Author Archives: Freya Baker

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Justice and defiance take to the streets

Category : discussion points

Thousands took the streets of North London today in a defiant demonstration of unity and hope carrying a message of understanding and justice. The march and Peoples Assembly was called by the North London Assembly in response to the riots of the last week in Tottenham and Hackney. It carried a simple message ” Give our kids a future.” However the march went beyond this theme and had a depth of feeling and representation from groups who have campaigned over the last year against the governments vicious policies towards some of the most vulnerable and poorest in our society. To make them pay for a crisis not of their making. In a week in which the country has been told parts of the nation”s capital are “sick” or full of “feral rats” and “scum” the march had another set of more humane messages on display. There were no whistles or vuvuzelas on this march, instead the message from placards and chants was loud and clear ….”fight the cuts”…”reopen the youth centes”…”the bankers are the real looters” …”blame the tories not our kids”. “No justice, no peace” all filled the air. It all reflected a counter argument to how to deal with riots. One that does not include water cannons or plastic bullets or the withdrawal of benefits or the loss of housing as the answer but one that seeks to address causes and the inequality at the heart of communities.

Hackney-riotOne where issues of power and the consqueneces of feeling and being powerless. One where opportunities for many are limited or non existent. It is argument that seeks to expand on Martin Luther King”s wise words that riots are the “language of the unheard” The People”s Assembly at the end of the march at Tottenham Green offered open slots to the community and the marchers to express their view. The opportunity was duly taken by many from the local community. In the last nine months the government has presided over the biggest student demos in the country”s history, the biggest trade union march in history, mass strikes, direct action ,occupations and now urban riots. What next? The Liberal Democrats meet in Birmingham on the 18th September and the Tories in Manchester on the 2nd October. Right to Work initiated marches and demonstrations outside their party conferences. They are now being organised by the TUC and will build on the “march for the alternative” theme so successful organsied in London earlier in the year. It is now crucial we keep up the momentum and make sure they keep hearing the message from the streets.

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Jobcentre Plus Scandal

Category : discussion points

Well at least John Lydon had the decency to ask us “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”. That’s more than can be said for those responsible for making last night’s Dispatches episode “Tricks of The Dole Cheats”. Its trailer and blurb promised:

Stressed woman

“Reporter Morland Sanders investigates Jobcentre Plus, the organisation tasked with getting Britain back to work and cracking down on dole cheats. With the help of jobseekers, undercover filming and a former insider, the programme reveals the shirkers’ tricks that make it easy to cheat the system.”

The programme displayed precisely two “shirkers’ tricks”, and undercover filming did not prove that there is any ease in getting one over on the benefits system. The reality is very different. There is very little “cheating” taking place. David Cameron was shown in the programme promising to clamp down on “dole cheats” that have claimed around £1.5bn in benefits that they were not entitled to. But £1.5bn amounts to 0.8% of total benefit expenditure, a figure almost matched by the 0.6% lost due to Government error ( a figure set to rise since a High Court judge ruled that sanctioning claimants for refusing to take part in workfare schemes was unlawful). We were also shown how easy it is for “dole cheats” to create fictional job applications on their job diary (used to prove that claimants are sticking to their job agreement and are actively seeking work) and still have their payments processed. Although in the example shown where Dispatches volunteer jobseeker hands over his diary with his shopping list rather than a list of applications, the adviser did inform him that due to the bank holiday, his payment had already been processed. Trick number two was to expose how easy it is for jobseekers to claim and work at the same time. You can even park your painting and decorating van outside the jobcentre and sign on wearing overalls covered in fresh paint and you’ll still get your £56.25 or £71 per week to top up your wages. Again such a lax attitude is not borne out by the facts that Dispatches willingly ignored. The truth is that since 2009, benefit sanctions of those that have been deemed to have deviated from their jobseekers agreement or have failed to adhere to an instruction given by a Jobcentre official have trebled from 139,000 to 508,000 in 2011. These sanctions can suspend or reduce benefits for up to 6 months.

And many of these sanctions have been imposed for not applying for the requisite number of jobs, failing to apply for a job proposed by an adviser, failure to follow an instruction from the jobcentre,  but increasingly, more unemployed people are being sanctioned for refusing to take up unpaid work. Spearheading the call for more penalties for those that refuse to take part in unpaid labour schemes are Government contractors such as Working Links and A4e. Much doubt has been cast on their shady practices, yet Working Links and A4e have referred more of their clients for sanctions than any other company in the sector. But Dispatches concentrated their fire on Jobcentre Plus workers. There were a few moments that made Jobcentre Director Ruth Owen squirm, but the whole tenor of the programme was to attempt to portray  how lazy, disinterested and unconcerned staff at the Department for Work and Pensions are about helping the unemployed into work (another of the Tories failed programmes). There was a brief reference to the 6,000 PCS members in DWP contact centres taking strike action over “working conditions”. Now, it would have spoilt Dispatches angle to elaborate and point out that the strike has been provoked by the frustrations of a workforce prevented in providing a full and professional service to those in dire need by a senior management more intent on bullying their workforce to achieve call targets (ie- hit call volumes by dealing with queries as quick as possible). It would have also ruined the attack on jobcentre workers to mention that PCS members in those offices have consistently campaigned with strikes and protests against office closures and thousands of job cuts.

Application CV

Little wonder then that Jobcentre workers have precious time to help the unemployed with their CVs and interview techniques. But Jobcentre workers face an even bigger obstacle. With 2.5 million unemployed chasing less than 500,000 vacancies, even with the best will in the world, jobcentre staff know that they can only disappoint 80% of the people they try to serve. This picture is starting to worsen. There have been minimal falls in the unemployment figures in the last few months. But the fall in GDP, a new manufacturing slump, and the UK headed for a triple-dip recession, we can expect that trend to be sharply reversed as we head towards the Autumn. It is not in the interests of any unemployed activist to take pleasure in Dispatches’ bashing of DWP workers.

Whilst we squabble over crumbs, David Cameron’s party of and for the millionaires will exploit such divisions to further slash jobs and privatise services and  impose a harsher regime for the unemployed. We need to forge unity between the unemployed and workers to stop the tricks of the tax-dodging cheats that rob the trillions that can be used to invest in properly funded public services and real jobs. For another review of “Tricks Of The Dole Cheats”, there is an excellent piece on the Void:

“Тhe programme also revealed the stunning revelation that Jobcentre’s are a bit shit when it comes to actually finding people a job. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s claimed benefits over the last few decades although it is apparently big news to the latte slurping Tarquins at Channel 4, most of whom have probably never done a real job in their lives.”

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Teachers express outrage at ConDems

Category : discussion points

Guest Blogger Ken Muller from Islington NUT and Islington Hands Off Our Public Services (IHOOPS) gives us an update on the mood among teachers as they vote in a strike ballot over pensions.

Teacher Discussion

NUT officers have been busy telephoning and visiting schools to ensure we get a good turnout in the ballot for action on 30 June. Every school NUT group meeting we have attended or heard about has expressed outrage over what the Con-Dem government is threatening to do to our pensions and support for a campaign of strike action beginning on the 30th. Teachers are especially pleased to be taking action alongside civil servants and lecturers and look forward to taking more action after the summer holiday, hopefully alongside colleagues in the other teaching and public sector unions like the NAS-UWT, UNISON and the GMB whose leaders did not think it appropriate to join us at the end of June. We do not just see the 30th as day of action in defence of our pensions but a step up from the magnificent TUC march on 26 March when working people start to use their industrial power to force the government to back off from seeking to make us pay for a crisis caused by their fat cat banker and tax-evader friends. We also hope that we will be joined on the march from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Westminster on day by the whole Islington community who are victims of the Con-Dem cuts, whether as the providers or users of our public services and benefits.

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The Future of Work?

Category : discussion points

Mark Barrett, Democracy Campaigner, and co-convenor of the People’s Assembly Network offers a personal view on the future of work in a really democratic society. In the spirit of a Popular Assembly, the Right to Work Campaign have kindly offered me the opportunity to blog about the Spanish Real Democracy Movement. As part of this, I would like to put forward a personal view on the future of work in a really democratic society. Hopefully this will stimulate some debate!

Protest in the City

In an advanced society liberating, enjoyable and well-rewarded work should be available to everyone. Under neo-liberalism however, workers get caught between an unstable, precarious (and often unfulfilling) job market on the one hand, and the dole queue on the other. With a third ‘option’ the capitalist sop, a coercive form of employment known in the UK as workfare. I argued in 2009, as I do now that after the real democracy revolution there will be an enormous liberation in the world of work from the present model. The big clue as to how it will look can be found in the 15M movement’s organisational model, Popular Assemblies. In Spain these are now taking root at the neighbourhood level and I think this illustrates how, in its decision-making the 15M movement embraces the ideal of a decentralised democratic constitution. This is important because ‘real democracy’ – the inclusion of everyone in political-economic decision-making as equals, the politics of the common – can surely only come about when we recalibrate social organisation to the local, human-scale, community base. It follows from this that work life in a really democratic society will follow a similar pattern.

In a democratic society, because sovereignty, including the power of public service employment will vest, not with Parliament but with the people, it is the local level that will hold real political power – albeit in concert with all the other local levels and with clear lines of delegation and communication going ‘up’ to the regional / city-wide, national and international levels and back ‘down’ again. And from this fact, the productive capacity of democratic employment will be reflected. In a really democratic system public money cannot be misused as is the case under the present state-welfare model. Instead, accountable, transparent sovereign communities will employ people, as they see fit via consensus decision-making to produce whatever things the individual concerned AND the community in question agree need producing. Employment will probably still be available in a (transformed) job market, but alongside this there will also be the option, via local assembly sovereignty of gainful ecological, soulful, dignified employment in a community of each worker’s choice. And because each sovereign empowered local community will now produce its own unique culture (rather than the homogenisation of townships we see presently) everyone will have a huge choice of work options, with different priorities in each diverse community. No longer should anyone feel forced to labour in an alienated way. I wrote in 2010:


“Unemployed people would thereby freely contribute to a new, flourishing local culture while also helping themselves; perhaps by starting setting up a new business, or helping run the neighbourhood crèche, or planting fruit trees along the local street, or putting a colourful mural on a concrete wall. This reform would spell an end to economic inactivity for ‘claimants’, building self reliance through community support, but without coercion. Communities would compete with each other for labour, by offering different opportunities and a positive cultural outlook…”

In short work will make you free, after all! And, siestas may be included!
But these are just some activists’ viewpoints – what are yours??
Addenda: ‘Real Democracy Now’ as a slogan might seem to have come out of the blue, but in reality, like the Assemblies that drive them it’s been in the ether for some time. In the Seattle anti-globalisation protests of 1998 for example, chants of “this is what democracy looks like” outside the WTO were inspiring. Preceding that, the slogan “Democracia, Tierra y Liberdad!” were central to the Zapatistan and also later Oaxacan movements which inspire so many to this day. In the UK, following two years defending the right to protest in Parliament Square with the weekly People in Common picnic, some of us got together to consider the true democracy ideal, developing a project for a 21st Century Constitution in the UK. From this, we promoted People’s Assemblies as the means to achieve it. Later, some of us set up (uncannily same-named) ‘Campaign for Real Democracy’ UK (CRD) network – which just goes to show you can’t stop an idea. We included in our 2009 CRD discussions the impact of real democracy on the future of work. And it is from these discussions that the above ideal was born.