Archive | January, 2012

Stopping the Welfare Reform Bill

28 Jan

DPAC and UK Uncut protesters block busy West End road in action against the Welfare Reform Bill

Disabled People Against Cuts with the support of UK Uncut had called for this afternoon to be one of direct action against the welfare reform bill – an incredibly punitive bill which seeks to make the poorest and most vulnerable members of society pay for a crisis which they had no role in. Whenever I think about this bill, I am always absolutely horrified by it – that a government could ever seriously think that this is an acceptable thing to do – to actively cause harm to the people in our society who deserve additional support. I am baffled sometimes why the whole of the country is not out in the streets protesting against what the government are doing. Whilst the Lords are kicking up a fuss against the bill which is warmly welcomed- it is important that the rest of us take to the streets to show our opposition. The consequences of this bill are so serious that direct action is absolutely necessary.

We were to meet at Holborn Station at 11.30am to travel to a secret location. We piled into the tube station and emerged at Oxford Circus to join a group of protesters who had chained their wheelchairs together to form a road block across the top of Regent Street. This was a truly incredible act of direct action. As DPAC and UK Uncut noted, today the invisible would become unmissable as they confronted, and befriended, thousands of west end shoppers and brought the busy traffic to a halt. Hundreds of people moved in behind the road block and took over the street for the afternoon to come together in solidarity against the government’s welfare reform bill – demanding that this bill be stopped. Seeing these people chained together in a determination to have their voices heard was inspiring – I’m a complete wimp of an activist and it was incredibly poignant to see people show such courage. But, as a woman points out in John Domokos’ wonderful video of the day (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2012/jan/28/welfare-reforms-protest-oxford-circus ), it was also sad and shameful that they had to take to the streets in the first place.

There was a brilliant atmosphere on our people-filled road – a samba band played, people danced, people chanted, people talked together. Whilst the atmosphere was upbeat and determined, the space was full of lots emotions – for some, this was their first protest and so understandably it was quite a scary experience for them. In John’s video, one woman described how she had had to prepare all week in order to come to the action. To be amongst such determined and friendly people was a wonderful experience – even the police seemed won over – we overheard them saying ‘let’s just leave them’. (Although later on they did attempt to move our group on – they spoke through a megaphone, which as one protester pointed out made them sound like a duck, furthermore, as another protester pointed out, they did not communicate the message in sign language.) A community megaphone was passed around and one man started chanting ‘we’re all together’ – it was incredibly moving because this was exactly what our action was showing. In the middle of a space dedicated to pointless consumption, we were demonstrating the other values which we hold in society – caring, friendship, and community – these are our tools that we will use to stop the cuts.

This incredible direct action is a strong message to the government that we will not accept their welfare reform bill – they cannot ignore us. And if they do, well, we’ll be out on the streets again, and with growing numbers.

Liam Byrne and Punishing the Poor

24 Jan

Here are some notes about Liam Byrne’s speech last night at the LSE – I’m afraid I didn’t take the best notes as I was sitting there getting angry so it was hard to focus, but I will listen again to a recording of the lecture, which they put up on the LSE website, and fill in the gaps.

I just arrived home after attending Liam Byrne’s lecture on the welfare state – I’d been very interested in what he has to say on this issue after reading his appalling comments in the Guardian about the ‘something for nothing culture’ – a ‘culture’ that if he knew anything about poor people he would realise didn’t actually exist, firstly as everyone does contribute in some way to society, and secondly because it seems rather generous to refer to our present benefits system as ‘something’ – the reality of living on JSA is more like nothing. I was all primed to heckle and to challenge him on his and his party’s demonising of the unemployed which for me is a very personal issue. My mum brought me up as a single parent mother and felt the stigma of being ‘unemployed’ despite her more than full time job brining up an incredibly stubborn and difficult child. I am now on JSA after completing my master’s degree. I checked my email when I got indoors after Byrne’s stylistically engaging talk – of which the actual content was quite disagreeable – and saw an email from a job I had applied to. I’d actually received an email – this was really promising. I started to get really excited. If I’ve got this job, I’d better get some new blouses for working in the office – I actually pictured myself in my new blouses in my new office doing the interesting research that this job involved, no more Job Centre visits where you are treated with suspicion and punished for not finding a job that doesn’t exist. I opened the email and it was a rejection. It’s my first rejection as usually you don’t hear back at all from the place which you have spent so much of your time and energy writing to. I actually felt distraught this time. It is now becoming incredibly demoralising to make applications in which I do put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm and to receive a rejection. And to know I’ll have to return to the Job Centre which is a depressing thought. I’m sick of the joke of ‘job seekers allowance’ – being forced to job search in such a climate as this one. I almost want to refuse to job search until there are actually any decent jobs out there.

So what did Liam Byrne have to say about all this and the welfare state? As I said above, he was quite a stylistically pleasing speaker – he had a certain rhythm to his talk, but it was a little hard to focus as I was sitting there trying to get over the rage I felt at his comments on ‘something for nothing’ and trying to move beyond this rage to form a coherent comment and question for him afterwards about workfare, the current discourse/demonisation around the unemployed, and the framing of the current welfare debate in which both parties are attacking an ‘undeserving poor’. In his discussion of Beveridge’s eponymous report he actually referenced the Levellers – which I’m sure they would not be all too pleased about from my understanding (which to be fair is little) of the Levellers. He also emphasised ‘rights and responsibilities’ for a welfare state today. This is another way of him phrasing his idea of ‘something for something’. It does sound harmless enough and so it was a little hard to heckle him – he didn’t say anything that sounded too outrageous, but that’s politics I guess – disguising agendas through the clever use of language? Beneath his language there is a punitive agenda towards what they perceive to be the non-working poor. Whilst he did highlight the failures of the Tory government’s Work Programme, this again was perhaps more politics – having a go at the government in power rather than a genuine belief that the Work Programme is morally wrong, as well as economically – I can imagine him rolling out the exact same Work Programme if he were in power. Indeed, he spoke of the need to ‘enforce’ the responsibility to work and when asked to elaborate on what ‘enforcements’ he envisaged, I actually missed them, or perhaps he avoided the question (I’ll listen to the recording of the lecture and get back to you). He did say that he wanted to move the framing of welfare away from the neocon style of the Tories and to one which supported people to fulfil their potential, but surely this is undermined by his emphasis on enforcement. In a rather confusing moment he declared – ‘we sold all our council housing and we forgot to build any more’. I hope this was a weird joke, but I’m not sure. He seemed to be saying this seriously…surely it was tongue in cheek though? ‘We forgot to build anymore’………? Seriously…..how do you just forgot to BUILD HOUSES? Well actually even this PATHETIC excuse is a lie, if you read Anna Minton’s fabulous book Ground Control, the reality is a lot more sinister. Rather than merely ‘forgetting’ to build houses, the government engaged in a process whereby market forces were encouraged to enter the housing market and public money was given to private companies who knocked down perfectly good housing to build swish new apartments. His emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’/ending something for nothing, without any comprehension of what the reality of being poor is like, is also challenged by the magnificent film War Horse, to throw some popular culture into this discussion. Sometimes the individual cannot be held ‘responsible’ for their actions which are beyond their control. In the film, the father’s addiction to alcohol is kindly explained by his loving wife as a result of the horrors and pain he experienced in the Boer War. We watch the family’s turnip crop get destroyed by bad weather. Marginalised people cannot always take responsibility – it is often beyond their control and it is wrong and demonising to suggest that they should take responsibility.

OK, I’ll be kind to him – he did emphasise the need to create jobs – but said nothing on what kind of jobs these would be. Frankly, I don’t want his capitalist-soul-destroying jobs anyway.

There were some good questions by the audience – A disability rights activist questioned how they would support those who were unable to commit to work in the sense of which he spoke. One woman highlighted the privatization of the health service and how multi-national corporations are failing to pay the living wage. Another man spoke of the need to stop pitching the working poor against the unemployed. I was unimpressed by his responses to the most sensible comments of the evening. I am utterly disenchanted by all politicians and sick of being punished for not being in work.

Harry Potter protest signs

20 Jan

We may be the generation that was given the boy wizard, but that doesn’t mean that you can fuck us over with cuts. Here are some Harry Potter protest signs that I’ve come across on various protests over the last year.

‘How the fuck can I afford Hogwarts now?!?’ Leeds student march 2011

‘Dobby Dies – Now this!’ March 26th 2011, Fortnum and Mason. Sorry the sign isn’t very clear, it was chaotic so I couldn’t get any nearer!

‘What would Dumbledore do?’ November 30th 2011 public sector strike

 

 

‘House elves against workfare!’ March 3rd 2012 National Day of Action Against Workfare

Cuts cafe – Brixton

20 Jan

Cuts Cafe – Brixton

The idea is to set up a community space where people can come together and make themselves free teas, coffee, or whatever else they’d like to drink, and sit and talk with the people around them. Conversation on the cuts, how they are affecting us and our community, and how we can organise around them is welcome, but this is not to say that this is all we talk about! The important thing is that we have a warm, welcoming, safe space where we can make friends and talk with each other without the involvement of money.

The idea for this project came one afternoon when I was sitting in a corporate cafe – I was thinking about how much I enjoyed getting out of the house and being in a different environment, watching the people around me, and sipping a warm drink. However, this experience demands money, which we do not always have. Furthermore, I feel uncomfortable being served by people who are being paid low wages for all their hard work when I’m perfectly able to make my own tea. I thought up a space where we can meet as equals, so that one person is not ‘serving’ another, make our own drinks, and do so without the pressure of money. A place where we can come together and talk with each other, in the face of the government’s alienating cuts, is incredibly important. My mum taught me, from a very early age, that coffee is key to a good life. I would love for this to emerge somewhere in central Brixton.

If anyone is up for turning this into a reality, please do get in touch.

A distressing morning at the Job Centre – witnessing the Work Programme

13 Jan

Brixton Job Centre has a ridiculous amount of security guards – they are standing all around the building as if we are some high security prison. When I last visited they confiscated my bike helmet without giving a reason. Perhaps they thought I might throw it at someone in anger. It’s a shame really that I didn’t have my bike helmet this morning (although I believe in non-violent direct action most of the time!)  I walked my way past these guys to the bit where we all sit around waiting to be called to sign on. The sofas are placed in an awkward square shape so we all sit inwards avoiding each others eyes, whilst around this square of sofas the advisors sit around at their desks – it as if we job seekers are in a panopticon – our every move being watched, lest we deviate from the dejected figures that we are – and this set up does hinder conversation between us. Despite this awkward set up, I have been trying to strike up conversation with my fellow job seekers, with varying success due to my shyness. Today, I’d come armed with Boycott Workfare leaflets ready to hand out and discuss our situation and to warn people to reject any work experience offered. I sat down on one of the sofas and looked across at the woman on the sofa opposite me. She was a small white woman with dreads. She sat there looking despondent and exhausted – she kept on closing her eyes, perhaps sleeping, and would occasionally open her heavy eyelids. She looked in a bad way.  She looked really familiar to me. I kept on staring at her wondering where I knew her from. And then I got it. She’d body searched me at Brixton Academy back when I was a teenager. I had struggled to remember her, back then, about 6 years ago, she had been lively and funny and friendly, making jokes as she patted me down. She was utterly transformed now. I sat there watching her, absorbing all of this and desperately wanting to talk with her. I was angry that we live in such a society – where people are struggling. To see the transformation in someone in such a drastic way really brought it home to me – how can we allow this to happen? How can we tolerate people living in poverty? To clearly feel absolutely terrible without offering any support?

I wanted to talk with her, I really did. I kept on hoping to catch her eye, and then I’d break the awkward silence in the stuffy and stale air. But she closed her eyes, and when she did open them she only scanned the ground. I couldn’t meet her eyes, and she clearly did not look in the mood for conversation, and so I just sat there. I placed a stack of leaflets on the space next to me for people to pick up. She was called to see an advisor and they were sitting just behind me so I listened in. Her advisor had a squeaky, grating voice, and seemed to be telling my dreaded friend off. Not telling off exactly, just stating things but in quite an annoying way that did not recognise the difficulty the woman was in. The woman responded saying that she felt very unwell. The woman went on at her – you haven’t filled this out right, we’re going to send for an interview, you need to take these jobs. The woman responded that she couldn’t take those jobs because they only paid six pounds an hour and that wouldn’t cover her rent. She explained that she was really struggling to pay her rent. The woman then said ‘we’re going to put you on the Work Programme’ – alarm bells went off in my head. This was bad. But I couldn’t remember what the Work Programme entailed – the government are very good at making everything to do with JSA very unclear so you don’t know where you stand. Maybe the Work Programme was apprenticeships or extra jobs? Should I intervene? I quickly googled Work Programme on my phone and scanned a Guardian article. But this didn’t explain what it meant for the job seeker, it was just from the point of view of charities. (you’re probably crying out – read the leaflets that you took with you, and I did eventually, and it informed me that Work Programme does indeed = workfare) I wanted to step in and say, don’t go on the Work Programme, it’s forced labour. But I felt I didn’t know enough about it. I also felt wary that my friend clearly wanted this meeting over with and I didn’t want to prolong it or cause trouble for her. And so I sat there helpless. I heard the woman say ‘can you work in a charity shop? Or a boutique shop’ what the fuck is a boutique shop?? Their meeting went on, I was called to the desk next to them, so I carried on trying to listen, horrified at what was unfolding. After my meeting, I rushed out, sick of the place. I couldn’t see the woman to see if she was OK. As I left, I noticed two people were reading the leaflets I’d left out. That felt like a small victory. But it was horrifying to see how the Work Programme is being rolled out – when these people need support, not demoralising, degrading, tedious, no waged work.

Protest against the welfare ‘reform’ bill

12 Jan

Yesterday, a large group of people gathered opposite Parliament to lobby the Lords and protest against the welfare ‘reform’ bill that is currently being looked at in the House of Lords (there’s quite a nice webpage here that illustrates the progress of the bill which is quite useful http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/welfarereform.html). People from Single Mothers Self Defence, Disabled People Against the Cuts, Mad Pride, Kilburn Unemployed Workers, Boycott Workfare, the Right to Work, and other concerned individuals went along to highlight the extremely negative effects that the welfare ‘reform’ bill will have on the most vulnerable members of society, and to demand the bills defeat. The bill is an attempt to dramatically alter welfare as we know it – which in its present state is still highly inadequate – and to scrape together millions of pounds from the poorest in society to pay for the bankers’ crisis. The proposals in the bill, including capping housing benefits resulting in people being unable to afford their rents, scrapping the discretionary social fund which provides no-interest loans for the poor and for those who find themselves in crisis, and making changes to disability benefits so that those who are given money in recognition for the additional difficulties that they face in life are interrogated about their illness and given less money to support themselves. The proposals go on and on and are almost difficult to believe – that anybody could come up with such punitive measures that literally are an attack on the most vulnerable people in society is outrageous. Thankfully, some of the Lords have a fair bit of sense and are giving this bill the scrutiny it deserves – overthrowing vast swathes of it yesterday afternoon. As Lord Patel, a crossbencher and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, described “If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality”.

Whilst it was uplifting to be amongst passionate, determined, and admirable people yesterday afternoon, I was also a little disappointed at the lack of support from other groups and the rest of London. In my opinion, the whole of London should have been outside Parliament voicing their disgust at perhaps the nastiest cuts. Perhaps people were working so couldn’t make it down. But what about those idealist students who stormed Millbank last year against tuition fee increases and who have a more flexible timetable – why weren’t they supporting us yesterday? I am all for free education, but these cuts are a matter between life and death.

Chilling out in the Marx Lounge

6 Jan

Sometime in the autumn of 2010 I traveled to Liverpool for the first time to see David Harvey speak at the Liverpool Biennial. After Harvey’s engaging talk, we wandered around the building (myself and my friends, not with David Harvey unfortunately) and found ourselves in The Marx Lounge. An art piece – definitely one of my favourites to date – by Alfredo Jaar. A large room painted a crimson red and dimly lit, giving it a sort of shady feel (which is strange because the art piece is supposed to show how relevant Marx is today, rather than the feeling that we were in an underground club participating in prohibited activities) , with a huge table in the middle absolutely packed with piles of books. There were lampshades and sofas around the table centrepiece so people could make themselves comfortable. A neon red sign on the wall told us of our location in this piece of art, ‘The Marx Lounge’, it read in capital letters. All the books here were either by Marx – with copies of the Communist Manifesto in the languages of different ethnic groups in Liverpool – or had been influenced by Marx.  We picked up books eagerly and worked our way across the table – looking for books we had read or knew of, excited at the discovery of new books and authors and how they had interpreted Marx. It was an incredibly thrilling environment to be a part of -right there on the table was so much to be learnt, thought about, debated. I could have spent all afternoon there had it not been for a trained time ticket.

This is the sort of interior design that you don’t see on ‘Grand Designs’.