Thursday, 22 June 2017

Young people are neoliberals - they just don't realise it yet so let's help them.

It seems to me that the real issue young people have is feeling excluded from the benefits of our capitalist, neoliberal society not that capitalist, neoliberal society itself. And this seems a reasonable gripe to me. Here's a tweet from lefty journalist John Elledge:

This - perhaps not all that considered - comment tells us a great deal. Mostly that the real irritation of the emerging graduate generation is that they feel unable to afford investment assets like houses. For me this is one of the essential failures of UK government over the last thirty years - the idea of a property owning democracy was ignored as we got ever more excited about the seemingly endless rise in house prices.

Some people want to blame all this on my generation - the boomers - who took advantage of cheap asset prices in the 1970s and 1980s and rode the bubble to the point where the house my Dad bought for £3,250 in 1963 in now 'worth' over £400,000 (Dad sold the house in 1975 for about £14,000). I am absolutely with all those people who feel that they're outside this bubblicious world - not just the young or poor but a whole load of people from 'Up North' who've not seen anything like the gains those 'Down South' have seen.

Add to this that we told young people that the way to get into this bubble world was to get a good degree (in fact any old degree as Blair's enthusiasm for book-learning led to the numbers going to university getting up towards half of 18 and 19 year olds). And because these degrees were the gateway to a world of wealth and power, we told young people they could have a load of (cheap) borrowing that they'd spend half their life paying off so as to get the degree.

Young people don't want to be socialists, they want the entrance fee to our neoliberal world of valuable assets, to that property-owning democracy we were all promised. And this is why they've dumped the capitalists, the people who they think are stopping them from joining the glorious free market rat race. "Have free university tuition". "Here's a subsidised mortgage". "How about a big pay rise". "Or a higher minimum wage". "Free child care". "Discounted rail travel"...

It doesn't matter how much others ask where all this cash is coming from, people aren't listening. Or rather they see those telephone number house prices and say, "y'all can afford to pay for this stuff, get on with it". And Labour offered them everything they were asking for and some things they weren't - no questions asked. Is it any surprise that folk who are outside that wealth bubble flocked to this banner?

Young people - and plenty of the not-so-young - want to know when it's their turn to play the free market, asset-owning, property-speculating game. They don't want socialism, they want what their parents and grandparents had - the chance to have a real cash stake in their society, the thing that Margaret Thatcher promised to my generation (and largely delivered). This isn't about nationalisation for all that people tell you the government should run stuff (they always have done by the way even at the height of Maggie's pomp). No, it's about us renewing the promise we made to the post-war generation and to late boomers like me - play your part, work hard, be a good citizen and we'll make sure you can have that real cash stake in Britain.

Right now we're still telling people to play their part, to work hard, to borrow to fund education and to be a good citizen but government has reneged on its side of the bargain, that cash stake in Britain. And the single-minded focus of any new government should be to renew that offer and make it work. Those young people really aren't baby ideologues desperate for some sort of socialist New Jerusalem. They're just like you and I were 30, 40, 50 or 60 years ago - bothered about our own futures, the things we care about, in that thing Adam Smith saw as the driver of a better, richer society: self-interest.

So let's start offering people that chance. Let's free up the planning system so more houses get built were people want to live. Let's revisit the idea of tax relief or other support that backs individual, personal investment in our society. Let's liberate the innovative instincts of property and finance people to meet the aspirations of today's ambitious young people - 21st century capitalists, budding neoliberals every one. And let's do this knowing that the alternative, Labour's market-fixing, price-controlling, 'magic money tree' programme carries in it the seeds of disaster, the crash that socialism always brings.

I'm with you if you want to bash at those folk farming grants and corporate welfare. I'm on your side if you want to try and stop well-funded lobbyists getting government to fix a market or a system to suit their clients. I'm right there if what you want is to stop rent-seekers freeloading on free health, welfare and education. And I agree with you when you say people should pay the taxes they owe - on the nail not just after a long-winded and expensive investigation.

But this isn't about socialism just about getting a free market that works for all of us. It's about setting economic liberty - the idea that, more than anything else, is responsible for the health and wealth nearly all of us enjoy today (even if we can't afford a house) - at the heart of government policy. The more we try to control the market the less liberty we have and the more power we hand to the commissioners, the lobbyists and the corporations protected by the government fix.

What we all want is a real stake in the nation we're a part of - not just a vague notion of citizenship but a real sense of being a part of the place, of having roots. And that means renewing that promise made by Harold MacMillan in the 1950s, by Ted Heath in 1970 and by Margaret Thatcher in 1983 - Britain isn't just land and institutions but its people, all of them. And all of them should have the chance to take a real, solid, tangible stake in their nation.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Where my social conscience comes from - a story

The housing association board I sit on has an annual appraisal system - not my favourite thing but probably a good idea. Anyway, during my recent appraisal our chair, who conducted the appraisal, commented on my social conscience. I could have taken this as "you're a Tory, you're not supposed to have one of those" but, knowing the man in question, it was meant simply as a positive observation.

So let me tell you where it comes from by retelling the story my Dad told at my Mum's funeral.

"After the war an old lady was found dead in the streets of Penge. She died of malnutrition.

Three ladies, Rachel Notley, Mrs Martin-Clarke and Joy's mother (my grandmother) were so shocked that they set up one of the first meals-on-wheels services in the country.

The ladies made soup, bought bread and persuaded the curate of St John's, Penge to help them deliver said soup and bread to old folk in the town using his motorcycle with sidecar.

Some years later, the ladies wanted to get council to get them a van and, because we had a Hillman Husky, Grandma asked my Mum to deliver meals-on-wheels in that to show there was a need. The council gave them a van.

And Joy delivered meals-on-wheels in that van for thirty years."

There's a load more things that Mum did like getting the funds to buy the Melvin Hall, turning a little lunch club into feeding up to a hundred old folk every day out of that hall. Mum did that because, in simple terms, her Mum had instilled in her the idea of charity - which is why my brother read the parable of the Good Samaritan at the funeral. Mum cared.

One other thing. Mum was - from her teens to her old age - a Conservative.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

Instant housing experts. Where have you been all these years?

I sit on the board of a housing association. We have thirty or so high rise properties and the issues relating to these properties have been foremost in our minds for some long while. Not just the sorts of problem that led to the terrible fire in North Kensington (although we've had a problem with cladding being dislodged during stormy weather) but a more fundamental issue - not only are these properties unpopular with tenants they're also expensive to manage. It's an oversimplification but we'd really rather we didn't have them but we've  a thousand or so mostly pretty poor people living in them. It seems that managing high rises is going to stay right on the top of our agenda for the foreseeable future.

Right now I'm not going to say what should or shouldn't be the right regulatory response from central government - whether it's different cladding systems, sprinklers, alarm systems or more intensive housing management. It could be all of these things with the result that properties that are, at best, marginal to the business plan become utterly uneconomic. And before you all go off shouting about commercialising affordable housing bear in mind that we've over 20,000 former council homes and the business plan is about keeping all those homes up to a decent standard as well as finding ways to build a few hundred new homes for rent or sale. All set against a declining revenue (resulting from a central government instruction to reduce our rents by 1% per year) and rising construction costs.

My fellow board members will take all this very seriously. This board has overseen a massive investment in the homes we provide and will continue to do its best to hold the management of our business to account and to ensure that, within the limits of our resources, we provide the best we can for our tenants. Then I read, in the media or most often in ill-informed social media rants, of how organisations like the one whose board I sit on are somehow rapacious and greedy capitalists filled with board members only interested in cash or preferment - mostly from people who've done next to damn all to make their communities better places (unless you count going on marches or selling newspapers outside student unions as some sort of contribution).

I look at my fellow board members and I don't see the caricature painted by the leftist media. Instead I see some tenants, people who work for other social housing organisations, a couple of councillors, some folk from the supply end of the business, and some with financial or legal know how. All either doing it - like me and the tenant representatives - for nothing or else getting paid a small allowance and expenses. Up and down the country there are thousands of such people sitting on housing association boards and I'm prepared to make two comments about them - they really do care, enough to actually give up some time to help direct these businesses, and on June 8th this year most of them will have voted Labour.

The way we run social housing - whether through local council housing revenue accounts or through not-for-profit (or 'profit for a purpose' if you prefer a realistic definition) social housing businesses - may not be perfect but let's not start out by attacking the people who sit on the boards. If there's a problem it's one of accountability and understanding rather than greed or selfishness on behalf of management or boards. Tenant management organisations like the one responsible for Grenfell Tower are a great idea in theory - handing over power and control to the people who live in social housing is surely straight out of the Corbyn play book, socialism in action? But as we've seen the capacity of organisations like this to get stuff wrong is just as high as that of dreadful capitalist for-profit organisations - perhaps, given the lack of professional skills among the board members, even higher.

There are many questions here but central to all this is how we manage social rented property. Some of this is about regulations on how things are built, how we protect against fire risk and how we undertake housing management. Other questions speak to the very nature of high rise residential blocks - is this really how we want families to live? Among all this we need to ask something else - something about governance. Can tenants manage the property in which they live without ownership (collective or otherwise)? Are boards structured well enough with sufficient independent expertise to manage risks?

None of this is about the good men and women who serve on these boards. The eight tenant directors on KCTMO will be utterly shocked and shattered by what has happened, just as would be the hundreds of similar folk who serve on the boards of 'arms length management companies', housing associations, tenant management groups and other housing organisations. But in the end, just as with any governance, we have to take the expertise of those who advise a board with a degree of faith - that's why we have external risk assessments, inspections, annual certification. It's why us board members pay attention to things like having fire certificates and up-to-date gas certification.

So to all the people -journalists, pundits, writers, political activists, folk shouting on Twitter - who've appointed themselves instant experts on all matters to do with housing safety. Where have you been all these years? Are you volunteering your time to serve on housing association boards? Have you helped tenants action groups engage better? Trust me, if your expertise is a fraction of what you claim it to be, those organisations would welcome your help.


Friday, 9 June 2017

It's a small thing, Theresa

It's a small thing, Theresa

It's a small thing. Insignificant among the grand politics. But it's an important thing that tells us so much about the current mindset of the Conservtive Party and its leader.

During the election I received hundreds of emails from various important people in the party - from Boris, from Patrick, from Amber, from David, and, of course, from you. Each day my in box would welcome another slew of exhortations. I know, I know...the emails aren't really from these people, no-one's fooled (any more than I was fooled by similar ones from various Labour grandees). I'm a professional marketer.

It's a small thing. Since the polls closed at 10pm on Thursday night, my in boxes have been free of emails from the Conservative Party and its leaders - not one. And you know something, Theresa, this is a problem. While you've been coming over all strong and stable, you and your team have forgotten to do something really simple.

You've forgotten to send one more email. One that says:

'thank you very much. It wasn't the result we worked for but the Party really appreciates everything you've done over the election camapign.'

One simple little email. One mark of appreciation for the fact that I got myself completely drenched on polling day trying to get someone elected. One mark of appreciation for the thousands of other folk - the people you sent those endless email messages to during the campaign. People who knocked on doors. Delivered leaflets. Addressed envelopes. Made telephone calls. Manned polling stations. The people who made it possible for you to drive into Buckingham Palace this morning to see the Queen.

It's a small thing, Theresa. But it matters. Say thank you.



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

You can't have different rules for trendy social enterprises - however noble their mission

About four years ago a chap called Adam Smith set up the Real Junk Food Project:
We are a revolutionary concept designed to challenge and highlight the issues of food waste while creating inclusive environments where everyone is welcome. Consisting of cafés, outside catering, events, Sharehouse’s and Fuel For School, we use the Pay As You Feel Concept to utilise surplus food, educate the general public and campaign against global issues that food waste creates.

We intercept surplus food from a wide range of places including supermarkets, restaurants, wholesalers, food banks, food photographers and using common sense and decades of experience make a judgement on whether the food is fit for human consumption.
In a world where the default response of the environmentally-concerned is to shout at government and organise meetings, Adam Smith stands out as one of those people who just went and did something. Rather than ask government to spend taxpayers money he and his colleagues walked head-on towards the regulations and management practices that encourage food waste. This is both admirable and innovative and has my support.

There is, however, a problem because Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (“FIC”) confirms that: remains an offence to place food with an expired ‘use by’ date on the market and if such food is discovered then it must automatically be deemed unsafe. This is not a rebuttable presumption.
Yesterday the news broke that the Real Junk Food Project was under investigation by West Yorkshire Trading Standards:
West Yorkshire Trading Standards (WYTSS) said it found more than 400 items past their use-by date at the RJFP warehouse on the Grangefield Estate in Pudsey.

A letter sent to RJFP states 444 items, which were a cumulative total of 6,345 days past the use-by dates, were discovered.
The regulations, at least as I see them, seem pretty unequivocal and WYTSS had little choice but to conduct an investigation indeed failing to do so might be seen as failing in its duty. And WYTSS is clearly not singling out the Real Junk Food Project - here is a successful prosecution from May 2017:
A supermarket owner has been ordered to pay more than £20,000 in fines and costs for selling items of food up to nearly 50 days over their use-by date.

Trading Standards made a routine visit to Shimla Superstore Ltd, in Clayton Road, Bradford, on September 13 last year and discovered 88 items available for sale past their use-by date.

Of these, five items of a turkey product with olives were 48 days out of date.

When added together, the total number of days past the use-by date for all 88 items was 1,769.
It is clear that trading standards cannot make a distinction between a project such as the Real Junk Food Project set up with noble motives and a straightforward food retailer. This doesn't mean that RJFP doesn't have a defence - Adam Smith is, as he says, an experienced chef - but does ask the question as to whether the absolute nature of the regulation in question needs challenge.

If we are to improve the efficiency in which we use food resources (there's a debate to be had about this but, for now, let's assume this is a great idea and that efficiency is defined by how little is thrown away) then the way in which food safety regulations are applied probably needs questioning. At the heart of all this is where responsibility rests - with the consumer or with the manufacturer. In essence this is the same debate as that about raw milk cheese - if you go to, for example, to The Courtyard Dairy at Settle, they'll ask you whether you're OK with cheese made from unpasteurised milk as this provides them cover since the consumer is accepting the risk (as far as I know this wouldn't work in Scotland).

Others will doubtless pour over the laws involved here and quite rightly so. There will be calls for changes to the regulations (England's regulations on raw milk are, for example, far less stringent than those in Scotland) although, so long as we're members of the EU, this is a slow, torturous and contested process. But in the end, regulatory agencies such as trading standards and the Food Standards Agency cannot have regard to the mission of the organisation breaching the regulations regarding, in this case, the sale or use of products passed their 'use by' date.

What I hope is that this debate questions the manner in which 'use by' dates are applied by food manufacturers. There is a petition raised which again lifts the debate from the mundane pages of council committee reports or the shock-horror of local paper reporting but we have to accept that in a complex food distribution system and a dynamic market regulations exist to protect consumers. And that this applies just as much to trendy social enterprises as it does to huge supermarket chains. The regulations we have didn't arise to promote food waste (I'm sure food manufacturers and retailers would prefer more scope and less waste) but were introduced to protect consumers from the health risks associated with old, poorly-stored and/or damaged food.


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

How Pakistan lost the names of god....

A poignant article in Kashmir Monitor tells of when the name of God in Pakistan became Allah. And includes this quote from author Mohammed Hanif:
Author Mohamed Hanif, in his celebrated debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says it best: “…All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory as if a wind had swept the land and blown them away. Innocuous, intimate names: Persian Khuda which had always been handy for ghazal poets as it rhymed with most of the operative verbs; Rab, which poor people invoked in their hour of distress; Maula, which Sufis shouted in their hashish sessions. Allah had given Himself ninety-nine names. His people had improvised many more. But all these names slowly started to disappear: from official stationary, from Friday sermons, from newspaper editorials, from mothers’ prayers, from greeting cards, from official memos, from the lips of television quiz show hosts, from children’s storybooks, from lovers’ songs, from court orders, from habeas corpus applications, from inter-school debating competitions, from road inauguration speeches, from memorial services, from cricket players’ curses; even from beggars’ begging pleas.”
So much is lost when religious orthodoxy - Islam in this case - destroys folklore. The efrits die, rakhshasa stop prowling, the fairies vanish, and the green god disappears back into his mossy home in the heart of the wood. In Pakistan, the diversity of our appeal to the spirit world is no longer. And the world is poorer.


Sunday, 4 June 2017

"Enough is enough" - responding to Islamism

Quite understandably there has been a fairly frantic response to the terrible and terrifying events last night on London Bridge and in the Borough. As ever the story is one of shock mixed in with tales of bravery from police, medics and the public. It will have refreshed the barely faded memory of Manchester in those recently scarred by that atrocity and reminds us that Islamist terrorism is a real and substantial threat in the UK as well as across Europe.

The Prime Minister responded and did so in a more robust, almost angry, manner when compared to the statement after Manchester - 'enough is enough' was the message as she talked about 'safe spaces' online, the continuing problems with ISIS's insurgency in Syria and Iraq, and the need for a renewed counter-terrorism strategy. The response suggests a subtle shift in what happens in the UK on this issue and indicates that the Prevent strategy becomes more significant in that overall counter-terrorism strategy:
"But it also means taking action here at home. While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out – across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations, but the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism – and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom."
The challenge is, as always, to transform this rhetoric into some sort of strategy that works on the ground and which has the buy-in (not mere 'support') of local government, education and police establishments - I'm guessing that this is what the Prime Minister alludes to when she says 'across the public sector'. Right now strategies to identify and respond to nascent extremism are widely disregarded, even opposed, by local political and bureaucratic leadership especially in those places where the strategy is most needed and important. This situation needs addressing and represents a failure in the strategy as well as a continuing preference of those elites for political posturing and cultural indulgence rather than the tough job of challenging extremism especially within Muslim communities.

Some are saying the right thing but, I suspect, aren't thinking about their response when the actions they propose are carried out:

I'm guessing that I'm a councillor in a city that might be considered one of those 'breeding grounds of terror', certainly a place that will feature in the thinking of those drawing up a new counter-terrorism strategy. The question I have for Kevin Holland and many others suggesting that we need to get into the communities where Islamist ideology is transmitted is whether they are prepared for the reaction from those communities to our 'interference'.

The Prevent strategy is pretty mild. It doesn't single out Islamism as its sole target - referrals through Prevent into the wider 'Channel' anti-terror programme show that just over half are Muslims referred as a result of activity linked to Islamist extremism. This hasn't stopped some politicians arguing, in effect, that Prevent is some sort of national anti-Muslim policy:
The government's anti-extremism programme Prevent should be paused, Baroness Warsi has said.

The former foreign office minister said the scheme had "huge problems", including the quality of its training, and said its "brand" had become "toxic".

She called for an independent review to look into where the programme had failed or proven successful.
It is true that the image of the Prevent strategy in Muslim communities - at least in Bradford - is pretty poor but we should appreciate that this is a consequence of many Muslim commenters echoing a dominant Islamist discourse. Here's writer Sara Khan:
While there are legitimate concerns about the delivery and effectiveness of Prevent, I evidence how British Islamist organisations have led on delivering a highly effective campaign in deliberately misinforming not only British Muslims but wider society about what Prevent is and is not. These Islamists have not only partnered with teaching unions, students, lawyers, teachers and academics in an attempt to end Prevent, they have sought to malign the many Muslim organisations who do support it creating a “toxic” climate where many Muslims do not want to openly admit their support for Prevent. As a result the loud anti-Prevent lobby end up dominating the discourse – and narrative about Prevent.
You only need look at the persistent vilification of moderate Muslim voices like Maajid Nawaz - by both Islamist apologists and left-wing opponents of US and UK foreign policy to appreciate how this works:
But Murtaza Husain at Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept site felt so aggrieved, so agitated, so angry at my decision to talk to those with whom I disagree, about my own religion, that he posted a photo of Sam and me in conversation using the words “nice shot of Sam and his well-coiffed talking monkey.” When challenged the writer doubled-down, deciding that I was in fact a “native informant,” and nothing but Sam’s “porch monkey.”
This doesn't means Nawaz is right in all he proposes but he does represent a voice that sees Islam within a pluralist, liberal world rather than as an absolute truth to be imposed on the unbeliever, by force if necessary. I've a feeling that most UK Muslims (if not those in some parts of the Middle East and South Asia) would rather be in this place but find it difficult to endorse such a position with an Islamic academe dominated by Wahhabi and Deobandi traditionalism.

So when an actual Muslim arguing for a more moderate understanding of Islam is reviled as some sort of Muslim 'Uncle Tom' those arguing that politicians like me should 'take to the streets in the breeding grounds of terror' need to be ready to provide cover for us when we're called Islamophobic, bigoted and racist by both the Islamist apologists and also a set of left-wing agitators who support Islamism because it positions itself against the 'neoliberal' world order.

ISIS have a concept of the 'grey zone' - where Muslims and non-Muslims coexist more-or-less peacefully - and the destruction of this 'grey zone' is close to the centre of their ideology. Here's another moderate Muslim writer, Nafeez Ahmed:
The imperative now is for citizens around the world to work together to safeguard what ISIS calls the "grey zone" – the arena of co-existence where people of all faith and none remain unified on the simple principles of our common humanity. Despite the protestations of extremists, the reality is that the vast majority of secular humanists and religious believers accept and embrace this heritage of mutual acceptance.
The extremists on the new right who call for expulsion, internment and limitations of Muslims in Europe or the USA are straightforwardly doing precisely what ISIS want the West to do - here in the terrorists own words:
“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufrī [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens... Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of 'Islam' before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.”
The whole point and purpose of Prevent (and other anti-extremism programmes) is to prevent - get it - this polarising of Islam and Not Islam in our society. And in doing so to allow Muslims to confront the evident division between the majority who are content to live in a plural, liberal society and the minority who want to create an absolutist, sharia-led polity. It isn't our job to try and control or direct that debate within Islam but rather to insist that we remain an open culture and a free society in which Muslims are welcome. And that we will act firmly to protect pluralism, liberty and secularism.

This will be a long slow process and I will close with a Tweet from historian Tom Holland that reminds us this is a theological debate as much as it a political challenge.