In 1997 I was at a political event in London. My accommodation the first night was a squat. I slept in a chair, my mate who I’d travelled down with slept on the floor, and a scruffy lefty from Paisley slept on the couch. I knew that lefty, Davie Fraser, a little, having seen him at meetings and demos, but that was probably the first occasion on which I’d spent any real time in his company. I was drunk and he was stoned and I don’t remember much about it except that we had a good laugh. We were both in the SWP at the time and already comrades in the party political sense, we gradually became friends after that trip to London.

When I moved to Paisley in 2000 Davie quickly became a regular visitor and a bad influence. I should have been studying but instead Davie would come round and we’d watch films all night. Some of them we watched so many times we could almost quote the entire film. Years later it wasn’t unusual for me to receive a text like “Back and to the left” and I’d know Davie was watching JFK again.

Then came a discovery that wrecked Davie’s sleeping pattern and almost destroyed my chances of getting a degree. One night he turned up at my flat with Championship Manager 00/01. Films were forgotten, university was forgotten, and at times the world was forgotten. Even when the game told us “Remember to feed the cat” or reminded us to go outside and get some sun we’d carry on playing, the bags under our eyes getting bigger and bigger. Right up to the last time I saw him he exhibited an astonishing memory for “Champo” matches. If a player was mentioned on TV he’d say, “Remember when you were Celtic manager and he scored a goal for you in the 4th round Scottish Cup match against Livingston in season 04/05? You went on to win the Cup but you lost in the European Cup semi-final to Ajax.” I’d just shake my head and ask how he could remember a computer game we’d played a decade earlier. He remembered things that happened in Champo better than most people remember things in real life.

There was some politics going on too. Davie and I were at times the nucleus of our party branch, and at other times we were the branch. We’d meet in the Bull Inn, where Davie would tell me “Gerry Rafferty used to drink in here. Billy Connolly too.” On one occasion, while having a drink in the Bull, he listed all the “intellectuals” in the other branches, then said “And we’ve got …” paused, looked at me with a raised eyebrow – “You!” and laughed. I was both offended and flattered.

I often felt that Davie’s political contribution was overlooked. As well as being virtually omnipresent at meetings and protests, he carried out – usually on his own – the SWP’s only regular industrial paper sale in the west of Scotland in the late 1990s and early 2000s at the Chivas bottling plant. He was such a fixture there that once when somebody else took over one week the people going in to start the early shift wanted to know who the interloper was and “what happen to the regular guy?” He was sceptical about the SWP in Scotland joining the SSP, but he did his best to make it work and I think he was well respected in the Paisley branch. We were both drafted in as council election candidates for the SSP but we weren’t particularly excited by that.

One thing Davie was excited by was the anti-capitalist movement. He loved the protests, the ideas, the books and the articles, but not the meetings. The meetings were, after all, awful, but the protests were amazing.

In 2003 we travelled to Italy for the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence. We had booked tickets online in an internet cafe – remember them? We had spotted a flight to Pisa with Ryan Air that would have cost us about £15 each and thought that was amazing. We were just about to book it when one of us spotted flights to Ancona for something ridiculous like £1.50. We decided to go to Ancona then travel by train to Florence. It would take longer and would actually cost more when you factored in the train tickets, but we thought it was a good opportunity to see some of the Italian countryside. As it happens we saw loads of the Italian countryside because Davie made the mistake of insisting I get the train tickets when we reached the train station in Ancona. I misunderstood the man at the ticket counter and we ended up on a branch line train. By sometime after 9pm we had reluctantly accepted it was going to take us about 3 days to get to Florence that way. We decided to disembark in Bologna and try to find a hotel room.

In Bologna Davie needed to use the facilities at a MacDonald’s near the train station. So while he went to the toilet I considered the irony of ordering a McChicken Sandwich while en route to the biggest anti-capitalist event in Europe since 1968. I never got to be ironic. When Davie came back from the toilet he said we should leave because we had inadvertently walked into the seediest fast food place either of us had ever seen. There were people taking smack in the toilets, half the customers appeared to be prostitutes or pimps, and a fight was about to break out between what looked like members of rival gangs.

We walked miles that night trying to find a hotel. Everywhere we went they were full up. We walked so far we ended up on a housing estate miles from the city centre and had to walk back. Eventually we found a hotel with a room, but now there was a new obstacle. The man on the front desk was reluctant to give us the room. The hotel had been refurbished recently, he told us, but not that room. It only had a double bed, surely we wouldn’t want to share a bed? I don’t sleep well, especially when I’m travelling. I hadn’t slept the night before and had barely slept the night before that. I had to beg him to give us the room, and I was close to just climbing on to the counter and going to sleep in front of him when he finally relented. There was nothing wrong with the room, it was really nice.

The next day, reasonably well rested, we pushed on to Florence. This time we were on a proper train and it didn’t take too long to get there. On the train Davie had been reading his “Rough Guide to Florence”, which said the train station was full of people renting out rooms but on no account should we rent one. So, obviously, we rented a room from the first person who approached us. We spent a few days in Florence, and we had a nice room (this time with three beds in it as if to make up for the hotel) in a lovely street lined with flower pots and hanging baskets. And it was a stone’s throw away from the venue that was hosting the ESF. It was also near an Irish theme pub called the Fiddler’s Elbow – owned by an Englishman and staffed entirely by Scottish students from Dundee and Edinburgh. We enjoyed a lock-in there, and enjoyed the free beer the landlord gave us even more.

I was supposed to be interviewing activists for the dissertation on the anti-capitalist movement I’d be doing the following academic year, but the fact is we barely noticed the ESF during the day. We went sight seeing until late afternoon, when we’d try to go to a meeting. On the final day we went to the Fortezza. It was supposed to be the starting point for a huge demo. We waited amid a mass of people for it to start. What we didn’t realise was that the protest was so huge that as we sat on the grass waiting for it, it had in fact been filing passed us for an hour. Just like being in the eye of the storm, we were in the one spot in the neighbourhood where there was calm. There were plenty of people, but like us they were waiting not marching. At least 1 million people marched against capitalism and for a better world that day. When we joined the march it was still morning. We marched, shouted, chanted all day, and when it got dark we still hadn’t reached the end. Reluctantly we had to leave for our flight home – this time from Pisa airport, thankfully.

The following year we did the same all over again – in Paris. We stayed in a hotel in the Asian district known as Tolbiac. We did plenty of sight-seeing, just like we had in Florence. I missed my last chance to interview activists for my dissertation, and we once more had to trek across a city – this time looking for a pub not a hotel. Wine bars were there in plentiful supply, but Davie wanted to go to an actual pub, so one night we accepted the recommendation of the Rough Guide and found – eventually – an Australian pub that was every bit as Australian as the Irish pub in Florence had been Irish: in other words it sold Fosters. While we were there, a student from Burma tried to sell us some weed, but the thought that he was probably connected to the military junta put Davie off.

Another night, we kept our fellow guests in the Hotel Tolbiac awake as we sang the Internationale over and over again at the top of our voices with the windows open. I blame the rather good cider we’d bought at a farmers market. That was a welcome change from the Konigsberg that seemed to be the only beer Parisian supermarkets sold – so much for the vast array of choice capitalism is supposed to provide. On our final night there we were so exhausted we just stayed in our room and watched Taggart in French. Neither of us could speak French, so sadly we missed the line “Ah, Monsieur Jardine there ‘as been a murder.”

The ESF in Paris ended with a protest at least as vast as the one the previous year in Florence. Again we had to turn back before the end, but anyone who has ever been to a protest of 100 people and then been subjected to 50 speakers will appreciate how lucky we were on a protest of over 1 million people, including a multitude of nationalities, to avoid having to hear the speakers.

One other memory I have of Davie and the anti-capitalist movement was the time I was watching the news coverage of the protest at the G8 summit in Genoa. The phone went and it was Davie, in Genoa, on the protest I was watching. People on the section of the march he was in were getting worried about smoke they could see drifting in from a side street. Luckily the camera angle on the news meant I could see right down that street to where a flare had been let off, and Davie was able to relay what I was getting from the news to the people around him. It was quite surreal.

As the anti-capitalist movement began to run out of steam, Davie was becoming disillusioned with the SWP and the SSP. The bickering, the impending split, it got to him and he eventually gave up on party politics, as did I at about the same time. He continued to see himself as a socialist for a long time, possibly until the end, and an anti-fascist, but he was done with political parties many years ago.

Now comes the dark stuff. When I think about the good times we had I should feel happy to have known him, and I’m sure those feelings are there, but right now they are buried under a furious anger. Davie Fraser was still a fairly young man, just approaching his 42nd birthday, but his health had not been good for quite a long time. Sometimes he’d be improving, sometimes getting worse. Last year he had pneumonia and ended up in intensive care. He had 2 toes amputated, and his time in hospital had taken a lot out of him. He needed time to recover, and he needed help. Instead, what happened was a prolonged period of being pushed from pillar to post. He was told he should be getting disability benefit, then he was told he should be on JSA, then back again and again. Often he was getting neither, and that meant he wasn’t eating properly which led to complications with his diabetes.

This year that all seemed to have been sorted out. He had moved to a nice new flat, he had even joined a scheme to look after abandoned or abused dogs that were waiting to be re-homed. But that period of stability was only a brief respite. Once again they cut his money and he was left with nothing. The last time I saw him was 3 weeks ago. I’d gone to Paisley to visit him and give him some money for groceries. He was gaunt, having lost a lot of weight, and walking very slowly. Twice as we crossed the pedestrian precinct in Paisley High Street he had to stop to rest against a lamppost. When we went into a cafe for lunch he would only take a cup of tea – he was worried he might be sick if he ate because he’d barely eaten for days, and he didn’t want to risk that in public. He told me he felt old, and said he was sure if he went to the hospital they would admit him immediately.

A week and a half later Davie was in intensive care fighting for his life. They had to amputate his leg below the knee. He fought on. Finally, on Monday 27th June Davie fell into a diabetic coma and later died. His death was entirely needless. The benefit system that should have helped and supported him the last time he was hospitalised instead failed him and even punished him. Rather than help him recover, they pushed him around, they threatened him, they starved him and they eventually wrecked his health and killed him.

If you said to me “surely a life long socialist and activist like Davie should have shouted louder for help?” I’d agree. If you said “couldn’t you have done more?” I’d say yes. Whenever he asked for help buying food I helped him; but I shouldn’t have waited to be asked, I should have asked him what he needed. If you said “couldn’t the people around him have done more?” I’d say yes. But to all of these points I’d also say, you just don’t expect that in 21st century Britain someone could be allowed to go hungry for days or weeks just because they’re on benefits. You don’t expect someone in that situation to be allowed to die. You say to yourself “I’ll phone him at the weekend and see how he’s doing.” When the weekend comes, maybe you phone but maybe other things get in the way. You expect any problems with benefits will be sorted out eventually. It never occurs to you that someone might die waiting for that to happen, even when you’ve heard stories like that so many times. You just don’t expect it. I could finish by saying that we should all check on people we know who are having a hard time, but while that would be a good thing to do, it misses the point. Davie and thousands like him should never be in a position where they need to ask a friend to buy food for them. The DWP is responsible for David Fraser’s death, his and many many more – unequivocally.

In recent times Davie’s life took some unexpected turns, and he went in new directions and explored new lifestyles. I didn’t see much of him over the last few years, but whenever we met up it always felt like we’d only just seen each other the day before – and of course he was always ready to remind me of some triumph in Champo, like the time he won the SPL with St Mirren or the European Cup with Reading. He could be funny, and I’ll miss his sense of humour and zest for life. One night when we were out in Glasgow the group split up and Davie went off to one pub and I went to another. Later, while I was waiting for a taxi with some friends, he reappeared, and he was extremely happy having had more than a few. He spotted me and shouted “Sean! I love you. I LOVE you!” and gave me a hug. It made me feel special for a moment, so I said thank you. At that point he spotted the friend next to me and shouted “I love you!” and hugged him too, before working his way down the line. I will try to remember him like that, but I think it’s likely I will never forget what was done to him.

2015 in review

Posted: December 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 25,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Plaid Cymru want to increase the minimum wage, raise income tax for high earners, crack down on tax avoidance and introduce a Financial Transaction Tax. That’s a pretty good start from the Welsh nationalists.

They are against the privatisation of the NHS. They oppose any possibility of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) being used to open up the NHS to privatisation in the future. TTIP is a deal being worked out between The EU and the USA. While politicians are telling the electorate not to worry about it and that important services like the NHS will be protected private healthcare companies among others seem convinced that all their greedy dreams are about to come true.

The manifesto also makes clear Plaid Cymru’s support for F.E. colleges. They pledge to support F.E. colleges and apprenticeships. This is a good policy, although vague, as F.E. colleges are important places for unemployed people to reskill. They are also important community assets where people can take night classes, disabled people, pensioners and other people living isolated lives can get out and meet people. It saddens me that so few of the parties in this election recognise the importance of this part of our education system.

The Welsh nationalists state that reducing “the deficit must not be done by punishing the most vulnerable in society to pay for the mistakes of politicians and bankers.” I couldn’t agree more but unfortunately, and through no fault of Plaid Cymru, that’s exactly what has been happening for the last 5 years.

They intend to scrap the Bedroom Tax and carry out a “fully independent” review of Universal Credit before it’s implemented. If it goes ahead they intend to pay weekly rather than monthly and to individuals rather than to households. This is crucial as even in the pilots payments to households led to problems such as abusive partners taking all the money and leaving a family destitute for an entire month.

They say they will work to remove the need for foodbanks. Their proposals “for a Welsh Jobcentre Plus system will put the focus on helping people into work rather than punishing them for disadvantages they face.” If only all the parties took this attitude and treated people with decency and respect.

On pensions they say they will end pensioner poverty with a living wage. They oppose the increase in the state pension age.

They intend to tackle fuel poverty and to place a credit cap on payday lenders. They also suggest the possibility of a windfall tax on payday lenders.

On housing they say they will “implement rent controls to ensure affordability of rental housing.” They support the building of social and council housing too – all very sensible. They want to see higher council tax for second homes and they want to strengthen tenants’ rights. I’m a bit miffed with Plaid Cymru because their policies are decent and sensible and leave no room for comedic criticism.

Next up is the Green Party. Surely this bunch of hippies and tree huggers will give me an opportunity or two to have a laugh at their expense.

Early in their manifesto they pledge to build 500,000 social homes for rent over 5 years. Nothing funny there that’s a good policy. They also want to end tuition fees and cancel student debt. They will also crack down on tax avoidance and tax evasion. All good stuff and none of it is funny.

The Greens want to reform the benefits system. That would include ending the forced labour schemes known collectively as workfare, ending the punitive sanctions regime that has seen many benefits claimants left destitute and in some cases suicidal. They will also double child benefit and increase the state pension.

The Greens are one of the most radical parties in this election and they show it with statements such as – “The market has been in charge for so long that it dominates our imagination and colours our view of ourselves. The market is short sighted and short term,” they think it is time to put people in control. They reject the idea that everything is done better by the private sector. They will enlarge the public sector and improve services.

They want to “halt and reverse austerity” and create decent and secure jobs”. They intend to properly regulate the financial sector too.

The Green Party pledges to “support those without jobs and treat them with respect in a system that makes getting a job something worthwhile.”

On energy they want to ensure that “everyone is able to cook and keep warm.” They want people charged for what they use and not penalised for using less. They say they will end fuel poverty and make sure “we are not cut off or forced to use pre-payment meters.”

They will provide youth clubs, non-curricular training and oppose the privatisation of F.E. colleges and provide an extra £1.5billion of funding for this crucial part of our education system. They will restore the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16 – 17 year olds and provide “more training and work experience for young unemployed people through expanding apprenticeships; specifically, provide an apprenticeship to all qualified young people who … want one.” They will end student loans, cancel student debt and make sure unpaid internships last no longer than 4 weeks. That’s an important point because long lasting unpaid internships benefit middle and upper class young people because their parents can afford to back them financially for months whereas weeks would be a struggle for many working class families.

The Greens intend to create a living wage. They also pledge to keep housing benefit for under 25s. This should be a pledge from all parties. Without access to housing benefit many young people who are unemployed or on a low wage are trapped in abusive households.

The Green Party want free prescriptions, keep the NHS in public ownership and will abolish the TV license. That last one is a definite vote winner. I’m sure many people on the left and right would unite behind that idea.

Housing has played a big part in my review but not nearly a big enough part in this election. But some parties, such as the Greens, have taken the issue seriously. They believe, and rightly so, that there is “misplaced faith” in the market. Houses are seen as financial assets instead of a place to live. They will invest in public housing by, as I said above, building 500,000 social homes. They will also devolve Housing Benefit budgets to local authorities and scrap the Bedroom Tax. They will scrap the help to buy scheme too and raise council tax for expensive houses and empty ones.

The Greens also want to raise the minimum wage and introduce a 35 hour week which would help to reduce unemployment.

On tax they say they will introduce a Financial Transaction Tax and a wealth tax. The idea is to “tax for fairness and to redistribute income and wealth.” They will also increase the number of tax collectors to make HMRC more efficient at stopping tax dodgers. They want to replace the Council Tax and the Uniform Business Rate with a Land Value Tax and abolish the employees’ National Insurance upper threshold so that high earners pay more. Finally they will raise the top rate of income tax to 60%.

The Greens recognise what many of the other parties don’t – it’s no picnic living on benefits. Benefit claimants are victims of discrimination being considered “undeserving” poor. There are actually more benefit claimants in work than jobless and pensioners combined which suggests to me that the real problem is with the economy not the claimants.

The Greens intend to replace benefits in the long term with a basic income. But in the shorter term they intend to stop Universal and review it, end workfare and ensure a choice of paid jobs or training instead, review sanctions and the benefits cap. The sanctions regime pushes people to rely on food banks and it has to end.

They want to provide more personalised assistance for jobseekers with mental health problems. They also intend to end DWP contracts with private companies to assess benefit entitlement. The debacle with ATOS should have made all the parties think that way. They also want to restore the link between benefits and earnings and raise child benefits.

All good polices but a little disappointing – not a single tree was hugged. These days this manifesto looks radical but it isn’t radical it’s just sensible. Can the SNP match the ‘radicalism’ of the Green Party manifesto?

They start off with a declaration of intent – “SNP MPs will demand an end to austerity.” Great start, now Wow! me. A “”modest spending increase” of 0.5% above inflation. Wow! What a let down. Surely they can do better than that?

They pledge to reintroduce the 50p top rate of income tax, better but it was actually higher for most of the time Thatcher was in power. They will tax bankers bonuses, introduce a levy on tobacco companies, a bank levy and a mansion tax while cracking down on tax avoidance and abolishing nom-dom status. OK this is good stuff but I’m still not Wowed.

They pledge increased spending for the NHS and want to increase the minimum wage and push the living wage. Trident will be scrapped and the £100billion saved from it will be spent on health, education and childcare.

The SNP will oppose further cuts the child benefits and tax credits. They “will vote to increase benefits at least in line with CPI inflation, to ensure that the incomes of the poorest in society do not fall even further behind the cost of living.” They will also vote against plans to cut the Disability Living Allowance, Conservative plans the Scottish Nationalists claim would result in 1 million people across the UK losing £1,100 per year which would impact on their ability to live independent lives. They would also increase the Carer’s Allowance to match JSA. They will not support the restriction of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds.

They will increase the work allowance by 20% which “means people moving in to work from benefits will keep more of their income.” They will halt the roll out of Universal Credit and PIP and “seek urgent reform of the conditionality and sanctions regime, to establish a fairer approach.” It’s refreshing to see a party that’s likely to be the third biggest in parliament after this election actually recognise that the sanctions imposed on benefit claimants are a problem. According to them the “removal of cash benefits should be a last, rather than a first, resort.” Sanctions have certainly be used by the current government to claw money back from the poorest people in the country.

The Scottish (SNP) government currently spends £35million per year compensating those affected by the Bedroom Tax. The SNP “will vote for the immediate abolition of the unfair Bedroom Tax.”

They want to cut University tuition fees in England. They also want to tackle fuel poverty and pre-payment meters and zero-hours contracts.

They also want to see more affordable homes for rent and will back the building of 100,000 affordable houses per year.

They want to review the increase in retirement age, they also want fairer pensions and will protect the winter fuel payment. The SNP also want to retain free bus passes, TV licenses and personal care for older people.

I’m still not wowed! But there is certainly a lot about the SNP’s manifesto pledges that make me wonder why Labour aren’t saying these things. On the other hand people should be aware that the SNP are actually in government in Scotland (the first majority government in the history of the Scottish parliament) and they have implemented cuts. For example they’ve cut funding for F.E. colleges and they have drastically cut fire services to the extent that fire brigade chiefs last week were warning that any further cuts would impact on the ability of the service to do its job.

So the SNP seem radical but only when compared with the usual Westminster suspects. Are there more radical people out there? Yes there are.

The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) promise to bring the railways and banks into public ownership. They pledge not only to stop the sell-off of council houses but a “mass council home building programme”. They will end the spending cuts and scrap tuition fees. They want to see a £10 an hour minimum wage and an end to zero hours contracts.

On benefits and pensions they want to protect benefits and they want “living benefits. TUSC would restore the pre-Thatcher value of pensions and the link between pensions and earnings.

They would end exemptions to the minimum wage, restore trade union rights and scrap the Bedroom Tax. They will also ensure that women have genuine equal rights and pay. They aren’t opposed to all cuts though – they want to cut carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy. They will pay for this partly by cracking down on tax avoidance which costs Britain perhaps as much as £120billion per year.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). They would also raise the minimum wage, tackle zero hours contracts and stop the sanctions regime imposed on benefit claimants. They would, as I’ve argued myself many times, bring down the Housing Benefit bill by building affordable homes to rent.

The SSP would return vital services like the Royal Mail and the railways to public ownership. They would stand against the privatisation agenda of the Westminster parties. They too would restore trade union rights.

They would tackle fuel poverty. They want to see a Citizen’s Income introduced and they would also replace the Council tax with an income based alternative. They would make public transport free in a bold bid to cut carbon emissions and protect the NHS from TTIP.

Lastly we come to the Communist Party. The Communists, like TUSC and the SSP, believe that working people didn’t cause the crisis but they have been made to pay for it.

The Communists pledge to end austerity and nationalise key industries like the railways, transport and the banks. They want to end zero-hours contracts and introduce a living wage. They too want to stop TTIP and reverse anti-union laws.

They want a wealth tax. The Communist party want to end benefit sanctions and remove private companies from the welfare state. They also want to build 1 million council houses. Yes 1 million council houses – no messing about for the Communists. But then they always did know how to write a good manifesto. They also want more apprenticeships for young people.

On May 8th the SNP will undoubtedly be the most radical party to be well represented in parliament. But that radicalism is relative. The Greens, on both sides of the Scottish border, are more radical but they will probably end up with just 1 or 2 MPs. The most radical parties include TUSC, the SSP and the Communist Party. I apologise to those parties for not doing them justice here. Their manifestos are all worth a read – particularly the SSP manifesto which is very well written while the TUSC manifesto contains a lesson for all the big parties – there’s no need for an election manifesto to be 158 pages long!

The truth is I simply underestimated the task of reviewing all the manifestos. I started (in Part 1) by calling this a brief review but it has turned out to be anything but. I urge everyone to read as much as you can about the policies of any party you might be thinking of voting for and consider carefully the impact of their policies – particularly those concerning the welfare state, housing and the NHS. If you are unemployed or on a low wage please don’t vote for a party that hates you like UKIP. If you want to use your vote as a protest do it in a way that is positive – vote for a party that has seen through the austerity myth. If you are reasonably well off do something really radical – vote for selfless reasons not for a tax cut. Britain is a massively wealthy country and there is no need for these cuts and attacks on poor people. Use your vote to send an anti-austerity message to Westminster – “No ifs! No buts! We won’t take more F’n cuts!”

Continuing with my, not so brief, review of election manifestos things are about to take a turn for the worst I’m afraid. Next up are the Conservatives and the even more Conservatives.

The current tormentors in chief of all low paid, marginalised, unemployed or vulnerable people are the Conservative party. It doesn’t seem that their attitude is likely to change. They come out fighting straight away saying they will “continue to create a fairer welfare system where benefits are capped to the level that makes work pay – so you are rewarded for working hard and doing the right thing.” They say that as if low wages suddenly become less low if benefits are pushed down. How does cutting benefits make it any easier to live on the minimum wage? If your pay is too low to live on that doesn’t change because benefits are cut ever lower and lower. What would “make work pay” is employers giving people the wage they deserve. Every time David Cameron says “do the right thing” my blood boils. He is clearly saying being unemployed is entirely the fault of the individual and nothing to do with the state the economy is in which is nonsense. It’s time Cameron stopped attacking unemployed people and started telling employers to “do the right thing” and pay people a living wage.

On housing they promise to extend the right to buy scheme to Housing Associations which would simply exacerbate the crisis in the rented sector and ironically push up the benefits bill. Social housing rents are generally a good bit lower than private rents but many people living in private rented accommodation need to claim the Local Housing Allowance (the private sector equivalent of Housing Benefit) in order to pay their rent. It’s no coincidence that the bill for Housing Benefit/Local Housing Allowance has gone through the roof while the amount of social housing has decline rapidly due to the right to buy. Less social housing to rent means more people on low incomes have to find private lets and that means benefit bills go up.

So the answer on housing is not to make it easier to placate natural Tory supporters with another glut of relatively cheap houses entering the market just in time to make the Tories worth voting for if you’re a young lower middle class would be house owner at the expense of those who simply cannot afford to buy a house no matter how low the price. The answer is let the market deal with housing for those who can afford and have the desire to buy and let the social housing sector meet the housing needs of the rest. Jobs would be created and the benefits bill would come down.

It’s sad that after two decades or more of a genuine housing crisis one of the two major parties in British politics is still fixated with house prices and still refuses to recognise the real housing crisis in Britain. Who cares that some reasonably well off middle class twenty somethings might have to wait a year or two longer to “get on the housing ladder”? Millions of people are facing a genuine lack of affordable housing which for many means homelessness and bedsits and for many more means unnecessarily expensive private lets. And if I may appeal, just for a moment, to the innate greed and selfishness of all Tory voters – higher housing costs for low paid and unemployed people means a higher bill for housing benefit which you pay for in your tax. So for once in your life “do the right thing”, however reluctantly, and vote for a party that wants to increase the social housing stock instead of selling it off for short term gain.

On the plus side they insist they will not raise VAT. Of course they are the ones responsible for it being at 20% so the least they can do is not raise it any more. It’s a regressive tax that hits the poorest hardest and it’s a disgrace that none of the major parties are saying they are going to cut it.

According to the Tory manifesto Britain’s recovery is the result of “a supreme national effort, in which everyone has made sacrifices and everyone has played their part.” Yes that’s true, we’ve all played our part like those millionaires who had to go through the trauma of a massive income tax cut. I can only imagine how horrific it was for them to have to suffer the indignity of the government giving them money hand over fist.

The Conservative Party will cut the cap on benefits to £23,000. The whole business of a cap on benefits when it was first introduced was a masterclass in propaganda. The image of eternally jobless families living off the earnings of ‘hard working tax payers’ and having a good laugh at all the idiots working for a living was conjured up. Suddenly it wasn’t the avaricious bankers who had destroyed the economy but parasitic benefit scroungers – many of whom, as it happens, were actually working when it happened. The cap is £26,000 and that seems like a lot of money until you consider two things 1) no individual gets £26,000 and 2) the cap applies to households. A household might mean a mother father and three kids. Is £26,000 on benefits really too much for a whole family that are struggling in hard times? No and I repeat if they are serious about bringing down the benefits bill the best way is not to vilify those on benefits but to create jobs that pay well and expand the provision of social housing.

The theme is continued – “Under Labour, those who worked hard found more and more of their earnings taken away in tax to support a welfare system that allowed, and even encouraged, people to choose benefits when they could be earning a living … if you did the right thing [aaaaarrrrggghh!!!], you were penalised – and if you did the wrong thing, you were rewarded.”
£74 a week on JSA is hardly a reward and if Cameron and co had ever experienced hardship they’d know it. Clearly in their minds, and sadly in the minds of many voters in this election, claiming benefits is “the wrong thing”. Maybe those of us who can’t find a job, are physically or mentally incapable of doing a job, or whose job(s) simply don’t pay enough should just be content to starve.

The Tories introduced Universal Credit, and intend to continue with it, as part of the solution to all those scroungers on the dole sucking the life out of the hard working people doing the right thing. It has so far been an expensive failure as was the new website for jobseekers – Universal Job Match. Surely the utter incompetence involved in rolling out (I hate that phrase) these schemes resulted in the person responsible losing their job? No, Iain Duncan Smith is still the Minister running (into the ground) the Department of Work and Pensions.

The manifesto claims that the changes to welfare mean that the “days of something for nothing are over”. Not if you’re a tax dodging millionaire. They also intend to freeze working age benefits – regardless of the circumstances.

Once again they bring up benefit fraud. Benefit fraud, we are continually told costs us all about £5billion per year. But, of course, it doesn’t. The true cost of benefit fraud is a little over £1billion per year and the rest of the £5billion is the result of error. Most of the errors made in claiming benefits are either caused by how complicated the system is or they are made when processing claims. This last element got much worse under the current government because they cut so many HMRC jobs. If you don’t have enough people working to process the claims there will be mistakes. Oh, and all of the money that is lost due to error is reclaimed by the government. Benefit fraud is real, it does cost us all and it should be stopped but tax avoidance and evasion cost about 25 times as much – that should be the priority.

They will raise the 40p tax threshold meaning that 800,000 people earning between £42,385 and £50,000 will no longer pay it. If you’re earning almost twice the average wage I think you can do without a tax cut. Cut VAT – these people would benefit from it and so would those earning less than them. This policy is a blatant bribe.

Immigration inevitably raises its head in the Tory manifesto. They pledge to “control migration from the European Union by reforming welfare rules.” Good luck with that – benefit tourism is a myth so making changes to the benefit system will not have any impact on immigration levels. Fewer than 6% of EU nationals living in the UK claim benefits. They also want to make sure people have to live here for several years before claiming benefits. Let’s see how they respond when other countries change their rules and start treating the many hundreds of thousands of UK nationals living elsewhere in Europe the same way. But for the Tories it doesn’t really matter if any of their claims on these issues are true or if they really mean to carry out their pledges. What really matters is that promising to be tough on lazy benefits claimants and promising to tackle evil migrants plays well with the kind of narrow minded bigots who routinely vote Conservative – especially those they are in danger of losing to UKIP – and if they can link benefits and immigration, well that’s just a bonus.

On the positive side they promise to create 3 million new apprenticeships and invest in F.E. colleges. If so that’s good – but why haven’t they done it before?

They will create a system where you can get 3 days paid leave annually to volunteer for a good cause. It’s a nice idea and having done it myself I know it’s a good excuse to get away from work for a day but – why bother? Here’s a better idea – incentivise and encourage unemployed people and pensioners to volunteer. They can give more than 3 days a year, it would cost less and as well as being good for the mental health of those living isolated and seemingly pointless lives on benefits it will give them the opportunity to learn new skills, make contacts and improve their chances of finding paid work.

And so we come once more to housing. I know I’ve already discussed some of the Conservative Party’s ideas on housing but you’ll be pleased to hear they have more. As well as extending the right to buy to housing association tenants they also want to force local authorities to sell off their most expensive properties as soon as they become vacant. Oh yes I’m sure that will solve the housing crisis. It will certainly help those who want to buy a house and have been let down by the market. And if that isn’t enough to convince you that the Tories are serious about the housing problems we face they also want to extend the help to buy scheme. So for those who have to rent there is no help but for those who want to buy they are willing to use tax payers’ money – your money – to underwrite private debts so that reasonably well off individuals can gain assets they otherwise couldn’t have bought and so enrich themselves. This policy can’t really work. If the overall supply of houses isn’t increasing all this will do is drive up house prices. But, of course, that is why they want to sell off even more social housing. Once again the Tories put short term political gain and the selfishness of some voters before solving a crisis that is on the verge of becoming a catastrophe. No party that is willing to do that should ever be allowed to govern anything.

Any positives to end with? Yes, kind of – they will keep council tax low and cut inheritance tax. So for all those Tory voters hoping to inherit Grandmama’s big house and estate it really is good news. Just ask David Cameron – he might even be willing to “do the right thing” and put the money in a UK bank and pay tax on it the next time one of his relatives dies and leaves him millions.

Now for the other Conservative party – UKIP – excuse me while I hold my nose to avoid the stench. This lot actually start off quite well stating they will abolish the Bedroom Tax and abolish tuition fees for students studying certain things including science, medicine, maths and engineering. ‘Proper’ subjects like what old Maggie would have approved of – there’s no sociology on their list.

OK now for the nasty stuff. UKIP directly links immigration with unemployment as if joblessness is caused by migrants. They also get it in the neck for the benefits bill and the over stretched NHS. OK maybe some of these immigrants don’t like to go down the old King’s Head for a pint like Nigel Farage (Farage is a French name by the way and his wife is German) and maybe they eat weird food and talk funny but they are certainly not magicians. Why am I so insistent on that? Because only magic can explain how Johnny Foreigner manages to steal our jobs and claim all our benefits at the same time.

Of course immigrants have an impact on the labour market and anyone who says they don’t is an idiot. But they mainly find themselves doing low paid work no one else wants and any negative impact they have is short term. Once they are earning they are paying tax (unless they are rich nom-dom migrants avoiding tax), buying goods and services which then creates or maintains other people’s jobs who pay tax and buy goods and services and so on. As for benefits it’s simply a fact, and the government’s own figures show it, that immigrants are significantly less likely to claim benefits than people born here.

And to blame them for ‘over stretching’ the NHS is absurd. If all the immigrants who work in the NHS left the country there wouldn’t be an NHS. The manifesto actually claims that the NHS was founded in 1948 and that 60 years on it’s in crisis. I don’t know about that but if they think 1948 – 2015 is 60 years maybe education is in crisis.

There are a few good things in the UKIP manifesto and most are designed to grab a share of the grey vote from the Tories. They want to keep free bus passes and TV licenses for the over 75s and free prescriptions and eye tests for the over 60s without means testing. They also say they want to protect day care, home care and meals on wheels.

They claim they are committed to maintaining a safety net of social security. Like so many parties in this election they insist on protecting social security and then immediately launch an assault on it. They will limit child benefit to the first 2 children because everyone knows 3rd and 4th children don’t need to eat, lower the benefits cap (see my tirade against the Lib Dems in part 1 of this review). They will crack down on benefit fraud, stop payment of benefits for children who don’t live here and end benefits tourism – there will be no benefits for immigrants for 5 years. Firstly, as I said above, benefit fraud is wrong and should be stopped but it’s also a drop in the ocean compared to the amount we lose every year to wealthy tax avoiders and evaders. As for benefit tourism (again see above) – it’s a myth it doesn’t exist and anyone who has actually lived for a prolonged period of time on benefits can see how absurd it is to suggest mass migration is fuelled by the promise of £74 a week on JSA and all the harassment and vilification that goes along with it, which is bad enough even when you’re not from Foreignland or Immigrantistan.

But good old UKIP just keeps you guessing. Right after all that awful garbage they come out with some nice stuff, no doubt in an attempt to prove they aren’t all Tory defectors, which they are – except the ones who defected from the BNP. As well as scrapping the Bedroom Tax they will pay Housing Benefit directly to landlords when tenants request it. The Tories should pay attention to those two ideas. When even UKIP thinks you’ve gone too far it’s time to reassess. They will end “ATOS style Work Capability Assessments” and return assessments to GPs or specialists who know the claimant and/or have access to the individual’s medical files. Again Tories you should be thinking “perhaps we should reassess all this stuff if even UKIP think we’re being harsh.” They also say they want to increase Carer’s Allowance in line with top rate JSA.

The manifesto states they want to invest in foodbanks. I know what you’re thinking – “Why not just make work pay and the benefits system fit for purpose so people don’t need foodbanks?” Because that would be the sensible and decent thing to do and UKIP are neither of those.

“Come on that’s a bit harsh,” some of you may be saying. Well, if their attacks on the benefits system aren’t enough to convince you I’m right wait for their ideas on housing. They do recognise there’s a housing crisis but as with the mainstream parties their solution is to rely on the market. [Clears throat] Excuse me Nigel but the market is the reason we have a housing crisis in the first place. “Nothing about social housing?” you ask. Why yes there is indeed. They want to restrict social housing to UK nationals only and, wait for it, landlords would have to “register the nationality of their tenants” – holy crap! They want “local homes for local people”. I wonder if they will insist on local shops for local people too? Sorry about the long out of date pop culture reference it won’t happen again.

Let’s finish up with this bunch of cretins. They say no to the mansion tax, probably because one of their rich backers told them to, and they are broadly supportive of zero hours contracts, again probably because one of their rich backers told them to be. Finally, have a look at their policies on transport. If your name is Jeremy Clarkson you’ll probably have found the party you’ve been waiting for.

Election time is upon us and I thought it would be useful to produce a brief summary of the various party manifestos focusing on benefits, austerity and related issues. This hasn’t been easy and if I’d known how absolutely enormous some of the manifestos are, and how tedious, dull and repetitive they all are I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But after I had read one or two the words of Magnus Magnusson (and now John Humphries) rang in my ears: I’ve started so I’ll finish.

I’m going to begin this summary with the biggest and most tedious of all the manifestos – that of the Liberal Democrats. 158 fecking pages! Here goes.

They don’t get off to a great start. If you’re a known liar, and let’s face it this lot are well known for being accomplished liars, and you really want to convince someone you’re telling the truth the worst thing you can do is begin with a lie. I refer to this beauty at the start of the summary on their website (there’s another whopper at the start of the actual manifesto): “Since 2010 we have used a mixture of 80% spending reductions and 20% tax rises to halve the deficit and share the burden of doing so fairly.”

I don’t dispute their figures, shocking though they are, no it’s the sharing the burden fairly bit that gets me. It’s a blatant lie and anyone on a low income knows it. The ‘spending reductions’ (what used to be called cuts) hit the poorest hardest and the tax rises included a rise in VAT to 20%. VAT disproportionately impacts on those with lower incomes and even at 20% it is barely noticed by those on high incomes.

So Nick Clegg and friends are not off to a great start. “Surely they up their game after that?” you’re thinking. No, sorry, it gets worse. The Liar Democrats then go on to pledge another £3billion in “welfare savings”. Savings is another euphemism for cuts. Benefits have already been cut both officially through caps, for example, and unofficially through the powerful, blunt and sometimes brutal tool of sanctions which has been used to beat down those on benefits in an arbitrary way often leaving people who are trying hard to find work and get off benefits destitute because they turned up 10 minutes late for an appointment or some other spurious reason. But that’s not enough for the Liberal Dissemblers now they want to take another £3billion from people who are already living on or below the poverty line.

OK I’ve had a go at them and I feel better for it so now I’ll just run through some of their other lies – I mean manifesto pledges. They promise a 1% cap on the uprating of working age benefits which is just another way of saying if inflation is more than 1% benefits will be cut. And why not? After all the best time to cut someone’s income is when prices are rising fast – that way they really feel it. They want to pay housing benefit directly to landlords with the tenant’s consent which is actually a decent policy although I have to point out that housing benefit used to be paid directly to landlords until the government the Liberal Deceivers are part of changed the rules in order to teach people on benefits “responsibility” so in my view they don’t get any bonus points there for promising to fix something they broke.

They say they want to increase the minimum wage and clampdown on employers who avoid paying it. That’s good stuff but you have to ask why they haven’t done that at some point over the last 5 years and isn’t workfare just a government assisted programme to help employers avoid paying the minimum wage – or indeed any wage?

Other similarly positive pledges include reviewing work capability assessments and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments, and reform of the “spare room subsidy” (Bedroom Tax) but not its abolition. Again the question has to be – why did they help create and/or maintain these policies in the first place if they recognise that they are unfair and harmful? And they pledge, as every party in this election does, to increase spending on the NHS.

On education they promise a review of higher education finance but there is no promise to abolish tuition fees – I bet they struggled to keep a straight face when they came up with that one. They also promise more apprenticeships.

On housing they promise more house building including 5 garden cities between Oxford and Cambridge. Why there has to be 5 Garden cities specifically between Oxford and Cambridge I don’t know – perhaps there are a lot of homeless professors in the area. They also claim that they want to allow Local Authorities to borrow in order to build affordable homes including “traditional council housing”. How interesting that council housing is now thought of as a tradition by people who have never lived in it – how very detached of them. They also want to devolve the “right to buy” to Local Authorities – in other words “we’re not brave enough to abolish it or even question it and besides the Tories who we really hope to be in government with again won’t let us so we’ll try to make it someone else’s problem.” Finally on housing they want to improve protection for private tenants but they don’t mention a rent cap.

Before I move on to more important parties I should probably explain why I think the LibDems are a bunch of liars. The fact is they have a proven track record of lying and I’m not talking about unfulfilled election pledges – everyone expects that. When they were promising to end tuition fees in England many people questioned whether they really could deliver it and the LibDem response was “Just look at our record in Scotland. We abolished them there.” This was, in fact, an untruth (to be generous to them). They did not abolish fees in Scotland they reduced them, moved them to the end of a degree rather than the beginning and renamed them a graduate endowment tax. They were used to fund universities so they were fees by another name. Then there’s the Iraq War. Do you remember the LibDems taking a principled anti-war stance? Yes? Well I don’t. I remember them telling everyone they had taken a principled anti-war stance but their actual policy was to support the war if there was a mandate from the UN. That was an insult to all of us on the anti-war protests who had to listen to their speakers and knew the war was wrong and a potential catastrophe no matter what the UN said.

If that and their lies over fees in England isn’t enough to prove them liars there’s more proof in the manifesto. They say they want to “Limit welfare reductions so we do not destroy the essential safety net that protects us all in times of crisis.” But for the last 5 years they have been destroying it bit by bit. There’s also the oft repeated line “If we weren’t in government with them the Tories would have been worse.” This one is just absurd. If the Lib Dems hadn’t gone into government with them the Tories would have only been able to form a minority administration and they could have been blocked from doing anything.

One final piece of proof is found in the manifesto section on crime. Here their disingenuousness reaches new heights of craftiness. They show a graph (p122 of the manifesto) on crime levels drawn from the British Crime Survey from 2008 onwards showing crime higher under the previous government rising from 2008 to 2009 and then falling year on year when the LibDems were in power. This ignores the fact that crime in England and Wales as recorded in the British Crime Survey has fallen year on year since 1996 with the merest blip in 2009. Not only that but crime fell in 2010 and the Liberal Democrats only came into office in May of that year so they must be really fast workers if they managed to bring crime down so quickly. The truth is that academics have been scratching their heads for a decade at least over falling crime rates and still haven’t come up with an explanation but one thing is for sure – it has absolutely nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats.

Next I’ll consider the Scottish Green Party. They are a separate party from their counterparts south of the border – basically a sister party. However since their ideas are very similar to the southern Greens I’ll be brief and look at their sister party later.

The Scottish Greens, who have seen their numbers swell since the independence referendum last year, pledge to “roll back welfare cuts founded on false claims that people prefer benefits rather than rewarding work.” They want to abolish the Bedroom Tax and “lift the punishing sanctions regime.” They also want to stop the roll out of Universal Credit and, in Scotland, design a new system with the Scottish parliament’s increased powers and in doing so they claim they will build a welfare system which removes the stigma of benefits.” That all sounds lovely – thank you Scottish Greens it would be nice to be stigma free.

A redesigned benefits system would be part of a ‘Citizens Income’ which seems like a nice idea although they are a bit shaky on details. They will increase the minimum wage, abolish workfare, replace the Council Tax with a land tax and create a wealth tax of 2% on the top 1% of earners which they claim would have raised (UK wide) £120billion in 2014.

They pledge to invest in social housing (yes actual investment in social housing instead of running it down or selling it off), end buy-to-let-tax breaks and create secure tenancies. In recent years it’s been nearly impossible to get any mainstream party to discuss rent, although they are all happy to talk about house prices ‘til the cows come home, so it’s been a positive turn in this election campaign that the problems faced by renters in both the social and private sectors have finally, if somewhat belatedly, made it onto the agenda.

The Scottish Greens want an energy efficiency programme that will help to end fuel poverty as well as being good for the environment, they are Greens after all.

On Education they want free university tuition throughout the UK and they want apprentices paid £10 per hour (their goal for the minimum wage) instead of the derisory amount of £3.30 they get at the moment. Finally, they want to use the publicly owned Royal Bank of Scotland to create a network of People’s Banks “obliged to offer cheap basic banking services.” That was much easier to get through than the Liberal Democrats – I didn’t have to stop every 30 seconds to shout “Liars!”

Next up is a party that used, at least claim, to give a damn about working class people – the Labour Party. They have long since abandoned the working class but let us look at their pledges anyway even if it is with a heavy heart.

We will “control social security spending” – oh dear not a good start. Of course there is nothing wrong with being careful with public money, after all those people who actually pay tax instead of avoiding it work hard for their money, but that statement suggests two things: 1 – social security spending is out of control and 2- there is a way to bring down social security spending other than by creating jobs and prosperity so that people don’t need to turn to the benefits system. These are both dangerous assumptions that put the blame for the benefits bill at the doorstep of those who need to claim benefits rather than at the doorstep of the greedy irresponsible bankers who caused the crash, the politicians (both Conservative and Labour) who refused to properly regulate the banking sector for decades and an economic system that always creates winners and losers and in the words of Marx “poverty in the midst of plenty”.

They do, however, plan to ‘promote’ the living wage and raise the minimum wage, ban “exploitative zero-hours contracts” and provide apprenticeships for all school leavers. They also state that “the Bedroom Tax is cruel and we will abolish it.”

Labour have plans for a compulsory jobs guarantee for all young people unemployed for 1 year, and that will be 2 years for people over 25. If they don’t take the job they lose benefits. I find that worrying for two reasons: 1 – I don’t like people being forced to do anything against their will and 2 – given how our economy seems dominated by low paid, short term, insecure work either these jobs won’t materialise or they will be little better than workfare. Actually this policy may well be laying the groundwork for mass labour (with a small l) conscription of young people. The bosses at Poundland and Argos will be rubbing their hands with glee imagining how many properly paid staff can be got rid of and replaced with a new type of workfare workforce if Labour’s pledge goes wrong.

They aren’t finished with young people either. They also pledge to “replace out of work benefits for 18-21 year olds with a new Youth Allowance dependent on recipients being in training and targeted at those who need it most.”

On tax they promise to reverse the Tory cut in income tax for top earners and put the top rate back up to 50p. This is to make the top earners “pay a little more”. They also want to abolish the nom-dom status that allows rich people (including some who were actually born here and have lived here their whole lives) to claim they live in or are from another country and they pay tax there. This scheme to help the rich stay rich has been around since 1799 and it’s about time it was abolished. Well done Labour it’s only taken you the entire time you’ve existed x2 to take on this outrageous law.

After saying Britain “needs a responsible and fair social security system that provides security when people lose their jobs or fall sick” the manifesto then goes on to announce that Labour will keep the benefits cap and possibly even lower it! The benefits cap is arbitrary and unfair and if Labour meant what they said about fairness and security on the same page (p47) they would scrap the cap.

On a more positive note they say they will not cut tax credits. After that moment of positivity however they come out with a pledge to test Jobseekers’ Maths, English and IT skills within 6 weeks of making a claim. “F**k a duck! Surely they’re not serious?” you say. Sorry but they are. After that, says the manifesto, they “will be required to take up training where this will improve their chances of getting a job.” Remember this is the Labour Party manifesto not UKIP’s or the BNP’s. Nothing about giving people opportunities or help and encouragement from Labour, no it’s all about forcing people to do this that and the other. If the Tories say they’ll make the unemployed jump through 20 hoops for their pittance Labour’s default response is “Only 20?”

They will pause Universal Credit to review it, and probably try to come up with something nastier. They will also replace the Work Programme. Hopefully the replacement will be better than the predecessor which Labour created and in so doing laid the foundations of the Work Programme – the Employment Zones. Employment Zones were awful and even less effective than the Work Programme. Labour’s track record on this kind of issue is really poor.

“Finish with some positives please,” I hear you cry out. OK I’ll try. On page 88 they announce “We will reform the Work Capability Assessment and focus it on the support disabled people need to get into work.” There would be tailored help for disabled people – that’s more positive, right? Well Labour kicked the whole Work Capability assessment thing off in the first place so I’m not sure how far they can be trusted on this.

OK I’ll try to find another positive. Ah! Here we go 3 year tenancies for renters and a ceiling on excessive rent rises. That’s not bad.

“What about Jobseekers’ Allowance? What are their plans for that?” I hear you ask. Well they intend to create a higher rate of JSA for those who have contributed. That’s another positive – if you get the higher amount that is. There is a real danger there of playing further into the deserving and undeserving poor narrative that has re-emerged as it usually does under the Tories. Those on the lower rate, the “undeserving”, will be sitting ducks for all sorts of attacks and sanctions. I’m not against the idea of some people being a little more comfortable while out of work but I’d rather everyone who has to claim benefits got more and didn’t have to face the prospect of loan sharks and foodbanks whenever there is a bill to be paid.

“Come on. Try harder. Finish with a positive.” OK … um … migrants will have to have lived here for 2 years before they can claim benefits. Alright that’s only really a positive if you’re a UKIP or BNP supporter but I couldn’t find anything else. Hey! I just realised this policy is one of those ideas that came out of a game of oneup-manship I mentioned before like the hoops they dream up for you to jump through just because you don’t want to starve or be made homeless. On this issue one party said “Don’t let them claim for 6 months,” then another party upped the ante and so on until we got to two years. By the time the next election comes around maybe migrants will just be beaten and mugged at Heathrow and put on the next plane out of the country. Oops! I may have just given UKIP a new policy – or Labour.

From the BBC’s The Scheme to Channel 4’s Benefits Street an entire genre of television programme has developed in recent years focusing on the lives of benefit claimants. Most people on benefits would probably have hoped that that would be a positive development. Sadly it has simply opened up another front in the war against the poorest and most vulnerable, and in fact many who are not so poor and vulnerable but who have to rely on benefits from time to time.

Let me point out straight away that despite having used the term “poverty porn” I’m not keen on it. I think there is something flippant about it and I also think it underestimates the seriousness of what’s actually happening. Pornography, at least the legal stuff, ranges from the mildly titillating to the completely degrading but “poverty porn” is worse than that. It’s only degrading at its best much of it is either purposefully or unintentionally propaganda directed against great swathes of the population and against the very concept of welfare provision. It’s not pornography it’s class warfare.

It all plays perfectly into the hands of Iain Duncan Smith et al in their crusade against benefit claimants. Why would people be up in arms to defend the vulnerable and poor if the vulnerable and poor are a bunch of no good malingering wasters or even fraudsters? Why would people in work defend those out of work if those out of work are living a life of luxury at the expense of hard working tax payers? Well of course they wouldn’t.

To that end the propaganda has succeeded. There has been a vitriolic response from many people against benefit claimants on social media, disabled people have been physically attacked and the perception many people have of the welfare state is that most of the people on benefits are either work shy layabouts or fraudsters.

The debate over the last year or so has centred on Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Charlie Brooker writing in The Guardian (12/01/14) summed up the controversy –

“Benefits Street has caused a row with several distinct yet interwoven strands. Some on the left think it’s an offensive and misleading example of “poverty porn”, which is just like regular porn, minus the money shots. Some on the right believe it’s a damning indictment of the welfare state. And some people, brimming with unfocused rage, see it as a televised “scum zoo” full of pariahs for them to fling peanuts and hashtags at.”

He goes on to argue that the programme shows some “authentic community spirit”. Even the odious Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, in a discussion with Ralph Lee, Head of factual programming at Channel 4 (italics added by me because of the obvious irony), and Owen Jones, Head of being a token left wing voice in the mainstream media, said he warmed to the characters in Benefit Street. And yes, before you ask, Fraser Nelson did call the people in the programme characters and not in a “oh he’s a right character him” kind of way. To be fair to upper classholes like Fraser Nelson the people in programmes of this sort are probably so far removed from their daily experience that they seem like some awful Dickensian characters, like Bill Sikes or the charwoman in A Christmas Carol, who can’t possibly be real.

You may have seen this Channel 4 programme and perhaps you were angered by its portrayal of benefit claimants. If so I’ve got bad news for – Benefits Street is not only the tip of an enormous iceberg but it’s also one of the least offensive and least negative examples of the genre. Brooker is probably not so far from the truth when he argues that the title Benefits Street is the problem and that it was “cynically chosen to push buttons, and that ploy has worked. It hangs over the show like a fart at the start of a folk song, changing the tone of all that follows.”

Skint, also by Ch4 is similar in that it’s not an all out attack although it is certainly worse than Benefits Street. There is still some room for compassion and it’s possible to imagine someone watching the trials and tribulations of Richie from Grimsby, who really is a right character, in series 2 episode 2 without being so full of hatred for him they’d want him to die. At the start of the episode we’re told that he has been sanctioned for not being able to fill in a form properly and that the “demon drink has laid Richie pretty low and being sanctioned is an extra kick in the teeth.”

Geoff, another denizen of Grimsby (the whole episode is set in the town and it really puts the grim in Grimsby), has been a fisherman for 40 years. He has recently had to sign on and complains about “Polish or Latvian bastards … taking my work”. Which beautifully ties in unemployment with immigration while at the same time playing into the racist white working class myth. The producers, director and Ralph Lee Head of factual nonsense at Channel 4, must have had a massive group orgasm when Geoff said that.

But Geoff doesn’t stop there. He points out he’s rarely had to sign on over the years, although it is always a possibility for fishermen, and that when you sign on “they look at you like you’re a piece of shit.” That, I’m sure, will resonate with many people who have signed on.

In moments of decency the programme shows genuine warmth between people. Richie for example wants to go into rehab and get off the drink for the sake of his daughter and Geoff, despite also having a drinking problem, has a good home life with his long term, and fully employed, partner. It also points out that Grimsby has just one Youth Centre, strapped for cash as it has had to replace its roof. Surely what’s remarkable about a town like Grimsby isn’t that it has characters like Richie and Geoff but that given high unemployment and a lack of resources it doesn’t have a lot more of them.

But before you heave a sigh of relief and say “all that doesn’t sound too bad” wait! Channel 4’s offerings are just the warm up act. When it comes to attacking the poor, unemployed, disabled and benefit claimants in general they can’t compete with the masters of the craft – Channel 5. If all this stuff is “poverty porn” then Channel 4 are mere dabblers in soft core, Channel 5 makes the hard stuff.

They make televisual garbage like On Benefits and Proud. If the title doesn’t give away the tenor of the programme the tag line on the website should tell you exactly what you’re supposed to get from this guff – “Not in Work … but working the system”.

This ‘documentary’ from 2013 begins with Heather a single mum of 11, yes eleven, kids. I added the emphasis to give you an idea of what watching the programme is like. Every time we see Heather we are reminded she has eleven kids by 3 men and we’re told to feel shocked, as if she’s just raped a puppy. In fact Channel 5’s “poverty porn” continually reminds you to be shocked. It uses the words benefit or benefits absolutely relentlessly. For example in another of its offerings Benefits Britain: Life on the dole the viewer is bombarded with phrases like “Benefits house” (that’s a house paid for with housing benefit), “Benefits flat” (likewise) and my favourite “Benefits buddy” (I think that’s a buddy who is also on benefits rather than a buddy who is provided by the welfare state) as if people on the dole shouldn’t be allowed to have friends.

Unlike Channel 4’s efforts in this genre Channel 5’s “Benefits” stable of programmes have no room whatsoever for warmth or compassion. This is where Charlie Brooker’s phrase “scum zoo” really comes into its own. It’s not just that we’re not supposed to feel for the people in these programmes we’re actively discouraged from it. The characters in Channel 5’s “scum zoo” fall broadly into two types 1 – those to be vilified and reviled because they are so good at playing the system and so blatant and open about it and 2 – those we are supposed to laugh at while they cavort for our amusement. Don’t be fooled by the second type, we are continually reminded, their inability to play the system no matter how hard they try might render them amusing but they are still scum so don’t feel pity for them just because they are about to be evicted.

Heather, mother of eleven, is clearly an example of the first type. She knows how to work the system and gets 3 times the average wage in benefits. She was labelled the Dole Queen by the press. Lorna, in Benefits Britain, is an example of the second type. She is a “benefits mum” and is about to be evicted from her “benefits house” due to massive rent arrears. We are to find her funny because she believes there is paranormal activity in the house and that she has been groped by a ghost. Untypically for a type 2 she actually wins her case and avoids eviction. This leads to her and her “bezzie benefits mate” celebrating a “benefits victory”.

The use of language, particular words and phrases, tags, to elicit a negative response is absolutely constant in Channel 5’s output. From the title – On Benefits and Proud, to tag lines like “not working but working the system” to phrases like “benefits house” and “benefits buddy”. It is ceaseless.

If all that isn’t bad enough there’s more. Gypsies On Benefits & Proud is a variant on the established theme. The tag line on the website is “An insight into how easily gypsies can get their hands on benefits.” Staggering stuff.

I can imagine the day they came up with this show:

Lucinda: I just had a thought! Oh! Now it’s an idea.

Oliver: Everyone quiet! Lucinda is having an idea. Go on Lucinda tell us what it is.

Lucinda: Um … wait … no … ah … yes! What if instead of attacking people on benefits or gypsies … um what if we attacked gypsies on benefits?!

Oliver: Genius!

Orgasmic waves ripple through the office. It probably took days to clean up. Not that they would have cleaned it up themselves no that would have been left to cleaners on benefits and proud.

Unlike Channel 4 there isn’t even the pretence of objectivity here. This stuff is aimed at bringing out the worst in people. And it succeeds. For example here are some comments made on the you tube version of a Channel 5 show called Benefit Brits by the Sea:

Dan Survivor: Benefits should be stopped full stop.

Alex Bradley: This makes me so fucking angry. Working my ass off … whilst I’m at uni just so I can fucking eat and these losers just get money for doing nothing.

MsFanmail: I hate people like this getting our money they get from the taxpayers who work they moan they don’t have money for food but seem to have money to get tattoos and cigarettes alcohol drugs etc.

Adam C: … fucking retards.

There’s even one, an American, who can’t claim benefits but who still has a pop at people on benefits and who is stunned that people living in a seasonal town don’t move away at the end of the tourist season “You’re not a tree!” You tube is full of this vitriol. Insults, anger even death threats.

The comments that many of these idiots make proves the effectiveness of these programmes. A few people who are extreme examples of benefit claimants are presented simply as benefit claimants. No one says “this is what benefit claimants are like” but if every example is an extreme example then the impression is that that’s what they are all like. They are all up to no good, they are all taking advantage of the system, they are all claiming vast amounts of money and defrauding the system and they are all criminals. On Newsnight Owen Jones pointed out that when surveyed people thought 27% of benefit claims were fraudulent when in fact only 0.7% are fraudulent. He also pointed out that people think the majority of claimants are unemployed when in fact most are in work.

These “poverty porn” programmes are made by middle or even upper class people who have no experience of poverty or life on benefits. They are playing with people’s lives and playing into a dangerous narrative that wants everyone to see the welfare state as a problem rather than as a symptom of an economic system that fails a large chunk of the population even in the good times. If people accept that narrative the welfare state will be swept away then, sadly, many of the same people on social media who attacked it and made its destruction possible will have no safety net to fall into the next time there is an economic downturn.

On Newsnight Kirsty Wark asked Owen Jones “should they be denied their voice?” It’s not our voice Kirsty it’s the voice of middle class TV producers who know nothing about the lives of benefit claimants.

2014 in review

Posted: December 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 34,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.