Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The cracks

In 1945 the country was at war, but by the summer it was a far off war.  The streets of London had already filled with celebrating masses, the sailor swooping up the nurse in his arms, the airman and soldier clambering atop the Trafalgar Square plinths, bottles of ale in each hand, the monarch and family had appeared on the palace’s balcony and waved, next to them the pug heavy, cigar chomping, steel eyed Prime Minister had taken his moment of glory.  Half a world away, men still fought in the sweaty jungles, under the Pacific sun.  Sons died every day, but maybe enough of a war was over.  Churchill, confident that the cries of “we want Winston” would continue, called a snap election.

And lost.

In one of the most surprising results of the twentieth century, a short, bookish politician who had served in the war cabinet led the Labour Party to power.  Clement Atlee would be the first Labour Prime Minister to command a working majority and he was determined to make the most it.

Labour’s 1945 victory was against the odds, but it occurred for a variety of reasons.  The Conservatives bet everything on Churchill’s popularity not even bothering with a manifesto just “Mr Churchill’s message to the people”, but to the public he was a war leader and they were tired of war.  The soldiers still fighting in Asia weren’t impressed at seemingly being forgotten, as though their conflict was just a side show.  But perhaps more than anything, having stood on the brink, the country looked around and thought: you know what?  I fought for it; I deserve something better than what was here before. 

In five years, and in times of more severe financial catastrophe than in 2010, Labour undertook the most exhaustive series of societal and political reforms ever seen in this country.  Scores of industries essential to the infrastructure of the country, and for the benefit of the surviving people, were nationalised – British Power, British Water, British Telecommunications, British Steel, the mining industry, British Rail.  The NHS was created.  A phenomenal scale of council housing was built and new towns constructed as a land was raised up from the rubble.  Five years was all it took to try and make the country a fairer and more decent place to live.

Thatcher began the dismantling of this in the eighties and the current government has followed, piece by piece, privatising each component part.

I think Ed Milliband is right when he says that the greatest challenge facing this country is inequality.  We have a small minority getting significantly richer, a vast majority stumbling along with various difficulties and growing number of people seriously struggling. 

Yes, you are always going to have disparity.  Yes, someone running a multi-national corporation should be better paid for the responsibility they shoulder than someone sweeping the streets, but the divides shouldn’t be so stark.  We should not live in a world where some people are able to buy a watch worth the same as a flat and tens of thousands of people are reliant on charity to ensure they have enough to eat. 

The inequalities aren’t just monetary.  Sophie Heawood’s article for the Guardian nails another marginalised group: the unmarried, and while she specifically focuses on single mothers it can apply to anyone not in wedlock.  The current government has boosted tax credits for married couples and introduced the, admittedly admirable, legislation that allows gay marriage.  The latter is another important step forward following civil partnerships, but it is also small c conservatism, part of a continual mandate that marriage is best.  It implies that any alternative, for whatever reason people choose it, is to be derided.  Marriage, like the market, is sacred.  The current government is, essentially, saying that anyone not like us is wrong.  I didn’t get married because of social expectations.  I proposed because I wanted to tell the world how much I love her, but in many ways, there’s a part of me which would have liked to buck the trend a bit more, lived a bit different, and that difference should be celebrated not discriminated against.

Then there’s gender inequality in general, which is a subject too big to tackle here.  Shortly after my wife and I first moved in together we argued as to whether I needed to identify myself as a feminist.  My theory was that I didn’t for a combination of legalised equality and an assumption that everyone thought the same way I do.  Everyday casual sexism, only a small minority of companies willing to open their accounts to demonstrate equal pay, Page 3’s been replaced by the Daily Mail’s website, whenever Theresa May leaves Downing Street her outfit is scrutinised, but the media never mention what William Hague’s wearing, disproportionately small numbers of women in senior leadership roles and a work-life imbalance to society which means women are fundamentally disadvantaged in the workplace have persuaded me otherwise.  The situation can be epitomised by the tiny number of senior women MPs in the cabinet, the fact that austerity hits women significantly harder than men, and even David Cameron’s dismissive “calm down, dear”, none of which set the example expected of government.

And the problem is that the ideal Conservative, the pinnacle of the “us”, is that one percent often talked about.  For this government in particular, it is the Cotswold village second home dwelling, privately educated, exclusive minority who own most of the wealth and create an increasingly divided, dispirited and desolate world.  There is a victimisation of the poor, be it installing spikes in shop doorways to stop people sleeping rough to the right wing media’s sustained assault on anyone claiming benefits, from zero hour contracts to the withdrawal of legal aid, the Conservatives, like UKIP, are have set up someone to blame, only this time it’s from within our own shores. 

This is one of the main reasons why large portions of Scotland want to get divorced from the rest of the country.  I wrote about why I hoped that wouldn't happen last year and while the result went the way of remaining in the union, rather than settle the issue it seems to have galvanised the Yes vote to try again, to try harder.

Some polls are suggesting that Labour will be wiped out north of the Tweed which would be a disaster, but on the current offering why wouldn’t people vote SNP?  Nicola Sturgeon has excelled on the national stage and doesn’t have quite as much odious baggage as Alex Salmond – a man who has been in politics since the eighties and yet claims to despise professional politicians – and they are championing a better deal, a fairer way of life for Scotland.  Maybe the sums don’t add up, but the message in one far more joyous than that being peddled by the Conservatives who, frankly, don’t, and haven’t for generations, cared what happens in Scotland.  They’re only interested in the people like themselves. 

In England, I worry that we sleepwalked our apathetic way into accepting this.

A few years ago, I was stumbling my way to London Bridge from Ye Olde Mitre on Holborn Circus.  One of my favourite central London pubs, this tiny boozer has a good range of ales, sufficient variety but not so many that you can’t try a pint of each, and some serious pork pies, even if you invariably end up outside doing your drinking in the alley.  You’d like it.  Cutting down a side passage laced with glass and steel, the dark of closed up cafes sucking the light in, I emerged the other side into a sea of canvas.

All around me on the hard concrete slabs were tents huddled close together in the spring breeze, from inside the occasional throb of torchlight.  A few people milled around, looking gortex glad and sporting weeks of stubble, more like they should be a field than underneath the soaringly majestic dome of St Paul’s.  The constant low murmur rebounded off the mighty oak doors as I picked my way through the encampment, an accidental intruder, my progress monitored.

The occupy movement stuck it out for eight months creating a steady yet sustained awareness of their cause, but this aside protest over the past five years has been limited.  There’s been the odd polite march to Hyde Park and occasional bit of student violence, but nothing as widespread or sustained as, say, the poll tax riots, with one brief exception. 

In the spring of 2009 I started to write a novel which was, amongst other things, about what I feared a Conservative victory would bring in 2010.  In my dystopia I imagined that, by 2015, the economy’s continued stagnation would have seen a deliberate attempt to create divisions in society.  To create an us and them identified through their wealth, position in society and politics.  I thought that these purposeful divides between tribes would, eventually, erupt; that London would burn in a crescendo of anger which couldn’t be directed anywhere except against each other.

In 2011 London, and large parts of the rest of the country, briefly exploded in a cacophony of rioting and looting.  In the middle of it, I went for a walk.  The night before the Brockley air had been alive with sirens and rumours as ramraiders went for TK Maxx in New Cross, a group occupied a bookies and a Gregg’s in Deptford, running battles were held on the streets of Lewisham and claims were falsely made that the enormous, iconic (of a sorts) plastic cat that sits above some shops in Catford had been burnt down.  The next evening though it was still and silent.  Bars and restaurants had their steel grills securely fastened and I was almost the only person out on the streets as the early evening sun calmly flattered the unexpected quietness of the city, the anger dissipating as quickly as it had flared.

Unlike my novel the riots of 2011 were not politically motivated.  They were mainly carried out by bored, frustrated youngsters in a hurry to get a new pair of trainers, TV or drunk.  There seemed to be an almost contagious spread of resentment, theft and violence and yet, no matter what they thought, the rioters weren’t actually rebelling against anything, just taking the shortcut to the uber-capitalist dream they’d been sold.  And as soon it was over, as soon as the storm had ceased, the system rolled into gear not to understand and address the issues of youth unemployment and messaging that you are only successful if you own a house a fucking big television but to demonise and judge. 

Since 2010 we have seen a systematic implementation of policies which appear to hamper the majority while greatly benefiting a monied minority and while we may all grumble and mutter about it we have been reluctant to take action as the basic cost of living spirals yet wages are becalmed and tax avoidance amongst the wealth becomes routine.  Maybe we’ve become a meeker society or maybe the assault has been so quiet and subtle many of us simply haven’t noticed.

In 2010 you could almost taste the change and the tension.  This time round we seem happy to just let whatever anyone else wants to happen.  Walking the streets you hardly see a single placard in the windows of houses and flats.  Five years ago, there was a scrum at the stations as campaigners tried to picket you with the leaflets of their masters, now I just see weary commuters trudging to a job which is only just keeping them afloat.   It’s as though political discourse has been reduced to asking reality TV survivors which party leaders they’d shag, suck off or punch and deciding the election that way, as though 140 characters on social media is sufficient to convey a anything other than a hollow platitude.

David Cameron used the phrase “the good life” so many times at his manifesto launch that you’re powerless other than to think of the seventies sitcom.  But no matter what you think of the smugly nice teatime TV fare, on our current trajectory you can be certain that he didn’t mean for everyone.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Land of No-Hope Nonsense

For some reason Britain, or at least that mythological middle-Eng-land at any rate, have had an uncomfortable relationship with Europe.  Edward Heath took us, dragged many, into what was then the EEC and for his troubles not only got sprayed with ink on his return and was duly ejected from office at the first available opportunity.  Thatcher, while perfectly willing to play up to the nationalistic press when it suited, maintained a pragmatic relationship with the rest of the continent which her authority at home permitted, but then quickly descended into Conservative civil war under her successor, John Major.  For Blair it was rarely an issue, but away in the background were the “swivel eyed fruitcakes, looneys and closest racists” congregating under the UKIP banner.

In the summer of 2001 I was walking from the DLR station to my then-office in Docklands.  The sun glittered off the stagnant dock waters and straight into my hangover.  I walked with my head down wondering about the dreadful dreariness of the day to come, when I stepped on some breasts.  I paused and looked again.  To my surprise, underneath my shoe, were a pair of large, naked breasts. 

I looked up.

Fluttering in the morning breeze, clumping, sodden in the corners of the docks and slipping under the heels of commuters were hundreds of loose pages from pornography magazines.  As far as you could see, the flickering, flustering and floating images of boobs, bums, strained smiles and everything in-between.

In those days Richard Desmond’s publishing empire was based on the same block as my office.  It specialised in a range of specialist, cheaply assembled porn magazines: Asian Babes, Mega Boobs, Readers’ Wives.  While those titles were sold in2004, he remains the publisher of the Daily Express and the Daily Star, hardly the best regarded parts of the national press, and has recently contributed £1.3million to UKIP.  This is the sort of person the party attracts.

Five years ago, UKIP’s only significant action was when Nigel Farage, then standing in John Bercow’s, constituency against the convention that the impartial Speaker goes unchallenged, crashed his private plane.  Five years ago the BritishNational Party was the menace from the sidelines.  Abhorrent as the BNP are, and despite Nick Griffin’s sudden widespread media exposure, the threat level turned out to be exaggerated.  Or Griffin was given enough rope to hang himself.  Take your pick: either way, the party managed to finish the 2010 election with less elected representatives than it had started with, widespread condemnation from the Tory voters it had been wooing and dissolved into in-fighting from which it has yet to emerge from.

However, in the past five years racist, xenophobic politics have not gone away.  Indeed, they have swelled.  UKIP have, somehow, managed to go from an anti-EU protest vote given MEP status by the power of proportional representation to a significant political party afforded equal billing in political discourse and with two sitting members in the House of Commons.  If the media have been playing a strategy of assuming the party will combust if given enough airtime, it has spectacularly backfired.

Farage and company will consistently deny that they share any characteristics with the BNP.  They are not, they claim, a racist party, merely one that believes the UK to be “full” and therefore a policy of rigorously controlled immigration is required, only enforceable by an exit from the EU, and that every other aspect of political discussion – from health to housing – follows this.

One could easily disagree.  Okay, so the councillors who admit, on camera, that the “only people”they “have a problem with” is “the negroes” are suspended from duty, but when Farage says he wouldn’t want to live next door to Bulgarians or Romanians it is difficult to feel that nationality isn’t the first step towards differentiation by race.  And the really frustrating thing is the issues they identify, that the seduce voters with, are not caused by immigration.  Their claims are based on half-factors and wilfully misinterpreted data.

Farage claims that there are schools in London where none of the children speak English.  A further investigation of the figures, show that they are referring to schools where a majority don’t speak English as a first language, but they make no claim on their fluency in it as a second language.  Presumably, as Farage is married to a German his own children are bilingual. 

Farage cites extended waiting times or difficultly in securing an appointment with your GP as proof that we are past peak population, ignoring the fact that changes to how GP practices are regulated have meant they can set their own hours, and many now choose to operate shorter working hours than they did in the past.  This coupled with the late nineties/early noughties drive to get medical students onto other specialities, such as anaesthetics, has seen a reduction in the number of qualified GPs coming through the system – an issue already being addressed through an expansion of GP training posts around the country – and you see the issue is not necessarily an increase in patients but a decrease in the number of doctors and the hours in which they are accessible.

It’s hard not to get livid with Farage.  He claims that the left wing media metropolitan mafia elite – and presumably everyone else whose opinion differs from his – live in a fantasy where people of different nationalities hold hands and skip through our perpetually sunny multi-cultural society.  In painting such an absurd picture he suggests the reality is that people are hunkered down, living in fear as invading hordes from a variety of countries and religions burn down merry olde England.  Neither are true, unsurprisingly, but I shouldn’t be surprised that Farage’s extreme views get me so enraged for UKIP is playing the politics of division.

They are correctly identifying some of the problems in society, but not the causes.  Poverty, unemployment, poor standards of public services, disengagement from the political discourse, education and health standards, these are all things that need to be tackled and addressed, but by simplifying the cause to immigration and membership of the EU, UKIP are just looking for someone to blame.  The Nazis did the same thing in the 1930s: making Jews the scapegoats for a range of socio-economic fault-lines which fell out the First World War and crossed the globe.

I hated writing that line.  Comparing UKIP to the Nazis belittles my argument.  I too am making this all simplistic.  And yet it is hard to avoid the similarity in their cultures of blame.

The truth is that we always want someone else to blame.  It’s the easy solution.  It’s not our fault.  If it wasn’t for someone else, we would live in the land of milk and honey.  If they go away then everything will be perfect again.  Not only is that naive, it is self-deluding.

So, instead of having sensible, structured debate around the causes of social deprivation and economic inequality, all the parties have been forced to respond to the finger pointing of UKIP and talk about immigration and Europe.  If the Conservatives are returned to office, their manifesto promises a referendum on EU membership by 2017.   And the debate in the run up to that referendum will not, unfortunately, be about the value of EU membership – the benefits of free travel and a shared market – but the fallacies that curbing immigration will fix a whole raft of problems which aren’t even related to it.

UKIP cites the cost of remaining a member of the EU as a negative without recognising the clear benefits.  EU migrants into the UK are net contributors in taxation and to society.  The majority of migrants not working are students, not benefit claimants.  A diverse, elegant and progressive society can only be a good thing.  We cannot return to the 1950s.  Too much has happened in-between.  In last Thursday’s election debate, Farage claimed that the NHS had become an International Health Service doling out free healthcare to anyone passing by, that health tourism was causing it grind to a halt.  Perhaps its ignorance or perhaps he’s twisting the facts to suit a pre-determined argument, but there is no health tourism in the UK.  NHS services are free at the point of delivery and A&E services will never check your passport on entry, but it only remains free for residents.  If you don’t live here, then there will be bills to follow.  The much quoted figure of £55million per day that it “costs” Britain to be a member of the EU ignores the money coming back, including multi-billion rebates and the mechanism for trade it creates which saw British companies enact 12billion Euros worth of business in September 2012alone.

In Farage’s nightmare of 2015 companies are able to suppress wages by immigrants being prepared to work for less than minimum wage, putting other people – UKIP voters  - out of work.  Again, this is not immigration’s fault.  Paying less than the minimum wage, operating a gang-master type racket, is simply illegal.  That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but we can improve the paypacket of everyone by enforcing the rules that are already in place.

But the point of all this is that immigration and membership of Europe is not really a financial question.  It creates diversity which should be celebrated.  As a tiny island nation which once had the nerve to carve out an empire upon which the sun never set, we should welcome the world, embrace it and learn from it.  Britain, Europe, continents, countries; these are artificial constructs.  Humanity is based on the principle of migration, of freedom of movement.  Even over the comparatively short past two thousand years, the population of this tiny lump of land in a northern ocean has been fluid, mixed and all the better for it.

And yet, some people are clearly persuaded by UKIP.  The constituencies that are most closely contested by UKIP – Clacton, Thurrock, Rochester, South Thanet, Castle Point and Great Grimsby – are areas clearly facing challenges and difficulties in the modern world.  They are parts of the country left behind, left in a different generation, but blaming the rest of the world is not the answer.  

We need immigration.  Our universities are run as businesses and so they require high quality, fee paying foreign students from around the world.  The NHS staff shortages are not because there are queues of British passport holders being denied opportunities to join the workforce, but because the demand is not there.  A diverse and multi-cultural health service reflects the population it serves and so staff – both newly qualified, trainee and experienced – should be taken from wherever they are available.  Like it or not, thirty years of Thatcher and her heirs telling us that a man using a bus in his twenties should consider himself a failure, means that many people are not willing to work on building sites, to serve coffee, to drive buses, to start at the bottom and work up and so the workforce is imported.  Immigration doesn’t cause the problem: it offers a solution.  If it is a solution you’re not happy with, or don’t agree with, fine: what’s your idea?

What irritates me most about Farage is his fag dangling, pint swinging image as a maverick outsider, a real man, not a polished politico.  This facade is ridiculous.  Private school educated, he’s as working class as David Cameron is.  Note earlier in this post that he had a private plane, until he crashed it.  He earned a fortune working as a metals trader in the City, where he was famed for his twelve hour liquid lunches, and has the audacity to say he represents the “working man”.  In his years as an MEP he has claimed the maximum travel allowance (otherwise known as expenses) in each and every year, refusing to submit his claims for voluntary assessment, and yet berates his counter-parts in Westminster as having their snouts in the trough.

Remaining part of the EU is beneficial to us as a country for a whole range of socio-economic factors.  The only things one can miss about the years when there were looser ties was the old inter-railing experience of carrying a wodge of multi-coloured, different currency around and more frequent stops along the borders where smartly capped men would parade the carriage stamping passports.  Bouncing through a few old Warsaw Pact countries for a few days rapidly filled the pages up, giving you the look of a more far flung traveller than you really were. 

The Conservatives are, of course, hardly pro-European themselves.  The party has a notorious number of hardliners determined to raise the drawbridge and bring an idea of self-sufficiency back across the English Channel, having somehow failed to notice that the world has moved on since the 1930s.  This has been charmingly portrayed during this government by the sight of Go Home vans trundling around seaside towns.  Designed – allegedly – to encourage either illegal immigrants or those who have stayed beyond their visa to return home, the small print somehow hasn’t come across as clearly as the more fundamental xenophobic message which might make those here legitimately to feel somewhat unwelcome.

1979.  In the writing of these blogs, so frequently have I come back to the year of my birth and wondered what might have happened if the nation had voted the other way, if the Conservatives hadn’t embraced advertising, if James Callaghan hadn’t responded to a journalist with a pithy “crisis, what crisis?”, if oil and interest rates hadn’t been spiralling out of control.  All those, and many other factors, put her Margaret Thatcher in office and nothing was ever the same.

It’s easy to portray Thatcher as some sort of wicked witch, a demon hell bent of crushing the country (and, occasionally, members of her own cabinet).  We need to remember the dire straits things were under in 1979, the country verging on a general strike, with economic strife beholden.  Yes, the unions needed their powers curbed so that the right to legitimate industrial action wasn’t abused; yes, it was bizarre that the state owned all the pubs in Carlisle.  And there are strong arguments against nationalisation – ones I don’t happen to agree with, but they’re not entirely irrational or filled with malice. 

But, as we have seen with Asquith’s early twentieth century governments, there are ways to introduce reforms and modernisation and Thatcher didn’t use them.  She was a divisive not an inclusive politician.  She pushed through an agenda by creating scapegoats and enemies.  She lined up targets that included the poor, society, the left, gays, the unions and, yes, anyone who wasn’t of a certain sort of Britishness.  In this way, Farage resembled her, even if he lacks her political acumen, ability and intelligence.

People felt betrayed by Blair’s aggressiveness in the Middle East, but they weren’t producing assassination fantasies.   Hilary Mantel has been criticised – and praised – for her short story the Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.  In the eighties such works were not uncommon, from post-punk music to comics, such as Grant Morrison’s and Paul Grist’s StSwithin’s Day, a story about a teenage fantasy of justified murder.   It may have led to questions in the House of Commons and condemnation from the Sun, but the publishers simply used it in the publicity material: her potential murder was a selling point.

This is not how it should be.

And yet, Thatcher remains one of the most influential politicians of the twentieth century.  Her reforms changed Britain fundamentally and, for better or for worse, underpin where we are today.  From the loosening of the regulation of the financial markets, to nationalising electricity, water, gas, oil, trains, the telephone lines and almost everything else bar the Post Office and the NHS (one of those sacred cows was flogged off by the current crop; the other waits in the slaughterhouse); from denouncing society and promoting the notion of the selfish company to beginning the shift to student debt with the reduction of grants and the introduction of loans (followed today by massive fees). 

Aside from the extended existential identity crisis Grant Shappsappears trapped in and the shocking revelations that Ed Miliband had sexualintercourse with an attractive woman before he met his wife, the 2010 political highlight of last week was the BBC debate.  There was an odd feel to this one.  With David Cameron refusing to attend – an action which if he was seeking any other job than Prime Minister would have seen, under the rules he introduced, his job seekers allowance cut for not actively trying to gain employment – and BBC seemingly forgetting to invite Nick Clegg the balance ended up with Farage on, appropriately, the far right of the stage attempting to debate four varying levels of left leaning parties.  The debate ended with Natalie Bennet, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood enjoying a group hug before shaking Miliband’s hand while Farage stood alone, the little boy who smelt of wee and nobody would play with.

In complete fairness to Farage, with the Tories absent and the centre ground of the Lib Dems not represented this was not a true representation of the country’s political landscape.  However, his attempt to dismiss the audiences’ negative reaction as being because they were specially selected by the left-biased BBC was ridiculous.  The BBC is renowned world-wide as an impartial news source.  You only have to look to the USA (or almost every other country in the world) to see what partisan reporting and political presentation is like.

Here’s the thing, Farage: Possibly the audience was selected, by the independent polling company, to be representative of the parties debating.  Or, it could be that everyone appears rabidly left-wing compared to UKIP.  Or, just maybe, it could be that believing in a fair, equal and just society for all is how most people think.

The country is a very different place to what it was in 1979.  In many ways it is better: a fairer, more tolerant society, but much of that came through thirteen years of Labour government easing a relaxing of attitudes to difference.  Many of the so-called improvements just look shinier on the surface.  People still moan about the trains; power costs are spiralling again only we’re paying for it direct rather than through taxation; infrastructure is creaking at the edges and a cavalier financial sector plays high stakes poker with the whole economy. 

There are many things we can do to improve our country, to improve the society in which we live.  Leaving Europe will not help.  All it will do is leave us isolated, poorer, inward looking and still mourning for a perfect life in a past that never really existed.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Right to Live

When we were looking to buy our first place in the winter of 2012-13, I met one of the most odious men I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.  He was an estate agent who showed us around a bizarrely modified Victoria terrace in New Cross, where part of the garden and rear of the house had been sold off to next door and made it an oddly cramped space.  We were, understandably, less than enthusiastic about something so compromised and right at the top of budget.

‘You just need to buy something,’ he told us.  ‘Anything.  I bought my first flat, twenty years ago when I was a waiter.  A few years later I sold it.  Big profit.  So I bought another.  And then another.  That’s how it goes.  That’s the only way to make money in this country.  It’s the only way to survive.’

‘What about the waiters of today?’ my not yet wife asked, aware that someone in similar circumstances is highly unlikely to be able to afford a flat.

‘Who cares?’

Thus we summarise the country’s selfish attitude to property; the British obsession.

I never saw myself as a property owner, and yet here I am.  To some extent pushed into it by my now wife, I none-the-less find myself pleased with the outcomes.  Not so much the owning itself – that causes anxiety and worries that people will notice how painfully bourgeois I really am – but because we live in the area I want to live in and should only find ourselves moving in circumstances of our choosing (or more general financial catastrophe) rather than the whim of a third party.  Following five rented flats (including two from which there were unexpected exits) in London over twelve years, I have developed a pathological hatred of moving, of packing all my stuff up into boxes and lugging it half a mile down the road.  I am sure the stress of being homeless for two months last time when everything went tits up didn’t help, but, whatever the psychological motivations, I’m keen on stability for the foreseeable future.

The big problem is that such a simple desire should be possible without having to buy a property.  The notion of short term renting until you’ve saved a deposit to get onto the mythological housing ladder is a construct of the eighties and the sell off of council housing.  The media highlight generation rent, those poor sods a few years younger than I (and many of my peers) who are trapped in a maze of rising private rents permanently preventing them saving for that manufactured dream, but being a majority nation of owner-occupiers is an invention of the late twentieth century.  In the past – the time of William Thackery’s Vanity Fair, for example - even the wealthy rented and long-term, even lifetime, rents were not uncommon.

The release of council housing stock for sale, ideologically framed as helping people secure their futures through home ownership ignored the fact that council renters were secure anyway and hid the market aspiration of speculation propping up a flailing economy.  Sure, there were restrictions on modifications to a council home, but compared to the draconian measures imposed by private landlords where bluetack is forbidden to even cross the threshold, things were positively libertarian.

By refusing councils permission to utilise the small revenues from the sales to build new homes, Thatcher’s government created the mess we’re currently in.  Insufficient purchase stock and unregulated rental stock pushes up prices with no security.  We find whole communities threatened with seasonal eviction because an American venture capitalist company has bought their leases as an asset and sees too small a return on their investment.  That particular assault on our basic right of having shelter was fought off – unfortunately with the support of Russell Brand - but there will be others.  London in particular is becoming a bank.  Bricks and mortar hold savings rather than bank accounts, pushing out people who actually want to live.  Swathes of West London are deserted, streets abandoned of life, boarded up shop units being converted into a studio flat for foreign investment which no-one will ever actually occupy.  Never mind not being a society I want to live, that isn’t a society full stop: it’s an investment portfolio.

There are some easy wins, solutions which would not be hard to introduce.  We could to tax empty properties, regulate the rental market and instigate a programme of building affordable housing: not just affordable to buy, but affordable to rent.

But it would also help if we ended this national obsession with property ownership as the only way to get on in life (he says, conscious of his hypocrisy as he sits in owner-occupied house).  We need to look to Europe in particular for more innovative ways to live.  The current trend of unsustainable housing bubbles fuelling credit sprees and inevitable crunching bust has to end.  At the moment we’re a nation of high stakes gamblers betting our homes on future pensions and wealth.  That’s just fucking nuts.

Henry Campbell-Bannerman has been referred to as Britain’s “first and only radical Prime Minister.”  It’s not an assessment I completely agree with, as we will see over the coming two weeks, but at the dog end of the Victorian era it is easy to see why contemporaries may have thought so.

The early twentieth century Liberals were great reformers and Campbell-Bannerman swept to victory in 1906 on the back of a large majority following a failed Tory bluff at the polls.  The reforms introduced were wide ranging and reaching, from education to free school meals, from protecting children from abuse to introducing pensions, health and unemployment insurance.  Suddenly the poor, the great majority of the country, had champions at the highest reaches of power.

Campbell-Bannerman resigned due to ill health in 1909, dying mere days later, and was succeeded by HH Asquith.  Asquith along with the new Chancellor, David Lloyd-George, drafted the People’s Budget.  A budget for a war, as Lloyd-George described it, a war with poverty.  High rates of taxes for the rich were designed to finance further, greater reforms, bringing Britain into the modern world whereby all of its citizens were cared for equally, in principle at least.

The Conservative dominated House of Lords blocked the Bill, much against the run of contention, but then they stood to lose the most.  Asquith called an early, snap election in the spring of 1910 and while his majority was severely dented, he was able to form a minority government with support from the first Labour MPs and the Irish Nationals.  When the Lords began to block the budget once again, bringing the country to a standstill, George V supported the government and threaten to flood the upper house with 500 new Liberal Lords, obliterating the Conservative majority.  The Lords duly let the Bill pass, and Asquith went back to the electorate in the winter seeking a mandate for reform which would change how the House of Commons and Lords interacted. 

Aside from laying the foundations of the welfare and social state that were built on in 1945, it is admirable that whenever serious change from policy or dramatic reforms were required the government was principled enough to ask the voters what they thought.  Despite this backfiring for the Tories in 1906 and the slim minority government of the Liberals this was still considered to be the decent thing to.  It is noticeable that over the past five years, which have seen some of the fastest, most sweeping changes to the state in a generation, the current government neither has a mandate nor has had the courage to seek one.

Buried within all this Liberal reform were changes to the Agricultural sector.  The Agricultural Holdings Act and the Smallholdings and Allotments Act were both designed to limit the interference of landlords on the quality of rural life and the capacity of individuals to farm.  The latter even gave permission for local councils to purchase land and to lease out at controlled rates, bringing down the costs elsewhere in the system.  The purpose of this was not only to improve the quality of life but to regulate a sector seen as a critical cornerstone of both society and the economy. 

Just over a century later, it feels like we need something similar for housing and we need a political party principled and dignified enough to do it rather than the resurrection of Right to Buy in the Conservative’s Tuesday manifesto release.  Ed Milliband managed to sound surprisingly statesman like in launching the Labour manifesto Monday and it was a solid, reliable pledge with a couple of kicking the very rich in the balls headline grabbing policies, but ultimately it didn’t go far enough.  The Tories, meanwhile, hark back to the eighties and rehash old ideas.  Right to Buy?  That’s what caused most of the housing mess in the first place. 

Indeed, all Right to Buy did was create a new generation of private landlords, not home owners.  The majority of Right to Buy properties were flats and small houses in inner city locations, sold at a significant profit as the original owners retired to the country or moved.  A significant volume – over 40% in one London borough alone – are now in the hands of private landlords, sometime being leased at far higher rates than the council owned equivalent.  In some cases, the rent will subsidised by the state through housing benefit meaning that we, the tax payer, are paying more for something we once owned as an asset because of a political whim.  The son of Thatcher’s housing minister, unsurprisingly, owns 40 former Right to Buy properties.

What we really need is a building programmes.  All the parties make promises to build a modest number of (often sustainable, except UKIP, obviously) homes, although the Conservatives promise to encourage the private sector to build more homes rather than actually build many themselves.  That’s what Help to Buy, the last Parliament’s flagship housing policy, was originally supposed to do, until it became apparent it wasn’t going anywhere because the industry hadn’t flooded its own market with newly built homes to buy so they extended it to all properties exasperating the problem, but giving the economy a leg up.

The Lib Dems’ policy of introducing Help to Rent is going in the right direction by aiming to get people in their twenties out of their family homes and into rented accommodation therefore encouraging the parents to sell and downsize thus freeing up housing stock for those just starting a family.  Nice idea, but it fails to recognise that no-one’s going to do that because the one-way housing bet is shoring up people’s pensions and their possible old age care home costs.  There is no incentive to downsize.  Indeed, the Tory promise of Inheritance tax cuts, of ensuring housing’s value is safe from the tax man just supports this whole fragile house of cards.

An Englishman’s house is no longer his castle, it’s his bank account.  Cameron keeps blaming the 2008 recession on Labour, but hold on: wasn’t an over-inflated housing market and sub-prime mortgages something to do with it too?  But no-one wants to hear that story.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015



There’s a lump on my back. 

There’s a lump on my back.  It is hard and protrudes out my ribs, under the skin like a shark fin.

Five years ago I walked towards Tower Bridge with snow under my boots and hunkered down in my old duffel coat, the hood pulled tight over my head.  From a high billboard, on the side of a newsagents, David Cameron sneered down.  Remember those adverts?  They were the ones that sold the Conservative Party on the back of their supposedly modern, compassionate leader; a man more adept at hiding his less savoury characteristics than many of his colleagues.  Those posters promised many things.  This one assured us that the NHS would be safe in Tory hands.

“No more top down reorganisation of the NHS,” he pledged.  He talked about the dedication of the doctors and staff who had cared for his terminally ill son.  Maybe, we thought, this is a Tory who understands the value of a free and accessible to all health service.  His praise was almost certainly genuine, but it has been trampled by what has come since.

No top down reorganisation?

The 2012 Health and Social Care bill introduced by Andrew Lansley was the biggest, most fundamental reorganisation of the NHS, from the top down, since its inception.  Healthcare in the UK has been radically altered and aligned with the ideological priorities of the market rather than advice from professionals.

The bill is a confused combination of localism and centralisation.   It has abolished the strategic health authorities leaving just NHS England and a few associated bodies hanging onto the reins, therefore centralising strategy.  Simultaneously it has abolished the network of Primary Care Trusts which, amongst other things, purchased their area’s health services through the internal market.  The intention was for the purchasing power to go extremely local, into the hands of GPs who would make direct decisions about their patients.

This, as one would expect of this government, ignored the fact that all those people employed by the old PCTs were doing something with their days.  The Daily Mail likes to paint the picture of bloated NHS managers, civil servants and local authority employees collecting salaries while working reduced hours and messing around on the internet.  The reality is that the vast majority of people going to work do actually engage in work, and often have specialised skills, like contracting and health service commissioning.  These are skills which GPs, professional doctors who have spent their working lives caring for the sick and not getting to grips with how to put together a multi-million pound contract for cancer care, do not have.

Consequently around most of the country we find Clinical Commissioning Groups, units carrying out the actions of the powers granted to GPs.  Similar to the PCTs, but more under-resourced and less strategically clear of what they should be doing, a centralisation of a localised service.  Five years – just the latest five years, but five tense years none-the-less – of continual structural realignment has seen some of the best and brightest talent flee the NHS for a more stable working life.

This lump on my back has been there for a long time.  Maybe as long as fifteen years.  It’s clearly a fatty cyst of some sort, but in recent years, when I lost weight, it has felt more prominent.  Maybe it’s grown somewhat.  It rubs on my shirt and gets second glances.  It juts, like the peak of an iceberg, making me wonder what’s below the surface.

January 2014, and I finally decide to see my GP about my lump.  He suggests a scan and that it should probably be removed to be on the safe side.  While I’m there, my first visit for years, I update my address.

The hospital sends my appointment details to my old address.  Eventually, I go in for an ultrasound scan.  There’s a follow-up consultation where they seem uncertain by the ultrasound and recommend a CT scan.

Labour, in attempt to create a realisation of the true cost of healthcare services, created an internal NHS market whereby, essentially, one area of the NHS, for example a PCT, needing access to services delivered by another organisation, such as an acute hospital, purchased or commissioned that service.  The commissioning process allowed bodies to purchase based on value for money and quality standards while working collaborative to drive the later up and maintain the former.  Arguably, it was a flawed idea, but you can see where they were going.  In any sector, even a publically funded one, cash is still king.  Having the option to move to an alternative service provider, and thereby cut the income of your existing provider, is a powerful tool.

The Conservatives have, however, taken it one step further with the introduction of any willing provider into the mix.  This means it is no longer an NHS internal market, but one in which any organisation offering healthcare services may bid to be awarded a contract, often successfully so by offering unrealistically low costs.  Make no mistake, these companies are not in healthcare to ensure the future well being of the local population.  It is, quite simply, to make a profit, because that’s what the private sector has to do.  Make money.

The assumption was that the NHS was flabby, inefficient, unnecessarily expensive and over-staffed.  Any private contractor would simply have to cut back some non-essential staff, create some systems that were not bogged down by public sector bureaucracy and, once related services had been acquired, efficiency savings could be made by streamlining.  The reality has not been so smooth.  Many have found that the previous NHS service was running about as efficiently as a system with unpredictable outcomes could be.   Staff were already stretched and over-worked, propping up the system by good will.  Unsurprisingly, that good will falters when you cut wages and reduce annual leave. 

The body length tray glides into the narrow tube of the CT scanner.  UB40 sing through the headphones I’m wearing.  My shoulders, scalp and the tip of my nose all touch the walls.  It’s hot and uncomfortable.  My arm throbs where a drip pumps dye into my blood.

‘Red, red, whiiiiine.’

The scanner roars to life, like a jumpjet taking off, drowning out Ali Campbell.  The rattle pounds at my brain.  The screech is relentless and in my claustrophobic tube there’s no way to even try to block it out. 

After what feels like an hour, the thunder grinds to a halt.

The hospital sends the follow up appointment to the wrong address again. 

In the next consultation the surgeon says it is just a cyst, but the radiologist is uncertain.  The picture from the scanner is unclear.  They decide to refer me to a specialist cancer centre.

Private companies are already proving to be a failure.  Hinchingbrooke, the first NHS hospital to be given private management has been placed under special measures and Circle Holdings, the US company bought in to save it has fled.  Serco have defaulted on several multi-million pound clinical contracts leaving the Trusts to swoop in a pick up the pieces.  This happens, because healthcare, in this country, doesn’t make a profit.  The NHS makes a loss in the internal market system and because they’re all, ultimately, part of the same organisation it just about stumbles along.

And that’s fine.  Good will and dedication hold the whole thing up and, frankly, it shouldn’t be any other way.  What Labour – and the Tories – failed to understand is that care and compassion can be more important than cash.

This week the 2015 election campaign has been dominated by the leaders’ debate, not least for the fact that David Cameron pulled himself from out behind the sofa and actually took part.  I suspect that viewing figures were lower than last time around, not only because of the lack of novelty, tedious will they/won’t they soap opera build up and mildly confusing seven way battle, but it was broadcast on the Maundy Thursday, the equivalent of a Friday night.  Most of the nation will have been out drinking.  My wife and I, though, were off cycling around Normandy the following day and so had a quiet evening in swearing at the television.

As proved by Cleggmania turning into a net loss of seats last time around, it is foolish to read too much into these things, but there some intriguing indicators, and rarely around anything anyone actually said.  The trending google search during the debate was, apparently, “what’s wrong with Nigel Farage’s face?”  Indeed, Britain’s most famous xenophobe looked particularly sweaty and pale, with a tendency to roll his head around on his neck, swivel his eyes (in a fashion currently prohibited of UKIP members) and have an elastic mouth which contorted regularly into a upside down moon, much like Sam the Eagle from the Muppets.  From out of said mouth came the expected barks of a worn down record failing to find anything which couldn’t be blamed on a single issue.

Alas, Nigel wasn’t the only one to have an unfortunate physical tick.  Ed Milliband’s pinched fingers being thrust towards the camera at every opportunity was pure Blair, but the Blair that Harry Enfield was mocking as long ago as 1998 in the St Albion’s sketches.  I like Ed.  I think he’d make an excellent Prime Minister, even though I intend to vote Green, but he struggles on stages such as this.  Maybe that’s okay.  Maybe we’re tired of the too slick and overly polished politician, but I suspect most people will find it problematic.  He looks old, grey, jowly and haggard compared to the fresh faced young kid who barged his brother aside five years ago.

Cameron and Clegg’s sniping came across like parents bickering in front of the kids.  It was a little demeaning, as both struggled to take credit for the government’s mild successes and to divert blame for most of the crap (although, in fairness, Cameron shoved most of it on the previous Labour administration, an argument which is, surely, becoming a little tired – if he does win a second term, will he try to do the same in five years time, a decade after coming to power and twelve years after the economic implosion of 2008?).  None of it was very convincing and they seemed to both be refusing to shoulder responsibility while arguing semantics and whose fault it was they left the heating on while they went on holiday.

Frequently, though, the debate descended into men in similar grey suits yelling at each other leaving it to the women leaders present to return the discussion to the meat of the question posed and to provide something of substance.  Leanne Wood at times looked shell-shocked to be on the national stage, but gained applause, in our house at any rate, for telling Farage he should be ashamed at his lack of humanity.  Natalie Bennett, unfortunately, still seemed short of confidence following her brain fade earlier in the year.  She was the only leader to obviously refer to notes in her opening and closing remarks, and yet she had a clear and decisive handle on the detail when speaking off the cuff.  Confidence is, however, important in these matters.  Even with some excellent contributions she was unable to steer the discussion to the elephant in the room of the crumbling environment, her only opportunity being when she was able to voice her opposition to fracking when a heckler raised it.

It was Nicola Sturgeon, though, who whipped everyone.  An established politician in the way that Wood, Farage and Bennett are not, Sturgeon was witty, engaging, forthright and determined not to take any bullshit.  I may be a strong believer in the need for Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom, but if the SNP were standing in South East London I’d be sorely tempted to vote for them: a clear message of society being improved for the masses with an articulate and principled leader.

Unsurprisingly no-one, not once, said “I agree with Nick.”

The cancer centre promptly makes an appointment for me, but this is my legal wedding day, so I call to rearrange.  While my wife and I are in Wales immediately following the nuptials, the consultant reviews the images and decides that it is definitely a cyst.  The cancer centre refers me back to my local hospital.

Except they don’t.  Somehow they manage to refer me to myself.  A letter arrives suggesting that I remove the cyst myself and if there’s any concern to drop the cancer specialist a call.

I go back to the GP.  I get referred to the hospital again.  The hospital sends my appointment details to the wrong address.

I go back to the GP yet again.  Somehow my notes from the CT scan now say that I am suffering from second stage bowel cancer with liver metastases.  As I otherwise in perfect health and the CT scan was now nine months ago, we assume this is a mistake and move on.

Aside from the infringement of the private sector, the NHS is creaking at the seams.  The failure of many Trusts to meet Emergency Department waiting times hit the news over the winter.  Short-term investment was thrown at it to make the problem headlines go away, but while the NHS budget hasn’t had the same mauling as many other departments, in real terms it has been reduced.  Inflationary rises, a growing and aging population, harder targets and diminished resources mean that the system has suffered the biggest funding cut in twenty years.  A drive for more care in the community, for people to be cared for in their homes rather than lingering for weeks in another ward is admirable and, possibly, cost-effective but reconfiguring the staffing mix will take longer than the system shift is allowing for.  It takes years to train healthcare professionals, not less than a parliamentary term.

Before Labour came into power in 1997, the NHS was a mess.  Hospitals appeared to be dirty, were often falling apart and the harried and maligned staff struggling to keep the lights on.  Labour turned it around; turned it into something for the country to be proud of, but it only did by pushing unprecedented levels of funding through.  And that’s it.  Health costs.  And so it should. 

Nor should we mind paying for it through universal taxation that ensures it is there when we need it regardless of our circumstances.

So, the big questions become:  Did Cameron not know?  When he promised the electorate that there would be no significant changes and that he would safeguard the NHS, he either had no idea what Lansley was planning or he lied.

Neither of which is very appealing.

In early 1974 the latest in a series of miners’ strikes plunged the country into darkness.  The mines were still state controlled, power and electricity generated by burning coal fell under the auspices of the government, but miners have always had a bad deal and strikes over pay and working conditions were common.  Edward Heath, sitting Conservative Prime Minister and arguably the rudest man to hold the top office, had been trying to break the effectiveness of the unions for the duration of his parliament.  Union power was probably out of control, resulting in a stumbling economy and industrial walk outs for the smallest affront.

Heath’s radical response was not to back down, but to introduce the three day week.  All non-essential electricity use was to be reduced to three days a week, including the majority of businesses, and domestic use was strictly limited.  Even on the active days, the country went to bed at ten-thirty.

After three months, with an increasingly hostile and bored population (and an expected high birth rate for the end of the year), Heath called a snap-election for February 1974, with the three day week still in place.  He ran with the slogan: “Who governs Britain?”

The electorate responded, “not you, mate” and Harold Wilson found himself back in Downing Street with a minority government.

The lesson here:  there are essential services, core infrastructure which should be free from political arguments.  Thatcher sold most of them off, but health (and education) still remain with the state.  They are too important to play ideology with, too fundamental to our well being to continually reorganise, restructure purely for a new health secretary to say they’ve done something.  A steady hand, more money and time to get to grips with the challenges our wellbeing throws up should be a big enough job in itself.

Fifteen months after starting first going to the GP, I still have a lump.

The retention of my lump is not the fault of the NHS.  It is a failure of money.  Greater investment in support systems which would mean that staff weren’t under-resourced and appropriately trained, talented people would take administrative tasks away from clinical staff.  In the Leaders’ Debate, Cameron referred derogatorily to NHS managers as people with clipboards getting in the way of doctors and nurses healing the sick.  But he misses the point that clinical and non-clinical staff are not mutually exclusive.  They’re all part of the same system.  The NHS is the envy of the world, one of the finest, most cost-effective healthcare systems anywhere.  It just needs a little bit of help.