Tag Archives: power

Lifting the gagging law?

Bearing WitnessThis tweet today from Christian Aid has gladdened my heart. It looks like there is finally some action to change the Lobbying Act, which effectively silences charities from ‘political’ campaigning in the 12 months before a general election, while doing nothing to stop the crushing influence of money and big business on government. I know, it’s odd what makes me happy!

More than 100 charities have signed a letter to civil society minister Tracey Crouch, calling for the Lobbying Act (known as the gagging law) to be overhauled. They call it a “confusing and burdensome” piece of legislation that “weakens democracy, rather than strengthens it” because those representing the marginalised and vulnerable have been “silenced”.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the confusion. In the run-up to the election in June, Christian Aid picked its way through the act and ended up advising members of staff that even their person social media accounts shouldn’t endorse a political party if it could be construed as speaking for Christian Aid. I looked at my Facebook page. It was also the run up to Christian Aid Week and the only posts there were about Christian Aid or the Labour party. For the sake of a fine, I had to choose. So, for the duration of the election I chose politics, feeling, rightly or wrongly, that whoever was in government would have more impact than me on the lives of the poorest wherever in the world they might be. But I was left unable to talk about or promote the fundraising I was doing for Christian Aid Week on my personal threads. I’ve only got a reach of 400 on Facebook, so I’m not making that much impact, but multiply that across all my colleagues in any charity who use social media and suddenly the impact is significant.

So the act is messy. But why should charities meddle in politics, rather than getting on with their core business of helping people? Actually, I believe that their core business of helping people is a political act, because it says that people are worth more than the system or situation that has left them in need. But above and beyond that, charities allow the voices of the marginalised and vulnerable to be heard. They have a unique perspective of how policies have an impact on those they are trying to help.

I’ve just spent the weekend at Greenbelt with Christian Aid. While we’ve been there, we’ve been talking about climate change. Actually, it turns out that the rest of the world was also talking about climate change, or trying not to talk about climate change. I didn’t really pick up the news about the flooding in Houston, Texas until I got home. But unprecedented catastrophic weather is a feature of the new world we are creating by pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

At Christian Aid we talk about climate change because droughts, floods and typhoons devastate lives and livelihoods. The work we do to help the poorest communities build their own routes out of poverty is stymied by the changes in the climate caused by the richest countries in the world. Those with the least responsibility for the change feel its impact the hardest and have the fewest resources to cope. If we are going to be true to our ambition to end poverty, then we also have to tackle climate change.

This weekend we’ve been focused on financial institutions especially banks. But we also include government policy and spending in our campaigning. We’ve campaigned to ask the Government to stop burning coal to generate electricity. We want better plans outlining how we are going to reach UK carbon reductions targets. We’d like to see investment in renewable energy technology. All of these asks are political. Each political party approaches them differently, and some not at all. But the Lobbying Act closes down discussion of each party’s offering, leaving Christian Aid to rely on general statements without serious discussion of the issues at stake.

It is not enough for charities to provide whatever services, help or development that are within their remit if they cannot also work to change what causes the problem in the first place. There will be no end to poverty unless the underlying structural causes of poverty are changed.

Here’s an example. We have great debates while we are at Greenbelt, late at night sitting outside our tents. This year we had one about tax credits – complex, unwieldy, but are they really good or bad? Yes, they redistribute money back to those who need it most, putting money in the pockets of the poor. Yet at what cost? The system has become more complex so that work makes you better off, but this leaves people confused, struggling to access what they are owed, and afraid of making mistakes and ending up with large sums to repay. But it has also failed to address the underlying injustice of poverty wages. People have more money, so wages do not have to increase. Tesco can turn a tidy profit and still pay workers a pittance because they are topped up by tax credits and so people can get by. And thus, the tax payer funds Tesco’s profit. I should say, Tesco are not the only culprit, just an obvious one.

Systemic, structural, political changes are necessary to solve ‘bigger than self’ problems like poverty and climate change. It is not rational that charities are not able to speak out about the conditions that create the situations that they are working to relieve. Shelter should be able to campaign for better housing policy and speak out when current policy is unjust. Food banks can see why people are going hungry and need emergency food and need to be able to call out the ideology that puts people in poverty. If we cannot do this, we collude with the causes of injustice and become part of the system that causes the poverty in the first place.

The space available for civil society to act is being squeezed. Dissent is part of democracy, to curtail it is to curtail our freedom. Yet that is what is happening. Public spaces are being privatised, the right to strike is being made more difficult, and in some professions removed altogether, registering to vote has become more complicated. The Lobbying Act is just another way for power to silence its critics, and it’s high time we broke that silence.

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The Democratic Deficit

westminster.jpgWe’re proud of our democracy in this country. We’re so proud of it, we like to march round the globe implementing it in other countries, and standing in judgement making sure other elections are free and fair. But we need to talk about our own democratic deficit.

First of all, we need to talk about Tory election fraud. Following the 2015 General Election, the Electoral Commission found the Conservative Party guilty of election fraud and fined it the maximum penalty available for the offences – £70,000. Currently, 14 police forces are investigation 30 individuals for criminal offences relating to the last election. Up to two dozen Tory MPs face criminal charges, and if found guilty could face a year in prison, and the results in their constituency declared invalid. Before parliament was dissolved, the Tories had a working majority of 17, which would have been wiped out if 24 seats were overturned. How convenient that another election has been called, ruling out that eventuality. And how many of those MPs who are under investigation are running for their seats again? As the police have not released names, we don’t know.

I’ve written before about the proposed boundary changes, which I’ve dared to label gerrymandering. These changes have been given the gloss of ‘saving money’ by reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and a further sheen of ‘fairness’ and ‘better representation’ by equalising the size of constituencies. But a population represented by fewer people is not going to be better represented. And the process of the boundary changes has not been fair by any means. Instead of counting the number of people in an area, the changes are based on the number of electors, even though MPs represent everyone, not just voters. Despite best efforts, the electoral role is never complete. People move, other people hide, and transient or wary populations are higher in deprived urban areas, and amongst the young and minority ethnic communities. All more likely to be Labour voters.

And, lets face it, the government hasn’t made the ‘best effort’ to make sure the electoral roll is complete. In fact, it has made it harder for people to register, changing the system so that households or institutions cannot register people en masse. Universities can no longer register students, each student has to register her- or himself. And while universities like those in Sheffield, have worked hard to get students to register, this isn’t universal.

So the new boundaries have been drawn up on inaccurate electoral numbers, disenfranchising the urban poor by reducing their representation, further discouraging them from the ballot box and the register, making any future revisions of the boundary likely to go against these same communities. These changes haven’t come in yet, they are out for consultation. But when I went to the website to raise my objections, none of my objections above were deemed valid, because I wasn’t allowed to object to the process of decision making, only the technicalities of where the lines were drawn on the map.

This nicely sets the scene for the General Election. The election that Theresa May told us would never happen. But one that she has seen fit to call as exam season begins, to take place at the end of term. By the time the election comes, the student population will have dispersed, leaving concentrated urban areas and becoming spread out throughout the country, diluting the power of the student vote. Yes, this matters to me, because I live in a constituency with the highest population of students in the country, whose vote really matters for the party I want to elect. But actually, this timing makes it tricky for everyone, and removes more people from the electoral process. How can any party successfully canvass when lots of the people who will vote in an area are not there, but are away at university? And come the end of term, even if students don’t go home, they will still move to next year’s digs or halls. They will live where they are not registered, and be registered where they no longer live. How many will make the effort to go back and vote, or find out whether they can re-register in time? The democratic deficit grows again.

Because, yes, people should take responsibility to register, and use their vote wisely. But they don’t – the local council by-election in Sheffield last week had a turn-out of 24%. This matters to society, because 76% of that population didn’t think their vote mattered. Are we happy to have created a society where 76% of people think it is ok not to have a voice, or at least, not one that anyone will listen to?

If we want a fair and democratic society, we should be doing all we can to help people participate, removing barriers, not creating them. Not everyone is fully up to speed with the process. Certainly not the group of students I met on the doorstep who thought the election didn’t apply to them because they were under 21. Or the voters who are worried about getting the answer wrong, believing that there can be a wrong answer in an election. Or the people who believe their vote doesn’t count because no-one listens to them anyway. (See the views expressed here.)

We shouldn’t just dismiss these concerns. Participation is more important than sneering or writing people off. There are so many people who don’t know who to vote for because there is no medium to access the information they need in a straightforward, unbiased way. Newspapers and TV put their own spin on the stories, only telling the stories that they choose to share, with comment and analysis that fits their own world view. Witness the local election, where UKIP’s losses have been reported everywhere, while the Green party’s gains are an after-thought at best and totally absent in most places, even though neither party runs any of the councils in question and the one with the least coverage has the most MPs. Getting beyond the sound bites to the truth requires commitment and dedication. But we want everyone to be informed and to vote accordingly, not just the tedious political activists like me.

Democracy isn’t just about holding regular elections and being able to vote in secret without a gun to your head. It means transparency and accountability. It requires free and independent media that call governments to account and speak truth to power instead of being the powerful. It means democratic processes are run independently of those in power, and those who break the rules are held to account. We should be doing all we can to include as many people as possible to play their part in democracy, making it easy, not difficult, sharing responsibility and not just shrugging our shoulders when people don’t engage. Our democracy has a long way to go.

Pushing the Boundaries

bce_306_aw_1I know I shouldn’t do it. But sometimes I just can’t help it. I’ve been arguing with strangers on the internet. I just couldn’t let it go, so perhaps a blog is better than an incoherent rant on Facebook. I’m talking about the boundary review published this week by the boundary commission.

The headline story is that the number of constituencies, and therefore the number of MPs, is to reduce from 650 to 600 in order to ‘save money’ and to equalise the number of voters in each seat. The net effect is that most of the seats that will go are being lost in urban areas, though Wales will also lose 11 seats, going from 40 to 29 representatives in the Commons. This all seems calmly logical, but I’m fizzing rage!

For a start, the whole premise of the review is smokescreen. Six years into Tory administration, we are still being sold the line that our economy is broken and the only way to fix it is through austerity, an austerity that seems to apply to some more than others, and that we are still struggling under after six years. Austerity is a false premise to start with, and merely an excuse for the government to conduct this review. And as this blog points out, any cost saving from cutting our elected representatives has been wiped out nearly three times over by the 260 additional Tory Peers in the House of Lords.

If the genuine desire is to equalise the number of voters in each seat, then this could have been done without reducing the number of seats. The reason given for making constituencies more equal in terms of voter numbers is so that each person’s vote carries the same weight as any other. But this is never going to happen in our First Passed the Post system. My vote in a safe Labour seat or your vote in a safe Conservative seat will never carry as much weight as someone else voting in a swing marginal. Currently, a few voters in a small number of constituencies make all the difference when it comes deciding which party will form the next Government. The only way to truly make sure everyone’s vote has the same value is to bring in a proportional election system.

The rules which have governed the boundary review are also deeply flawed. It’s not clear why size of constituency should be based on number of registered voters rather than number of people living in the constituency. After all, the MP has to represent everyone living in the area, not just those registered to vote. Having decided that voter numbers is an appropriate measure, the review has been carried out according to the electoral register in December 2015.

Getting people to register to vote is not an easy job – I used to help my Dad compile the register of electors when I was a teenager and some people then were notoriously difficult to pin down. It is well known that young, transient urban populations are not fully represented on the register of electors. Note how this coincides with the group of people who are also the most disenfranchised from our democratic system. Since then, instead of introducing measures to make it easier to register and easier to vote, and helping local councils to track down all their voters, the government has made it harder to register by introducing individual instead of household registration. Estimates suggest that 1 million people were already missing off the electoral register in February 2015.

This system disenfranchises the mobile, the young and those in private rented accommodation – mainly those living in urban areas. At a time when the urban population is growing quickly, the number of registered voters in these areas is not keeping pace. A parliamentary boundary review is expected. If it takes place after millions of people are removed from the electoral register we could see the biggest transfer of parliamentary representation and political power from urban to rural areas for more than a century.

So we have a review falsely presented to us as a money saving exercise, apparently trying to improve democracy, while at the same time, literally disenfranchising millions of young people and urban dwellers. It’s no wonder that seats are being taken from urban areas because voters in these areas are disappearing down the cracks too.

The Boundary Commission is working with one hand not knowing what the other is doing. The proposals are made based on ward boundaries as of May 2015, but a previous review has just changed ward boundaries in Sheffield, so the boundaries in the constituency review are already out of date.

I did use the word gerrymandering during a rant-y phase on Facebook. The boundary commission is set up as an independent body. Perhaps it is making the best of a bad job. Urban areas tend to return Labour MPs, so it does feel like an attack on one party, but the rules of the review and other changes to the registration process have set it up to make skewed decisions. But tinkering with boundaries is never going to deliver greater democracy, and certainly not going to bring more power to the electorate. Only some version of proportional representation is going to do that. But this means that those in power will need to surrender some of it, and why on earth would they do that

Who benefits from benefits?

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It’s time to tell a different story about where public money goes and who benefits from benefits. We need an alternative to the current narrative from the government about “hardworking people” who “do the right thing”, who end up paying for those who aren’t working. However, the chart above shows that the spending on people on the edge of society who are working hard looking for a job is a very small part of social security spending. And the changes to Job Seekers Allowance means that it can be very hard to do all the right things required of you to avoid a sanction. (I took the chart from this blog and the information in it comes from this government paper on page 57).

Huge amounts are spent on pensions, but I’m not going to go there…

Four times as much money is spent on housing compared to unemployment benefits, and the housing benefit bill has been steadily rising. Housing benefits pay rents which people would otherwise not be able to afford. But this safety net means that rents can rise as they are not held back people’s ability to pay. This is the logic of capping housing benefit, so that it doesn’t continue to fuel rent rises. But who suffers the most with this policy? Those who can’t afford to pay rents. This takes power away from the already pretty powerless, and cedes more power to the powerful. Those with little power or money have little choice and are at the mercy of uncaring landlords providing poor accommodation. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is being paid to wealthy private landowners, making the rich richer, as this article explains.

Capping rent not benefits would cut the benefit bill but this time the change to the balance of power would be in favour of the weakest. I don’t believe that we should kneel before the altar of the market, but if we want to use market forces, a better way of reducing prices would be to increase supply, especially as rising prices can’t diminish demand of what is an essential rather than a luxury good. This means building more houses, which would also increase employment. And as it would be a good idea to make sure these houses were affordable and not susceptible to soaring rents, why not let them be council houses?

We need to join the dots. Giles Fraser writing about why the church should be angry about welfare policy, says that homelessness in London has risen by 60% in two years. We do have choices, and I believe we need to make choices which don’t just make economic sense, but choices which protect the most vulnerable in our society. So in this case, that is the tenant and not the landowner.

And while we’re on the subject of public money going to already wealthy private individuals, lets join some more dots up and widen it out to private companies. Take another look at the chart above and the figure paid out to families and children. Some of this will be child benefit, a universal benefit. There are good reasons to keep benefits universal, not least so we all have a stake in our society, but that’s another subject. The rest includes child tax credit and working families tax credit. This is paid as a “top-up” to ensure low-paid families can still afford a reasonable standard of living, and tries to ensure being in work pays more than not being in work.

This is somewhat at odds with the government’s narrative. Hardworking families who are doing the right thing still need to claim benefits, because they are not earning enough. Maybe this is to do with working part-time because of issues around childcare. Or maybe because there are only part-time jobs available (I talked about underemployment in my last blog). But plenty of these benefits are paid out to people working full-time but still considered to be earning too little for a decent standard of living. How can this be? How can it be that it is possible to work full-time and still not be able to afford to pay the bills and feed your family? Surely that’s why we have a minimum wage? But sadly, since its introduction in 1999 its value in real terms (taking into account rising prices) has been declining since 2010. An independent body calculates the hourly rate required for someone working full-time to earn enough for a decent standard of living, and this is know as the Living Wage.

Meanwhile, non-Living Wage employers are paying minimum but inadequate wages, which need to be topped up out of public funds. Some of these employers may be small businesses struggling themselves, which is why the Living Wage is a voluntary scheme. But plenty of these businesses are large firms making large profits. Supermarkets are a classic example. A quick scan of the list of living wage employers did not reveal any supermarkets to me, and yet they are posting huge profits. Profits built on low-paid workers subsidised by public money.

I don’t know what difference my little blog will do. But we need to talk about these things. We need to challenge anyone who says we cannot afford our welfare bill. Protecting the vulnerable is a key function of a civilised country. Our spending needs reform, but reform should protect the interests of the weak not the powerful. We are all stake-holders in a system which protects us when times are tough. The powerful have the capacity to protect their own interests, and they are doing very nicely at this thank you very much (Church Action on Poverty estimates tax dodging costs the UK at least £45 billion a year). A lot has been said this week about the morality of welfare reform. The Bible is full of exhortations to support the poor and the weak, to be a voice for the voiceless, especially the Old Testament. But I came across this the other day. Right at the heart of his plans to spread the message about Jesus, Paul says this: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10, NIV)