From Benefits Street to Famous, Rich and Hungry – Poverty Porn? Nah, It’s Just Reality TV

128px-Television.svgFirst published in Huffington Post

Next month, as part of the Sport Relief season of programmes (I know, yawn), we lucky viewers will be treated to seeing the likes of the Dragon’s Den’s Theo Paphitis and some spoilt rich ‘star’ off Made in Chelsea quite literally slumming it with people living in ‘food poverty’ (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I, for one, will be relieved when Relief-branded charidee programmes are no more. But, with Pudsy still with us after all these years, I could be waiting a while. Despite this, I will be watching Famous, Rich and Hungry. Trashy voyeur that I am, it will be difficult not to tune into this latest instalment of what critics are calling ‘poverty porn’. It is made by the same production company responsible for The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee.

And, perhaps more pertinently, the recent Channel 4 hit Benefits Street. The latter ‘documentary’ series prompting two admittedly not-so-Great British Benefits Debates. I know the TV lights went out on Benefits Street a few weeks ago now, but they never really got switched on as far as the welfare debate goes. Still it caused no little anger on the part of supporters of the welfare state in the media. And its even more poor-bothering follow-up seems set to do the same. So it’s perhaps worth reflecting on the reaction to Benefits Streetas much as the programme itself. Because it really did show how divided we are as a country. Not so much between the haves and have-nots; but between us ordinary telly-watching folk and the supposedly left-wing and ‘liberal’ punditry-elite.

Lynsey Hanley, a Brummy like me, and author of the quite good if unduly sentimental look back at public housing in the UK, Estates: An Intimate History; was put out from the start by its portrayal of benefit-dependents living on the now infamous James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. An area, until recently at least, better known for its prison. She was clearly expecting something more worthy than what she got. Perhaps blinded by her misty-eyed longing for the Channel 4 of the 1980s (not unlike her longing for a return to an idealised past of council housing) Hanley was hoping for something much more ‘reflective and contextualised’.

Another Brummy, the effortlessly charmless former Labour MP and one-time government minister, Clare Short, was no less impressed with the ‘crummy and misleading‘ depiction of the run-down neighbourhood she once represented in parliament. She told The Guardian that it would only encourage apparently easily duped ‘viewers to judge and sneer’. And as well as lefty writers and ex-politicians getting upset, there were the habitually censorious who seemingly can’t help but be offended (always on behalf of somebody else) about anything and everything. There were more than a thousand complaints received by Ofsted and tens of thousands signed an online petition trying to get this reality show apparently responsible for ‘stirring up hatred’ on Twitter taken off air.

But let’s take a step back. Was it a reality show or the real people watching it that these critics and wannabe censors had in their sights? Was it that more than four million apparently idiotic viewers watched the first episode, a figure that went up to five million as the series continued, that really bothered them? I’ll admit I was one of them. I enjoyed it in much the same way as I did the baking and sewing programmes. (Not usually my sort of thing, but I learnt a thing or two about hemlines and soggy bottoms which is not bad for undemanding if agreeably distracting tea-time telly). And far from hating the stars of the show like I was supposed to, according to the critics, I rather liked them. Especially the street’s matriarch White Dee who was admirably no-nonsense but considerate, even if this jarred with her depressive-state dependency; and the no-less likeable if pathetically-tragic abused-as-a-child alcoholic Fungi, who she took under her ample wing.

But the critics are also right, of course, despite the slagging match … er, debate … screened at the series’ end, that Benefits Street didn’t help viewers to get to grips with what the welfare problem is all about. The trouble is, neither have they. And they’re supposed to be the experts. Not only have they outrageously tried to shut down the debate and removeBenefits Street from our screens, for fear that we’ll all be worked up into an anti-benefit-scrounger rage. They have failed to shed any light on the problem themselves. Worse still, they’re patronising. If I were a resident of Turner Street I’d resent the pity of the clueless commentariat far more than the no doubt ignorant but equally ignorable abuse of the none-too-representative man-on-the-tweet.

Bedroom tax critics in need of a better argument

800px-A_bedroomFirst published in Institute of Opinion

While I am not in the business of defending poorly thought out, miserly policies, neither am I one to jump on slow-moving bandwagons all too eager for everybody to jump aboard. You see, if there’s one thing worse than the bedroom tax it’s the obvious, narrow, cynically emoting critique of it.

According to the National Housing Federation, as a consequence of the ‘bedroom tax’ two thirds of social housing tenants in receipt of housing benefit are now behind on their rent. The 14% or 25% reduction in benefit paid to those who are deemed to have a spare room or rooms has had a not inconsiderable impact on the poorest households. And far from helping solve the overcrowding problem or reduce the benefit bill, critics point out that even for those who have miraculously found somewhere else to live, this has been in the costlier private sector. So there has been a good deal of misery and not much to show for it.

As if that isn’t bad enough, it has also been revealed that those who lose a loved one will no longer be given plenty of time to get over it. The empty room so personally and movingly described by the poet and children’s novelist Michael Rosen, will no longer be just a terrible aching reminder of the person that once occupied it. After just three months it will also be subject to the under-occupancy penalty (to give it its official name). Officials used to be decent enough at least to give the grieving a full year to come to terms with their loss before reassessing their benefit entitlement.

But that isn’t the end of it either, at least not for those responsible for this ‘tax’. I don’t buy the idea that the Tories are ogres compared with their supposedly poor-friendly Labour Party opponents. It is their incompetence in their implementation of the welfare reforms that is most apparent – from the failing IT system underlying the roll-out of universal credit to the failure to properly inform the jobless of their obligation to work for their welfare if need be.

Now it turns out that because of some obscure legislative oversight somewhere between 5,000 (if you believe the government) and 50,000 households (if you believe the opposition), will be entitled to a full refund of the benefit wrongly denied them. That this thoroughly technical loophole has been jumped upon as if it were a matter of principle by those keen to see the back of the ‘bedroom tax’ suggests that they lack arguments of substance. They don’t seem to understand that the problem with this awful policy is not just that it makes hard-up people harder-up still; but that it exposes the extent to which this is a consequence of a large minority of the population (whether in or out of work) being dependent on benefits.

It also shows, as critics have pointed out, how little housing there is to go around. But they’ve stopped short of demanding a mass housebuilding programme, preferring meekly to ask for more ‘social’ or ‘affordable’ housing. Indeed the better argument was put forward in the recent report of Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s now infamous rapporteur; who has been so critical of UK welfare and, particularly, housing policies. Following her recent visit she has been subject to counter-criticism by ministers and in unusually immoderate language. According to housing minister Kris Hopkins her official report was just a ‘misleading Marxist diatribe’.

And yet, putting the cheap lefty-bashing to one side, the government is absolutely right to object to the meddling of this unaccountable official in sovereign policy-making. Bad policies are never so bad that they should be unmade on the say-so of undemocratic supranational bodies. They shouldn’t have invited her in the first place. That leftist critics have been quick to defend her as if she, like all those apparently helpless benefit claimants, is a victim of the bedroom tax too; only draws attention to the fact that they too, so reliant on Rolnik, have failed to make a good argument against it themselves.

Written by Dave Clements, convenor of the Social Policy Forum at Institute of Ideas. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor

Picture by: Jean7031

Care in the community is vital to help pensioners and disabled people

800px-The_most_terrible_poverty_is_loneliness,_and_the_feeling_of_being_unlovedFirst published in Derby Telegraph

THE Care Bill is a bid to tackle the agreeable problem that we live in a society where more people are living for longer.

It sets a cap on what people will have to pay for their care and a minimum threshold of need at which people will be eligible for social care.

But the critics are not hopeful. There is the demographic challenge, the slashing of budgets and concern that the reforms will bankrupt local authorities without necessarily making care any more affordable.

This is where community comes in. The idea is that communities have an important role to play in supporting old people. As former Care and Support Minister Paul Burstow says, “without community, independence can become miserable isolation”.

While we might expect care workers to have regard to the person they are caring for, they can’t take the place of neighbours, family and friends.

Norman Lamb, the current Care and Support Minister, has therefore proposed the setting up of Neighbourhood Watch-style schemes. But can we really expect people to act in a neighbourly way? Negligent, if not downright abusive, neighbours are apparently responsible for the loneliness and isolation experienced by many pensioners.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has referred to this as our “national shame”.

He argues that, instead of putting our elderly relatives in care homes, we should adopt the “reverence and respect” towards the elderly typical of Asian societies and, presumably, accommodate them ourselves.

But can we put our trust in our families and communities when local authorities too, in an effort to appear pro-actively protecting ‘vulnerable’ older folk, would rather give the impression that we are routinely abusing them in their own homes?

Despite these mixed messages, most of us understand that our communities are, on the whole, safe and caring places. But community is all about relationships and these are made possible by a good degree of mutual trust.

This trust is being eroded by the obsession with alleged abuse and neglect on the part of the authorities.

Confirming people’s worst fears is hardly conducive to building a sense of community. Indeed, the interventions of supposed protectors of the vulnerable represent the biggest threat to community, by actively undermining the relationships that underpin it.

Communities really can, and often do, play a safeguarding role towards those who, as a consequence of old age, ill health or disability, may need support.

While an unburdening of the state and a reburdening of communities is no answer to the elderly care problem, there is much to recommend the idea that neighbours, by looking out for each other, can safeguard vulnerable people.

Why we really can’t afford the Welfare State

800px-Jobcentre-plus-First published in Institute of Opinion

The nasty, cutting coalition of the left-liberal imagination is showing itself to be anything but. Why else would George Osborne’s announcement that he is to cut £12 billion from the welfare budget after the next election cause such cabinet unease? Nick Clegg isn’t best pleased; and the welfare and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is apparently resisting anything other than the snail-pace reform that has so characterised the introduction of his much-maligned universal credit.

‘Sources’ contrast the Chancellor’s brutal-sounding ‘lopping off narrative’ with the slow and steady approach of Duncan Smith. But, in truth, the details we have so far suggest that the political elite as a whole lack the cojones to see it through. As commentators point out, cutting housing benefit for under-25s and targeting the relatively well-off who live in social housing isn’t going to make much difference. While the Lib Dems and Labour opposition are almost enthusiastic in their desire to deny old people of their pensioner benefits (winter fuel allowance, television licences, bus passes), the aged Tory heartland seems to have dissuaded even ogre Osborne from considering such an attack on the ‘vulnerable’ – an imaginary group that cuts-phobic left-liberals usually fall over each other to patronise.

On the other hand, while those urging the government to cut much more are right to worry that the measures taken so far, and those so far proposed, are not even nearly up to the task of balancing the books; they are wrong to think this is the biggest problem. Cutting welfare and other public spending is not going to make the economy grow; nor will it make the dependent any more independent. The point of ‘lopping off’ chunks from welfare spending should be to realign the workings of the benefits system with a new way of thinking about the relationship between the state and the individual. Instead of spending a quarter of public spending on entangling people in a long-term relationship of passive dependency, something that none of us can afford – financially or morally; we should be building a consensus around the popular view of welfare as nothing more than a safety net, a stop-gap, a contributory system of mutual social assistance.

The flip-side of the welfare coin is, of course, the world of work. So those critics who want to scrap a jobcentre ‘service’ that tries and fails to both administer out-of-work benefits and help people get off those self-same benefits have it right. The unemployed, as Demos argue, should be free to choose their preferred job broker or, dare I say it, should go it alone and find work themselves. And yet in their eagerness to squash the myth that claimants are defrauding the benefits system, Demos wrongly argue that many of those who should be claiming benefits aren’t. And therefore the state owes them something. They come up with a figure of £5 billion a year. This may or may not be technically speaking the case but I’m not sure it’s helpful. There are lots of people out there who don’t feel entitled even if Demos says they are. They don’t want to live off the state; they would rather support themselves and get by without the hassle and intrusion, all for a pittance. That’s no bad thing, and the sooner the political class stop fudging the issue the better.

Picture by: J J Ellison

I don’t like the bedroom tax either, but …

First published in Huffington Post

There’s not much to like about the bedroom tax.

Ed Miliband, ever-desperate to engineer a connection with a bored and far-from-convinced electorate, will not only freeze energy prices but has promised that a future Labour government will abolish the hated bedroom tax too. It has already had a terrible impact on what welfare reform’s paternalist critics routinely describe as the ‘vulnerable’. The ‘under-occupancy penalty’ or ‘abolition of the spare room subsidy’ to housing benefit for those living in social housing – like the community charge before it the sort-of-official names for this non-tax never caught on – isn’t easy to defend, even for those of us with more than a little sympathy for the reforms.

Those deemed to have more than their allotted number of rooms will find their benefit cut by 14% for one ‘spare’ room; and by 25% if they have more than one spare room. Of the reported 660,000 households affected, 220,000 are families and 440,000 include people with disabilities. A group of charities have written to the prime minister expressing theiroutrage at his misleading statements to the effect that disabled people are exempt. For all but a few this is simply not the case. But this is less a case of Tory nastiness, as most of the critics seem to think, than it is to do with the incompetency of the reformers. Arguably the bedroom tax is not nearly discriminating enough. Expecting people like the sick brother of an MP to pay – a man whose kidney dialysis machine occupies a ‘spare’ room according to the witless officials responsible for administering his housing benefit – makes no sense.

So yes, the bedroom tax is mean-spirited. The children of benefit claimants are, under the new rules, forced to sleep in the same bedroom; and separated parents are expected to make do with a sofa for their visiting kids at weekends. But it is also mad even in its own terms. The ‘tax’ was imposed on the dubious grounds that an alleged one million spare bedrooms, when freed up, would magically become new homes for half of the two million or so people on the social housing waiting list. Instead a severe shortage of two-bedroom homes into which ‘under-occupiers’ might otherwise have moved has resulted in misery all around. Those that can move are forced into more expensive accommodation in the private sector, costing the taxpayer even more in housing benefit; and increasingly leaving those larger homes that nobody can afford standing empty and at risk of being demolished. Most will have to cough-up and put-up with an even more miserable existence than that they were enduring before the ‘tax’.

And yet … despite the understandable worry and anger of those affected and the over-emoting of their supposed sympathisers in the left-liberal commentariat, there is something amiss with the reaction of the latter to what is an indisputably awful policy. While they point to the lack of affordable housing as the real culprit they don’t call for the one thing that might solve the problem – a mass housebuidling programme. The sort of thing governments used to take on in the first half of the twentieth century. That there are ’375,000 families living in cramped, overcrowded accommodation’, as employment minister Esther McVey announced recently, is the best argument in favour of pursuing such a policy. Instead it is used to justify forcing people to shuffle along to make room in the existing inadequate stock. This is despite the number of homes being built year-on-year being nowhere near enough to meet the demand of an increasing population. The housebuilding rate continues to fall from an already inadequate 21st Century peak of 223,530 in 2007/08 to a pitiful 124,720 in 2012/13. This represented a fall in the number of houses built of 8% on the previous year. But even more to the point, there is no criticism at all of the very welfare state that is both crippling the public finances and putting-up a large minority of the population in state-subsidised accommodation that they can’t afford themselves; or at least cannot scrape enough together for from their own meagre incomes.

This can’t go on. It is not enough to fret about the lack of ‘affordable’ housing or to call on the UN to protect the human rights of ‘the vulnerable’. There are three things that can be done to solve the problem and without resorting to the victim-politics to which the anti-cuts and anti-welfare reform lobby have become all too accustomed. There isn’t nearly enough housing being built of any kind whoever eventually moves in, or whatever their alleged capacity to cope with the semi-withdrawal of state support. Making housing affordable will best be achieved by building much more of it. Instead of devoting their energies to patronising the workless, they should be campaigning for the government to create the economic conditions – through, for instance, strategic investments in infrastructure including the housing stock – that will generate more and better paid jobs. And if they really care about the downtrodden, rather than continually shouting it down, they should be supporting – albeit critically especially when it comes to the likes of this ‘tax’ – the need for urgent and more far-reaching reform of the welfare state.

We can cope without the state

First published in sp!ked

The following is an edited version of a speech given by David Clements as part of ‘Cuts, cuts, cuts: what, where and why?’, a debate at the recent Battle of Ideas festival.

I’m not a big fan of ‘the cuts’. They may be necessary, given the parlous condition of government finances, but they are hardly going to make public services any better. With the possible exception of the police, where a fall in crime has continued despite recent cuts, the services we receive are likely to get worse. Moreover, such cuts won’t solve the economic crisis.

Take local government. In the past few years, local government has been at the forefront of UK public-spending cuts. The funding that councils receive from central government accounts for around a quarter of public spending. Councils have already seen their funding cut by somewhere between just over a quarter and a third, depending on who you ask; and there will be another 10 per cent cut in 2015. The chair of the Local Government Association has described councils as the ‘hardest hit’ organisations in the public sector. Critics say that councils can draw on their reserves, raise council tax and – most controversially – increase various charges, fees and penalties for everything from car parking and speeding to planning applications and licensing.

And yet the arguments against the cuts are so objectionable that I’m almost tempted to wield the axe myself. It’s not simply the fact that some services – like health and education – have been ‘ring-fenced’, though I do think we should be asking searching questions about why the National Health Service should receive special protection. (Rather than insulating this mythically ‘cherished’ service from cuts, it should be exposed to a wide-ranging debate about its current performance and future role.)

No, the biggest problem I have with anti-cuts lobbyists is that they insist that everybody is ‘vulnerable’ and won’t be able to cope if the state isn’t there with a safety net.

So, like the representatives of local government, people with disabilities (once a bolshie bunch that would tie themselves to railings to publicise a political issue), or at least those campaigning in their name, routinely describe themselves as the ‘hardest hit’ by cuts to local services and welfare reform. Women, too, once championed by equally bolshie groups of feminists, have been turned into special victims by today’s campaigners. Indeed, the police and domestic-violence campaigners, not satisfied that a fall in crime in general, and in domestic violence in particular, is a good thing, have joined forces to claim otherwise. So under the headline ‘Police referrals of domestic-violence cases drop 13 per cent’, we learn that this is not at all welcome but is in fact ‘alarming’. Obligingly, the shadow home secretary blames spending cuts for this outrageous failure to find more alleged abusers to haul before the courts.

There is a lengthy queue of groups claiming to be the worst-hit by government cuts. The British Medical Association claims cutbacks are increasing child poverty, making familiarly dubious claims about children’s wellbeing and concluding that if we were ‘failing our most vulnerable children’ before, we certainly are now that we’re cutting welfare and children’s social care.

Another claim is that cuts to school breakfast clubs mean that parents are unable to feed their children before they go to school – which makes you wonder what parents did before breakfast clubs first appeared in the 1990s.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), basically an international club for the world’s developed countries, claims that the cuts will widen inequality. Here, the OECD joins a long line of organisations and commentators taking a swipe at old people, who it claims have largely escaped the hardships so far. In contrast with all the victim-talk for other groups, we are reminded that nearly half the money spent on benefits goes on the state pension, and there is a cross-party consensus that pensioner benefits will be means-tested after the next election.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) budget, accounting for nearly a quarter of all public spending (£166 billion per year is spent on benefits) certainly has a lot to answer for. The DWP is undermining all of the cutting going on in local-government and central-government departmental budgets by doing too little to trim the benefits bill. Housing benefit is the second most costly of all benefits after the state pension – it has risen to £24 billion this year. The government aims to cut this by £500 million per year. There is a benefit up-rating cap of one per cent in place until 2015/16 aimed at saving £3.1 billion in working-age benefits. And the introduction of Universal Credit (to replace many of those working-age benefits) is supposed to save £38 billion by 2023. There are clearly attempts to solve the problem, but they don’t look like being anywhere near enough.

So you might expect that there would already be a battle of ideas happening about the welfare state and how we go about making it affordable, if we choose to keep it at all; but no such debate is taking place. Instead, there is a lot of noise about how ‘vulnerable’ claimants won’t be able to cope with the benefit cap, Universal Credit, the ‘bedroom tax’ and the demands of the Work Programme. There is no discussion of the idea that it might be unfair to expect a life on benefits to be more rewarding (financially at least) than being in work. Or that people shouldn’t be subsidised by the state to live in houses that are too big for them or that they can ill afford. Or that young people not in education, employment or training shouldn’t be living off benefits. Apparently, they too are vulnerable. According to opponents of the Tory proposal to cut benefits to the under-25s – one I happen to agree with – 18- to 24-year-olds in receipt of benefits tend to come from broken families or might be abused if they go back to live with their parents.

Despite the often hysterical claims, these sorts of policies, in my view, are worth supporting. But there are no easy solutions to what is a complex and long-standing problem. The public sector is still far too big, with public spending currently equivalent to 44 per cent of UK economic output. Nevertheless, there are trends which mean that the state will inevitably have to grow further in order to accommodate the increasing care needs of an ageing population. The only cap planned for social care will be on how much individuals have to pay for it before the state steps in. To ease the pressure on housing and housing benefit we need hundreds of thousands, if not millions more homes to replace an inadequate, ageing housing stock. And if we do get back in the business of building things, the anti-free school lobby – while wrong about free schools themselves – are probably right about the need to build more primary schools. With these pressures for increasing state expenditure, surely we need to think about what might be cut elsewhere?

To conclude, we have the peculiar situation of the government doing a lot of cutting in some areas, only to see spending getting out of control elsewhere. And at the same time, we have this hysterical over-reaction on the part of the self-appointed defenders of ‘the vulnerable’ who, apparently oblivious to how serious the fiscal situation has become, think the cuts have already gone too far. There is a grown-up debate to be had about public services and the welfare state, and we urgently need to have it.

There is more to welfare than a broken IT system

The_SDS_Sigma-7_The_First_Computer_to_be_Connected_to_the_Internet_6294434636-e1384346833585-280x170

First published in Institute of Opinion

The implementation of the government’s Universal Credit, already proceeding ‘carefully’ according to welfare minister Lord Freud, is now slowing to a crawl with just one new area joining the scheme this month. By now it was supposed to be well on the way to a national roll-out. Instead, it continues to be dogged by the difficulties with the project mismanagement of an IT system subject to scathing criticisms from the National Audit Office and the parliamentary public accounts committee.

So far just a few thousand people are claiming the new benefit that merges six means-tested working-age benefits and tax credits. It will, once it is eventually rolled-out across the country (still scheduled for 2017), affect something like 8 million households. One might reasonably ask whether it makes much sense spending tens of millions of pounds on a gigantic and failing technical solution to what is a deeply ingrained cultural (as much as an economic) problem? In order to ‘make work pay’ (let alone save a projected £38 billion), the government are going to need more than a computer system no matter how big or clever it gets; if they are going to undo the damage done by a welfare state that maintains millions of people, including entire communities, in a state of miserable, unproductive passivity. But it seems the critics too are missing this most fundamental of points

Despite one controversy after another about how ministers are calling benefit claimants names (‘scroungers’, ‘shirkers’, etc); or how ‘the vulnerable’ are being victimised by the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the work programme, and anything else to do with the reform of the welfare system; there is next to no debate about the underlying substantive issues. It is the implementation, not the rationale, of Universal Credit that comes in for most criticism. So not only have the critics delighted in anticipating the inevitable problems with the ‘over-ambitious’ IT system; they also like nothing more than to anticipate the inadequacies of the supposed beneficiaries of the shiny new benefit. It is outrageous to expect claimants to apply online because they just won’t understand it, or to expect them to get their money monthly (rather than weekly) because they are too feckless to manage it properly. Such are the arguments used by the supposed defenders of the welfare dependent.

Indeed what both sides seem to have in common is contempt for those entangled in the welfare net. While blaming welfare claimants for the mess won’t do, nor will the patronising words of commentators and lobbyists who worry over the inadequacies of those in need of little more than a job. For all the venom directed at benefit claimants on the one hand, and at incompetent political managerialists on the other; there is little prospect of an end to dependency and worklessness, or of the government’s failure to tackle it being properly exposed.  What is really outrageous is that rather than having an argument about the rights and wrongs of welfare, both sides are projecting the welfare problem onto the supposed deficiencies of individual claimants – whether they blame them or feel sorry for them.

Clubbed out

First published in Culture Wars

Working Mens’ Clubs (WMCs) first appeared in the mid-1800s as a refuge from the ‘miserable place’ their members called home, says Ruth Cherrington. In the latter part of the 19th century, while they were exempt from new licensing laws – and booming as a result – the clubs were nevertheless regarded as the respectable alternative to the pub. The clubs were frequented by the social drinker not the ‘rough’ (or as we might say today, the binge) drinker. As an 1875 Act of Parliament determined they were centres for ‘moral improvement and rational recreation’.

This respectability was as important, initially at least, to the members themselves – some clubs had their own reading rooms, featured talks and lectures from invited speakers or had their own debating societies – as it was to social reformers keen to impose a greater sobriety on the working class. Today’s temperance campaigners, while far less interested in the intellectual improvement of the lower orders, are similarly contemptuous of their everyday conduct. Instead of wielding bibles as did the Salvation Army troops of the clubs’ early days, today’s booze botherers hide behind scary stats and ‘awareness’ campaigns.

But this is not to forget that the clubs were far more than just drinking establishments, as Cherrington is keen to point out and as the title of the book makes clear. They ‘exercised a form of local democracy’ alongside the emerging trade unions ‘long before all working men had been given the right to vote’. They were a focus for political meetings and often named after the industries in which their members worked or, despite the efforts of the Club and Institute Union (CIU), after their political leanings: be they ‘Radical’, ‘Liberal’ or even ‘Conservative’.

The club movement continued to grow through the inter-war and post-war period. By the 1970s there were an estimated four million members of what was, under the umbrella of the CIU, ‘one of the largest voluntary organisations in the world’ the author tells us. Since then the WMC movement has been in a state of decline with half of the clubs established at their peak having since called time. The ‘trades-clubs’ were the first to go as industrial decline set in. So embedded were the clubs in the communities of which they were a part, and for all that some continue to hang on, they could hardly survive without the ‘working men’ in whose name they functioned.

And much has changed since at a cultural level too. Cherrington points to a number of factors to explain the demise of the clubs: television, the ‘swinging sixties’ and holidaying abroad; the ban on smoking, the wide availability of cheap alcohol in the supermarkets and pub chains; the popularity of multiplexes, gyms and coffee shops; and a rise in home ownership and home entertainment, as people found something better to spend their growing disposable incomes on. But while all of this is no doubt true it seems to me that what was really decisive is that what made the clubs special and distinct – that they were owned by their members and were proudly independent – has been progressively undermined over much the same period. That people increasingly became ‘passive consumers of fee-charging leisure venues’ with which the clubs simply couldn’t compete is only a part of the story. Their decline was also part of a much wider trend of institutional and community-level disorientation and fragmentation.

While the clubs themselves left much to be desired – ‘An air of decay set in which in itself was off-putting’, says Cherrington – the world was also changing around them. ‘Masses of people used to do the same things at the same time’ until the young became more mobile and drifted away from the clubs, we learn. While this undermined the socialising influence of communities it was also a good thing: an opportunity for young people to escape the constraints of community and make their own way in that changing world. (That today we live so much more privatised ‘home-centred’ lives is a problem.) Cherrington presents the complex of factors involved in the decline of WMCs but doesn’t disentangle them. We are still left to wonder why the clubs are no longer what they were. It seems to me that not only was there the pull of a more exciting world beyond Clubland, but also the push of a slow-burning crisis in those communities; itself a consequence of the demise of a wider social, cultural and moral framework rooted in the old class politics.

The recent experience of riots without reason and the growing problem of anti-social behaviour can, in this sense, be understood as a result of the breakdown in those old social solidarities established through institutions like the clubs. Critically, it was the political defeat of the working class in the 1980s – not just the experience of industrial decline – that was responsible for the eventual collapse of those community-formed institutions.

In this context what are we to make of the clubs? Cherrington tells us the CIU still represents 2,000 clubs across the country. But not only do they continue to close; they are thoroughly irrelevant even to their own members. (Few bothered to vote in the election in 2009 for a new CIU General Secretary. The author tells us that the spoiled papers of 25 clubs came in third place.) This is a shame in as far as in their day they had a lot going for them. They may have been little more than a room above a shop or a converted house to begin with. But what they lacked in facilities they more than made up for with their admirable facility for ‘self-help’ and, as Cherrington puts it, ‘clubbing together’. Which, incidentally, is why WMCs appeal (albeit after the fact) to a political class that worries about social atomisation, cultural decline, and, relatedly, its own irrelevance. But trying to retrospectively co-opt a decaying institution in the service of civil renewal is doomed to failure.

The urge to recreate a ‘sense of community’ in our anxious and individuated times, while understandable, gets things the wrong way around. It is a mistake to get too sentimental about the clubs. They served a purpose for communities that no longer exist. They are an institutional expression of, and a left-over from, those expired social collectivities. But they are still worth reflecting on.

They were a product of a culture that imbued individuals with a characteristically robust sense of themselves – something we could badly do with today. While the club movement was torn between its ideals of autonomy and a stuffy moral conservatism – my local Walthamstow WMC, possibly the first CIU registered club, is still teetotal and men-only to this day according to the author – they were also the source of some strikingly permissive sentiments. Cherrington cites a late 19th Century Lord Rosebery, CIU president at the time, declaring in a perennial debate about licensing, that working men are ‘not to be patronised, and fostered, and dandled.’ Their clubs must ‘be free from all vexatious, infantile restrictions on the consumption of intoxicating drinks and similar matters’. ‘All that is to be done for the working men is to be done by themselves’, insisted Rosebery.

What is most striking is that this aristocrat’s belief – over a hundred years ago – that ordinary folk could be, as he put it, ‘raised by their own endeavours’ could not be further removed from the elitist and belittling sentiments expressed by supposed left-wingers and ‘liberals’ today. They are far too busy pitying and patronising the poor and so-called vulnerable about their drinking and gambling habits to entertain such wild notions. And they would no doubt be surprised to learn that this insistence that the working man stand on his own two feet was not inconsistent, as Cherrington makes clear, with a compassion for one’s fellow members. In the days before the welfare state they would contribute to the early social insurance schemes run by the clubs, and raise funds for seaside ‘convalescent homes’ for members taken ill.

And in this latter regard too it is tempting to see a model for today, a way of addressing society’s problems from lonely older folk to riotous (quite literally) youth, or – in the case of intergenerational projects – both. Maybe the clubs ‘can help to combat these negative trends that impoverish people’s lives and their communities’ and even be ‘part of important social capital’ argues the author. Maybe. But there is also a danger in looking for answers to today’s problems in a long gone yesterday; or in expecting clubs to do more than what their members want from them.

For instance, for all the talk of self-improvement in the early days, most clubs increasingly opted for the ‘less earnest and well-intentioned’ world of music hall as ‘an escape for ordinary people from the daily grind’. Clubland became the ‘largest collective venue for live entertainment’ in the country, explains Cherrington. And yet now what was once a vibrant world of tough crowds and honed acts barely exists outside grim seaside resorts and affectionate TV comedy send-ups, namely the excellent Phoenix Nights. While a minority of enterprising clubs are getting the younger folk through the doors (with new bands and burlesque apparently!); this is not a revival of the clubs so much as a reuse of the buildings that once held them.

So much has changed that it is perhaps worth reflecting on how the clubs drew on a very different set of cultural assumptions. They used to be rather good at raising the young for instance. ‘Parents would collectively keep an eye on the kids’ as members took on an ‘informal childcare’ role that simply wouldn’t be allowed today. The clubs didn’t have to be registered with the DfE, and members weren’t required to have a CRB check. The members were ‘acting as informal mentors to the next generation’ without ever thinking of themselves as such; initiating young men both into their fathers’ clubs and into adulthood. ‘It gave them not only a membership card’ says Cherrington ‘but a sense of belonging and identity’ too. But I suspect the ‘club child’ would be an object of official concern today, however much the clubs successfully nurtured aspirant adults. Not only have the authorities – in the absence of mediating institutions like the clubs – sought to protect the young (and not so young) against the supposed dangers of alcohol, smoking and gambling (amongst other things); they have also promoted a culture where adults taking on collective responsibility for socialising their children is largely unheard of today. The newly held assumption that we should regard each other with suspicion rather than as potential allies or as sources of mutual support has been thoroughly internalised.

Though it was women – even though they weren’t members in most instances – who took on the childcare responsibilities; these were clubs, as Cherrington puts it, ‘set up by men, for men’. Whatever your views on the clubs’ attitudes to women, exclusivity is the point of setting up or joining a club. The members alone decide who they let in. In the late 1980s the CIU President Derek Dormer made the case for women to have full membership rights but only on the clubs’ terms: ‘This is not something that will ever be forced upon club members’ he said. But the pressure to conform saw the CIU introduce equal membership rights in 2007; and by 2010 they were required to comply with the Equality Act. Indeed ‘equalities’ became something of a nuisance for a club movement with more than enough problems already.

When it came to ‘race’, for instance, the exclusivity associated with club life was not regarded as a recommendation so much as an indictment. The right of members to exclude those with whom they didn’t wish to associate looked suspiciously like, and sometimes was, a ‘colour bar’. One branch claimed they had ‘coloured people’ as members. ‘We would be discriminating if we kept a list’ it was argued, and it has to be said with some logic. Up until the mid-1970s the CIU stuck to this line with one General Secretary writing that those accusing the clubs of racism failed to ‘understand the true nature of a bona fide members’ club … that it is an essential ingredient in the construction of a club that it must be private’.

While acknowledging their slowness to adapt and their embededness in ‘attitudes and behaviour that were prevalent’ at the time, Cherrington reminds us that the clubs had always self-selected according to ‘occupation, political stance, or ethnic identity’ – the Welsh miners with their choirs ticking every box. So what’s the problem? ‘Should clubs’, she asks, ‘whether WMCs, Turkish or Greek sports and coffee clubs, be made to recruit from outside their own target groups?’ Surely that would be absurd and unreasonable? Rather tentatively she ventures: ‘It could be that multiculturalism has encouraged separation of ethnic groups rather than mixing’. I would go a little further. Those who have endorsed this supposed ‘equalities’ agenda – multiculturalism with its reification of cultural difference in fact being its opposite – faced with the fact that it has tended to reinforce and even fuel divisions rather than abolish them, have sought to legislate against its divisive impact.

In an eloquent presidential address to a CIU AGM, and under the threat of equalities legislation, one delegate had this to say: ‘A club is not a club because of the size of its structure but because of the atmosphere inside the building. That is the atmosphere of friendship that comes from love or esteem between two or more persons – it can never be ordered by law’.

This understanding as Cherrington put it that ‘people could only be integrated on the basis of friendship and mutual cooperation, not the force of law’ held little sway with the leadership of what was (once at least) the political wing of the labour movement. Indeed, the coming to power of the legislatively loose and politically hollowed out New Labour governments only made things worse. The clubs were compelled if they had 25 members or more to demonstrate through their constitutions that to the satisfaction of law makers they didn’t discriminate with regards gender, race or ‘disablement’. Whether or not clubs are more inclusive as a result there are certainly fewer of them around to do any including. I suspect such impositions, whatever the intentions, are only contributing to the quickening of the clubs’ decline.

Against this rather hostile social, cultural and political backdrop, Cherrington’s optimism is admirable. Surely the kids will get bored of social networking online and rediscover their grandparents’ yearning for ‘real, physical contact with friends’ in which the clubs specialised, she speculates. The trouble is that far from being able to trade on the ‘unique worth and traditional values’ of the WMC brand to this end, these were jettisoned long ago.

The CIU has forgotten its values in the opportunistic pursuit of a narrower notion of ‘worth’. Its rightful opposition to the bureaucratic burden on the clubs is not driven by any underlying principles. While it strongly opposed the impact of the smoking ban on its members it has been less keen on them exercising their freedoms outside of the clubs. So it joined in the calls for minimum pricing on alcohol to allegedly stop so-called binge drinking. And no less opportunistic is the search for policy fads on which to hang a hoped for revival. The new-found admirers of the clubs in the policy world go on about their importance to building the Big Society. Cherrington too thinks they are capable of ‘addressing fragmentation and social breakdown’ after the riots; and that the ‘evidence that clubs are good for you’ means they can contribute to the government’s rather creepy happiness agenda too.

But putting these questionable policy prescriptions to one side, the author’s account of the club movement is not only fascinating but a thought-provoking contribution to the debate about what happened to the working class culture that bore the WMCs. Still I find it hard to disagree with those who regard the CIU and at least some of the clubs affiliated to it as ‘out of touch and old-fashioned’. I rather think that they should be allowed to go extinct rather than be preserved as flat-cap curiosities. Energies would be better spent trying to create new institutions more suited to our times – while challenging those things that have changed for the worse – rather than seeking to breathe new life into one that is evidently taking its last gasps.

Of course, given the scale of the physical legacy of the WMCs some will make a go of it and good luck to them. But this will have little to do with what motivated the working men that built the clubs, however much social capital they might generate for their respective localities. Being more outward-looking and business-minded, and inviting the community to use the clubs’ considerable under-occupied facilities is no bad thing. But there is a difference between trying to revive the WMCs and finding a new use for the buildings they once occupied. Their emptying out as representative and functioning working people’s institutions – much like the faded New Labour brand and what passes for trade unionism today – is too far advanced for that.

Why Freud might have a point about food banks

lossy-page1-293px-Unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_opened_in_Chicago_by_Al_Capone,_02-1931_-_NARA_-_541927.tifFirst published in Institute of Opinion

No, not that Freud. While the therapeutic politics behind the food banks discussion has a lot to answer for, it is not to Sigmund but to his great-grandson Lord Freud that I refer.

As I recently discovered, despite the impression given by campaigners, the country is not witnessing depression-era levels of poverty. Nevertheless the numbers getting their meals from food banks has increased considerably, from tens of thousands to half a million in just a couple of years according to one estimate. As is widely recognised, this is largely the result of the abolition of the social fund, other benefit changes following welfare reform, more delays and sanctions in the payment of benefits; and the novel and dubious practice of job centres referring them rather than the usual practice of giving claimants an advance on their benefits. So while the people running them are right to suspect that food banks are effectively being drawn into a wider unofficial welfare system. The good news (if you can call it that) is that the extended queues does not mean that people have got much poorer and hungrier all of a sudden, and are lining up much as the poverty-stricken were outside the soup kitchens of 1930s America.

Lord Freud, a work and pensions minister and (worse) a wealthy former investment banker – did I mention he’s a Lord? – caused controversy last month by denying that the recent popularity in food banks had anything to do with the above. Using the logic of anti-roads campaigners he said that the high take-up in their use was simply a consequence of there being more of them. “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply” he said. “Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” (A statement that could hardly have been better designed to trigger, as it did, the usual Labour Party soundbite about those nasty ‘out of touch’ Tories.) While his critics were right to criticise Freud for his ignorance of the impact of changes to the welfare landscape introduced by his department (not to mention the impact of the economic crisis on people’s standard of living), and the implication that the problem of poverty would be solved if food banks were all closed down; he also has a point.

While in most cases people’s sense of pride and self-respect – even today when the old working class values have been eroded – tends to trump the logic of the market; we are increasingly encouraged to regard ourselves as vulnerable, incapable of looking after ourselves and in need of ‘support’. The resultant growth of a therapuetic state to meet these new found needs is the inevitable result. So could it be that those numbers have also been increasing because more people are being sucked into a dependent relationship with the state, or in the case of food banks with the extended state of ‘charitable’ support? Certainly as both Freud and the prime minister have said, the increase in the use of food banks was already beginning to rise before these welfare changes were implemented, and even before the coalition government was formed; and the arguments presented by the food bank movement itself also point to what can only be described as a therapeutic turn.

The problem with food banks, says Nick Saul president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, is that they “let us and our governments off the hook for finding real economic and social policy-based solutions”. People, he says, become “passive recipients of food handouts” rather than active members of their community. Right, and right again. But Saul is sniffy about conventional food banks and the supposedly inferior fare provided by their supermarket donors; and doubly patronising because he thinks that those dependent on food handouts also need lifestyle lectures, whether its “nutrition initiatives for low income, pregnant women” or extra tuition for the no doubt neglected kids. Patrick Butler at The Guardian is similarly sympathetic with those schemes determined to distance themselves from the “food-bank mentality“. They should do more than just feed people, so the logic goes. They should help them to break free of their dependency too. So what makes these anti-food banks so much better? Their clients “receive counselling, debt advice and health advice each time they visit”.

While the sentiment may sound radical these schemes are actually more likely to further ingrain people’s dependency. The idea that what the poorest need is more intervention and support in order to reduce their dependence on … er, intervention and support, just doesn’t make any sense.

I’d prefer to take my food parcel and go thank you very much.

Why the Rising Interest in Food Banks

First published in Huffington Post

If you believe the headlines people are going hungry in Britain today. The only reason they are not starving to death is because soup kitchens, food banks and other charitable schemes are springing up to serve those in most desperate need. Indeed the numbers using food banks increased nearly three-fold last year on the previous year to more than 350,000 according to one charitable food provider determined to raise the nation’s awareness of the ‘hunger on our doorstep’. A consortium of charities has even accused the government of being in danger of breaching its obligations under the UN economic and social rights convention if it goes on cutting public services and benefits. According to Fareshare, an organisation that redistributes left-overs from supermarkets and other retailers, it is supporting more people than ever via a growing number of charities; and providing meals for an estimated 44,000 people a day (an increase of 16% on last year). Sainsbury’s alone has provided 3.2 million meals in the last two years. Which, given that the supposedly evil supermarkets are blamed for everything from failing farmers to the demise of the high street, may come as something of a surprise.

But scratch the surface a little beneath these shocking headlines and you might find you come to a rather different view. First of all you learn that part – probably a large part – of the rising demand for food banks etc is a consequence of welfare reform and the way benefits are being paid (or, indeed, not paid). With the abolition of the social fund on which the most desperate had previously relied, and an apparent reluctance on the part of the DWP and Jobcentres to pay them an advance on their benefits; they are being referred to local authorities, charities and food banks instead. All in the name of building the Big Society you understand. According to the Trussell Trust, one of the major food crisis charities, over half of the recipients of their food parcels did so because their benefits had been delayed, cut or stopped altogether. Indeed, this has been raised in parliament and even pointed out (albeit further down the page) by those who nevertheless claim that there exists something approaching Dickensian levels of poverty in Britain today. I know times are hard, with everything from food and fuel price hikes to high unemployment having a part to play, but even today’s poorest are not facing Hard Times!

And its not just Lefty-Liberal do-gooders twisting the facts to suit their anti-austerity agenda. The Tory/Liberal austerity-implementing government apparently feel compelled to invent food crises too. A few months ago agriculture minister David Heath made the bizarre World War II-citing claim that before too long we could be ‘digging for survival‘. Because we are dependent on imports for 40% of our food, so the logic goes, we are at risk of I know not what catastrophes that could make us dependent on hastily dug allotments. That we live in a modern world and depend for our comforts on the benefits of an international division of labour is, in reality, no bad thing. The notion that there is a big problem of food security – fueled by periodic scares about everything from terrorism and global warming, to there being too many people to feed, or too much horse in the food chain – is baseless. But it all adds to the fantasy of impending food-related doom.

That is not to say that there aren’t people facing great hardship and that this is not set to get significantly worse. With the annual rise in benefits to be no more than 1% a year from now on, an estimated 50,000 households expected to lose about £93 a week when the benefit cap is eventually rolled out; and 660,000 households seeing their benefit cut by around £14 a week with the introduction of the hated bedroom tax - things are clearly going to get much tougher for the poorestBirmingham City Council, for instance, has mapped the miserable impact of welfare reform on some of its already hard-up residents. But the real shocker here is not that the poor are going hungry – they’re not. It’s that people are living in a seemingly permanent dependency on the state and on the no-less dependent charity sector, without anybody apparently able to challenge the view that they are anything more than pitiable creatures barely able to feed themselves. The political class are utterly clueless with not the first idea about how they might do something about the economic crisis, other than cutting away at public expenditure. And campaigners, instead of holding them to account, prefer patronising the supposed victims as a vulnerable bunch of inadequates.