Saturday, 17 January 2009

Redistribute this: Fabian NYC report *1

I've just got back from stewarding at the Fabian Society Conference, 'Fairness doesn't happen by chance', tickets fairly priced at £30, which is why I was stewarding. As soon as I saw the title of Secretary James Purnell's keynote debate - 'SOLIDARITY LOST? Reviving the will to re-distribute' - I got an intense and heady craving for a sausage roll. A cigarette. A hard slap in the face. Anything, actually, to reassure me that the life I'm living has some connection to reality. The Welfare Reform Bill may be a hundred and nine pages' worth of suspicious gibberish and the debate that followed was vaguer and more dubious still, but you always know where you are with a sausage roll.

After some initial platitudes - 'What is solidarity? Well, I'd say it's kindness transformed into political reality...' - the Work and Pensions Secretary got down to the meat and bone of what he has in mind for the nation's poor. Apparently, 'passive redistribution' - the worn, outdated notion of actually transferring money from one group of people to another - simply isn't 'modern' any more. 'We need to move from the concept of passive redistribution to one of active redistribution-increasing aspiration, education and opportunities'. Not thirty seconds before, Purnell himself had noted that aspiration, education and opportunities are accurately predicted by parental and personal income - but apparently financial redistribution is still just a bit too last century, not to mention expensive.

Onto welfare reform. Purnell's new Welfare Reform Bill contains nothing whatsoever about actually spreading wealth around (I've read it. Twice) and a great deal of sops to an imagined Daily Mail readership - and this is cheerily deliberate. 'I think politicians need to respond to public opinion,' Purnell said. And yes, that's commendable, and that would be fine if there were real research into public opinion behind this Bill, but trouble is that the Mail does not, in fact, reflect public opinion so much as create it - which begs the question of why it's this particular piece of 'public opinion' to which the Brown administration has decided to buck a ten-year trend and pay some attention, a question which was left dissolutely dangling.

The rest of the debate meandered over issues of what the left really mean, what they really mean by the concept of fairness, and was ultimately hijacked by a worthy but somewhat off-topic immigration conversation between Trevor Philips of the ECHRC and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, much to Purnell's beaming relief. Brown was right, but the extent and detail of her rightness conveniently allowed the entire discussion to abandon all hope of actually addressing actual redistribution actually at all, which nobody had seemed very keen to do in the first place anyway.

So I put up my little ink-blotted hand and flapped ineffectually at the air for twenty minutes, until I realised that no, the chair was not going to take my question, because he'd met me. And after realising this, I waited for a pause in the proceedings, and stood up and said it.

''So, Mr Purnell, is there actually going to be any increase in financial redistribution, or not?''

Purnell flustered for a split second, and then he asked the chair, ''do I have to answer that question?'' The chair (not his fault) shook his head. ''I'm not going to answer that question,'' declared the Secretary.

So when the legitimate questions had finished, I stood in front of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and said,

''Mr Purnell. In this Welfare Reform Bill, a copy of which I have here *brandish*, you have this week suggested that you're going to impel long-term benefits claimants to work for large companies, which you're going to sub-contract at public expense, and you're going to pay those workers under half the minimum wage, and pay the difference to the companies, companies that include the US mega-firm Wal-Mart. Is that correct? And is it just?''

''Well, Ms Penny, *grin wearing thin*, I think the question we need to ask is, 'does it work?, isn't it?''

No, James. No, that's not the question at all.

A lot of things work, and a lot more things work for a little while. Fascist regimes, for example. Or cleaning your teeth with bleach. Or crash-dieting. The question is, is it fair? Is it right? And is it going to create a stabler and more functional society, as opposed to a dazzlingly unequal corporate archipelago? Unless the answer to all of these questions is 'yes', does it work doesn't come into it - not before you know precisely what it is you're trying to acheive.

''A lot of people would be happy to stack shelves for Wal-Mart, if they were given the opportunity to do it for a living wage. What do you say to that?''

''Well - yes, but we couldn't do that for everyone who was unemployed for even a day, could we?''

Purnell glared at me, and put on his long, black, expensive-looking coat in a looming-looking way. I, however, am under five feet tall. I'm used to looming. I was not impressed. I remain unimpressed. And as the Bill proceeds through the House in the teeth of a recession, we can only hope that a few stalwart Westminster souls still believe in redistribution - because the Labour's figureheads certainly don't.

If you're feeling a little chilly inside right now, you might want to take a look at this reassuring picture of a very tasty and wholly predictable sausage roll, and possibly go and eat one. I know I shall. There, don't say I never have any practical solutions.

22 comments:

  1. Being disabled I've been turned down for work for the past five years, I was sitting in Asda with my wife waiting to see the manager, I was in my wheelchair sitting next to the office door, and a conversation which myself and my wife could hear was taking place with the manager and a bod from head office which went like this.


    How many disabled people do we have on the books , three, why do we have three are they doing anything worth paying them, it's company policy, yes but three , I know but I was told to employ three for a year and then change them around. So what do they do, well nothing really, so why are we paying them, office policy, well I think it's time to change the policy to that of Tesco, we only employ a disabled person if they are able to do the job. well your not going to get a person in a wheelchair to do this are you, then end the contract and look for people who can make us money. OK OK.

    They came out and I said not much good me asking for a job and the big boss glared at me and said NO.

    So I left and told my DEA Disability employment officer who said it's getting like this everywhere, wall mart are not doing so good in America and it might well affect us here as money is moved around.

    The fact is it I have my new medical in two years tine and will be deemed able to work I will get £80 less a week saving which Mr Puerile can use to kill a few more soldier or worse crippled them.


    Tesco policy is to employ only those disabled people who can do the job on offer, I cannot fill shelves because I cannot move boxes or carry things, so I cannot do it. They do not like people with disabilities on the Tills because customers might think they can catch the disability this was told to me by a silly young girl working in my local Tesco as she told me we cannot employ you your to crippled

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  2. It's amazing that politics can be both so interesting and enraging at the same time.

    And what the hell? Half the normal salary from Wal-mart? Do they even pay a large enough sum so that you can divide it whiteout using decimals?
    Sure, having a job is nice and all, but I'd rather unclog toilets in a abandoned crack house than work at Wal-mart for less than they'd pay me.
    Then again I hate Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and the rest of it with a vengeance. It is a tiny part of all that is bad in the world.

    Well, at least there's a cease-fire in Gaza now, so that's a relief. Though I suppose it might end at any moment, but you can always hope, right?

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  3. Whats wrong with Wal-Mart and Macdonalds?

    What is fairness anyway?

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  4. That sounds incredibly frustrating. Maybe the only solution would be to break Purnell's legs with a sledgehammer to give him more perspective.

    Since you applaud sausage rolls so much, I would point out that they're made of pigs who almost certainly had shitty lives and then got killed on a vast scale so we could eat them. Sorry if that's off-topic, but there was a picture and everything.

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  5. @ Mark:

    The free market economic theory is based on the predicate that "fair" is when everyone has the chance to succeed through "aspiration, education and opportunities".

    Please read above where Penny writes, "Not thirty seconds before, Purnell himself had noted that aspiration, education and opportunities are accurately predicted by parental and personal income"

    That means that even for free market economics (not exactly a left-wing ideology!) to work, financial wealth distribution is essential and a part of bringing about a fair society.

    All this derived without even stepping for a moment into Marx's theories of fairness - or Christian theories of fairness and charity (i.e. wealth redistribution), or anything other than right wing politics.

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  6. "'Well, Ms Penny, *grin wearing thin*, I think the question we need to ask is, 'does it work?, isn't it?'"

    No, the question we need to ask is: "Who does it work for?"

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  7. well done for wiping purnell's smirk off his face and good to see people actually challenging ministers at centre left "love ins"...

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  8. Penny -- I'd be very grateful to know how you plan to achieve this 'redistribution'?

    Currently the average person is taxed somewhere in the region of 50% of their income. This is both via direct and indirect taxation.

    To the vast majority of hard working people this is a f**k load of money. Therefore how do we increase re-distribution without making life an absolute misery for most people?

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  9. Sausage rolls are not predictable. I found an ovary in mine. I did not predict that :)

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  10. Ovaries, in my experience, are rarely predictable.

    Robert - thank you for sharing your story. I'm sorry you're being screwed over so badly.

    TBRRob: you seem to know little of the tax system. Redistribution would involve increasing taxes on the super-rich back to what they were in the 1980s, and penalising tax-dodgers rather than benefit claimants. Did you know that the super rich evade £25billion in tax they already owe each year? And that £3.5 billion a year would be enough to lift a million children out of poverty? Labour doesn't have its priorities straight.

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  11. Equality is hardly stable: if t'were so, there would have been, at some point in history, an equal society that lasted for longer than the shake of a lambs tail.

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  12. As a one of the super-rich, I have, of course, already moved my money out of the UK. Rest assured, the UK government, no matter how socialist it becomes, is not going to be able to steal *my* hard earned cash.

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  13. But what do you actually mean by fair? That everyone has enough to live? That everyone has the same? Why should we pay for people we have no connection to in this country and not those on the other side of the world? The motivation for wealth distribution is only incidently the vague notion of "fairness" - more important is security.

    It's entirely possible that providing an incentive for hard work and socially agreeable behaviour might promote socially agreeable behaviour. Are you going to replace this incentive with the stick? If not, are the children of the intelligent going to be any less intelligent when we all have equal income? The pretty less pretty?
    If you equalise income and don't force people to work, you're actually replacing a social system which is at least partly built upon charecter and hard work, with one which will be almost entirely determined by genetic inheritence.
    (and if former experience is anything to go by deviousness)

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  14. "Did you know that the super rich evade £25billion in tax they already owe each year? And that £3.5 billion a year would be enough to lift a million children out of poverty? Labour doesn't have its priorities straight."

    Penny -- how would this work? The 'super rich' as you describe them are the most mobile segment of society in terms of capital and assets.

    You say evade £25 billion but there is no guarentee that you would get this money. More than likely these people would simply move themselves and their assets offshore.

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  15. TBRRob, even if we only got 1/8 of that money, that would still be close to the 3.5 billion. And if doing that means forcing a load of super-rich parasites out of the country, well, that's a win/win situation as far as I'm concerned...

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  16. I'm proud of you young lady.

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

    The likes of Purnell habitually (and sometimes literally) get away with murder because they are not challenged, exposed to scrutiny and exposed to the light of day where they can be seen for what they are.

    In 1997 Gordon Brown said "Work must pay" and brought in the first national minimum wage the United Kingdom ever enjoyed and instituted an arcane system of tax credits to boost the take home pay of low paid employees.

    Wasn't that great?

    Those were the days!

    And things could only get better.

    A mere eleven years later and Brown and his sulphurous acolyte James Purnell now intend to legislate to allow private companies to "use" the long term unemployed as unpaid labour, effectively treating them as bonded slaves, denying them the minimum wage for their labours as well as access to the tax credits system; such unfortunates will actually receive less than £1.60 per hour and have virtually no rights. Any normal private or public employer behaving like this would be jailed! - yet Purnell wants this kind of institutional perfidy green lit for the Government.

    In fact Purnell's scheme is like no other; for example it is non-terminating and applied pretty much universally to all of the unemployed. The Australian "Work for the Dole" scheme only lasts for six months and is applied only to those under fifty.

    All this is academic anyway since Labour are absolutely certainly going to lose the next election but I bet whoever is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in David Cameron's first administration will be grateful to Purnell for putting in place a framework they can adapt to pillory the disabled and unemployed.

    Personally I blame Brown for his cowardice. How many times have we seen him adopt a Tory policy in an effort to "triangulate" rightward and diffuse a temporarily headlining and popular policy?

    Pathetic.

    What a man of straw Brown has turned out to be: an origami tiger made out of tissue paper.

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  17. Oh! Before I go...

    ... "it doesn't work!

    In Australia 93% of participants in "work for the dole" didn't find gainful employment and came out of the scheme worse of than they entered it!

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  18. James Purnell is a one hundred percent unadulterated, unalloyed, undiluted and unreconstructed scumbucket but his perfidy would not be possible without a green light from Gordon Brown.

    Purnell is just another lookie-likey right-wing lackey à la the mendacious John Hutton and heartless Caroline Flint. Do not be deceived otherwise. Blame for Purnell’s Dickensian welfare bill should be heaped soundly and squarely on Gordon Brown’s sloping shoulders. From surrounding himself with a cabinet brimful with reactionary right-wing opportunists, to encouraging policy initiatives so antagonistic to everything that the Labour Party once stood for and formerly believed in, leaving most former Labour voters breathless and disbelieving, Brown is directly responsible.

    When the Conservatives announced a similar programme vis-a-vis workfare at the beginning of last year Gordon Brown described it as being “unaffordable and unworkable” until, that is, polls revealed that the Tory welfare agenda possessed a certain resonance with the "blue rinse" fringe of Daily Mail and Telegraph readers... you know... middle England’s “hang ‘em, flog ‘em, send ‘em to the colonies if we had any and ain't it a pity that we don't?” contingent.

    Within months, as with so many right wing policies floated by the Conservatives, Brown “triangulated” rightward, stole the Tory welfare wardrobe out from under their noses and forced the Labour Party to wear this second-hand set of stinking, shabby, grimy rags hoping to garner some favour with certain "key" voters. Essentially, Brown sold out the sick, disabled and unemployed in the vain hope of gaining (or retaining) a few tens of thousands of votes from right-wing middle Englanders.

    Penny Red, you can't see the wood for the trees! Forget Purnell and scrutinize Brown to identify the author of ALL of these injustices.

    Brown is, in my opinion, shaping up to be the worst Labour leader the party ever had foisted on it. Mechanical, aloof, furtive, unimaginative, stilted, dishonest, remote, amoral, selfish, insular, vain, arrogant, deceitful, detached, cowardly, weak, spineless, disloyal, indecisive, unapologetic… I could literally spend days enumerating Brown’s obvious and manifold flaws: Brown is completing Blair's mission to turn the Labour Party into another Tory party in everything but name.

    It’s all down to Brown.

    What a dreadful turncoat this egoist has turned out to be.

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  19. TBRRob:

    Penny -- how would this work? The 'super rich' as you describe them are the most mobile segment of society in terms of capital and assets.

    You say evade £25 billion but there is no guarentee that you would get this money. More than likely these people would simply move themselves and their assets offshore.


    Best argument in favour of increasing globalisation I ever heard. You're right; until the rich can't run from their social obligations, we're never going to have a totally satisfactory solution here.

    Also:

    Penny -- I'd be very grateful to know how you plan to achieve this 'redistribution'?

    Not sure about Penny, but I've had a couple of ideas.

    I know a lot of geeks. On average, half of any social group, since the .com crash, has been out of work. The other half, by general standards, make quite a lot. Something I observed is that the people in work bought a lot of drinks. And six months later, they didn't go short when they were made redundant.

    We like to look after our own. We're a gregarious species, and we do like to do it. The problems are that a) our politicians have spent the last 200 years trying to make us interpret 'our own' in increasingly insular ways, and b) we no longer have a commonly understood and trustworthy mechanism for managing that instinct on a societal level.

    We used to trust the church to do it, but we don't any more. Then we trusted the government to do it, but they've blatantly fucked it up. So now we're starting our second generation of Look Out for Number 1; and hasn't it worked out well.

    We don't trust the government to manage social wealth redistribution, but it's not prejudice, it's experience. So we need to figure out how to get the job done without the government being involved; ie, we need to start working on paradigms for lateral, inter-personal wealth redistribution. And, hey look, just as we start thinking that way the perfect tool comes along.

    People are, in my experience, irrationally generous to those they care about, and to those causes which touch them personally. So instead of thinking monolithically, which is so last epoch, we need to start thinking cellular and distributed, we need to start thinking open source about things. If the government aren't getting it done, go round 'em.

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  20. Premenstrual Patricia8 February 2009 at 18:11

    I applied to Asda for a job by filling in some kind of a "psychometric" test online.

    They refused me saying that my personality was not "extrovert" enough!

    If Asda refused to employ me legitimately and pay me the minimum wage how can it be right for Purnell to institute a slave labour scheme and force me to work for the same company for Jobseeker's Allowance under threat of absolute and total destitution?

    Fuck James Purnell and New Labour!

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  21. Bring back the workhouse.

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