showing that Turner was 'friends' with people who are certainly not friends with anything even remotely left-wing.

So, what happened as most people will now know is that following the nominations result which Turner won, a number of people including Owen Jones and Paul Mason, began a campaign to get the other two candidates to withdraw in favour of Turner. The inevitable result of that campaign was that supporters of Beckett in particular took to social media to condemn Jones, Mason and anybody else who did not back their man. In addition, it became difficult to have a rational conversation about this leadership contest without it becoming increasingly factionalised and intemperate. It was not enough to endorse Beckett, who some people regarded as the heir and successor to Jeremy Corbyn, but it was also necessary to dismiss both Turner and Graham as somehow not truly left wing.

Take me to your leader

In the end, as we now know, Beckett withdrew and endorsed Turner. This creates a bit of a quandary for some on the left because they have just spent the best part of a month insulting Turner in part at least because he wasn't Beckett. If Beckett was undoubtedly the most left candidate of the left, then Graham must be next. But to endorse Graham would be to ignore entirely what Beckett is proposing.

I should probably say at this point that I am not a Unite member so will not be voting in the election. If I had a vote I would have given it to Beckett. I don't quite know who I would have shifted to, so I can understand that people are floundering slightly. But, for me, this whole debate is not really about who should lead Unite, as important as that may be, but rather why it is that we seem to end up in these positions where people who agree on Palestine, on anti-austerity, on abolishing the monarchy, on welcoming refugees, on supporting the rights of people regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality etc, who oppose the reintroduction of the death penalty, who get their hands dirty and turn up for demos and rallies, and who agree on virtually everything get themselves in such a lather over those who would be our leaders.

What is it about leadership that is so seductive? I can understand the motivation of those who want to be leaders. That is about power, prestige, sometimes money, often ego, and about a certain arrogance that says others should follow you. But I don't fully understand why people who have a shrewd understanding of the state of the World, and are students, one way or another, of politics, want so clearly to be led. It suggests to me that so many people on the left of the political spectrum have an almost quasi-religious belief in a messiah. A new prophet who is going to lead us, implausibly it has to be said, to the promised land. It is sometimes as if the past two or three hundred years never happened. As though we have not witnessed sell out after sell out by people who we thought were the real deal, but who then found the illusion of power more persuasive than actually taking on the system.

Leaderless organisation?

There have, of course, been outstanding figures: Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn, yes even Jeremy Corbyn, but the truth is so many leaders have disappointed. It would be too cynical to claim that every leader is a sell out waiting to happen. Of course, some people get elected to positions and try to stay true to what got them there in the first place, but so many people who have made their careers on the backs of the hard work and commitment of ordinary people prepared to give up their time and effort, have proved to be at best ineffectual and at worst treacherous. I am not saying that this is true of Howard Beckett, Sharon Graham or Steve Turner, but it has happened so often in the past, that I have to wonder how we keep falling for the same trick.

I know what many people will be thinking and it is precisely this: how can we have a movement with no leaders? What would such a movement look like? Well, I can't tell you exactly what that movement would look like, but I can tell you what it wouldn't look like. It would not look like the Labour Party or a bureaucratic trade union. It would not involve endless meetings to decide who to follow. What it would involve is real people having a real say in their own lives, in their own movement. But, more importantly than that. It would involve people trusting themselves to do things for themselves, rather than constantly putting the emphasis on somebody to do it for them. Leaders, my friends, are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. 

As I wrote this piece not only did news break that Howard Beckett had removed himself from the fray but news also broke that Labour had received just 622 votes in the Chesham and Amersham parliamentary by-election. The Breakthrough Party, who have hopes of replacing Labour, managed just 197 votes. If Labour is in trouble, which it is, the answer is not yet another party vying for less than 200 votes and humiliating the entire left. Yet. Within 24 hours of Beckett withdrawing some of his supporters launched Ordinary Left which whilst not a political party as such will almost certainly contain a good many people who have that as an aim. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result then the UK left (though I doubt this is confined to the UK, to be honest) are definitely insane. It's not just that we keep repeating our mistakes, but also that we refuse to learn from them, and moreover, rewrite history to pretend that those mistakes were never made in the first place.

Celebrity Big Politician

In between starting writing this on Friday afternoon and completing it 24 hours later, another name had reappeared. That of George Galloway. In my honest opinion, Galloway's main preoccupation is George Galloway. I am not entirely sure how George and his ego manage to co-exist, but there is no doubt that he has plenty of supporters or that he does at times say things that at least on the surface suggest he has a broad understanding of what is actually going on in the World. But, is he a man we should all get behind? One important point worth noting about Galloway is he is not a man to ever compromise, apologise or put others feelings before his own belief in his own ability to always be right. This has led him into some strange positions not least that of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother. But, I am not here to assassinate the character of somebody many people admire for his outspoken views. I just tend to feel that if Galloway is the answer, we might well be asking the wrong question. And, it should be noted, that Galloway appears every now and then with the express intention of getting himself a paid political position in whatever forum will take him. Are his politics now dictated by his desperate desire to be part of the political class? Only he knows the answer to that. What I will predict is that if Galloway stands in the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election his Workers Party will not achieve anything approaching the 6% attributed to it in a recent poll. The problem, however, is not George Galloway, it is the very system he is determined to ride.

I am not going to repeat here what I said a couple of weeks back about the nature of the capitalist democratic system as being about protecting what many people these days prefer to refer to as "the elite", but I still maintain that history will show that the possibility of a party to the left of Labour with a socialist agenda breaking through the current system is nigh on impossible. The system is set up to ensure that capitalism can continue, it was never intended to be used to end that system. Does that mean that parties have no place in left-wing politics? Clearly, there are political parties and organisations whose main function is not getting elected but rather in supporting the struggles of ordinary workers. If anything elections represent the lowest form of politics mainly because they are a politics of elitism in that they maintain an illusion that somebody (man or woman) can achieve socialism for us, rather than what should by now be an obvious truth that socialism requires a collective effort in which ordinary people far from asking the question: "what has the left ever done for me?" ask instead "what can I do to ensure that the left can be part of the movement for social change?" 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Who cares?


Mahmatma Ghandi once famously said “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” By that measure a society that allows its most vulnerable members to be treated without respect must be judged fairly badly.

Imagine this scenario. Some will not need to imagine as they are likely to be living it. You are a married (or cohabiting) couple who have been together for 40,50 or 60 years. You have created a life together, you have friends, perhaps a family, you’ve weathered the bad times and reached a point where you are retired, perhaps with a modest amount of savings for a rainy day. Then one of you begins to lose their memory and becomes incontinent. The other partner soldiers on trying to give support and care but increasingly finding it impossible to cope and rapidly falling into despair. Eventually you make the decision that your partner, somebody you have loved for the best part of your life, must go into a home. But, now comes the first whammy. Finding a home in an overcrowded market. And, then the second whammy. Remember those modest savings well if they are over £23,000 you are now responsible for the entire cost of your loved one’s care. And, whilst you are struggling with the guilt people often feel at making this decision, your loved one is disappearing deeper and deeper into a reality of which you are no longer a part. Old age far from being the golden years rapidly turn into a living nightmare.

Elderly population in the UK


According to Age UK there are around 5.4 million people aged over 75 in the United Kingdom. To be clear they are not the only vulnerable people, but as we now know they were the most susceptible to Covid-19. Around three-quarters of deaths from Covid-19 were in the over 75’s and around one-third occurred in care homes. When younger people, frustrated at the lockdown restrictions, refer to Covid-19 as “only” killing a few elderly it reveals a deeper seated prejudice against the elderly. It is that prejudice that leads to a situation where citizens who have given their lives to their communities, in one way or another, can be discarded.

The Methodist Homes Association estimates that about half a million people currently live in care homes in the U.K. Of these, approximately, 288,000 are living with dementia. In Wales, which is where I live, there are about 23,000 people living in around 673 care homes. Data on this is quite difficult to come by and those figures are taken from a report from the Public Policy Institute for Wales published in 2015 and titled, interestingly enough, The Care Home Market In Wales.

It’s interesting that the report describes the provision of ‘care’ as a market, though a better word might be ‘racket’. According to a U.K. Government report from 2017 the care sector was worth £15.9 billion a year.That report suggested there were 5,500 different providers in the UK operating 11,300 care homes for the elderly. Around 95% of the sector was privatised. At that time there were around 410,000 people in care homes and the cost was, on average, £44,000 per year.

Professional qualifications


Professional carers are very often thoroughly decent people but they are professional only in the sense that they get paid for what they do. Which is just a way of saying that being a carer requires little in the way of the professional qualifications that accompany a profession such as, for example, nursing. You might think this does not really matter. After all, you can't teach people how to care can you? You either do or you don't. But a side effect of not being professionally accredited is that wages are kept down. The average care worker earns between £16-22k a year. As a comparison a refuse collector typically earns £14-22k a year. Working as a shop assistant you might expect £12-20k. 

Pay is not everything, but you might consider pay as an indicator of where society places you in terms of the esteem in which you are held. In 2009 the New Economics Foundation produced a report on esteem in which they make the following point: "The least well paid jobs are often those that are among the most socially valuable – jobs that keep our communities and families together. The market does not reward this kind of work well, and such jobs are consequently undervalued or overlooked." 

Ask yourself this: if you are an ordinary person on average wages what are you most likely to need in your life, a carer or a stockbroker? A stockbroker earns between £15-101k a year. According to Totaljobs website "There are no set qualifications if you want to become a Stockbroker.." So, a stockbroker is very comparable to a carer. There are, according to Statista, 53,000 stockbrokers in the UK. According to Skills For Care there are about 1.6 million people employed in the care industry (thanks to Twitter user @DebraClaridge for providing this data).

All these stats tell us important things about the global picture (at least as it applies to the UK), but behind them lie a multitude of real lives taking place in real time. I have a friend who I shall call Martina whose Mother went into a care home in Wales recently and this is her story. I should stress this story may or may not be typical.

Martina's story


My Mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2014. To start with it mainly affected her memory and she would forget what she had just said and tell us the same thing two or three times. But, other than that she seemed fine. Then last year things started to deteriorate and she started hallucinating, seeing people who weren't there, and also started to lose control of her bodily functions becoming unable to control her bladder. It was this that got to my 90 year old Father. He really did not know how to cope and to be honest it really rocked him.

 

Eventually it became obvious that Mum needed to be in a home where she could be looked after by people who knew what they were doing. My Dad was just shell shocked.By this time Covid was on us and we were in lockdown so getting into a care home was not easy. I knew that Covid had been pretty rampant in care homes so this was pretty worrying, but Dad just could no longer cope and when the first care home went into lockdown the day she was due to go in, he went into meltdown. Our social worker was brilliant and found us a small, family run home not too far from where Mum and Dad lived. The thing was we had no chance to really check it out because Dad was desperate. So Mum went into this home and we had to hope for the best.

 

Everything was fine to start with but because of Covid Mum had to quarantine for 2 weeks. This struck me as really harsh. She had been vaccinated, she'd had a test which was negative, but she had to be in a room on her own. I know this wasn't the home's fault but I contacted my MP and also the Older Peoples Commissioner for Wales to register that I thought it was inappropriate for people living with dementia to be placed in quarantine for that length of time. We have only a limited time with our loved ones and the state is stealing that time from us. The MP just sent me a standard letter back but the OPC gave me a good piece of advice. It was still possible to have a window visit provided it would not put other residents at risk.

 

By the time all this had happened Mum was out of quarantine and able to mix with other residents. I suggested to the manager of the home that I could have a window visit and he thought this was a good idea. But it was in the guidance, so he should have known this. But then as we were about to visit, there was a positive test of a member of staff and the manager told me that the visit was cancelled. I got back to the OPC who said that the guidance allowed window visits even if there was an outbreak. When I told the manager he was really put out. He accused me of going behind his back writing to the MP.

 

After that the whole attitude toward my Mum changed. The staff were constantly phoning me saying that she was abusive and attacking other residents. On the phone Mum was in tears saying the staff had favourites, that they had told her she was a "mean old woman". When I raised this with the manager he just ignored it and said they were trying hard to contain her. She's a 88 year old woman with dementia!  Things just went from bad to worse. Mum was really upset, the staff seemed to be victimising her and then I got a call saying they were issuing a V1. I had no idea what that was and when I asked they said they couldn't tell me and I'd have to ask our social worker.

 

I felt desperate because I felt that the manager was angry with me for telling him what was in the regulations, which he should have known, and they were taking it out on my Mum.  Eventually I found out that a V1 was a safeguarding notice requiring a mental health assessment. The manager of the home was trying to get my Mother sectioned! Unfortunately for him the mental health team found nothing wrong with my Mum but did tell me that they thought the home wanted her gone.

 

A few days later I got a call to tell me Mum  had had a fall whilst in the toilet. The manager had no idea how this had happened giving me two totally different stories. They were giving Mum more and stronger drugs to control her alleged violent behaviour. I’m saying alleged deliberately because apart from staff saying other residents were scared of her there was never any actual evidence. 

 

Then I got a call from the manager to tell me that they were “reluctantly” giving her 28 days notice. A week later my Dad got a 2 line letter confirming that. In a way we were relieved because she was so unhappy there.  I’ve got to say the social worker was brilliant and found her another home and she is now there with really dedicated and kind staff and the change in her is amazing. I wrote to the Care Inspectorate in Wales and got a bland letter back telling me that they did not investigate complaints but my letter would be on file come the next inspection.

Concerns not complaints 

The Care Inspectorate in Wales is the statutory body which has responsibility for both adult care and children’s homes. It has a budget of £14 billion a year and  their annual report reveals that they received 1,117 “concerns” last year, none of which they directly investigate. It is interesting that they use the word concern which means “to relate to” rather than “complaint” which means “an expression of grievance”. 

They also received 139 concerns from children’s care homes. At least some of those “concerns” would have been about Ty Coryton a children’s home in Cardiff. According to BBC Wales whistleblowers, or what you and I might call ex-employees with a conscience, described how children were humiliated and restrained. Allegations included a teenage girl locked up because she was menstruating, a 10 year old denied lunch because he had eaten two packets of crisps, a young person who had soiled himself being put in a bath and forced to wash in his own faeces, and a boy held down for over 20 minutes causing a member of staff to think he “was going to die”. A spokesperson for Orbis Care and Education Ltd (profits of £4.86 million last year) told the BBC:

"During the period since these alleged incidents took place, Ty Coryton had 21 inspections or visits (up until 17 May) by independent organisations and authorities who found no faults relating to any of the allegations

Twenty one inspections and not one of those inspectors noticed systematic abuse. You have to ask whether there is a problem with an inspection regime that fails so miserably? Whilst the companies running care homes rake in huge profits the staff are kept on the minimum wage and homes starved of resources. Martina told me that the home her mother was in (profits of £386k) promised WiFi access when her Mum arrived but staff had to use their own phones for the video calls they arranged.

We are failing the most vulnerable

Care homes are tasked with caring for the most vulnerable people in our society. That they so often fail in that duty is problematic. That we only hear about those failures when a catastrophe happens is an outrage. Martina was advised to write to the home detailing her complaints. She did so and the complaint was investigated by a director of the company against whom she was complaining. The outcome of that complaint which she forwarded to me was “I found no evidence to support your allegations.” Big surprise there. 

The statutory body overseeing care homes does not investigate complaints, the minister responsible for funding this massive business passes on concerns to the statutory body, the homes which are supposedly being regulated are free to carry out their own investigations and invariably find themselves innocent. Family members who complain are told that others are not complaining therefore they must be wrong. Staff who raise their head are in danger of being blacklisted. Meanwhile humiliating and abusive behaviour towards those who are least able to fight back continues.

What is the answer? In 1980 only 17% of the care home market was privately provided. Now it is 95%. This means that 95% of care homes are now seeking to make a profit. And, the profits to be made are huge. HC-One, the largest provider in the U.K. made £3.2 million last year, Barchester Healthcare made £37.7 million last year. That money is in large part public money. As with so many privatisations this was not the state selling off an industry wholesale, it was the state transferring monies from the public purse (that’s your taxes dear reader) to private companies. Private provision does not entail private individuals taking a risk, it is private companies taking over public services and being guaranteed public money to sustain them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that private provision is always bad, my Father finished his life in a Barchester home and as far as I could tell from 150 miles away was reasonably well cared for. But, if the profits of the companies are so high what are they cutting back on? If those companies were run on a not-for-profit basis how could that money be spent to improve the living conditions of residents and the working conditions of those who care for them? And, how can an industry caring for the most vulnerable in our society be left to an inspection regime that does not even recognise the word complaint and is happy to support a situation where the accused are not just innocent until proven guilty but are allowed to appoint themselves as judge and jury with the inevitable result that the word 'guilty' becomes as redundant in their world as the word 'complaint' is to the inspectorate?