Archive for October, 2012

‘The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for…’

25 Oct

As Billy Bragg (pictured right) sang, we are always expected to pick up the tab for the mistakes made by the parasites who own but don’t produce, otherwise known as the ruling class.

billy bragg at nottinghamIt is common currency on the Left that the bosses are too busy waging the class war to talk about it but, occasionally, a rodent squeaks loudly enough to give the game away.

So it was today that deputy-director general of the CBI, Neil Bentley – I know, I’ve never heard of him either – told us what is needed in terms of new labour law.  Or, to get to basics, what further laws are required by the bosses to tighten their already significant stranglehold on independent trade unionism in the UK.

Mr Bentley, it seems, is in favour of ‘closer cooperation and engagement’ between employers and employees. So far, so good.

The TUC and most trade unions I know want this too and in the 28 years I’ve been a union representative I haven’t come across any single contentious dispute or disagreement at work which wouldn’t have benefitted from more cooperation or more engagement, or both.

So is Neil talking about putting elected union representatives on company boards?

Compulsory consultation between parties?

Independent mediation of disputes?

Letting those who produce have some say in how production is organised?

Tapping into the expertise of those who do the job?

Of course not. This is the CBI and British industrial relations.

Predictably, in another round of the perpetual and unnecessary confrontation and disrespect characterising UK workplaces, Neil Bentley wants the government to change the law to tell unions how to conduct their business.

I’ll leave the irony of an organisation always arguing that government should keep its nose out of their affairs now arguing that government should actively poke its nose into union affairs aside for the moment, and concentrate on what Neil and the CBI wants.

They want employers to be able to provoke pay disputes and then ignore unions in settling them. They want bosses’ propaganda included in union ballot papers. They want the bosses to decide which workers and which workplaces get balloted. They want recognition agreements ‘reviewed’ every three years.

And how does Mr Bentley sell this Victorian mill owner’s manifesto?

‘Like the changes of behaviour the new employment relationship requires of employers, this will put the ordinary member in charge.”

As if empowering ‘ordinary’ trade unionists is the CBI’s primary concern here…..

What Bentley and his class don’t understand is that as long as working people are marginalised, excluded, exploited, denied access to tribunals or the already severely restricted justice available through patchy, inadequate employment law, and viewed as human resources instead of people, there will be a disconnection between workers and employers which can never be bridged.

Nothing, other than a complete reshaping of the entire employment relationship, will change that.

Jimmy Savile, the BBC, hypocrites and opportunists

24 Oct

The Jimmy Savile story has disgusted and shocked in equal measure and coverage reached a crescendo this week, with two BBC current affairs programmes, Newsnight and Panorama, involved in a civil war.

I won’t add to general outrage and disgust other than to say that I wouldn’t lose a second’s sleep seeing a child abuser hanging from a tree branch by their ankles with a roaring bonfire directly under them.

Betraying the trust and vulnerability of a child is unforgivable, end of debate.

But the attacks on the BBC merit closer examination.

I always worry when the right-wing press (Daily Telegraph, The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Times and The Financial Times) is in full cry.

Not one day in the past 10 has gone by without these rags foaming at the mouth about the BBC’s internal culture, its complacency and possible complicity in acts of child abuse.

And not for them trivia like independent inquiries, ongoing police investigations, evidence and open decision-making to ensure the horrific mistakes of the past aren’t repeated.

No: this is their age-old enemy, a window of opportunity and the judge and jury have sat. It has been little more than a drumhead court-martial.

The reasons for this – and I mean the real underlying motive, not the outrage about Savile’s abuse and possible BBC uselessness – can be summed up by Polly Toynbee:

The BBC’s continued existence is a red rag to the blue press, an anti-market endeavour they long to privatise or shrink to insignificance like the American PBS channel.”

The default advice of ‘follow the money’ applies and if further proof is needed, let’s hold our collective noses and consider again Rupert Murdoch and his family.

In 1989, Murdoch gave the MacTaggart lecture and as well as predicting on-demand television, lambasted the TV license fee. Any link between his developing Sky Empire and a wish to remove the competitor which effectively sets industry standards is, of course, coincidental.

Twenty years on and plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: James Murdoch gave the 2009 MacTaggart lecture and attacked the supposed dominance of the BBC with its “guaranteed and growing” income.

In one irony-laden phrase, the man whose News Corporation empire took journalism to unplumbed depths, described the BBC’s activities and future ambitions as “chilling”.

He said: “There is a (BBC) land-grab, pure and simple, going on – and in the interests of a free society it should be sternly resisted.”

A society, presumably, where Murdoch employees are ‘free’ again to hack into celebrity voice mails, rake through the bins of celebrities, put pictures of semi-naked women on Page 3, lie about the death of 96 football fans, publish confidential medical records, act as perpetual election agents for the Conservative Party and interfere with the a police investigation into a murder….

Let’s not mince words: the Right wants the BBC dead or dying.

If the free-marketeers had their way or if the Tories ever found the courage of their convictions, the licence fee would be abolished tomorrow.

We would then slide remorselessly down a very slippery slope, at the bottom of which lie two things: Fox News, a channel which sees itself as a shameless cheerleader for the Republican Party; and the corpse of public service broadcasting. If you want to see what the future looks like, think Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, smear campaigns, propaganda and endless repeats of the Jeremy Kyle Show and Judge Judy.

I have many criticisms to make of the BBC; political coverage is personality-driven and encourages a Punch & Judy Show; it only covers trade unions when strikes are ‘threatened’ or there is ‘disruption’ and ‘chaos’; it tries to compete with idiot/zoo television shows when it shouldn’t; it rarely backs a winner in making decent comedy programmes; and pays far too much to over-rated egomaniacs like Jonathan Ross and Terry Wogan.


It is publicly-funded broadcasting which sets the benchmark for coverage and quality. The BBC provides thousands of good quality jobs, training and development and is respected throughout the world. BBC Radio 2, 4 and 5 are bastions of excellence. The BBC’s coverage and promotion of live music is unparalleled.

When the nation wants to unite, as it did around Live Aid and the 2012 Olympics, it does so using the BBC. It is one of the cornerstones of a society which has not – yet – fallen into the toxic embrace of the Market.

In short, let those guilty of complicity with Savile’s crimes answer for what they did in public.

But let’s not lose sight of the fac that the BBC and public service broadcasting are worth defending against the new barbarians.

(Still) Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

22 Oct

One perspective of history is that it is decided by great events and great men – usually men.

This makes it all about Plato, George Washington, Nelson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao Tse Tung, JFK, Churchill, Charlemagne, Aristotle, Caesar and, er, George Osborne, and how they did at the battle of Thermopylae, Hastings, various sieges of Jerusalem, Waterloo, Stalingrad, Trafalgar, Gettsyberg, Midway, Yalta, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Miner’s Strike, the synod of Whitby etc etc etc.

I’m paraphrasing, but it’s supposedly all down to decisive individual action at pivotal periods in history.

I’m more a believer in the tides of history, driven primarily by economic developments determining circumstances, producing the people we then use to characterise the events.

Whether you agree with that or not, the New World Order which supposedly followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, described by the charmless pomposity of Francis Fukayama as the ‘end of history’, isn’t showing many signs of health, peace or wealth.

In fact, I’d say the global economic crisis which has seized Western capitalism since 2007/08 signals the end of said New World Order.

On Saturday, marching through the streets of an unseasonably warm London, I thought that rather than some pointless trudge past an empty Westminster, this was far more in keeping with the zeitgeist. Our 150,000 union members and other marchers were more in tune with the uncertainty of the age than the faux cynicism of conservative commentators arguing, yet again, that strikes, demonstrations and any kind of resistance to the neo-cons wouldn’t make a difference.

The broad swathe of left and centre-left organisations present on Saturday are united in genuine belief that there is a viable alternative to the scorched earth neoliberal economics preached not just by the UK Conservative Party and their Lib-Dem enablers, but by the European Union/Central Bank, IMF and other keepers of the flame.

What is more utopian?

A belief that suppressing wages, rising rents, rising fuel bills, privatisation, wars to annexe shrinking natural resources….in short more unfettered capitalism - will somehow lead us to a new Nirvana?

Or how about our belief that taking environmental responsibility, building public services which put people before a balance sheet, re-engineering accountable, democratic financial institutions, peaceful coexistence and socially useful work provides a road map to a better future?

‘In Place of Fear’: a 21st Century Welfare State?

19 Oct

As the Paralympics drew to a close I wondered whether the legacy would be, as Sebastian Coe put it, to ‘change the perceptions of disability forever’. Or whether we’d return to the pre-Olympic zeitgeist defining disabled people as scroungers, benefit cheats or objects of pity.

After the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in particular I think it’s safe to assume that we’ve reverted to default state. Particularly on welfare reform.

Rather than wonder why we have, as the Rowntree Foundation reported this week, between 44 and 65 people chasing every single retail job advertised, our political leaders would rather we lived in a perpetual state of paranoia and mistrust of our neighbours, as if they were responsible for the recession we’re all currently drowning in.

Take, for example, the crocodile tears of wee George Osborne supposedly sympathising with the people going out to work looking up at the curtains drawn of their non-working neighbours? This from a man who hasn’t done a day’s work in his life, who’ll become a Baron when his Dad kicks it.

And Ian Duncan Smith, like Osborne a multi-millionaire, pontificating that ‘We will have reduced welfare bills by £18 billion at the time of the next election’ and in the next breath saying ‘Labour and the unions would rather have the young people of this country living off state hand-outs instead of being employed.’

Really. Ian?

I mean, really?

Either you believe that – in which case you’re a half-wit – or you don’t – in which case you have no integrity. Which is it?

Anyway, back to welfare. The Tories see cheap votes in attacking those who get benefits, viz January’s YouGov poll which found 69% of Brits agreeing ‘Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency.’ This has become axiomatic. Taken as read. Bloody obvious.

But what if I told you the opposite is true?

What if I told you Professor Ingrid Esser of Stockholm University compared 13 modern welfare states in 2009 and found ‘employment commitment is decidedly stronger within more generous welfare states’. She went on to find ‘social benefits do not appear to have made people lazy’.

No doubt you’ll be sceptical, but let’s look at some empirical data.

Dull, but necessary.

Benefit levels in the UK are amongst the lowest in Europe. So if ‘better welfare makes you lazy’ arguments hold water, the UK should have comparatively low levels of unemployment. Yes?

And Scandinavian countries with the most generous welfare states in Europe – Norway, Finland, Sweden – more unemployment. Yes?

Well, no. In fact, not even close.

At the beginning of 2012 Norway had 3.2% unemployment. Sweden and Finland had 7.6% unemployment. The UK had….drumroll….8.2% unemployment. And rising.

In fact, Professor Esser found that whether work, support, training and childcare were available were key factors.

Nor do benefit levels have anything to do with lone parents.

Sociologists Karen Rowlingson and Stephen McKay note that ‘it is common on the political right to argue that local parenthood rises because women access relatively high levels of benefit’. But by referencing the USA – high lone parenthood, minimal support – and Sweden – the largest number of lone parents in work despite high benefit levels – it is clear that right-wing stances on welfare may be popular, but they’re based on no evidence and even less compassion.

The paradigm has shifted, but it needs to shift again.

Let’s stop squabbling over the allocation of crumbs from the table and instead start asking why nine out of ten of us haven’t been invited to dinner.

Scottish independence: Emperor Salmond has nae clothes

15 Oct









The issue of Scotland’s future status - the choice of independence or remaining within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - is centre stage again this week.

Almost three centuries ago, the Union between England and Scotland was established in what historian Simon Schama describes as ‘one of the most astonishing transformations in European history’. Alex Salmond’s SNP majority in the Holyrood Parliament now means that the issue will be put to the people of Scotland in 2014.

Cards on the table, as ever: I’m an internationalist, someone as happy being Scottish and British as I can be, given an innate distrust of nationalism per se: which I can summarise as a belief your country is superior simply because you were born in it. As an economic refugee from the slash and burn economics of early 1980’s Thatcherism, I’ve now lived more than half my life in England and can confirm we’re fundamentally the same people.

I’m actually angry this issue is even being debated seriously, since two thirds of Scots have been consistently opposed to independence since data was first collected. As a Labour Party member I’m particularly irritated that a toxic blend of hubris, complacency and incompetence by comrades north of Carlisle allowed the Scottish National Party to slither into a position where they have to be treated seriously rather than be dismissed as a motley collection of bigots, progressives, patriots, cranks and careerists united only by the folk myth that an independent Scotland would be ‘a better place’.

I’ll pose some of the key questions that Salmond, Sturgeon, Swinney and Co. spend much of their time dodging: where is the SNP on the issues of job creation, taxation policy, employment law, investing to grow, building social housing and business regulation?

A genuinely progressive party would be able to say where they are on all of these, but other than vague noises that they wouldn’t be ‘Tories’, the SNP spends a lot of time not telling us what they would be.

Would an SNP government in an independent Scotland be one where Prime Minister Salmond was found in Rupert Murdoch’s pocket, which is where he sits now?

Would they lower taxes on the super rich or restore justice and equity at the workplace? Would they invest in building houses or run a tight fiscal ship? Invest or retrench? Join the Euro, try to keep the pound or invent their own currency? What would Scotland’s navy and army look like? Would they ditch or retain Trident missiles?

Rather than resort to an ‘if it ain’t broken…’ cliché, I’ll state that if you haven’t shown evidence that you’ll improve something – and the SNP haven’t – then you haven’t made the case for change. Unless and until they pull a very large tartan rabbit out of a hat, I hope that the majority of Scots who want the UK to stay largely as it is will stay largely where they are.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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