Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Beating the Machine and why it's necessary to keep on fighting, courtesy of the late Oliver Postgate

Christmas is a time to ponder what really matters in life. Friends, family, people who are worse off than us. Perhaps it's also time to think about some of the negative forces that are at work in our society and culture and how we can, collectively, fight against them. I for one am overjoyed that I could take part, in a tiny way, in defeating Simon Cowell, AKA the purveyor of manufactured, soulless pop, over the Christmas number one slot. But rather than witter on here about my views, I urge you to read this article, written by the late Oliver Postgate, creator of children's classics such as Bagpuss and The Clangers. At a time when the BBC pays it's Director-General nearly a million pounds a year, and some of its stars receive multi-million pay packets, it's worth reading of the creative genius of the people who strove to broaden the imagination of children through incredibly clever and charming story-telling, all, of course, on a budget that is probably significantly less than one small department of the BBC now spends on expenses. Postgate bemoans the malign forces that stalk our children. We would do well to take on board his warnings and protect our young people from the marketing men and women, who are so keen to monetise their enjoyment or play, to commodify their fun and in so doing, to debase their innocence.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Protect arts, drama, music and culture rather than bankers' bonuses

As Alistair Darling weighs up how to finally get tough with the bankers over their preposterous and obscene bonuses, it is important that we put a £1 million bonus in perspective by considering what such vast sums of money would mean for wider society were they be put to use in socially useful endeavours which benefited the wider community. The issue can be illustrated by considering just how the effects of how recession-inspired spending cuts proposed by both major parties will trickle down to the local level.

All too often, when local authorities either seek to make cuts or are required to do so by central government the axe falls on those services or grants which are known euphemistically as 'Cinderella services.' Councillors and local mandarins know all too well that voters are acutely aware when a care home, or children's centre faces closure. Rightly, there are often vocal local defenders to fight for continued funding. So councils look for softer targets, areas of spending which will not attract such attention and vocal opposition. Areas that most voters would not view to be core, essential services. Sadly, these include youth cafés, music centres, local volunteer radio stations, arts centres, local orchestras, galleries, music festivals, arts festivals and the like. These projects are all too often victims of a tendency towards cultural ignorance and short-sightedness on the part of local councillors and mandarins. They fail to realise that a local volunteer radio station, or an orchestra, or an arts centre often provides a cultural oasis for people in lives which are increasingly stressful, and time-poor and that such investment reaps hugely positive dividends for the wider community which are real, but often unquantifiable by the ranks of officialdom.

We live in an age when there is a perception amongst much of the public that young people are a threat, when young people themselves all too often are right to claim that there is nothing for them to do, and now, thanks to the recession caused by bankers' greed, face an increasingly uphill battle to find employment. And yet, up and down the country, youth cafés such as the Chill-Out-Zone in Newent, Gloucestershire, face closure because their £5,000 grant is a victim of what local councillors claim are unavoidable budget cuts. As this is happening at the local level, we discover that at the height of the financial crisis last year, the Bank of England, and by extension, the Government, found £62 billion in additional lending for RBS and HBOS without batting an eyelid. We also discover that the total cost to the taxpayer of the bailout of the banking system will reach £131 billion by the end of the year.

That's 131 thousand million pounds to shore up the banks which caused the worst recession in living memory, which is itself going to be used as the justification by central and local government to make huge cuts in public spending. When you think of it like that, a £5,000 grant to help keep a youth café open seems like a very reasonable use of public money. It also brings into sharp relief the ridiculously large sums of money that the banks are hoping to pay out in bonuses this year and makes the comments by FSA Chair Adair Turner that some of what the investment banks do is "socially useless" seem all the more fitting.

Perhaps we should think about bankers' bonuses in terms of what these huge sums of money could do for the young people in our communities. One example is a youth café in Aldershot, run by Christian organisation The Source. It is facing closure as the recession has led to its funding grants to dry up. According to reports, it provides a range of services for 800 disadvantaged young people and costs £300,000 to run each year. So for every banker receiving a 1 million pound bonus, 2,400 young people could have a positive place to spend their free time rather than roam the streets. Of course this is a simplistic calculation and perhaps this café is not representative. But the point remains a valid one.

Alistair Darling is absolutely right to ignore the siren voices, or some would say bleating of the City and its defenders as he tries to do at least something to curb bonuses earned on the back of taxpayer largesse. His supertax will hopefully strike a limited blow for all those who are angry that those who engage in often socially useless economic activity, which has so recently imperilled the entire economy, caused massive unemployment, contributed to a huge fiscal deficit and most importantly, caused vast amounts of human misery in the form of lost businesses, lost jobs, depression, anxiety and loss of self-respect, should be rewarded in ways that ordinary people can only dream of. Even the BBC is discovering that the public is increasingly concerned about over-inflated pay in both the private and public sector. Perhaps the public will increasingly feel aggrieved that their local services, including the 'Cinderella' ones they so cherish, are to be sacrificed due to the avarice of the banking sector.

One way of preventing this would be for the Government to put into statute a law preventing either councillors or officials at local authorities from cutting funding for music, arts, drama and youth-related projects as part of any central government-inspired spending cuts. Let them find savings in their back offices, their perks and their inefficiencies, not the cultural life of our communities. Hopefully, we are entering a time when we collectively begin to question the way in which the market places value on various activities. We are all too often told that the future prosperity of our country resides in the Square Mile. This is misguided in the extreme. The City is of course very important to UK Plc, but nothing is more important than the provision of socially useful things for people (particularly young people) to do in our communities. The two are not mutually incompatible, but now is the time to speak up in defence of 'Cinderella' services before the axe falls.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Are the Tories playing class warfare?

A shortened version of this article is published at Left Foot Forward.

Sometimes what people don’t say publicly speaks volumes about their own particular neuroses. Perhaps they hope to distract attention away from something that embarrasses them. Ironically, a deliberate omission can reveal that which it was intended to obscure. In the case of the Tory leadership, their fear of being branded as privileged public schoolboys, provides a good example of this.

At conservatives.com silence is deafening when it comes to public schools. Perhaps an edict was issued by Conservative Central Office excoriating all reference to public schools from online biographies? For if you surf around their ‘Meet the Shadow Cabinet’ section, you’ll be hard pressed to find any. David Cameron’s entry makes no mention of Eton. And the entry for his chief lieutenant, George Osborne, makes only the anodyne statement that he was “born and educated in London”. Indeed he was, at the exclusive St Paul’s School. Cheryl Gillian’s entry merely reads “Born in Llandaff, Cardiff and educated at local schools until the age of ten,” while omitting to mention that she later schooled at the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies College. Her own website mentions the Ladies College.

Of course what the Tories reveal about the educational backgrounds of their MPs is entirely a matter for them. They seem to be reluctant to be open about the huge number of their MPs who received the kind of privileged education that is out of the reach of almost all their constituents. This would be slightly more palatable were it not for the fact that their deafening silence on public schools is contrasted by the prominent place given in other MPs’ biographies to their state school educational background. Greg Clarke and Philip Hammond’s entries at conservatives.com are good examples. But if you spend some time looking around the biographies of the Tory PPCs, you’ll see this trend played out again and again.

This is, of course, all part of David Cameron’s attempt to re-brand the Tories. Even if most of his closest advisors and Shadow Ministers were educated at public schools, he doesn’t want the public, at least those outside the Westminster bubble, to be reminded of this. Why? Perhaps because it does not sit well with their new-found commitment to increasing social mobility, to bringing ‘law and order’ to their hitherto friends in the City, defend the NHS and of course, tackle the problems of poverty that they outrageously claim the Labour Party has compounded.

So according to the pundits, ‘class warfare’ is back. At PMQs yesterday the PM cheered his backbenchers with well-aimed and well-delivered jibes which skilfully referenced Zac Goldsmith, another Old Etonian, saying Cameron’s tax policies were “written on the playing fields of Eton.” Perhaps Brown and the Labour Party are on to something. Yet when so-called class war tactics were last tried, at the Crewe and Nantwich election, they backfired spectacularly. But those were dark days for Labour and for the Prime Minister and we are now entering a phase in the electoral cycle where the polls are narrowing and more scrutiny is being applied to Tory plans and personalities.

Labour’s critics are quick to deploy the phrase ‘class warfare’, because it dreadful phrase and describes something which, if it ever truly existed, has thankfully long gone from our politics and society. But what has not disappeared is a sense amongst the electorate that Britain, in so many ways, is not a country in which fairness take centre stage. People instinctively feel aggrieved that City bankers can cause a crisis that damages the lives and jobs of ordinary people, be bailed out with their taxes and yet continue to pay themselves huge bonuses. Gordon Brown will be hoping that his attempt to portray the Tories as the party which seeks to reduce tax for the well-off will gain traction with voters.

For the evidence from the Tory on-line biographies suggests that they are acutely sensitive about their leader, his inner circle and indeed the current and future parliamentary Tory party, being viewed by the electorate as out-of-touch and privileged. If they weren’t so vulnerable on this issue, David Cameron and George Osborne would not have looked so uncomfortable during yesterday’s PMQs and nor would Tory’s be so quick to dredge up notions of class war. Andrew Lansley certainly used the “class war” and “politics of envy” defence when the lack of reference to Tory frontbencher’s public school education was put to him by Anita Anand on the Daily Politics yesterday. Leading Tory commentators, such as Benedict Brogan, have also been quick to mention it. The shrillness of the response often indicates the accuracy of the attack! Handled with care, Labour could exact some electoral advantage from these recent developments.