Tag Archives: Comment & debate

There are limits to our empathy – and George Osborne knows it

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “There are limits to our empathy – and George Osborne knows it” was written by Jonathan Freedland, for The Guardian on Friday 10th July 2015 18.08 UTC

Perhaps it’s unwise to admit it, but one of the challenges during a budget speech is to stop your mind from wandering. Even an address of astonishing political audacity – as George Osborne’s was – has its longueurs, its moments when the stats are coming in such a blizzard, the borrowing projections merging with the annual growth percentages, that the brain, briefly blinded, looks elsewhere.

On Wednesday, mine wandered to Philadelphia. Not the city itself, but rather the Republican national convention held there in 2000. They gathered to anoint George W Bush as their nominee and laid on a spectacle that had one striking feature. Though only 4% of the delegates in the hall were black, one headline speaker after another was either African-American or from some other identifiable minority.

Primetime slots were given to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, obviously, but the three co-chairs also happened to be a black Oklahoman, a Latino Texan and a white single mother. They found room for a gay congressman, while music came from Harold Melvin and Chaka Khan (African-American) with a cameo from Jon Secada (Cuban).

The whole effect was so brazen, it was almost comic. (One reporter likened the extravaganza to the Black and White Minstrel Show.) But the political logic was clear. The Republicans didn’t expect huge swaths of black American voters to end their historic allegiance to the Democrats and join them. They knew their prospects among Latino and gay Americans were limited. But those groups were not the target audience.

What Bush wanted to do was reassure white, suburban, swing, or floating, voters – especially women – that the Republicans had lost their harsh edge. That they were no longer so mean-spirited that a vote for them made you a bad person. The diverse faces on show at Philadelphia were there to salve the consciences of white soccer moms hesitating before backing Bush.

Which might explain why the memory of it returned on Wednesday. For a similar dynamic was at work. Who was Osborne appealing to with his announcement of a “national living wage”? He knows that precious few of Britain’s lowest-paid workers are set to rally to the Tory banner any time soon.

No, the voters Osborne wanted to reach are those for whom the Conservative brand is still tainted, those who may be doing quite well themselves, but who still associate the Tories with selfishness and even a callous disregard for the poor. Osborne was making a long-term bid for those votes. He knows they already trust him to have a cool head. Now he wants them to believe he has a warm heart.

This calculus is not new. It underpinned the modernisation project on which Osborne and David Cameron embarked a decade ago. When 2005-era Cameron spoke of “compassionate Conservatism” it was not the poor he was wooing. He wanted the votes of those who care about the poor, or more accurately those who don’t like to think they’re the sort of person who doesn’t care.

If that sounds cynical, that’s only partly because – to quote the Resolution Foundation, the group name-checked by Osborne when he announced the policy – the “national living wage” is a misnomer. Now that tax credits are to be taken away, you couldn’t actually live on it. It’s simply a welcome boost to, and relabelling of, the regular minimum wage. With unassailable chutzpah, Osborne has co-opted a halo brand that is not his – the living wage – in the hope that some of its glow will shine on him.

There is a deeper reason for scepticism. Osborne’s generosity was very carefully rationed. His judgment on who should be helped was not based not so much on need as political value. At its most obvious, there was the now-familiar bias against the young, who don’t vote, in favour of the old, who do. But this is about more than just voting blocs. Running through the chancellor’s decisions was a judgment about who the public will deem deserving and who undeserving.

Privately, the prime minister says pensioners have to be protected because they cannot change their circumstances. Which implies that the 20-year-old who will continue to work on the existing, miserly minimum wage, and is soon to be denied housing benefit and the possibility of a maintenance grant for study, is master of all he surveys, and only in his current situation because he has chosen not to change it.

It’s not important whether Cameron or Osborne truly believe this. What matters is their assumption that the voters believe it. They are gambling that Britons have empathy for pensioners and underpaid over-25s, but little for the young, for those on incapacity benefit, or on a low income with more than two children and for those who work in the public sector – all of whom were hit hard by the budget.

The cynical person here is Osborne himself. He is making a judgment about the limits of sympathy the majority of the electorate have for those falling behind. He has seen the shift in public mores, from the Cathy Come Home era of half a century ago to the Benefits Street culture of today, in which the poor are just as likely to induce anger as compassion.

And what compassion there is, Osborne has learned not to take too seriously. He doubtless remembers those 80s opinion polls which for years showed Britons insisting they regarded mass unemployment – the issue then championed by Labour – as the prime challenge facing the country, only for those same voters to re-elect Margaret Thatcher again and again.

Osborne has surely concluded that you need to do just enough to show you care – and then you can get away with plenty. Witness the inheritance tax giveaway that will take nearly £1bn a year out of the public purse by 2020 and which hands the children of those with assets a big slab of untaxed, unearned income.

In the supermarket trolley of Osborne’s budget were stashed a variety of such luxury treats, but he concealed them by putting a conspicuously organic, free range item – his “living wage” plan – on top.

Labour should be watching and learning. It would be a mistake to conclude the British public is uncaring. But nor can Labour make its pitch to the electorate on empathy alone. Voting is not an act of charity, but of self-interest – even if that self-interest includes the kind of society you want to live in. Voters want to know they can trust you to run the economy – and if you can be kind to the less fortunate, the deserving ones at least, then that’s a very pleasant bonus. But it’s that way around – and George Osborne knows it.

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Meet the invisibles – the wealthy and powerful at the heart of the Tory party

These are the people that assume that my life and others like me is worthless. I am getting a bit rusty and creaking due to the passage of time. There is not much I can say or do about anything that will have an effect,  but when people are pushed to extremes, something snaps in the end. People still believe the lie that hanging on their coat tales will somehow lift us out of the myre. The notion that people can work hard to improve their lot in life is shown to be in most cases a fallacy. Its very difficult to make money if you don’t have it it in the first place. Its more profitable even now for banks to asset strip companies rather than support small business. The so called growth is very little to do with any real productivity and far to many people are classed as employed statistically when they are on zero hours contracts or on part-time minimum wage jobs fighting to survive with in work benefits.

Understand the simple truth about the nature of these people, they wouldn’t piss on you if your were on fire.

If you are going to vote then think  about what you want the UK to look like in future.

We have become accustomed to the most extreme inequality. Its doesn’t have to be like that. Yet we still put up with it. 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Meet the invisibles – the wealthy and powerful at the heart of the Tory party” was written by Polly Toynbee, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th May 2015 05.00 UTC

It’s a networking event in one of the City’s great glass towers. The room is filled mostly with company directors, hedge funders, bankers and lawyers. Would they vote Labour? “An unmitigated disaster. You can’t be serious? Have you any idea what would happen? Half the clients of people in this room would be off, gone, anyone who can.”

The editor of Spears Wealth Management Magazine has kindly brought me with him to breathe in the thin air of the upper stratosphere. In the election I have travelled everywhere from Glasgow to the Isle of Wight, Bristol to Ely, Somerset to Gateshead, Chipping Norton to Wakefield, talking to people of all politics and none. But these are the invisibles, the echelons of money and power not seen on Newsnight or Question Time, who never apologise, never explain.

Their world is the beating heart of the modern Tory party, its financial backers, its influencers who whisper to David Cameron’s people in private gatherings, country suppers and the secret salons of Westminster restaurants; the world where Lord Chadlington, lobbying supremo, chats over the stone wall between his estate and Cameron’s in Witney. Murmuring what? We never know. Cameras pry into benefits street but none invade this private life of the nation.

I had forgotten that frank look of baffled incredulity. No one they meet votes Labour. “You mean just as we are repairing the frightful damage done by Labour, you want to put them back in? Good God!” “What, piss it all up the wall again? Pardon my French – but you want all those people back on welfare?” “I don’t think you realise what this government’s done to get the country back on its feet – and you want to give it back to the people who bankrupted us?”

The one non-Tory I met was an older banker from an ancient firm: “I’m a Christian. I’m appalled at migrants being left to drown in the Mediterranean.” Those nearby looked on him politely as an eccentric. A venture capitalist investing in start-ups shook his head: “The non-doms, they’ll go. Mansion tax, tax rates at 50%? Labour want to drive out wealth creators, don’t they?”

Would he go? Well no, but all the mobile global high net worths would be off like a flock of migratory birds. Look, the top London property market is already frozen, waiting for Thursday.

“You do realise,” said a woman on several boards, “it’s us middle classes who are the motor of the economy? Government has nothing if we don’t generate wealth for them to spend – spending it on people who create nothing.” (Middle class is a term of art, easier on the ear than plutocrat.) “Government wastes and wastes,” said a boardroom man. “Philanthropy does it so much better. Tax us less we’ll see that money well spent.”

We all live in our own silos – Guardian readers too. To understand the Cameron world, hear this drumbeat in their ears, their native noise. Forget the phoney “march of the makers”, the hard hats and hi-vis jackets of electioneering: when they leave politics, Tories return to this natural habitat.

English Conservatism’s rip-tide undercurrents break surface in the daily front-page vilification of Labour. The nation’s loudspeakers are an 85% rightwing press, owned by non-UK tax payers. Disappointingly, but no surprise, even the Financial Times with its City clientele calls for a Conservative win. Despite editorials regularly lambasting Cameron’s Euroscepticism, despite its chief commentator Martin Wolf’s devastating critiques of austerianism, it has reverted to its market. Its election editorial, “The compelling case for continuity”, is the authentic voice of unreasoning Conservatism, where being Tory is as natural as the English weather and Labour is always the interloping upsetter of apple carts.

Yet Cameron has run the most radical government of our lifetime – cutting the state, sweeping away support for the weak, denuding local government, gifting millions to their folk to set up free schools, selling the NHS to private firms, privatising Royal Mail, tripling fees to make universities effectively private, replacing a million lost public jobs with pre-unionised lump labour.

All this state-stripping turmoil is disguised as sober “continuity” Conservatism. Broadcasters in their questioning too are swayed by this sense that Toryism is the norm and everything else insurgent. Just wait for a foghorn blast against an “illegitimate” Labour government if a Cameron coalition fails to collect enough Commons votes – though convention is with whoever has a Commons majority.

Labour’s aim is to restore the postwar, pre-Thatcher consensus – an adequate welfare state, more housebuilding, decent work and a robust NHS, taxing the rich more fairly. That makes economic as well as social sense: on the same page as that FT leader, Wolf points out how inequality has risen since the late 1970s, calling Cameron’s regressive taxes “worrying”.

The theme of the Davos world economic forum was the danger of growing inequality, while the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, says inequality is the greatest threat to growth. Yet, says the FT leader, “the fundamental weakness in Labour’s plans” is that “Mr Miliband is preoccupied with inequality”. He’s not alone.

Modest measures “restoring the 50p level for high earners and imposing an ill-conceived mansion tax” outweigh everything else – even the “seismic” danger of Cameron taking the UK out of the EU, putting the “integrity of the UK at stake”. Few have been more eloquent than FT writers about the need to stay in the EU. Yet when the chips are down, antagonism to taxing the rich comes before the future of Britain.

Greed, selfishness, unimpeded inheritance, privilege cemented down the generations, cutting benefits while giving more to the wealthy – those are the Conservative passions. The FT praises Cameron for having the “political courage” to “shrink the state”, but look how their How to Spend It magazine in this same election week suggests squandering all that wealth. Forget public services when you can spend £1,250 on a bottle of A Goodnight Kiss perfume or £10,100 on a tulle shirt dress. Has the £10,540 per person “ultimate Nepal” by helicopter, plus private audience with the king, been disrupted at all by the earthquake?

Try taking City denizens to food banks and nothing changes their mind. “Let them eat lentils, why don’t they retrain, where’s their get-up-and-go?” Most of us are entrenched. I could no more vote Tory than they could back Labour. I think them boorishly selfish, they think me delusionally ignorant of their “real world”. The country is profoundly split between a tribe of revolutionary state-breakers and preservers of the public realm. A hung result doesn’t make Britain undecided, but divided by a chasm between the reds and the blues.

• Polly Toynbee is a panellist at Guardian Live: Election results special on Friday 8 May at 6pm in Kings Place. For full details and to book tickets, see here

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Tom and Barbara are my good life guide, not Cameron’s Marie Antoinette version

Another point of view 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tom and Barbara are my good life guide, not Cameron’s Marie Antoinette version” was written by Damian Barr, for The Guardian on Friday 17th April 2015 17.02 UTC

You never forget your first egg. Ours was laid by Margo, named for Margo Leadbetter from The Good Life, because of her fancy fluffy feet and her long beak, which she tended to look down. It was all the more precious because she popped it out in bleakest midwinter when hens decide, quite rightly, that it’s too cold for all that. Sitting in a strawy manger, it seemed like a miracle – daintier than dino-sized shop offerings and very slightly pink. We couldn’t bring ourselves to crack it, never mind eat it, so we blew it out – and now it sits perfectly preserved on a tiny silk cushion in a glass box. Like Lenin, only lovely.

Over the five years she ruled regally over our urban flock in Brighton, Margot (now roosting in peace) laid countless dozens of eggs. It’s a city garden, so we only keep bantams. Right now we’ve got three fancy pekins: Blanche (The Golden Girls), Blithe (Spirit) and Dolly (Parton). They live in a hand-built wooden coop called Cluckingham Palace and often have porridge for breakfast.

In 2005, we were poultry pioneers and our constituency, Brighton Pavilion, was Labour. Our neighbours made jokes about Tom and Barbara Good wondering, a bit worriedly, if we were getting goats. We threatened them with a pig called Trotski. Back then there was no chicken aisle in the pet shop, because chickens weren’t petsand you had to buy specialist products on dodgy websites. Now there’s a flourishing mini-industry and you can flick through Your Chickens magazine. Thanks to newly invented chicken harnesses our streets will soon be full of hipsters taking their girls for a walk. Meantime, Brighton Pavilion has elected the UK’s only Green MP.

There are two other feather families on our road, and both have neon “Re-elect Caroline Lucas” posters in the window. Our girls often cluck over the wall to them. We’re considering playdates but worry about red mite – far harder to eradicate than head lice. We prize every egg, especially wonky offerings which look like an effort to squeeze out.In summer our egg tray overflows, and after boiling, scrambling and poaching we whisk mayonnaise and lemon curd. A nice Italian neighbour taught us zabalgione. And there is no smugger dinner party gift than a bowl of ultra-local beyond-organic bantam eggs complete with artful smears of crap and just the one feather.

It’s very tempting to think that this is the “good life” – mentioned more than a dozen times by David Cameron when he launched the Conservative manifesto this week. “We can be the country that not only lives within its means and pays its way, but that offers a good life to those who work hard and do the right thing,” he said, flanked by Samantha in a suitably nettle-green dress. He declined to say whether they were more Tom and Barbara than Jerry and Margo, but we know. We all know.

One of the inspirations for The Good Life was The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour. Published in 1976 when doubts about a world entirely dependent on fossil fuels coalesced around the oil crisis and the miners’ strike, it showed how to grow your own vegetables and make your own cheese. It sold more than a million copies in 20 languages. Now oil prices are plummeting along with inflation, and there are no miners.

We are cravenly local, seasonal and organic, and farmer’s markets are sexy. Michelle Obama has written a book about the White House vegetable patch.

This is all very lovely, and who doesn’t want to crystallise their own fennel pollen, but it fails to link personal responsibility and collective action. Sustainability has been commodified. The contemporary “good life” evoked by Cameron has more in common with Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine than Tom and Barbara’s muddy plot in Surbiton. While the Goods ploughed and dyed their way to self-sufficiency, the French queen dressed as a shepherdess milking perfumed cows into buckets made of Sèvres porcelain. I often think of her as I spend the morning digging up the choicest worms for my girls. Cameron is banking that we’ll all be so blissed out on our own fetishised good lives that we won’t consider voting for anyone who might be having a bad life.

Chickens, and my girls, certainly aren’t to blame. Proof that we can look beyond our own lives lies in HenPower, an amazing charity that helps set up coops in care homes – bringing joy, and eggs, to all. It turns flocks into communities.

Cameron’s good life is entirely privatised: look after your backyard; build our own bucolic dream; and don’t worry about what might be happening over the wall or over the road or over the border. Spoil your hens with organic treats and give them cutesy names, but don’t tell them how most chickens live (and die): in vast, filthy factories of death, unable to spread their wings, unnamed. Cameron confuses selfishness with self-sufficiency and hopes we will too. He shouldn’t count his chickens.

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Don’t blame rising inequality on technological change

We all know this to be true, but nobody is going to do anything about it so it will only get worse as time passes.  


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Don’t blame rising inequality on technological change” was written by Owen Jones, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th April 2015 06.30 UTC

“There is no alternative.” It is the slogan, battle cry and sneer of our era. It is ever present in this general election, like a police sentinel guarding a sacred political consensus, batoning anyone who deviates from received wisdom. The fortunes of Britain’s richest 1,000 can double in a period of economic trauma while hundreds of thousands depend on charities to meet that most basic human need, food. A proposed mansion tax levied on a tiny fraction of the population is met with accusations of cruelty while predominantly poor disabled Britons are compelled to shell out money they don’t have because they are deemed to have a spare bedroom, all in order to balance the nation’s books. More than 400 people can be paid over £1m at one business alone, Barclays Bank, when the whole country of Japan has fewer than 300 executives paid that amount. Why? Because there is no alternative: either policies are pursued that guarantee the concentration of wealth and power in the bank accounts of a tiny elite, or the rich will flee and the economy will collapse.

Britain’s booming elite is soaked with triumphalism. It believes its traditional enemies – principally a trade union movement and political left with a coherent ideology and mass following – have been seen off. This elite is flattered, comforted and protected by an ideology that equates the perpetual enrichment of the wealthy with the wellbeing of the nation, promoted by a media owned by its own kind, an academy largely emptied of intellectual dissidents, and a network of thinktanks kept afloat by corporate and well-to-do private individuals. Any puncture, however small, to this suffocating triumphalism is welcome: to those of us who reject the status quo, it is like coming up for air.

Professor Anthony Atkinson is a pioneer of the study of the economics of poverty and inequality. His latest work, Inequality: What can be done?, is an uncomfortable affront to our reigning triumphalists. His premise is straightforward: inequality is not unavoidable, a fact of life like the weather, but the product of conscious human behaviour. The explosion of inequality as a result of intentional policy decisions has been rather spectacular. Take the US, which became steadily more equal from the end of the second world war to the late 1970s. By 2012, the top 1% had more than doubled the share of national income they enjoyed in 1979, and now receive a fifth of gross US income.

In our own country, the share of gross income belonging to the richest 1% after the first world war was 19%; it had fallen to 6% by 1979, and has since more than doubled. Inequality actually rose twice as much in Thatcher’s Britain as it did in the US, albeit from a significantly lower base.

Atkinson identifies the usual culprits: globalisation, in which the wealthy can easily pick and choose nations most favourable to their bank balances; rapid technological change, which has stripped away middle-income secure jobs; the explosion of a rapacious financial sector; a shift in attitude to high pay; the hobbling of trade unions, once a formidable counterweight to wealth being sucked to the top; and the erosion of redistribution based on progressive taxation.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Take the explosion in technology. In Britain, we’ve seen the rise of an “hourglass economy”, with professional middle-class jobs at the top (often reserved for the pampered through unpaid internships and expensive post-graduate qualifications) and insecure, low-paid service-sector jobs at the bottom. Many middle-income skilled jobs have been lost, often on the basis that machines can perform such labour more cheaply and efficiently. A recent study suggested that 10m jobs, or a third of all those in Britain, could be wiped out because of new technology and computers.

But Atkinson refutes the idea that technological change is “determined by the gods”: it is the result of decisions taken by scientists, investors, governments, consumers and others. Much of research and development happens in the public sector, as the economist Mariana Mazzucato has underlined in her book The Entrepreneurial State. If you’re reading this column on an iPhone, thank the state for its touchscreen technology, GPS and Siri. So why doesn’t the state take more of an active role in directing technological change so it benefits all? Look at Germany, which rather than opting for a hands-off approach promoted renewable energy industries, both confronting the climate change crisis and avoiding the rotting away of decent jobs seen in this country.

Some of Atkinson’s proposals are heresy in an era like our own. He suggests raising the top rate of tax to 65% – casting a cynical eye over studies that claim this is counterproductive when it comes to revenues – and calls wisely for proper crackdowns on tax avoidance. Partly it comes down to fairness for the professor: the government’s universal credit scheme aims to cut the marginal tax rate on the poor to 65%. If that’s good enough for those scraping by, why not for those richer than ever before?

In other European countries, it is taken as read that trade unions have a role in drafting social security legislation – why not here too? Another radical but attractive proposal is to grant all citizens an inheritance payment on reaching adulthood, funded by a 2% tax on personal wealth. With the return to precarious employment, the state could guarantee work, with a minimum wage that actually meets people’s living costs. A maximum pay ratio in businesses would stop shamelessly self-interested CEOs paying limitless salaries and bonuses while their cleaners languish on poverty wages.

These are the sort of proposals that are banished from the media-defined mainstream of the election debate. The parameters of acceptable political conversation are, after all, heavily policed: even a modest challenge to continually stuffing the mouths of the richest with gold is ignored, ridiculed or demonised.

We need a whole new way of thinking. The nation’s wealth is not the product of the genius of a few canny entrepreneurs. It is a collective endeavour, the product of the labour of millions and the support of the state. The hospital cleaner, the road-builder, the teacher training up both workers and the entrepreneurs of the future: all help generate wealth. The state builds and maintains the infrastructure, funds the research, educates the nation, protects property and tops up low wages. So much of our collectively produced wealth should not be locked away in a few bank accounts. The triumphalists will tell us that there is no other way. They are wrong, and it’s about time we called their bluff.

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I was Paloma Faith’s support act – but politics can’t reach the parts music can

Nope sadly it can’t anymore: Perhaps it is just apathy? Or is everybody really happy about the way things  are now?  


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “I was Paloma Faith’s support act – but politics can’t reach the parts music can” was written by Owen Jones, for The Guardian on Wednesday 1st April 2015 06.00 UTC

Music can inspire, move, even devastate, like few cultural forms. Its functions and roles differ: making that morning jogor an afternoon of exam revision bearable, the backdrop to millions of unforgettable nights out, the comfort blanket after the traumatic end of a relationship.

Music can date our lives like the rings of a tree trunk. We sometimes listen to a song because it conjures up a period of our lives. And because of its raw emotional power, music has the potential to make us contemplate social injustice more effectively than any column the likes of me can churn out. Yet this function has been neglected – partly by circumstance, partly by conspiracy.

When I told friends or acquaintances that I was going to be the Brit award-winning singer Paloma Faith’s support act, the response was a mixture of bafflement and concern that either my career or life was going to end in a volley of bottles at London’s O2 arena. I shared their nerves, though comforted myself with the positive response I received when I took to the stage at Glastonbury to rail against injustice and nuclear weapons in 2013. This audience would be rather different, it was pointed out. Faith was taking a risk, too, but her courage and strength inspired me. The daughter of a Spanish immigrant, fed up with the scapegoating of those at the bottom and the failure to hold those at the top to account, concerned that a disillusioned electorate would not use their hard-won democratic rights, she wanted to find new ways to engage her fans. But here’s what moved me: she wanted to rebuild a link between music and politics that was once strong, but which has been heavily eroded.

Politics and music once blossomed. When the US was convulsed by struggles over civil rights and the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s, music reflected many of the contemporary traumas. Marvin Gaye’s anguish at the social ills of the era was voiced in songs such as What’s Going On. “Vietnam, police brutality, social conditions, a lot of stuff,” he said at the time. “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” I remember singing Pete Seeger’s pained anti-war anthem Where Have All the Flowers Gone at primary school; little did I know how he and other politicised musicians such as Paul Robeson were hounded and persecuted by the McCarthyites for speaking out.

There was Bob Dylan, of course, capturing the upsurge in challenges to the US social order in 1964 with The Times they are a-Changin’. He was consciously allied to the insurgent struggles for emancipation, saying later: “The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.” The blue-collar hero Bruce Springsteen was radicalised by Ronald Reagan, and – rather like Paloma Faith – railed against the demonisation of immigrants. Hip-hop is often portrayed as corrupted by hyper-commercialism and rampant individualism, but Public Enemy incited rebellion among US youth in the late 1980s.

The marriage of music and struggles against an unjust status quo is a global phenomenon, of course. Chile’s Victor Jara – Latin America’s very own Bob Dylan – was part of the movement that culminated in Salvador Allende’s election. Shot dead by August Pinochet’s henchmen, he penned a poem in his final hours: “Silence and screams are the end of my song”. From the struggle against Nigeria’s military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, Fela Kuti founded the entire musical genre of Afrobeat. As if to underline the potentially subversive power of music, the Russian authorities had Pussy Riot locked up in 2012 for singing against Putinism in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

And then there’s the political music traditions of Britain too, of course. When Thatcherism stripped industry from swaths of the country, entire communities were left without work or hope. With despair growing, no wonder the Specials’ Ghost Town resonated in 1981. Red Wedge brought together musicians united against Thatcherism, including Billy Bragg, Madness and Paul Weller.

Yes, politicised musicians are still there, but all too often they are deprived of a mainstream platform. What happened? It’s complex, certainly. Like much of the media and popular culture generally, barriers have been erected that prevent those from non-privileged backgrounds from making it. From acting to journalism to music, it is those who can afford to live off the bank of Mum and Dad who are favoured: everything from the housing crisis to the benefit sanctioning regime help see off musical acts with limited financial means. The accelerated commercialisation of music hasn’t helped either: the big businesses dominating mainstream music are hardly sympathetic when it comes to musicians sticking it to the man. There’s fear: speak out, and the Daily Mail will retaliate with a series of hatchet-jobs on your personal life. And then there’s the general decline of the left: all those defeats under Thatcherism, the disappointments of the New Labour era, the unabashed free-market triumphalism of the post-Cold War era.

No era lasts forever, of course. That celebrities such as Paloma Faith, Russell Brand and Michael Sheen are speaking out about politics is symptomatic of a broader trend. There is a rich seam of disillusionment with Britain’s current social order, and it occasionally bubbles to the surface. It is often directionless, lacking a coherent alternative in which to invest hope and truth, and frequently contradictory. But it is there all the same.

The current election campaign will be marked by character assassinations, while the Britain of food banks, zero-hours, in-work poverty, housing crisis, job insecurity and young people facing a future bleaker than their parents will not be given the hearing it deserves. When I supported Paloma, no bottles were thrown: the crowd (some who I’m sure were pretty bemused) listened politely and cheered me at the end, no doubt with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Let’s be honest, though; even well-intentioned commentators and politicians fail to stir popular emotions about the great causes of our time. Music, though, can reach us where modern formal politics often does not: our hearts. Love and loss always have their place in music. But there are other traditions, too, and maybe our musicians should start rediscovering them.

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Cameron’s workers v shirkers scam has at last exposed the Tory law of benefit cuts

I think we have been desensitised as a nation or is it perhaps just good old fashioned brain washing?  Whilst we continue to demonise people for what is often essentially bad luck like illness infirmity, sudden redundancy’s  that leave people long term unemployed.

Why also is there so much stress on work above  everything else? We work to live rather than live to work unless we are lucky enough to have a vocation of course. The fallacy that  can all work our way out of any hardships is simply not the case.  the universe doesn’t do equal opportunities, but we as human beings can control some aspects and even things up. 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Cameron’s workers v shirkers scam has at last exposed the Tory law of benefit cuts” was written by Aditya Chakrabortty, for The Guardian on Tuesday 31st March 2015 05.00 UTC

It was the raw early days of the coalition, and one of David Cameron’s lieutenants was giving a frank answer to my blunt question: what would it take for the government to pull back on its planned cuts? You didn’t need a Mensa membership to see that this topic would define the next five years.

On that sunny autumn afternoon, the newspapers were full of students besieging Conservative central office, but Cameron’s aide coolly judged that they’d blown it by picking the wrong target. Had they swarmed on Lib Dem HQ “that would really have put Clegg under pressure”. So what would change Tory minds? “The crunch will come when the Mail puts on its front page pictures of some Iraq war veteran in a wheelchair who’s lost his disability benefits.”

That ugly logic has underpinned this government. Cameron and Nick Clegg have justified social security cuts by reciting a litany of false oppositions. Strivers v skivers. Workers v shirkers. The bedroom tax, the arbitrary removal of benefits from those infringing some bureaucratic small print, the judging of sick people as fit for work£17bn of cutbacks have been sold by ministers, and bought by the public, as falling on the undeserving poor: the mickey-takers on a gigantic, taxpayer-funded bed-in.

What my contact foresaw back in 2010 was that if this political link were ever broken, and money seen to be taken from the plainly deserving, the central plank of austerity would snap in two. However, that Mail front page has never appeared, and yesterday Cameron was able to warn of Labour “chaos … higher taxes for every working family to pay for more welfare”. Even so, the Law of Welfare Cuts has just taken two shattering blows.

The first was delivered by the Conservatives themselves, in the form of a leaked paper discussing options to make more benefit cuts. Commissioned by the Tories, written up by senior civil servants and already under discussion by ministers, the proposals include taking allowances from about 40% of carers for the sick; the scrapping of government compensation for those who’ve suffered industrial injuries; and the taxing of disability benefits.

The Conservatives have tried to stamp all over this story, and with excellent reason. Where’s the justice in taking cash off someone who’s mangled an arm on a construction site, or who’s had to cut back on work to look after a sick child? These savings manifestly break the coalition law of welfare cuts: that they must be seen to be fair.

And they don’t even save that much money. As with so many “reforms” since 2010, these reductions would turn people’s lives upside down, plunge some into debt and tear families apart – and in some cases raise little more than loose change. It may be that we have passed the high tide of public support for cuts in social security – and it would be for exactly the reason predicted by that Conservative aide in 2010. The Tories have set a goal of cutting another £12bn a year from welfare by April 2017. This target is so stupidly implausible that it will force any future government led by Cameron into ever more manifestly unjust benefit cuts. That fictional divide between deserving and undeserving poor may be on the verge of collapse.

How much of a fiction that divide really is can be seen in a new report published by academics at the LSE. Is Welfare Reform Working? is based on two rounds of interviews, first in 2013 and again in 2014, with 200 people who live in the south-west of England, from Plymouth to Bath to just outside Chippenham – where Cameron launched his election campaign yesterday.

In my years writing on this subject, I have read scores of reports and books on welfare reform – but I’ve never seen anything like this. Here are hundreds of people, all living at the sharp end of austerity. Every interviewee is a social-housing tenant of working age, which makes them the number one target of this government. Last September Iain Duncan Smith, in an interview with the Express headlined “We are breaking up Shameless housing estates”, boasted: “We’re making real progress into that stubborn part of the out-of-work group who are in housing estates …” The work and pensions secretary was talking about exactly the LSE interviewees – and this report allows them the right of reply: the LSE authors let their subjects do the talking.

The first thing to come screaming out of the report is how many of the interviewees didn’t plan to be out of work. They’ve got a disability, or they were caring for children or a sick parent, or they were just laid off. You meet Mrs Spencer, who spent seven years out of the jobs market to nurse her daughter through cancer. The daughter died two months ago and the last of their savings went on her funeral. Now her husband has been made redundant after 27 years of work. He’s 59 and has only one eye.

Well over half the respondents claim to be coping. This sounds like good news – until you discover what they mean by that. Getting by means falling behind on rent or into debt; managing means eating less or going without heat. “I’ve got a dog and I’ve got to make sure he’s OK,” one says cheerfully. “If need be I’ll eat his biscuits.”

Re-read that sentence, remembering that you and he live in one of the richest societies on the planet.

How has the government helped? The bedroom tax “is a tax on my disability”, according to one interviewee who used his second bedroom to take oxygen. Respondents hate the jobcentre, which just holds up ever higher hoops to jump through – or else it sanctions them. Another interviewee tells of how his sanction meant that he lost his home, and now sleeps on a sister’s couch.

These people represent a society that has been cut adrift by politicians of all parties: a society that will go unaddressed by the election campaign, and uncourted by any major party. And yet these people talk just like you and me; they just have worse stories to tell.

In that same Express interview, Duncan Smith claimed that he had moved the Shameless estate-dwellers from a “dependency culture” to independence. Here is a different version of events from one of the LSE interviewees: “My best friend committed suicide in March – she went through … relentless reassessments, and found the forms very confusing. She was disabled but they were questioning her over and over again. DWP hounded her for information. It’s a horrible feeling, knowing that your friend was pushed over the edge like that. I’m pretty certain that if these welfare reform changes weren’t going on, I’d still have her with me.”

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