Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Generation Right is Actually Generation South of the Political Equator : Politics for the Next Generation

Radio 4 broadcast a very insightful documentary on 16th June 2014 called Generation Right which took the view that young people today have become very right wing and (as was suggested by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) very selfish.
I felt that the programme did very well in describing how young people felt about a number of issues including the welfare state. However, it did less well in describing the new political orientation.
It stated that young people had become right wing about economic issues but paradoxically, very left wing about social issues. They were extremely liberal about rights of gay people and relaxed about immigration but at the same time holding more traditional views about economics and welfare. The fact that this is seen as paradoxical is illustrative of the limitations in British political discourse and the fact that our existing main political parties are laden down with traditions which make it difficult for them to respond to changes in attitudes. That is why there is seemingly apathy about young people in elections. They feel that none of the main political phiosoiphies really connect with them and they want to do, in the words of one of the young people in the programme, is mix and match different viewpoints on different issues. The sort of Parliamentary democracy which we have now is simply not flexible enough to allow young peoople to express their views on important issues and the political parties are past their sell by date. Young people who are used to structuring their own relationship with media and social networks find this form of politics to be leaden and impenetrable. 
Part of the inadequacy of our political discourse is shown by the fact that the programme tried to place the young people onto left or right dimension of the political spectrum. If you go to the website Political Compass you will find that politics can be more accurately charted on two dimensions. One dimension is the right  v left positions. The other dimension is authoritarian v libertarian. It is possible to be libertarian and at the the same time be either left wing oir right wing. Libertarianism is often characterized by very liberal social views and free market views on economics. The constant is a belief in free choice and being against state coercion- either of individuals or other societies or countries. One recent historical event, not discussed in the programme which may have swung the pendulum towards a more libertarian position was the Iraq war. This war was a very clear defeat for the idea that the state is all powerful and always able to improve people's lives using its strength. Not even the full might of the U.S. and U.K. military forces have been able to reshape a whole country and bring a new peace and democracy. In fact, state intervention in Iraq has, in many people's opinion made things markedly worse for these people.  It is a very strong indication that state meddling does not nhecessarliy make things better and it is also a significant blow toi the moral authority of Governments.
Traditionally in the U.K. our political parties on the right and left have been authoritarian in nature. They have tried to shape the country through cultural mechanisms such as the BBC (which was about culturally enriching the nation), subsequently through lots of regulation and health and safety legislation, and more recently through Nudge (which is a sort of psychological form of soft coercion). The idea that individuals and communities can make up their own minds and make good choices themselves has never really taken hold with our politicians.
The young people of today, however, are shaping their own social and cultural worlds through the internet and new technologoes. Ideas can take shape and take hold quickly and spontaneously. Young peoople want freedom to make decisions about how they see things through their own individual cultural and social lens. They make common cause with one group or issue at one moment and with other people and issues at other times. This is not necessarily driven by a traditional political perspectyive or a coherent phiulosophy. In an age of remixing and sampling- Why should it be?
The lessons from these changes for U.K. politics are in my opinioin quite profound.
Firstly young people are much more libertarian. Rather than just seeing this is negative or a rejection of collectivism- politicians on the liberal spectrum should be celebrating the fact that they have very liberal and tolerant views on minorities and support the rights of different groups in societies to live their lives the way they want. In terms of promoting the need to help people who are economically disadvantaged - this might be better sold to young people on the basis of helping everyone in society to make a contribution rather than the traditional view of this as welfare.
 Young people are not becoming Conservatives. Conservatism is associated with old fashioned values which they do not relate to.This means that people on the left who are concerned about social issues may be better off appealing to a bleeding heart libertarianism rather than a traditional left wing perspective. For those on the political right, they are only going to get young votes by advocating for a less controlling and judgmental society and developing more liberal policies in issues such as legislation of recreational drugs.
What all this means for right and left is that it means listening to young people first and foremost rather than castigating them or labeling them as selfish.
It means offering new political perspectives which incorporate a more libertaian outlook -and no that does not equate to selfishness- whatever John Monboit thinks. It also means a more pragmatic and atheoretical politics.
It also means we need to rethink how our democratic processes work. Young people are dissatisfied with having to just elect one party into Government for 5 years. It requires us to give citizens a chance to involve themselves in decisions about how the country is run on a more regular basis. This ought to be possible with the fantastic technology which we now have. The internet offers us the chance to collect the views and opinions of the whole wired community almost instantaneously. There is no excuse for Government not being connected to the public.   In the days of instant messaging, young people are probably not prepared to wait 5 years to influence Government policy.
We need real change in how politics work and also in the menu of political choices offered to yoiun g people if we are going to engage them in politics again.
First stage is going to be listening to them in a non-judgemental way. The Radio 4 Programme was a good start.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Labour Must Fight Racism to Win the Election, not Appease Racists

I'm not a politician but I reckon I'm right about one thing. If you want to win a political fight the only way you can do this is to set the agenda rather than react to it. I also feel very strongly that you can't  defeat bad attitudes by playing along with them. 
Ed Balls apparently thinks differently. He thinks that to fight the UKIP menace Labour needs to start addressing peoples fears about immigration. This is in line with a wider message we seem to be getting fed by the media that says that the major political parties do not understand or engage with people's 'legitimate' fears about immigration. Personally I think the Balls strategy is all wrong and that the general media are feeding the anti-EU and anti-immigration frenzy which is being whipped up by UKIP, BNP and all the other xenophobic parties which appeared on the recent ballot.
If Labour want to win at the polls they need to have the courage to believe in something positive  and have faith that the public  will respond to good political debate and rhetoric. Labour need to stand for something different if they want to inspire the public to vote for them. They need to stop colluding with he idea that it is poor people from other countries who are causing them misery. They need to tell the public the truth about the financial crisis and  the dangers of unrestrained financial markets. They need to tell the truth about how good public services cost money rather than trying to flog more PFIs and the like.
Labour needs to sell itself as a party with a vision of something better- not Tory-lite or UKIP-lite but something much better that can give ordinary people hope.
There's still a year to turn this around.  

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Is It Wrong to Profit From Human Misery?

Is wrong to profit from human misery?

Over the last week or so there has been a huge amount of comments (I don't think it deserves to be called a debate) in The Guardian, community Care etc about the issue of outsourcing child protection and other child care services. The Government issued a consultation asking people what they thought about local authorities being able to outsource these services. Immediately a large number of people waded into the debate firing off comments about it being appalling that child protection was going to be hived off to Serco even though there was nothing in the consultation document to suggest that this was likely to happen. What was worse however, was the vitriolic stream of comments which emerged in the Guardian about the private sector and by implication anyone who is the social care business. One person who wrote a brief article in defence of outsourcing in Guardian Society was described as 'evil' by a commentator.
At this stage I want to make my personal views about privatisation known. I think that public sector bodies, while being far from perfect, usually offer coherent and consistent well managed services on areas like child protection. I think for a service like child protection, it is likely that any process of outsourcing is likely to lead to fragmentation and while there might be some examples of improved practice there will also be poorer practice and that is concerning in such a sensitive area. HOWEVER, I think it could in some cases offer professionals to form private practices who could work in innovative and fulfilling ways for those workers and these practices could be a beacon for the sector.
I have made a lot of comments on different places which probably would lead to people thinking I am a lot more in favour of outsourcing than I am but this is due to my natural tendency to want to give an airing to the side of the debate which nobody else seems to be willing to give a hearing to. I think it's also because I am appalled by the level of prejudice and vitriol being pumped out by people who claim to caring and morally superior to the Tories. From where I am standing some of them are like the left wing equivalent of Fox News viewers.
I want therefore to look at a few myths about outsourcing.

Myth 1. The private sector is social care is made up of rich money grabbing fat cats.
Actually the majority of providers on social care are people of,very modest means, some of who, are scraping together a pretty marginal existence. One of reasons that unemployment has not gone up significantly as a result of austerity is the huge rise on self employment. Many of these self employed are freelancers and consultants who are doing bits of training and consultancy work for local authorities following being made redundant. In fact at least one local authority which I know if encouraged all their day care workers who they were making redundant to set themselves up in business as providers. How there was going to be work for all of them when they couldn't continue as employees I don't know. I doubt of many of them are going to be joining the Fortune 500 anytime soon.
Another type of business in social care is the small family run care home. I delay with a number of such businesses over the years. One was a four bedded unit for teenagers with behavioural problems which looked like an ordinary family home. The owner worked in it together with his partner. Both had a really strong commitment to working with disturbed young people despite the fact that the woman of the couple had developed tinnitus following an assault by a young person. The male owner had invested an inheritance from his parents in this business. He could have put it into property but he developed this and some other social care services with the money. He made an honest profit and a reasonable livelyhood by offering a standard and style of care which wasn't available anywhere else in the area.
When I hear people describe people like that couple as profiteers it makes my blood  boil.
There are some profiteers in social care like the carpetbaggers behind the Southern Cross Scandal but they are very much the exception. There are not many big providers in social care. Many of the home care businesses in some areas are very small operations, sometimes run by former home helps who want to improve their standard of living and be entrepreneurial on a small scale.

Myth 2 Earning money from child care is moral when it's called a wage and immoral when it's called profit.
Okay so - is that always true? What if the wage is 150k and the profit is 0.5% which one is moral then?
Basically if you study to be a Doctor or Social Worker you expect a return on the investment of your your time and commitment on the form of an income. This is called a wage. If you take a risk and go into business for yourself then you will need to make a surplus. Out of this surplus you will have to pay interest to any bank or a dividend to anyone who lent you money to set up the business. Since investors are taking a risk and could potentially lose some or all of their money they will expect a bigger return that they would get from a bank account. After all that there might be some money left over for you to take put a wage.  This is of course provided you actually do make money and don't end up going bust. If you rely on the council to send you referrals and they don't send you any for a few months then nobody is going to bail you out. The surplus which a business makes is called a profit.
There are few differences between people who make wages and people who make profits. People who make wages get a funded pension, sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay. People who work freelance or run their own business get none of these things. If they are too sick to work they get nothing. If business conditions deteriorate they could lose their home and everything they own. It sometimes amazes me why anybody actually does it.
So- Do you still think wages are moral and profits are immoral.

Myth 3 It is wrong to profit from human misery.
This is the suggestion that certain forms of activity such as protecting vulnerable children should never be a source of profit. This idea, strongly put forward in the Guardian suggests by implication that it might actually be more moral to earn money from something like cigarettes than work which improves people's lives.
I think Martin Narey nailed it on the head today. He said that he makes lots of money from human misery- It's called a wage ( see Myth 2 above).

Myth 4. It is the greed of capitalism which leads to poor wages in outsourced services.
This is untrue. Local authorities could in theory specify that the workers in outsourced businesses get paid a decent wage. Fair trade Coffee is an example of capitalism being used to improve workers conditions by making workers pay a marketable commodity for customers to sponsor. Home care contracts often specify such low rates that it would be impossible for the business to pay decent wages. Outsourcing is used as a politically expedient way of lowering pay. Local authorities could not get away with lowering wages for their own employees but by outsourcing the work they can also outsource the notoriety associated with poor pay and conditions. It is not true that private companies are making large profits by ripping off workers in outsourced contracts. Hourly rates and margins are cut to the bone.
This is not of course the fault of local authorities- they are experiencing austerity. However, it is not a direct consequence of capitalism either.

Myth 5. Social work practices will never be better than working for the council and they will never get off the ground.
Well whether this turns out to be myth or not will depend on the attitude of social workers and whether they seize the opportunities of being able to control their own destinies. Much is made in the literature of how social workers are suffering under managerialism, poor supervision, inadequate IT facilities etc. by taking charge of their own practices there is huge scope for change. More flexible working, less hierarchical management, a culture which is less driven by fear and defensive practice, better relationships with local communities which social workers serve, better use of media to publicise good practice, opportunities to put local residents and young people on steering committees to direct how the service is provided. Really the list of what could be achieved is only as limited as out imagination.

Myth 6. Change can happen easily and quickly.
As a social work academic I feel its my job to prepare students for change and prepare them for a long career which could take many forms over the next few years. It's not just to prepare them just for the job as it is now. However, the sector as a whole has been long used to thinking in terms only of a career in local government. It will be a challenge for social work academic its over the next few years to prepare their students for the challenges of working in different types of agencies from before.
Government too must offer help and support if existing social workers are to take advantage of new opportunities. There is also a role for employers with the help of Universities to prepare workers for change- if that is what is wanted.