Tube Strikes and Dairy Deals – Solidarity or Subsidy?

So RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Union) and TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association) have announced another two days of tube strikes to take place later this month. This is following on from last month’s day-long disruption and other recent actions to do with the introduction of the ‘night tube’ and a threat to station jobs.

We should say thank you. Thank you to the drivers, station staff and the rest of them, for standing up for themselves.

Too often today we’re told, as Margaret Thatcher used to put it, ‘There is No Alternative’ (TINA). These two transport unions sees things differently. But compare this with the deal, announced on the same day as the tube workers’ strike action, between the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) and Morrisons. The supermarket chain has agreed to top-up the price of milk to stop farmers going out of business. A new brand called Milk for Farmers will mean that for every litre sold in the latter’s stores farmers will receive 10p.

Why should consumers subsidise dairy farmers? We might be sympathetic to their situation, but we don’t owe them a living and the industry can’t survive indefinitely on charity. There’s a difference between workers acting collectively to demand a better deal or to protect themselves, as RMT and TSSA are doing; and an already state-subsidised industry seeking further subsidies from consumers, as the farmers’ union is doing.

There’s also a difference between withdrawing your labour and walking-out of your job and walking a couple of cows through the aisles of Asda in the hope of gaining some media-fuelled attention. But even real workers – are farmers really workers in a selling-their-labour kind of way? – seem more interested in gaining our sympathy than taking on their employers. For instance, care workers, particulary home care workers who look after the most basic of everyday care needs for elderly and disabled people in their own homes, are famously put-upon.

This is typical from a care worker in a letter to the Guardian:

Yesterday, I started work at 7.30am and finished at 5pm, then I worked a 10pm to 7am night shift. I washed and dressed people, cleaned up their urine, their faeces and their homes … [O]ne day someone will tell me they pay their cleaner £12 an hour and it will be the final straw.

We are rarely asked to express our solidarity with our fellow workers these days – otherwise there’d be a lot more support for the two days of strike action. Instead we are expected to emote and show how badly we feel for the poor and downtrodden. But this cannot be relied upon. Should the public really feel sorry for farmers over-milking their plight as much as their cows, or for contracted-out care workers who demand our pity but are, rightly or wrongly, held responsible for poor and neglectful care amongst their number?

That’s why I’m on the side of the relatively well paid and assertive tube workers. They have earned my respect (without courting it) and inspire a confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to shape their working lives. The travelling public should not grumble about the temporary inconvenience of longer journeys to and from work. Shake them by the hand. By defending their own interests and striving for more for themselves, they are standing up for us all. Good on ’em I say!

First published in Huffington Post

Jobseekers aren’t all pathetic victims

Figures released last week by the Department for Work and Pensions show that nearly one in five jobseekers-allowance claimants are currently being sanctioned because they didn’t turn up to an appointment, refused a job, or walked out on one. In 2010/11, 15 per cent of JSA claimants were subject to sanctions. This went up to 16 per cent in 2012/13 and by 2013/14 it was up to 18 per cent – that’s 568,430 out of 3,097,630 claimants.

These figures follow a recent parliamentary inquiry, a slew of reports claiming some of those subject to sanctions have committed suicide, and claims that a harsh, target-setting culture has been put in place, forcing bullied jobcentre staff to sanction benefit claimants unfairly. This is something the government denies. Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, has nevertheless declared that a Labour government wouldn’t impose such cold-hearted targets.

But is it necessarily wrong to exert more pressure on claimants to get them off benefits? Are they all vulnerable victims picked on by the cruel coalition government, as the critics claim? Do they all need more hand-holding or ‘support’ in order to get them job-ready? Or are they just being patronised? I appreciate there are structural reasons why jobs can be hard to come by today. But that doesn’t mean that individuals bear no responsibility for finding work. The new, more robust sanctioning regime may well, as employment minister Esther McVey suggests, be a much-needed kick up the backside for those stuck in a state-dependent rut.

Of course, the sorts of things jobcentre bureaucrats worry over – such as the number of online job searches an IT-illiterate claimant performs in a week – are not going to make much of a difference to claimants’ job prospects. But, still, people who claim benefits are more often than not perfectly capable of finding themselves a job. Dependency on benefits not only wastes people’s potential, but actively undermines their sense of themselves as active and able. It renders them passive and incapable. For superficially sympathetic commentators, reducing claimants to defenceless victims of a not very successful austerity programme, treating them as innocents wrongly punished, is doubly diminishing. Indeed, those opposed to the government’s allegedly cruel welfare reforms are doing more to reduce and enfeeble people than any benefits-basher ever could.

First published in sp!ked

Why we really can’t afford the Welfare State

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.

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

Picture by: J J Ellison

Universal Credit Where Credit is Due?

First published in Huffington Post

On Monday 29 April the ‘revolution’ began. The government’s Universal Credit Scheme designed both to simplify the benefits system and disincentivise dependency on it began… in Ashton-under-Lyne. According to The Guardianthis historic shift would affect ‘a few dozen’ people on the Monday, increase at a rate of 300 people per month as the ‘pathfinder’ continues until October and then be rolled out across the country by 2017 (though even this is now in some doubt).

So this supposedly radical overhaul of the system – despite Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, describing it as a ‘fundamental cultural shift’ and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) calling their jobcentre staff out against it – is nothing of the sort. The lather up into which both sides have worked themselves about these reforms (ahem, not a revolution) is something of a mystery. Despite, as Nick Pearce argues, doubts as to whether people will be any better off in work and the possibility even that more will be caught up in a permanent semi-dependent limbo of part-time work and benefits claiming; make it all the more surprising to discover that Universal Credit is still in fact little more than a ‘tidying up exercise’.

In his calmer moments Duncan Smith, whose rather poisonous Centre for Social Justice came up with the idea, admits as much. This is not Paris 1789 or the spectre-haunted Europe of 1848 anymore than it is a rising Dublin in 1916 or a revolutionary Russia in 1917. Sadly 2013 in Ashton-under-Lyne is only to be the beginning of a ‘perpetual process of rolling out and checking‘. Storm the barricades! Of course there is nothing wrong with this. As Matthew Oakley writes elsewhere for Huffington Post incremental change is perhaps more suited to this kind of thing. By doing things slowly and dealing with the inevitable difficulties that arise during implementation the problems can be addressed. There have already been the inevitable teething troubles albeit reported a little too gleefully.

For we are not witnessing, never mind partaking in, any such seismic changes but – with a little tinkering here and a little claimant bashing there – the piloting of a new and probably better way of administering the benefits system. For all that it is, as Oakley rightly says, a move in the right direction – even if that is as much backwards as forwards to the ‘contributory principle’ envisaged by Beveridge – the debate so far hasn’t gone much beyond the difficulties around implementing it. While I’ve little time for Duncan Smith and what he stands for, it is notable that even he feels the need to sound conciliatory rather than go on the offensive. He has made it known, for instance, that the application process for Universal Credit has been designed by claimants themselves. Not the sort of thing that I can imagine Norman ‘on yer bike’ Tebbit associating himself with. Perhaps the critics will cite this as evidence to support the fraudulent claim that far from making work pay ‘workfare’ expects them to work for nothing!

Universal Credit will replace a number of existing benefits and tax credits. It will also, by ‘tapering’ payments as people re-enter the workplace try to ease the transition into work and beat, like tax credits before them, the much maligned benefit trap. As well as the doubts raised by Pearce regarding these latter claims, one of the problems with Universal Credit is that it just isn’t universal enough. There are a number of other benefits and credits that will remain untouched by it and continue to deem the benefits system unnecessarily complicated. But it is the fact that claimants have to apply online and rely on a new government IT project not going disastrously wrong; and that they will be paid monthly salary-style into their accounts, that has caused as much criticism as any substantive changes contained in the reforms. It seems that the merest hint that claimants should be responsible for budgeting and at more than a fortnight’s duration; or that they, rather than their landlords in the case of housing benefit, should receive the payment direct; is enough to expose the paternalism in critics who envision more evictions as tenants spend their money in the bookies or on pay day loans rather than on paying the rent.

Even where they do find fault with the substance of the reforms as in the case of Nick Cohen at The Observer it, likewise, betrays the prejudices of a commentariat that has little regard for those they claim to defend. He seems to have convinced himself that by doing away with child tax credit, traditionally paid to the mother, Duncan Smith is engaged in a weird evangelical Christian conspiracy that will put women at the mercy of their misogynistic partners. But it is not right wing irrationalism or a fear of what men might do if they get their brutish hands on the Universal Credit that should worry progressive minds (if that is what Cohen is supposed to have). Rather it is the patronising knuckle-dragging cynicism of the anti-reform lobby that finds it as hard to imagine the workless finding their way around a computer keyboard, as it does to acknowledge that increasing conditionality or imposing more sanctions is at least more honest than hiding behind ‘the vulnerable’ at every evasive opportunity.

Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.