Sean Robertson works in the Electricity Transmission sector as a construction worker and lives in the highlands with his wife and son. He has been fundamental in setting up a local Anti-Bedroom Tax group. In this article Sean looks at strategies and ideas for setting up local campaigns.
The Bedroom has the potential to unite the working class in a similar vein to earlier campaigns such as the poll tax. While the tax doesn’t affect everyone, as was the case with the poll tax campaign in the early nineties, the effects of the current policy could be worse as the government deliberately targets the most vulnerable members of society: the disabled, sick, single mothers and the poor, plunging these groups ever deeper into poverty.
Karen Hendry is a single parent from Cumnock in East Ayrshire. Karen has never been aligned to any political organisation but angered at the injustice of the Con/Dems Bedroom Tax she first got angry, then got active in her home town and set up a local group fighting back against the tax. Known locally as, “the bedroom tax lassie”, Karen has recently graduated with a BA (Hons) in Social Policy and Sociology from the University of the West of Scotland.
Karen (on the left) with her daughter at a protest against the Bedroom Tax in George Square, Glasgow
When I first heard the murmurings of a housing benefit reduction my initial thoughts were “surely this is just one of these stupid ideas the government wheels out when they are bored”?
How wrong was I! A wee bit of research through government documents unearthed something that to me, was just wrong in every sense for a modern society.
Trade Unionist and activist Derek Durkin argues that the trade union movement needs to stop prevaricating over the independence question and that the STUC has a duty to lead a workers movement for independence.
As the battle commences for the heart and souls of the Scottish electorate in the run up to the most vital political question ever to be asked of any living person in our country, where does the trade union movement stand or, more importantly, where should it stand?
There have been various individual statements from leading trade unionists - in the main prevaricating over the independence question and in some instances condemning the notion as one which would split the working class of the UK who have for 200 years fought the good fight for socialism/social justice. As a lifelong trade unionist and socialist I don’t know whether it’s the prevarication or the outright opposition to independence that upsets me more.
28th September 1943 – 19th May 2013
Readers of The Point will be saddened to hear of the recent passing of our dear friend and comrade Shirley Gibb. Our thoughts and best wishes are with Shirley’s family and her numerous friends. Shirley was one of the founding members of The Point and also our predecessor, the DGS. Instead of publishing an obituary that would be written by one person, we thought that it would be a nice idea to ask a few of the people who knew Shirley to share their thoughts and memories of this remarkable woman. The list below is by no means exhaustive. If you knew Shirley and want to leave a message or share a memory then please post in the comments section at the end of this tribute.
Erm....thanks, but no thanks?
The Boston Tea Party was in full swing last week.
In the area of Lincolnshire covered by the orginal town of Boston, the rightwing, populist United Kingdom Independence Party took five of the seven wards up for election. It was part of a major breakthrough for the party, which took 16 seats in all on the local county council to become the official opposition. Tonight, the BBC estimates its national vote share at 23%, eclipsing the junior coalition partner the Lib Dems and snapping at the heels of the Conservatives on 25%.
So who are UKIP?
Established over 20 years ago by anti-European Thatcherites who wanted to leave the European Union, it has an essentially elitist/populist rightwing agenda - anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-"benefits scrounger". It opposes controls on the banks and backs massive tax cuts for millionaires. It supports a so called flat tax of around 31% of income (this would also incorporate national insurance) - meaning tax rises for the majority of people and substantial cuts for the elite. In foreign policy, it wants the same relationship with the EU as Switzerland and Norway enjoy - associates rather than members, seeking the benefit of multinational companies to the detriment of ordinary employees in the name of so-called competitiveness.
UKIP is headed by Tories - its leader, Nigel Farage is a former stockbroker and son of a stockbroker, and a former Conservative Party activist. Most of its leadership hails from the Thatcherite wing of the Tories. It is backed financially by big business and some very wealthy people, whom it backs in return. But it plays on a classic divide and rule agenda - struggling to pay your mortgage? Well, that's because of Asians/fake disabled people/slothful benefits scroungers, etc. Nothing to do with corrupt bankers or millionaire tax dodgers. The majority of its voters are former Conservatives, but it has also tapped into disillusioned former Labour supporters, playing to an anti-migrant agenda - in Lincoln, for example, against the eastern Europeans who have moved there to work in the agricultural sector. It offers divisive but powerful explanations for society's problems, playing on the fears of the vulnerable and by doing so reinforcing the hold of the elite.
Farage likes to portray himself as a blokey man-of-the-people, pint and fag in hand, although the velveteen jacket lapels and checked bonnet can't quite hide his hankerings for country squire status. And behind him are some fairly unpleasant characters. Never mind that in the last European Parliament, several of his MEPs ended up in trouble for fiddling their expenses, with one actually jailed, while more recently the sole female MEP left because of alleged bullying - one of his colleagues, Godfrey Bloom, who sits for Yorkshire, openly backed the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior by the French secret services, apparently forgetting that a photographer was killed as a result.
UKIP candidates and elected representatives have called for a range of bizarre, antiquated practices, including not employing women of child-bearing age and taxing bicycles. Additionally and very oddly, they are committed to subsidising nuclear power to almost the equivalent of what they claim withdrawal from the EU would save the taxpayer. Like their Italian and American counterparts of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Palin's Tea Party, they portray themselves as anti-establishment when in fact they are both of the establishment and keener than ever to reinforce its hold over ordinary people.
But of course people often don't vote for policies - they vote instead for the narrative: and UKIP's narrative is straightforward - vote for us for a return to a mythical 1950s of white guys in pinstripe suits and bowler hats smoking in the pub on the way home from the office, polite kids, women in the kitchen, gays in the closet and a grateful Empire. They are the "Madmen" of British politics- for as long as politics remain British.
For there is a further consequence - even if the Farage name has Gaelic rather than Saxon origins, UKIP is not British. It has little presence and even less interest in Scotland. For United Kingdom, read England .The party, for example, plays up the myth popularised by the right-wing media that Scots benefit financially from the English taxpayer. Lord Monckton, the party's deputy leader, recently depicted the Scots as dependent on "subsidies from Britain", ignoring the fact that Scotland actually contributes a larger per centage of public revenue to the UK Treasury that its population share merits - 9.4% of tax revenue from 8.4% of the population.
UKIP's rise mirrors the rise in English people identifying as English rather than British - in the 2011 national census, only 29% of the population of England viewed themselves in any way as "British", and 55% of UKIP supporters in one recent survey choose the option of "I am English, not British." or "More English than British." So the "UK" part of "UKIP" looks increasingly misleading, whatever Farage may claim to the contrary.
And so UKIP's successes today may further the view among a growing number of Scots that, faced with an increasingly neoliberal rightwing political consensus in England, it will bode well to leave an ever more fractious Union. This would free Scotland to preserve and develop a more egalitarian society independent of the somewhat harsher worldview that is emerging in English politics.
With UKIP working to repeat its showing in next year's European elections and Scotland voting in its independence referendum just a few weeks later, 2nd May 2013 could one day be looked back on not simply as the date of a surprising result in English local polls; it may also ultimately be seen as the day when the United Kingdom itself finally began to unravel.
And if you are reading this in Scotland, looking south at what is emerging between the rightwing Coalition Government, the continuation of neoliberal New Labour and the rise of the Faragists, why on earth not?
Back to the future or forward to the past - UKIP's ideal workplace?
First published at http://viridislumen.blogspot.co.uk/
At the Woodside Hall in Glasgow today (Saturday 27th April 2013), over 250 people from across the length and breadth of Scotland gathered to establish a Scottish Federation to fight against the Bedroom Tax.
Delegates from local groups, from as far afield as Stranraer, Aberdeen, Fife, Dundee, Ayrshire and Edinburgh voted unanimously to adopt a Founding Statement (attached), which details the Aims, Goals & Objectives of the Federation, as well as establishing a democratic structure and Office Bearers for the new Scottish Steering Committee.
A wide array of speakers addressed the Conference, including trade unionists, community activists, legal minds and political party members.
Well known contributors as Sandra White MSP, Tommy Sheridan, Mary Lockhart, Dave Sherry (UNITE) and Tommy Gorman (Glasgow Disability Day Centres) all gave rousing speeches.
Garry Burns of the Govan Law Centre also gave some practical advice and updated the Conference on the latest legal situation.
There were also international speakers from the Republic of Ireland & Spain.
The newly elected Secretary, Luke Ivory said: "Today's event has been a huge success. We have managed to establish a Scotland wide, organised movement, that will campaign against the ConDem's outrageous Bedroom Tax.
"We now have a platform to support individuals who are subjected to this horrendous tax and will resist all attempts by any Council or Housing Association to evict any tennants"
The newly elected Vice Chair, Fiona Jordan said: "The Bedroom Tax is nothing more than an attack on the weakest & vulnerable people in our Communities.
"It is yet again the weakest in our society who are being robbed of their
already inadequate incomes, to pay for the bailing out of the banks and for tax breaks for the rich.
"This is entirely unacceptable in a civilised society and we're going to stand by a watch vulnerable people, many of whom are disabled, be threatened, bullied and victimised"
One of the first major decisions made by the Conference was to hold an All Scotland March & Rally in Glasgow on Saturday 1st June 2013. Already, the signs are that it will be a huge event.
Support local communities to set up anti- bedroom tax meetings and form local anti-bedroom tax groups. Help coordinate local groups to form a strong and united fightback to stop evictions and scrap the bedroom tax.
Call on all local authorities, housing associations, and the Scottish and Westminster governments to support a no evictions policy and to scrap the bedroom tax.
Work closely with trade unions to stop evictions and scrap the bedroom tax and work with trade unions to help support workers affected by the bedroom tax and those who refuse to implement evictions or the bedroom tax.
Campaign for the writing off any debt incurred due to the bedroom tax and campaign to recover the shortfall for local authorities and housing associations from the Tory-led government at Westminster.
Support the building of new social housing to provide the homes people need.
Oppose all cuts and austerity measures. Oppose all attacks on the poor, unemployed, disabled, vulnerable and working class people including the so called "welfare reform bill".
The All Scotland Anti Bedroom Tax Federation shall have the following officers; Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and Press Officer which will be elected at the All Scotland Anti Bedroom Tax Conference on 27 April 2013.
The Chair convenes steering committee meetings and helps to implement aims, objectives, decisions and priorities as determined by the Federation steering committee.
The Vice Chair shares responsibilities and works closely together with the chair to help implement aims, objectives, decisions and priorities as determined by the Federation steering committee as well as standing in for the chair if/when they are not available.
The Secretary is responsible for organisational and administrative tasks required to implement the work of the Federation including, but not limited to, taking minutes of all meetings and circulating them to the steering committee.
The Treasurer will maintain a Federation bank account and careful records of all money received, expenses and money paid out.
The Press Officer will maintain and develop an extensive press list that can be used to help publicise the work, campaigns and events of the Federation and issue press releases developed in conjunction with and reviewed by all of the office bearers.
The All Scotland Anti Bedroom Tax Federation will have a steering committee made up of approximately 60 members elected from local campaigns across Scotland. There should be at least two members from each of the eight Scottish Parliamentary regions.
Representation on the steering committee should aim to be proportional to the number of local anti bedroom tax campaigns in each region.
Office bearers will be accountable to the All Scotland Anti Bedroom Tax Federation steering committee.
Steering committee members can represent the Federation in their local area/region.
To Launch a Scottish Federation.
Elect a Chair, Secretary and Treasurer for the All Scotland Anti Bedroom Tax Federation.
Develop strategy regarding evictions and bedroom tax debt
Develop leaflets and other campaign materials for Federation (including an appeal letter)
Organise and build for an all Scotland demonstration in Glasgow on 1st of June
Work with community law centres all across Scotland to set up public meetings and events where residents can receive advice regarding the bedroom tax.
By newly elected Press Officer Ken Ross
This is an amended version of an article which was first published as Community Development and the Politics of Local Government in the Community Education Journal, Concept, December, 2012 – http://concept.lib.ed.ac.uk/
Gary is a Community Education worker and works in local government.
Local government matters. It matters because more often than not it is a local government worker who cleans the street, who empties the bin, who looks after the elderly, who runs the library or manages the community centre. There is something innately socialistic about all of this; maybe not the socialism of bloody revolution, or workers ownership, but the quiet everyday socialism of local planning and decision making informed by trying to provide the best services for all of the people most of the time, and sometimes all of the time. Yet, I admit that there is something of an ‘ideal type’ in what I have just written. The role of the town hall has changed in recent years and not for the better.
When I first decided to write an article about local government in Scotland I was interested in exploring two particular themes. Firstly, I wanted to analyse the extent to which neo-liberal discourses had become embedded within the structures of local government. This sounds academic, and to a point it is, but neo-liberalism has utterly transformed the ways in which local authorities and those who work in councils, especially at management level, think about the provision of public goods and services. Secondly, and this interest arose primarily because of my work in Community Education, I wanted to examine the tensions inherent in a policy context which in my view encourages local authorities to do two contradictory things simultaneously; on the one hand promote citizens participation (e.g. community planning legislation places a statutory duty on local authorities to engage with communities), whilst at the same time implement cuts directly imposed from central government, regardless of what communities sometimes say. I should add that my experience is not entirely theoretical. At the time of writing (in fact I had to stop writing in order to start campaigning), the local authority where I work is ‘consulting’ with three towns regarding the possible closure of eight public buildings, including three libraries, three leisure centres, a swimming pool and a community centre. The authority is SNP led (not entirely irrelevant given the fact that the same people cutting services are those calling for a Yes vote in next year’s referendum) and the local councillors, as the saying goes, are caught between a rock and a hard place.
They are committed by law to allocating the council budget for the forthcoming financial year, yet what they voted for was a reduced budget which will continue to be reduced every financial year for the next five years. The community as you might expect are furious and campaigns have sprung up in the villages threatened with closures.
The councillor’s dilemma is this: how do you provide council services and cut budgets at the same time? ‘You can’t’ seems an obvious answer, but councillors, senior managers, and a handful of official community ‘representatives’ are starting to talk about ‘community ownership’ of the facilities. Here, ‘communities’ are being constructed not just as places where people live and work but also as potential players in the ‘public services delivery market’ to use the management jargon. I will argue later that the ‘community ownership’ model is spurious and an attempt, sometimes deliberate, to divert the attention from the draconian cuts being implemented. But first, I want to explore the politics of the town hall.
We know that the current spending cuts being implemented by local authorities disproportionately affect poorer and disadvantaged communities because poorer communities rely more on public services. The cuts reveal the centralised nature of decision making in Britain today. In Scotland, 32 local authorities have been instructed to pursue the same economic policy regardless of which party flag flies above the town hall. This would be unthinkable (and unconstitutional) across much of Europe. But it is happening and opposition to the cuts, particularly from elected members, has been minimal – many oppose the cuts in theory but insist in practice they have little choice. Wider public opposition, up until now anyway, has been sporadic, localised and bereft of substantial organisation. Even though a co-ordinated attempt to stand anti-cuts candidates occurred in last years Council elections, it was barely noticeable. Furthermore, discussions on deficit budgets, re-branded as needs budgets, whilst well intentioned, sound more like empty slogans than they do real policy options for decision makers.
In council chambers across the country councillors argue, and they are correct to a point, that they have little room for manoeuvre. One council official, who shall remain nameless, told me recently that if every single councillor in Scotland was to resign on mass it would make no substantial difference to the running of local government. It was an interesting observation. They went onto argue that local government is run by senior managers, most of them professional career civil servants, who take their orders from central government. The official concluded that the role of a councillor is merely to provide democratic gloss for decisions taken elsewhere. Food for thought I thought.
As a community education worker, I have worked closely with some elected members over the years. Most of them it has to be said are decent people. But the problem is not people. The problem is systemic, which I will come to in a moment.
As a democratic socialist, I guess I have an ideal type of what a councillor should do – they are supposed to represent the voices of their constituents in local government, similar to a shop steward in many ways. If I was a councillor I would see myself as the constituents delegate in the town hall. Yet from my own direct experience, this noble idea (or noble lie if you take Plato’s more cynical view) has been turned upside down. Today, it often seems as if councillors represent a large administration, more akin to a corporation than a democratic council, whose function is to argue the corporate line in local communities. The more I looked into this curious state of affairs, the more I realised that it was by design, and not default.
For three decades now central government has systemically taken away many of the powers of local government. The current council tax freeze, a form of rate capping, is just a small part of a historical process of denying local government the capacity to act independently and raise its own finances. Other examples include removing the control of councils to vary business rates or the severe restrictions placed on the amount of money local authorities can borrow in order to fund capital investment projects – a deliberate policy which paved the way for PFI. Incidentally the local authority where I work is locked into paying £9 million a year in PFI debts to private companies for the next 30 years.
Councillors it seems are in the unenviable position of being in office without being in power. Any serious student of politics will tell you that, without economic power, political power is ineffectual - even meaningless. To put it simply, local government administrates but it does not govern, hence the reason why calling it local government is something of a misnomer. What we are faced with is a crisis in local democracy. In fact, Scotland is one of the least democratic nations in the European Union (EU), according to research by the Jimmy Reid Foundation (2012). We have less councils and fewer elected representatives than our European neighbours. Furthermore, our councillors preside over constituencies that are some of the largest in the EU, whilst the number of people it takes per head of population to elect a single councillor in Scotland is ten times greater than the EU average. Local elections in Scotland are the least competitive in the EU and tend to be dominated by the mainstream political parties, with turnout woefully low. We have now reached a situation where the majority of the electorate no longer votes, which actually makes local authorities even more unaccountable and centralises more power in the hands of the bureaucracy.
The Jimmy Reid Foundation’s research discovered that public participation in local politics, including community governance, is far lower than the European average, an interesting finding at a time when councils are promoting ‘community ownership’.
Take Community Councils for example. Whilst there are over 1200 Community Councils in Scotland they have very little power and minimal influence over policy – to borrow a phrase I heard elsewhere, they tend to be male, pale and stale. On average, community councils are unrepresentative of the communities they purport to serve and members are usually elected unopposed. 1 person in every 4,270 people is an elected community politician in Scotland, compared to 1 in 125 in France and 1 in 200 in Austria. Community politics is more than just community councils. There are also management committees, development trusts, community planning partnerships, etc. However, according to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2006), a small number of people, described by the Foundation as the ‘consultative elite’, are disproportionately involved in community politics. Furthermore, research by Professor John Mohan of the Third Sector Research Centre (2010) highlighted that volunteering and participation in community governance structures is more noticeable in middle class areas than in working class or poorer communities.
The crisis in local democracy has been caused in part by the transfer of power from elected politicians to central government, the market and QUANGOs (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations). This is connected to a neo-liberal restructuring of the local state and is part of a historical process started by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. In the book, In Place Of Austerity (2012), a book that should be essential reading for anyone working in the public sector, or involved in anti-cuts campaigning, Dexter Whitfield, Director of the European Services Strategy Unit, discusses three phases of neo-liberalism, and locates current policies within a broader neo-liberal narrative and framework.
‘Neo-liberalism’, according to Whitfield,
The first phase of neo-liberalism occurred between 1979 and the early 1990s. It involved the wholesale privatisation of nationalised industries including gas, electricity, railways and telecommunications, and the transfer of economic power from the state to the market. A pre-requisite for cementing the influence of neo-liberalism in Britain was a fracturing of the British Trades Union movement, with the defeat of the miners strike in 1984-85 proving pivotal in paving the way for privatisation and a low wage economy based around the services sector.
The second phase, often referred to as ‘modernisation’ was overseen by both Tory and New Labour governments. Internal or quasi markets were introduced into both the town hall and the NHS. Meanwhile, public bodies became ‘commissioning agents’ rather than providers of services. Under commissioning guidelines, many council services were privatised. Workers and it was more often than not female workers (dinner-ladies, care workers, home-helps, cleaners, etc), were the biggest losers in this process as wages were driven down as councils looked to cuts costs. The language of the market began to emerge in the public sector. Service users were constructed as ‘consumers’ and ‘customers’, with privatisation of public services window dressed as ‘consumer choice’. There was an increase in both bureaucracy and middle management accompanied by a widening pay gap between the latter and front line workers.
Business values and practices became incorporated into public management theory. There once was a time when managers simply managed staff and developed services, and a good manager was both an enabler and a facilitator. Today, managers oversee service reviews or business transformations (management code for identifying cuts) whilst senior managers are involved in considering ‘options appraisals’, ‘business cases’ and ‘tendering procedures’. Instead of enabling staff, many now enforce a rigorous culture of management by performance. Moreover, different departments are sometimes in competition with one another or with potential outside competitors. Moreover, a vacuous internal PR and marketing culture has emerged in recent years based on ‘promoting your service’, ‘sharing good practice’, and demonstrating who can provide the best service at the best value.
In previous articles, I have argued that the where the private sector could not make a profit, the voluntary sector was brought in as a cheaper alternative to local government. This resulted in a cultural takeover of the voluntary sector by business values and practices. Paid staff chasing external funding became the norm. The ‘voluntary sector’ now employs over 1,000 paid workers hence the reason why calling it ‘voluntary’ is an oxymoron. Today it is the ‘independent’ or ‘third sector’. The larger organisations compete with one another to win crucial contracts in the ‘public services delivery market’. According to Whitfield, contracts are typically awarded to organisations that reduce the cost of labour and employ fewer staff. Staff who work in this sector are under great pressure. There is a myth that if you cut public expenditure the voluntary sector will grow – a myth inherent in David Cameron’s Big Society narrative or in the idea of Co-production, a new concept doing the rounds in public sector management. The reality is that voluntary sector projects often rely heavily on grants from government (local and central) and these grants are often the first to be cut.
Neo-liberalism’s third phase started in 2010 with the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Con-Dem policies are founded on the useful myth that the national debt is out of control and that a cash strapped country must reduce public spending. Although still in its infancy it is important to note that neo-liberalism’s third phase offers both continuity and change. The Big Society discourse, which I mentioned earlier, is based on a critique of the centralised state. According to the discourse, the state is too bureaucratic and too remote from the concerns of ordinary people. Professionals are constructed as a vested self-interest group and potential blocks to reform. The narrative is that professionals are elitist and self serving and whilst they may talk about the ‘public good’, in reality they are motivated more by bureaucratic than social goals. These arguments are informed by elements of Game Theory or Public Choice Theory, which impressed the Thatcherites in the early 1980s. The arguments are powerful because they contain more than a degree of truth.
Not long after coming to power the Con-Dem coalition increased funding for social enterprises, co-ops and mutual organisations to take over the delivery of public services. Whitfield (2012) argues that the aim is to reduce the cost of public services by hiving off responsibility to community organisations whilst exploiting the use of free labour by volunteers. Asset transfer is a major driver of neo-liberalism’s third phase and potentially involves the whole-scale transfer of state assets including libraries, swimming pools and community centres to third sector and even private providers. According to Whitfield this would mark the completion of the Thatcherite ideal of ‘real public ownership’.
Whitfield argues that asset transfer is a blatant attempt to divert attention from the impact of Con-Dem spending cuts. He also makes the point, and this is a crucial point, that something more insidious is happening. He argues that the obsession with localism, community budgets and social enterprises, are a diversion because the bidders for the larger contracts where real profits are to be made from the break up of the state are inevitably national and trans-national companies. The French multi-national, Atos Healthcare, is just one case in point. The government awarded Atos a contract valued at £100m a year to assess those on incapacity benefit deemed ‘fit for work’. Whilst many on incapacity benefit have been forced off benefit, often unfairly as recent appeals victories suggest, the Chief Executive of Atos was awarded a £1m bonus on top of his already annual pay packet of £1m per year. Moreover, the company recorded record-breaking profits for last year. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Many multi-national corporations are hoping to capitalise on the break up of the state and some have their eyes on ‘lucrative markets’ in health care and are trying to end the ‘state’s monopoly’ over provision. We should note that the attempt to contract out the local community centre or library is driven by the same agenda and principles that allow private companies greater involvement in the NHS and other areas of the public sector previously deemed out of bounds to private capital.
The ‘community ownership’ concept is often presented in a narrative familiar to the left, particularly those on the left traditionally sceptical of the state. However, when neo-liberal politicians and policy makers coupled with career civil servants, whose central function is to implement cuts and manage reduced budgets, start to talk the language of ‘community ownership’, ‘empowerment’, ‘capacity building’, ‘renewal’, ‘self determination’, ‘co-production’ etc, then something more insidious is happening.
Community ownership is often used as if it were a ‘magic wand’ which, when waved, will enable communities to become equipped to be potential delivers of public services. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it ignores the low level of involvement in community governance structures in working class and poorer areas, the very communities being hit hardest by the cuts. The result is that in areas where ‘capacity cannot be built’ services will be lost altogether. Secondly, working class and poorer communities often refuse to ‘play the community ownership game’ which they see as something of a hobby for the middle classes. There is widespread anecdotal evidence to suggest that many folk in Scotland remain stubbornly social democratic and committed to the ideal that the state should provide public services. Whilst this is often dismissed as ‘unrealistic’ or encouraging a ‘dependency culture’, we should note that it is informed in part by the egalitarian view that public services should be available to all and funded out of general taxation. Thirdly, contracting out services fuels the myth of a ‘social economy’ and the illusion that community and civil society organisations are somehow unaffected by wider market forces. In addition to this, if goods and services were once provided ‘in house’, then contracting them out provides no real additional value in terms of economic indicators. In fact ‘community ownership’ exploits the good will of volunteers, who suddenly find themselves responsible for managing facilities instead of doing community work.
Finally, there is the democratic argument! Services and assets will no longer be controlled by democratically-elected councils (a further nail in the democratic coffin), but by small groups of management committees, often unrepresentative of the wider communities they serve. It encourages not a big society but a village against village and town against town mentality where local groups compete against each other for funding. As Whitfield notes, the search for funding from a conservative charity and trust sector could result in a rightward shift in the politics of community and civil society campaigning. Certainly the scope for advocacy work and campaigning will be reduced as communities devote their energies to managing or ‘co-producing’ services.
The community empowerment agenda, or big society, or co-production – call it what you like – is a smokescreen designed to mask fundamental structural inequalities in society. As readers of this magazine no all too well income tax for the wealthy and corporations remain low, which means that the tax burden falls on everyone else’s shoulders. The result is a regressive system of taxation whereby those at the top actually pay less as a proportion of their income than those at the bottom. Basically, the rich get richer and everyone else suffers. According to the 2010 Sunday Times Rich List, the collective wealth of the 1,000 richest people in Britain increased by 30% in one year alone, the biggest increase in the history of the list. At a time when benefits are being attacked, people are being taxed because they have a ‘spare bedroom’, and workers continue to suffer the indignity of low pay, the average FTSE Chief Executive continues to earn a salary 200 times greater than the average worker.
The poverty and social inequality to be found in Britain today can only be addressed by an interventionist state. History is the most reliable witness. Out of the turmoil of the great depression of the 1930s came the triumph of three ideals associated with the political left: state planning, public investment and the establishment of the welfare state. The tragedy of the 21st century depression is that it is being used by the right to undermine the very things that got us out of previous slumps. Neither should we forget the fact that the great expansion in public services and local government occurred only after the people had won the right to vote. Ordinary people secured with their votes that which they could never afford to buy in the market place: schools, hospitals, community centres and so on. From this perspective, the cuts are not just an attack on public services they are an attack on the democratic process. Representative democracy is unlikely to be replaced by participatory democracy as some of the advocates of rolling back the state proclaim. Instead real power will be constituted in fewer hands whilst the majority of people will fall victim not to the corruption of power, but to the corruption of being powerless, and the end result of this process is cynicism, alienation from public affairs, and voter apathy.
A successful left project ought to be based on re-claiming the state as a force for social good and the role of local government needs to be rethought as part of that process. Scotland urgently needs a discussion regarding the systemic failure of our democratic institutions to challenge neo-liberal orthodoxy. In my view, one reason for this ‘systemic failure’ is that our democratic institutions, whether the Scottish Parliament or the Town Hall, have no real power. Hopefully next years independence referendum can ignite a meaningful discussion about democracy (or lack of) in Scotland. But I’m yet to be convinced.
Allow me a digression for a moment. Thus far the YES Campaign has been disappointing – it’s light on substance and too slick for my liking and it sounds like a marketing campaign which talks up an imaginary grassroots movement. Furthermore, despite the narrative of cross party support, the grassroots, etc, the YES argument is dominated by one political party in Scotland which is winning elections simply because it is not the Labour Party. But to be fair these are early days and to use the football analogy we are only five minutes into the game. However, if YES Scotland is still playing like this at half time then serious tactical changes will need to be considered. Anyway, enough of the bad and overused sporting analogies: if Scottish independence is to have any meaning at all, it must be connected to arguments about democratic renewal and the role of the nation state in that process. At present, power is centralised whilst responsibility is devolved. This has resulted in the corruption of our national political discourse and what academics call the ‘bureaucratisation of politics’. The end result is fewer people involved in community decision making, declining turnouts in elections, and good people, in this instance your local town councillor, sometimes doing bad things in the name of ‘there is no alternative’.
Bond, K, Lownsbrough, H and Skidmore, P, (2006), Community Participation: who benefits?, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2012, Response to the Scottish Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill Consultation Paper, available from http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/ComEmpower-Submission.pdf
Whitfield, D, (2012), In Place Of Austerity Spokesman
John Wight refuses to accept that Thatcher's death should be mourned or that her impact on British society and the world was anything other than a baneful one
Margaret Thatcher is dead and I will shed no tears.
I refuse to accept that her death should be mourned or that her impact on British society and the world was anything other than a baneful one. The countless lives ruined, shortened, and blighted by this woman in the war she unleashed on the working class in this country is unquantifiable. She decimated communities, deindustrialised the nation's economy, and set out to destroy the bonds of solidarity that had been the lynchpin of society since the Second World War. Individualism, untrammeled greed, and rapacious acquisition were the pillars of her political creed, responsible for turning Britain from a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers, along the way legitimising barbarism and cruelty as virtues to be lauded rather than evils to be vilified.
The Point's Gary Fraser looks at the woman who divided a nation in life and death.
Margaret Thatcher who died yesterday was the woman who transformed
Graeme McIver looks at the death of Margaret Thatcher and argues that the left should not celebrate but organise to defeat Thatcher’s political legacy.
For a long time now I’ve wondered what I would do the day that Margaret Thatcher died. It was she more than any other figure that inspired me to become active in politics. Whatever she represented, I wanted to be the opposite. I had planned to celebrate. Drinks with friends? Listen to some good music? Perhaps I’d sport one of those t-shirts on sale at TUC events that appal the Tory right so much. How do the songs go?…“Jelly and ice cream when Thatcher dies”, “We’re having a party when Thatcher dies!”
In the end I’ve done none of those things.
For the best part of the last 12 months I have worked in the care sector and in particular with the elderly and those suffering from dementia. I first heard of her demise whilst returning from a funeral of one of my former clients. I watched the breaking news on the BBC standing in my suit and black tie and did not feel much like a celebration. I would not wish dementia on anyone, even on my worst enemy, even on Margaret Thatcher. I cannot bring myself to rejoice in her death not just because of the circumstances of it, but because more importantly, much more importantly, her politics, her cruel, heartless, divisive politics lives on.