coalition

Could you go five weeks without money? Under a new DWP plan you might have to

[Reposted from Left Foot Forward]

Further punitive restrictions on Universal Credit are on the way

Job Centre ncrjThe latest development of Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit scheme will soon mean that people made unemployed will have to wait at least five weeks before getting any financial support.

At present it’s two weeks; still a long time to wait when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Some of this is administrative delay, but with the new five week wait it will be a deliberate strategy to force people into immediate work or push them into penury – the latter being more likely in an economy where jobs increasingly can’t actually fund even basic necessities like housing and energy costs.

That’s why the TUC have launched a campaign to ‘Stop the Five Week Wait’ as part of their Saving Our Safety Net project, launching a petition against IDS’ impoverishment strategy.

It poses a very clear question: how long could you go without any income? Even for those in work, many have to scrape together money from friends and family at the end of the month in what some call ‘scrounge week’. Imagine that week becoming five.

Why so long? A whole calendar month will be spent ‘assessing’ the amount of benefit you’ll be able to receive. Then you’ll have to wait a week for the DWP to actually arrange your payment.

But you’ll also have a week-long period when you will be unable to even apply for Universal Credit. The government is deciding whether this will be during the assessment period or beforehand, meaning potentially sixweeks in assessment, admin and spiteful restrictions.

And this from a government that supposedly hates bureaucracy and red tape.

There will be some emergency support available. But the rules on who can claim it will be so strict that very few able to claim Universal Credit will be eligible. Richard Exell at the TUC writes that “one reason for being turned down, for instance, will be that your family has debts that might make it hard for you to repay the advance.” Unbelievable.

The public are against it, understandably – by 70 per cent to 18 per cent when told about the policy. Even the vast majority of UKIP and Conservative voters oppose the wait.

But there’s a problem: just 13 per cent have actually heard of it. We need, therefore, to spread the word fast if there’s to be any chance of stopping this disastrous scheme going under wraps.

The policy can be summarised quite simply: the state safety net being outsourced to food banks and payday loan sharks. This is a government hand-out to Wonga and co, while returning to the Victorian welfare state of unreliable charity. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has branded it+ ‘cruel and vindictive’.

It comes in next April – just a month before the General Election. With a strong enough campaign, it can be halted or pushed beyond that date. So there is an opportunity for the opposition to succeed. Millions of people who might be made redundant over the coming years are relying on that outcome.

You can read the TUC’s report on the five week wait, Universal Credit: Solving the problem of delay in benefit payments, here.

Please share this and spread the word against this deeply disturbing plan.

As Tories bicker over a flat tax, here’s why it doesn’t work…

Tory policy chief Oliver Letwin is calling for a ‘flat tax’ rate, according to a Mirror exclusive yesterday.

He was talking in private to a laissez faire think tank, Politeia, and although instantly rebutted by Conservative Party HQ, it has sparked debate about Tory plans to cut tax for the rich, with Ed Balls today arguing the party is ‘champing at the bit’ to slash the top rate to 40%.

But that itself marks a step towards a flat tax, a policy both George Osborne and David Cameron have praised in the past. Left Foot Forward covered the topic last year amid a renewal of right-wing interest in the policy. What is it though?

The policy entails everyone paying the same basic rate – usually touted as around 20 or 30%. But it has two major possible implications.

If it was set at a low rate, it would require enormous further cuts to public services to compensate for tax income plummeting overnight. But if it was set at a high rate, it would require enormous tax rises among the poor to fund an effective tax cut for the rich, i.e. from the 45% top rate down to the 31% that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says would be necessary to maintain current Treasury tax receipts.

So we have two options with the flat tax – Cameron’s ‘permanent austerity’ hailed by neoliberals (an outcome which would hit the poorest hardest), or significant tax rises for low earners, which would also hit the poorest hardest. The flat tax is therefore, as is commonly understood, deeply regressive. Doesn’t take a genius to work it out.

But it’s also verified by several studies. Here’s an analysis of US flat tax plans by income bracket:

Flat tax

Citizens for Tax Justice, based in the US where calls for a flat tax rate are frequent, have therefore determined that the shift would result in ‘enormous tax cuts for the richest five percent of taxpayers’ alongside ‘tax hikes for all other income groups’, while leaving the investment income of the wealthy essentially untaxed.

Moreover, there’s little evidence to suggest it would ‘work’ in the way right-wing advocates say it would. It has only been introduced in some Baltic states and Russia. In the latter, it was hailed as dramatically boosting actual payment of tax, where previously it had been avoided. But according to a London School of Economics report, this coincided with a dramatic boost in tax collecting powers, and sweeping changes to other forms of taxation, a finding confirmed by another 2007 study.

Meanwhile, another key argument for the Flat Tax, ‘simplicity’, has been fundamentally rebutted by a University of Chicago study, which showed that in any complex economy there is no such thing as a ‘simple’ tax system, particularly when companies and individuals can avoid tax at whatever level it is set. The implementation costs for shifting to such a system were also significant.

Even a study by the free market IMF stressed ‘empirical evidence on [flat taxes’] effects is very limited’ although they did find that ‘there is no sign of Laffer [curve]-type behavioural responses generating revenue increases from the tax cut’ – in non-academic terms, cutting tax didn’t stop avoidance or boost productivity and government income.

So with the evidence unclear, or if anything pointing against a flat tax rate, the Tories have a choice to make. They could adopt a policy so right-wing even UKIP have abandoned it, in what would entrench their perception as the party of the rich forever…or they could ‘do the right thing’ for ‘hardworking people’ and drop the ludicrous plans.

Drop the cynicism – Cornwall’s national minority status should be welcomed

[Cross-posted from my article for OpenDemocracy]

Cornish politics, including nationalist politics, is a strange beast. It ranges from would-be-terrorists who demand English flags be removed, to those who envy the SNP’s success and seek to imitate a progressive patriotism (to steal a phrase from Billy Bragg). But speaking as a ‘naturalised’ Cornishman myself, the news that Cornwall has been given ‘national minority’ status under the Council of Europe’s ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ is one which, despite some caveats, should be welcomed.

The caveats are worth mentioning, of course. Firstly, Cornwall is one of the most impoverished counties in the country – and famously the only to receive the EU’s ‘Objective One’ funding for ‘undeveloped’ regions. It has one of the highest house price-to wage ratios, a source in itself of much anti-English ‘immigrant’ (or emmet, in Cornish dialect) hostility. This in itself has prompted calls for extra hotel taxes and second-home expropriations.

Policies like the bedroom tax (and austerity in general) have hit Cornwall hard, with 61% of those hit by the policy in the county falling into arrears – prompting the council to send over Christmas thousands of fairly-offensive ‘Pay Your Rent Before It’s Spent’ newsletters. Meanwhile, just 14% of the bedroom tax relief fund has actually been spent.

My own city of Truro – the only Cornish city, by virtue of its Cathedral – is now the third most expensive in the country, while thousands linger on the minimum wage in the county’s main sectors of tourism (when it’s not raining), retail, and hospitality – from pasty shops to pubs and B&Bs. But with little progressive or trade union tradition, there’s scant pressure to radically alter Cornish society – except, perhaps, to abolish the outdated model of the Duchy which grants immense land and inheritance rights to the Duke of Cornwall.

But politics, as always, partly explains the government’s unexpected decision. Cornwall is a firmly Lib Dem/Conservative swing area – there hasn’t had a Labour MP in many years, and only then confined to the deprived Camborne & Redruth constituency. Is the government eying up the three Lib Dem seats – all of which rest on slender majorities? Just 6000 extra votes could bring all three to the Tories. Needless to say, the Lib Dems aren’t too popular in the county at present, despite narrowly taking control of the council in a coalition last year, so an all-Tory Cornwall is a theoretically plausible outcome, while the Tories are desperately trying to see off an insurgent UKIP threat – the party won six seats on the council last year, while left-wing Cornish nationalists Mebyon Kernow sadly won just four (although encouragingly, the Greens won our first ever unitary seat, in St Ives).

The decision to give Cornwall national minority status doesn’t grant it any extra funding, desperately needed both culturally and economically. But it does add gravitas to a welcome £120,000 given to the Cornish Language Partnership recently to promote the on-going revival, while it opens up possibilities for easier grant applications through the EU and other bodies. At the same time, Bewans Kernow, a local charity, has just been granted £40k to increase community cohesion and boost knowledge of Cornish culture.

It’s easy to be cynical, especially about coalition decisions. But, caveats aside, the move should be welcomed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it grants Cornwall an automatic right to consultation over government policies, as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already receive. With all the social problems Cornwall has, this is undoubtedly a positive.

But, more sentimentally, it recognises an identity that is already there and one which, with no real right-wing nationalist grouping in the county, is relatively benign. There’s no real push for separation (even Mebyon Kernow reject independence), but there is a sense of community and uniqueness. 84,000 people declared themselves Cornish in the 2011 census, while thousands celebrate St Piran’s Day (treated as a bank holiday by many organisations in the Duchy), Trevithick’s Day, Flora Day and a whole raft of other festivities. There’s the language – now seeing somewhat of a revival, with Cornish-language nurseries and classes springing up all over – as well as the food, the folk scene, the surfing, the accent and even the tartan, however ugly it might be…

But more than anything, there’s a sense of pride, despite the odds. And although Eric Hobsbawm was right when he said that all national identities are to some extent ‘imagined communities’ rooted in myth, does it really matter? For now, I’m proud to be an adopted member of that imagined community – a collective in an individualistic age, or as the county’s motto goes – ‘Onen hag oll’. One and all.

Saturday’s TUC march showed unions are needed more than ever

Credit: Steve Cooke

 

Nick Clegg received an unusual York welcome on Saturday.

Over 3000 anti-austerity protesters marched for ‘A Better Way’ through York to greet the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference being held at the Barbican.

As the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in favour of his motion on immigration, hundreds stood outside the building – a building which York’s Lib Dem council closed while it was last in control of the authority – to vent their anger at the cuts to public services, privatisation and other policies which hit the poorest hardest. Needless to say, the marchers’ chants, boos and cries of ‘shame’ reflected this palpable and genuine rage.

It was rage at everything from the Lib Dem’s propping up the Conservatives in government, to the tuition fee betrayal (Clegg’s crocodile tears notwithstanding), the bedroom tax, the back-door sell-off of the NHS to private companies and – judging by the presence of university lecturers and their UCU union – the dismal state of higher education under this government, with course and department closures, real-terms pay cuts and increasing marketisation.

This was a feeling expressed by the many students on the march too – a bloc that reflected the more radical spectrum of the protest. York’s Socialist Students made an effigy of Nick Clegg himself, hanged off the city walls, alongside a ‘Welcome to Traitor’s Gate’ banner. A grim sight for delegates to behold, in a wealthy former-Lib Dem city where they probably expected a friendlier reception amid Labour authority unpopularity. No such luck.

The TUC-organised demo couldn’t have chosen its day to be more symbolic. Saturday marked International Women’s Day. That very morning, delegates were hit with headlines of ‘Osborne’s tax and benefits changes hit women almost four times harder than men’. Not the best way for the previously centre-left party to celebrate IWD. But who wouldn’t have predicted that the three-year freeze in child benefit would have hit women hardest? Or that the cut in the top rate of tax for millionaires mostly helps rich white men?

Speakers at the rally after the march were quick to point this out. All ten speakers were women – a figure that contrasts sharply with the Lib Dems current level of gender representation. The figure hasn’t been picked up upon, but those 10 northern speakers are more than the Lib Dem’s current number of female MPs in the whole of the UK – and certainly more than at the next election after a number of announcedfemale resignations . Most inspiringly, leading the march were strikers (almost entirely women) from Care UK in Doncaster – workers who have just finished a week-long strike against the company to which their jobs were recently handed over to by the council. They’re facing pay cuts of up to 50% in an attempt to boost profits – and they’re fighting back.

Thirty years on from the miners’ strike, it’s a reminder that unions still matter. In fact, the whole protest – amid hundreds of union flags and banners – served to prove that trade unions, in standing up for the hardest-hit by austerity, are actually more needed than ever in the face of the neoliberal onslaught that is this coalition government (and don’t think the austerity will end with Labour, either). Indeed, the TUC collected 52 full carrier bags of food at the demonstration for local food banks under strain from the weight of a cost of living crisis.

Saturday’s march showed that, with over six million members – the majority of whom are now women – and the ability to mobilise thousands in the cause of social justice, unions still pack a punch. But with just 13% of 16-24 year olds members of what are still the largest democratic civil society bodies, perhaps the biggest message was that our generation needs to get organised. Otherwise, the current austerity measures could be ‘permanent’, to use Cameron’s word.

On Sunday, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity are planning to wave Clegg off as he leaves the city. Given the welcome he got, and the goodbye he’ll receive, he may well get the message that York – with its large student population alongside those hit by benefit cuts – isn’t such a big fan of the Lib Dems, after all.

Credit: Steve Cooke

Credit: Steve Cooke

Osborne’s Autumn Statement wasn’t just class war. It was age war, too

‘Do you remember when people used to retire?’ I can just imagine our generation’s grandkids asking us that in 50-odd years’ time. Our generation – the 1990s crew – will be working into our 70s. That means that a fair few of you reading this, given the vast inequalities in life expectancy in Britain, will be toiling flat-out and non-stop…till we drop.

The budget did nothing for students or graduates – nearly half of whom are in non-graduate roles, from shelf-stackers to baristas and receptionists. A tenth are unemployed. I’ve lost count of the numbers of old uni friends who’ve recently been on the dole. Where they have found work, many are whiling away their hours gaining ‘work experience’ or what anthropologist David Graeber politely termed ‘bullshit jobs’ – roles which serve no useful purpose. You’ll all know many more. The Autumn Statement announcement of a legislated welfare cap of 1% will push them further into the ground amid rising food costs and energy bills.

Neither will their woes – or just early world-weariness – be made any easier by announcement that the government plans to sell-off of the entire Student Loans Company, part of the coalition’s much-mooted £20bn (doubled from their previous aim) plan to flog-off a whole swathe of public assets – from Eurostar to potentially the Met Office, air traffic control and plenty more. It will make the forestry sell-off a couple of years ago look like a walk in the park. Pardon the pun.

What will it mean to us? Eventually, the terms of our loans will change. Where companies can no longer make a profit off our debt, they will seek to remove or lift the interest rate cap. And with that, we’ll have a de facto rise in tuition fees. Since the loans will be in private hands, we’ll have no say over the matter.

The implications are of course far deeper than this. If not even our student loans are publicly owned any more, our education system certainly won’t be either. Thus Higher Education becomes a commercial enterprise with barely a whisper of democratic discussion.

It’s not just privatisation that we have to contend with. The next few years will see £1bn worth of extra cuts year on year, further limiting demand in the economy and thus jobs growth. The dole queue won’t be going down any time soon. Nearly a million of our generation – five years after the crash – still remain stranded without work.

Already 300,000 public sector jobs have been slashed since the government came to power – on a pledge, cynically, to protect ‘front-line services’ – and the Institute for Fiscal studies reckons the another 900,000 job losses are yet to come by 2017/18. Brace yourselves.

The problem isn’t even lack of GDP growth – although there has been a lot less of it since 2010. The real issue, as Labour have belatedly tacked on to, is that wages are stagnating, with workers £5000 worse off since the crash. Labour shouldn’t take the credit however – wages were stagnating under them, too, with a minimum wage that wasn’t fit for purpose and zero hours contracts rearing their head even before 2008. And Ed Balls’ response to the Statement in the Commons was pretty pathetic, by most accounts.

Nonetheless, we’re still right to ask: recovery? What recovery? If there is one, who’s recovery is it? It certainly isn’t young people’s.

It’s not as if the pain of austerity is worth it even on its own terms – annual borrowing is £111bn, compared with the £60bn that Osborne said we’d get this year.

Thursday’s budget, in an era of leaks, was largely without surprises. But that’s the problem. We’ve grown used to austerity, becoming reluctant masochists. There are hopeful signs though that students are starting to fight back – this week has seen a wave of occupations sweep universities across the country, from Sheffield to Birmingham, Sussex to the University of London. Everywhere, of course, met with a heavy-handed response.

But hey, it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. I can sense that our generation – faced with the in-your-face affront we saw in the Autumn Statement – might not be pliant for much longer. Because it’s not just class war any longer, it’s age war too.

The spirit of youth discontent wasn’t dead, just resting

This was first published here at OpenDemocracy

Student radicalism is making a come-back. About time, I might add.

It’s now nearly three years since the infamous riot at Milbank Tower, Conservative Party HQ, at the height of student unrest in November 2010. Mention Milbank to a student – or ex-student – leftist today and you will hear a sigh of nostalgia. It’s no wonder – there hasn’t been anything like it since.

You always know a movement is soon to wane when you hear the desperate cry: ‘this is just the beginning’. It’s usually just the end. I heard the phrase repeatedly in the winter of 2010 as a naïve, but increasingly angry, college student. A month or so after ‘Demolition’ – the 50,000 strong NUS-backed protest in London, a bunch of my friends organised a protest against the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. Just a dozen turned up – mostly ageing socialist sect members we’d asked to help mobilise the protest, actually. We blamed the weather and exams. Possible factors, true. Either way though, our movement was dying, abandoned by the NUS amid the age-old accusations of ‘mindless violence’ (i.e. property damage). Needless to say, most of the actual physical violence, as Alfie Meadows and others learned, was from the riot-geared and mounted Met police.

Yet it was followed by an upsurge of worker action over pensions and cuts – a mutually reinforcing cycle that built solidarity among the public sector and those in education. Once the strikes had ended however, the whole edifice of activism did too.

2011’s anniversary protest of Milbank, though spirited, was a damp quib, despite the best efforts of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Police estimate 2,000 marched, organisers reckoned 15,000. The reality was obviously somewhere in between. Kettling, pre-arrests and the lack of a mobilising issue – since the tuition fee vote had long passed – all played their part in putting youngsters off. On top of the fact that the NUS’ backing of the march was only nominal.

‘Demo 2012’ crushed spirits even further, a stage-managed A-to-B walk through London’s remote corners in the rain. Liam Burns bore the brunt of the blame, heckled as a traitor to the cause and careerist. It was a funeral march, the speeches mere eulogies for a lost battle. For many, it marked the end. I came home that day, on the long coach journey back up to York, mourning.

But, another year on, we have a spark. October marked the start of a wave of industrial action in the education sector – starting with the NUT/NASUWT school strikes on the 17th that saw nearly 3,5000 schools closed or partially closed in a regional warm up to an upcoming one-day national walkout before Christmas. Young people joined rallies and marches in their thousands, defending their teachers pay, pensions and jobs.

Two weeks on, Britain sees its first ever joint UK-wide strike by Higher Education unions over the pathetic 1% pay rise on offer. Both academic and non-academic staff will refuse to work, and uni students are planning to join them. Take a look at the support statement here. It’s time to rekindle that forgotten solidarity.

All this comes at a time when the government has confirmed its plans to privatise the student loan book – to literally flog off all student debt (under the Student Loans Company) to big business. Students haven’t been quiet – despite the little known nature of the plans – blocking (and in some cases occupying) a number of Liberal Democrat MPs offices just last week, including Vince Cable and Simon Hughes. Young Greens led a protest outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the same day – it looks like Cable can’t hide. The NUS, as usual, has been weak. But pressure has also already forced over 30 MPs to sign an Early Day Motion in Parliament condemning the sell-off.

These are just a couple of trends building up, alongside a flurry of radical student conferences, from Student Fightback to the Student Assembly Against Austerity on November 2nd in London, Shared Planet on the 2nd and 3rd and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference on the 23rd and 24th of November, hundreds are already expected to attend events which could kick-start a hitherto moribund movement, just days before a country-wide postal workers’ strike and the People’s Assembly’s all-day ‘Bonfire of Austerity’. Expect creative action in every major city – from bank occupations to road blocking.

There’s something in the air. The next few weeks could be pivotal in revitalising the radical student movement and bringing back that nostalgic spirit of passion, anger – and most importantly, solidarity. I won’t jinx it and say ‘this is just the beginning’ – I’ve learnt my lesson. But if we seize the moment, something interesting might at last be on the rise again.

The Royal Mail sell-off is just a hand-out to the rich

[Cross-posted from York Vision]

Not even Thatcher was prepared to have ‘the Queen’s head privatised’. Yet within a few weeks, the coalition will go where she feared to tread as Royal Mail becomes another national asset to join the ranks of Britain’s long list of sold-off public utilities. And even more so than with water, rail and energy, the sell-off represents one thing: a hand-out from one group of rich people (the cabinet) to another – multinational companies and financiers.

You’d be reasonable to ask why I’m annoyed at this as a student, who like most others in my demographic is generally averse to reeling off letters when a few pointed tweets will probably do it. And it’s not because I order stuff online, although I do (and can guarantee that delivery prices will rise after privatisation). It’s not even because I’m a frothing-at-the-mouth socialist with an obsession for public ownership (although that’s probably also true). It’s the sheer pointlessness of the sell-off.

For one, the Royal Mail isn’t a member of the club of vilified ‘burdens on the tax-payer’ as the right-wing press would have it. It’s actually a huge profit maker (unlike the Post Office), raking in £440 million last year for the service – and potentially the Treasury. So, much like the also soon-to-be-privatised East Coast Rail network, which has given £640m to the public-purse since being taken over, the public would be potentially making a huge financial loss. That £440m with which to ‘modernise’, the ostensible logic behind the sell-off, will now be doled out to investors for a few billion quid.

But ‘modernise’, as we learnt from both the Thatcher and the Blair years, doesn’t actually mean to ‘update’ or ‘improve’ – it now means to hand over to shareholders to be milked for all its worth. Therefore by definition – under conservative logic – the Royal Mail must be thrown into the turbulent winds of the market free-for-all.

Yet – and here is when political language breaks down – what does ‘conservatism’ mean if not to conserve? Thatcher could at least claim some validity to her conservatism after refusing to sell of the Mail, the NHS and rail – though she arguably would have if she could. But in this privatisation spree we learn what modern conservatism really means – 19thC laissez-faire. What we have is not the conservatism of the post-war years but the politics of the workhouse and a hyperactive neoliberalism.

The sell-off of Royal Mail, condemned by even the right-wing Bow Group, is the peak the free-market experiment. If we can sell-off a 500 year old national treasure in a few weeks, what can’t be disposed of? Nothing is sacred. All that is solid turns to air. And Tancredi’s maxim holds true – ‘For things to remain the same, everything must change’.  

We can’t even wait for Labour to renationalise it (or better, fully mutualise it). They have basically pledged not to already. And with Labour trying twice to flog off the Post Office during its last time in office, it couldn’t be trusted to either way. Instead, it’s left to the Greens to properly oppose the move after unanimously passing an emergency motion at the party’s Autumn Conference last weekend.

For an ideologically-driven government, it doesn’t matter that the Royal Mail is profitable – in fact, it’s a boost for their wealthy friends who will soon own it. It doesn’t matter that 70% of the public oppose the sell-off, or that in contravention to supposed Tory love of heritage the Queen’s head will soon be the possession of bankers from Papa New Guinea to Peru. It doesn’t matter that prices will rise (have you been on a train lately?), that Tory-voting rural areas will be cut off or that the six-day delivery will be threatened.

Because, as with the austerity agenda as a whole, this is about one thing – the redistribution of wealth from us who currently own the Royal Mail (i.e. you and me) to the 1% – a point made clearer by the fact that the sweeten-up the sale, the government has had to nationalise Royal Mail’s pension fund – a classic case of ‘nationalise the debt, privatise the profit’, as the Communication Workers’ Union’s Billy Hayes put it. This is socialism for the rich.

And with shares starting at £750, this is no mass ‘Tell Sid’-style public offering. It represents, to paraphrase Marx, the state acting in the interests of the ruling class. And if you want to do something about it, join the campaign to Save Our Royal Mail. Only grass-roots action can stop this now.