Holocaust Memorial Day 2012   (27.1.12)

Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

Graffiti in Kaunas, Lithuania, where 195,000 of its 210,000 Jews were murdered during World War II.

Impact of disability cuts   (17.1.12)

Polly Toynbee has a good article today highlighting some of the bad aspects of the current welfare reform proposals. It is certainly good to be getting people off incapacity benefit if they are in fact capable of work. But none of the present cuts should be hitting disabled children in need of the support. Indeed, the fact that the coalition government is persisting with these more brutal changes threatens to discredit their broader agenda of welfare reform in the public's mind. "Fairness" was a leitmotif of the 2010 election, and is a quintessential part of the British political consensus. The coalition will have a hard time convincing the public that withdrawing support from the people identified in Toynbee's article is a fair policy while millionaires are still receiving the winter fuel payment.

Jeffrey John may sue   (16.1.12)

Jeffrey John, who was once appointed Bishop of Reading and then forced by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to withdraw from the position, may sue the Church of England for discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. For some time now I have thought that all it would take to undermine the church's status quo on gay clergy (and gay bishops) and on women clergy (and women bishops) is for someone to bring a case against it under the Equality Act 2010. It looks like this might be about to happen.

(related: 1 2 3 4 5)

Ed Osballs   (13.1.12)

I'm confused. All this time I've been moaning about the quality of Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party, and complaining about Ed Balls' apparent belief that the budget deficit and national debt can't hurt him just as long as he stays under the covers. And, observing these tiresome rants, dear reader, I would have forgiven you for thinking, "But at least he's not George Osborne!" And you would have been right.

Until tonight that is. For he has become Ed Osballs:

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has moved to challenge accusations that Labour is not credible on the economy by telling the public sector unions that he endorses George Osborne's public sector pay freeze until the end of the parliament, and that he accepts every spending cut being imposed by the Conservatives.

Surely this Labour leadership can't survive until 2015?

TED talk on economic inequality   (12.1.12)

And, further to my previous post, if you're wondering why pay inequality is such a bad thing, consider this:

Sacrificial sick   (12.1.12)

The Economist's leader writer this week misses the point even more spectacularly than s/he thinks British politicans do. S/he claims that, whenever the economy hits rough times, politicians and voters alike make scapegoats of the highly-paid. Of course, the analogy of sending a goat into the wilderness doesn't really make sense in this context. It would make more sense to describe the government's policy towards the sick as "scapegoating", since according to sections of the draft Welfare Reform Bill, it is the sick whose stake in society is in danger of being revoked -- not those in receipt of £10m salaries.

But I digress. The leader writer misses the point because s/he seems to think that there are no issues of justice intrinsic to the level of pay inequality in a society. This might be a plausible position if we were a society of goats; but we are a society of human beings, and we tend to think that individual human beings have certain legitimate claims on the rest of society in respect of distributive justice. At a time when the country is, we are told, so fiscally stretched that £25/week payments must apparently be removed from disabled young people incapable of work, it is meaningful as a matter of instrinsic justice to query whether the earnings of the very rich are morally acceptable. The Economist considers only their economic expediency (a legitimate, but not a comprehensive, consideration).

That's my first point. My second is this: even if we accept there is a problem with high levels of pay inequality (and I do), it does not follow necessarily that pay need be constrained by corporate governance, or by some statutory limitation on pay. If there is something wrong with the amount people are earning, it would be fairer to constrain pay through the tax system. The 50% tax band currently does that. Indeed (notwithstanding that legitimate consideration of economic expediency) it would be preferable if the top rate was higher still.

No contributions please, we're British   (12.1.12)

I'm glad that offending parts of the Welfare Reform Bill have been rejected by the Lords today. The government had proposed to revoke from a section of the disabled population their entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, the new name for Incapacity Benefit). However, there does seem to be a lot of confused politicians around at the moment. For instance, the BBC News article reports that

Welfare Minister Lord Freud said it was unfair for a young person to continue to get a contributory benefit without having "paid in" - even if they were to inherit a lot of money. He estimated that 90% of those affected by the change would still get the income-related part of ESA.

If the BBC have faithfully paraphrased Lord Freud, this just seems like a piece of question-begging. It seems to me that one of the core issues that was at stake during this debate was precisely whether ESA should be a contributory benefit or not. And the moral intuitions of many in the Lords have been such that someone's entitlement to state support in the event of injury or disability should not depend on their historic contributions.

I am even more confused by the comments of Liam Byrne (Labour's Shadow Welfare Minister). Only last week he was singing the praises of the contributory principle, indeed describing how it must be a "building block" of the welfare system. Today he seems to have forgotten last week's beliefs:

"The government has been defeated because quite simply they tried to cross the basic line of British decency," shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said. "For months Labour has been determined to stop this cruel attack on cancer patients in its tracks. And today the House of Lords agreed."

Answers on a postcard.

Irwell   (11.1.12)

Irwell drifting, laps, slaps
Under and over and out.

This arch is adjacency and solitude,
A dignity and a dying and
A walk considered but untaken.

What difference in one moment!

So to love, a benefactor
No bridge can ever know,
Save through the storm surge
Which destroys it

Miliband now to the left of Polly Filla   (10.1.12)

There is an amazing sight in The Guardian today. You must go and see it for yourself, because this is not something that happens often. Brace yourself. Polly Toynbee (she of the Tuscany holiday home, £2300-a-week salary, and hedge-fund-investing Guardian Media Group) has articulated a thought that not only puts her in direct, if delayed, concordance with Newfred; but also places her to the right of Ed Miliband in apparently opposing some universal benefits:

Hard choices for how we tax and spend need social democratic priorities: we are not all in it together when I get un-means-tested winter fuel payments, free travel and heavy pension tax relief with no perceptible cuts.

I hope that, true to form, Polly will write a column tomorrow completely contradicting today's. I will then be able to revert to the far more comfortable position of disagreeing with everything she says.

Carol Ann Duffy's "Stephen Lawrence"   (7.1.12)

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem following the conviction of two of Stephen Lawrence's killers. I pray that "love's just blade" will soon cut down his other assailants.

DUEMA   (7.1.12)

Labour calls for "responsible capitalism", apparently. This is, claims Ed Miliband, the summation of all the policy themes of his leadership hitherto. It's not really much, is it? What is there in this wannabe meme that anybody could possible disagree with? Will anyone be coming out in defence of "irresponsible capitalism"? Well, perhaps the Labour administration of 1997-2010, under whose watchful eye executive pay ran out of control, as did the budget deficit, financial regulation and all the rest of it.

This was a bad week for Miliband. An organisation once set up in his support, the "Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband Association", recently disbanded following another of his juvenile performances at PMQs. To add insult to injury, right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes staked a claim to the Association, immediately renaming it the "Don't Unseat Ed Miliband Association".

George Formby and more   (7.1.12)

There's a host of great things on TV at the moment. I was captivated by Great Expectations over the holidays, partly thanks to the beautiful Mr Booth. Then there's a thing on BBC Four about the grammar school system, which until it was decimated by successive governments of every hue (although Mr Blair closed down more than Mrs Thatcher), was one of the very few sources of upward mobility in British society.

And there's Armando Iannucci on Dickens, and Frank Skinner on the wonderful George Formby. Formby's wife and manager Beryl Ingham once slapped South African National Party leader Daniel Francois Malan, who later introduced Apartheid, and said: "Why don't you piss off you horrible little man?" At the time, Formby and Ingham were being deported from South Africa for performing to unsegregated and black audiences. Sadly, the (black) South African tour organiser was shot shortly after their departure. (thx s)

Making work pay   (5.1.12)

"When asked by Michael Parkinson how he kept his band together and motivated, Duke Ellington replied: 'I have this method – I find it helps if I give them money.'" (via)

Contributing poorly   (3.1.12)

It is truly remarkable that the Labour party can for so long have laboured under the burden of a flawed welfare policy, review it, and come out with something different but just as bad. Labour's thirteen years in power left the welfare system in the kind of bureaucratic shambles that can see those on six figure salaries sub-letting "their" council houses, people receiving more in housing benefit than many are paid in their jobs, levels of unemployment benefit that create a 90% marginal tax rate when moving into work, and so on and so forth.

So they were right to review it. But the stuff that Liam Byrne is apparently suggesting by way of improvement is just as pernicious. He echoes some of the "common-sense" points of Frank Field in calling for welfare payments to correlate somehow with individual contributions. This is not an altogether foolish idea, and it would certainly make some sense for certain benefits, most obviously unemployment benefit. Unfortunately, the common sense fails in other areas. If welfare is to correlate with contributions as a general principle, where does that leave payments for those who cannot work through injury or disability? Where does it leave support for the children of those who have not contributed to the system? Should the rich get "more" out of the welfare system because they have contributed more? Should those on low incomes be entitled to fewer NHS services than those on higher incomes? It would also risk undermining any chance the welfare system has of redistributing wealth more evenly across society -- a fact which makes the policy a socially- and class- conservative one.

I should say that there are positive things about the report. For instance, Byrne has endorsed the policy I have for two years been imploring the coalition government to make its own. I learn now that it was in fact one of Beveridge's original principles: "Unemployment benefit after a certain period should be conditional upon attendance at a work or training centre." (Beveridge, incidentally, was a liberal.)

However, the problems above add up to a straightforward conclusion: that Byrne is wrong to say that the contributory principle should be a "building block" of the welfare state. It has its place, but the keystone of the system should be justice: providing a just standard of life to people in the light of their needs and circumstances. Often, the contribution principle would lead to provision of exactly the opposite. This, though is a far more nuanced discussion, and one in which the Labour party is currently unaccustomed to engaging.

Hostility to the young   (1.1.12)

Rowan Williams is spot on in his new year message:

"When you see the gifts [young people] can offer, the energy that can be released when they feel safe and loved, you see what a tragedy we so often allow to happen," he said.

"Look at the work done by groups like the Children's Society or by the astonishing network of Kids' Company here in London, and you see what can be done to wake up that energy and let it flourish for everyone's good."

"And a good new year's resolution might be to think what you can do locally to support facilities for young people, to support opportunities for counselling and learning and enjoyment in a safe environment.

"And above all, perhaps we should just be asking how we make friends with our younger fellow citizens - for the sake of our happiness as well as theirs."

Unfortunately, the churches suffer from one of the more ambivalent records in society in respect of valuing and nurturing young people. It is, of course, only us adults who are responsible for this state of affairs. In twenty years' experience of churches and cathedrals, I have probably seen both the best and worst of the church's practices: on the one hand, the church that creates opportunities for friendship and fellowship through scouts and guides, choirs and youth clubs; on the other hand, the church that turns away teenagers it doesn't like the look of while parroting the most sweeping tabloid nonsense about "the young". The difference, in short, between those who regard the church as "a house of prayer for all people", and those who think the church is a fief to be locked away, except in the pursuit of its own ends.

Newfred is where Andrew Wilshere blogs about
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