Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Voices from the Occupation: The Woeful State of Public Debate - Learning from Occupy

Voices from the Occupation

The Woeful State of Public Debate & Democracy – Learning from Occupy

As Occupy London were evicted from St Pauls – people asked what the occupation had achieved. In today’s article I take a look at the woeful state of public debate and representative democracy.  I argue that Occupy has achieved is in rescucitating political debate and present a new challenger to representative democracy.
What can we learn from Occupy about how to share,debate and implement ideas in a way that develops thought into action toward a world that works for everyone?

Representative Democracy: A Zero Sum Game

When David Cameron became Prime Minister of the UK in 2010, he promised an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ politics. He was responding to a widespread feeling that public debate, political debate in particular, had been reduced to pointless squabbling. He scented a yearning in the body politic and the public alike for genuine debate and discussion of the important issues that face us. However, within a week, this idea was abandoned and he has not been heard to mention the promise since. In fact, taking a look at Prime Ministers Question time – the thirty minute weekly slot where the PM faces questions from other MPs and the Leader of the Opposition – one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a playground scrap.

I attended PMQs once and found the feral roaring intoxicating. It is fight club for the political class. I understand entirely how tempting it is to ‘destroy’ an opponent with a flippant aside which sets the audience alight with laughter and applause. I spent most of my childhood doing just that in the playground, and have been known to employ such tactics in my professional life. But at some point, we have to stop and ask ‘why?’

Why it necessary to take people apart we perceive to be getting in our way? Why do we confuse disagreement with our ideas, with a direct personal attack? We miss out on a whole lot by operating in this way. Developing our ideas with other people. Developing other people’s ideas with them. Don’t you ever wonder just how much more quickly and effectively we could operate in the world, if we were able to galvanise the creativity, thought and consideration of other minds?

In the UK, six hundred people represent the views of 62 million people. Those 600 people divided into two main parties where dissent becomes an act of treachery. Those outside those three groups are left with little power to effect change. The 62 million other people in the country’s sole input into this process being 4 yearly general elections, and slightly more frequent local elections. It is no wonder we have dearth of genuine political skill, debate and innovation in the UK.

In its absence we have seen two numbing outcomes. First, the Westminster world has divorced itself from the world outside. The political elite have benefitted from the apathy and over subsequent decades seized greater power, eroded community and succeeded in turning our country into an engine for corporate power. Secondly, we have ceased to engage in proper public debate and the gulf has been filled by pop politics. He said, she said, I put it to you, gossipy bilious ill tempered and vacuous argument forwarding nothing – sofa wars of attrition, panel based pugel stick battles and a zero sum game for our society and culture.

Silence of the Wage Slaves

The result? We have trained the initiative and gumption out of people leaving the only response to an issue to complain up. We are left with a country that complains about everything and proposes nothing.

People are so used to not being heard, that they are now either forgetting or choosing not to speak.
This has serious repercussions for our democracy. The central pillar of a real democracy is an educated, informed, robust civil society. People need to be vocal and reflective, able to examine and consider policy and empowered to respond to it and shape it in a real way.
Can we really say that this is present in the UK today? I would argue that we cannot. We have a disengaged, disinterested, poorly educated and under/misinformed majority keen to get on with enjoying their lives and anxiously waiting for it all to get better. It is all too common for people to say ‘I don’t do politics’ while bemoaning the lack of carriages on their train journey, the hikes in the cost of their ticket, the crippling costs of childcare, the state of the roads, the lack of time their teacher has with their child as the class size is too big, the unclean ward their Nan suffered through while in hospital, the cost of the Olympics or the number of young people in hoodie sweaters hanging out in their road.

I argue this is because our current state of social organisation, particularly our neo-liberal Westminster consensus is simply warped. For example, contrast the ideas of the Big Society, with the government’s actual policy of public sector cuts, the Welfare Reform Bill, Workfare and the Health & Social Care Bill. On the one hand, we are supposed to be responsible for creating our society, for supporting our neighbourhoods and our neighbours, for working together to achieve our social goals. Meanwhile, in justification of the actual policies of government, we are told to disavow the vulnerable, mistrust our neighbours (they’re all out to rob us blind dontchaknow?), compete with each other over limited means and opportunities – then praise the winners and to hell with the losers in that tussle.

The Occupy Approach

As a serial occupier of Occupy London Finsbury Square, I was incredibly challenged by the General Assembly process when I first arrived on site. In my day job, I am used to speaking to groups, formulating proposals and giving people feedback. However, despite all this, I felt woefully unprepared for being this responsible for my opinions and for listening and responding to those of others. I was not alone. In my article- The Trouble with Consensus – I covered in detail the car crash of people used to representative democracy meeting direct democracy head on. It was funnier watching others go through it, than going through it myself.

The General Assembly (GA) is the ‘parliament’ on site. Every person on camp is their own representative. So, if you have an idea about an action, something to build or a policy to have on site, if you want to start a working group around something, it’s on you. You are responsible for thinking about a proposal, raising your hand at the GA, putting forward your idea and maintaining openness and good humour as people ask questions or disagree or provide counter proposals. You need to listen, understand people’s concerns, and reflect on them without launching straight into defence. Furthermore, any one person can block your proposal. So you can’t simply focus on your majority and write-off a disgruntled minority. Consensus is not a majoritarian vote. It means that everyone agrees. There are opportunities for people to all out agree, they can stand aside (this means they are not fans of the proposal but see it can operate without harming the camp & they don’t need to be involved), they can Disagree (this means they oppose the initiative but are not sufficiently opposed to Block it – gives an opportunity to debate/negotiate further) or finally, they can Block (the Block should only be used when someone feels that if granted, the proposal would constitute a fundamental break with the principles of Occupy, meaning they would need to consider leaving the camp). In the case of a Block, the Blocker is responsible for meeting with the Proposer to reach a negotiated solution within two weeks – if this doesn’t take place, the Block is withdrawn the proposal approved. This means that people cannot use the Block with no regard for the consequences, as they will need to commit to working toward a workable outcome. If not, the Block is worthless as it will be revoked anyway. There are hand signals explained at the beginning of a General Assembly which symbolise these positions.

There is also an order to a GA. There is a rotating facilitator role. All occupiers are encouraged to attend facilitation training workshops to develop a wide and dynamic pool of facilitators. There is an agenda – updates from working groups, proposals, notifications and shout outs. People must use hand signals, and wait for the facilitator to bring them in to respond to someone else’s comment, idea or shout out.

I have witnessed several rather profound meltdowns at GAs over the last four months of Occupy. Suspicion that some people facilitated more than others, anger at being expected to wait one’s turn to speak rather than interrupt someone, following an agenda – I have witnessed all these thing send people storming away from the GA cursing and blinding.

Another aspect of the GA that has unleashed the dragon in some is their inability to deal with opposition to their proposal. Instead of seeing a discussion, a debate, an opportunity to explain further or reflect and amend, often people perceive a direct personal attack and enter fight or flight mode.

All of these responses are responses I myself suffered in my first weeks with Occupy. All of them as a direct result of being completely unprepared for direct democracy, for real democracy. In this current world system, we are trained to argue, win, compromise if we must as a last resort, form alliances to amplify our power and undermine our opposition. It is them and us.

However, over time, most (not all...yet) were able to develop their speaking and listening skills, to learn how to frame an argument, to stay in the conversation past the point of discomfort until they reached understanding and workability. This is tough stuff, and incredible experience. As the Occupy movement is dynamic, with the population of camp shifting fairly frequently, this process is constant. It is therefore important for everyone to remember and nurture those who are going through this process after or at a slower pace than them.

The outcome is that ideas can be thoroughly, robustly and vigorously interrogated. The person with the idea is free to have their idea probed and argued with, even in a heated way, because they accept that this will get to a better result. People feel free to make such a challenge because they’ve taken their muzzles off. Even more importantly, there are no winners or losers. No one is seeking re election by other occupiers on the basis of how many of your proposals got implemented. It is an environment where each voice is equal to anybody else’s and it is no one else’s job but each individual’s to represent their view.

Imagine we dispersed national power in this way?  Localising governance among groups, unleashing the innovative power of the disenfranchised.  Educating our children from nursery how to form ideas, share them, debate them with others.  How would classrooms look in a direct democracy? Imagine the level of education in politics, economics, history, social theory that would be present if we needed each and every citizen to participate fully in the democratic process? It would be in everyone's interest that each were, else how would we gain consensus?  Everyone invited to make their broadest contribution in their role of choice.  My mind boggles at this, and I enjoy the challenge of debating the idea.  It would, to me, be the greatest step of social evolution since the Enlightenment and our move from monarchic rule with national ideas located in religion (not states) to a political system of government among states.

Find the Representative in You

What all this has lead me to conclude, is that representative democracy is no democracy at all. It is a wanton delegation of power upward, and an abdication of each of our responsibility to represent ourselves. The by-products of this behaviour leave us impotent, apathetic and untrained in the core skills required to develop our society. If we are to continue to progress and evolve our social, political and economic ideas, we need to be able to innovate, articulate and debate them. As things stand, The Occupy movement is a social breakthrough in just this. Our world will work for everyone, when we find the representative in ourselves, and Occupy the debate.

Given most people also work in a hierarchical organisation – they are used, in their working lives, to being told what to do and passing issues up to a more senior member of staff to resolve. Hence a general lack of experience in innovating, negotiating and conflict resolution. Most of the country simply doesn’t get an adequate amount of practise to develop these muscles.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Voices from the Occupation: Sleepless Night - The Eviction of Occupy at St Paul's

Voices from the Occupation
Sleepless Night: The Eviction of Occupy @ St Pauls

The phone rang at 1230am.  I sleepily answered to be informed that the police were on site at St Pauls, dragging tents into rubbish trucks.  Eviction had come.  This was the start of a sleepless night, calling friends, pointing in disbelief at the pictures on the screen and barking ‘Do your research!’ at poorly informed BBC News 24 reporters.  Today’s article recaps the eviction, revisits the achievements of our time at St Pauls and reminds us all of the broader aims and organisations within the global Occupy Movement.

The Eviction

Just after midnight, around 300 police officers from the City of London Police, The Met and the Territorial Support Group circled the St Paul’s camp.  There was a five minute warning and then they cut the lights, creating blackout conditions on site, while Bailiffs began tearing tents and structures apart.  Calls for support went out and within hours hundreds of people arrived to show their support for the Occupy Movement. One of them was Giles Fraser, the former Canon of St Paul's cathedral.  Giles requested police leave the steps of St Paul's on October 15th, the first day of the protest.  This single action effectively made OccupyLSX possible, having been forcibly prevented from their target of Paternoster Square.  As the position of St Pauls hardened against OccupyLSX, Giles Fraser resigned on the basis that he could not be a part of a violent or forcible eviction of peaceful protesters from church lands.
Last night, Giles made his way to St Pauls to join a ring of prayer promoted by Christian Think-tank Ekklesia and other faith groups to show solidarity with the protestors.  However, the police refused to allow him through the police line, leaving him abandoned and frustrated in the road with hundreds of others unable to make their way to the site.

Still, many occupiers and supporters gathered in safe haven on the steps on the cathedral, some watching, and many kneeling to pray.  However, despite the eviction ruling stating clearly that this was to be an eviction of tents, not people, the police moved in.  The occupiers, thesupporters and the ring of prayer were pushed and in some cases kicked from the steps of the cathedral.
Jonathan Bartley, co director of Ekklesia caught the final betrayal of St Paul’s cathedral (in video below), asking police officers if they had permission to remove protestors from the steps, and was informed that St Pauls had given permission under Section 14 of the Public Order Act.  It is of inescapable poignancy that according to the Bible, the book of the Church of England, Jesus threw the money lendersfrom the temple.  Last night, St Pauls used the police to throw out the good Samaritans.  Meanwhile, in the background, Tent City University was collapsed, folded and thrown in a rubbish truck.  

The last outpost was a makeshift barricade – a wooden gantry which, to those of us in the know, was actually the shelving unit from the kitchen.  I saw familiar faces of Pedro, and Leon, and ‘lovely young man’ from Finsbury, Van Ek, all standing atop it.  I saw George Barda make an eloquent case for peace and social and economic justice against this backdrop.  I listened as Saskia Kent, Naomi Colvin and Ronan McNern made articulate and thoughtful interviews.  My phone went and I was invited to speak to Radio 5 live at 5.30am for Wake up to Money, (from minute 12 onwards) at which point I gave up all ideas of sleep.

Finally, the police extended their line until the last lone outpost was left, almost invisible with the blackout, with the vast numbers of supporters and press pushed further down side roads and behind strategically parked police vans.  Bailiffs and officers climbed the gantry and physically pulled the last remaining occupiers from the gantry.  Sometime later, they took a chainsaw to a locked in protestor who had scaled a tree, and taking him off for arrest.  All in all, 20 arrests reported and the site is emptied.  This morning it is surrounded by fencing, similar to the Parliament Square perimeter, yet again making this an eviction of people, not just the tents & structures permitted by the court.

Meanwhile in Islington

At the same time (and completely unreported by the BBC) was the eviction of the Occupy London School of Ideas from the disused Moorfields School in Islington.  I covered the School of Ideas in a recent article.  This morning the School of Ideas is gone, literally.  The tenants, legal squatters, were illegally evicted overnight.  At 6am, destruction crews arrived and the school is being bulldozed to the ground as I write.  This is despite overwhelming support for the Occupy site from local residents, and the planning permission for a new housing development on the site being rejected by Islington Councilon the basis that it did not provide for social or affordable housing.  Yet, this morning, a building which could be used for discussion, debate, art, creativity and education, is being smashed to rubble to stand vacant and one day, no doubt, become those luxury apartments.

Rumours of our Death are Greatly Exaggerated

To understand Occupy, you must get one thing.  The Occupy Movement is as much about education and information sharing as it is about protest.  The purpose of the camps, are to act as villages.  They bring people together to share a space, food, ideas and build the personal relationships that galvanise a movement.  There is also a massive support structure behind that of social media, direct action and organisational capabilities able to manifest ideas generated on the camps, into realities in the outside world.

It is important to remember that the St Pauls site, although the media’s capital of Occupy Britain, is one site among many.  There are over 40 sites in the UK alone, and there have been camps in 900 cities in 90 countries on every populated continent of the world.
Occupy London Finsbury Square remain in their tents, just a mile from St Pauls.  Occupy London Finsbury Square is my Occupy Home.  It is where I have camped on and off since the first week of November last year.  It is where I attended my first general assembly and realised I had a whole lot to learn about real democracy and to dress down the dictator in me that just wanted to do things my way.  I found a voice there, I learned to listen openly without opinion or prejudice there, I listened to a homeless man as he washed the dishes in the kitchen who told me this was the first time he had experienced being a valued member of a society in 30 years, if ever... there. Finsbury Square has been the quiet, working camp in the background of St Pauls.  It is friendly, open and has a vigorous work ethic – if you stay on site, you join a working group or start one.  Contribute however you can, with some physical task, media work, waste removal, cooking, cleaning, or simply good ideas.  But you are required to contribute.  I found this empowering. You get to know people’s names, faces, life stories, political views, opinions, and whether they snore or break wind in their sleep.  This makes it an incredibly close-knit community, whilst retaining individual space and time.  I love being called upon to contribute what I want, when and how I want.  It doesn’t even occur as work when it is an expression of you.  So I am pleased that Finsbury Square remains, for now, untouched by Bailiffs.

The Outreach Working Group of Occupy London are now working with schools across the country, who have invited members of the movement to attend Citizenship lessons in their schools, and debate the ideas and aspirations of Occupy with young people.  This is one way in which Occupy is bigger than tents.

Occupation Records has recorded its first album of protest music, Folk the Banks, with an incredible line up of artists supporting Occupy.  Artists involved include Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Ani Di Franco, Tom Morello (Rage against the Machine) and Sam Duckworth (Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly).  The record will be sold to raise funds for Occupy London and the movement more broadly.

The Free University Campaign of Occupy London continues to host lectures at venues across London, for free, on subjects such as Critical Thinking and Economics.

There will no doubt be new camps, new campaigns and new models.  In the US, the Occupy Our Homes campaign is succeeding in keeping families in their homes, overturning the planned evictions by mortgage company bailiffs. 

Direct campaigns in the UK are also gaining support from the noise made by the Occupy Movement, the current BoycottWorkfare Campaign; the activities of UkUncut, mobilisation against the NHS bill are other single issue campaigns in which the spirit of the Occupy Movement can be located.

Why We Occupy

Some months ago now, I wrote an article explainingbroadly why we occupy.  None of these reasons have changed since I wrote this article, and I don’t know anybody who is giving up on the goals they came to site with. 

What are the goals of the Occupy Movement? In a word, myriad.  They are many and widespread, but centred around two themes.  One, a socio-political and economic system created and managed by the people, for the people.  And two, a reimagining of our relations with ourselves, each other and our planet -  the recreation of living sustainable lives in community with each other and nature.

I hear this question asked a lot more by those not contributing to or participating in the Occupy Movement, than by those who are.  I think it is abundantly clear to anyone currently participating, that the current world system is broken, a new means of social organisation is required and this will take time to create.  Therefore, each day is one step closer to developing that idea.  It is clear, obvious and frankly essential that there is no rush to solutions, but a real and substantive conversation on a global scale about what on earth we do next – or what we do next on earth.

If we were to take the analogy of building a house, we are not even building the foundations at the moment.  We are in our old house, with a leaky roof, a vermin infestation, a mortgage we can’t afford, which is collapsing around our ears.  A bunch of people have declared that house redundant and moved onto the lawn to figure out what to do about it.  Firstly, we need to figure out how to get the other people out of the collapsing house before they get crushed.  Then we need to figure out what about that house and our behaviour in it, made it collapse.  Then we consider what basic essentials our new house and our means of operating inside it would need to have.  We make sure we build that house in such a way that we avoid what happened when we built the last one.  Then we build it.  Then we move in and start turning it into our home.  The eviction of sites and the arrests of Occupiers by the police are the equivalent of the mortgage holder on our old house dragging us, kicking and screaming, back into its broken halls.

This is a radical idea, it is a revolutionary idea, and it will take time, patience, cooperation and the contribution of as many human beings as possible.  This doesn’t mean some short term disaster abating actions cannot be taken, in an effort to limit the worst impacts of ‘the collapsing house’.  But these are content goals, and the Occupy Movement is primarily about shifting the context we live our lives in, more than tinkering with the content, leaving the context untouched and ready to lead us in the same ludicrous direction in the future.

And the Transformation Continues…

Every day that passes more people are learning that the current system is morally, intellectually and literally bankrupt.  We are united, as a leaderful, colourful, faithful, aspirational, inspirational, movement which is transforming us, person by person, and in so doing, the world.
We are in for a long, involved and no doubt challenging process.  But we know in our hearts that we are making a stand for ourselves, our communities, exploited and voiceless human beings  in far flung and local parts of the world, and our living and unborn children.  Over time, we will overcome.  Over time, we will overcome.  Over time, we will overcome.  Where next for Occupy?  Everywhere.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Hollow Centre: Wages for Work Branded Dangerous Socialist Ideology

The Hollow Centre:
Wages for Work Branded a Dangerous Socialist Ideal

 This week, a successful grass roots social media and direct action campaign, has seen providers of the Government’s Workfare scheme pulling out in significant number.  The government has made a vigorous response to the issue branding those opposed to workfare ‘job snobs’ and stating that the campaign was tiny and orchestrated by the Socialist Worker Party. Today's article picks through the spin and reminds us why it is so important that we maintain the principle of wages for work.

WorkFare – What’s all the Fuss About?

The Government has a whole host of programmes purportedly in place to support the jobless back into paid employment.  Workfare refers to ALL of the programmes which are mandatory, or long term paid less than minimum wage.  For example, offering an unemployed 21 year old History graduate 2 weeks work experience with the British Museum, at their request – is quite a different proposition from forcing the same 21 year old into 8 weeks stacking shelves at Tesco under threat of sanction.
The Government’s Work Experience Programme, Mandatory Work Activity scheme and The Work Programme all fall into this category.  Workfare campaigning in recent weeks has focussed on the Work Experience programme.

The Government’s so-called ‘Work Experience Programme’ started out a limited affair under Labour.  Essentially, people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) were offered voluntary placements in their field of interest but still able to claim their JSA and any reasonable expenses.  There were some important limitations on the programme:
1. Placements were entirely voluntary
2. Placements could last a maximum of 2 weeks
3. Placements could only take place in the public or third (voluntary/charity) sector

However, in 2011, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government announced a plan to increase uptake of Workfare by 100,000.  They also made changes to the programme as follows:
1. A jobseeker who leaves a placement after 1 week loses their welfare payments for 6 weeks.  If they do this a second time, they lose them for 13 weeks.  The third time, three years.
2. Placements can be for as 30 hours a week for up to 6 weeks
3. The scheme has been opened up so corporations in the private sector can exploit this taxpayer funded, forced labour.
To put this in some context, this means that someone who finds themselves unemployed, is now told that they must work up to thirty hours a week, for six week periods at a time, stacking shelves for Tesco or Poundland – to receive as little as £53 per week.  Also, Tesco isn’t paying the £53; we are, through our taxes.  Although an interview is supposed to be guaranteed at the end of the term, it is not required that the workfare provider has a vacancy open.  An interview for a job that doesn’t exist is no interview at all.
Corporations get free labour, the government get’s to massage the unemployment figures and the unemployed, (of which there are 3 million in the UK today) get shafted.

The Principled Opposition to Workfare

Firstly, as a society, we have agreed that forced labour is against the law.  Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights clearly states - No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour. If the government threatens to withdraw a person’s sole lifeline, lest they supply their labour, then it can clearly be argued that this labour has been attained forcibly.  The labour is also clearly compulsory.

Secondly, the opening of the scheme to the private sector, allowing public funding of private labour simply beggars belief.  It is completely unconscionable to many, that whilst the government is taking a chainsaw to the welfare state on the stated grounds of ‘austerity’– it chooses to use taxpayers’ money to fund forced labour for private corporations.  Aside from being principally abhorrent in and of itself, there are a series of deplorable outcomes.  It means corporations get to choose between salaried and free staff, creating competition with the ‘real’ jobs market and a further means of suppressing wages in the real economy.  It also means that Topshop owner Arcadia (an infamous tax avoider) gets free staff paid for by taxes they themselves refuse to pay.

Thirdly, it entirely subverts the minimum wage.  We agreed as a society, that we needed a minimum wage in order to provide a balance between a corporation’s logical ambition to reduce its labour costs and a workers need to gain a fair, living wage.  Before and since the implementation of the minimum wage, corporations have battled against this legislation, arguing they need to be freed of this ‘red tape’ in order to compete and grow their business.  The wail at heinous restrictions like the minimum wage (making sure your employees are paid enough to afford to eat when they get home) and health & safety legislation (ensuring your employees are not in peril as they perform their duties) and union rights (employees able to bargain collectively, rather than as individuals when dealing with a corporate giant). 
So, no great surprises that government and corporations alike were thrilled with the Workfare programme.  It embodies the thrill of both. A government seeking to hide the impact of its appalling fiscal and social policy, and a corporate world hell bent on growth & profit uber alles.

Mythbusting the ConDem Super Spin

In just a week of vigorous campaigning, with myriad individuals and groups taking varied actions, workfare providers started to drop out of the programme under the pressure.  People tweeted, they commented on company Facebook pages, they wrote letters, they showed up at stores with placards and megaphones.  Any single person who has followed the #workfare or #boycottworkfare twitter hash tags will attest to the immense, diverse noise created by popular dissent of this offensive policy.  In fact there was even cross breeding, with people starting to make links in a shared and pernicious ideology between Workfare programme, the Welfare Reform Bill and the NHS (Health & Social Care) Bill.  All three dismantle social security provisions, based on principals of fairness and community, which it has taken centuries to achieve.

Shelter, Matalan,Poundland, 99p Stores, Oxfam, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marie Curie Cancer Care,Burger King, Maplin and others have joined the list of workfare providers who have pulled out of the government scheme.  This has been a big embarrassment for the government as pundits ask ‘If there is nothing wrong with the scheme, why are so many providers pulling out?’

In response, Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling put his palm through the ‘in case of emergency – break glass’ unit and the Downing Street media machine kicked into overdrive.  If you listen very closely, you may even hear the whirring of cogs.  The narrative goes as follows:

There is a tiny, hard left opposition to workfare, which has put such pressure on companies that they have had to pull out of a successful scheme, the result that young people lose a valuable opportunity of work experience.
Furthermore, the opposition to young people stacking shelves in a supermarket is ‘job snobbery’ by some elite who don’t understand the importance of the life skills and discipline a young person can get from such work.  Finally, there is a brutal aside to Britain’s young people, and other jobseekers who think they are too good to stack shelves, making them job snobs too.

This argument has been spat out across the media, the BBC in particular with Question time, Daily Politics, Newsnight, the Today Programme and BBC This Week all covering workfare, stressing the Downing Street narrative.  But it is important to challenge the three central pillars to this argument a) that the programme is successful, b) that to oppose it is job snobbery and b) that the opposition to it is tiny a party affiliated.

Workfare Doesn’t Work

Firstly, if the media were doing it's job interrogating a story rather than regurgitating press releases, then Ministers would be held to better account in their arguments.   Chris Grayling was left completely unchallenged on the Today Programme  when stating that figures showed 50% of workfareexploitees were no longer claiming JSA six months after their placement.  He was not asked if that is a higher or lower percentage than JSA claimants who haven’t participated in workfare (answer? Lower. 60% of JSA claimants in the young people age group leave JSA within 3-6months).  He was not asked what percentage of those claimants found work with or even in the industry of the workfare provider (this figure isn’t even monitored by the DWP). He was not asked to clarify if those 50% of claimants were actually in work or simply stopped claiming, dropping out altogether.  Indeed, if they had really done their rhomework, they'd know that a DWP research review in 2008 found workfare did little or nothing to improve the prospects of the unemployed.  

There are almost 3m unemployed people in the UK today, and this is not simply because they all lack work experience.  The jobs market is stagnating as the private sector creates jobs at a slower rate than the job losses in the public sector.  It is a nightmare scenario for business start ups as lending is down across the board to small businesses and consumer demand is breaking under the dual pressures of a rising cost of living and frozen wages.  So, perhaps a greater thinker than Chris Grayling and the DWP bods might conclude that a scheme which offers companies who might otherwise employ a person on a wage, the opportunity to have one free of charge might just undermine the labour market even further.  Therefore the case for the success of the programmes is entirely unfounded.  Some might consider saying something is true, which has manifestly been proven false, might constitute a lie.

You’re not a Snob to Expect Pay for a Job

The second argument, accusing people who oppose forced labour as job snobs is also an affront on the sensible mind.  It is interesting that the great majority of voices expounding on the virtues of a hard days unpaid work stacking supermarket shelves are never likely to enjoy the privilege.  The talk of discipline, pride in a day’s work, harks back to the era of ‘the happy prole’ – the uncomplaining working pleb who endured the daily grind for a pittance.  The noble peasant.  I would reserve a special place in hell for those patronising and foolish enough to ascribe romance to poverty. To somehow claim that it is wrong, ungrateful somehow, for a person to aspire to utilise their talents, to work a career rather than a job, to contribute to the highest extent of their mental and physical ability…and be paid a living wage for it, smacks of the paternalist attitude of Victorian Britain.  The saddest case of this I have witnessed was Michelin Star Chef Michel Roux Jr’s piece on BBC This Week - entitled 'Young Would Rather Be Sat on Benefits'.  Roux Jr expounded on the virtues of a hard day’s work, the importance of work experience and how his career was made by starting at the bottom, washing pans and chopping carrots, and working his way up.  He sadly failed to mention in the entire piece or the subsequent interview that he is the son of millionaire Michelin star chef Albert Roux, nephew of millionaire Michelin start chef Michel Roux and the Roux family are culinary aristocracy.  These other contributing factors might well have had a more considerable bearing on his subsequent opportunity to succeed, than the carrot chopping.  He was also a paid apprentice, despite being independently wealthy.  On leaving his apprenticeship, he was able tojoin his father’s already established Michelin start restaurant.  The experience of washing pans for a while, when you afford a millionaire lifestyle and are destined for employment at the elite level in your career of choice, is not comparable with people your standard unconnected young Briton with parents unable to afford them opportunity or financial support, with no job or career plan at the end of it.  Aspiration should not be the preserve of those who can afford it. 

You Don’t Need to be a Socialist to Oppose Forced Labour

The promise of rewards for hard work and success, regardless of priviledge of birth, was one of the basic promises of capitalism.  Capitalism says that anyone has the opportunity to make it. It is not a socialist ideal that the skills and capabilities of all our people are given reign to create progress and prosperity for us all. That is just as easily a liberal ideal or a conservative ideal.  In fact, it is purely a neo-liberal world view that suggests the most important thing is the market.  As if the market and progress were the same thing, when the state of the market now clearly demonstrate the opposite.  The market has become entirely detached from the real economy, to such a degree that we often find them acting in direct opposition.  

In the case of workfare, there have actually been several campaigns working in the same direction.  Boycott Workfare have provided information and generated the social media campaign and the National Day of Action on 3rd March 2012. Meanwhile, Right To Work have been behind a number of the recent direct actions.  However, like the UK Uncut model, once informed, masses of people have supported the campaigns by using social media or attending organised actions.  Others have started direct actions in their local area and advertised them using the online presence of the campaign groups.  This is a really effective way of protesting and encouraging mass and varied participation.  There is no political party affiliation made by the groups, and twitter has been flooded with ‘Grayling says I’m a member of the socialist workers party. I’m not’ tweets.  This is another case of a simple, outright, bare faced lie.  To say that anyone who opposes forced labour is automatically a member of the Socialist Worker Party, or a dangerous hard left zealot (whatever one of those is) surely should raise an arched eyebrow of query?   

Dangerous Ideology

It is simple. it is offensive to expect someone to be compelled to submit to forced labour.  Putting free labour into the jobs market undermines waged labour – why pay for it when you can get it for free?  The minimum wage is being circumvented by this scheme.  It is a scam, and the only dangerous ideology here is that which promotes creating second class citizens, compelled to work for their welfare and not a wage creating tax payer funded free labour for corporations. 

Meanwhile, despite Grayling and his motley crew, the campaign gathers pace, providers continue to pull out and pressure on the government to withdraw the scheme.  It is possible to exert the kind of pressure that makes a change.  So, be sure to talk to people, clear up the myths of the Downing Street media machine and make a stand for a day’s wage for a day’s work.
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