Thursday, 25 June 2015

David Cameron, Welfare Fraud Is Not Your Biggest Concern

I'm a Tory when it comes to a number of issues, and one of them is this: the Welfare State needs serious reform. It’s turned into something it was never meant to be: a system in which 64% of the country’s families receive a benefit of some sort. We face a real problem in this country, and I think the Conservative government’s heart is in the right place: it needs to tackle these issues. The Prime Minister is right: “those who can, should; and those who can’t, we will always help.”

But we now live in a culture of blame, and Cameron is riding the wave: we have succumbed to the inevitable acceptance of false stereotypes perpetuated by the prejudices of poverty porn. A study done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that in 2011-12, 0.8%, or £1.2bn, of total benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud. The public, however, as revealed by a TUC poll recently, believe 27% of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. Poverty porn is working marvelously for those with an ideological war against welfare.

People are perpetually attacking so-called benefits frauds who take home £27,000 a year and yet have never worked, whilst there are families who are working and who are only earning £24,000 a year. The assumption is that this sort of behaviour, which is undeniably unfair, is common. And yet, only 13% of benefits actually go to people out of work. More than 80% of Jobseekers allowance claimants never go near the work programme: not because they are scrounging off the state, as Cameron suggests, but because they aren't on the benefit for long enough, and they are back in work as soon as possible. The majority of claimants are off Jobseekers Allowance in under six months, so the idea that there are thousands of families around the country just scrounging off the state is clearly false.

In 2012, the Prime Minister told the nation: “But when you have got 300,000 children living in households where no one has ever worked, then you cannot shy away from them any longer.” But, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s study, under 1% of workless households have two generations who have never worked – about 15,000 households in the UK. Families with three such generations are even more of a rarity.

As Douglas McGregor argued, people thrive under work and responsibility, and the JRF’s study shows that families experiencing long-term worklessness are committed to the values of working and would far rather have a job than be on benefits. There may be people who take advantage of what Cameron calls a “culture of entitlement”, but the actions of this minority does not legitimize £12 billion of cuts to welfare. 

The reasons for long term worklessness are not, as Cameron would have us believe, an epidemic of laziness: it is a result of complex problems related to long-term poverty. We have a shortage of jobs, and so people with little or no education, who have never worked before and who have never had the chance to develop skills for the workplace, are inevitably going to be pushed to the back of the queue.

I also wonder whether Cameron’s numbers accounted for those who have mental health problems preventing them from work, those who are disabled and thus are unable to work, those who are desperately seeking jobs but are continuously rejected, or even those who are, though out of work, at university, doing an apprenticeship or frantically attempting to gain the qualifications they need. There may be workless households, but there are reasons for this.

David Cameron celebrates Iain Duncan Smith’s work, who he says has reassessed tens of thousands of claimants of incapacity benefit, finding them ready for work. This is great: but at what cost?

There have been over 60 cases of suicides directly related to the coalition government’s welfare cuts. They have taken away benefits and found people ready for work who have simply been unable to do so. I personally would rather live in a country where there are thousands scrounging off an overly liberal welfare state (which just isn’t true), than a country in which government policy directly leads to suicide.

Duncan Smith argues that a link cannot be made between government policy and these suicides: but there are suicide notes that read, amongst other things, “blame nobody but the government.” It’s no wonder he wants to stifle the research into these deaths.

People who cannot walk and talk are being called into ‘back to work’ Jobseeker’s interviews. A man had his benefits slashed because he failed to turn up to an interview: he was having a heart attack at the time. The government’s generalising of many benefit recipients as scroungers is having dangerous effects: the £12 billion being sought will lead to death, suffering and humiliation.

And I want to address another problem: the proposed scrapping of the Independent Living Fund. Cameron has vowed to protect the most vulnerable, but will he really? The independent living fund ensured care for thousands of disabled people who were previously ignored by the state, and the Conservatives are planning to repeal it.

The funding of and responsibility for ILF care and support will be transferred to local authorities. But there is no obligation to use the money for ILF, and there is no way of ensuring the money will be spent correctly. After one year, the support from the Government will be stopped, meaning local authorities will be forced to support their disabled with money they simply don’t have.

Many disabled people who may not be able to afford a carer or who don’t have family members there for them, are really going to suffer over the next five years. Those who are able to use the toilet, with help from a carer, may be forced to wear incontinence pads and to sit in their own excrement until a carer arrives to help them. Nobody, anywhere, should be forced to endure these sorts of hardships.

I also agree that the system of tax credits introduced by Gordon Brown has some flaws: I agree that it’s a “ridiculous merry-go-round” to give money to people who are paying taxes, only for them to give it back. So Cameron needs to continue raising the tax brackets, and I will personally applaud the government when they do so. But the fact is that a significant number of tax credits go to people who aren’t actually paying taxes: take them away, and these people will plummet back into poverty yet again.

Tax credits have played a big role in one of the most impressive improvements in child poverty seen since World War Two. Between 1998 and 2012 the number of children living in poverty fell from 35% of the child population to 19%, due to the tax credit system.

Fine, take away tax credits: but please ensure first that those who are paying tax have a realistic means to do so, and that those who aren’t are given the money they need to live independent and fulfilled lives. The only way that this can be ensured is by raising the minimum wage to a real living wage. I am incredibly pleased to say that a raise in the minimum wage was announced in the Conservative Budget, although calling it a 'Living Wage' is simply false. 

Indeed, despite the new 'Living Wage', the IFS estimates that tax credits claimants will be up to £1000 worse off under the Tories' plans. But, if the minimum wage continues to rise (which it hopefully will), Cameron will make tax credits unnecessary for many families, which is surely the way forward. Indeed, the best incentive to work isn't to plunge families into poverty if they are, for whatever reason, not working - it is to make work pay

Moreover, we must remember that 4 million of those who receive tax credits (out of 4.5 million) have children, so it is of vital importance that the welfare state does what it was intended to do: fund those children when their parents cannot do so themselves. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the number of children living in poverty has increased in the last three years from 2.3 million to 2.5 million. Cameron's job is to make sure that no more children end up living below the bread line. 

So what do I agree with Cameron about? I agree that austerity is, to an extent, necessary, and I agree that the welfare system in this country needs to be reconsidered. But I fundamentally disagree with £12 billion of cuts to welfare: it’s dangerously extreme. We need the money to reduce the deficit, but to take that money from the most vulnerable in society is not only idiotic, it is immoral.

Yes, there are people who abuse the system, and it is unfair to have people earning more on benefits than people who are in work, but there’s no guarantee that, whilst the government cuts may target those who can and should work, people who are unable to work will not have their benefits taken away from them.

There are other sources for this money: raising taxes for the super rich and for large corporations, not renewing trident (which could cost us up to £25 billion), investing in sustainable energy, and much, much more.

How about closing tax loopholes? Richard Murphy FCA of Tax Research UK estimates £119.4 billion pounds of tax evasion in 2014 alone. The government argued that £120 billion (the figure estimated in 2010) was too high and instead estimated a tax gap of £35 billion in 2011/12.

But even if the government’s unlikely claims are true, if tax loopholes were closed, the £12 billion of welfare cuts would be completely unnecessary. These studies just show the hypocrisy of this government’s policies, also evident in the absurd attempts to raise MP wages in a time of government cuts to public expenditure, a wage rise that 72% of the public and many MPs oppose.

The tax gap is a real problem, and it is a problem that, if tackled, would not only lead to a more honest and moral society, but would also reduce the debt and make the £12 billion pounds of welfare cuts unnecessary. And don’t be fooled by the scaremongering: the rich will not just leave our country if taxes are raised.

We have far more to offer economically, culturally, and socially: if they only lived in places with low tax rates, they’d live in Monaco, the Cayman islands, the Bahamas, or numerous other places. The idea that the rich only care about keeping their money just isn’t true: look at the Patriotic Millionaires, who believe in putting their country and the welfare of their people before their own income, and are levying for higher tax rates on the rich.

The same can be said of big businesses: our economy and our people have far more to offer them than they have to offer us. They aren’t going to just leave if we increase corporation tax. Big businesses don’t just flock to Uzbekistan because they have an 8% corporate tax rate, nor do they shun the United States, who have the third highest at 39.1%. We can afford to raise corporation tax: the rich should carry the burden, not the poorest and most deprived members of our society.

This doesn’t mean welfare reform is unnecessary: it is a problem that needs to be addressed. But £12 billion of cuts does not equate to reform. All it’s going to do is create more and more problems.

If such a high number of benefits and tax credits go to people who are in work, surely this shows an inherent problem with the system in the UK: the government are subsidizing big businesses because they refuse to pay living wages. If the government cuts these benefits before wages increase, it will only result in more working people living in poverty. Osborne and Cameron have (perhaps surprisingly) made a step towards eradicating poverty in this country by raising the minimum wage; let's just hope it keeps going up!

And again, we shouldn’t listen to the scaremongering of employers: raising the minimum wage does not lead to mass unemployment, and this has been proved time and time again. The Fair Work Commission, the group responsible for setting the minimum wage, has found that “modest minimum wage adjustments lead to a small, or zero, effect on employment”.

The UK Low Pay Commission has produced over 130 studies from highly respected economists which have shown that unemployment is unaffected by rises in the minimum wage. The only thing these raises do is to create a fairer society, allowing these people to live the comfortable lives they deserve. Just look at Australia: they have a minimum wage of over £10 an hour, something we really ought to aspire to.

It also leads to more commitment in the workplace: as Norman Bowie, a Kantian ethicist argues, fair pay results in productivity and loyalty. If this Conservative government gradually raises the minimum wage over five or ten years, then the cuts will make themselves: many people won’t necessarily need their benefits if they are being paid enough.

This is why I think Cameron’s attempts to take power away from the Unions, who are vital in ensuring fair wages, is so dangerous: it will only lead to more and more people on lower pay, and so more and more people will be claiming benefits in order to afford food, housing, child care and so on. Raise the minimum wage, give power back to the unions, build more affordable housing (the Tories have consistently failed to meet the demand of 240,000 a year), and stop this hypocritical madness of a dangerous war on welfare.

It needs to be reformed, but not in the way the Tories propose. Though it may be a problem, the real concern isn’t an over generous welfare system: the only reason the welfare budget has seen a gradual increase is because of the increasing number of pensioners in our country as people live older. In fact, we spend significantly less a head than France (12% higher) and Germany (19% higher).

So, my real problem is the ruthless blanket approach and the generalization, the extreme measures and the apparent carelessness. If only an estimated £1.2 billion is fraudulently taken in benefits, then why do we keep blaming the poor for problems they never caused? Why do we insist on taking more and more from the welfare budget, money that is so necessary to so many people? The reason why is, as Monbiot argues, Malthusiasm. Because the British population believes that 27% of welfare is claimed fraudulently, the Government is obliged to make huge cuts. 

Cameron says he wants to tackle poverty at its roots, and many of the initiatives championed by his government have attempted to do so: but cuts to a family’s benefit or tax credit should come after their impoverished circumstances have improved (through a real-time rise in the minimum wage or through raising the tax brackets), not before. In the majority of cases, taking an axe to welfare isn’t going to stop poverty; it will do exactly the opposite. 

We need to abandon the Malthusian myth that welfare hurts the poor, and we need to escape this idea that everyone on benefits is a scrounger. I can understand wanting to scare people into work, but that will never work if it's done with a blanket approach - it will only lead to more poverty. The government need to do less scaring, and more enticing. 

For my blog post on the anti-Austerity march: CLICK HERE

Monday, 22 June 2015

"l(a" - A Brief Analysis of Cummings's Poem

l(a

le
af
fa

ll

s)
one
l

iness

I don’t know whether Cummings, one of my favourite 20th Century American writers, saw himself as more of a painter or a poet, but the fact that he was both is clear throughout his work. He loved playing with syntax, typography, metre, shape, and perhaps most of all, form, giving every one of his poems an extra layer of meaning.

This is perhaps his most famous poem, and arguably one of the most unusual in the Cummings canon. It is my favourite Cummings poem because of the undeniable power that the form actually has on the poem’s meaning and its effect on the reader.

Cummings’s use of typography affects the way we read. Pause, gravity and emphasis are heightened by the devices he employs; the sense and significance of individual letters, words or lines are underscored. But, most importantly of all, meanings are created as the reader’s thoughts are slowed in their progress through the poem. We are forced to go back and forth, thereby becoming aware of the meanings in what Norman Friedman calls an immediate moment of perception.

If Cummings had simply written, “a leaf falls, loneliness,” his publishers would probably have laughed at him. But he didn’t: he put the first ‘l’ on its own, outside the parentheses to reinforce a sense of solitude (because it is not in capitals, it looks like a number one); he put the ‘a’ on its own between the first parenthesis and the line break, and again this indefinite article suggests loneliness; this is seen also in the next line, ‘le’, the French definite article, perhaps again implying isolation; line seven contains simply the word ‘one’, and line eight is comprised only of the letter ‘l’, having a similar effect; and finally, the poem actually looks somewhat like a letter one, not to mention the image of the words, like a leaf, literally falling down the page. Cummings develops this simple poetic symbol for loneliness into something far more potent.

Norman Friedman is right, or at least he is right when it comes to this poem: the meaning stuns the reader at once, when all is suddenly perceived and understood – it isn’t just a gradual unfolding, it is a beautiful and incredibly powerful representation of humanity’s sense of seclusion. It isn’t just words – the page is alive. Cummings wanted to reverse the tendency of language towards stasis without losing intelligibility altogether. He wanted to make it new and innovative, without denying its power.

This poem was first shown to me by my granddad, a poet himself. I love it for its simplicity, and the fact that, through this simplicity, such underlying complexity is so expertly revealed. Richard S. Kennedy, Cummings’s biographer, labeled the poem "the most delicately beautiful literary construct that Cummings ever created." It is instantly unforgettable. If you like this poem, make sure you read his poems “in Just” and “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in”, also favourites of mine.

The Problem of Remembrance

For the last 100 years, remembrance services have been held throughout the country to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in war. Originally held to remember only those killed in the Great War, “the war to end all wars”, after WW2 the scope of these ceremonies was extended, and in 1980 it was widened again to remember all those who have suffered or died in conflict. On the 9th of November 2014, thousands of people travelled from all over the country to attend the Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall. The Queen, amongst other royals, politicians, military leaders, veterans and soldiers, all laid wreaths at the monument in central London. In every town in England, marching bands were heard, speeches were listened to and bugles were blown to commemorate this great loss of life.

The end of the Great War left thousands of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and wives mourning the death of their loved ones. These people were overcome with grief for the loss of 888, 246 young, innocent and hopeful lives; pawns in the chess game of imperialism; cogs in the machine of war. Perhaps they struggled to come to terms with what Allan Mallinson told the Upper Sixth in his General Studies lecture: that if the allies had lost the First World War, life in Europe would not be any different. It is very possible that they felt as if their sons’, fathers’ and husbands’ lives had been wasted, causing them a vast amount of pain. If these young men were seen to have fought for an ideological cause (as in WW2) or to assure us of our freedom, then maybe their deaths would have been more justified; but sadly this was not the case. Their lives were brutally cut short by nonchalant orders of generals and politicians, the very people who now stand at the cenotaph and remember those killed.

Perhaps this feeling that their loved ones’ lives had been wasted explains why remembrance is sometimes rather insincere: so that we, as a nation, do not have to face the sad and melancholy truth. Speakers at these remembrance ceremonies refer to the “glorious and noble heroes” who “gave their lives for us so that we can live in freedom”. Do we say these things so that we can escape the fact that war is never glorious or noble? We seem to have forgotten the mud, the barbed wire, the soldiers blown to pieces, the fear, the slaughter, and the other unheroic aspects of war; all of that has been replaced by bugles, marching, and glorious memorials like the Menin Gate, referred to by Sassoon as a “sepulcher of crime”. Indeed, remembrance seems to have been disconnected from the realities of war. Only those who were alive during WW1 saw “the unheroic dead who fed the guns,” (Sassoon) and watched soldiers “die as cattle” (Owen). The fact is that a lot of these men had no idea what they were getting into: in a sense, rather than giving their lives, they had them violently taken. Do we shy away from the true aspects of war because they make us uncomfortable? Perhaps this explains the celebration of the army and the establishment that many remembrance services instigate – it is certainly a more poignant and comfortable way of remembering the dead, but is it honest?

It is the high degree of ceremony carried out at these services that somewhat undermines the point of the poppy and remembrance itself. By aestheticizing war and cloaking it with wreaths, medals and garlands, we seem to be perpetuating the original problem: this positive and glorious attitude to war. By turning death into ceremony and splendor, we are in fact glorifying war, and thus making peace all the more difficult to attain. As Harry Patch, the last WW1 Veteran (who was, incidentally, largely ignored by the media because of his anti-war stance), said: “War is organized murder, and nothing else.” If we do not see war for what it really is, we will not be afraid to wage it. By presenting war in the light that they do, remembrance services can often appear to make necessary the unnecessary, making heroic the unheroic. Wilfred Owen refers to “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.” It is sad that those who speak at remembrance services sometimes seem to forget what Owen meant: that by glorifying war and celebrating the military we are not doing our best to remember the dead; rather we seem to be enticing the living to join them.

Remembrance has also always been inextricably linked to the Church: Reverend Cunningham began the Oundle service with the words: “We are here to worship God.” Perhaps this link between religion and war also needs to be reconsidered, particularly in the current climate: Europe was stunned by the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices this year, purportedly done in the name of faith. In our post-Enlightenment age with only 60% of the country’s population being Christian, is it right for us to link war and remembrance with Christianity? George Bush justified going into Iraq by saying that ‘God told him to’. This association is dangerous for obvious reasons, and recalls a Crusade-like attitude towards organized slaughter. Since we are currently attempting to tackle religious extremism, perhaps now is the time to dissolve the link between religion and war.

It is because I am a pacifist, and it is because I believe that many of the wars our country has engaged in have been unnecessary, that I think our modern ideas of remembrance should be reconsidered. This is also why I wore a white poppy. Although our services may be comforting and poignant, they continue to push us further and further away from peace. Shouldn’t Remembrance Day focus less on religion, the lionization of the warrior, the glorification of the army, and the brilliancy of the establishment, and more on those who died? There is some truth in Tom Irwin’s words when he says:

“We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault ‘cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” (The History Boys)

Together, we might consider turning away from the more ceremonious aspects of Remembrance Day, replacing them with simple grief for the utter waste of life. The aspects of remembrance that are somewhat disconnected from the reality of war might be approached in a new way, so that we can continue to see war in its true light. And is there a better time to do this than now, one hundred years on? We should use remembrance, not just to remember the dead, but also to ensure that there is never cause to mourn 19.5 million needless deaths again. After all, how can we claim to remember those killed if we needlessly continue to send more soldiers to their deaths. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Anti-Austerity Signage: My Favourite Banners of the Protest

I went on the London Anti-Austerity march on Saturday the 20th of June and, I have to say, it was one of the most inspiring events of my life. To see a quarter of a million people, 95% of whom wanted nothing but a peaceful protest, gather under one cause to show solidarity and unity, was truly moving and heart-warming. 

This was my first protest, and it certainly won’t be my last, because, in my view, the importance of protesting is undeniable. The Peasants’ Revolt; the English Revolution, with the Levellers and Diggers; the Chartists; the trade unionists; the suffragettes; the anti-racist, feminist and LGBT movements; the postwar Labour government; the peace movements; the anti-poll-tax movement. These groups were protesting against elected governments because they disagreed with their policies – it is because of protest that we have the welfare state, we have gay rights, we have racial equality, and so many more excellent aspects of this country that make me proud (to an extent) to be one of its citizens. Not, as Charlotte Church rightly said in her anti-austerity speech, because of a flag. 

Protest is an intrinsic part of democracy, and so on the 20th, in the words of Newton and Owen Jones (an unlikely pairing, perhaps), I stood on the shoulders of giants (though I do not seek to suggest that, because of this, I see further than those with whom I disagree). These are my post-protest thoughts, presented to you through signage. Please reflect, comment and criticize. Don’t despise me: debate me (or perhaps quoting Ed isn’t the best idea?)  

Neo-liberalism is dead, Long Live Owen Jones.

You’ve gotta love Owen Jones. The left-wing, progressive columnist for the Guardian, and previously the Independent, must have some really strange power of going into my mind, finding out what I think, and then championing my views in the public sphere.

His appearances on Question Time always cause some good old controversy, always beneficial in a democracy – I loved his challenging of Iain Duncan Smith on welfare, and his passionate tribute to the Palestinian people was truly inspiring. He actually spoke at the march (although, frustratingly, I didn’t get to hear his speech on the day, but I watched the YouTube video) and then joined the thousands of protesters that flooded through Central London. So yes, long live Owen (@OwenJones84). 

This sign would be funnier if they weren’t cutting student support grants.

My favourite banners tended to be the funnier ones – but this one was instantly unforgettable. It was upsetting, in fact, and showing a real concern for the damage these policies are going to bring about over the next five or, unless Labour gets its act together quick, even ten years.  

Please don’t tazer me, I’m teaching on Monday.

I can’t really explain why I liked this banner – humour, honesty, sarcasm, I don’t know. But I do think that the best thing about this protest was its irrefutably peaceful intentions. To take the violent or menacing actions of the few, Class War for example, and pretend that this represents the protest as a whole is just wrong.

I wanted to ensure that the people with me took as many photos as possible, not, as you may think, and as I have been accused of already, so that I can show off about being subversive and going against my public school crowd, but so that the peaceful nature of these protests is properly demonstrated on social media. I guess this banner shows that those on this protest were just normal people concerned about the happiness and livelihoods of others, whilst also reminding us of the essential job that teachers have and always will carry out. 

David Cameron can kiss my Ass-terity.

You have to love this. A pun that shows that, while this was a serious occasion, the left haven't lost all of their humour, even after the election (Labour suffered the worst defeat since Michael Foot this May).

Dear Tories, Read a book. Regards, Socialism.

I disagreed completely with the sentiment of this banner. This sort of generalising, emotive, and clichéd politics gets us nowhere. It’s like doing a Nick Clegg and saying that all lefties need a brain, which is just nonsense considering a significant number of economists have argued against austerity and believe it has a detrimental effect. And yet, I couldn’t help giggling to myself (hypocritical, I know)!

£12 billion cuts vs. £119 billion in tax avoidance.

I probably shouldn’t have put this on here – it was, after all, my own banner. But I was pleased to have it read out on the loudspeaker, so evidently it had some effect and people agreed with it. In fact, one lovely American lady came up to me and said how excellent she thought it was and that she wished more people were pointing out the inherent hypocrisy and failures of austerity. Austerity is, by no means, the only option. There are other solutions.

In fact, I really wasn’t a fan of the “Defy Tory Rule” banners (sadly, in my opinion, given out by the People’s Assembly) and those that said, amongst other things, that the Tories are all bastards and crooks. Firstly, it’s entirely untrue – I know just as many Conservative voters who are intelligent, kind, and compassionate as I know left wing people with the same qualities. As I said earlier, this emotive rhetoric gets us nowhere – it alienates people, in fact.

I’m willing to bet that hundreds of anti-austerity Conservatives (or at least, people who voted Conservative whilst still believing that £12 billions of cuts is unnecessary and extortionate) would have been willing to come on this march if it weren’t for the anti-Tory vibes. The march should have been anti-austerity, not necessarily anti-Cameron – that’s why I wanted my banner to focus on the cuts, not the government making them. Divisive politics is failing this nation – the obsession with people rather than policies (so excellently defied by Jeremy Corbyn) really isn't helping. Rhetoric is good – I’m full of it. But pointless and empty rhetoric isn’t. 

Is this the queue for the food bank?

Again, this banner excellently combines comedy and seriousness. Over 900,000 adults and children have received three days’ emergency food and support from Trussell Trust foodbanks in the last 12 months, a shocking 163 percent rise on numbers helped in the previous financial year. 

Poverty and inequality are rising fast under the Tories (the same would perhaps have happened under Labour), and I can say wholeheartedly that I do not want to live in a society governed by a culture of blame and in which the trials and sufferings of the poorest are to some extent belittled or even apparently ignored, by the richest few. 

Homelessness has seen a 55% rise since the coalition was formed in 2010. This is a genuine crisis, and this crisis has a name: systemic injustice that is only getting worse and worse. We’re amongst the top ten of the world’s richest countries – so why are there children living in such terrible circumstances?

People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.  

This quotation from John F. Kennedy is interesting: to some extent, it perhaps sent a negative message of violence and anarchism to other marchers. I chose to interpret it differently, as nothing more than a celebration of democracy and our power to democratically overthrow the Conservatives, if we want to do so, in five years time.

Now, there will inevitably be those who see these protests as childish, perhaps even undemocratic, considering the Tories have just won an election with a significant majority in the Commons. But consider these statistics: the party for whom only 24% of the people in the country voted, and who only persuaded 37% of the electorate, now have 100% of the power. Blair got in in 2005 with only 35.2% of the vote - again, this system is failing all of us, no matter what you believe. This May, UKIP won 3.8m votes, the Greens 1.1m; but they won only one MP each. The Tories had the smallest percentage of overall votes per MP. 

And yes, you may say, “Tom, we had a vote on electoral reform in 2011, and it was rejected.” Very true: but why would someone vote for AV when it isn’t a truly proportional system? The people deserve better. Give us a vote on PR or STV, so we can unlock real democracy. It is the fact that the SNP stand by their policy of electoral reform, despite undeniably benefitting from FPTP, that I have so much respect for them. The injustice of the electoral system is another legitimizer for these protests. 

I’d also like to point out that Labour went into the election as a pro-austerity party – so don’t tell me we have no right to protest when we had no real alternative (considering a Green Party success was so unlikely under FPTP). If Ed was in Downing Street, I would have protested just the same. Despite what the Telegraph might tell us, these protests are not about winning and losing they are about people - another excellent banner read, simply, “People over profit”.

We stand together for a better world.

This banner speaks for itself – unity, solidarity and compassion are always the way forward. It’s down to us, the people, to stand up for those who cannot necessarily stand up for themselves, to stand up for the likes of Paul Reekie, the Scottish poet who, amongst many, many others, killed himself after finding out that his benefits might be taken away.

It is these real-life and heart-wrenching stories that will mean I will continue to argue, to stimulate debate through my blog and through conversation, and finally, this is why I will continue to protest until my feet are blistered from marching, my arms are aching from waving my banner, and my voice is croaky from chanting for what I believe is right.

Sawford Loses His Seat in Westminster After Surprise Swing to the Conservative Party (The Oundle Chronicle)

Andy Sawford lost his seat in the Commons this May after less than three short years as an MP in Westminster. Sawford, a Labour and Co-operative Party Politician, was standing in one of the many seats that the Labour Party lost to what the media has dubbed a wave of ‘shy Tory voters’. 
The new MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire, 26 year-old Tom Pursglove, won the local election with a majority of 2,412 votes (4.3%), winning back for the Conservatives a seat that had been lost to Labour in a 2012 by-election. 
One of the reasons attributed to Sawford’s original win in 2012 was the local disillusionment with the Conservatives on account of Louise Mensch’s resignation, explaining why the Corby seat was a target for both the Tories and Labour. Interestingly, Ukip’s Margot Parker accumulated 7,708 votes (14%), up from 5000 in 2012, and this is perhaps another reason for Sawford’s loss. Though it is often assumed that UKIP take votes from the Tories alone, perhaps this is not true in Corby and East Northants.
During his time, Andy Sawford, whose father was also a Labour MP (for Kettering), was the Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government until the 2015 general election, and sat on the Communities and Local Government committee. 
Sawford was also a particularly active Member of Parliament, far more active than the average MP in defending his constituency. Sawford spoke in 49 debates in the last year, and he voted in 78.25% of votes in this Parliament — well above average for MPs.
Whilst an MP, Andy’s voting record tended to follow that of a typical Labour supporter: he voted strongly in favour of gay marriage and rights, very strongly in favour of raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices, and he voted strongly against what has been dubbed by Labour as the ‘bedroom tax’. Interestingly, Sawford voted a mixture of for and against a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. 
One of the most notable controversies in Sawford’s term was the Waitrose incident: Sawford attacked Waitrose for offering free coffee and newspapers to myWaitrose loyalty card holders, claiming that the offer had a ‘stark effect’ on local coffee shops and newsagents, including Norman’s Grocers which closed last year.
However, in an attempt to refute accusations that Labour is an ‘anti-business’ party, Chuka Umunna, shadow business secretary, said that Waitrose was a ‘fantastic’ operation which should be applauded for its positive approach to employment and business issues. It is a shame that such an important local issue was turned into a completely disconnected debate on the national stage. 
Tom Pursglove was first elected to serve the Croyland Ward on the Borough Council of Wellingborough in 2007 at the age of 18 – the youngest councillor in the country at that time. In fact, Pursglove is one of the youngest MPs in the Commons today, though his age is upstaged by new MP, 20 year-old Mhairi Black of the SNP. 
Having moved straight from university into politics (as a parliamentary assistant to Peter Bone MP for Wellingborough) means that Pursglove has led a life of politics with little other experience. Pursglove did, however, receive strong support from his party, with Conservative billboards throughout the constituency.
Pursglove’s website says that he is ‘relishing the opportunity to represent the people of Corby and East Northamptonshire in Parliament after the General Election’. He has been named by The Independent as one of seven new MPs to watch over the next five years.
His Listening Campaign has allowed him to draw up a list of his plans for the years ahead, which include campaigning for more jobs, more police on the beat, better and safer roads, more car parking and better broadband.
Currently, and perhaps of concern to the 1,374 Green voters in the area (a huge gain for the party), Pursglove is the Director of Together Against Wind, the national anti-wind farm campaign. As Director, he has been campaigning to secure national policy change in relation to wind farms. One of his plans for East Northants is to end what he has called the ‘Wind Farm Folly’.
The people of Oundle and the surrounding areas came out in force this May, with a turnout of over 70%. Sawford was a highly regarded MP and his loss was a big surprise to most, whatever they thought of Sawford or Pursglove. 
It would seem that the election was not lost by Sawford, but by the campaign that the Labour party led. Thus, Corby was yet another constituency lost not because of the MP, but because of the party’s controversial leader.

Let's Move to Oundle... Again (The Oundle Chronicle)

lets move to oundle‘You could set a period drama in Oundle,’ according to Tom Dyckhoff, writing earlier this year in The Guardian Weekend’s weekly magazine column ‘Let’s move to…’.
Dyckhoff has written over 4000 ‘Let’s move to…’ articles for The Guardian, all of which praise certain towns all around the country. 
This is not the first time Dyckhoff has written about Oundle. He wrote about the town in a ‘Let’s move to…’ column just seven years ago. Perhaps he doesn’t keep a record of the articles he’s written, or he simply adores Oundle. 
The latter is probably true: he seems keen to reveal to the world the hidden beauties of Northamptonshire, which he says are ‘always passed over en route for somewhere more thrilling, such as Rutland’. 
In both columns, Dyckhoff, who is an architecture critic, coins almost rhapsodic descriptions of Oundle’s stone buildings: ‘coloured like a sunset’ (2015) and ‘the colour of honeycomb’ (2008).
Both articles mention Oundle School, although in his 2015 article, the school is more of an asset to the town, which he describes as Oxbridge in miniature, with Oundle School its university, ‘whose buildings are folded so thoroughly into Oundle’s fabric you are never quite sure if the town is hosting the school, or vice versa’.
In contrast, in 2008 he wrote: ‘There’s a lot of town vs gown with the illustrious local public school.’ 
Dyckhoff quoted resident Carol Sandall, who said: ‘Pet hate: Oundle’s version of hoodies – the public school pupils who mill about the town and flood the bakers, and anywhere sweets are sold… Like all teenagers, they find anyone over 21 totally invisible and an expensive education does not apparently include teaching the difference between a road and a pavement.’ 
This rather predictable criticism of the private school pupils was rather odd. Sandall said Oundle pupils were ‘like all teenagers’, and yet she lumps them with the more anti-social hoodie-wearing variety. 
To add some balance to the discussion, former Prince William School teacher Stephen Dalzell emailed: ‘Don’t write that Oundle School dominates the town. That’s a cliché often headlined when market towns with a well-known boarding school are written about. It doesn’t.’ 
For Dalzell, the emphasis should be on Oundle’s quality of life and the great countryside walks.
Invariably, Dyckhoff will have disappointed some by failing to mention a popular coffee shop or cultural event, or will have stumped others with his mention of The Falcon, which is a good five miles away. It’s clear that no writer with only a 400 word brief can do justice to Oundle’s rich daily life.
Nevertheless, if the town council is still looking for a slogan to help market Oundle, Dyckhoff has come up with some memorable sound-bites, most notably: ‘Comforting cosiness in three dimensions’. Or even better: ‘History oozes from its beautiful golden stone like butter from a toasted muffin.’