Monday, July 21, 2008 

Everyone written off.

A few months back Johann Hari wrote a fairly decent article urging Labour, almost certain to be defeated at the next election, to spend its last couple of years in office engaging in the sort of radicalism that it has either completely eschewed over the last decade or rejected because of the fear of being knifed by the Tories or the right-wing press. The argument, so it goes, is that when you've got nothing left to lose, you might as well go out with a bang.

James Purnell seems to have acknowledged that spirit but got it completely the wrong way around. Yet another of the young uber-Blairites whose balls don't seem to have dropped yet, he's instead decided that he's going to do the Conservatives' job for them, to their almost unbelieving delight; probably because it'll save them the effort of doing the whole job, having to just add even harsher methods on to the end of it once they're elected. Instead, the real enemy is immediately Labour backbenchers who might not accept this new welfare paradigm which must be instituted for all our sakes.

Like with all the other Blairite excesses, the presentation and Unspeak which festers the green paper (PDF) is glossy and brazen respectively. It's even called one of those wonderful managerial names which, as Simon Hoggart has often pointed out, if turned backwards wouldn't be worth saying. We've had Every Child Matters, now we've got No One Written Off, to give the impression that these plans have been drawn up with the individual at the sharp end, inside the welfare system, at the heart of the scheme. This couldn't be further from the truth: the only intention the government has is of cutting down the ever growing number of those on Incapacity Benefit, putting the recommendations of investment banker David Freud, who had ran a review, into practice. If you're thinking that it's counter-intuitive to get an investment banker to ring the changes in a system where you're dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society, then it might be helpful to know that he too has been subsidised by the state: he went cap in hand to John Prescott over the channel tunnel, asking for an extra £1.2bn on at least one occasion. Freud decided that he knew better than those that actually assess the claims for incapacity benefit, and claimed that only a third were genuinely incapacitated enough to not work at all. Like with Purnell himself, it doesn't seem likely that Freud has ever experienced genuine hardship, let alone personally: both went to public schools before following on to Oxford.

What rankles most about the Green Paper is not its actual proposals, it's what it's alluding to. It's the casual wink and a nod, again so often part of Blairite thinking, that is so exasperating. The government pretended to be shocked when the proposals were "leaked" to Sky News on Friday, as opposed to be passed them so as to build up a head of steam over the weekend. Having given them to Sky News, they obviously went straight across to the pages of the Sun, which was delighted with the government at least getting tough on the scroungers, the work shy, the feckless and the fraudsters and sung its praises. As Justin says, this is little more than demonisation, pandering to myths and fantasies while attacking those that need help the most for very short term political gain.

The new proposals are based on the classic carrot and stick approach, although this is a New Labour style huge great stick combined with the smallest carrot they could buy from Tesco's. Incapacity Benefit is to be abolished altogether, as is income support eventually, all to be replaced with just two main benefit schemes: either ESA or JSA. No longer will those on incapacity benefit simply be abandoned, "written off"; instead they'll either be in one of two sections of ESA, either the "Work Related Activity Group", where they'll be on a programme of back to work support, or in the "Support" group, where they'll be able to go on the WRAG programme on a voluntary basis, and receive an higher basic rate of benefits if they do. In other words, Labour is planning to abolish pretty much all of the welfare state's current back to work programmes except for Jobseeker's Allowance and Jobseeker's Allowance Diet. Or Lite. Whichever you prefer. If you're unfortunate enough to be on JSA and don't manage to find a job within three and six months, you'll be expected to "intensify" your job search activity and "comply" with a "challenging" back-to-work action plan. After 12 months, despite Purnell praising Job Centre Plus to high heaven for their fantastic work just a couple of paragraphs back, you'll be put onto a scheme provided by a private, public or voluntary sector provider, although you may as well skip the middle one as an option. Then you'll have to perform four-weeks "full-time activity" i.e. work as a minimum. If you haven't then killed yourself or picked the most menial job available just to escape from the horrors of this programme, after two years you'll have to take part in "full-time activity" the entire time. Whether you'll be given time off to actually find a real job isn't mentioned.

If I'm making this sound all rather unpleasant, if not a little nightmarish, then that seems to be the general idea. Make the bastards so miserable that they'll do anything to get into work, even if it is of the sort that makes them wish they had been written off. The thing that makes it seem so sinister is that throughout, those who are either on ESA or JSA are described as "customers", as though they're choosing to either be sick so they can live on what is little more than a pittance or out of work so they can experience the same. It doesn't seem to matter that there are gaping holes in this plan, such as exactly what this "full-time activity" will amount to: the press seems to think that it's going to be picking up litter and cleaning off graffiti, which for a scheme that is meant to providing skills seems to be following Purnell's idea of turning advice on its head. Seeing as those on community service are already going to be doing this, and, oh, that there already people employed who also do this, just what's going to be left for any of them to do? It also completely ignores that being on benefits other than JSA is already not "passive", as some love to make out, as if there aren't any opportunities already provided to get back into work. It makes for good spin, but it certainly isn't true.

The thing that troubles most however is just what the point of this venture is, and just what savings are to be made from making being sick or out of work even more unpleasant than it already is. The jobs most who are out of work are going to go into are ones which are low-paid, and unless they're too young to claim tax credits, they're going to be straight onto to them to top-up their earnings, negating any major savings. At the same time, the private and voluntary sector who help with getting the long-time unemployed back into work will be paid the savings that the state makes from that person entering employment, with up to £5,000 being mentioned in some places. The state then doesn't save or benefit; they do. Purnell claims that he wants to make the benefits system simpler; the easiest way to do that would be to abolish tax credits altogether and take the poorest up to the lowest middle earners out of paying any tax whatsoever by making the rich and ultra-rich pay their fair share. This would however make too much sense and mean offending the Confederation of British Industry and the non-domiciles. Is the point of these changes then to increase the well of overall human happiness, New Labour becoming utilitarian by deciding that work is generally good for well-being? Why on earth would it change a habit of a lifetime by doing that now?

All our proposals are driven by a core belief – using the power of a responsive State to increase people’s life chances, opportunities and capabilities.

In line with that, Purnell has been selling his proposals in the Guardian, along with some pedestrian attacks on David Cameron by claiming that all of this is in the name of tackling poverty. This, as we've seen before, has become Labour's last all out gasp for compliments and to be recognised as being fundamentally decent; we're helping the kids escape from poverty! Except, of course, that they've succeeded in altering overall inequality not one jot. At best what these proposals will do is take individuals that are in dire poverty and put them on the path to borderline poverty; a great achievement, as I'm sure you'll agree. That leaves us then with the very last defence. If Labour doesn't do it now, then the Tories will introduce something even harsher. This is the line taken by none other than... Johann Hari. And so we have come full circle

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Monday, August 06, 2007 

Iraq, Hiroshima and the pro-war left.

It's interesting to note that just a day after another high-profile Iraq war supporter has took to wearing sackcloth and ashes, one of the few remaining defenders of the war has moved on from justifying the on-going disaster there to even greater rhetorical flights of fancy, taking the opportunity that the anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb provides to reappraise the long-prevailing view that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes. Just as Oliver Kamm has never convinced anyone other than himself that he's right, his piece for the Grauniad isn't likely to change any minds.

At least with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we have the benefit of historical hindsight, the numerous sources that the last 60 years have provided us with and the on-going suffering still continuing from which to make a judgment as to its righteousness. However much we debate whether the hundreds of thousands sacrificed in the two blasts were preferable to the possibility of millions more deaths on both sides, or indeed the similarly horrific firebombing of both Japanese and German cities, such as the March the 9th 1945 attack on Tokyo which quite possibly killed more than the numbers who died at Hiroshima, it nearly always comes down to a war of numbers, as the CiF debate shows; mention the atomic bombs, and you get Nanking and the entire brutal invasion of China back in return. It has to be said they have a point: while Germany has been exemplary in coming to terms with those twelve years of fascism, some in Japan continue to engage in denial and apologism over the numerous crimes committed by the military. It isn't too much to perhaps link the unashamed slaughter, torture and atrocities committed in China, meticulously documented and photographed, summary beheadings and all, with the new vogue for both the grunts working at Abu Ghraib and the insurgents to record and revel in their own depravity. War and crimes do of course go together like love and marriage, and the second world war, with the Holocaust, the Wehrmacht's assault on Russia and the eventual Soviet revenge after the hell of Stalingrad was only what many would argue was the inevitable conclusion of both a total war footing and the dehumanising ever-present propaganda, but this was on a scale never before reached and will hopefully never be reached again.

Kamm's article on Hiroshima is only part of the malaise currently afflicting those referred to as the pro-war left, the "muscular liberals" and many other less than complimentary epithets. Johann Hari, formerly a proud member of the squad has in the last few weeks been causing major ructions after he reviewed Nick Cohen's book-length polemic on the failings of the left, and treated it with a disdain that few would have thought he previously would have shown. A flurry of replies from others sympathetic to the cause followed, with Harry's Place, the online home of the pro-war left removing a post after the possible involvement of Suue, Grabbit and Runne was invoked. Hari himself was one of the first of the gang to recant his support; as he points out in his opening, others such as David Aaronovitch and Norman Geras have also reluctantly admitted that they were wrong. Only Christopher Hitchens, Kamm and Cohen himself are among those sticking to their initial guns.

I suspect many of us who were anti-war would never have been opposed to the conflict if we had believed that the intentions of the "coalition of the willing" had been as pure as the pro-war left either decided they were. The thing was, the history both of Iraq, of occupations, the region and of total displays of power all pointed towards a potential for the situation now on the ground. Everyone could agree that Saddam was a mass-murderer who needed to be overthrown; where we differed was over how and when it could be achieved. The pro-war left never cared much for the weapons of mass destruction argument, except in the same way as both the US and UK cared for it, as a fig-leaf. While the motives behind the invasion are still not much clearer now, the passion displayed behind the pro-war intellectual argument was, as Hari writes, down to the suffering of the Iraqi people and Saddam's "fascism". Never mind that much of this was down, not to Saddam and his torture chambers, but instead to the crippling sanctions that impoverished most of those outside of Saddam's favoured circle, and the in-effect non-stop war from the sky, which cruelly but successfully contained his aspirations, this was the liberal interventionism which Blair had preached from his pulpit in Chicago, and to some it did indeed for a while become a sort of religion. While much of it has petered out as the blood has been spilt in Iraq, you can still see the embers of it burning in the demands for action on Darfur.

Even if the pro-war left had ignored the previous 12 years of policy on Iraq, they still ought to have seen, both in the US boasts about how "shock and awe" was about to descend on Baghdad, and in the vigour and vulgarity of the media support in the States for war, with pro-war protests organised by media companies just how this was going to end. Hari points out how every misdemanour committed by Saddam and then apologised for or minimised by the anti-war movement was seized upon by the muscular liberals, yet when these same atrocities or offences were committed either by the United States, in using chemical weapons in Fallujah and in the widespread use of torture, the pro-war lobby was either silent, or just as apologetic themselves. The nadir came when rather than recognising that the between 1 and 2 million that marched in London on Feburary 15th were a mass movement which represented the whole of British society, they instead continued to bleat about how the left was prostituting itself either to the Muslim organisations which shared none of their values which were signed up to the Stop the War coalition, or to either the unreformed communists or Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers' Party which also made up the bulk of those behind the coalition. They have always been more comfortable in attacking the left for its supposed dalliances and mistakes rather than extracting the hefty rafters from their own eyes. Even Hari himself can't pass up the opportunity to have a dig at Lenin's Tomb, with a spectacularly disingenuous and ill-informed attack.

Despite all the venom that has passed between the commentators who consider themselves on the left who supported the war and those against, I don't think many of us ever doubted the purity of their motives in doing so. Like with the politicians who pushed it through themselves, it was their methods of doing so that have rankled most. Again, like the politicians, those who did support it have also found themselves majorly discredited, Hitchens perhaps becoming the worst off. What was once a brilliant mind has become ever more sodden with the booze and fags, with his latest rant against religion, although a throwback to his younger days, still a very pale imitation of his former self. Cohen, once considered one of the best left-wing writers on where New Labour had gone wrong, finds himself increasingly detested and according to Private Eye had his column half swiped and given over to an ex-Express hack when he refused to give over some of it to writing about celebrities. Not that he's used the space left any better: he recently declared that the likes of Abu Qutada must be deported back to their home countries regardless of any conditions about the possibility of torture and ill-treatment. Kamm of course has always been a joke, a founder of a hedge fund obsessed with Noam Chomsky, pretending to be left-wing while writing most for the Murdoch press, yet even he seems to be descending into self-parody.

Will we in 56 years' time be having the same debate about Iraq that we're now having about Hiroshima? Most of those mentioned above will very likely by then be dead, and I'm not holding out any hopes that I'll be here either. How that debate will then be framed very much still matters now on what happens next. The war, both on ideological and military terms, is still far from over.

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