Thursday, 17 April 2014

England in 50 years' time.

The year is 2064. England is booming. Scores of people are arriving from all over the world to buy fancy goods, eat fabulous cuisine and enjoy the best in theatre, music and art. It is the only place in the world where you can arrive in luxury, check out the new retail city you recently bought shares in, buy the latest fashions and jet back home the same day.

Many choose to stay for a while in 5, 6 and 7-star hotel complexes and soak up the international culture available amongst the urban sprawl just a 5-minute limo drive from the nearest airport. While they're here, they can pick up art or sportscars and have them shipped home for when they return. The very wealthy invest in property, too. There may not be as much property available as there was in the early part of the century, but the quality and potential return is simply outstanding.

The healthcare here is also world-beating. Built on the foundations of a world-renowned health service, the best surgeons and consultants now operate in gleaming towers that are more like hotels than hospitals. Patients visit from overseas for surgery and get a facelift or tummy-tuck while they're under anaesthetic.

England in the 2060s is the place everyone in the world wants to be wealthy enough to visit.


In large cities and motorway junction retail towns, shiftworkers change over for the third time that day. It's like the changing of the guards: solemn; perpetual. Those who have another short shift the next day gather in food courts. They can exchange their workers' credits for coffee or something to eat from Starbucks, McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts or Taco Bell. Later, they disperse into unknown spaces; possibly unused back offices or the basement vaults where generators and air conditioning systems are housed - basically anywhere security won't move them on. They only re-emerge for food or coffee before it's time for their next shift. Those who do not have a shift the next day have set off on their journey home, exchanging credits for a bus ticket. The cost of gas-powered transport has risen again, so credits don't go as far and some shiftworkers have taken to walking the last few miles of their journey. The exercise should be good for them but pollution takes its toll on their health.

In recent months drilling has been halted at another fracking site following more surface disturbance and damage to the site structure. Though tax revenue is at an all-time low (after decades of tax reductions and breaks for private sector corporations and the poorest workers), all over England, taxpayers' money is funding the repairs to tremor-damaged foreign-owned bore sites, and for the channelling of water from higher ground to replace contaminated supplies.

The living arrangements of some shiftworkers - possibly as many as 50% - is unknown. Many people have reported co-workers living in the large closed-off spaces underneath road junctions that were once retail developments, warehouses and offices. 'Home' for those who do have a registered address is often just a room in a private tenement in 'ranges' up to 50 miles away from work. Some of these ranges have old schools nearby, kept open by charities since the end of the state system. Shiftworkers who have any credits left at the end of the month pay to keep them open, so it's more like very cheap private education. Food banks, 1 credit stores ('Everything 1WCR!'), bookmakers, pawnbrokers, launderettes and coffee and takeaway food chains occupy the ground floors of the tenement buildings by the bus stops. They all accept workers' credits. Some pawnbrokers keep cash and a little is always in circulation amongst the shiftworkers: credits run out, particularly when they need medication.

Most ranges have a health centre where basic treatments are available in exchange for credits. There are some care centres run by charities for anyone whose credits don't stretch as far as the operation they need but the waiting lists are long and the quality of the treatment varies greatly. Some charity care centres are in old state hospitals which are in desperate need of repair.

England in the 2060s is the place everyone in the world wants to be wealthy enough to visit.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Are we sinking or are we being dragged under? Isn't it obvious?

The Tories seem very proud of their work so far. A little growth and they want us to believe they're geniuses. They're not. They also claim to love our NHS and have pledged to protect it. They don't - and they're not.

They claim that more people than ever are in work and they snort all over suggestions that more people than ever are in part-time work and zero-hours contracts - not even considering that important enough to respond to. They also claim that we can't afford the cost of benefits, the NHS, basically anything that poor people couldn't do without is too expensive. 

So if there are more people than ever in employment, where is all that lovely income tax and National Insurance going? Well for one thing, the government cut the top rate of tax, and reduced the amount of people paying the lower rate of tax. The latter may be a popular policy because it gives the lowest earners a bit of extra money - but if they were paid a living wage, they could afford a little tax. Now the government are talking about cutting National Insurance. 

The public seem to be, for the most part, unaware of the Tories' plans to give anything and everything profitable in the public sector to their rich friends and donors but it seems obvious, doesn't it? And what about the sections that wouldn't turn a profit? Charity will probably take over what's left of the public sector, and the greediest and most selfish in the country can choose to keep all their cash to themselves. 

It's baffling to me that anyone would vote conservative. The other main contenders aren't exactly great options but surely the people of Britain (or England, Wales and Northern Ireland - depending) would sooner choose a papercut or sand in the eye than being robbed and kicked to the ground?


I would not be saying anything new to suggest that top earnings keep rising whilst the middle and lower incomes keep falling but new reminders come along all the time. My generation - and presumably the next - are being made to pay for the supposed profligacy of the one before.

Of course, the profligate ones were at the top - yet the top earners still see their wealth and prosperity rise.

I applied for a job yesterday, which would financially be one step up from my current one. My current job, I should add, has been downgraded in the last few years: colleagues with the same job title and the same responsibilities who have been here longer are on a higher pay scale than I am but I'm in the education sector, which has had to cut pay. This new job, when you look at the long list of responsibilities, sounds like quite a senior role. The successful candidate will be have sole responsibility of managing an academic centre with a hard-won multi-million pound research council budget and their salary: £25,000 rising to £28,000. This at one of the most well-established and well-respected Russell Group Universities. Incidentally, the colleagues I mentioned who have the same job title and responsibilities as I do in my current role are on that same pay scale but I feel the two roles should be two pay grades apart.

Important jobs are being massively undervalued and of course I wouldn't put my line of work in the same category as nursing, for example. Nurses are so important to us all and yet they are paid a pittance, as are other care professionals.

The downgrading of many jobs whilst the top get richer and richer and property and transport gets more and more unaffordable is a ticking time bomb. How can we expect people to be motivated to work hard when they can't afford a decent living? How can we expect nurses and other care professionals to do all the things we need them to do with care and consideration when they are so undervalued? How are people expected to be able to afford to live somewhere close enough to work or afford the transport costs of living further away? 

This government have set about trampling down anyone in the public sector and have then changed policies which demand more from them. Cuts have led to redundancies and extra pressure on those left behind. Changes to targets and box-ticking have meant further pressures still. 

Anyone would think this is an attack on the state from all sides; running people and services into the ground so they can say "Look: it's failed - but don't worry, we know some excellent private companies that will take over." And how much more attractive these contracts will be to their friends' and donors' private companies when staff are so cheap.

I've said this so many times before but on what basis do people think that outsourcing or selling off our services is done in the public interest or in the interests of improving services? PRIVATISATION MAKES THINGS WORSE.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Capitalism's success is a stick to beat the poor with

One of the under-lying topics of the benefits and living standards debates is about material possessions. 

Those who want to reduce the benefits bill by simply reducing benefits (as opposed to, say, getting people off poverty wages and more people into full-time work) will say that the poor can afford big tvs, smart phones, tablets etc, so they're obviously not really poor. Let's put aside the point that these possessions may have been bought when they were more affluent, and the fact that people need mobile phones if they're looking for work, and the fact that we all end up tied in to long contracts for phones, broadband etc. I'm going to concentrate on the reasons people might have such things.

Capitalism brought us materialism. Over the last 50 years, we have gradually been more and more bombarded by advertising, marketing, product placements etc and it’s still getting worse. Every celebrity endorsement, magazine cover, reality tv programme, bus, billboard, newspaper advert promotes a lifestyle we ought to seek out. We are constantly under pressure to have the latest styles, products and more and more stuff.

The hardest hit are often the poorest. People who have a good career can find status in that (and often that comes with a salary that means they can afford stuff if they want it) but those who don't might not want everyone to know their financial status. Anyone who has never been unable to afford the stuff we're told we need needs to try to understand how demoralising it is to silently display to the world that you’re too poor to buy new clothes or the latest technology.

What makes this even harder, is our children. Has Ian Duncan Smith ever tried to tell a 6-year old why the expensive trainers all his friends have are not necessary? Or why she can’t have the toy that her friends are getting for Christmas? It’s desperately sad that such young children care about such things but they do. A few months ago we had some friends over for dinner and they brought their children aged 6 and 5 with them. They hadn’t been to our flat since they were babies and they quickly set about comparing it to their house and their friends’ houses. Unfavourably (our modern-ish two bed flat could compete with their parents’ four-bed semi with a large back garden). They weren’t doing it to make us feel bad – they’re too young to realise that it’s not a nice thing to do – it’s clearly normal.

I remember vividly what it’s like to be a child at school with Mercury or Nicks trainers rather than Adidas or Nike. Or to get a new games console that’s 4 years old and inferior to the latest model that my friends had. At school, I resorted to defending myself by telling my peers that my family were poor but instead of making them feel sympathy or even pity, I suffered further and more brutal ridicule and bullying. I realise now that I wasn’t the poorest but other parents had clearly decided that by whatever means, they would buy their children the trainers and toys that their friends had. I thank my parents for what they did: it taught me not to be materialistic – in fact, I actively avoid having branded clothing and don’t see the worth in buying the latest gadgets and have been this way since my adolescence. But I completely understand parents who choose the other option and use credit cards or monthly payments (home shopping catalogues were the thing in the 80s and 90s when I was at School) and probably end up in financial difficulty as a result.

Now this government is using the participation in materialism by impoverished people as a tool to hit them with in debates about benefits or the level of poverty in the UK. The fact that this materialism is feeding the capitalism that lines the Tories’ pockets and drives their policies seems entirely lost on them.