1. As Tories arrive in Brum, 5 reasons to take to the streets this Sunday

    1. Rising child poverty now standing at 34% - and it’s going to get worse

    In a report submitted to Birmingam City Council this September, the Birmingham Voluntary Services Council (BVSC) presented evidence from 17 local charitable and non-profit organisations that changes in benefits will mean another climb in child poverty. Low income families are being hit from all angles, including cuts to tax credits for those in employment, high unemployment and job cuts, and cuts to the services which improve health such as sports facilties, free school meals, and Sure Start Centres. While tax cuts at the top mean even more spare money for the elite our coalition support to spend on their children, Birmingham has more children in poverty than any other local authority.

    2. Youth unemployment at just under 50K - with cuts to education, youth housing and jobs

    Youth unemployment in Birmingham currently stands at just under 50,000. While there is much talk of improving chances for young people, the opportunities in terms of education and employment are shrinking. In education, low income students are being hit by the removal of EMA in FE, and here as elsewhere the introduction of £9k per year fees in higher education are shutting working class young people out of the system. Changes to housing benefits mean vulnerable young people are being put at risk - I spoke to LGBT activists at this year’s Pride who reported they are hearing from a number of young LGBT adults who fear being forced to return to abusive family homes as a result of the changes, which will strip the right to independent housing from under 25s. There has been a 32% increase in homelessness in the city over the last year, with 4,574 young people reporting as officially homeless.

    3. Foodbanks reporting pregnant women skipping meals, and huge rise in working poor coming for help

    Earlier this year, Gateway Family Services, a local non-profit organisation,reported how bad conditions are getting for families they work with - with pregnant women skipping meals because they cannot afford to eat. Birmingham foodbanks are finding big increases in the numbers of people forced to rely on this kind of support just to get by. For some, the service provides a lifeline in a time where we have high levels of unemployment, household debt, and escalating costs of living. Many people coming to charities are actually employed but still struggling under coalition cuts which have seen low income households hit hard, with worse to come as we move over to the Universal Benefits system. Meanwhile, huge multinational organisations are getting cheap labour subsidised by the tax-payer in the form of low waged staff, with massive profits and bonuses for those at the top.

    4. Cuts to domestic violence services mean local women’s lives are being lost

    Birmingham has been hit hard by the national 30% cut to domestic violence spending. Earlier this year I attended a conference at Birmingham University where DV organisations reported on the impact austerity is having on local women (and men) - and the picture is very very bleak. Anyone who works in domestic violence can tell you that one of the most difficult issues support workers face is in helping survivors to make the decision to leave an abusive partner. What we have in Coalition Birmingham is a situation where survivors who make this decision are being turned away. In April, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid reported that waiting lists for services have nearly trebled from 100 to 270 since 2010, with only half of women who seek help able to get space in refuges. The cuts to DV services are being compounded by cuts to other services including the police and social services. As well as a cut to support, the increase in poverty and unemployment is correlated with increased violence in the home - so there are more survivors seeking help.

    5. Government attacks on the disabled, including ATOS quack assessments, cuts to benefits, and the closure of 3 local Remploy factories

    This April, a Birmingham man, Paul Turner, died of a serious hear condition: just weeks after being deemed fit to work by ATOS assessment. He is just one of a huge number of disabled people whose lives have been lost in the ongoing ESA reform process, which has seen the terminally ill stripped of benefits and massive ignorance about mental illness which I believe will lead if it continues in the long term to increases in institutionalisation. Birmingham charities and non-profit organisations warn that changes from DLA to PIP will have a huge detrimental effect on local disabled people, leading to decreased mobility, more social isolation, loss of financial autonomy which increases the potential of abuse, fuel poverty, inability to finance care in the home, and increase in mental health problems as a result of stress. At the same time as this is taking place, the same governemt which seek to stigmatise the disabled as “workshy” and “scroungers” through their policies and the media are axing 3 Remploy factories locally - effectively getting rid of the biggest local provider of employment designed around meeting the needs of disabled people.

    Children, young people, the working poor, domestic violence survivors and the disabled: Our government is attacking the weak to keep the money flowing in from the powerful, and the picture in Birmingham tells us the devastating impact these policies are having on people. It it time to stand up against austerity. Join the demo in Birmingham this Sunday to tell the Conservative Party we do not accept what they are doing to the vulnerable, we do not accept the ongoing failed economic policies of neo-liberalism, and we do not welcome them to our city.



  2. 350k children to lose school dinners while elite dine in luxury

    The Children’s society have today warned that benefits reform will mean that around 350K children will no longer be entitled to free school meals: those where the household earns over £7500 a year.

    This demonstrates a further smack in the face for the UK’s working poor, in the sense that it will mean an increased weekly shop (or meals cost) in a time of high VAT and a rising cost of living. The coalition talk the talk of rewarding the UK’s working families, but the reality is that this move will actually make it more beneficial to take an hours cut or a pay cut, which is nonsensical. Cameron wants to show millions of working class voters that in spite of his privileged upbringing he understands their needs and wants to give them a society which gives a fair return for their work ethic. But what is he actually doing to prove it? He won’t raise minimum wage to a living level, because it is easier to placate big business and keep people in the position of believing they have to bow to the hand that feeds by putting money in the context of benefits (tax credits etc) rather than actual return for their labour in the form of wages. Osborne may have raised the bottom tax bracket (which did nothing for those already under it, and has to be interpreted in the context of inflation, loss of public services, benefits cuts etc to be assessed fairly), but now it seems they are going to attempt to claw some of the money used to pay for the raising tax threshold designed to publicly show increased fairness for this group.

    Whether children come from the families of the working poor, or from the unemployed (and it has to be remembered that in the current economic climate many of these are the result of austerity policy rather than the generational benefits culture the right wing press like to emphasise), they are already being treated as undeserving as a result of their parents economic status and position in society. And whilst right wing psychological analysis likes to dwell on the role of “entitlement culture” to support the idea of taking benefits away, there is no logical evidence to suggest depriving children of what is statistically their most nutritious and sustaining meal of the day will do anything to encourage them into social mobility. Even if you believe that the low paid and unemployed are entirely responsible for their lot, and need to be kicked away from dependency to become “wealth creators”, there is no logic whatsoever in assuming a child should go without a nourishing meal as a result of their parents  actions. Yet again, the youngest are being used as pawns in a political strategy to reinforce the narrative of the undeserving poor which keeps the current inequalities in place, and while it happens, our public school elite continue to dine in luxury. 

    Please sign the Children’s Society petition for free school meals for all children in poverty here: http://action.childrenssociety.org.uk/page/signup/fair-and-square-free-school-meals-campaign

  3. UKIP & Tom Bursnall: the rise of “respectable” narrow world thinking

    A couple of pieces of news about UKIP are doing the rounds this week. Firstly, they have overtaken the Lib Dems in the polls (probably due to a combination of Lib Dem voter party dissatisfaction and Tory migration). Meanwhile, political scrapbook have revealed that the former chair of Conservative Future, Tom Bursnall (now defected to UKIP) has been calling for the vote to be taken from unemployed people.

    While many in the Labour party have been jubilant in the fractioning off of the right wing vote through UKIP defections, I personally think it is quite problematic in that it represents voters who are dissatisfied with mainstream right politics (and who wouldn’t be after the shambolic performance of the last couple of months, with Granny-tax, pasties, Cam dine with me etc) looking to the respectable face of nationalism to try and find a solution to their problems. This is not exactly good news for society as a whole, and in particular for ethnic minorities.

    Going on local knowledge, I think the Tory to UKIP migration is centred around three factors:

    1) Neo-liberalism and the decline of one nation Tories. Blue collar right wing voters don’t have much trust in what they perceive to be smarmy yuppies or public school boys (as much embodied by New Labour Blairites as Cameron’s tories), and are frustrated at the poor treatment of the working (so in right wing eyes deserving) poor under the coalition. These voters perceive far right groups such as the BNP and EDL as thuggish but can be tempted by the “respectable” nationalist values of UKIP.

    2) Foreign aid. Austerity has seen increased vocal anger at aid going oversees, bolstered by the common sense but unlikely in reality assumption that if it didn’t happen then more would actually be done for the needy in the UK, e.g. slower softer cuts. This has been a big sticking point for the Tory right.

    3) General dissatisfaction relating to national sovereignty and immigration: in a functioning capitalist nation, immigration serves a useful purpose in both providing cheap labour and in giving a steady scapegoat for the misdirection of frustration over lack of control in the existing labour force. Therefore the Conservatives will regularly talk the talk over getting tough on immigration but the reality is they need a certain level of it and won’t ever go far enough for the working class Tory vote. Similarly, it would be political suicide on an international scale to attempt a complete disconnect from our relationship with the rest of Europe. These are steady grumbles in the right wing working class vote but at times of general party dissatisfaction due to other issues may be enough to nudge voters over to UKIP.

    As far as the unemployed suffrage issue goes, there is obviously no way this is going to happen, but I do think we need to worry about the extent to which this kind of thinking is representative of an increasingly narrow world view in the electorate. There seems to be a real lack in empathic imagination skills in society in general; people are educated by the media on a very simplistic level about “how others live”, propped up by evidence from the world around them which is perceived through a filter of pre-expectation about society’s deviants (the unemployed, the mentally ill, asylum seekers, single mothers) and their motives. People don’t seem to have the higher level thinking to be able to imagine outside of their own worldview very much at the moment, and it is dangerous.

  4. Housing benefits for under 25s may be slashed in latest government attack on young adults


    So, David Cameron is now putting up the idea that we could stop under-25s from claiming housing benefit, with the idea that they return home. This assumes, of course, that there is room, that there is a parental home to return to, that the home and relationship is not an abusive one.

    Assuming all of these factors are in place, and a young adult can actually return home, it still seems like yet another smack in the face for young adults in a time of record youth unemployment. With no jobs, no homes, access to education restricted with funding taken, and young people’s support services having their funding slashed, there must be a whole generation of disaffection moving up through the ranks. What is our society actually teaching young adults about participation and inclusion? That there is no place for them in Austerity Britain? It seems a very long time now since “hug a hoodie”, and there is no obvious compassion and definitely no respect in the policies this government has for young people.

    I am worried in particular as to what impact this policy will have on young adults in abusive and/or violent relationships: it is a common feature in abusive relationships for the abusive partner to cut off contact between their partner and supporting friends and family, making a return to the family home following the removal of housing benefits an unlikely option. As I argued with the disability changes, taking away money often involves a removal of autonomy also. When people take particular accommodation because they have to rather than because they choose to there will surely be an increase of people trapped in violent homes. 

  5. To Mensch and other witchfinders: self-righteous indignation is not a vehicle for a sensible conversation about political discourse and hate speech

    Yesterday Newcastle Labour Councillor and Unison activist Linda Hobson was pursued as another scalp by Louise Mensch and a string of other Conservative defenders of compassion after tweeting:

    "Just put news on to to see Thatcher - for a brief moment I celebrated her death - until reality struck - if only"

    Mensch was quick to respond with a stream of outraged tweets:

    "So @HobsonLinda has now deleted her account altogether. The Labour party whose elected cllr she is must respond, deletions or no."

    “And yes; I am utterly sick of the ultraleft (not the decent left) wishing death on a vulnerable lady in extreme old age.”

    “Activists just disgrace themselves and their movement. That’s totally different to MPs and Councillors who are elected under Labour colours.”

    “It would be good for @Ed_Miliband to show some leadership and simply say that wishing death on anyone does not conform to Labour values”

    “…and it is not acceptable from elected Lab officials. One day that great woman will in fact die. What will Labour’s public face be then?”

    This comes only a short period after fellow North-Eastern Labour Councillor, Sunderland’s Florence Anderson, was driven from office after a less well known figure, Mark Wallace, had dredged through records of her activity online to find she clicked “like” on a comment another person had made about hoping an IRA bomb hit the next tory party conference, as well as commenting that she hoped Thatcher burns in hell. Wallace, clearly a great defender of humanistic values, was quick to boast of his scalp, and a dangerous precedent has been set. It appears that these days, hate speech does not just mean statements leading to the actual harm of specific minorities, but also thought crime: the verbal or written expression of any hatred towards an untouchable figure or the expression of joy at the prospect of that person’s end. It matters not that the expression of these thoughts can not in any rational way be linked to inciting actual harm on Thatcher, or that they are a response to specific actions she took against the communities the women come from rather than being general comments targetting people on the basis of a group they belong to - they are, in the eyes of Mensch and her associates, hate speech.

    I am not - as most people are probably aware - someone who longs for the death of Thatcher, nor have I ever. She is, at this point, a geriatric, powerless, increasingly incoherent old woman. I wouldn’t personally make or respond to those kind of comments. That said, anyone with a real interest in furthering the values of empathy and compassion would need to dig a little deeper into the North East to see where this kind of hatred comes from. Thatcher may be powerless in her old age, but in her prime she wreaked devastation of an unimaginable level across the region. These women, older and far less privileged than the like of the glossy chick-lit novelist and her associates, have lived through years which saw whole communities destroyed by the relentless destruction of coal and the manufacturing industry in pursuit of nuclear power and the service economy (which now, even the most neo-liberal of economic experts are starting to view as a mistake). Workers were brutally targetted by the state. Thatcher’s idea of bringing progress to the sector was to starve out the unions and send police lines to attack their pickets, leading to injury and death. She is never going to be seen as anything other than the woman who masterminded these tactics, and while as I said I don’t share the sentiments of these women regarding her death, can anyone with real rather than phony compassion really blame them for their passion, regardless of whether or not they agree?

    I have a long standing interest in the way in which language is used to frame arguments. I do think there is a general case in staying vigilant for hate language, though I think it is far more effective to unpick the assumptions on which the hatred is based rather than responding with indignation. I also think that when hateful language is directed towards a specific individual on the basis of their previous actions (as in the case of Linda Hobson or Florence Anderson’s “burn in hell” comment) then unless it involves a direct and obvious threat or is likely to lead to that person being harmed, freedom of speech must take priority over hurt feelings. Hate speech is surely anything which culturally devalues or endangers individuals on the basis of the group they belong to, such as ethnicity or gender. I also believe that “liking” a comment is a ridiculous event to take action on. What does a like mean? Sad acknowlegement? Solidarity with the sentiment? Amusement? An indication that something has been read? There are too many variants. A world in which minor party officials have their e-histories forensically combed for this kind of incident is not a world in which open free debate is welcomed. If anything, it perhaps reflects a degree of uncertainty on the part of users as to the social rules of an emerging venue for speech. It is treated as an informal site for discussion by participants, but a public space by their pursuers. There is a mismatch, and until all can reasonably be expected to understand the “rules” this kind of targetted snooping is not in the spirit of freedom of speech.

    The timing and execution of Mensch’s latest witch hunt stank. It coincided with an evening where her senior party leadership were embroiled in allegations of corruption, but Mensch chose this time to pursue a lowly local Councillor without the same privileged network of publicity to respond to the accusations or state her case. Mensch could have chosen to open a broader debate on the use of hate-speech, which occurs across the political spectrum, but she did not. Instead, she chose to make it a personal attack on a woman who has worked for many years in trying to advance her community without the access to vast resources or cultural capital Mensch takes for granted, someone from a completely different background who thinks and lives in a different world from she. It was cynical, it was utterly lacking in compassion, awash with self-righteous indignation, and it will almost certainly lead to an increase in the hatred she condemns without any attempt to understand.