Monthly Archives: September 2014

Politics and knitting

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Well, I really couldn’t let this one go, could I? David Cameron’s new minister for civil society, Brooks Newmark, suggested that charities should stay out of the realm of politics. He added “The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”

Well – where to begin? I’ve blogged before about charities and politics when people got in a huff about Oxfam’s Perfect Storm poster. But it’s worth going over these arguments again.

Brooks Newmark thinks that charities should “help others” and keep out of politics. But you can’t do one without the other. Let’s take the nation’s favourite topic, foodbanks. Someone comes to the foodbank in need of help and they are given a wonderful parcel of food which will last them three days, to get them through whatever crisis brought them in. Is this really all that foodbanks can and should do? Certainly, foodbanks themselves don’t think so. They ask what has caused the crisis and try to address this need. The most rapidly rising cause for people attending foodbanks is having their benefits sanctioned. The Trussell Trust (along with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty) investigated and found not a host of people who couldn’t be bothered to fill in forms and attend interviews, but a series of punitive measures implemented without flexibility or human understanding for genuine matters such as bereavement, illness, or even the inability to be in two places at once. Actually, giving out food parcels isn’t helping people, in the long term. What would really help people would be a welfare system implemented fairly but with compassion. And so, the three charities produced a report, Below the Breadline, which launched at the same time as a Channel 4 programme, Breadline Kids, and that notorious Perfect Storm poster.

This is certainly getting involved with politics. If any charity wants to help people, then it really must get involved with the causes of whatever need they are trying to help. It’s the old adage about not getting so focused on pulling people out of the river that no-one goes upstream to find out who is pushing them all in. Unless we look at causes, we’re not really helping. Brooks Newmark suggested donors don’t want their money to be used for politics. But how many donors want to keep on giving, year after year, to a problem that keeps on getting bigger because no-one is addressing the cause? I would go as far as to say that not campaigning to address causes and structures results in collusion. Does feeding families in crisis mean that the government can get away with cutting off a family’s income because at least they won’t starve? Are foodbanks just propping up an unjust, unsustainable policy?

Apparently later, Brooks Newman issued a statement saying that he really meant “party politics”, but even this doesn’t bear scrutiny. What does it mean? And why shouldn’t charities be party political? If criticising government policy, as Oxfam did, is party political, then charities will have to be party political. And if one party’s policies promote the agenda of the charity, then shouldn’t the charity voice its support?

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But it was the knitting comment that finished me off. What a patronising way of describing the work that so many charities, day in, day out. And what a failure to understand the creative and political potential of knitting. Brooks Newmark must have been on holiday in August when 7 miles of pink knitting was stretched out between Aldermaston and Burghfield to campaign against nuclear weapons. He’s clearly never heard of guerrilla knitting, or seen any of the work of the Craftivist Collective. Or even the wonderfully creative knitted bikes made for the Tour de France. Knitting is subversive because its slow, hand-made nature rejects the instant, fast technological fix of capitalism. Protesting with knitting is thoughtful and peaceful and beautiful. I’ll be getting out my needles later and knitting Brooks Newmark a piece of my mind.

Psst! Do you want to know a secret?

It’s been quiet on these pages over the summer holidays. Not that stuff doesn’t happen, but getting up late and being out of the country means I’ve missed most of it. The terrible distressing stories from Iraq, Syria and Gaza haven’t gone unnoticed, but I haven’t felt able to make an informed, helpful comment on these issues.

Something else has been slipping by unnoticed, though. I expect it has slipped by most people, without them ever realising it was happening. I’m talking about TTIP. See – you’ve still no idea what that is! And if I tell you it stands for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are you any the wiser?

It is a deal being negotiated between the US and the EU to removed barriers to trade between the two regions. So you’d expect this blog to have something to say in criticism of an unfettered free market. And I do have a problem with the elevation of “the market” as the solution to all our problems, economic at any rate. But my problem with TTIP runs deeper than this.

For a start, there’s the fact that most people have never heard of it. Negotiations are being carried out in secret, and most of our MPs don’t have any idea about the details of the deal. Its remit is wide ranging, and it needs to be subject to scrutiny. In the interests of democracy, the general public should know what is being discussed, understand its likely impact on our society, and have a say in whether they agree with this or not.

I have more concerns because most of the “barriers” to trade between the EU and the US are in the form of the higher levels of safety standards, environmental protection and workers rights which we have in the EU. Clearly it is better for business if standards are regularised, so that products are compliant across both regions. But lets guess which way standards are likely to change in areas where they differ.

Another aspect of the deal would be to force public services to open themselves up to private companies bidding for contracts, removing any option for governments to choose to keep them in public ownership. Maybe you think private ownership is a good thing, maybe you don’t. Right now, that’s a debate that is raging in the UK with regard to the NHS. If this deal is agreed, there will be no debate, and the NHS could soon be in the hands of American private healthcare companies.

TTIP could prevent better laws to protect our environment and combat climate change
TTIP could prevent better laws to protect our environment and combat climate change

But most insidious of all is the erosion of government power to introduce legislation to protect workers, consumers and the environment. If governments want to implement a living wage, or raise standards for air and water pollution, for example, and a business feels this will impact on their profits, they will be able to sue that government. Not through the usual channels of the national court, but by taking them to an ad hoc secretive arbitration panel, overseen by corporate lawyers. Businesses already hold way to much sway over government policy. This further diminishes government’s ability to make policies for the public good, where people’s taxes will end up paying for corporations to keep the law.

I don’t think you need to be against free trade to recognise that this deal, as it stands, is bad news. Large multinational corporations don’t need more power. It is difficult enough to make sure they pay proper taxes, don’t exploit their workers and take responsibility for tackling climate change and taking care of the environment. And we certainly don’t want to be handing over power to big business in secret without knowing what is being negotiated and given up on our behalf. The secrecy and the strait-jacketing of our elected governments make this deal an attack on democracy.

If you’d like to raise your voice in opposition, you can join the campaign on the 38 degrees website. If you’d like to read more, try George Monbiot or this blog.