In a “JAM” – The British Austerity Legacy — November 29, 2016

In a “JAM” – The British Austerity Legacy

Last Wednesday, the UK Chancellor Phillip Hammond put forward the government’s Autumn statement; his first major economic policy announcement, post the Brexit vote last June.

The headline grabber announcement was a ban on letting agents charging excessive referencing and admin fees. These fees had long become symbolic  of rip off Britain and the stacking of the odds against the “have nots.”

The statement did put forward plans for increased spending on infra structure. To be exact one of the specific policies is going to be £2.3 billion to act as a Housing Infrastructure Fund to build up to 100,000 new homes. Additionally there were also minimal rises to the minimum wage and plans for increased spending on the transport network. But these steps towards greater investment came with an austerity tinged sting in the tail that “it restates our commitment to living within our means.”

But most memorable has been the coining of the phrase “Jam” or families that are “just about managing”.

We had “hard working families” under Gordon Brown. The “squeezed” middle, as referred to by Ed Miliband. Now make way for the Jam. But who are the “just about managing?”.

When Teresa May entered Number 10 Downing street last July, she pledged to help ordinary working families, that were just about managing. In terms of rhetoric , there is recognition that the brazen and unapologetic austerity of the Osbourne era had become politically toxic and perhaps played a pivotal role in the fate of the government’s “Remain” campaign.

According to the Resolution Foundation, there are approximately 6 million “just about managing” families in Britain. Some estimates have pointed to families that are earning between £16,000 and £28,000, but  that could be on as much as up to £50,000; if they have several children to feed, clothe and pay childcare for. The Resolution Foundation says that home ownership amongst this group has plummeted from 59% in 1995 to 26% last year, meaning that many more after a lifetime of working, will face poverty as they pay rent into old age.

“Jam” is actually the category that I believe that I fit into as a working parent, with childcare costs on my income bracket. Families that are either working class or lower middle class that are in work, trying to make ends meet but left have very little in terms of money left over or savings should a broken boiler or car repair hit.

But does this coining of a new social class category represent anything beyond political rhetoric from the Tories? The beauty and the problem with coining a phrase like Jam is that it resonates with just about everybody. Across the social class spectrum, people collectively feel that they are “just about managing”.

This was made all the more apparent when within days of the Autumn statement, a case study feature appeared in the Daily Mail, claiming that families on £50,000 and in fact £100,000 were the just about managing. In one case this was by merit of the fact that two parents working full time  were struggling to pay their mortgage and childcare payments with a combined income of £100k. In another case study, the family are having to take on extra shifts to also pay some of the costs on a buy to let property. Now call me a cynic, but equating people having difficulty with paying off  mortgages that will  later act as  nest eggs, with others struggling to pay market rent and less than a month’s savings, for their entire future,  represents a conflation of the issues.

Undoubtedly, people across the social class spectrum have felt a squeeze on their living standards and incomes over the past 6 years.

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But this is where the government’s reluctance to define these widely resonating umbrella terms becomes a stroke of populist genius. Everybody from the double income £100k households down to low earners who have seen tax credits cut, feels like they are “just about managing”, comparatively speaking to pre 2008 living standards.  Problematically,  abbreviations like “jams” also project a level of emotional and intellectual disconnect from people. They can now be talked about as if they are defined by membership to a neatly defined category.

This budget did not go anywhere near far enough to address the legacy of the shameful lack of investment in Britain and the contraction of local economies that the politics of austerity has produced over the past 6 years.

The sobering reality of the situation is that according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, UK workers have suffered the most sustained pay squeeze since the 1920s.

Rises to the minimum wage are a positive step, however one that is minimal. A large majority of “just about managing” workers are paid more than the minimum wage, in some cases up to almost £10 per hour more and still struggling.

As we know, three key areas impacting most severely upon people’s living standards are  lack of housing and excessively high market rents, childcare costs, stagnating wages and freezes on benefits/Local Housing Allowance.

In many areas, market rent has now soared several hundreds of pounds per month over and above Local Housing Allowance levels. Meanwhile,  Tax Credits, a benefit supposed to have lifted families out of poverty and compliment paid work, have instead become a necessity  to plug the gaps between declining wages, sky-high rents and soaring living costs. And this is before consideration is given to how continued freezes, reductions in the taper rate and outsourcing of eligibility to firms like Concentrix have made Tax Credits increasingly precarious and of less value.

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George Osbourne, Austerity Chancellor 2010-2016

In the public sector, austerity has meant that wages have been capped and frozen. Workers have seen the real term value of their salary fall through the floor since 2010.

Recent analysis by the TUC shows that nurses and other public sector professionals will be £4,000 worse off by 2021, as a result of continuing pay freezes and a current 1% cap.

Putting the brakes on letting agents rip off fees is a welcome move that ironically was initially called for by Ed Miliband and deemed unworkable by the Conservatives, who now appear to have stolen Labour’s clothes in terms of rhetoric. But just like coining the phrase “jam,” this move was also effective headline grabbing PR.  Letting agents have long fallen victim to their own greed as these non-refundable fees have spiralled into what can amount to £100s simply for printing off and overseeing a bog standard tenancy agreement. The Tories can now look like they are Robin Hood  speaking for the “jams” by implementing this policy amdist a backdrop of very little structural reform in the economy.

Slight raises to the minimum wage, token building of a measly 100,000 homes and cannot  address the deep structural inequalities and collapse in any kind of mobility that a housing crisis, sprinkled in with 6 years of counterproductive austerity have produced.

One of the only welcomed and talked about policies of George Osbourne, which has yet  to come into fruition, was the pledge to provide 30 hours of term time free childcare to the families of 3 and 4 year olds with parents in work. But with only 10 months to go until this should be going live, no one on the ground seems to know how it will be paid for or even if it is still going ahead.

Looking around another nursery last week for my son who will be 3 in September 2017, I was once again advised  that the rate of payment put forward by the government is so low that many nurseries simply will not be signing up to the scheme.

Addressing the real causes of poverty and the legacy of under investment in the British economy, post austerity is going to be a long and rocky road that the government will have to show real commitment to.

Lets hope  that it is a commitment that runs deeper than just populist rhetoric.

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Super Moon and Political Reflections on 2016 — November 19, 2016

Super Moon and Political Reflections on 2016

So time for something slightly different.

It feels as though we are slowly hurtling towards the end of the year. There are 6 weeks left of 2016.

Temperatures are dropping. Leaves are no longer in bloom as glorious and rustic reds, gold or orange tones, but sodden and fermenting in the ground beneath our feet. As I drive home, trees on our street have  bare  branches that increasingly look like bleak skeletons shivering in the colder air. There are 6 weeks left of 2016.

Earlier on this week, on November 14th  we passed through a “Super Moon”.

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The full “super” moon on November 14th 2016,  represented the closest point the moon has come to earth  thus far in the 21st century. The moon won’t come this close again until  November 25, 2034.

In theory the moon was  bigger and brighter than it had been for 60 years. In reality, as far as I could tell, it could barely be seen through the clouds and damp air . In between  a full day’s work, dark and dreary cloudy skies driving home, putting a toddler to bed and falling asleep half way through The Walking Dead, looking wistfully at the super moon was not on my monday to-do-list.

But….I believe that it is not only necessary but critical to at times take stock and be mindful of our inner feeling state and the energies that we surround ourselves with.

Perhaps it’s just a reflection of the hype that there has been about this, but I have felt that this “supermoon”, mirrors   a huge energy shift that is currently taking place in the world.

I know. That sounds like a line straight from a Take a Break astrology column. But I base my feeling on a combination of  intuition and my observations of what we can take away from the changes of 2016.

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Autumn in my town

Whether or not people feel happy and comfortable with the changes that have taken place this year, and particularly over the last week with the US election result, the really significant part is that they have been jolted awake. Change offers the opportunity for growth.

The events of 2016 have meant that the  failings of the old politics , on both the left and the right, have been laid bare. The establishment and old ways of doing things were rejected, both at Brexit and now with Trump. In the process, the paint was peeled off so many things that as individuals and a society, we had tried to keep hidden or just accepted as we trundled along our daily lives.

As a result, the landscape of “liberalism” is now going through a period of being dramatically redrawn.

I believe that if people are able to act with self-reflection and openness, then we are entering a period of time that  represents a momentous opportunity for the left to re-engage with people who have felt disconnected and disenfranchised from a politics that for far too long, was obsessed with identity and political correctness. it left behind swathes of the working middle class whose opportunities have been curtailed by the economy.

This was simply not good enough. It is now time for people to be brought back in.

This year, the accepted premise that neo-liberal economics should dominate the world, no matter what the impact upon the ordinary working man has started to be questioned and rejected by more of the population. The notion that people will just continue accepting a form of capitalism that doesnt even offer the basics, can no longer just be assumed by those in government.

The notion that the west should not seek better relations with Russia has also, been questioned.  And the power of the mainstream media has drifted into a sea of irrelevancy as we now see how they got the story so wrong.

These are all  things that hold the potential for deep and fundamental shifts from the old “accepted” ways of doing things into more a more positive direction.Globalism has been failing people. Deadlocked foreign relations that lead to never-ending wars in places like Syria have failed people. Poisonous mainstream media conglomerates that spin divisive rhetoric have failed people.

The shift that the Trump election has brought, represents a challenge to the norms that allowed all of those things to be accepted. Like or loathe the election outcome, but what I am trying to say is it represents a change, and change represents opportunity.

The left and liberalism must now take an honest and self-reflective inventory of where it is at and what direction it needs to travel in.

All of this may sound very overly optimistic, I know.

2016 has been a time of upheaval, growth, lessons learnt and potentially cataclysmic change to the world .Yet for the first time in many years, my feeling is that 2017 can and will be a time that we see more positive changes in the world.

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At the sharp end: the failings of the Clinton brand of feminism — November 15, 2016

At the sharp end: the failings of the Clinton brand of feminism

In the early hours of November 9th, I was nudged awake  by my toddler son, stirring in his sleep in his usual middle of the night routine,  asking for a drink. Bleary eyed and half coherent, just before I tried making myself go back to sleep,  I  flicked on my TV.

It was 2.30am and as results for the US Presidential election began rolling in, the Republican candidate Donald Trump was consistently doing better than anticipated. As the night wore on and states such as Florida and North Caroline turned red, the narrative shifted in tone from how unlikely Trump’s bid for Presidency would be to how increasingly unlikely that Hilary Clinton would now have any route  to the White house left. The shock amongst BBC studio pundits like Andrew Neil was palpable and clear to see for anyone tuning in.

This  coverage of a stateside drama unfolding in the early hours of the morning, felt strangely reminiscent of the night of June 23rd and Brexit. On that night, the BBC  presenters having spent weeks acting as a mouth piece for the establishment Remain camp and presenting us with over optimistic polls,  were visibly shocked as one of the first set of the results came in, Sunderland, unveiling that a shock 80% of people had backed the Leave camp.

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But back to America. In the run up to the US election, my post Hilary Clinton and the crisis of liberal feminism warned that Clinton was offering a glossy corporate brand of gender based politics that was Neo liberal, corporate and offering no palpable sense of change to the average middle or working class American.

One of the key slogans of the Clinton campaign was “im with Her”. The logic appeared to be that women would vote for Hilary by virtue of their gender, by virtue of wanting to see the highest and hardest glass ceiling smashed and by virtue of  Hilary promoting the rights of the individual, eg transgender bathrooms and abortion. This was identity politics at its most bold.  In late October an Access Hollywood tape  was released in which Mr Trump was heard making lewd and boastful comments about women. This was seen as a further perfect springboard for the Clinton campaign to capture the female vote. Hilary stood against demeaning misogyny and sexism; all the things we were told her opponent Trump embodied. What’s more, Hilary was now endorsed by Beyonce  and Jay Z, not to mention Katy Perry who took to the stage in a cape emboldened with “Im with Her”.

Women and particularly young millenial women, would surely flock to the voting booths in force.It felt as though the pundits on the night thought that Clinton had the presidency in the bag . The night would  be a breezy victory run, they were not anticipating a rollercoaster ride in the opposite direction.

It became evident that beyond the metropolitan bubbles, many women had cast their votes for Trump.  As I watched in the early hours, it was mentioned that 51% of white women in Ohio had voted Trump. His vote was far less amongst minority women,  but yet not none existent as we might have expected from the predictions of the Clinton campaign.

Many have speculated that women choosing Trump over Clinton is representative of the “depth of  internalised misogyny”.

Yet this is where simplistic liberal narratives and identity politics become completely unstuck and in all honesty, guilty of oppressive assumptions.

My feeling is that the Clinton campaign failed in any meaningful way to address the issue of the “sharp end of capitalism”. By that I mean the increasing numbers of working and middle class women  who are struggling to make ends meet after decades of neo liberal economic policy in the United States and indeed across the western world. They are struggling to balance insecure and  suppressed wages with housing, child care and health care costs. They are struggling in economically depressed areas where heavy industry has been outsourced and men have lost their jobs. They are struggling to envision a life that offers not so much an American dream, but just a decent standard of living.

In this context, what matters most is not celebrity endorsement or glass ceiling symbolism, but a candidate  that communicates to the back to basics core concerns about jobs, the economy and the high cost of living.

Far from automatically representing an “internalisation of misogyny” this instead signals that working and middle class women do not just automatically buy into narratives of gender and simplistic identity politics. What Trump provided was the ability to communicate a set of economic policies that offered hope beyond the status quo to the electorate  with his “Make America Great Again” campaign.  Now whether or not Trump can actually deliver on these is a separate matter. But the point is, he was able to tap into how much these people felt that they need the system to change.

The reality is that meditating on the nature of misogyny and hashtagging about everyday sexism are a lot easier to do when you have a comfortable standard of living or live in the cosy confines of a university campus.  It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these “ideals” are not in the forefront of your concerns when being able to pay the bills and putting food on the table are not guaranteed.  As great as ideological ideals about challenging everyday sexism are, they offer nothing of any economic or immediate substance to working class women who continue to grapple with acute and glaring poverty. And there in lies the inability of this brand of liberalism to connect to the working classes.

It is likely that many women will have weighed up Trump’s sexist and offensive remarks and made a decision about just how much a deal breaker they were, based on what else he  had to offer. For many, his talk about jobs and bringing back prosperity to America, came further up their hierarchy of concerns then the “im with her” on challenging sexism narrative.

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The world is now on course for a Trump presidency.  As much as the media are enjoying relentlessly scare mongering everybody about this prospect, the  focus ought to also be on how and why did Trump resonate with many voters and what does the liberal left need to do differently.

If liberalism is to be a credible political force, it must now move away from the  obsessive focus upon identity politics that this campaign has highlighted. Narratives of glass ceilings and celebrities are by and large, indulgences that focus upon the needs and gratification of the individual. It resonates wonderfully amongst the economically well off and the chattering classes, but offers little to those struggling “at the sharp end”.

In the aftermath, we are seeing another post Brexit similarity. A media narrative that tars anyone who has deviated from perceived liberal norms by voting for the other candidate, with the buzzwords of  “hate”, “bigot” and “misogyny”.  This is not to deny or minimise that multiple layers of discrimination still exist in society. Nor is it to deny that at times during the campaign, Mr Trump used inflammatory and divisive language. But the way that these words are  now loosely thrown around to explain why half a nation voted, is grossly simplistic, presumptious and  leaves no space for reflection about the more nuanced, economic or policy based rationale that will have driven many to make their choice.

To suggest that everyone and their voting choices can be stereotyped into neat little identity pigeon holes, is a further symtom of “identity politics”.Labelling  people as “bigots”, “not understanding misogyny” or ” a basket of deplorables”, simply shuts down discussion and means that attention does not have to be paid to the detrimental macro economic factors that have so severely impacted people’s lives in the last few years.

There must be acknowledgment  on the left that ordinary working people want change and transformation, because a model of capitalism that barely even offers them the basics, is simply not working. For good or for ill, economic populism and upheaval to agaisnt the Neo liberal status quo is now becoming a powerful driving force for change across the western world.

My feeling is that if it wasn’t Mr Trump that managed to tap into this, there would have been another Trump, it was only a matter of time.

Brexit ruling: The Technocrats strike back — November 5, 2016

Brexit ruling: The Technocrats strike back

technocrat
noun
    “an exponent or advocate of technocracy, a member of a technically skilled elite.”

 

Yesterday  the High Court ruled that Theresa May must secure parliamentary approval before Article 50 and official negotiations to leave the EU can be triggered.

Three of the UK’s most senior Judges ruled that the government is legally required to pass an act of parliament before initiating official “Brexit”.

One of the lead claimants bringing the case is Gina Miller, whom we learn from the press is the wife of a multi-millionaire.

The Claimants have stated that this is about process, more than it is about politics.

Loyal remain supporters  immediately jumped on the ruling as proof that Brexit won’t happen and certainly won’t  happen as soon as people “see sense”.

Self-appointed liberal “expert” media commenters  wasted no time in heralding the news  as evidence that the referendum result will be disregarded because;  “there are times when MP’s must rise above the views of  their constituents.”

But what could play into the hands of the Leave argument, that we are being run by an unaccountable class of technocrats, more than the spectacle of a millionaire  persuading three upper class members of the British judiciary that the views of 17.2 million people are potentially irrelevant?

The odds of a “snap” general election being called have now been slashed.

The SNP and the party’s voters still oppose leaving the EU.

Yet crucially if a snap general election is called, the majority of Leave seats are in Labour areas. Jeremy Corbyn has been clear that Labour have accepted the Brexit vote and have plans for a post Brexit Britain.

It seems highly unlikely that a general election would stop Brexit.

Rather than being a final roll of the dice to prevent Brexit, a call for parliamentary vote is likely to result simply in Brexit being given a parliamentary mandate.

Hilary Clinton and the crisis of liberal feminism — November 3, 2016

Hilary Clinton and the crisis of liberal feminism

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When Hilary Clinton secured the democratic presidential nomination in July this year,   commentators  declared it to be a ground breaking moment for feminism. Clinton was heralded as a trailblazer for women. 

As the race to the White House enters it’s final week,  Clinton is showing a slight lead. The ever-increasing prospect of a female President continues to be met with enthusiasm by liberal feminists.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Clinton has sought to ensure her message hits common ground with female voters. Last  week she told a rapturous female crowd at Cedar Rapids, Iowa; “You know, maybe it’s a woman thing, we love making lists, right?” .

Yet drill beneath this scripted rhetoric that resonates so wonderfully with women, and Clinton’s damning political record  should in fact distinguish her as one of the most harmful candidates to women in recent history.

Clinton represents a carefully crafted brand of liberal, corporate feminism.  This is a brand of feminism that views the ascendancy of  a woman to the White House as the moment that the glass ceiling  will  be symbolically shattered. The moment that our daughters will see that there really are no limits to their potential.  To  “feminist” proponents of the Clinton brand, it does not  matter that the woman to shatter the glass ceiling  arguably represents the worst and most corrupt aspects of the privileged, white wealthy 1%.  Nor does it matter that Clinton has shown a lust for aggressive foreign policy and military action in Libya, Iraq and Syria.

Because this is a brand of feminism that does not seek to acknowledge the lived experiences of women who are not part of the liberal American elite. It does not concern itself with inconvenient realities like foreign policy.

Amongst Clinton supporters there is a profound, almost myopic refusal to acknowledge the unpalatable political realities of the Clinton’s.

Take for example the impact of  Bill Clinton’s welfare policies, endorsed by Hilary, upon low-income and ethnic minority women and their families.  In 1996,  Bill Clinton joined with the Republican US Congress to implement dramatic and sweeping changes to welfare with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.

The Act has continued to be heavily criticised for driving up the numbers of American children living in deep poverty. In Living History Hilary recalled that; “By the time Bill and I left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent”.   State authorities came under pressure to severely curtail numbers of welfare payments to parent’s in need of assistance. Drug testing, finger printing and a surveillance style approach were all  adopted towards mother’s applying for welfare. This criminalization of poor single mothers has resulted in Black and minority ethnic women disproportionately having their children removed. Furthermore, it is now widely considered that  Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, fuelled an upsurge in racist mass incaceration.

Hilary Clinton famously sat on the board of Wal-Mart between 1986 and 1992. Fellow board member, John Tate famously said; “Labour unions are nothing but blood sucking parasites”. Clinton  was  implicit in ensuring  that Wal-Mart employee’s wages were continually suppressed to maximise profits.

The focus of an authentic feminism should be affording every citizen protection from economic hardship. Yet the neo liberal economic policies that Hilary Clinton is so ingratiated towards, hit women and children the hardest. It is  working class and minority mother’s  and their children who are the prinary victims  of  welfare cuts, insecure housing and suppresed wage growth. These policies come cynically packaged  with the Hilary Clinton public rhetoric that promoting the rights of women “has been the cause of her life”.

An authentic brand of feminism should also consider the rights of women in Syria, Libya and Iraq. Do these women’s lives not matter when they are subjected to aggressive military bombing campaigns?

Beneath the well crafted speeches and emotive appeals to women, the  Hilary Clinton brand  of “feminism”  lacks depth, accountability and integrity.  To Clinton’s followers, her disregard for normal rules and an outstanding FBI investigation are conveniently downplayed.  The millions of dollars donated to the Clinton foundation from Saudi Arabia; a nation with a disturbing human rights record, go unmentioned. 

When faced with these charges and the Wikileaks spectacle, the default position of Clinton’s supporters is typically  a deflection to the shortcomings of Trump. Trump we are told is a groping, misogynistic throwback to a bygone era. Trump wants to take women’s rights away. What’s more, to fail to endorse Hilary is to favour “hate”.

It is a narrative that seeks to shut down any challenge to the accepted political status quo.

If this is all liberal feminism has to offer, it is in existential crisis.

Hilary Clinton as the first female president, will not represent  a momentous moment for feminism.  That moment will come when we have a politics  of substance that advances the rights of women from all backgrounds.

The Inside Story On The Concentrix Tax Credits Disaster — October 28, 2016

The Inside Story On The Concentrix Tax Credits Disaster

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HMRC chief Jon Thomson yesterday announced that the government will not be using privately contracted firms, such as Concentrix  again to investigate and target those in receipt of Tax Credits.

Concentrix are an American multi million pound equity firm, who had been paid on a payment by results basis to cut the UK government’s Tax credits bill.

For any of the thousands of  people across the UK that  were targeted by Concentrix, this news will come as not only a welcome relief , but a victory.

Last month  following a grass-roots Facebook campaign organised by parents that were suffering at the hands of Concentrix, the Government announced that HMRC would not renew the contract with Concentrix.

Cases picked up by mainstream media  highlighted how a teenage mother had her Tax Credit’s stopped because she was accused of being in a relationship with a dead pensioner. When Concentrix were informed of this, she was told that Mr deceased still needed to contact Concentrix, to confirm his new address.

Another mother was accused of having an ongoing relationship with “McColl’s”, a chain of high street news agents .

Welcome to the Kafkaesque twilight zone, brought to you courtesy of Concentrix and the payment by results approach to welfare.

But what about the stories behind the headlines?

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This August, inbetween the summer holiday and back to school Facebook statuses, a series of alarming posts began popping into my news feed:

“I’m struggling with skipping meals and being diabetic, my blood sugar is dipping a lot, is anyone else managing this?”

“three children and been living off hardly anything for 5 weeks, accused me of living with the previous tenant, now got to take the kids to the other side of the city to stand and wait for the food bank”

“we are literally living off nothing and the electricity was off all of last night, in the dark with the kids”.

These are just  some examples of the hundreds of posts that were being sent to the Concentrix Mum’s Facebook page.

A member of the group myself, I had initially found the page to be a source of advice and sanctuary after my dealings with Concentrix earlier in the year. In February, I had returned from a long day at work to find a letter from Concentrix sitting on the doormat. The letter stated that they had “evidence to suggest you may be living with someone” . Who, I had no idea. Concentrix don’t tell you in the letter. You have to be assertive and confident enough of your rights on the phone to find that information out.

Concentrix operate by purchasing third-party data from credit agencies and electoral rolls.  Invariably, this carries anomalies that mean former tenants, landlords, ex partners and even neighbours can show up on systems as having links to addresses. The letter gives the claimant 30 days to produce and send evidence of every bank transaction they have made for the past year, copies of all utility bills as well as an array of other personal information. The logic is that you must “prove” you are single by means of mass data gathering. Between 2014 and 2016 an estimated 1 million letters like this were sent out by Concentrix, “phishing” for data from single parents.

In most cases it seemed that if you could jump successfully through the data gathering hoops, Concentrix would then accept that you didn’t have the former tenant (in my case) living in the airing cupboard.

But at some point during the post Brexit summer,  the goal posts appeared to have moved.

Every day, new members were arriving in the group and wit stories  that  grew more shocking.

Without warning, parents  were discovering that their Tax Credits just suddenly stopped one day. This in turn, then triggered  Housing Benefit to stop.

As parents desperately tried to contact Concentrix, they were met with engaged tones . If they did manage to get through, the standard response was to be advised that it could take “up to 12 weeks” for a case to be looked at. HMRC refused to take responsibility for Concentrix.

Within weeks, thousands of people embroiled in the crisis had run out of food, money and  used up quotas for maximum visits allowed to foodbanks. As a direct result of the actions of  Concentrix, in 2016 there were mother’s and father’s in Britain who were literally unable to buy bread, electricity or school uniform. Childcare  providers went unpaid as people effected could in some cases no longer afford to go to work. Job’s, tenancies and basic survival all now hung in the balance.

An unaccountable private firm had stripped financially vulnerable people of the ability to provide for their children’s basic needs; in the name of a payment by results incentives game.

In the wake of the crisis,  The Concentrix Mum’s group  set up a crisis support fund for food shopping. Across the length and breadth of Britain, mother’s were helping other mother’s to put food on the table for children,  whilst the government and Concentrix did nothing.

Members of the group got the hashtag #Concentrixputtingfamiliesintopoverty onto Twitter. The story began to get picked up by Martin Lewis from Money Saving Expert, MP’s  and the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

On the morning of  September 13th, The Victoria Derbyshire programme ultimately gave a damning expose of what was taking place.

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Frank Field, Work and Pensions committee

The Work and Pensions Select Committee held earlier this month on October 13th, heard from claimants, HMRC and Concentrix.

The Committee heard that as the crisis began to escalate in the week beginning 15th August 2016,  Concentrix were only able to answer 1% of calls.  The staff based in Dublin simply were not enough to handle the volume of calls coming in, generated by the number of claims that Concentrix had opened up. The Committee also heard the following;

  • In 73% of cases where people had all their money stopped, appeal decisions were made in favour of the claimant. Original decisions had therefore been flawed in many cases and driven families into unnecessary destitution
  • HMRC officials repeatedly talked about the “process” and “procedures” passing blame back to Concentrix. This narrative presented as being removed from the human consequences of what had gone on.
  • Refunds to those who had their benefits wrongly stopped were taking place in instalments over several months, resulting in escalating debts and subsequent incorrect decisions being made for Housing Benefit.

Labour MP Louise Haigh who has been outspoken in Parliament about the Concentrix scandal  from the outset,  has spoken again in Parliament highlighting the perverse structure of incentives that the company were working under.

Concentrix employees have claimed that far from acting as a rogue contractor,  HMRC were behind Concentrix at every step of the way. The directives of how many staff Concentrix would need came directly from HMRC. Alarmingly, as little as five hundred  staff were instructed to target over 2 million people, profiled as vulnerable.

I believe that the axe that was swiftly brought down on the Concentrix contract, represented  an attempt by HMRC to abdicate any responsibility for the mess and suffering caused.  Moreover, it also feels indicative of the Theresa May government wanting to politically distance themselves from the overtly mendacious attacks on low earners and “strivers” that became the trade mark of George Osbourne.

With the Brexit vote and public defiance of his message signalling the end of Osbourne’s career as Chancellor, the Tories could no longer tell themselves that Dickensian attacks on the poor will not have social and political consequences, that wont come back to bite them.

Companies driven by profit incentives and a lack of accountability, have the capacity to not only create unnecessary poverty and human misery, but to corrosively damage the relationship between the government and the population.

This is through the feelings of broken trust, helplessness and that “doing the right thing gets you nowhere”, that these scenarios create.

When I have heard  affluent Guardian  type readers sigh that the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, is great but “not very believable”, as I have  heard many times since, I take a deep breath and try to respond paiently…

“If I am not for me, who will be for me?” Social Media and Politics in 2016 — October 22, 2016

“If I am not for me, who will be for me?” Social Media and Politics in 2016

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

The origins of this phrase come from Hillel the Elder in the Old Testament.

The  first time I  came across this phrase  was in the novel; “If not now, then when” by Primo Levi. Primo Levi is best known for his brutally honest, gripping and heartbreaking account of the year he spent as a prisoner in Aushwitz-Monovitch. In the past, his books have captivated me and have left me feeling enriched for having read them.

If Not Now, Then When” is about a group of Jewish and Russian partisans during the Second World War. Our protagonists are individuals that have been brought together because their homes and families have been brutally swept away. At every turn, the group continue to be relentlessly pursued by the hunters of war. Why go on living, why fight? For what house, what country, what future?

But the group have an unrelenting instinct to survive. Or as one character Dov puts it whilst the group are fighting of advancing Nazi soldiers; “we are fighting for two or three lines in the history books.” Enduring every type of privation and hardship whilst surviving in woodland,  the story is ultimately about a journey southwards through Italy to Palestine in search of a “home”.

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Primo Levi, Author of “If Not Now, When?” and “If this is a Man”

Today of course we live in an era where we feel free from the extreme hardships and persecutions of war endured during the time of Levi’s novels. We know that war occurs, but it is in a far away arena brought to us by the BBC and CNN.

I have been  reflecting on what “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” means  within the  malaise of today’s complex and digital world.

In an era where the likes  of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who exude narcissism have become admired cultural icons and “selfies” our part of a lot of people’s daily lives, is it not obvious to think that we are “for ourselves” now,  more than ever?

The simplistic answer would be yes. However, I believe that  “If I am not for me, ”  and “if being for myself, what am I;” instead highlights the need for healthy self-interest and a strong sense of self, within a community of others. That means knowing one’s own core beliefs, one’s own boundaries and where those of other’s start and end. Ultimately, it is a  healthy sense of self-protection and inward strength, the type of tenacity that kept the fighters in Levi’s fiction fighting for their lives, identities and history.

This is very different from a narcissistic self-interest. The belief that I am more important than you and I am preoccupied with my inauthentic self that I present to the world. The danger with our modern-day social media era, is do we really know what ourselves are? What are our core values about what we would like to see in the world? How should we be governed and what do we want our relationships to look like? In 2016, there is a resounding sense that at times these remain unanswered, whilst we focus instead on a filtered and vacuous social media realm.

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The era of celebrity, selfies, Snapchat and Facebook

 

In this sense, “if I am not for me, who will be for me”,  can also be related to political and social apathy.  Are we really  for ourselves? Do we investigate, analyse and look at what the evidence is to support what we are being told? Do we trust mainstream media? How engaged are we in the system and as civil society how are we trying to change it.

Over recent years, an underlying sense of hopelessness, broken trust and sense that Politician’s cannot be trusted has led to disengagement in politics.  Fed in part by the lies of the Iraq war, an apathetic reliance on hoping that others will be for us  and  act on our behalf emerged. We hoped that life will somehow go on as normal without our involvement in thinking about how it would be run.

2016 has seen the beginnings of a drive for many people to be reconnected with politics in the western world. The Brexit vote in the UK saw the highest turn out in decades (70%) amongst the electorate.  In the lead up to the vote,the comments sections on news media sites became battle grounds. Because in this era of information overload and mistrust of the establishment, it mattered less what the media said and more how what we said to each other.

According to some Facebook commenters, TTIP would almost certainly be on the table if the UK remained; ultimately rendering us slaves to corporations. According to Remain commenters, a Vote for Leave meant a vote for a “Little Englander” mentality and a dystopic vision of Britain, with Boris and Gove at the helm of government. But nobody was actually sure what TTIP really was. Could anyone produce a definition of whom or what was a “Little Englander”? Just what would a post Brexit Britain look like and what the exact personal political aspirations of the Brexiteers? These unanswered questions swirled into an empty void. Facebook arguments became fueled by anger, disparaging “memes” for each side being re-shared and adamant assertions from each side that they occupied the moral and political high ground. This was less a war of ideologies and more a war of narratives in the middle of an information overload.

What was most startling was how the message of the ruling establishment elite was rejected. This may have only been 48:52, but the threats of economic Armageddon and display of every expert being wheeled out to endorse Remain, made the Leave victory all the more significant. It was a dramatic rejection of what we were told to think, by others that many now believed were no longer acting “for them.”

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Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party on the morning of the Brexit result

Parallels can currently be seen in the 2016 US Presidential Election campaign. One side claims that a vote for Trump is a vote for a misogynistic, crude,  underqualified Billionaire, representing the worst sentiments of american society. The other side claim that Hilary embodies the very essence of corruption  and will pursue a path of putting corporate America before the needs of the  working people. There is almost a total black out in the mainstream media on what Wikileaks have revealed about Hilary Clinton’s activities and like Brexit, a sense that there is a clear directive of how the establishment would like the public to vote.

Faced with information overload  and two less than ideal choices, how do people dicpher how to cast their vote? It feels very must as though traditional allegiances are being redrawn as the war of narratives and slander prevails on.

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To return to Levi’s novel, tragically, we know that the end of the story and the barbarism of World War Two,  sets the birth place for the origins of  new wars, bringing with them new victims and hardships.

We  know now how the emergence of Israel has been and continues to be, a source of great conflict and bloodshed. One of the saddest moments in the book comes when the group are locked in a house, so that the Polish resistance fighters can be taken away by the  Soviet Red Army. We do not come to know their end, but are instead left with a feeling that it is ultimately a tragic one.

What is the significance of this today? Clearly, it goes without saying that our world is and will always continue to be in a state of flux.  But in 2016, it feels as though we really are in a state of political and social flux and the landscape is being swept with an unpedictable wind of change. In this context, “if I am not for me, then who will be for me”, is ultimately a very complex question to ask.

One analysis of the original quote by Hillel is if we do not understand the parts of ourselves that form the real “I”, we just become entities that are collection of elements and ideas emerging in others.

Perhaps some of the answer to this lies in part in a need now to disconnect from the digital wold at times and foster a reconnection with ourselves, our children, our core beliefs and the natural world. Reconnecting with activities that make us feel grounded, alive and focused can help foster a stronger sense of self, admist the current underlying sense of chaos.

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