No representation, no rights–the plight of the invisible working class

The attack on the rights of Britain’s workers continues apace…George-Osborne-laughing

As the Conservative Party Conference rumbles on in Birmingham, I was surprised to hear a note of what felt almost like socialism from Chancellor and professional “posh boy” George Osborne in his speech on Monday. New businesses, he said, should hand out shares to all their workers, giving them a stake in the company’s success and motivating them to work harder. I could hardly believe my ears. A senior Tory – the one most responsible for the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country – espousing the idea that the fabled “wealth creators” should share some of their largesse with their underlings, by forming, in effect, co-operatives?

Ah, but there’s a snag, which came up next. In order for the workers to take advantage of this munificent offer, they would have to sign away some, perhaps all, of their employment rights. That sounds more like the Osborne I’ve come to know and loathe. The Osborne that wants to, in effect, bribe the British worker, already one of the least protected workers in Europe, to give away some of the few paltry rights he/she has left.

Meanwhile, a recent brainstorm by some new Tory high fliers has produced a particularly nasty little pamphlet called Britannia Unchained, in which they proclaim that British workers are the laziest in the world. And all the time, unemployment figures are kept low with fixed term contracts and part time positions which now seem the default instead of a full-time, permanent position. Never mind that these workers have to claim state benefits in order to live. They’re not “unemployed”, which makes the figures look better. They’re the new working class – the “working poor”.

Remember when we actually had a “working class”? It used to be almost a badge of pride for some; the idea that you were getting an honest wage for an honest day’s graft, and you were thrifty enough with your meagre income to eke out a modest but unpretentious standard of living. Ah, it were grand in them days…


Somewhere down the line, that disappeared. Perhaps it was during the blindly aspirational 1980s, when we were told that we all had social mobility; perhaps it was when John Prescott declared that “we are all middle class now”. Somehow, the label “working class” took on a mantle of shame, as though if you hadn’t reached “middle class” status, you just weren’t trying. So everyone started calling themselves middle class, regardless of how redundant that made the term. The rot probably set in when we started using terms like “lower middle class” and “upper middle class” in place of the middle/working class division. But however you want to label yourself, the vast swathes of the population toiling away for meagre payments means that the working class is still very much with us.

George Monbiot recently wrote an article recalling the July speech by Barack Obama, in which the US President proclaimed of businesses “you didn’t build that (by yourselves)”, the first part of which was ruthlessly appropriated out of context by the Republicans for their own agenda. Obama was referring to the fact that private enterprise always depends, to some extent, on spending by the state, financed out of taxes – roads, education, infrastructure and so on, while Monbiot focused on how many of these “self-made millionaires” had inherited the means to their success.

But they both ignored another vital aspect of “you didn’t build that by yourselves” – the workers who staff those businesses. The wealthy business owners like to twist the English language to portray themselves as benefactors by calling themselves “job creators”, a term predicated on the idea that their businesses give people jobs. And so they do. But it’s a two-way street. Yes, without those “entrepreneurs”, the businesses wouldn’t exist to “create the jobs”. But without the jobs then being done, by workers, the businesses themselves would crash and burn.


There’s been a lot of demonising of the very rich by the left, and the rich have taken exception to being described as “parasites” (even though it doesn’t seem to bother them when applied to the benefit-claiming poor). But the increasing agenda of hacking away at workers’ pay, rights and conditions makes the label all too appropriate. In a fair capitalist system, the relationship between a business owner and his/her workers should be a symbiotic one; the business owner provides jobs for the workers, the workers do the jobs that need to be done, for a fair wage, to keep the business running. Both have a stake in the business’ success, and both are motivated to ensure it. That way everybody wins.

But the agenda of the parties on the right, both here and in the US, is that progressively fewer rights and benefits should be conferred on those workers, while progressively more should flow the way of the already better off business owner. The Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the US clamour for lower taxes and less regulation for the rich, while hacking away at the pay, conditions and few remaining rights of their workers.

In the UK, the lobbyists for the rich urge us to get rid of the already paltry minimum wage, which despite its recent increase from £6.08 per hour to a princely £6.19 is still falling in real terms and was never enough to live on. The shortfall is then made up by the UK taxpayer in the form of tax credits, which effectively subsidise the profits of big businesses by allowing them to get away with paying wages that aren’t enough to live on.

The Tories’ pet businessman Adrian Beecroft and state-dismantling fanatic Mark Littlewood, of “thinktank” the Institute of Economic Affairs, hector us constantly that even that level of minimum wage is too restrictive for businesses to succeed, and it should be done away with. Together with the right to redundancy pay, or to appeal unfair dismissal (the qualifying term of which has already been doubled). There are already moves to legislate that industrial tribunals to consider unfair dismissal should be paid for by the plaintiff regardless of their success, which coupled with the massive slashing of entitlement to legal aid will ensure that this means of redress becomes less and less of a viable option for those sacked because they’re the wrong race, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, or simply because the boss doesn’t like their face.

Meanwhile, when the workers threaten to protest against legislation whittling away their pay and rights by threatening to withdraw their services, they’re portrayed as being selfish and uncaring by the political establishment (even Ed Miliband, who can’t tell us that strikes are wrong often enough). But if the rich threaten to withdraw their services, by moving abroad to a more desirable tax regime, politicians can’t kowtow to them quickly enough. A protesting worker gets demonised by the Daily Mail; a protesting business owner gets the tax laws changed in his/her favour. We live in a democracy (allegedly). Which of these groups could rightly be said to constitute a majority?

When we’ve reached a state of affairs when the business owner’s appreciation of his workers’ contribution to that business is non existent, and the business owner wants to take more for less from the workers, that relationship is by definition no longer symbiotic. In a situation where one party takes from another while giving nothing back, you call it what it is – parasitism.

Now, to be sure, the working class of today bears little resemblance to that of yesteryear. The wholesale destruction of Britain’s industrial base began by the 1979 Tory government, and carried on with such gusto by the ideologues of New Labour, left the country’s workers (those it had left) employed primarily in service industries. As much as possible was outsourced overseas to where maximum profit could be gained by exploiting workers used to far less.

But not everything could be shipped overseas. Today’s working class is the vast army of people who serve you in shops, who serve you in restaurants, who answer the phones in the few call centres still left in the UK. And they have nobody to represent them at all. The Tories, of course, never did, despite the Alf Garnett-alikes who always voted for them. The Lib Dems, protest though they will, are so keen to be centrist they represent very few. And the leader of the Labour Party, started by the Trade Unions precisely to give the worker a voice in governing the country of whose population they were the majority, now bleats about the need to appeal to “the squeezed middle”, following in the Middle-England chasing footsteps of his supposedly discredited predecessor Tony Blair.


There was a time when workers had representation, of course. Arguably too much of it. The collective bargaining power of the Trade Unions, hitched to the political clout of the Labour Party, was responsible for attaining many of the workers’ rights we have today, the ones being sliced away at by the Coalition. Thanks to Trade Unions, we no longer have children working sixteen hour days in factories, and workers have the ability to challenge perceived unfair dismissal.

But like so many given a dose of power, the unions grew arrogant. The heady scent of power rose to their heads so that, by the 70s, their fits of pique over the most trivial of issues would regularly bring production to a standstill, while madly unreasonable demands for pay increases crippled Britain to such an extent that the tremulous Heath government, embattled by power cuts and three day weeks, was effectively toppled as a result.

It was inevitable that there’d be a reckoning with their old enemies when the Conservatives got back into power in 1979. So it proved, with the Thatcher government introducing legislation that crippled them while peddling a media narrative that they were all nest-feathering “loony lefties” on the take. Militant union leaders blindly played right into their hands, with the bitter conflict of the mid-80s NUM strike effectively destroying their reputation for good.

So like a seesaw, the balance of power had swung from bosses to workers back to bosses again. And it continued to stay over on the bosses’ side with a “New Labour” party that sought to emulate its adversaries’ agenda. Tony Blair’s modification of the party’s defiantly socialist Clause IV allowed him to start peddling off the state’s assets with the same fervour that Thatcher and Major once did; under New Labour, we got the first public/private partnerships in the NHS, and the first academy schools.

Today, trade unions have so little sway in the private sector that only one in seven employees is a member. The public sector remains the only area in which unions are strong, which explains the Tories’ rabid desire to promote a private/public conflict. Demonise the “tax-sucking, gold-plated salaries” in the public sector, and you’ll have the private sector crying out that its working pay and conditions should be brought down to their level.

This is the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Let that happen, and bosses will be free to suggest that pay and conditions should be degraded yet further, with no one left to have a higher standard to compare with. Private sector workers shouldn’t be angrily demanding that their public sector equivalents get worse off; they should be angrily asking why they themselves aren’t better off.

Sadly, the current crop of unions are still doing themselves no favours wheeling out 70s-style caricatures like Bob Crow as their figureheads, and demanding full-on socialism. I may have some left wing views, but I think total socialism has, to all intents and purposes, been proved unworkable. The thing is, so has total free-market capitalism.

What’s needed to redress that balance is a compromise between the two. And what’s needed to achieve that compromise is a voice for that now-voiceless mass, the working class. If Labour won’t do it, and the unions can’t do it, maybe it’s time for some new kind of organisation that will, before the few persuade the many to give up their last pennies in exchange for cheap trinkets.

The venomous Cameron and the amphibious Clegg


There’s a well-known fable involving a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion, keen for nebulous reasons to be on the other side of a river, asks a nearby frog to help out by carrying him over. The frog is dubious. “How do I know you won’t sting me?”, he asks. The scorpion, reasonably, replies that if he did, they would both die. So the frog, naively, agrees to the plan, and inevitably, halfway across, the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that?” gasps the dying frog. “You know that we’ll both die now!” The scorpion is phlegmatic: “It’s my nature. I can’t change it.”

This charming tale came to mind on Monday, when BBC News managed to find a space in between its wall-to-wall Olympic coverage for some actual news. Said news was a dejected looking Nick Clegg seeming to finally realise the nature of the predatory beast he’d harnessed himself and his party to. He’d called a press conference to announce that the last of the Lib Dems’ central policy planks, the reform of the House of Lords, was to be abandoned in the face of overwhelming opposition not just from Labour, but from the Lib Dems’ own coalition partners/masters, the venomous Conservative Party.

It took Clegg rather longer than that mythic frog to feel the repeated stings his ‘allies’ barbed tail was inflicting on his party’s policies. The Tories granted him his cherished referendum on reforming the electoral system, then despite careful negotiations defeated him at the polls with a hell-for-leather opposition campaign infinitely better funded and organised than that in support of the motion. They allowed him his increase in the income tax lower threshold – while at the same time slashing the top rate of tax for their hyper-rich cronies (sorry, ‘job creators’ – ha!) and rejecting his proposed ‘mansion tax’, a variation on another cherished Lib Dem policy, Land Value Tax. And all this after beginning their marriage of convenience by forcing the Lib Dems to not only abandon their policy of opposing rises to, and trying to abolish, university tuition fees, but actually twisting their arms to tacitly support having the fees trebled.

Yes, the Lib Dems have wrung some small concessions from the Tories (see my previous blog on this), to the extent that Cameron has had to tell the press that he could “govern like a true Tory” if only it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems, in an attempt to placate his more barking rightwing backbenchers. But to the voting public, those concessions are small fry compared with the formerly compassionate-seeming Lib Dems’ complicity in slashing the Welfare State and laying the groundwork for further privatisation of the much-loved NHS.

And in any case, the public image of the Lib Dems rests primarily on those central planks they’ve been so vocal on in the past – abolition of tuition fees, the reform of the voting system, and the reform of the House of Lords. With the first two well and truly scuppered by their underhand partners, the forced abandonment of Lords reform was the final sting for Clegg, who miserably took to the air to (finally!) condemn the damage his supposed ‘allies’ were doing not just to him, but to their own party and the government of the country as a whole. Finally discovering some balls, he chose to use them in precisely the wrong way, with a childish tit-for-tat gesture that promised to scupper a cherished Tory policy – the electoral boundary review, which, on the face of it, would gain the Tories more seats in a reduced Commons to the detriment of both Labour and the Lib Dems.

The problem is that, in the minds of the voting public, the Lib Dems are most strongly associated with constitutional reform, and with good reason. As my Lib Dem friend Richard explains in his blog, if you’ve lost faith in the political system because you think it’s broken, nothing about it will work properly until it’s fixed. Trouble is, looked at without partisan goggles, the proposed boundary review does seem a fairer way of dividing votes for the British electorate. Clegg himself said in November 2010 that it would mean "correcting fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs". And it’s less than certain that the Tories would like or benefit from it as much as he seems to think.

So retaliating against the Conservatives by blocking a policy he should by rights be in favour of, and which they may not be as keen on as he thinks, looks, well, a bit silly really. Unfortunately, this is the same kind of political naivete, derived from years spent in opposition, that produced his other great no-win scenario, tuition fees. Like that debacle, he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

If he blocks the boundary changes, he can be seen to be finally standing up to the Tories – but be seen as a hypocrite by many, not least in his own party. If he chooses to retain his integrity and support a constitutional change perfectly in line with his own party’s policies, he’s got nothing in the arsenal left to strike the Tories with, and looks like he’s bent over to let his party get shafted by them for the umpteenth time.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but I’d say he should have stood firmer ground when the Tory leadership first broke their word and began aggressively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote to the AV referendum. There were any number of cherished Tory policies he could have seriously damaged by withdrawing support back then – the NHS reforms, the welfare reforms, reduction in the top rate of tax – and he might have seriously regained some respect and support for his party in the eyes of the electorate. But they’ve all been passed now, with the tacit or actual support of his party giving them a mandate, and all that’s left to torpedo is a policy that he should, logically, be in favour of.


OK, so what about the other Parliamentary numskulls?


To be fair, no party has emerged from this debacle covered in glory. David Cameron, in particular, now looks incredibly ineffectual as a leader who can’t even deliver his own party’s support for an agreed-for policy. The backbench rebellion of 91 MPs is one of the largest rebellions against the party whips in the history of his party, and the fact that they felt they could get away with it does Cameron’s leadership standing no favours at all. One tweeter commented, accurately, that “Lib Dems thought they were in Coalition with the whole Tory party not just David Cameron”. The backbenchers are making the Tory party look like a reverse ouroboros, a snake whose tail is somehow eating its own head.

Not to mention undermining the tenuous alliance they have with the until-now supine Lib Dems, which they seem to have forgotten is the only thing currently preventing them from struggling through as a minority government. They can’t even go to the polls without a 55% vote of no confidence due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the one constitutional reform that has been enacted. Not that they would be likely to win an outright majority this time, but it’s never worth underestimating the power of delusion in the rightwing Conservative ranks. In short, they’ve finally succeeded in alienating the party that is the only thing keeping them properly in power. But like that scorpion of old, that’s Tory nature.


But surely Labour are dealing with this with their usual sensitive maturity?


Labour too look pretty crap here, torpedoing a policy they’ve championed of old as a (supposed) party of the working class. Politics is about compromise, and while the Lords reform might not have been all they wanted, voting for no reform at all feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It could always have been built on later, in the increasingly likely result of the next government being Labour. Instead, next time the Tories can fling the accusation that they’ve already rejected it once. It’s the same as those ardent PR supporters who voted no to AV on the grounds that it wasn’t full PR – those opposed now have the ammunition that the British public have already rejected electoral reform.

The Lords reform legislation as drafted had its roots in a Labour-instituted study, too, and they voted for it at both first and second reading, dropping their ‘no’ bomb at the late stage of debate timetabling. They probably did have a point that the legislation was shoddy and needed reshaping, and that might well have required considerably more than 14 days’ worth of debate. But crucially, at that late stage, they offered no alternative suggestion – just an emphatic “no”. It looks most like a childish fit of pique, designed to drive a wedge between the coalition ‘partners’ in the full knowledge of Cameron’s ineffectiveness of whipping his backbenchers into line.

And yet, Labour might be being cannier than they seem, especially with Clegg’s (perhaps?) unwitting connivance. For all the ambivalence of the Tories and the Lib Dems, Labour were the one party surest to lose out on seats due to the boundary review. Now, despite Cameron’s plan to persevere with it, if the Lib Dems hold to Clegg’s word and oppose it, it’s finished. Advantage: Labour.

The fact that this couldn’t have worked out better for them in that sense has led some to speculate that this was an arcane plan of Miliband and co’s all along – oppose Lords reform and Clegg will have to retaliate, and boundary changes is the only significant thing he has left to strike at. And one Lib Dem I know has gone even further and suggested that perhaps the opposition to the boundary review is Clegg’s own olive branch held out to the previously intransigent Labour party, laying the groundwork for abandoning their treacherous Tory partners at last.


A match made in Hell?


I’m not sure I buy that, but there still seems to be some vain hope that Clegg, Cable and co will cross the floor and hook up with Labour. I don’t think that would do them any favours; they’d be seen as fickle and opportunistic, bending their ideology to whichever main party would offer them the most regardless of their principles. Far better to abandon coalition altogether while they can still (truthfully) assert that they have tried to make it work in the same mature fashion as European parties, only to be thwarted by the childish, materialistic behaviour of their supposed ‘partners’.

They could then stand some chance of regaining respect by supporting the Conservatives on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, leaving them free to oppose any measures they genuinely didn’t support. The only problem there is that most of the measures a lot of Lib Dem MPs would oppose have already been passed in a frenetic haste by a Conservative party desperate to enact their ideology in case they turn out to be a one term government.

And of course, leaving the coalition would leave the Lib Dems with no positions in the Cabinet from which to moderate the Conservatives’ brutal, ideologically motivated policies. But in the eyes of most of the electorate, they’ve singularly failed at ‘moderating’ anyway, content with a few piecemeal breadcrumb policies thrown from the table while the Conservatives hacked away at everything liberals and the welfare state have achieved since 1948.

Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I wonder how many Lib Dems now think their leaders should have walked away from coalition with either major party, retaining their integrity by saying, “we tried to make it work, but neither party would compromise maturely enough for us to find common ground”. Those who support the coalition may be saying that “enough common ground” was precisely what the Tories offered, but they’re just now finding out how much those promises were worth (rather later than many others, I think). It’s taken long enough, but the Lib Dems may finally be realising that Tories can no more change their nature than that scorpion, even if it means their own electoral destruction.

It’s my party, and you can buy it if you want to…


We’re barely into a new week, and already the Conservative Party is embroiled in yet another controversy about being the party paid for and answering to the super-rich. After the passage of the free-market bonanza NHS bill, then the “fuck the poor” spectacle of a Budget that considered cutting taxes for the wealthy its most important priority, now it seems that if you give the Conservatives £250,000 or more, you get to have dinner with David Cameron and tell him what to do.

Seemingly keen to hasten their electoral demise by rushing headlong to the state of sleaze and scandal it took them years to reach by 1997, it seems the Conservatives have been allowing party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas to promise that every donor of £250,000 or more will have a private dinner with Cameron at the Number 10 flat. This, it was heavily implied, would allow such donors a significant input into party policy – suddenly the reasons for the cutting of the top tax rate seem clearer.

Cameron, of course, said he’d known nothing about this (to quote Christine Keeler, “well, he would, wouldn’t he?”). In the wake of a Sunday Times video clearly showing Cruddas making this offer, the hapless co-treasurer instantly resigned, without the usual days of Cameron offering his “full support”. Clearly, even for the Tories, this wasn’t going to be one they could brazen their way out of.

Not that they’re not trying. Cameron seemed to immediately withdraw from public view, leaving hopeless Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to vainly defend Cruddas’ actions on Radio 4’s Today programme and in the Commons. Maude was onto rather a sticky wicket trying to defend a policy that everyone had suspected existed, but for which there had previously been no proof. “But,” protested Maude, “it’s not like this is new. Everyone knows you can buy the Conservative Party!”

OK, those weren’t his precise words, but that’s more or less what he was saying. And do you know what? He’s actually right. A quick glance at the Conservative Party webpage concerning donations reveals exactly what level of access you can get, and for how much.

  • £50 a month gets you the title of ‘Party Patron’ and, presumably, a glowing sense of well-being.
  • £250 annually (less money, oddly) gets you into ‘Fastrack’ (I like my racks fast), where you meet “like-minded supporters of the Party” at “social events”.
  • £2000 annually gets you into the anachronistically named ‘Team 2000’, and here things start to look decidedly fishy. These guys are, apparently, “The principal group of donors who support and market the Party’s policies in Government, by hearing them first hand from the Leader and key Conservative politicians through a lively programme of drinks receptions, dinner and discussion”.
  • £2500 gets you into the ‘City and Entrepreneurs’ forum, at which you have “discussions… in the West End”. On what, I wonder?
  • £5000 gets you into the ‘Front Bench Club’, and you get to “debate with MPs at a series of political lunches”. Presumably without ever telling them that your donations will stop if they don’t do what you want.
  • £10,000 gets you into the ‘Renaissance Forum’, at which you “enjoy dinners and political debate with eminent speakers from the world of business and politics”. “Debate” as in “bribery”?
  • £25,0000 gets you into the ‘Treasurers’ Group, at which you will be “invited to join senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”. Hmmm…
  • And lastly, for this list, £50,000 gets you into the ‘Leader’s Group’, in which you can look forward to being “invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”.

The price list stops there, but it’s reasonable to assume that, just as Cruddas said, increasingly high donations will get you increasingly exclusive access (for a couple of amusing suggestions as to what exactly, check out Millennium Dome’s blog). So, just as Maude says, this was hardly a secret. Well, maybe this level was, but it was easy enough to work out from what they’d actually put in the public domain.

Thus it was that a shaky looking David Cameron finally emerged from the shadows this lunchtime for a previously booked gig he couldn’t duck out of – an address to the Alzheimer’s Society on increased dementia funding. The sight of him delivering his excuses beneath a banner advertising the society may not have pleased them (and invites some tasteless jokes which I’ll refrain from here), as he relegated their cause to second place after addressing the whole wretched ‘corruption’ issue.

He insisted that all this was news to him, but admitted that there had been private dinners with some high flown donors. It was all above board, he insisted, and there was no question of impropriety or undue influence on government policy. That’s all right then. Presumably these billionaires just wanted the undoubted delight of the Camerons’ company, and in no way did the fact of their massively high donations hang over the dinner like a looming sense of obligation.

Still, Cameron promised to publish the details of all these dinners – “something no Prime Minister has ever done before”. It’s a revealing list of plutocrats, hedge fund managers and financial brokers, all of whom, given their net worth, presumably donated significantly more than £250,000 each to the Party. Still, I’m sure the possibility of displeasing those who financially prop up his party by disagreeing with their aims never once entered into our incorruptible Prime Minister’s head.

And with that, he promised an internal investigation into the affair and proceeded to lifelessly deliver his planned speech on dementia. Afterwards, he slunk off without taking any questions from the assembled journos, and is conveniently absent from Prime Minister’s Questions at the House for the next few weeks, leaving his whipping boy Nick Clegg to take the flak. Being for once blameless, Clegg could have a lot of fun at his master’s expense here – I wonder if he’ll have the nerve?

Labour, of course, leapt on the revelations with glee. Ed Miliband, with the air of a school debating society captain who’s won a petty victory, fumed that it was a bit mad to have an internal Tory party investigation into allegations of corruption into the Conservative Party. In this he has a point. The old “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” question could debatably apply to any political party, but it’s certainly pertinent when the party in question is actually in government and passing legislation. Still, when the calls for an independent inquiry are led by “cash for peerages” Labour Lord Levy, the words “pot” “kettle” and “black” instantly leap to mind.

Because it’s not like Labour have never done this kind of thing. Apart from Levy, and the odd coincidence that big Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone was exempted from the ban on tobacco advertising for his Formula 1 hobby, the Labour website too lists ‘benefits’ for their donors. Admittedly, their menu is rather more modestly priced, and tops off with the exciting sounding ‘Thousand Club’ which confusingly costs £1200 to join. This doesn’t get you an intimate dinner with Ed Miliband, in the unlikely event that you should desire such a thing, merely “exclusive events” and a free pass to the Party Conference, the Glastonbury for Labour supporters. But it’s the same kind of thing as the Tories. And besides, Labour don’t need big donations – they get those already from the Trade Unions.

Which brings us to the whole vexed question of party funding, and how it influences policy. It’s an odd coincidence that in a recent Deputy Prime Minster’s Questions, Clegg was called on to answer what was being done about the undue influence of unaccounted for lobbyists on each party; at the time, I caught myself thinking, doesn’t that include all those funding donors, like the unions funding Labour and the City providing more than half the funding for the Conservatives?

With the issue thrown so thoroughly into the public eye, Cameron fell back on some old policies, stating that donations to parties should be capped at £50,000 annually. Now, there is some merit to the idea that donations should be capped, to prevent the donors effectively ‘buying’ their own compliant government (as seems to be the case in the United States). But £50,000? That’s still £250,000 over a five year Parliament. Which is quite a lot.

No party (except maybe the Lib Dems) has been keen to really address the issue of party funding, for the obvious reason that any reform to the present system would stand to lose them quite a bit of money. As it stands, the Labour Party is largely funded by huge Trade Union donations, and the Conservative Party by City firms and plutocrats. As a result, each is obliged to take a stand on fairly narrow, sectional viewpoints. This is actually the very antithesis of democracy and the embodiment of corrupt self-interest, but because it’s such a longstanding arrangement, few people question it any more.

Not coincidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Tories tend to do well despite representing, basically, businesses and the rich. They have a massive financial advantage that allows them to sweep in with a barrage of donor-funded publicity in any constituency where they might be threatened. Labour have the wherewithal to stage at least something of a fight back, but the Lib Dems, whose funding is far more modest, have never had a chance. With a much more limited supply of financial resources, they’ve had to concentrate on seats they have a good chance of winning, and simply abandon the rest as a lost cause. And they’re more leery than their counterparts of large donors, after their one big contributor, Michael Brown, turned out not to actually own all the money he gave to them.

This is clearly a corrupt state of affairs – but when the leading parties are the beneficiaries, why would they challenge it? But interestingly, a 15 month inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended some pretty sweeping reforms when they reported last November. The report recommended a much lower cap of £10,000 per donor, which would bring things down to a much more level playing field for all three major parties. Of course, this wouldn’t go far to funding a big political operation for any of them. Which is why the report proposes using £23million of state (read ‘taxpayer’) money to make up the shortfall, and give all three major parties the same amount of money to deal with. Hey presto – at a stroke, the Tories would be stripped of their City-funded financial advantage, Labour wouldn’t have to be a slave to the unions, and the Lib Dems might approach something like credibility in comparison.

There are moral and pragmatic arguments against this – why should the taxpayer fund political campaigning (particularly when austerity is cutting real incomes left, right and centre), and how could this get voted through when the two largest parties stand to lose advantages because of it? As a result, we’re unlikely to see anything like this happen, which is sad, because as the Committee said, it would be “ the only safe way to remove big money from party funding”, and claw something like democracy back from vested interests who can currently buy representation in ways the ordinary voter can only dream of.

But on the flipside, even with austerity, this amounts to a contribution of 50p annually for each taxpayer. And £23million may sound like a lot, but it’s pocket change compared to what’s being slashed from the NHS and the benefit system while billionaires are getting tax cuts. Isn’t it a price worth paying to buy back your representation from self-interested billionaires and trade union demagogues? With the issue certain to be debated, this report is bound to be called on – by the Lib Dems if nobody else, since they have least to lose. That’s assuming they’ve paid the requisite £250,000 to get the Prime Minister to listen…

A tax is the best form of offence

One of the ‘joys’ of living through an ongoing economic crisis is that suddenly, everyone is an armchair economic pundit. Forget Robert Peston – you’ll hear a hugely diverse (often misinformed) range of opinion on this arcane, complex and, quite frankly, dull topic these days in every pub in the land. Not to mention a spectrum of political viewpoints all over the internet.

This week, the armchair economic pundits have mostly been talking about George Osborne’s typically divisive 2012 Budget. According to whose take you read, it’s a terrible budget, or a great budget, or an unmemorable budget, or an attack on the poor, or a much-needed shot in the arm for the business sector. As an armchair pundit myself, what I see in this Budget is a politically incompetent attempt to drive through more of the increasingly hardline Conservative ideology that’s been a signature of most Coalition policies since the Conservatives and their junior partners (or “human shields” – thanks for that one, Owen Jones) the Lib Dems got into power.

Poor little rich boys


Osborne called it “a Budget to reward hard work” in his Commons statement, but a not particularly close look is needed to tell that this only applies to very well-paid hard work. Key to this is the much pre-publicised dropping of the top, 50%, tax rate for very high earners to 45%. No amount of (not especially well-done) spin can disguise the fact that this is, essentially, a bonanza tax cut for the very rich, who in these straitened times are  precisely the ones who need a tax cut least.

This is standard Conservative ideology. Osborne claims in one breath that it will remove a disincentive for those ‘wealth creators’ to shift their businesses to the UK, while in the next he says that the tax take from said ‘wealth creators’ will rise by five times due to other measures contained in the Budget. Well, which is it, George? If the 50% tax rate was putting them off coming here, how will other means of raking in even more money not do the same thing?

Shifting to another tack, the Chancellor and the Treasury point to a not-especially reliable ‘Laffer curve’ showing that this higher rate of tax actually decreases the overall tax take from the very rich. This, according to the Treasury, is because when the tax rate is too high, the rich find increasingly more ways to avoid paying it. Therefore, the theory runs, you’ll take in more tax at a lower rate, because those upstandingly moral wealthy people will happily pay all they owe, if that amount is generally lower.

This is an interesting perspective. “We can’t make the law work,” says the Chancellor, “so we’ll remove that law”. Interestingly, this is one of the most persuasive arguments to abandon the utterly ineffective prohibition of drugs; but somehow the same chain of logic isn’t applied there. It would be more in keeping with the government’s hardline stance on the drug laws (not to mention with Osborne’s stated aims on tax avoidance) to make more strenuous efforts to make sure the law is followed, not only to the letter but also to the spirit. But then that wouldn’t win all that goodwill from the very rich people who form a core part of the Tory voter base (not to mention donating about half of its party funds).

Laffer curves are a very subjective thing. The idea that the ‘peak’ tax rate after which revenue from taxation begins to decrease is at exactly 45%, or 50% for that matter, is mathematically simplistic. It’s also entirely theoretical until long term, reliable data has been gathered at varying tax points to make the comparison.

But Osborne claims to have this data. He points to the revenue gained from the 50% rate as being far less than the £3billion Labour claimed it would net when they introduced it in 2010 – less than a third of that, apparently. What he neglected to mention (but must surely be aware of) is that there is only data from the first full year of the tax. And because Labour gave a nice long term warning that the tax rise was going to be happening, many of those who would be affected chose to pay themselves dividends early, to avoid the new rate.

This had two big effects – it made the tax revenue for Labour’s last year in power artificially high (not that that could save them electorally), and made the first year’s takings at the new rate artificially low. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, had the new rate been maintained long enough, it might have brought in far more. And that’s presumably including the anticipated avoidance. If Osborne’s promised crackdown on tax avoidance happens, who knows, it could have brought in even more.

No, none of the Chancellor’s justifications for this tax cut being pragmatically and morally the right thing to do hold any water at all. Perhaps if they had someone with the skill of Alastair Campbell doing their spin, they might have. But they don’t, and this looks like exactly what it is – naked Conservative ideology, which clings to their traditional idea that the rich deserve to keep their hoarded wealth at the expense of the poor.

As if to prove this, Osborne also announced a further ‘crackdown’ on benefit fraud. So, if the poor (even the tiny fraction of them whose claims are fraudulent) flout the law, they must be severely punished. If the rich flout the law, that must mean the law is inconvenient and should be removed. Think about the message that sends – far from ‘detoxifying the Tory brand’, the current Cabinet seem intent on raising the age old spectre of ‘the Nasty Party’ – now with added Nastiness. Electorally this may not be a wise plan.

Gran, can you spare £10 billion?


And neither are the methods being used to make up the predicted shortfall. Most prominent among these, and causing howls of outrage among even the right wing press, is the so-called ‘Granny Tax’ – an apparent £10 billion tax raid on the pensions of the elderly.

This is not big or clever politically. The Chancellor is always seen as ‘Mr Nasty’; he’s the killjoy that makes it more expensive to drink, smoke, or drive your car. But mugging the elderly to give more money to the hyper-rich, that’s a new low. What next, raising tax revenue by stealing candy from babies?

Again, this could have been handled better with a little thought about the message. It’s actually tied in to the Lib Dems’ much vaunted increase in the tax free personal allowance – their manifesto pledge was that, in time, this would be raised to £10,000, benefitting everyone, but particularly low earners. A big step was taken towards that in the Budget, with the threshold being raised quite considerably to £9205.

There’s a rather nasty viewpoint that says pensioners have had it too easy during the savage cutting back of austerity, and it’s time for them to pay their fair share. That’s tied in to jealousy, plain and simple – the elderly have managed to buy houses and get good pensions – things that are rapidly becoming impossible today. So why should they get the nice stuff by virtue of having lived in easier times? Let’s drag them down to the same low standards the rest of us have to put up with!

Put like that, it actually seems a most un-Conservative policy – the elderly have worked hard for their assets, and surely standard Tory mantra would be that they should keep every penny. But this is New Conservatism, steeped in class prejudice that would make Thatcher (a grammar school girl) blanch with horror. What Osborne is doing will, predictably, only affect lower ‘earning’ pensioners. Their tax-free threshold, which normally rises with inflation, will be frozen at £10,500 for the foreseeable future. New pensioners will have it even worse – their threshold will be stuck at £9205. Not coincidentally, the same as the new tax free threshold for working people.

So the logical – and less politically explosive – thing to have done would be to make clear that it was this parity they were trying to achieve, and juggle both tax free thresholds until they were equal. Yes, some pensioners would lose out, but less than with what’s actually happening. And there might be some justification in that anyway, if spun right – which it wasn’t. It’s hard to fathom the reason for any experienced politician to handle it this way – it’s like Osborne’s actually trying to throw away the next election.

Corporation’s what you need


Perhaps he was hoping to use it to disguise yet more tax relief for large corporations – being panned for mugging the elderly might be the lesser of two evils compared to pandering to those all-purpose bad guys of unrestrained capitalism. In his quest to bring the level of Corporation Tax – on corporate profits – down from 28% to 22% (lower than almost every developed country), the Chancellor made another leap for glory by shifting it down to 24%.

On top of that, there’s an arcane rule about shifting corporate money from one tax region to another. If a UK-based company shifts profits from, say, Ghana to Switzerland, it currently has to pay the Treasury the standard corporate tax rate on the money made by doing so. Well, guess what? Not any more! Perhaps George was willing to take the hit on mugging grannies to keep that little wheeze from becoming more widely known.

This, of course, fits in with the Tory mantra that private industry will make everything better. Bring down the burden of corporate tax, the theory runs, and businesses will flock to the UK, bringing all that lovely money with them. Except, of course, they won’t be giving any of it to the state, because in Tory-world, only the free market can handle money responsibly.

This ignores two fairly well-proven things. Firstly, corporations exist to make as much money as possible. That’s their very raison d’etre. Do you really think they won’t still attempt to hoard as much of it as possible? And if they do, how will that help the economy? And secondly, it’s hard for a business to make any money in a consumer economy where the consumers have no money to spend – largely because they’re losing it all in tax to fund corporate tax breaks.

The fate of the Nice Ones


But what about the Lib Dems, and their much-claimed moderating influence on the ruthless, money-hungry class warriors of the Conservatives? Nick Clegg has been lamely pointing to a few measures that could, on the surface, look ‘nice’. Chief among these is the raise to the personal tax free threshold, which leaped much closer to the target figure of £10,000 by going up to £9205. That’s got to be a step in the right direction, surely?

Well, sorry Nick, but it’s not as good as it looks. For a start, the raising of the tax free threshold is accompanied by a lowering of the threshold for the higher, 40% rate – this has been frozen and will fall to £41,500 by 2014, meaning that more and more people will find their tax bills getting higher. Also, it doesn’t do much to help the truly poor, who may be below that threshold already.

And this policy won’t do much for the low earners it lifts out of tax either, because of a nifty little benefit technicality pointed out by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. If you’re in that low-income bracket, chances are you’ll be claiming Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. Well, these benefits taper off the more you earn, and here’s the thing – that’s net earnings, ie after tax. So while the new thresholds give £220 with one hand, the increased earnings mean that they take £187 right back. Leaving those low income households with the princely extra sum of £33 a year. Put like that, it doesn’t seem quite so generous, does it Nick?

OK then, how about the other measures, the ones that Simon Hughes claims make “the rich pay their fair share”, and Cameron says will bring in five times the revenue of the 50% tax rate? There are a couple of these, and on first glance they look quite good. Unfortunately, they’re basically fudged versions of the much more effective mansion tax originally proposed by Vince Cable, who shiftily tried to make them look good on last night’s Question Time with the haunted look of Dr Faustus discovering that his deal with Mephistopheles wasn’t as good as it looked.

These measures are to do with stamp duty, and initially appear to be a creditable attempt to tax assets rather than earnings – because they’re, sort of, a tax on property. Henceforth, stamp duty on properties worth over £2million will rise from 5% to 7%, but even more significantly, for properties bought by the tax dodging wheeze of using shell companies rather than individuals, it will go up to a whopping 15%. And there’ll be an annual duty on residential properties already owned by shell companies (though the rate for it has yet to be determined).

While this “mini mansion tax” is nice, the other rises have one basic flaw – they depend on the property actually being sold. It seems sheer madness to make confident estimates of the money you’ll make from property transactions, as there’s no guarantee of them happening at any predictable level. Hell, what if the rate of property purchase drops because of this measure? Where will the money come from then? Well, just maybe from the further £10 billion to be slashed from the welfare budget – at precisely the time more and more people are falling into poverty.

Nick Clegg is shiftily trying to claim that these measures constitute the ‘tycoon tax’ he so unexpectedly called for at the recent Lib Dem conference; despite the fact that what he outlined sounded nothing like this. He’s also saying that a proposed cap on tax relief fits the description (a good policy, nonetheless).

But I have to wonder what backroom deals were already in place with the Tories before he made that announcement. The Lib Dems attempts to spin this Budget as being anything less than naked Conservative ideology completely at odds with their own is sadly lacking here. Of course, the Conservatives’ spin isn’t too great either. The difference is that everyone expects the Tories to be nasty, even if they may have overreached themselves this time. Once again, though, I think we expected better of the Lib Dems. They’re beginning to appear almost powerless in the Coalition, and their leader’s constant attempts to defend extremely right wing policies are beginning to make him personally look like Vidkun Quisling.

Nothing in the world can stop them now?

Lib Dems aside, this should still be electoral suicide even for the Tories. Well, if they had any sort of worthwhile opposition, anyway.

Labour seemed to do all right out of the Budget. This is largely because opposing Budgets is easy, and opposing one this nasty was child’s play – even for the charisma vacuum that is Ed Miliband. But Labour still seem to have no coherent idea of what they would do instead. Vague promises are floated one week, then discarded the next. And the best their Shadow Chancellor can come up with is that he’d do more or less the same things – just more slowly.

There are three years to go before the next election, which might give both Labour and the Lib Dems the chance to shape themselves up into some kind of credible opposition to the Tories. Let’s hope so. Because right now, the fact that the Tories have the sheer gall to put through a Budget this mercenary and selfish seems to indicate that they think no-one can challenge them. And on the present evidence, they may well be right.

The game of social dysfunction

After a second night of – relative – calm, it looks as if, thankfully, the orgy of rioting, looting and destruction that has swept England since last Saturday is finally over. In the aftermath of England worst civil disobedience in generations, it’s time to look for answers. Or to play the blame game – a game that, in fact, pundits and the public have been playing since Tottenham started burning last weekend. A lack of complete information has never been any barrier to humanity’s ability to jump to conclusions where events like this are concerned, even more so for those of us that live in the country that was collectively terrified for four nights.

So who is getting the blame? After all, there’s always “some bastard who is presumably responsible”, isn’t there? Blame, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and accordingly everyone’s view of the responsibility for events is being filtered through the prism of their own politics, views and prejudices. Thus the left blamed the right, for having caused so much social deprivation with their emphasis on capitalism, big business, public spending cuts and an ever widening social divide. The right blamed the left, for decades of indiscipline, political correctness, excessive tolerance and an ‘entitlement culture’ based on benefit receipt that was easier than working. Oh, and the EDL, with predictable stupidity, blamed the blacks.

The consumer culture was responsible, in which aggressive advertising and corporate hype raised to an almost religious fervour the desirability of trendy materialistic items to those who increasingly couldn’t afford them. The spoiled nature of today’s youth, brought up on a welfare state to believe they were entitled to something for nothing, was responsible. A lack of proper parenting was responsible. The moral corruption of the nation’s leaders was responsible. Police racism was responsible. The failing economy, widening the divide between an increasing army of poor and a shrinking minority of ultra-rich, was responsible. A lack of discipline in schools was responsible. Rap music, with its glorification of sexism, homophobia, drugs and illegally obtained material items, was responsible. Twitter was responsible. Facebook was responsible. And so ad infinitum, each seeking to boil down an incredibly disparate set of circumstances that happened to come together to cause chaos into one nice, simple soundbite, so that we can do something easy and say, “there, we’ve sorted that, it’ll never happen again”.

“Criminality, pure and simple,” was the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated, scolding refrain. The former Eton prefect was presumably forgetting his own teenage trouble with cannabis and later well-documented hooliganism with Oxford University’s toffs-only drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Criminality it was, pure and simple it certainly was not. The truth is, you can’t boil this down to one nice, simple explanation where those you don’t like get the blame. I think there are elements of all the causes listed above that have contributed, and that most people, left and right, have a point to make and some responsibility to be shouldered.

Of course, the information is still incomplete, and it may never be possible to provide proper explanations, but using the events to justify your own political prejudices is never a good idea. Particularly if you’re the EDL. In the emergency session of Parliament called yesterday, David Cameron sought, predictably, to shift the blame onto “the last government” who by his reckoning appear to have been responsible for every social ill from the sacking of Rome to the First World War. Ed Milliband, equally predictably, pointed out that it had happened during a Conservative-led government, and their savage social injustice must have caused it. Neither seemed willing to look too deep into the causes, and with good reason – beneath the usual tired rhetoric, both had a point. What we’ve seen over the last week is the huge simmering melting pot of this country’s social problems finally boiling over, and it’s been a long time coming. Or to put it another way, in the Buckaroo game of England’s social dysfunction, successive governments have piled on more and more bedrolls and crates, and the current one has just had the misfortune of putting on the last stick of dynamite that finally makes the mule kick.

So how did we get from a peaceful protest over a dubious police killing to jaw dropping footage of England’s greatest cities in flames as though the Luftwaffe had made a return visit in search of trainers and plasma TVs? Racism definitely played its part, though even that isn’t as simple as many would like to claim. There are definitely some very dubious circumstances surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday (can it be only a week ago? It seems like a lifetime). From the, as usual, limited information available, it looks like the Met reacted with totally disproportionate force, and shot a man who wasn’t offering the kind of threat that would justify this. But equally, it’s been shown that Duggan did have a gun – it was a blank-firing pistol that had been adapted to fire live rounds. The problem being that he hadn’t actually used it – it was the police that did all the shooting. Duggan, at least on the face of it, was no angel. But shooting him in the head may have been overreacting.

Some, initially, took this as evidence that the inherent racism in the Met condemned by the 1981 Scarman Report was still very much around. And they very possibly have a point, though it’s always a mistake to paint every policeman with the same colours (so to speak). There are numerous accounts of the police’s tendency to stop and search young black men far, far more frequently than any other ethnic group, even at the expense of going after other, non-black criminals who are more obviously doing wrong – my friend Chris Lancaster, a teacher in Hackney, has attested to this point with firsthand tales. But is this still the “jungle bunny, darkie, send them back to their own country” racism of the 70s and 80s, or are we looking at something more complex?

England may be far more racially sensitive than it was in those dark days, but that doesn’t mean we’ve reached any golden age of equal treatment and opportunity for all ethnicities. As a general rule, criminals have always tended to come from the poorer sections of society. Also as a general rule, even now, most of the country’s black youth have also been locked into the poorer sections of society – particularly in London, where the descendants of the Caribbean immigrants of the 50s have never managed to escape the poverty trap no matter how hard their parents worked. So it’s not hard to see the flawed chain of ‘logic’ that could lead even a non-white supremacist policeman to be prejudiced. Criminals are poor. Black youths are poor. Therefore black youths must be criminals.

But there’s an even bigger racial issue here than any kind of prejudice inherent in the police, which is the question of WHY social class can be defined by race. In a land where racism apparently has been made so much less of a problem, why are there still some races unable to escape the poverty trap? Actual racists, of whom there are still a depressing amount, would say that it’s because of black culture, entitlement, rap music, etc. Even more depressingly, they may have a point – the culture of many young black men in poor backgrounds has shaped itself into something wilfully antisocial. Obviously that’s not true of all, but enough to be noticeable, particularly for the mainstream media who focus on this minority at the expense of the rest of the black community. But that misses the point that an antisocial culture has developed because of injustice, prejudice and poverty, which in turn reinforces those things in a depressing zero sum game. It’s easy to blame rap music for causing social ills, but remember that rap music was spawned by those very social ills in the first place, and has nihilistically drifted away from its original message of political outrage and injustice to resignedly boasting, glorifying women with big butts and telling us how many guns and expensive things the rappers own. But if you see your ancestors working hard and still living in poverty, and your only hope of financial advancement is crime, it’s easy to see how that can be tempting.

None of which excuses or justifies such behaviour of course, and it’s equally true to say that plenty of people from such a background study hard, work hard, and are fine members of society. And equally, there are still plenty of honourable people in the black community who have a justifiable sense of outrage at the position they STILL find themselves in purely because of their race. Of course, the racists take this as proof of their obvious superiority – if blacks are as good as us, they argue, there wouldn’t be such a disproportionately high number of black people in poverty. This, quite frankly, is bollocks. The reason there are so many black people among England’s poor is, quite simply, that there are still racists. It’s clear that not enough has been done to address the problem of integrating Britain’s varied ethnicities. A ‘quota’ system of positive discrimination in employment is not the answer – how patronising is it to know you’ve got a job purely on the basis of your race rather than your ability? The answer, surely, is in education, in bringing all people up to respect each other as equal – not just in the classroom, but everywhere in society. Many good people are still struggling to achieve just that. But plainly it’s not working, and new racists are being brought up to hate all the time. Look at the average age of an EDL member – we’re mostly talking under 30. If young people are still being taught by those around them that some races are more equal than others, there’s plainly still a very big problem.

So it was hardly surprising that, when a group of perfectly well-intentioned people accompanied Mark Duggan’s family to Tottenham police station on Saturday to demand some answers and were met with indifference and contempt, something bad was going to happen. And something bad did, as – reportedly – a teenage girl was pushed to the ground by a policeman, for reasons that are still unclear. Angry, people started throwing things. And lo and behold, another race riot was born on the streets of London, not so far from where similar riots had spring up in the 80s.

And at that point, it’s fair to say it really was a race riot – those same issues that sparked the 80s riots had, with a depressing inevitability, flared into violence again. Depressed, but not entirely surprised, I only watched the news with half an eye that night – it was a familiar narrative, and I had the nihilistic view that again, nothing would change.

But I was wrong. Things did change – for the worse. With any riot, there’s always an extra momentum built up by mob mentality, and by those who opportunistically latch onto it for their own ends – to cause trouble, to start a fight, and always, to steal things and break things. So it was that Saturday, but the scale was unprecedented. As the night wore on, it became clear that, however it had started, this was about more than Mark Duggan and police racism now. It had become rioting, destruction and looting for its own sake, with no point to make whatsoever. Shops were looted, cars and buildings set on fire, and any message that might have been given was entirely lost.

As night followed night, it became clear that this was now ALL about the looting, the fighting and the destruction. It was like the end of Quatermass and the Pit, with apparently ordinary people drawn mindlessly into the wanton indulgence of theft and vandalism. The communities being ransacked were their own backyards – they were, to use a phrase I first heard in a Stephen King novel, “shitting where they eat”.

At this point, any easy analysis of the causes was impossible. The film and CCTV footage, and the news photos, showed a much more disparate group in terms of age, gender and ethnicity than anyone had expected. Of course, people see what they want to see – to racists, 90% of them were black, to liberals, 90% of them were socially deprived, to conservatives, 90% of them were from broken homes and living on benefits. As we’re seeing now that the mindwarping amount of them arrested is beginning to filter through the courts, it’s not that straightforward.

A breakdown of the demographics involved is not yet forthcoming, so I’m guilty of speculation myself here. But of those looters who’ve already gone through the courts, we’re seeing that plenty of them actually had jobs, in some cases quite well-paid ones. So they weren’t all on benefits. Plenty of them were in higher education – so they weren’t all stupid. Plenty of them were women – so they weren’t all men. Plenty of them were white – so it wasn’t all about racism. And while a very high proportion were teenage or younger, there were plenty of people in their 30s and even their 40s, so it wasn’t a failure exclusively confined to a new ‘feral’ generation.

So what caused such a disparate bunch to turn into the terrifying mobs of roving thieves we saw over the last week? With so many different kinds of people involved, it was obviously more than one thing. The trouble is that all the causes feed into each other, so identifying motives – or solutions – is not easy.

“It’s the madness of a consumer society, where we’re all told to buy things we can’t afford,” cried many liberals, myself included. That this had a part to play was obvious; in the words of one teenage girl interviewed on the news, they wanted “some free stuff”. And after all, the main activity of the disorder was theft. More than ever, we live in a society where we’re defined as people by the things we own. You’re in a lower social class if you don’t have the right brand of trainers, or the very latest model of iPhone. Equally obviously, these things are getting harder and harder for ordinary people to afford, even as they’re artificially made more desirable by advertising and social pressure. “Tear it all down!” cried a communist friend of mine, clearly failing to appreciate that Karl Marx would hardly have been proud of a proletariat whose sole motive was the acquisition of material things.

“It’s the recession and the Coalition cuts,” we also cried. There’s an aspect of that too, for some. Whatever you think about the Coalition’s economic policies, it’s undeniable that the social divide between rich and poor is wider than ever before. The diminishing tiny group of the wealthy get wealthier and wealthier, while the increasingly populous poor get poorer. All this in the middle of a global recession in which those perceived to have caused it – the investment banks – have been bailed out by taxpayer’s money and continue to pay themselves conspicuously obscene bonuses while governments, held to ransom by threats of corporate relocation, can do nothing but look on impotently. “We’re just taking stuff back from the rich,” commented one looter as she walked away carrying her pointless new hoard. As cries of political rage go, it was pretty inarticulate, and smacked of excuse-making at that, but it summed up the increasing anger the population are rightly feeling about the increasingly divisive economic inequality the world over.

“It’s the voice of the voiceless,” was another cry I heard as a justification for this being the only kind of revolutionary expression an inarticulate ill-educated underclass could manage. That’s as may be, but they were hardly sticking it to their oppressors; Chipping Norton and the West End went unmolested. In fact, the looters’ targets were depressingly unambitious. I mean, JD Sports? Footlocker? Miss Selfridge? As consumers, their looting choices were decidedly low-rent. That may have just been down to opportunism; Armani and Gucci don’t have too many outlets in Hackney. Still, it’s telling that the REALLY exclusive stuff wasn’t hunted for – these were the dream things of decidedly ordinary people, and even these for many were out of their reach.

But not for all. As has been pointed out, many of those doing the robbing already had some of the things they were nicking. Some, like the teenage girl whose parents own a mansion, could clearly have afforded to but them anyway. So why would people want to loot things that they already had, didn’t need, or could afford to buy? The right wingers would have us believe that it’s because of a spoiled “entitlement culture” where the Welfare State has given the population the impression that they can get something for nothing, and this was a logical extension. And you know what? I think they had a point. But only the beginnings of one. We DO live in a culture where we expect to be able to get “free stuff” without having to work for it. State benefits have to shoulder some of the blame for that; even in the 90s, when I was on benefits, I found that there were occasions when it was better for me financially to stay on benefits than get a job. Not that this is any reason for the Welfare State to be dismantled, as the right wing would immediately insist. The benefit system is certainly ripe for overhaul, though whether the current government’s plan for it will work is questionable. But that’s only part of the “entitlement culture”. After all, if benefits payments are higher than potential wages, isn’t there also a problem with the wages? For years, employees rights have been eroded to such an extent, and corporate privileges extended by so much, that wages haven’t risen in real terms since 2003. I’d say the private sector has something to answer for in making joblessness a more attractive state than working for a pittance to enrich a minority.

If Labour have given the country a too-generous benefit system though, that’s as nothing compared to the economic dreams the Conservatives fostered in the 80s. Thatcher’s dream of a classless society where everyone gets rich (except the poor, who don’t matter) led to decades of easy credit possessions. Credit which, in the middle of a financial crisis, is no longer available. Why, people may be asking, could our parents get free stuff and we can’t? Oh wait, there’s an easier way…

Not to mention (and this is admittedly being filtered through MY prejudices) the inane “celebrity” culture that’s arisen over the last decade or so. How many young people, asked what they’d like to be, will these days simply say, “a celebrity”? Fame used to be earned by talent, hard work, and yes, sometimes luck. Now a lifetime of glitzy parties, appearances in Heat magazine and a line of workout DVDs is perceived to be guaranteed simply by dint of appearing on TV shows that require an unpaid public simply to turn up and gurn onscreen for a few minutes a week. Big Brother, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al have fostered this culture, and we are, in part, reaping the rewards of it. If young people’s biggest dream is to be accorded the trappings of fame without doing anything to deserve it, these have surely played their part. When young girls say that their dearest aspiration is to be a footballer’s wife, that’s a dispiriting state for future generations to be in. Fame without work has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s easy to understand how people might think they can get – and deserve – something for nothing.

“They’re taking away my EMA,” one looter stated, “so this is, like, me getting stuff back.” A decreasing amount of educational opportunities, whether real or perceived, is undoubtedly stoking the fire of social unrest, particularly in poorer areas. Having said that, this was a claim it was hard to take seriously in a lot of cases. It later transpired that many of those looting were already in Higher Education. And it was noticeable that, if the looters were so concerned about their education, they conspicuously left Waterstone’s untouched.

Nevertheless, to some the Educational Maintenance Allowance, innovation though it is, has been a genuine lifeline. Some criticise it as, effectively, paying to keep kids in education and therefore off the unemployment register. But for some, it does enable them to go to college without having to support their family with a part time job. Its loss has been felt in many communities; but I still think in these cases that it’s been more a factor in the erosion of morale than an actual contributor. Books seem to hold far less attraction for the looters than Nikes.

“These people have no community spirit!” was the clarion call of many conservatives. And they’re right there, too. When people are destroying, looting, and burning down the places where they live, when lack of concern for your fellow human beings leads to robbing an injured man’s backpack under the guise of helping him, it’s clear that large swathes of the looters had absolutely no investment in their community, or indeed humanity in general. I doubt this applies to everyone who was out there, but it’s true of a hell of a lot of them. How we get people like that to accept the idea that “no man is an island” is a knotty problem, particularly when everywhere they turn, they see so-called ‘pillars of the community’ acting out of selfish self-interest. It’s hard to have much faith in a community when you see that community’s elected representatives defrauding those who pay their wages to get themselves a new duckpond. Or a moat. Or even a flatscreen TV like those that proved so popular to the looters. And when those selfsame representatives, and their enforcers in the police, have been caught out accepting favours, hospitality and money from a vast media empire intent on making more money out of invading the privacy of grieving families, that’s hardly likely to foster a sense of community either.

“These looters have no fear of the consequences because the police have been stripped of all power to act!” Another one that is, in some ways, true. The perception fostered since the 70s by movies like Dirty Harry (which, incidentally, is intended to condemn the behaviour of its title character rather than glorify it) is that the police’s hands are so tied by the ‘human rights’ of criminals that the criminals can act with total impunity. In some ways, this isn’t far from the truth; but the police themselves have to shoulder some of the blame here. I hasten to add at this point that the vast majority of police officers are decent people who actually want to fairly preserve law and order. However, the decades of scandals in which the British police have been embroiled by an admittedly diminishing proportion of their number have left them trepidatious of taking any direct action for fear of reprisals from the public. Even now, there are still problems with this. The death of Ian Tomlinson last year, and the public outcry over the outrageous kettling of student protestors, have left senior police officers fearful to take bold action when faced with these situations. Not to mention the fact that the Met in particular is currently leaderless after its two most senior officers had to resign over their roles in the phone hacking scandal.

“What are they going to do anyway?” snorted one looter. “Put me in prison? They’re full! Give me an ASBO?” And he was right. It’s hard to see how Big Dave can honour his press conference promises of cramming the 1500 and rising looters already arrested into a prison system that’s already creaking at the seams. ASBOs, an asinine Labour invention, have done nothing to curb people’s contempt for the punitive system either. How have we ended up with so many criminals that an impressively large prison system isn’t big enough for them? Well, there is the well-known fact that the prison system does little in the way of rehabilitation; for a first-timer, a spell in jail with some hardened criminals will just result in him or her being released as a better-skilled criminal. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t go to prison – but equally something must be done to reform a system where, when they come out, they’re more likely than not to simply go back to crime, get caught, and go back in.

To briefly bang a drum I’ve banged before, if you want to do something about the number of criminals, you might want to look at reforming the drug prohibition laws. How much crime, including that on sinkhole estates like Hackney’s Pembury, is built on the backbone of drug dealing? How much untaxed profit is floating about that the government could use to reduce the deficit? And all because, since 1971, we’ve followed the head in the sand approach of the US in saying that it’s somehow the state’s business to regulate what people put in their bodies for recreation. Pretty much all drug-related crime stems from the fact that drugs are illegal; if they were available for properly regulated sale, anyone who wanted to use them could do so without having to harm anyone but themselves.

I’m not saying that recreational intoxication is in any way a desirable state for people; but the rest of us don’t seem to have a problem with getting pissed every weekend, which is at least as physically harmful and antisocial. Legalise drugs and properly regulate their sale according to the health harms they pose, and you’d free up an inordinate amount of prison space, government money and police time – not to mention breaking the back of organised crime by removing its most profitable endeavour. And how many teenage ‘gangstas’ would idolise drug dealers if the drug dealer was just the bloke in Boots? Since people are getting and using the drugs anyway, a rational debate on this subject is long overdue. Sadly, however reasonable politicians may seem on this subject while in opposition, once in power none of them dare risk opening the political Pandora’s box of the subject. But now more than ever, it would be a debate worth having.

“Where were the parents?” was another cry. “They’re all from broken homes, with no male role model and a mother having more and more kids to sponge off the State!” This is a tough one. A stable home environment may well be better for children, though it’s hard to tell yet how many of the looting youngsters were from single parent families. But to espouse that any family which doesn’t include a parent of either sex is a dangerous path – not just from a gay perspective, but because it reinforces the already pernicious idea that single mothers are some kind of blight on society. Well, I’m the product of a single mother household, as are many of my friends, gay and straight, and I like to think most of us turned out all right – certainly none of us were out looting.

But it is true to say that there’s a real problem with some children having as little respect for their parents as they do for their teachers. Traditionally, teenagers especially have always rebelled against authority figures; the police being, in fact, the biggest target here. And the conservatives may have something in saying that it’s hard to respect and obey an authority figure who demonstrably has no power over you. Should parents, teachers, police officers and the like be allowed to give kids a thick ear if they’re misbehaving? The liberal in me says no, but it’s hard to deny that when these things were allowed, the young did have more respect for authority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, because I hate the idea of getting more right wing as I get older. But it’s increasingly seeming to me that authority figures with their hands so tied end up having no authority at all. At the very least, I think perhaps a debate on what kind of consequences can ethically be meted out to give youth some kind of discipline is in order. A rational, evidence-based one though, rather than a reactionary, knee-jerk, Daily Mail/Mary Whitehouse approach.

If this seems like a very, very long laundry list of problems, well, that’s because these are the little plastic pieces overloading the Buckaroo game that is England’s social fabric. Note, NOT the UK – Scotland, which has many of the same problems, saw no such unrest, and in fact neither did quite a few parts England. There was no looting in Newcastle, or Truro, both of which are subject to so many of these issues. One of the other questions we need to ask is why these particular parts of England and not others? Despite Big Dave’s reticence, I genuinely think the biggest waves of social disorder in decades deserve a proper, considered inquiry.

That inquiry will need to take everything listed above into account, and properly weigh up the evidence and statistics when they are finally available. Basically, what I’ve just done is try and list almost very major social dysfunction in the country – no small task, and for that reason I haven’t even got started on the topics of what we do now; how we clear up and how we stop this from happening again. Another post will follow on that later, with, hopefully more concrete information to back it up. For now though, it’s fair to say that the terror that’s gripped us all for the last week has been down to an overloaded combination of all of this.

However, if it can be boiled down to one, singular issue, it is this. Stripped of ethical, legal, political and emotional considerations, human civilisation is based on one very fragile social contract. Probably its best known summation is from Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In other words, purely pragmatically, we condemn murder because we don’t want to be murdered. We don’t steal because we don’t want to be stolen from. And for the better part of the last week, that social contract was held in limbo by enough of the English population to paralyse the country. If that contract is now back on, it’s in no small part due to the fact that we were reminded of it on the news in an admirably dignified appeal by Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was killed in the Birmingham chaos. He’d lost his son, he told us. If nobody else wanted to lose theirs, they should calm down and go home. And for a wonder, they did. Now we need to ask some very searching questions.

Downing Street… The Final Frontier…

So, on Thursday evening I and a group of friends bravely gathered to boldly go where several men have gone before: to stay up all night watching the election, with only the aid of enormous quantities of alcohol.

Election coverage is always fun, as attested to by the numerous parodies of it produced over the years. We watched some of these to get us in the mood. Monty Python’s Election Night Special was followed by Blackadder the Third’s opening ‘Pitt the Younger’ episode, and then some vintage Party Political Broadcasts. Notable was the Green Party one which seemed to consist solely of children being humiliated by having chemical waste dropped on them, the Conservative one which didn’t need words, just a montage of Maggie Thatcher being great to stirring music, and the Conservative ‘car metaphor’ one, in which every party was represented by a car. Labour were of course an old fashioned VdP Princess, the SDP/Liberal Alliance were (of course) a bubble car with two steering wheels, and the Tories somehow thought it would look good if they were an Austin Montego. Plainly they’d never driven one.

Then on to the real thing! It had the potential to be one of the most interesting elections in years, with the televised debates creating a swell of support for the Lib Dems and the other major parties heavily tainted by the expenses scandals, not to mention 13 years of discreditation preceded by 18 years of discreditation. I and most of my friends were voting Lib Dem, and while not expecting them to actually win were hoping for a big increase in their share of the popular vote, and perhaps their number of seats. My young boyfriend had even been out canvassing for them and manning the local polling station.

9pm: we switched to Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night, which promised a ‘night of comedy’ relating to all things electoral. Unfortunately it was primarily presented by the annoying Jimmy Carr, a man who by dint of his very personality can make a good joke unfunny. On the bright side, he was accompanied by the ever-witty David Mitchell, and for some reason Lauren Laverne was there, perhaps as eye candy. A few varyingly funny routines were followed by a politically themed Come Dine With Me, a show that I actually can’t stand in the first place. It was amusing to see Derek Hatton squaring up to Edwina Currie yet again whatever the context though, and Rod Liddle, doing his usual impression of a supremely pissed off bloodhound, was entertainingly rude. Only Brian Paddick, the appropriate Lib Dem  voice of reason, failed to make much of an impression.

But it was 9.55 pm now, and time for the real thing. Over to BBC One we went, expecting it to be the best of the channels covering events. Immediately David Dimbleby popped up, as reassuring as a comfortable old armchair, and a sense of security was generated. Dimbleby would never steer us wrong, and surely in his capable hands the election coverage would be masterful and insightful.

Ever since Bob McKenzie introduced the Swingometer, election pundits have been trying to top this fairly basic way of patronisingly explaining events to the clueless viewer, and the advent of CG has allowed for an increasingly barmy selection of ways to realise the political situation as a largely inappropriate visual metaphor. This has tended to give election coverage an increasingly sci fi feel as years went on, and 2010 didn’t disappoint here. As soon as we saw that Dimbleby and co seemed to be wandering around the Operations Centre of Deep Space Nine, it was clear that this was going to be Star Trek: The Political Coverage.

And so it proved. For the first few minutes, sub-Next Generation music played continuously as Dimbleby introduced us to the crew. We met the Away Teams, who would be dedicatedly stalking the party leaders all night. Andrew Marr was assigned to David Cameron, while John Simpson had beamed to a location near Gordon Brown, and Kirsty Wark was to be genetically handcuffed to Nick Clegg. In the Holodeck was Jeremy Vine, ready to generate computer images to explain everything. Standing ready to scientifically analyse the incoming results was Lt Cmdr Emily Maitlis, who had been equipped with a giant touch screen iPad to illustrate her points. This device, which made intrusive noises reminiscent of a Tivo whenever touched, was quickly dubbed the ‘iPlinth’ in our house, though variants such as ‘iBelisk’ cropped up on occasion.

In a ‘historic first’ Dimbleby then projected several giant phalluses onto the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. These were to represent how near to the ‘majority line’ each party got as the night progressed. We settled in, beer and nibbles easily to hand, as it all began.

At 10pm on the dot, exit poll results popped up on screen. All looked immediately grim (including us). A Hung Parliament? With the Tories in the lead, and the Lib Dems actually losing seats? Surely not. Notes of caution were immediately struck. “The real poll has yet to be revealed”. Sadly, the exit poll would turn out to be all too accurate.

Meanwhile, we cut to Andrew Neil, who, in a break from the Star Trek theme, was inexplicably hosting a showbiz party on a boat in the Thames, rather like the Sex Pistols famously did. Unfortunately for us, no police stormtroopers were on hand to break this party up, and we had to endure Neil soliciting the expert political opinions of the likes of Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins. All the celebs seemed somewhat baffled as to what they were actually doing there, and Brucie even went into his “nice to see you, to see you… nice” routine as a kind of default fallback. Copious amounts of alcohol seemed to be on hand, so that by the time Neil sought the astute political analysis of Bill Wyman, the erstwhile Rolling Stone seemed incapable of speech.

We’d cut back to Neil at various times throughout the night, but back at Deep Space Nine, the real analysis was happening as results started to come in. Houghton and Sunderland East, eager to retain their record as first to declare, had enlisted teams of toned teenage athletes to pass the ballot boxes in a relay, which went down well in our house. The first few results were unsurprising; Labour, Labour, Labour. Safe Labour seats always get results in quickly because of their urban nature, and we had to explain to our election newbie that this wasn’t the encouraging sign for Labour it might have seemed.

In the mezzanine, Chief of Security Jeremy Paxman was already on the attack. First to be grilled was the ever slimy Peter Mandelson. Paxman tried bravely, but trying to pin Mandelson down was like trying to get a chokehold on liquid shapeshifter Odo. He had better luck with Lib Dem Ed Davey, who was asked the supremely awkward question, “would you be prepared to get into bed with Peter Mandelson?”

In the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was striding over a giant map of Britain while summoning a huge vertical chart of each party’s ‘target constituencies’, complete with floating percentage indicators. It was already like being in a low rent version of Avatar, but Vine would get more bizarre as the night wore on.

Back in Operations, the ever reliable Nick Robinson was on hand for any required punditry. Given the already evident Star Trek motif, Nick was inescapably reminiscent of the Emergency Medical Hologram from Voyager: “Please state the nature of the political emergency.” There were signs early on that Nick’s excitement was interfering with his appropriateness gauges, as he began to talk of ‘”hot deals with the Ulster Unionists”.

We also saw signs of the other big story of the night beginning to emerge. It looked as though many potential voters hadn’t actually been able to get into polling stations. Some, particularly students, seemed to have been specifically excluded. Footage was shown of a bedraggled trail of voters trying in vain to vote in Nick Clegg’s constituency. “That’s the queue for a nightclub, surely?” exclaimed young James in our living room.

Back on Andrew Neil’s party boat, the political insight of Mariella Frostrup was being tapped. Mariella was worried; her concern was that “thoughts could be put into Gordon Brown’s hands”. Fortunately, a stunned looking Ian Hislop was also on hand, to ask an actually pertinent question: why, he wondered, were there no percentage breakdowns for the exit polls. Neil, apparently unprepared for a genuinely relevant question, was nonplussed. “Percentages won’t help you”, he snapped, and immediately buggered off, taking the camera with him.

The politicians fall like dominos! Back in the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was explaining the effect of the expenses scandal with the metaphor of a giant CG domino chain in which every domino bore the face of a naughty politician. A tap of his finger and the virtual naughties fell in a nice pattern, littering the floor of Jeremy’s clean white void.

A quick glance at Twitter revealed that, apparently, no one was watching the ITV coverage. “Alastair Stewart could have just gone to bed” opined one Tweeter. Given the results we were now seeing, he actually would have been better off going to the pub.

It was indeed looking bad; looking, in fact, exactly as the exit polls had indicated. But there was still time for more pontificating. “George Osborne puts the ‘Shadow’ into ‘Shadow Chancellor’” commented one of us as the hapless Tory gloated all over the screen. Meanwhile, election expert Prof Peter Hennessy had been dragged out from a handy cupboard to explain hung Parliaments: “The Queen is only activated under certain circumstances”. This produced the immediate image of the monarch as Terminator like cyborg, waiting patiently in a lab until the ‘hung parliament’ switch was pressed.

Exciting results were coming in. Gordon Brown, predictably enough, won his Kirkcaldy seat, but all were more focussed on the weirdo candidate immediately behind him. Representing ‘Land is Power’, whatever that was, his bald, pallid, sunglass clad visage was inescapably reminiscent of one of the Agents from The Matrix, and his arm was fixed in an inexplicable Black Power salute as the results were read out. Meanwhile, David Cameron was opposed by no less a personage than Jesus Christ, at least according to his outfit and beard. It was a sad indicator of how the night would go that not even the Son of Man could defeat Cameron. Book of Revelations, anyone?

We all flagged as this wore on, hour after hour, and the exit polls more clearly became unpalatable reality. After a couple of hours doze at about 6am, it became clear that a Hung Parliament was indeed the result, and the TV coverage would run for at least another day. Dimbleby took a couple of hours off, but Paxman and Robinson continued unstoppably. Even Andrew Neil was continuing to irritate, having abandoned his drunken celebrity filled party boat for a scenic pagoda on Parliament Square.

Not even we could continue watching election coverage indefinitely, and at about 3pm we gave up and went to the pub. But not before all the party leaders  had shown up to make hotly anticipated statements. Predictably, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were seeking the support of the Lib Dems to make a workable government. Nick Clegg, to the irritation of many Lib Dem voters (myself included) stuck to his pre election guns of offering to cooperate with whoever had the most seats. It’s fair to say that a large proportion of Lib Dem voters find the Tory party and its policies hugely unpalatable, and despite his integrity I think Clegg risks losing a lot of his core support if he helps David Cameron out in any way at all. Sure it’s a compromise that might help some of their policies into reality, but  in my view, the price of also realising Tory policies is too high to pay.

But to return to the coverage, and we did from time to time, the result had rather tainted the TV experience (the most important aspect, surely?). An election without a clear result is like a sex act without a climax; it all seems to be building to something great that never happens. So we’re stuck with Dimbleby and co for days yet, probably, and an uncertain governmental future. In some ways, it’s interesting times politically, with no clear resolution in sight and little constitutional precedent. It’s also clear that some form of electoral reform is vital to avoid this result in future. The only question is, will we get reform before we get another General Election?