Tag: Democracy

The Peterloo Massacre

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The Manchester Observer was a short-lived non-conformist Radical newspaper based in Manchester, England. Its radical agenda led to an invitation to Henry “Orator” Hunt to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The Peterloo massacre and the shutdown of the newspaper resulted from that Public Meeting.

By 1819, the allocation of Parliamentary constituencies did not reflect population distribution. The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, had a combined population of almost one million. They were represented only by their county MPs. Lancashire was represented by two members of parliament: John Blackburne of Hale Hall and Edward Smith Stanley, (Lord Stanley). Lord Stanley was a Conservative Whig and member of the “Derby Dilly” – a breakaway group of Conservative Whigs. The name derives from the family title “Earl of Derby” and the name of a stagecoach: the “Diligence” or “Dilly”; The title was bestowed on the Group by Irish Nationalist Leader Daniel O’Connell in a scathing reference to an erratic coach, with Stanley driving the horses.

It was quickly picked up by others, and the name stuck. Stanley’s reputation was as the “Prince Rupert of Debate”: leading his followers to attack but unable to rally them afterwards. As a result, it was difficult to estimate the number of MPs who were actually part of the ‘Dilly’. But the name did highlight the turmoil of the Ruling Classes. Change was very much in the air. 

Both Blackburne and Stanley were Oxford educated Landowners whose families had “been in politics” for some time and were not liking the change. Not the Cooperativism and Utopian Socialism of one time Manchester resident Robert Owen – Pioneer of the Cooperative Movement and member of the Manchester Board of Health. As Whigs they were aware of the rising demands of the emerging Working Class. There was something in the air.

Indeed, in 1820, The Radical War burst out in Scotland when A Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government put placards around the streets of Glasgow late on Saturday the first of April, calling for an immediate national strike. By the third of April there was a strike.

Work stopped over a wide area of central Scotland including Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, with an estimated total of around 60,000 stopping work, particularly in weaving communities. Eighty eight men were charged with treason. The leaders – Andrew Hardie and John Baird – were hanged and beheaded. The last beheadings in the British Isles. 

The 1819 Peterloo Massacre was normal, not exceptional.

Voting, in 1819, was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land with a rateable value greater than forty shillings. The equivalent of a rateable value of about £172 as of 2018, which equates, approximately, to owning a Freehold property worth £172,000. The amounts are approximations as the Rateable Value was largely abolished with the introduction of the Poll Tax of 1990. This property qualification resulted in very few people having the Vote. Those who did have the vote numbered around two percent of the population, and, in Lancashire the number was even lower. When 60,000 people turned out to hear Orator Hunt talk, they outnumbered the voting population for the whole of Lancashire. 

The imbalance of power was not simply between Men and Women but between Rich and Poor. Indeed, Radicals were demanding that Women get the Vote. Which “moderates” saw as a step too far. Indeed Women – over thirty, of a certain class – only got the Vote after violent confrontation with the Liberals – under Asquith – and Moderates in 1918: almost a century after Orator Hunt stated that Women, who were single, tax paying and of sufficient property should be permitted to vote.

Equality of voting rights only really came about with the 1928 Representation of the People Act. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 only allowed propertied women to vote and almost all men. The Franchise for all Working Class Adults has only really existed for about ninety years. The Electoral Register for Local and National Elections only became the same register in 1949 and the voting age fixed at 18 in 1969. Every step of the way was fought for. 

In 1819 votes in Lancashire could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster, by a public spoken declaration at the hustings. There was no Secret Ballot. Britain’s first secret ballot box, which was used in Pontefract in 1872, was mandated by the Ballot Act of 1872. The Liberal candidate, H.C. Childers was elected MP for the town and the Returning Officer announced the result of the secret ballot in the Town Hall after the votes had been counted.

In 1819, the vote was cast by standing up in public and announcing for whom you cast your vote. The Returning Officer would then record the cast vote. This was of much concern to Chartists who saw the affront to democracy in people being influenced – by drunkenness or threats – at the hustings. Indeed, the specific Electoral Offence of “treating” derives from the practice of candidates providing food and drink at the hustings to induce a favourable vote.

The first automatic secret ballot box was built and patented in Merthyr Tydfil by a former iron puddler, turned grocer, William Gould. Gould was disparaged as a “Chartist Lip” – who served as a Poor Law Guardian – but understood secret ballots prevented industrialists and landowners having influence at the ballot box. The principle behind his ballot box was that each voter had a token and each candidate a ballot box. The voter inserted the token into the box of their choice and the vote was registered onto a clock face on the box. This would reduce the potential for intimidation. Despite campaigning, his idea was not adopted. In terms of secrecy of the vote, it was a huge step up from the spoken declaration at the hustings. 

The problem of getting to Lancaster is that most working people would need to walk. Using modern roads, the hike would be about seventeen hours each way at a brisk pace. In addition, time would be needed to be taken away from working; food would need to be carried and accommodation organised. The large scale movement of people was a terrifying prospect for Justices and Politicians and Landowners. An election in which there was Universal Adult Suffrage would have been revolutionary with hundreds of thousands of people moving to Lancaster to cast a vote.

The logistics of voting, alone, would have extended the ballot to weeks if not months. Which would increase the time away from work and the food required and, in no uncertain terms, disrupt the entire economy. The Rotten Boroughs were not simply a symptom of corruption but of the collapse of the practical political and economic life of the Country. 

Stockport fell within the county constituency of Cheshire, with the same franchise, but with the hustings held at Chester. This would have complicated the matter further. Both Chester and Lancaster Returning Officers would be obliged to confer and coordinate. Many MPs were returned by Rotten Boroughs such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter who elected two MPs. Dunwich in Suffolk had almost completely disappeared into the sea yet returned Members of Parliament. Closed Boroughs with more voters, dependent on a local magnate meant that more than half of all MPs were elected by boroughs under the control of a total of just 154 proprietors. This hugely disproportionate influence on Parliament of the United Kingdom drove calls for reform.

The Manchester Observer was formed by a group of radicals that included John Knight. John Saxton and James Wroe. The popularist form of articles aimed at the growing literate working-class meant that, within twelve months, it was selling 4,000 copies per week to its local audience and more further afield. By late 1819 it was being sold in most of the booming industrialised cities – Birmingham, Leeds, London, Salford – all calling for non-conformist reform of the Houses of Parliament. It was a powerful demand for Democracy to be part of life for everyone and not just the few. 

Orator Hunt stated: 

“The Manchester Observer is the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights.”

The non-conformist articles, combined with a popularist style, often resulted in the main journalists of T. J. Evans, John Saxton and James Wroe constantly being sued for libel. Being found guilty, particularly for articles critical of Parliament’s structure, resulted in jail which then raised circulation. Despite its popularity, the radical agenda was seen as bad for sales by traditionalist conformist-Whig businesses. Advertising revenue remained low with only one of its 24 columns being filled by adverts. The lack of advertising meant the Observer was always in financial difficulties.

In Early 1819, Johnson, Knight and Wroe of the Manchester Observer formed the Patriotic Union Society. Leading radicals and reformists in Manchester joined the organisation, including members of the First Little Circle. The First Little Circle had formed in 1815, influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Priestley. While the members were Unitarians, the political ideas were practical, utilitarian and resolutely reforming. Members went on to become Editors and Members of Parliament and to be involved in the Businesses of Manchester whose emerging Municipal Socialist, Cooperativist and Feminist movements would have a lasting impact on Britain.

The objective of the Patriotic Union Society was parliamentary reform both locally and, in the longer term, nationally. The Patriotic Union Society invited Henry “Orator” Hunt and Major John Cartwright to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The national agenda of Parliamentary reform, and the local agenda to gain two Parliamentary Members for Manchester and one for Salford, were to be the subject of the speech but, to avoid the police or courts banning the meeting, the Patriotic Union Society and the Observer advertised only, “a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone.” 

On August 19th 1819, at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 Men, Women and Children. As the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Orator Hunt and those on the hustings with him. A Yeomanry charge into the crowd, knocked down a woman and killed a child before detaining Hunt. The 15th Hussars were then summoned by the Chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates, William Hulton. They charged with sabres drawn, killing 18 people and injuring 700 more. The Hussars had been ordered to Manchester by a panicked government who believed an insurrection was being planned on the basis of an intercepted message between the Manchester Observer’s founder – Joseph Johnson – and Orator Hunt: 

“Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face in the streets of Manchester and the surrounding towns, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.” 

The Local Magistrate, William Hulton, had the meeting declared illegal as the intention of choosing representatives without the Monarch’s Permission was seditious and a serious misdemeanour. This began a series of planned meetings and cancellations with the terms of the meeting being constantly changed to conform to the desire for Members Of Parliament and the repeated escalation of the State against the Radicals. Eventually, the Meeting was policed by six hundred of the 15th Hussars; the 88th Regiment of Foot Cavalry; two six-pounder guns from the Royal Horse Artillery unit; four hundred men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; four hundred special constables; and one hundred and twenty cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.

The Yeomanry were described by the Manchester Observer as being, “generally speaking, the fawning dependents of the great, with a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals”.

Subsequent descriptions include, “younger members of the Tory party in arms”, and, by later historians, “the local business mafia on horseback”.

Field Marshal John Byng, 1st Earl of Strafford, rather than supervising events as he had indicated he would, spent the day at York Races – where he had two entries – and left the matter of Manchester in the hands of Guy L’Estrange.

HC Deb 24 November 1819 vol 41 cc228-301

No. 36. REPORT from Lieutenant Colonel l’Estrange, inclosed in the foregoing.

Dated Manchester, August 16, 1819, eight o’clock, P. M. 

...I have, however, great regret in stating, that some of the unfortunate people who attended this meeting have suffered from sabre wounds, and many from the pressure of the crowd…

Geo. L’Estrange,
Lieut. Col. 31st regiment.

The Military rioted and massacred the Civilians; many, of whom, were wearing their Sunday Best Clothes and had marched from all around Manchester. Carrying banners and organised for a picnic. The imbalance of power was not simply political but of brute force. There were banners for Manchester Female Reform Society – Votes for Women! – “No Corn Laws”, “Annual Parliaments”, “Universal suffrage” and “Vote By Ballot”. Nothing really radical. Mary Fildes (born Pritchard) a political activist and an early suffragette was on the platform with Orator Hunt.

Mary remained a radical and was later arrested, in 1833, as a member of The Female Political Union of the Working Classes. She was arrested for distributing “pornography” – in fact contraceptive advice. The only banner to survive has the words “Liberty and and Fraternity” and “Unity and Strength” carried by Thomas Redford – who was cut down by cavalry. The crowd was dispersed in about ten minutes; but rioting was sparked as far away as Macclesfield and Oldham.

Field Marshal Byng was promoted to lieutenant general in 1825; then advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1828; advancing, again, to Commander-in-Chief of Ireland and then to the Privy Council of Ireland. He was elected as a Whig Member of Parliament for Poole in Dorset in October 1831. One of the few military men to supported the 1832 Reform Bill. His role in Peterloo never once prevented him from enjoying political power. 

Wroe, as then editor of the Observer, described the incident at the Peterloo massacre. He took his headline from the Battle of Waterloo four years previously. Subsequently, Wroe wrote pamphlets entitled, “The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events”. They sold out each print run for 14 weeks with national circulation. Saxton, having been on the hustings with Hunt, was arrested and imprisoned. He stood trial with Hunt at York Assizes.

His defence that he was present as a reporter, not participant in the hustings party, was successful. The success of his defence did not sit well with the Government. Hunt was sentenced to five years at Ilchester Jail, fined one thousand pounds and made to find two sureties of five hundred pounds having escaped the charge of High Treason.

The Observer printed an article claiming that, “something was previously arranged”, as Manchester Royal Infirmary had been emptied of patients, on the 15th of August, anticipating the massacre. That all the surgeons had been summoned to attend on 16th. The Board of the infirmary vigorously denied this. The Liverpool Government then instigated repeated prosecutions of the Manchester Observer and those associated with it. Vendors were prosecuted for seditious libel. Fifteen charges of seditious libel were brought against Wroe, his wife and his two brothers resulting in the temporarily suspension of publication. Wroe relinquished ownership of the copyright and resumed under the last proprietor of the Manchester Observer (Thomas John Evans). At trial Wroe was found guilty on two specimen charges.

The other charges against him, his wife and his brothers being given “to lie”. The charges would only lie provided the publication of “libels” ceased. Wroe was sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined £100 with a further six months, and being bound over to keep the peace for two years, to give a surety of £200 and to find two other sureties of £50 each.

The prosecuted charges related not to anything in the Manchester Observer, but to articles in Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register, which Wroe had previously sold. It was clear that the Liverpool Government wished to silence Wroe and took the most certain way of doing so. Prosecuting Richard Carlile, who had been present at Peterloo enabled prosecution on the coat tails of conviction. Carlile wrote an article on the “Horrid Massacres At Manchester”. The Government responded by closing Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register. Carlile responded by changing the name to The Republican and writing: 

“The massacre… should be the daily theme of the Press until the murderers are brought to justice…. Every man in Manchester who avows his opinions on the necessity of reform, should never go unarmed – retaliation has become a duty, and revenge an act of justice.”

Carlile was then prosecuted for blasphemy, blasphemous libel and sedition and publishing material that might encourage people to hate the government; for publishing Tom Paine’s Common Sense, The Rights of Man and the Age of Reason. In October 1819 he was found guilty of the blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years which enabled Wroe to be caught up in the moral panic of atheist Republicanism and prosecuted with impunity.

The sentences were said to have been reduced because of the distressed state of the Wroes. A distress brought about by the Government but which cast the Government in a poor light. It was a delicate balance to secure an effective remedy to the power of Wroes publications. Wroes successor, Evans, was subsequently (June 1821) convicted on one charge of a seditious libel another of libelling a private individual and imprisoned for eighteen months and bound over for three years in the sum of £400 with two other sureties of £200. By then the 11 members of the first Little Circle excluding William Cowdroy Jnr. of the Manchester Gazette had helped cotton merchant John Edward Taylor found The Manchester Guardian.

The Manchester Observer had ceased publication. The Government had driven it into silence by repeated prosecution. The final editorial recommending:

“I would respectfully suggest that the Manchester Guardian, combining principles of complete independence, and zealous attachment to the cause of reform, with active and spirited management, is a journal in every way worthy of your confidence and support.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Italy at the time of Peterloo. In response, Shelley wrote “The Masque of Anarchy: written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester“. Because of radical press restrictions, it was not published until 1832 – the same year as The Representation of the People Act (1832).

The Act introduced a system of voter registration, to be administered by the Overseers of the Poor; and instituted a system of courts to review disputes relating to “voter qualification”. The Act limited the duration of polling to two days – formerly forty days. The reform act increased the number of people able to vote, across the country, to about 650,000 – about ten times the largest estimate of the number of people attending Peterloo.

When Shelley wrote:

“Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.”

He was writing lyrics for punk bands like The Mekons, Scritti Politti and Strike Anywhere. The radical sentiments of Peterloo never vanished regardless of how submerged they were. Indeed Shelley is claimed to be part of the inspiration for the Arab Spring, Ghandi and numerous other radical causes. The truth is closer: “A spectre is haunting Manchester – the spectre of Peterloo. All the powers of old England have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Liberal and Tory, Johnson and Swinson, European Research Group and Big Data-spies.” To paraphrase those later journalists of the Manchester Guardian: Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

For a few months following Peterloo it seemed England shook, towards an armed rebellion. Abortive uprisings took place in Huddersfield and Burnley, the Yorkshire West Riding Revolt, the Cato Street conspiracy, the Cinderloo Uprising in the Coalbrookdale Coalfield, the Pentrich rising, the March of the Blanketeers, the Spa Fields, and the Radical War ll made the end of Regency Civilisation more and more vivid. The Government introduced the Six Acts, to suppress radical meetings and publications. By the end of 1820 every significant working-class radical reformer was in jail. Civil liberties were largely gone.

Two hundred years later, the Tories are again splitting and civil liberties are again being rolled back.

 

Picture: The Skelmanthorpe Flag. Anonymous.

Image © Kirklees Museums & Galleries

Theresa May considering scrapping Human Rights Act following Brexit

humanrights

The prime minister is to consider repealing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, despite promising she is “committed” to its protections, a minister has revealed. This is, after all, a government that has always tended to regard the human rights of some social groups as nothing more than a bureaucratic inconvenience. Many of us have been very concerned about the implications of Brexit for human rights in the UK.

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee has exchanged correspondence with the Government about clarifying the wording of the Political Declaration regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. 

There is no justification for editing or repealing the Human Rights Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the most vulnerable citizens from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal, and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.

Nonetheless, the government will decide on the future of the landmark legislation once “the process of leaving the EU concludes”, according to a letter submitted to a parliamentary inquiry.

This disclosure comes despite the Brexit white paper stating last year that the UK would remain in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), after  following a warning from the European Union (EU) that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal. However, the prime minister has previously pledged to leave the ECHR, expressing frustration because there was no Commons majority for doing so. 

It is in this context of previous statements of intent that the wording of the letter was described as “troubling” by the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, which has warned that the letter casts doubt on more recent, repeated pledges from the government to protect the ECHR.

“Is the government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?”, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the committee’s chair, asked.

“If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”

The committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal.

The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it. Previous plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ appeared in the 2010 Programme for Government, and in the Conservative manifesto in 2015. included an emphasis on interpreting rights more subjectively, rather than regarding them as ‘absolute’. 

In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR

A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But he went on to suggest that the Human Rights Act may be scrapped when Brexit is concluded.

He wrote: “Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway.” 

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.

Many Conservatives are critical of Labour’s Human Rights Act, claiming it gives “too many rights to criminals” and some have even claimed it undermines “personal responsibility.”

However, in 2015 Amnesty UK commissioned a poll that indicated the British public are not particularly willing to see any change to existing Human Rights legislation, with only one in 10 people in the UK (11%) believing that scrapping the Human Rights Act should be a government aim.

It’s extremely worrying that a government thinks it should pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. The whole point of rights and protections is that they are universal: they must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.

It took people in the UK a very long time to claim the rights we have and we mustn’t let the Conservatives take them away with the stroke of a pen.

The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.

Baroness Kennedy said: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”

The government have played a long game, however, and have almost certainly always intended to repeal the Human Rights Act. One issue that prevented that happening over the last few years is the Good Friday Agreement, as the Labour government also committed to incorporate the European Convention of Human ECHR into the law of Northern Ireland and to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 

The politics of regression

In 2015, wrote about how the government has quietly edited the ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement at all. The code sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding complicity with international law.

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

The new version of the code has been edited to say only that there is an“overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Conservative party policy document had revealed that the ministerial code will be rewritten in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. In order to help achieve these aims the document says: “We will amend the ministerial code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK.”

In the original Conservative proposals to scrap our existing human rights framework, and replace it with their own, one sentence from the misleadingly titled document –Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”

Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute or universally applied – they will be subject to state stipulations and caveats. And discrimination. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.

The Conservatives’ motivation for changing our human rights legislation is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Conservatives have always seen as being open to interpretation will become considerably prone to ideological bias, prejudice and open to subjective challenge.

Breaking the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law would mean any judgement from Europe would be treated as “advisory” only, rather than legally binding, and would need to be “approved” by parliament. Such a Bill would profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy completely, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

Whatever constitutional or political configurations emerge following Brexit, the present threat to rights and equality is a major threat to citizens’ liberties and freedoms. It demands coherent and collective action in the public interest.  

 

Related

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

A strong case for the Human Rights Act

 


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Antisemitism and the growth of prejudice and oppression in the UK

Image result for Labour's equality and diversity

Political context

The Labour party’s strong inclusion, equality and diversity principles are being used to undermine the party by the neoliberal right, as part of an ongoing propaganda war. Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership – and particularly before elections – has been accused of “siding” with variety of state constructed and reconstucted ‘enemies’. However, every Labour leader with the exception of Tony Blair, who was conveniently neoliberal, has been accused of having some kind of ‘sympathy’ with Russia.

It’s a Conservative idée fixe that began with the fake Zinoviev letter and should have ended with Ben Bradley’s libellous attempt at combining Conservative malice with bon mot. The Conservatives are creatures of  tradition and habit, no matter how much the world moves on, they try to pull it back to where they stand. 

The Conservatives’ McCarthyist leitmotif of ‘enemies and the traitor’ reveals a lot about their own operant bullying, emphasises their divisive and hierarchical perspective of societies and their outdated colonialism, ethnocentrism and nationalist understanding of the world.

One of Corbyn’s finest qualities is his mature internationalism, and his inclusive and respectful vision of the world. Corbyn sees people first, and does not differentiate their human worth and value on the basis of their group identities and individual characteristics. This is why he is an outstanding diplomat, and champion of social justice.

In an era of nuclear first strike posturing, which indicates the international breakdown of the principle of nuclear deterrence, I’d personally prefer a leader who has such skills and qualities, rather than someone who has no regard for the lives and safety of citizens.

The Conservatives have said that they wouldn’t hesitate in some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack, even if we weren’t under threat.” The government throw scorn at Corbyn for his reluctance to incinerate populations, and some of the UK public don’t seem to realise that they too face the same fate due to the mutually assured destruction which comes free with the nuclear retaliation principle.

Corbyn has publicly condemned the vilification and abuse of Labour MPs who attended Monday night’s demonstration against antisemitism in the party.

Leaders of the Jewish organisations that staged the protest told him that they would not meet him until he intervened to halt the attacks on social media, Corbyn said he was profoundly concerned by any abuse. It’s difficult to know who is making the attacks on social media, since many fake accounts exist for the purpose of creating disruptions, discrediting political opponents, and harassing them. Furthermore, it would be impossible for the Labour leader to monitor social media, given his work load. No-one expects the Conservative government to end the abusive trolling of Conservative supporters, yet I have encountered MANY of them.

People have the right to speak out and the right to demonstrate,” Corbyn told the Jewish News in an interview. “I will not tolerate abuse of people for their beliefs.”

“Any abuse that’s done is not done in my name,” he added.

He also rejected the idea – put forward by a rival demonstration by the Jewish Voice for Labour on Monday – that the reason for the main protest was to smear Corbyn himself.

“Of course it’s not a smear, it’s perfectly reasonable to raise any question about one’s public profile activities,” he went on. “I don’t see that as a smear.”

He is right of course. However that doesn’t quite explain the vitiolic and often irrational comments from some of the right wing pundits over the last few weeks. As a person who has written extensively about prejudice, I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t either, unfortunately. There are two issues here. One is absolutely genuine concern about antisemitism. The other is how that concern is being used politically, outside of the Jewish community. 

Yesterday, Corbyn condemned Israel’s killing of at least 27 Palestinians on the Gaza border as an “outrage” and attacked Western silence about the deaths. In a message read out at a demonstration outside Downing Street, the Labour leader quite reasonably demanded that Theresa May support the United Nation’s call for an independent international inquiry. He also said that Britain should also consider stopping the sale of arms to Israel that “could be used in violation of international law”. Israel has faced very little criticism over the killing of civilian Palestinians. 

The latest deaths came a week after 18 Palestinians lost their lives when Israeli soldiers opened fire at similar demonstrations in support of a “right to return” to land lost to Israel in 1948. The UN human rights spokeswoman, Elizabeth Throssell, has suggested the shootings could amount to wilful killing of civilians – a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention.

Corbyn spoke out after at least nine more Palestinians were killed, and hundreds more injured, by Israeli gunfire, some reportedly shot in the head or upper body.

He said “The majority of the people of the Gaza Strip are stateless refugees, subject to a decade-long blockade and the denial of basic human and political rights.

“More than two thirds are reliant on humanitarian assistance, with limited access to the most basic amenities, such as water and electricity.

“They have a right to protest against their appalling conditions and the continuing blockade and occupation of Palestinian land, and in support of their right to return to their homes and their right to self-determination.” 

“The silence from international powers with the responsibility of bringing a just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict must end,” he added.

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has said nothing since the first killings on 30 March, although his deputy, Alistair Burt, issued a statement saying he was “appalled by the deaths and injuries”. Burt said: “There is an urgent need to establish the facts, including why such a volume of live fire was used and what role Hamas played in the violence.”

Israel came under pressure after a video was released which showed a protester being shot in the back by an Israeli soldier as he walked away from the fence separating Gaza from Israel. In other footage, Palestinians were shown being killed or wounded as they prayed, walked empty-handed towards the border fence, or simply held up a Palestinian flag.

According to reports in the Israeli media, the Israel Defence Forces’ rules of engagement allow live fire to be used against anyone who approaches the fence. Justifying its response, the Israeli military said: “Several attempts have been made to damage and cross the security fence under the cover of the smokescreen created by the burning tyres that the rioters ignited.”

Corbyn has been loudly condemned previously by the Conservatives because he wanted to include all parties in discussions to bring about a peace process in the region. However, it is worth noting that Corbyn has never made any demands that Jewish communities publicly repudiate the actions of  Israeli settlers and extremists. People who make this demand are assuming that Jewish people more generally are undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jewish’ standards.

Nor is it acceptable to demand that Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted or trusted, either.

It’s also worth noting that although people in power in Israel are Jews, not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders). There are many people left and right who don’t understand what Zionism is, and it has frequently been used as a derogatory label. However, Zionism is simply the belief that Jewish people should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the antisemitism and persecution they face elsewhere.

It does not, however, mean a belief that Jews have a right to take land from others, or a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews. Using the word “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful. “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies).

Misunderstanding of Zionism is used to justify antisemitic attacks outside of Israel.  Many of the Jews in Israel who are violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist – they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law). We must be very careful with the labels we use. The problem with labelling is that it is often used to create negative stereotypes, denying us our complexity and diversity. Labelling creates stigma and prejudice.

Now, with this clarified, I am not going to claim there hasn’t ever been antisemitic Labour party members or that no problem has ever occurred. Antisemitism is a prejudice arising in wider society. Few people would deny that some people joining the Labour Party may harbour antisemitic prejudices. It’s not possible to know in advance if a person joining the party is prejudiced, however, until that prejudice has been revealed in some way. It’s also important to keep in mind that condemning the murder of Palestinians is not antisemitic.

I want to make this clear: I absolutely condemn any form of prejudice, including antisemitism, regardless of where it arises. 

The party has taken action in addressing these arising issues by vowing to implement all of the recommendations in Shami Chakrabarti’s 2016 report (PDF) into alleged antisemitism in the party. Corbyn has also told the party’s newly appointed general secretary Jennie Formby “that her first priority has to be the full implementation of the Chakrabarti Report and there has to be an appointment of an in-house lawyer, a legal team, to ensure that there is a proper approach to these cases.”  

Corbyn has always been a consistent and reliable opponent of racism in all of its forms and he has committed Labour to dealing robustly with the allegations of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is profoundly disturbing, as is any other kind of prejudice and discrimination in democratic, civilised societies. If it is happening, I want to see it addressed just as I want to see prejudice and discrimination against disabled people and other socal groups in the UK addressed. People seem to forget that disabled people were the first social group to be murdered by the Nazis – the Aktion T4 “euthanasia” programme. 

Perhaps at this point it’s worth reflecting on the many deaths and suicides among the disabled community over recent years, and that a correlation with the Conservative welfare “reforms” has been established several times over. The government have persistently denied that there is any “causal relationship” between their policies and the distress, harm and fear experienced by disabled citizens, and furthermore, have refused to investigate this issue any further. There has been relatively little media attention concerning this issue and no public outcry. Yet disabled people are living in fear for their future.

Each case of premature mortality or suicide linked with welfare policy that has been presented to the government has been disregarded, described with contempt as “anecdotal evidence”. Each academic study that shows a clear correlation between policy and harm has been dismissed. The complicit media are by and large far more interested in anything that may be used to smear and criticise Corbyn than in holding the government to account for the terrible consequences of their draconian policies. 

Framing and entrapment 

The allegations regarding Labour’s “problem with antisemitism” are framed using the same kind of psycholinguistic entrapment tactics that we have seen deployed in trying to frame Corbyn as a “Russian dupe”, and by implication, a “threat” to UK security.  This propaganda process was projected onto a basic McCarthy-styled, over-simplistic and  false dichotomy frame: “You either agree with our very narrow terms, or you’re ‘siding with the enemy'”.

As it turns out, Corbyn was absolutely right to exercise caution in stating that Russia was “irrefutably” behind the attack. It would have been more appropriate to claim “on balance of probability” it is likely to be a Russian attack – because of the context and history. However, it now emerges that Boris Johnson lied about the information Porton Down provided the government. Regardless of whether or not Russia were actually behind the poisoning of the Skripals, the UK has lost its international credibility.   

Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia and a deputy chairman of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took to Twitter after the UK’s Porton Down government laboratory announced on Tuesday that it could not link nerve agent samples it had collected to Russia.

“If you force almost all NATO countries to show solidarity, shouldn’t you have sound evidence?” Laschet said. “You can think of Russia what you want, but I have learned a different way of dealing with states from studying international law.” 

The international law framework is designed, after all, to ensure that inadequately evidenced allegations and knee jerk political responses don’t lead to the collapse of diplomatic relations and a descent into a catastrophic, escalating war among nuclear states. As a citizen, I’d prefer a leader who is skilled in diplomacy and international law,  who regards the safety of the world’s citizens as a key priority. Instead we have a group of blundering elitist authoritarians in office who, not content with creating monstrous social and economic divisions in the UK, want to extend their dystopic neoliberal vision on a global scale.

It is the same kind of simplistic false dichotomy frame regarding the Labour party’s alleged antisemitism, which the media have also rolled out. It runs like this: If the Labour party confirm that they are “addressing” an antisemitism problem, regardless of whether that problem is real – then it is read as an admission of guilt. However, if the party says there is no problem – regardless of whether there is or isn’t – that will simply be read as a denial of “guilt” and the action of a party that “doesn’t care” about antisemitism more generally.

It’s an accusation designed to make the party and members look bad either way. Note that word – designed. However, as a person who has written extensively about prejudice, Again, I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t either, unfortunately. There are two issues here, which I hope I have made clear. One is the justified concern regarding antisemitism, the other is how that is being politically exploited.

The accusations of antisemitism have been redesigned for use as a political stick with which to beat Corbyn. Again, I would not claim there is no antisemitism within the party. If there is, it must be addressed. However, mine is a question of proportionality, and whether the media focus and comments of right wing commentators are reasonable and justified. This is the same media that displayed no qualms in systematically dehumanising migrants and asylum seekers in their drive to force the EU referendum.

There is an element of irrationality and unreasonableness in trying to blame Corbyn for every allegation made of party members, since any member of the public is free to join the party of their choice. Political parties have no way of knowing of the prejudices of each new member in advance. There has also been a surge in membership over the past couple of years. The Labour party has put in place measures to deal with allegations of antisemitism among members. Nor can party leaders be omnipresent in social media groups to monitor offensive antisemitic comments made. The important issue is that it is addressed when it does arise and is brought to party leader’s attention.

In my own experience of Facebook political groups, there are recognisably active trolls and shills who are present simply to discredit Labour activists and derail discussion. There is always a marked increase in their activity prior to elections.

Unfortunately, even vetting people who wish to join groups doesn’t seem to stop this happening, as some of the profiles are very credible, with no indication they are fakes. If this sounds too “conspiracy theory” for you, perhaps it’s worth considering the implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the uncovered psychological profiling and “strategic communications” element that was revealed in its’ wake. The Snowden leaks before that also revealed that a variety of covert actors, including the state, infiltate groups to manipulate and derail discussions, and to discredit critics and opposition.

I am not, once again, arguing that no Labour party member or supporter holds antisemitic views. And again that must be addressed. However, there is an intense focus and constant, irrational and negative commentary aimed at Corbyn in particular, which is also based on orchestrated and purely politically motivated attacks. There is a lack of openness and reasonableness on behalf of some of the more aggressive critics as to how the party have been permitted to respond by the government, the media and by some of the centrist neoliberals within the party to an array of issues, including the allegations of antisemitism. 

Corbyn and Labour party members have been the target of severe criticism, with allegations being made that left wing members are more prone to antisemitic opinions and behaviour – and of course that Corbyn has “not done enough to prevent this.” 

However data commissioned by a leading antisemitism charity strongly suggest that this narrative is not only inaccurate but counter-factual. YouGov carried out two surveys which may be compared, and the findings are that since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, the party and its supporters have become significantly less antisemitic on every metric used in the survey. (YouGov’s full datasets: 2015 and 2017.)

Concerns among Jewish communities about antisemitism are absolutely valid and absolutely must not be minimised or dismissed. However, it does no-one any favours when those concerns have also been distorted by the media, misused as a propaganda tool and weaponised for political gain. 

Antisemitism quite rightly draws horror from the public because of the terrible atrocity of the Holocaust, the process that led to it, and the historical consequences. It was founded in part on social Darwinist and eugenic ideas.

Those same ideas also underpinned the ideology of competitive individualism in the US and UK. Whenever we have socioeconomic systems that create hierarchies of human worth (based on meritocratic notions of ‘deserving’ or ‘talent’), we also have social prejudice and that is perpetuated by the use of political justification narratives regarding inequality. 

These usually place responsibility on individuals for their low socioeconomic status, rather than the system, which inevitably creates a few ‘winners’ and many ‘losers’ – because that is the nature of any system based on competition. However, inequality is a fundamental feature of the neoliberal system of organisation. Justifying inequality creates stigma, outgrouping and hierarchies of worth.

Prejudice and oppression

Prejudice is a form of oppression which operates to establish a “defined norm” or standard of “rightness” under which everyone is judged. This defined norm is enforced with individual and institutional violence which makes and sustains the oppression.

Oppression may be defined as a pervasive system of supremacy and discrimination that perpetuates itself through differential treatment, ideological domination, and institutional control. At an individual level, oppression is expressed through beliefs (stereotypes), attitudes, values (prejudice), and actions (discrimination) used to justify unfair treatment based on distinct characteristics of one’s identity, real or perceived. These can be internalised and directed towards the self or externalised and directed towards those we interact with on a day-to-day basis. 

Oppression expresses itself through default positions of power within an organised group, both formal and informal. Specifically, it is the denial of accessing and holding positions of power based on the belief that one lacks experience in and/or is incapable of fulfilling (or learning how to fulfill) certain roles and responsibilities based on assumptions related to identity. This also includes the assumption that someone sharing identity with a dominant group is automatically capable, regardless of experience, skills  or talent.

On an institutional level, oppression expresses itself through the denial and limitation of resources, agency and dignity based on one’s social identity. This includes policies, laws, and practices that are enforced in and by an institution, such as governments, made for the benefit of the dominant group with little to no consideration for the longer term harm inflicted on marginalised individuals and groups. In turn, institutions have the power to shape and control cultural narratives that reach individuals on a global scale, regardless of whether they directly interact with such institutions. Narratives are used to normalise oppression, which are shaped by the ruling class. 

Antisemitism is not the only form of oppression. Saying that does not minimise it, however. We currently live in a society where prejudices more generally has been politically encouraged and permitted to flourish. Prejudice tends to multitask. I have written a lot about this over the last few years, as a witness. 

We live in a society where racism has grown over the last few years. We have witnessed profoundly socially divisive rhetoric from an authoritarian government and that has been amplified by a largely right wing, compliant media. As a consequence of that, the far right was given a public platform. The same thing happened under the Thatcher administration, we saw parties like the National Front and the British National Party flourish. This is because the context provided by a such socioeconomically divisive governments leads to the creation of political scapegoats to justify their own prejudices and authoritarianism, draconian policies and wider inequality –  this always leads to racism, as well as other forms of prejudice, too.

The scale of social prejudice

Various forms and systems of oppression are not separate, and can’t be isolated into distinct categories, to be addressed on their own. Oppression is a network of intersecting and related forms of domination and the oppression of one group must be resisted alongside the oppression of others. We must stand side by side to address oppression in solidarity.

Image result for allports ladder of prejudice

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right supporting individual who gave gardening tips and services to his neighbours, with a secret festering hatred of some groups of citizens. No-one knew about his monstrous prejudice and intention until he murdered a British MP, who staunchly opposed racism.

This is what political propaganda and scapegoating does to susceptible individuals – it shapes their perception of others and permits them to hate. Some social groups have been marginalised and dehumanised by the government, including disabled people and those needing social security support. It’s no coincidence that hate crime directed at these groups has risen in the UK.

The government have violated the human rights of disabled people, and such acts serve as a role model of behaviours that indicate prejudice and discrimination is publicly acceptable. It also sends out a message that emphasises the differential status and implied devaluation of social groups.

This is how moral and rational boundaries are being pushed: casual comments from more than one Conservative minister about disabled people, who are not “worth the minimum wage”, from a chancellor who claims that national productivity is reduced because more disabled people are in work; a Conservative councillor who called for the extermination of gypsies, and a Conservative deputy mayor said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Conservatives believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” anresearch the consequences of austerity for the most economically vulnerable citizens – those with the “least broad shoulders” –  to understand that these comments reflect how Conservatives think. It is only when such comments conflict with our collective moral norms that we see the process for what it is, and wonder how such comments could ever be deemed acceptable. However, those moral norms are being intentionally transformed. 

This is a government that is creating and using public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinism and neoliberal “small state” principles. We have already seen the introduction of a clear eugenic welfare policy – only the first two children in families needing social security support will be provided with any support. Aside from the frightful human rights implications of this, the fact that it was announced and introduced to “change the behaviours” of the poorest citizens – regardless of whether they work – indicates a political prejudice and active discrimination regarding poor citizens, and a political intention to limit the number of children they have. 

The political creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of previously protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision. It also indirectly justifies low and exploitative wages and insecure employment, since these issues are no longer considered to be part of the problem of poverty. Instead the poverty debate is reduced to a political narrative of “incentives” and individual behaviours.

The state is informing the public that poor people can simply be punished out of their poverty. Regardless of the incoherence of that narrative, the media have been complicit in amplifying this dogma. The pathological socioeconomic structure of our society, the market place Darwinism and the growing imbalances of power relationships remain hidden in plain view, obscurred by linguistic behaviourism and normative manipulation.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision, which is being steadily dismantled. The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Those the government perceives to be the weakest are carrying the burden of austerity to cover the tracks and guilt of the wealthy and powerful people, who are actually responsible for the global recession. Scapegoats. If you read any social psychology, you will know that this is how social prejudice grows. It’s an incremental process, where normative boundaries are pushed until what was once perceived as unacceptable suddenly becomes a reality. 

Gordon Allport wrote about the advancement of that process – by almost inscrutable degrees – in Nazi Germany. It starts with dehumanising language and scapegoating, it progresses to open prejudice and political discrimination, violations of human rights, social and economic isolation, hate crime, murders then, if left unchecked, it results, ultimately, in genocide.

Antisemitism exists in our society. It isn’t a “Labour” problem, it is a SOCIAL problem. It flourishes in a context of extremely divisive political rhetoric. That rhetoric is in part to justify a socioeconomic system that leads to massive social inequality. That inequality is being politically justified by the creation of political scapegoats and the Othering of already marginalised groups. Neoliberalism is a system that leads to the growth of wealth and power for those who already have wealth and power – it sustains an elite.

For citizens, it results in a decline in our standard of living, disempowerment, growing poverty and because it requires an authoritarian regime to impose it – see the history of Pinochet’s neoliberal experiment in Chile, for example – it also profoundly erodes our democracy. The media and right wing ideologues are now simply the PR agents for more neoliberalism. The answer to the disastrous socioeconomic problems created by neoliberalism is apparently, to apply more aggressive neoliberalism. That also means the steady erosion of human rights, citizen freedoms, massive inequality and the removal of any democratic alternative. That is where we are at, as a society. This is happening, and we are the witnesses.

When Corbyn met with a Jewish group recently, commentators on the right – Andrew Neil and  Fraser Nelson, for example – ranted about how this left leaning Jewish group weren’t “representative of Jews”. Fraser Nelson dismissed anyone who disagreed with his views as members of a left wing “cult”. This displays a kind of totalitarian thinking, in that it portrays Her Majesty’s opposition as somehow non-legitimate, and emphasises the sole legitimacy and hegemony of neoliberalism. It also undermines the very notion of democracy. 

It’s reasonable that a left leaning leader would meet a left leaning group. The right leaning Jewish groups have not exactly been particularly accommodating in meeting with Corbyn. However, Andrew Neil actually commented on Jewdas: “who are all these ‘nutters'”. Now THAT is antisemitism. Neil was implying that some groups are “acceptably Jewish” and some are not, defining by his own prejudiced criteria which are “acceptable”. 

These mainstream media commentators on the right are so caught up in a clear ideological crusade and propaganda war that they really don’t see their own prejudices. And furthermore they are furious that Corbyn has allies in the Jewish community. Hence the irrational and diversity-blind rage. And there is this to consider: the criticisms of Corbyn and allegations of antisemitism being rife in the party because of him are coming almost exclusively from the right. 

andrew neil antisemitic

This tweet is so offensive and displays prejudice on more than one level. 

Of course Jewish people reflect a variety of political preferences. Political debate is an essential Jewish tradition that allows no section of opinion to set itself up as the only acceptable one. But the UK right wing don’t particularly value democratic principles, and treat every opposition leader with an outrageous loathing and sneering contempt. They oppose antisemitism only on condition that Jewish groups do not show any support towards the left, and in particular, for Corbyn. 

Image result for daily mail support for nazi germany

Yesterday I saw a comment from Dan Hodges –  who writes for the Daily Mail, that Labour are “irredeemably racist”. This is simply untrue. He never responded to the comment I left him, reminding him of the Daily Mail‘s constant anti-immigration rants, in a series of shots of toxic Daily Mail headlines.  I explained that most Labour supporters were not up for taking lectures on the value of inclusion and diversity from Daily Mail journalists. 

Dan Hodges

I posted this to remind him of the significant contribution the Mail has made to the growth of racism in the UK. 

Image result for daily mail immigration front pages

And this was very offensive, antisemitic, irrational and dangerous comment:

The right have manipulated a concern for social justice on the left – and particularly that concern regarding the murder of Palestinian civilians – and have intentionally pathologised it, weaponising it as a propaganda tool. This has been going on for a long time. 

Jon woodcock judas

Which “mainstream Jewish community” is that, John? How does a meeting with a Jewish community “bait” the Jewish Community? Why are Corbyn’s critics okay with marginalising a Jewish group and deliberately attempting to discredit them when it suits them to? This is absolutely atrocious hypocrisy and completely unacceptable antisemitic behaviour. 

It is telling that some of the Labour “moderates” used right wing gossip-mongers and bloggers – Paul Staines and Alex Whickam – to criticise their own leader. These people should be ejected from the party, since all they do is damage it and support another Conservative term. They don’t care about the misery and despair of citizens living in escalating poverty because of Tory policies, the suicides and deaths of disabled people, or those children living in poverty with their futures and human potential stolen from them, by an authoritarian government.

Shame on them. This is not what the Labour party are about, and until Blair, it never was. The neoliberals’ time has been and gone, the party has moved on and realigned itself to the majority of its members demands for a democratic agenda that reflects their values of inclusion, equality and diversity. That’s how it should be.

Corbyn is one of the leading anti-racists in parliament – one of the very least racist MPs we have. So naturally Corbyn signed numerous Early Day motions in Parliament condemning antisemitism, years before he became leader and backed the campaign to stop Neo-Nazis from meeting in Golders Green in 2015.

Before being elected as Labour party leader, Corbyn chaired Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) in succession to Stan Newens, who is the President of , Liberation. Liberation, founded in 1954 on the initiative of Fenner Brockway, was in the forefront of the struggle against all forms of racism.

When Jeremy took the chair it was accepted that one of our continuing fundamental purposes was opposition to racism – including antisemitism. Liberation has been critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – and often had Israeli or Jewish speakers at meetings arguing the case.

Newens says “It is patently obvious that criticism of Corbyn and the Labour party on grounds of antisemitism is being encouraged by individuals who – unlike the Labour leader himself – have rarely participated in the general struggle against racism. Most are motivated by opposition to Labour under Corbyn and any excuse to harass him will be taken.”

Joseph Finlay, writing for the Jewish News online, says: “The Labour party has thousands of Jewish members, many Jewish councillors, a number of prominent Jewish MPs and several Jewish members of it’s ruling council. Many people at the heart of the Corbyn team, such as Jon Lansman, James Schneider and Rhea Wolfson are also Jewish. Ed Miliband, the previous party leader, was Jewish (and suffered antisemitism at the hands of the press and the Conservatives). I have been a member for five years and, as a Jew, have had only positive experiences.

Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983 – a constituency with a significant Jewish population. Given that he has regularly polled over 60% of the vote (73% in 2017) it seems likely that a sizeable number of Jewish constituents voted for him,  As a constituency MP he regularly visited synagogues and has appeared at many Jewish religious and cultural events. He is close friends with the leaders of the Jewish Socialist Group, from whom he has gained a rich knowledge of the history of the Jewish Labour Bund, and he has named the defeat of Mosley’s Fascists at the Battle of Cable as a key historical moment for him. His 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day statement talked about Shmuel Zygielboym, the Polish Bund leader exiled to London who committed suicide in an attempt to awaken the world to the Nazi genocide. How many British politicians have that level of knowledge of modern Jewish history?”

He goes on to say: “Because all racisms are interlinked it is worth examining Corbyn’s wider anti-racist record. Corbyn was being arrested for protesting against apartheid while the Thatcher government defended white majority rule and branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Corbyn was a strong supporter of Labour Black Sections – championing the right of Black and Asian people to organise independently in the Labour party while the Press demonised them as extremists.

“He has long been one of the leaders of the campaign to allow the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands to return after they were forcibly evicted by Britain in the 1960s to make way for an American military base. Whenever there has been a protest against racism, the two people you can always guarantee will be there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Who do you put your trust in — the people who hate antisemitism because they hate all racism or the people (be they in the Conservative party or the press) who praise Jews whilst engaging in Islamophobia and anti-black racism? The right-wing proponents of the Labour antisemitism narrative seek to divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ minorities — they do not have the well-being of Jews at heart.

“Let’s return the story to the facts. Antisemitism is always beyond the pale. Labour, now a party of over half a million members, has a small minority of antisemites in its ranks, and it suspends them whenever it discovers them. I expect nothing less from an anti-racist party and an anti-racist leader. If the Conservatives took the same approach to racism they would have to suspend their own foreign secretary, who has described Africans as ‘Picanninies’ and described Barack Obama as ‘The part-Kenyan President [with an] ancestral dislike of the British Empire’. 

“From the Monday club, linked to the National Front, to MP Aidan Burley dressing up a  Nazi, to Lynton Crosby’s dogwhistle portrayal of Ed Miliband as a nasal North London intellectual it is the Conservative Party that is deeply tainted by racism and antisemitism.

“There are many threats to Jews – and we are right to be vigilant. These threats come primarily from resurgent nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and a Brexit narrative that seeks to restore Britain to a mythical age of ethnic purity. The idea that Britain’s leading anti-racist politician is the key problem the Jewish community faces is an absurdity, a distraction, and a massive error. Worst of all, it’s a bad story that we’ve been telling for far too long. Let’s start to tell a better one.”

The Labour party has prided itself on its inclusion, equality and diversity principles since its inception. Corbyn has always been one of the most inclusive MPs and this is being used to undermine him. His idea of a “broad church” Labour party was based on an assumption that the neoliberals within the party shared the same equality, diversity and inclusion values, and supported a social justice agenda.  It was assumed that they had principles in common with the wider Labour party.  They don’t.

These are MPs that would prefer another Conservative term, further damage to our society, and more suffering of poor and disabled citizens than see a party they consider ideologically “inpure” take office. Their comments and actions are vile. The implications are vile. They are contributing to the sabotage of our party just in time for the local elections. Again. 

I have thought carefully these past months about these issues, and explored the evidence. I haven’t commented on it all until now because I needed to see evidence, analyse and evaluate. The hypocritical outrage from the likes of Hodges, Nelson, Neil and Lord Sugar, along with the sheer rage, incoherence and unreasonableness of their attacks has convinced me that this is a serious strategic propaganda war, nothing more or less.

However, I also agree with Jonathan Freedland, who says “Yes, you can make a strong case that plenty are acting in bad faith, trying to use this issue as a stick to beat Labour – but if you do that, you need to exempt Jews themselves from that charge.” I absolutely agree, and for many of the reasons he has laid out. 

I don’t, however, agree with his assessment that Corbyn represents the “hard left”.

He goes on to say, however, “Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

“Put another way, hasn’t history shown us that racism never stays confined to mere “pockets”? Once the virus is inside, it does not rest until it has infected the entire body.”

As I discussed earlier in this article, the symptoms of an increase in social prejudice have been there for some years, he seems to have overlooked the fact that it has been the disabled community who were the “canary in the coalmine”, and still are.

I agree that prejudice multitasks and grows. Freedland has overlooked that racism has already become the norm, not least because the oppression of others has remained invisible and unacknowledged by the media. In fact the media has tended to amplify it. Furthermore, political prejudice and legislative discrimination directed at already marginalised social groups is causing absolute poverty, harm, distress, death and suicide. Those are visible, real consequences of political prejudice which the media have chosen to ignore. It seems that some prejudices are considered more important than others, even when outright political discrimination and its tragic consequences are evident for all to see. You see, this is how the Holocaust began. 

This poster (from around 1938) reads: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read ‘[A] New People‘, the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP.” 

Here the political portrayal of German disabled people as a “socioeconomic burden” is being used to justify the AktionT4 extermination programme. 

The UK government prefers a wall of private bureacracy that extends a system on their behalf, which simply leaves many disabled people without the means to meet their basic living requirements, while making a profit at the expense of those people in doing so.

This said, Pfannmüller also advocated killing disabled people by a gradual decrease of food, which he believed was more merciful than poison injections. Most of the Nazis were eugenicists, nationalists and antisemites. Carbon monoxide gas was first used to kill disabled people, then its use was extended to other groups of people. The methods used initially at German hospitals such as lethal injections and bottled gas poisoning were expanded to form the basis for the creation of extermination camps where the gas chambers were built from scratch to conduct the extermination of the Jews, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Spanish Republicans, Romani and political dissidents, including many leftists, socialists and communists. 

The Nazis promoted xenophobia and racism against all “non-Aryan” races. African (black sub-Saharan or North African) and Asian (East and South Asian) residents of Germany and black prisoners of war, such as French colonial troops and African Americans, were also victims of Nazi racial policy.  In Germany, gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, were two of the numerous groups targeted by the Nazis and were also, ultimately, among the millions of Holocaust victims.

The role of propaganda and the media

Propaganda can be defined as biased information or misinformation designed to shape public perception, opinion, decision-making and behaviour. It simplifies complicated issues or ideology for popular consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end. Propaganda is often transmitted to the public through various media, drawing upon techniques and strategies used in advertising, public relations, communications, and mass psychology.

The real danger of propaganda lies when competing voices are silenced. When democratic dialogue, legitimate criticism and valid opposition is systematically pathologised and dismissed as a “cult”, “the loony left”, “Marxists” “leftards”, “virtue signalers” and so forth. Using the internet as well as mainstream media outlets, propagandists have been able to transmit their messages to a wide audience. 

Propaganda served as an important tool to win over the majority of the German public who had not supported Adolf Hitler and to push forward the Nazis’ radical program, which required the acquiescence, support, or participation of broad sectors of the population.

In 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”.

The  report said hate speech was a serious problem, including against Roma, gypsies and travellers, as well as “unscrupulous press reporting” targeting the LGBT community. The ECRI’s report also concluded that some reporting on immigration, terrorism and the refugee crisis was “contributing to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection”.

It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a blistering response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”

“ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups,” the report concluded. Yet this international condemnation has not encouraged more journalistic responsibility in the UK.

The Nazis used propaganda successfully to increase their public support and appeal. They spent huge sums of money on newspapers, leaflets and poster campaigns with simple slogans encouraging people to support the party. The military style of the Nazis also involved using large political rallies to gain support. Joseph Goebbels began to build an image of Hitler as a great leader. Goebbels manipulated people’s fear of uncertainty and instability to portray Hitler as a man with a great vision for “prosperity and stability.” Germany’s economy was in such a poor state that Hitler’s promise of “strong government” and stability was widely supported.  

I do maintain that our own media are being controlled by the government, and are being used to stage-manage our democracy. The recent history of sustained and vile smear campaigns, lies and unchecked fury directed at the last two labour leaders is pretty clear evidence of that, as is the blatant scapegoating project dressed up as the divisive stigmatising rhetorics of xenophobia, bigotry, prejudice and open discrimination directed at disabled people and other groups who need social security support.

Prejudice multitasks. This is a point made very well by Martin Niemöller, who was a Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) emerged as an outspoken public critic and foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The quotation stems from Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Some controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to diverse groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists,  disabled people or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that there had been what he saw as a cowardly complicity through the silence of the church the media, academic institutions and citizens regarding the Nazi imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions of people.

The UK media are at best compliant, paralysed by bystander apathy, and at worst, directly complicit in extending political prejudice, justifying discimination and manipulating social divisions. Unless we actually want to live with an authoritarian one-party state, it’s time to research, think and analyse these issues for ourselves, and quickly.

If not for ourselves, then for our friends, neighbours and loved ones. And especially, for our children.

May there be peace, justice and unity in our days.

 


 

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Government criticised for lack of diversity, lack of transparency and poor fiscal management

Image result for scrutiny of government

The Institute For Government (IFG) published their annual Whitehall Monitor Report on Thursday, presenting an insight and analysis of the size, shape and performance of government and the civil service.

In the opening paragraph, the IFG say: “The Prime Minister Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap general election. Revelations about ministers’ inappropriate conduct resulted in three Cabinet resignations. Preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by the snap election, by turnover in personnel and by difficulties in parliamentary management. The Government faces challenges in key public services, notably hospitals, prisons and adult social care.

It was noted in the report that preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by “difficulties in parliamentary management”. The Government has introduced only five of the nine new bills it says are needed for Brexit, and a third of the Government’s major projects worth over £1bn are at risk of not being delivered on time and on budget.

This Whitehall Monitor annual report – which is the fifth – summarises:

  • The political situation following the early election constrained the Prime Minister’s political authority and created challenges for the Government’s legislative programme and management of public services, major projects and Brexit.
  • The civil service is growing, in terms of size, but should be more diverse.
  • Government is less open than it was after 2010, and is not using data as effectively as it should.

I’ve used the summary to shape my analysis.

Fiscal management

The forecasts for tax revenues have been downgraded, the Government also forgoes billions of pounds through tax expenditures that are not subject to rigorous value-for-money assessments.

Since 2010, the value of liabilities on the government’s balance sheet has grown more quickly than the value of assets, increasing net liabilities. Furthermore, “revenue is not likely to overtake spending, in the foreseeable future”. 

Despite the promises from George Osborne of a budget surplus by 2020, and his fiscal straitjacket – the imposed, rigid programme of spending cuts and austerity for the majority of citizens, and tax cuts to the wealthiest ones. 

In real terms, revenues from taxes have grown 7% since 2010/11. This is largely the result of:

  • VAT receipts increasing by 22% (partly due to the standard VAT rate increasing from 17.5% to 20% in 2011)
  • National Insurance contributions increasing by 11%
  • Some increases in income tax collected following a stabilisation following the global crash

Council tax is also included in Treasury revenue, and that will have risen, since many low paid or out of work people now pay a contribution, whereas previously, they were exempt. Despite the increases in VAT, revenue from the sale of goods and services has fallen 34% since 2010/11. 

For the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) downgraded its forecasts for productivity growth. This, in turn, has resulted in the outlook for Government revenue being revised downwards.

Tax expenditures cost £135bn per year. Tax expenditures are tax discounts or exemptions that “further the policy aims of government”. The total sum of all forgone revenue from tax expenditures across income tax, National Insurance contributions, VAT, corporation tax, excise duties, capital gains tax and inheritance tax was £135bn in 2015/16. This is equal to a quarter of the total central government tax revenue in that year, and is larger than the total budgets of all but two departments (Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health).

For capital gains tax, the cost of tax expenditures was more than four times the amount of revenue collected

This certainly provides a strong indication of the government’s policy and budget priorities, making a mockery of trite sloganised claims of “a country that works for everyone”. Some social groups clearly raise rather more hidden political costs than others, but it is only disadvantaged and marginalised groups that tend to be negatively ideologically portrayed as a “burden” on the state by Conservatives and the media. 

In the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced new stamp duty reliefs for first time buyers purchasing properties worth under £500,000. Due to the policy being specifically targeted at first time buyers, this policy resembles a tax expenditure, and in 2018/19 (its first full year) is expected to cost £560m.

Furthermore, the National Audit Office has reported that the Treasury does not monitor tax expenditures and assess the value for money they offer with the same rigour as it does general expenditure. The Institute for Government, along with the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has called for the tax reliefs that most closely resemble spending measures to be treated as spending for accountability and scrutiny purposes.

Net government liabilities are now over £2 trillion. The Whitehall Monitor report says: “The Government’s net liability has implications for future generations of taxpayers, who will bear the costs of meeting these obligations, but the long-term nature of such obligations can make discussions around the government balance sheet seem more remote than the immediate choices about how much departments should spend each year.

“Nonetheless, policy choices have important implications for the Government’s liabilities – for example, the decisions taken by the Coalition Government to increase the state pension age, and to set a triple lock that guarantees annual increases of at least 2.5% in the state pension, are likely to have contrasting effects on the size of the state pension liability.”

The report goes on to say: “But the Government has made commitments to voters on public services, productivity, social mobility and major projects. If it fails to meet their expectations, it risks further undermining confidence in government.”

The government is still not transparent about its spending plans. The report says that “Better data is needed to understand the benefits – and risks – of outsourced public services”. 

“Wider government contracting includes back-office outsourcing by departments and the purchase of goods they use in the delivery of public services (e.g. paper, energy), as well as privately run public services. In 2015/16, £192bn was spent by government on goods and services, of which £70bn was spent by local government, £65bn by the NHS and £9bn by public corporations, with central government departments and other public bodies accounting for the remaining £49bn. 

“While some contract data is published, the Institute for Government and Spend Network have previously highlighted gaps in transparency – including on contractual terms, performance and the supply chains of third-party service providers.

“The Information Commissioner has said that the public should have the same right to know about public services whether the service is provided directly by government or by an outsourced provider”. [My emphasis]

The IFG also say in their report: “In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the outsourcing of health disability assessments at DWP had resulted in claimants ‘not receiving an acceptable level of service from contractors’, while costs per assessment had increased significantly. [My emphasis. Some 10% of the budget for the Department for Work and Pensions goes to private contractors.]

“Similarly, in 2013 MoJ [Ministry of Justice] found that it had been overbilled in relation to contracts worth £722m.”

There have been numerous high-profile failings in government outsourcing. The recent collapse of Carillion highlights many of the longstanding and existing issues, and should encourage a political focus on solving them.

The report continues: “There is no centrally collected data outlining the scope, cost and quality of contracted public services across government. Nonetheless, we know that Whitehall departments account for only a portion of outsourced service delivery, which can also happen further downstream after departments have provided funds to public bodies (for example, the purchasing of services from GPs by the NHS) or local authorities.”

The next section of the report outlines the 2016–17 parliamentary session, in which 24 government bills were passed – fewer than in any session under the 2010–15 Coalition Government. In part, this reflects the curtailed session, which ended with the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May ahead of the election in early June. The report goes on to say that 1,097 pages of legislation – 38% of all pages passed in the session – were dealt with at speed, raising questions about the adequacy of the scrutiny these bills received.

There were also concerns raised about the scope of the powers the government has sought regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill, which has proven controversial. In particular, the inclusion of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers, allowing the Government to amend or repeal existing primary legislation without the scrutiny normally afforded to bills. This has quite properly provoked concern among parliamentarians.

Curiously, the report says that the use of statutory instruments (SIs) – previously used only to pass non-controversial policies and amendments – has dropped. However, this flies in the face of existing evidence, which is sourced from the government’s own site. If there has been a drop since 2014, it certainly contradicts the trend set since 2010. Furthermore, the Government has been criticised for using SIs to pass controversial policies, such as welfare cuts.

It seems that IFG counted the number of SIs by parliamentary session (the parliamentary year which tends to run from Spring to Spring) rather than by calendar year.

Scrutiny of SIs is rather less intensive than scrutiny of primary legislation. They are subject to two main procedures, neither of which allows Parliament to make any amendments:

  • negative procedure, in which an SI is laid before Parliament and incorporated into law unless either House objects within 40 days
  • affirmative procedure, in which both Houses must approve a draft SI when it is laid before them.

It’s also worth reading: Conservative Government accused of ‘waging war’ on Parliament by forcing through key law changes without debate.

The lack of progress on inclusion and diversity

The IFG says there has been “little recent progress” in numbers of senior civil servants with disabilities or ethnic minority backgrounds, while the percentage of women  also decreases proportionally with ascending Whitehall pay scales. .

They report: “The civil service needs to fulfil the promise of its diversity and inclusion strategy, especially in improving the representation of ethnic minority and disabled staff at senior levels.”  

Of those appointed to the highest departmental rank of permanent secretary in 2017, “as many were men with the surname Rycroft as were women – two in each case”. The report notes also “there has never been a female cabinet secretary for the UK”.

Despite the much-trumpeted launch of the Disability Confident employment scheme, aimed at “helping to positively change attitudes, behaviours and cultures,” and “making the most of the talents that disabled people can bring to the workplace”, sadly there is no evidence that the Government intends role-modeling positive behaviours or putting into practice what it preaches.

The representation of disabled civil servants at senior level has improved only very slightly: 5.3%, up from 4.7% in 2016. Across the UK population as a whole, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 21% of people are estimated to have a disability (some 18% of the working-age population). 

Lack of openness, transparency and accountability

In the UK, the idea that government should be open to public scrutiny and policies congruent with public opinion is central to our notion of democracy. Government openness and transparency also tends to be linked with citizen inclusion, democratic participation and a higher degree of collaboration between citizens and government on public policy decisions. It also ensures that corruption and the misuse of political  t power for other purposes, such as forms repression of political opponents is less likely.

Information and data deficits are more likely to lead to political corruption and a reduction in democratic accountability.

The IFG report says that in 2016–17, more ministerial correspondence was answered in time, which were thanks to more generous targets, while fewer parliamentary questions were answered on time and information was withheld in response to more Freedom of Information requests.

Parliament has other mechanisms to hold government to account, including urgent questions (which have most tellingly increased significantly in recent years) or select committee inquiries (which have also increased in number, with the election delaying government responses). The Government has established a track record of withholding details of planned legislation from the opposition. (See for example: PIP and the Tory Monologue).

According to Democracy Audit UK  an independent research organisation, established as a not-for-profit company, and based at the Public Policy Group in the LSE’s Government Department – the lack of transparency has been fuelled by the coalition period, and now, the Conservative’s’ narrow majority,  as the amount of secondary legislation is growing, and primary legislation is drafted in ways that increasingly leave its consequences obscure, to be filled in later via statutory instruments or regulation. Commons scrutiny of such “delegated legislation” is subsequently reduced, and likely to be very weak and ineffective.

Meanwhile, departments’ publication of mandated data releases, including spending over £25,000, organograms and ministerial hospitality, is patchy. Departments also proactively publish on GOV.UK, though supply and demand differs by department

The IFG says that many departments are not publishing their data as frequently as they should and this, coupled with the difficulty of measuring government performance, suggests that the government is becoming less transparent and accountable.

A rise in the numbers of Freedom of Information requests that are being refused

Since 2010, government departments have become rather less open in response to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. In 2010, 39% of requests were fully or partially withheld; this had increased to 52% by 2017. 

Departments are able to refuse requests on a number of grounds: if the request falls under one of the 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (such as national security or personal information) or those in the Environmental Information Regulations; if it breaches the limit for the cost involved in responding (£600 for central departments and Parliament); if the request is repeated; or if the request is ‘vexatious’ (meaning it is likely ‘to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation’). 

Of the 2,342 requests withheld in full in 2017, 50% were held to be due to FoI Act exemptions, 47% to cost, 2% to repetition and 1% to vexatiousness.

Of course exemptions may also be used as “good reasons” – excuses – to withhold inconveniently controversial information that is likely to bring valid criticism and cause scandal.

Mike Sivier‘s request for information about how many people have died after going through the Work Capability Assessment, which had resulted in a decision that they were fit for work, was originally refused. The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics being made public, through Mike’s Freedom of Information request.

After the request, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent authority set up to uphold public information rights, agreed that there was no reason not to publish the figures, despite the Department for Work and Pensions variously claiming the request was “vexatious”, and that it “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”.

However, clearly the real reason for the original refusal of this request is that the information was highly controversial and contradicted political claims regarding the completely unacceptable level of harm that has been caused to citizens by the damaging impact of the Conservative’s draconian welfare policies. 

The ICO said: “Given the passage of time and level of interest in the information, it is difficult to understand how the DWP could reasonably withhold the requested information.”

More recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has continued to try to block John Slater’s FoI request which is likely to expose the widespread failings of two of its Personal Independent Payment (PIP) disability assessment contractors, initially claiming that it did not hold the information he had requested, before arguing that releasing the monthly reports would prejudice the “commercial interests” of Atos and Capita.

The DWP later told the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that releasing the information “will give rise to items being taken out of context… [and] will be misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers”, and would “prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs” by DWP.

It also warned the ICO that the information could be “maliciously misinterpreted to feed the narrative that the Department imposes ‘targets’ for the outcomes of assessments”.

However, that comment alone indicates the highly controversial nature of the information being withheld, and thus also betrays the real motive. Information is being restricted to stifle legitimate criticism of Government policy and to hide from public view the empirical evidence of its consequences.

The ICO has nonetheless ordered the release of the information requested. A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have received the ICO judgement and we are currently considering our position.” 

If the DWP disagree with the decision and wish to appeal, it must lodge an appeal with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) within 28 calendar days. The requester also has a right of appeal.

The ICO say: Failure to comply with a decision notice is contempt of court, punishable by a fine.

It’s also worth noting that the DWP are obliged to inform any contractors of how the Freedom of Information Act may affect them, making it clear that no guarantee of complete confidentiality of information may be made and that, as a public body, it must consider for release any information it holds if it is requested. 

The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) overtakes the DWP to become the most opaque department. This is one example of a wider lack of transparency around Brexit and reflects the wider reluctance of the Government to share assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy. Publication of spending and organisational data remains patchy, suggesting departments are not using the data themselves. 

The Scotland Office, Wales Office and Department for Transport tend to grant more requests in full, and in a timely manner. Among the more opaque are several departments regularly granting fewer than 30% of requests, particularly since 2015, including the Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Minstry of Justice (MoJ).

None of the departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – has ever granted even half of its total requests in full. In the three-quarters leading up to Q3 2017, DExEU was the least likely of all departments to comply with FoI requests, respectively answering 18%, 10% and 15% in full. It also refused a higher percentage because they were considered “vexatious” than any other department in 2017; 14% of requests.

The IFG report says “DExEU’s lack of transparency here, and its tardy responses to other requests for information (though not on FoI, where it is the sixth most responsive department), are consistent with its wider reluctance to release information, including the Government’s assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy.”

Chart percentage of Freedom of Information requests withheld by government departments

You can read the full IFG Whitehall Monitor Report here


 

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The anti-social public relations of the PR industry

Magnifying glass over computer code spelling out "big brother is watching."

In the UK, we have a Government that are scandalised and outraged by any criticism whatsoever. Ministers refuse to analyse, reflect and act on legitimate negative appraisal; they prefer instead to adopt outrage, and portray any opposition at all as somehow pathological. However, opposition and critical scrutiny are essential elements of a fully functioning democracy. 

When a Government dismiss any criticism or challenge from academics, charities, social organisations, campaigners and ordinary citizens as ‘scaremongering’, when any and every amount of empirical evidence that their policies cause deep distress and harm to people is declined as merely ‘anecdotal’ and when attempts at rational and democratic debate are simply brushed aside or labelled in a derogatory fashion as ‘marxism’ , it can’t possibly end well for the UK. These are all the trademarks of an authoritarian government teetering on the brink of totalitarianism

Critical narratives that expose the fatal flaws in the governments’ administration of policies, founded on a pernicious and totalising neoliberal ideology, are being effectively stifled or censored. 

One of the key methods being used is a basic ad hominem approach, which consists of attempts to discredit those presenting the Government with critical analysis, democratic feedback and evidence that challenges the governments’ claims. It’s an argumentative strategy (as opposed to a debating strategy) that entails a legitimate criticism or proposition being rebutted and attention being diverted by an attack on the character, motive, or some other attribute of the person presenting the criticism, or persons associated with the criticism, rather than addressing the substance of the criticism itself.

Ad hominem is a fallacious technique of reasoning that may be better understood as a perversion or corruption of perfectly rational debate and this forecloses on the possibility of democratic, rational, meaningful, intelligent and constructive political discourse.

One particular variant of ad hominem is exemplified in the ‘poisoning the well’ tactic that Conservatives use by ridiculously accusing many of their critics of being ‘Marxists’, members of the ‘hard left’ or Momentum, or simply just ‘scaremongers’. Another is a “shoot the messenger”approach. This is just one kind of oppressive method among several that are being used to neutralise alternative narratives and repress a healthy political pluralism – which of course is essential to democracy. 

It isn’t only the ‘business friendly’ neoliberal government engaging in these kind of tactics. It’s something of an irony that Hayek argued against government planning and regulation, claiming that by crushing competitive individualism, it would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Yet neoliberalism has reduced democracy to spectacle.  

When neoliberals mention ‘the market’ – which they see as a kind of idealised theatre for allocating rewards for competitive profit-seeking behaviours and punishments for citizens’ ‘bad choices’ (mostly in that they are simply poor) – what they tend to mean is simply a situation where corporations and those in positions of power get what they want. ‘The free market’ is a euphemism for rampant capitalism – another narrative given the PR touch. Austerity has become ‘living within our means’ an ‘reducing the deficit’. However, austerity is a central plank of neoliberal ideology.

As the state extends deregulation and increases freedoms that permit corporations to profit without constraint, limitation and the safeguards required to protect the environment and citizens, it also needs to re-regulate citizens, limiting their freedoms, micromanaging their perceptions and behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes and a shifting power structure.

The changing neoliberal economy has required changing politics and society, reflecting shifts in discourse, ethics, norms, beliefs, behaviours, perceptions and power relationships. It has required the re-alignment of citizens’ identities with neoliberal goals. Those goals serve the interests of very few people.

The recent political emphasis on psychoregulation – expressed through the ‘behavioural change’ agenda of libertarian paternalism, for example, which is being embedded in public policy – is aimed at either enforcing citizen compliance or socioeconomic exclusion, if they resist.

At the same time, neoliberalism has permitted a few very wealthy and powerful people to rewrite rules, laws, social norms, economic processes, ethics and to place themselves pretty much beyond public visibility, democratic transparency and moral accountability. 

Technotyranny and psychoregulation

John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton wrote in their 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: “Movements for social and political reform have often become targets of surveillance. […] The public relations industry has developed a lucrative side business scrutinizing the thoughts and actions of citizen activists, using paid spies who are often recruited from government, military or private security backgrounds.”

Last week’s revelations from the Bureau of investigative Journalists and the Guardian show just how much that these underhanded tactics are very much in use today. They don’t just impact and damage the groups being infiltrated. By privileging corporate interests, effectively giving them the first and last word on public issues, they distort vital public debates and profoundly damage our democracy.

The leaked documents that the Guardian and Bureau revealed suggest the use of secretive corporate security firms to gather intelligence about political campaigners has been widespread. However, police chiefs have in the past raised a ‘massive concern’ that the activities of the corporate companies are barely regulated and completely uncontrolled. The police have claimed that commercial firms have had more spies embedded in political groups than there were undercover police officers.

The revelations are based on hundreds of pages of leaked documents from two corporate intelligence firms, that reveal the inner workings of a normally subterranean industry over several years in the 2000s. Major firms are hiring people from security firms to monitor and infiltrate political groups that object to their commercial activities. The security firms are spying on law-abiding campaigners and impeding their democratic rights. The spies are known to surreptitiously foster conflicts within campaigns, to set activists against each other, in order to wear them down and make them lose their political motivation. “People get tired of it, that’s their weakness,” one person told the Guardian. He worked for a corporate espionage company.

These are the sort of tactics that are also being used to intimidate some individual commentators. 

Depersonalising the personal

I wrote an article recently, which was published by Welfare Weekly, about the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments. Someone called Lindsay McGarvie, who claimed to be a ‘representative of Atos’, contacted Steven Preece, the editor of Welfare Weekly, asking him to get me to phone him as a matter of ‘high importance’ to have a ‘quick chat’ about a ‘couple of points’ in my article that are ‘inaccurate’. 

It turns that out the ‘representative of Atos’ is actually the director of Atos’s Public Relations (PR) company, called called 3X1. According to his LinkedIn profile,  McGarvie’s specialisms include:

Strategic public affairs counsel
– Reputation management
– Devising and implementing proactive PR and public affairs campaigns
– Media Training
– Digital communications

McGarvie also had directorship of Bread Public Relations Limited, which delivered: “media, marketing, and employee engagement campaigns for public and investor relations. The company specializes in generating third party endorsements by getting the right people to say the right thing, at the right time, and to enhance business strategy. Its activities include media relations, reports, crisis communications, employee engagement, and media training.

The company was founded in 2009 and was based in Aberdeen, United Kingdom. As of September 21, 2015, Bread Public Relations Limited has operated as a subsidiary of 3×1 Limited.

By coincidence someone has also very recently ‘reported’ me to the Department for Work and Pensions, claiming that I am ‘working and being paid as a writer’ and that I am ‘not really disabled’, and ‘faking my illness’. Curious, that.

Over the last few years, I’ve encountered a small group of people who campaigned to discredit my work online, even claiming I was a ‘snout for the establishment’ on one occasion. Bullies often project their own issues onto their target. Some of the lies and smears I saw posted in groups about me were pretty outrageous. From ‘She voted UKIP’ and ‘Sadiq Khan employs her to spread anti-Green propaganda’ to ‘She has over 500 fake online identities’ and ‘She’s a bully and attacked some charity workers’. Most of the attacks were ad hominem. They also had a distinctive psy-ops character. 

This same group have also systematically bullied people for sharing my articles, and  for simply being a friend of mine on Facebook. Sadly a few of those people stopped coming on social media because of how thoroughly unpleasant and intimidating these experiences were at the time. 

The group of perpetrators are people who claim to be left wing campaigners, too. However I strongly suspect that at least some of them aren’t who they say they are. Their ad homimen approach doesn’t tally with their declared ‘socialist’ values and principles.

They ran a malicious smear campaign for quite a stretch of time, and occasionally, people tell me they’re still at it. I just block them now, and when a new account springs up making the same kind of attacks, using the same comments and outrageous lies, I keep blocking, because these are not people who are up for any kind of rational debate. They don’t play nicely at all. 

Just to clarify, Atos have already judged me as disabled on two occasions recently, in addition to my GP, 3 rheumatology consultants, a neurologist, a pulmonary specialist, a physiotherapist and 2 occupational therapists – one from the council, one that my GP sent out to my home.

I don’t get paid for writing articles, including those I contribute to Welfare Weekly. I don’t get paid for my research either. If I did, I would be permitted to earn a certain amount anyway. But I don’t. Having a voluntary donation button on my site doesn’t equal earning a salary. Nor does my writing somehow indicate I am faking my illness. I don’t think disabled people are prohibited from reading, having opinions or sharing them via social media. Not yet, anyway. 

I believe that the timing of the bogus complaint to the DWP was most likely calculated carefully by someone to coincide with Christmas – to cause as much misery and untimely financial hardship as possible. 

I don’t know who made the complaint. It can’t have been done by anyone who actually knows me. But I’ve no doubt that this was a malicious act.

However, it won’t stop me writing any time soon.

I appreciate that the ‘complaint’ to the DWP may have been a coincidence. I also understand that the discussion may even sound somewhat paranoid. However, these are not isolated events, and other campaigners and  groups have also been targeted by Atos.

The use of targeted political ‘dark ads‘ – using ‘big data’ harvesting and the identification and manipulation of distinctive ‘psychological profiles’  – and the tactical use of social media as a weapon in political discourse are examples of how social media is being used to create new marketplaces for political and corporate loyalty, providing the opportunity for shills and astroturfers to opt-in (and out) of identities. The increased use of psychological profiling with sophisticated, targeted and manipulative political techniques of persuasion and astroturfing campaigns has also corresponded with a commensurate decline in the standards and ethics of mainstream journalism. 

The private company Cambridge Analytica hit the news earlier this year because its alleged role in manipulating the voting decisions of citizens by using  detailed profiling of the personalities of individual voters to target them, to create large shifts in public opinion. The controversial company is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American billionaire hedge-fund manager who supports many neoliberal, politically conservative and alt right causes.

Social network media more generally is being used to construct and shape global politics and manage contemporary political conflicts through the conduction of intelligence collection, targeting, cyber-operations, psychological warfare and command and control activities.

Power and persuasion

PR is a persuasion industry. It involves the creation of powerful lobby groups to influence government policy, corporate policy and public opinion, typically in a way that benefits the sponsoring organisation. PR companies often use a ‘thought leadership’ approach, which usually refers to a potentially ‘winning’ strategy for paying customers, based on a notion of authority, rather than on intellectual reasoning, dialogue and rational debate. There’s a lot of talking at the public, rather than with them.

Money talks and bullshit walks. 

Many PR companies offer an ‘expertise’ in ‘behavioural insights’ to businesses, in order to help them ‘win’ and make profit. However, quite often ‘thought leadership’ entails using well-known marketing techniques to achieve the impression of being an erudite and rational presenter and speaker. It’s inane managementspeak and psychobabble that basically means finding ways of managing company reputations, damage limitation and managing public opinion, promoting corporate and/or specific political interests and making profits. In the same way that Behavioural Economics manages the reputation of Conservative/libertarian neoliberalism, promoting political and corporate interests and making fat profits. 

And stifling criticism. Many people quite reasonably associate PR with all things unethical – lying, spin-doctoring, and even espionage. Many critics argue that there can be no ethical public relations because the practice itself is all about manufacturing opinions, manipulation and propaganda. It’s about smoke and mirrors to hide the source of deception. Neoliberalism is toxic and regressive. It can’t offer the public anything whatsoever of value, so the state and corporations – the only beneficiaries of the now totalising imposition of this ideology – have to employ ‘specialists’ to sell it for them.

Selling neoliberalism to the public using techniques of persuasion and political psychoregulation is also very neoliberal, in that it makes fat profits while imposing  and justifying a hegemony of narrow private interests. 

3X1 is not the only PR company regularly accessing my articles. 

Over the last couple of years, my site has been visited using a portal from Edelman Intelligence, which is among the world’s largest PR companies. Either their staff or their clients have been quietly visiting my own humble WordPress site, the link (which I found on my web traffic and stats information page) shows they were referred to my site from Edelman’s own social media monitoring command centre. 

I know this because on my site’s traffic and stats pagereferrers are listed, such as Facebook, Twitter, search engines and so on. You can click on the link provided and it shows you were site visitors have come from.

Despite the fact that the CEO of the ‘largest PR agency in the world’ called for PR professionals to ‘adopt a new set of standards in the wake of the Bell Pottinger scandal’, Edelman have generated a few scandals of their own. 

The ultimate corporate goal is sheer self-interested profit-making, but this will always be dressed up by PR to appear synonymous with the wider, national interest. At the moment, that means a collective chanting of ‘economic growth’, low taxes, ‘freedom’, supply side ‘productivity’, implied trickle down, jobs and ‘personal responsibility’ – all a part of the broader business friendly neoliberal mantra. It’s like encountering Ayn Rand on steroids and in a very ugly mood.

Corporations buy their credibility and utilise seemingly independent people such as academics with a mutual interest to carry their message for them. Some think tanks – especially free-market advocates like Reform or leading neoliberal think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs – will also provide companies with a lobbying package: a media-friendly report, a Westminster event, meetings with politicians, that sort of thing. The extensive PR industry are paid to brand, market, engineer a following, build trust and credibility and generally sell the practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organisation (such as a business, government agency, the media) and the public.

PR is concerned with selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

Money talks and bullshit walks, all at the right price.

To paraphrase Seamus Milne, there is a revolving door of mutually exclusive political and corporate favour, ceaselessly spinning.

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Our public life and democracy is now profoundly compromised by its colonisation, as corporate and financial power have merged into the state.

Edelman Intelligence and Westbourne, for example, are engaged in rebuttal campaigns and multimedia astroturfing projects to protect corporate interests:

Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. “The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one, you’ve got to find the influential one,” he says. Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.” From The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government. 

The blogs (or ‘flogs’) Working Families for Walmart and subsidiary site Paid Critics were written by three employees of Edelman, for whom WalMart is a paid client. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the PR firm, apologised on his own flog: “I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.”  

Imagine that. Paying big bucks to a PR company, and yet you have no idea what they actually do for your company. 

It’s like a self perpetuating cycle of ever-increasing corruption. Big companies wouldn’t need PR in the first place if they intend to be genuinely transparent and accountable. PR companies are pretty ruthlesness regarding the tactics they use to earn fat profits for themselves, and for their fellow free marketeers. 

The communications industry’s ethics came under scrutiny due to the fall of Bell Pottinger after the London-based firm was accused of conducting a ‘secret misinformation campaign’ on behalf of Oakbay Investments inflaming racial tensions in South Africa. UK-based industry body, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) banned Bell Pottinger from trading for five years.

Motherboard (Vice) reports, in 2014, that documents obtained by Greenpeace illustrate the extensive, meticulous planning that has gone into at least one of Edelman‘s proposed astroturf campaigns, aimed at helping TransCanada mobilise ‘grassroots’ support for its effort to build a new pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Quebec.

Astroturfing is the increasingly popular tactic used by corporations to sponsor front groups or manufacture the appearance of grassroots support to simulate a genuine social movement that is rallying for goals in line with their profit motive. It’s the manufacturing of ‘consensus’ where none actually exists. In the past, astroturf efforts have used paid actors, company employees, and media-heavy websites. But the programme that Edelman pitches in its own reports goes even deeper.

The documents detailed an in-depth proposal—part sales pitch, part action plan—put together by Edelman‘s Calgary office, suggesting that TransCanada combat environmental groups by mounting one such manufactured “grassroots advocacy” campaign.

Those environmentalists were organising to oppose the Energy East pipeline, which TransCanada hoped would be an alternative to the long-delayed Keystone XL, on the grounds that it would disastrously boost carbon emissions and increase the likelihood of a major oil spill.

Edelman’s plan was specifically designed to “[… ] add layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources,” according to the documents.

It stressed developing “supportive third parties, who can in turn put the pressure on, especially when TransCanada can’t.

In other words, the goal would be to attack environmentalists head on with supporters recruited by, but not necessarily directly affiliated with, Edelman and TransCanada

Greenpeace said: “Edelman’s plan involve a ‘seeding strategy,’aimed at getting trusted academics and TV shows to parrot pro-TransCanada propaganda. The plan rounds out it’s immersive assault on key communities using hyperlocal, geotargeted messaging to take over Facebook feeds and local TV programming… Edelman plans on using the astroturf plan to influence media, the public, politicians, and regulatory agencies.” 

With concerns about climate change and activism quite properly on the rise, along with the dire warnings from climate scientists, sophisticated PR campaigns to shut down opposition to fossil fuel and promote climate change denial has become almost a neccessity for companies like TransCanada

The Motherboard article also says that Edelman runs software called the ‘Grassroots Multiplier’ that it claims can ‘convert average citizens’ into pro-oil ‘true champions.’  Now that resonated with me. We know for sure that this company and its clients are spying on campaigners like me. I contacted Edelman earlier this year to ask them why they were interested in visiting my site. I had no response. 

In April 1998 the Los Angeles Times reported that Edelman had drafted a campaign plan to ensure that state attorneys-generals did not join antitrust legal actions against Microsoft. Documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times revealed that the astroturfing plan included generating ‘supportive’ letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and articles by freelance writers. 

USA Today said the plan included “unusual, and some say unethical tactics, including the planting of articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces to be commissioned by Microsoft’s top media handlers but presented by local firms as spontaneous testimonials.”  

In 2008 Edelman’s work with E.ON, which planned to build a coal power station at Kingsnorth attracted protests at Edelman‘s UK headquarters. In 2009, to coincide with the weeklong ‘Climate Camp’ range of protests, a group of naked protestors occupied Edelman‘s reception, generating much media attention.

Edelman also provided ‘crisis management’ support and communications for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation during the phone hacking scandal. 

Among the controversial aspects of Edelman’s history is its work for various tobacco companies in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Documents released under the Master Settlement Agreement revealed how the company played a key role in preventing effective legislation against the tobacco industry and manipulating public opinion on tobacco and its adverse effects on health in the US.

Other documents reveal how Edelman assisted transnational tobacco companies “to slow, to stop, to reverse the growing belief that smoking is harmful to the nonsmoker,” encouraging clients to “break out of the tried and true principles of Public Relations – 101 and massage some truly creative ideas.”

As late as the mid-1990s, Edelman was helping Philip Morris fight smoking bans and working to generate positive media coverage for Marlboro’s products. By then the risks of smoking – the health-damaging and life-limiting effects of tobacco – were widely known and scientifically verified several times over.

Other clients of Edelman have included the despotic and repressive government of Saudi Arabia. Mind you, our own government sells arms to the same government.

Cision are another PR company that provide social media ‘monitoring’ and I have had visits to my site from theirs. The company offers three web-based packages: the ‘CisionMarketing Suite’, the ‘Public Relations Suite’ and a ‘Government Relations and Political Action Committee Suite’The Cision ‘Public Relations Suite’ allows users to distribute press releases, access a database of bloggers and journalists, and monitor and analyse news and social media sites. 

The company’s ‘Government Relations Suite’ manages government contacts, analyses lobbying activity, facilitates communication with elected officials and provides PAC compliance software for filing reports to the FEC and state elections commissions (in US). Cision also have a UK base at Canary Wharf, London. They offer a service to businesses that enables business and other actors to “Monitor millions of social media, mainstream news and online news sources, to help you control your story.” 

Ultimately these strategies are all about public ‘knowledge management’ and manipulation.

A listed app called meltwater has also showed up on my stats page more recently. Outside Insight is Meltwater’s Media Intelligence and Social Media Monitoring tool. Their site says: “PR professionals lean on Meltwater’s product suite to help them boost their brand’s position and demonstrate their ROI (Return on Investment).”

Another app that is used to refer people to my site is from the People Pattern Corporation, which is a market research company that say: “While most social marketing tools focus on analyzing conversations about a brand, we know that the most valuable insights come from studying the people behind those conversations.”

I can’t help but wonder what they made of me and my humble, anti-neoliberal, unprepackaged, unsold, unsponsored, unspun, kiss-my-ass-rational, researched and evidenced analysis and commentaries. 

Then there is Falcon IO, also regularly visiting my site, who say: “Managing brand perception in a world of social and online sharing can seem daunting. Social listening is the first step to regaining control.” What strikes me is the complete lack of transparency surrounding the traffic being directed to my site from these PR companies. I can’t access any of the sites via the links in my traffic stats.

This company say they use behavioural insights to manipulate people’s opinion, using social media as a platform.

So do the Government. In 2008 one member of Boris Johnson’s campaign team was caught posting comments on blogs critical of his boss without sufficiently concealing their identity. A few years later, another member of Johnson’s campaign was found posing as a ‘concerned’ Labour supporter trying to prevent Ken Livingstone from being the party’s candidate for mayor. 

As Adam Bienkov says: “Twitter and blogging have given a voice to millions and allowed genuine opposition movements to take their case to the masses. Censorship of these movements has not always proved effective, with only authoritarian governments possessing the means and the will to implement it. For big business and less repressive governments, the alternative of simply crowding out your opposition online must seem a far more attractive prospect.”

It’s a lucrative business too. On Facebook, it’s commonplace for people with community pages to get a notification asking you to ‘boost’ your posts for a sum of money. This increases the reach of the post – more people see it. This means that those who can afford to pay the most to Facebook have the most prominent positions in newsfeeds, the biggest audiences and potentially, the greatest influence on opinion, as it simply crowds out alternative perspectives.

Even our views and beliefs are being subjected to market forces, as social media platforms are increasingly neoliberalised and thus become increasingly undemocratised. 

Attempts to manipulate the media and public opinion are on the rise – spurred on in part by the repressive political mood in the UK and the growing reach of the internet.

Green plastering the internet

Astroturfing has become a powerful and efficient public opinion management strategy for many organisations, and also for the state. Pre-written letters to an editor have turned into opinion-spamming and fake online reviews. The internet has offered a broad arena to practise astroturfing. It’s an irony that the agriculture world’s prince of darkness. Monsanto, invented the real ‘chemgrass’ asfroturf. And by coincidence, Edelman launched a charm offensive for the GMO giant, intimidating environmentally friendly bloggers and pointing out the occasional ‘couple of errors’ here and there. Seems like a commonly used PR tactic, then. Edelman got pretty much the same treatment that I’ve given 3X1. Quite properly so. I take this democracy and free speech idea very seriously, as it happens.

Astroturfing can range from a few forum posts online or comments praising a company or government ideology and policy to something rather closer to harassmentand abuse, and from genuine disagreement and independent troublemakers to organised ‘trolls’, and acutely personal and intimidating attacks from entirely fake campaigners.

Organisations involved in competition may also suffer substantially from astroturfing practices, when competitors are, for example, spreading false information and rumours about them.

But then, so do campaigners, grassroots groups and academic critics, increasingly. The difference between astroturfing and grassroots movements is that grassroots movements are authentic, created spontaneously and promote issues in the public interest, whereas fake grassroots movements are created artificially by, for example, organisations or the state. Astroturfing is all about promoting private interests.

Lobbyists and PR experts are usually behind fake grassroots movements. George Monbiot also adds the state as one of the actors behind astroturfing. Astroturfing is a weapon that state and corporate players use. Monbiot defines astroturfing as a technique, which mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilisations.

He says: “Companies now use “persona management software”, which multiplies the efforts of each astroturfer, creating the impression that there’s major support for what a corporation or government is trying to do.

 This software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator.

 Fake accounts can be kept updated by automatically reposting or linking to content generated elsewhere, reinforcing the impression that the account holders are real and active.

 Human astroturfers can then be assigned these “pre-aged” accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and retweeting for months. No one would suspect that they came onto the scene for the first time a moment ago, for the sole purpose of attacking an article on climate science or arguing against new controls on salt in junk food.

 With some clever use of social media, astroturfers can, in the security firm’s words, “make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise … There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to fictitious personas.”

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation is this. The US Air Force has been tendering for companies to supply it with persona management software, which will perform the following tasks:

a. Create “10 personas per user, replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent … Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms.”

b. Automatically provide its astroturfers with “randomly selected IP addresses through which they can access the internet” (an IP address is the number which identifies someone’s computer), and these are to be changed every day, “hiding the existence of the operation”. The software should also mix up the astroturfers’ web traffic with “traffic from multitudes of users from outside the organisation. This traffic blending provides excellent cover and powerful deniability.”

c. Create “static IP addresses” for each persona, enabling different astroturfers “to look like the same person over time”. It should also allow “organisations that frequent same site/service often to easily switch IP addresses to look like ordinary users as opposed to one organisation.”

Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It jeopardises the notion of online democracy. Comment threads on issues with major commercial implications are already being wrecked by what look like armies of organised trolls – as you can sometimes see on guardian.co.uk.

The internet is a wonderful gift, but it’s also a bonanza for corporate lobbyists, viral marketers and government spin doctors, who can operate in cyberspace without regulation, accountability or fear of detection. In recent years, the lobbying game has changed because of social media websites, citizen journalism (described by one lobbyist as “a major irritant”), and online petitions capable of getting millions of signatures in a matter of hours. Among the lobbyists affected by this shift is James Bethell, whose firm, Westbourne Communications, is in the business of fighting back against what it calls the “insurgency tactics” of online campaigners.

Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell, writing for Vice, say: Today, commercial lobbyists operate sophisticated monitoring systems designed to spot online threats. It you bad-mouth a large corporation in 140 characters, chances are the corporation’s social media people will find it. Their job, then, is to sift through the sea of online malcontents and find the “influencers.”

“The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one,” Mike Seymour, the former head of crisis management at PR and lobbying giant Edelman, told fellow flacks attending a conference across the road from UK Parliament in November 2011. “You’ve got to find the influential one, especially if they are gatherers of people against us.” His point was eloquently made by events happening across town—as he spoke, Occupy protests were creating headlines around the world. Seymour explained that once these influencers are identified, “listening posts” should be put out there, to “pick up the first warning signals” of activist operations. 

Once they have this intelligence, lobbyists can get to work. Part of Westbourne’s response to HS2 critics was to “zero in” and counter “inconsistent” press reports, as Bethell explained to high-speed rail advocates in the US. More broadly, Westbourne has advised US lobbyists of the need to “pick off” their critics with “sniper-scope accuracy” – to “shut them up,” as he explained to an audience of distinguished guests at a conference in 2012. Westbourne engages in aggressive rebuttal campaigns, which involves creating a feeling among opponents that everything they say will be picked apart. This is an “exhausting but crucial” part of successful lobbying, says Bethell.

This ‘exhausting but crucial part of successful lobbying’ includes injecting all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of targeted opponents; and the use of techniques drawn from the social sciences, linguistics, poropaganda and the advertising industry to manipulate and warp online discourse and activism to generate outcomes that PR companies’ clients – including governments and the corporate sector – considers desirable.

The corporate is also the political: the cosy relationship of shared totalitarian tactics

Glenn Greenwald is an American journalist and author, best known for his role in a series of reports published by The Guardian newspaper beginning in June 2013, detailing the US and UK global surveillance programmes, and based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.  

In June 2013, a visit by notionally jackbooted government national security agents to smash computer hard drives at the Guardian newspaper offices hit the news surprisingly quietly, when Snowden exposed a gross abuse of power and revealed mass surveillance programmes by American and British secret policing agencies (NSA and GCHQ

David Miranda, partner of Greenwald, Guardian interviewer of the whistleblower Snowden, was held for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act. Officials confiscated his personal electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles. 

This was an intimidation tactic, and a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process. As Greenwald said: “To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation.” Even the Telegraph columnist Janet Daley remarked that these events were like something out of East Germany in the 1970s. 

A couple of years back, Greenwald wrote: “Surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.  

“As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anythingterrorist or violent in their actions.”

Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, had long been the source of speculation.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, [co-author of “Nudge”, with behavioural economist Richard Thaler], a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Legitimate criticisms, in other words. I’ve suggested that nudge strategies are being deployed to influence political opinions online for some time. They are.

But the GCHQ documents were the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is the use of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds.

Greewald said in 2015: “Today’s newly published document touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption”:

Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”:


The documents lay out theories of how humans interact with one another, particularly online, and then attempt to identify ways to influence the outcomes – or “game” it:

Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

No government should be able to engage in these tactics: there can be no justification for government agencies to target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltratation [and sometimes destruction] of online political communities, and for developing techniques for manipulating online discourse. But to allow those actions with no public knowledge, informed consent or accountability is particularly dangerous as well as completely unjustifiable.

PR is concerned with selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

As I said in the opening paragraphs, these reflect the actions of a government (and state sponsors) teetering on the brink of totalitarianism.

 

Related 

Atos’s PR company director wants me to phone him about one of my articles

More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

Social media is being used to stage manage our democracy using nudge-based strategies

Theresa May pledges to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government

The inexorable rise of the PR men

These astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy – George Monbiot

I share Monbiot’s observations that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where big business stands to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health, equality and corporate tax avoidance.

These are often characterised by incredible levels of abuse and disruption. I have also noted the strong association between this tactic and a clearly identifiable set of values that are pro-neoliberal. Such values would be remarkably self-defeating for ordinary citizens to hold – the equivalent of daily hitting yourself in the face while simultaneously simply handing out your income to the state and millionaires. These values are: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-welfare and anti-regulation.

Many ‘libertarians’ argue that reducing the state means liberation: ‘freedom’ for citizens to pursue their own interests. In an era of all-pervasive government social experimentation in behavoural economics,  citizen psychoregulation and micromanagement and increasing western political authoritarianism, that’s hardly likely to come to pass. The many libertarians I’ve enountered online have a profound dislike of the promotion of civil rights and genuine citizen freedoms. That’s just for ‘snowflakes’, apparently.

The US libertarians are invariably strident patriots,they defend the military and bang on about the right to own a gun so that they can defend their ‘private property’. You can point out to these often aggressive and abusive commentators who like to call you ‘snowflake’, ‘leftard’ , ‘do-gooder’ (absurdly), and ‘bleeding heart liberal’, that without a degree of welfare and healthcare, many can’t possibly be ‘free’, but to no avail.

They simply become more abusive, rational debate becomes impossible and subsequently predictably shuts down. It’s difficult to believe that these parading ‘ordinary folk’ despots are commenting with ordinary folk’s best interests in mind.

 


 

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The Paradise Papers, austerity and the privatisation of wealth, human rights and democracy

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Outdated Conservative ideology has long framed the social safety net as an obstacle to national prosperity, the government claims that welfare somehow depresses economic growth and job creation. Indeed, Conservative efforts to dismantle the welfare state have been a constant in UK national politics. However, the truth is that as income inequality increases, the potential for economic growth is constrained. Seven years of austerity aimed at the poorest citizens have provided empirical evidence that does not verify the government’s claims.

The Conservatives also claim that welfare creates “perverse incentives” and “moral hazards” – it produces negative “unintended consequences,” as people who are eligible for support don’t have a job. Welfare is therefore reduced to ensure that people are not comfortable in claiming financial support, in order to “make work pay”. The problem with that, however, is that many people who work are also struggling to make ends meet. Work doesn’t pay because a miserly state provides perverse incentives for unscrupulous profit-driven employers to pay miserly wages that are well below average living costs. There has also been a marked loss of job security, too, over the last seven years.

All of this reflects a troubling reality of the labour market – that without government regulations and collective bargaining – the government have a history of legislating to undermine trade unions and traditionally loathe collective bargaining – employers are able to use “competition” to reduce wages. This state of affairs is clearly attributable to political decisions. It can be traced back over decades of policies favouring businesses at the expense of established employee rights. 

In the free market, all that matters is how many people are capable of doing your job. Competition matters, at least on paper. It doesn’t matter what qualities and skills you have. Workers are not paid according to their skills, they’re paid according to what they can negotiate with their employers. The more people there are in the labour market, the less bargaining power they have. The steady reduction of the support offered by the welfare state creates desperation, and also significantly reduces peoples’ choices regarding employment. It creates a race to the bottom, where wages are depressed and stagnating, and “efficiency” rules, along with the profit motive.

Furthermore, some employers are discriminatory, and pay workers different wages on the grounds of disability, age, race, or gender.

Changing policies to include a progressive tax structure would enhance economic growth and see a structural lowering in the unemployment, underemployment and low pay rates, with the other very valuable benefit of being ethical, fair, decent and compassionate. There are several excellent macro-economic reasons for substantially raising wages AND raising welfare. Notably, it could boost consumption, reduce inequality as well enhance economic growth.

In 2014, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report that stated income inequality actually stifles economic growth in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, whilst the redistribution of wealth via progressive taxation and benefits encourages growth.

The report from the OECD, a global think tank, shows basically that what creates and reverses growth is the exact opposite of what the current neoliberal government are telling us. It highlights that the Conservative austerity programme is purely ideologically driven, and not about effectively managing the economy at all. However, many of us already knew this was so. The Conservatives have managed to narrate neoliberal ideology effectively, it became naturalised, and established as an “intuitive” and common sense kind of justification system for crass inequality, (accumulation by the wealthy through the dispossession of the poor) while its very design was to fragment the truth and disjoint rationality. This is precisely how dominant ideologies operate. 

Austerity was never about what works for the economy. Austerity is simply a front for policies that are entirely founded on ideology, which is all about “handouts” to the wealthy that are funded by the poor

If we provide support for those on low incomes, there will inevitably be higher aggregate spending, more jobs and a stronger economy. And if the income distribution continues to include those on low incomes, rather than the current redistribution to the wealthiest, there will be a lift in the growth potential of the economy. Unemployment would be structurally lower and there would be a self-supporting cycle of stronger economic activity as a result.

The Paradise Papers and the privatised magic money tree

Tax havens are one of the key engines of the rise in global inequality. I started writing this article just as the Paradise Papers leak hit the media, following information that was garnered by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung – which also received the Panama Papers last year – and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with partners including the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.

Conservatives argue that economic inequality is essential to a healthy economy to generate the financial incentives for individuals to remain in further and higher education, to work hard and to invest their savings in productive enterprises, all of which will result in faster economic growth and rising average living standards. Wealthy people create jobs, and so the poorest citizens will benefit indirectly from economic inequality as some of the benefits of faster economic growth “trickle down” to them. The Conservatives claim that wealthy people are essential to the economy because they “create jobs” and more wealth. 

However, regardless of the plausibility of the debate about competition, meritocracy,  equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome – and the debate around wealth redistribution, the world’s super-wealthy have taken advantage of lax tax rules to siphon off at trillions of pounds, from their home countries’ economies and hoard it abroad – and the offshore drain involves a sum larger than the entire American economy. The sheer scale of hidden assets held by the super-wealthy also strongly suggests that standard measures of inequality, which tend to rely on surveys of household income or wealth in individual countries, radically underestimate the true level of inequality – the gap between rich and poor. 

Wealth doesn’t “trickle down”: it’s hidden away offshore. It’s hoarded. If you are remotely concerned about fairness and inequalities of wealth and power, you really must be concerned about the very existence of tax havens, and the significant impact this has on national economies. The Conservatives prize the idea of private property, and that impacts on their decision-making. Rather than address the issue that would have had a larger positive impact on our economy – tax avoidance and hoarding – they chose instead to impose austerity on the poorest citizens in the UK, they made “difficult choices” to dismantle the welfare state and raid our public funds, damaging our services and eroding our post war social safeguards. Wealth doesn’t “trickle down”, it trickles away offshore. Furthermore, it’s not feasible that the government was unaware of this. They have chosen to focus on supply side labor policies, and blaming the poorest for the big hole in the economy, some of which followed the banking crisis. They have chosen to regard our public services as “unsustainable” to prop up the immoral financial habits of a wealthy and powerful elite.

At the centre of the Paradise leak is Appleby, a law firm with outposts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. The project has been called the Paradise Papers. It reveals (courtesy of the Guardian):

Graphic showing who is hiding their cash

The disclosures will certainly put pressure on world leaders, including Trump and the prime minister, Theresa May, who have both paid lip service to the idea of curbing aggressive tax avoidance schemes. 

The publication of this investigation, for which more than 380 journalists have spent a year combing through data that stretches back 70 years, comes at a time of growing global income inequality.

In the UK, the ideologically driven austerity programme has also contributed significantly to the redistribution of public funds from the poorest citizens to the wealthiest. I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again: 

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. But for the past seven years, the government have been completely disengaged with the public, and have failed to listen to accounts of the detrimental impacts of their public policies on marginalised social groups.

In the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

The justification offered by the government for its draconian policies aimed at society’s most marginalised (and protected) social groups is that welfare and other supportive public services are “unsustainable”. The government claims that “difficult decisions” have to be made, which invariably entail cuts to essential services and provisions, because we don’t have enough money.

In truth, the government simply has other plans for the money available, and prioritises the desires of the very wealthy, at the expense of meeting the needs of the poor. 

Other justifications reflect the behaviourist turn, which perpetuates the “culture of poverty” myth and embeds behaviourist theories regarding the presumed attitudes and “cognitive incompetence” of the poorest citizens in policies, which extend a disciplinarian and “correctional” element. However, such narratives and policies indicate a government of evidence-free fanatics. In policy, everything is something you decide to do, and there is nothing that you have to do. There are always alternative choices to consider regarding how our economy is managed.

Few things demonstrate the Conservatives’ wake of glib lies than their record on welfare spending – an area in which they have overseen a culture of waste. Just look at disability benefits. We’re told repeatedly that spending on “welfare” for disabled people is “out of control”, yet earlier this year it emerged that the Department for Work and Pensions has gone nearly £200m over budget, in paying two private companies from the public purse to run the personal independence payments (PIP) assessment system.

Then there is the Work Capability Assessment scandal. The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. In their audit report last year, the NAO concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments themselves than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill. It would be cheaper, and of course much more ethical to simply pay people what they were previously entitled to, based on their own doctors’ professional judgement.

The NAO report reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. People are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus is serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions, and other plans for our public funds.

The Conservatives have now spent at least £700m in taxpayers’ money on these contracts with multinationals alone, despite the fact that the process they use is so flawed that one charity reported that as many as four out of five rejections for PIP that were appealed against were overturned. That indicates, at the very least, the use of a severely flawed assessment process. PIP assessments are purposefully designed to ensure that people are less likely to be found eligible for the support in meeting the additional costs of being disabled. Then there is the massive cost of tribunals to add to the cost of administrating the “cuts”. 

Meanwhile, multinational companies are shifting a growing share of profits offshore – €600bn in the last year alone – the leading economist Gabriel Zucman will reveal in a study to be published later this week. That money leaves a hole in our economy, which is refilled at the expense of those with the very least to contribute to paying off the “national debt” – another Conservative obsession and justification for their austerity programme. 

The human costs of a “business friendly” neoliberal economy

The government have long claimed that they are “helping” sick and disabled people into work. This “support” entails putting disabled people through systematic ordeals, and constantly moving ever-shrinking goalposts – the claimed objective of which is “targeting” resources to “those most in need”.

The Conservatives use glib, patronising, ridiculous and baffling phrases in their rhetoric, guidelines and policy papers, saying things like they don’t want disabled people to “fall out of employment”, for example. Yet PIP, which is a non means tested payment, quite often supports people in employment, as did the now abolished Independent Living Fund. But PIP is very difficult to qualify for. At my own assessment, my previous post (which ended seven years ago, with social services) was actually used as “evidence” that I don’t have significant cognitive difficulties. However I was forced to give up that post when I became too ill to work. PIP certainly doesn’t seem to be about supporting disabled people in maintaining independence, despite its title.

If it were, then we wouldn’t be witnessing so many losing their award as they are transferred from Disability Living Allowance, or seeing it reduced. Many disabled people are losing their mobility award and consequently, their motability vehicles, which inevitably means that some in this group won’t be able to continue working.

The government has targeted disabled people in order to cut their support and to make savings by reducing the availability of lifeline support that was once accessible to those of us unlucky enough to be disabled, to become ill or have an accident, leaving us unable to earn an income. You know, those provisions that our national insurance pays for.

There is no reason whatsoever to presume that disabled people are “frauds”. The ordeals that have been introduced into the welfare system to deter fraud are not justifiable, since prior to the “reforms”, welfare fraud stood at just 0.7%/. Some of that tiny percentage was actually down to bureaucratic error, too, as administrative errors are included in the statistic. 

The claim that the ordeals incorporated into the system are to “protect the public purse” from fraud is utter rubbish. The ordeals deter most people from claiming, unless they absolutely have no choice. I’ve put off claiming PIP since 2012, when I was advised to by my doctor. Who wants to suffer the utter loss of dignity and punishment that the system meters out unless they really REALLY have to.

Some perspective:

People don’t “fall” out of their jobs: they become too ill to work or they lose their jobs because they are disabled. Every person facing an assessment is in that position because both they and their doctor have concluded that they are unfit for work – too unwell or unable. But the government refuses to accept first hand accounts and the professional opinion of professionals.

The government isn’t “helping” disabled people; it is making it as difficult as possible for people to claim support. The Conservatives are actually trying to coerce sick and disabled people who cannot work to work. Let’s have it straight. Because the whole process is so difficult, and because you are assessed and reassessed constantly, often having to go through mandatory review then appeal, which takes months and months on end, people with chronic illnesses especially experience worsening health because of the terrible stress and strain they are placed under by the state, and are therefore even LESS likely to “move closer” to employment.

In looking to make savings on disability benefits, the government is inflicting unacceptable harm and damage on disabled people. The system damages people’s health, wellbeing and more generally, their lives, because they have to struggle endlessly for a little basic support that most civilised societies would deem essential and  unproblematic.

All of this is because of the insulting assumption the Conservatives make that people who have illnesses or are disabled for other reasons are using their circumstances to wriggle out of their obligations to work, and of course, to fulfil their duty towards national production and the economy. Unfortunately, disability and medical conditions often restrain people from full participation in society, whether they like that or not. Cutting support will simply make inclusion and participation even less likely. 

How assessments are weighted towards the miserly state

The government has justified cuts to welfare more generally by making claims about the characters, attitudes and cognitive capacities of people claiming social security more generally. However, regardless of the front of blame-mongering rhetoric, both ESA and PIP were never intended to be easily accessible support mechanisms for disabled people. The very design of the assessments indicates this.

The Work Capability Assessment is a “norm-referenced” system, not a criterion-referenced system. These terms refer to different ways in which the evidence gathered from an assessment process is used. Criteria-referenced systems are considered to be objective and consider each case individually and on its own terms. Norm-referencing is designed to compare and rank assessments in relation to one another, rather than in relation to objective criteria. Norm-reference assessments score better or worse against a hypothetical standard,  which is determined by comparing scores against the overall performance results of a statistically selected group (a cohort). 

All of which is a sophisticated way of saying that there are in-built targets. To receive ESA, someone must score the required number of points and fall within the proportion of people the system will actually permit.  In practice, this means there is a finite number of people who can be awarded benefit, and that’s regardless of the number of people who actually meet the eligibility criteria. A serious limitation of norm-reference assessments is that the reference group – the cohort – may not represent the current population of those being assessed. Norm-referencing does not ensure that an  assessment is valid, either (i.e. that it measures the construct it is intended to measure). There is nothing to stop a government from using a very biased sample of the population, when they select a cohort.

In 2007, Conservative MP Timothy Boswell warned (9 Jan 2007 : Column 169): “I can imagine circumstances […] in which a future minister […] might wish to say: ‘We will introduce a norm. We are not going to have, by definition, more than 1.5 million people on employment and support allowance,’ and the tests will, in effect, be geared to deliver that result.”

The reassessment of everyone claiming Incapacity Benefit and all disabled people claiming Income Support became a major Conservative crusade that was, we were told, to save billions of pounds a year from the welfare budget, in the Conservative age of austerity. 

Similarly PIP assessments were developed to fit with a pre-conceived idea of how many people ought to qualify for support. The assessment is designed to allocate as few points as possible, by ignoring the real barriers people face in their daily living and assessing a person’s ability to “function” by using the most trivial  and non comparable descriptors.  Esther McVey disclosed in 2012 that she anticipated 300,000 disabled people would have their disability support cut or ended during the change over from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to PIP. That statement came before a single assessment had taken place. If that isn’t a declaration of the real intention behind the introduction of PIP, and that the assessment itself is pretty arbitrary, then I don’t know what is. It does strongly suggest the assessments are not being conducted fairly and “objectively”. 

In 2012, a GP posed as a trainee Atos assessor and recorded undercover video footage that was later broadcast by Channel 4’s investigative current affairs programme Dispatches. In the film, trainers warned the NHS doctor that if, on average, he were to recommend more than one claimant per day for the Support Group (out of the eight he would be expected to see each day) he would be subject to an increased level of management scrutiny through a mechanism known as “targeted audit”. The undercover doctor was told:

“If it’s more than I think 12% or 13%, you will be fed back ‘your rate is too high’.”

An assessor under “targeted audit” would have all of their reports scrutinised before they were sent to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and would no longer be allowed to recommend any claimants for the Support Group without asking for permission first. When the doctor asked an experienced assessor where these rules had come from, she replied: “The DWP”.

Both the DWP and Atos categorically denied ever having had any target for getting claimants off sickness benefits. However, both eventually admitted that Support Group “norms” were being used nationwide, though they both denied that the purpose of “targeted audit” was to limit the number of claimants placed in the Support Group.

Atos said that the audit process triggered by the breach of a “norm” was intended to ensure consistency across the firm’s UK team: if the assessor’s reports met the DWP’s expectations, the healthcare professional would not be asked to change their recommendations.

The decision-making process for awards certainly do not command public confidence, they depend on assessments of “functional impact” that are far from a precise science. In fact it isn’t “science” at all. There is a continuing widespread misperception that PIP is a medical test rather than an assessment of functional capacity, not helped by the fact that assessors are refered to as “Health Professionals”, and Atos claims to be a “medical Service”, while Maximus claims it conducts a “health assessment” rather than a work capability assessment. 

Last November, a United Nations (UN) committee published a scathing report on the consequences of the austerity policies pursued by the UK government in welfare and social care, which it described as “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities. Many of us have raised our concerns and fears with the UK government about the harsh impacts of austerity on disabled people, following the publication of the welfare “reform” bill in 2012, but we were ignored. 

The members of the House of Lords, opposition ministers, the Work and Pensions committee, disabled people’s organisations, charities and support groups and many individuals all tried to engage the government, but to no avail. We were excluded from any democratic dialogue, with accusations of “scaremongering”, and then silenced with false statistics and dishonest claims from Conservative ministers, who presented to us nothing but their own prejudice and contempt. 

We meticulously presented cases to ministers that demonstrated the hardship, harm, distress, loss of independence and dignity, and sometimes, the deaths, that correlate with the reforms and cuts. However, the first hand accounts of our experiences of Conservative policies, as disabled people, were loudly dismissed as “anecdotal evidence”. Over and over we were told by ministers that there was no “proven causal link” established between the policies and the frightening events that we were experiencing and reporting. The fact that the government refused to listen to us and were so uncompromising added another dimension and depth to the fears we experienced.

Many of us raised felt we had no choice but to raise our concerns and fears with the United Nations using the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a side-agreement to the Convention which allows its parties to recognise the competence of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to consider complaints from individuals. Many of us have been documenting and submitting evidence to the UN since 2012. There followed an inquiry, more evidence was gathered. The government dismissed the UN report as “patronising and offensive”. However, given that the government is well aware that disabled people and disability organisations were responsible for the complaints that initiated the inquiry, the  patronising and offensive bluster and attitude is descending from Whitehall. 

A recent report from the UN expressed grave concern regarding care and treatment policies, which were described as insufficient to the extent of being “inconsistent with the right to life of persons with disabilities as equal and contributing members of society”.

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary said “The UN committee has found that this Tory government is still failing sick and disabled people. Their damning report highlights what many disabled people already know to be true: that they are being forced to bear the brunt of failed Tory austerity policies.”

Before 2010, the very idea of cutting disability support was unthinkable. The Conservative behaviourist turn is a cruel front for inexcusably squeezing a few pounds more from disabled peopleso that wealthy people can avoid paying tax.

Thatcher’s government was fond of perpetuating the “culture of poverty” myth, but the current government has taken that to a new low, and has implemented costly big state policies which aim at “recifying” behaviours considered “not in our best interests”. The only beneficiaries are the private companies and multinationals who make a profit from administering the punitive cuts. The cuts which are costing more to implement than they can possibly save, in a “business friendly” political climate. One where the government tells us that we need to “incentivise” wealthy people to create jobs and contribute to the economy by giving them more money, while poor people are “incentivised” by not having enough money to meet their basic survival needs. Accumulation by the wealthy by dispossession of the poorest.

Welfare has incorporated a Conservative moral crusade aimed at coercing conformity and compliance to draconian state-determined conditions.

Meanwhile, some very wealthy people are making massive profits from the governments’ austerity programme, particularly the welfare “reforms”. 

Conservatism is synonymous with social and economic inequality – with handouts for the rich and subsequently, much less money for the poor. 

In the UK, democracy, human rights, independence, wellbeing, security, freedom and wealth have been privatised. Only 1% of the population can afford them these days, and they tend to bank offshore.  

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Choice Architecture of a Democratic Politics – Hubert Huzzah


A lot has been written in recent years about the value of Behavioural Economics in nudging the Electorate to do make good choices. A lot less has been achieved in the area of nudging politicians. Politicians are pivotal in society and nudging them will have far greater impact on society than piecemeal and dissipated nudging of Citizens. Indeed the nudging of politicians is not only the most rational and efficient way to achieve positive outcomes for society but also ensure that both politicians and Electorate are of one mind when it comes to being “all in it together”.

The Choice Architecture of Parliament has, for centuries, favoured unaccountable and poor decision-making in isolation from the actual needs and wants of the Electorate. Indeed, women only acquired the right to vote in 1918, voting only became one person one vote in 1948 and the franchise has only been extended to 18 year olds since 1969, in the United Kingdom. Democratic participation has never been the primary aim of Parliament, for reasons that can be understood through a consideration of Behavioural Economics: Parliament is about the allocation and distribution of Power.

Reducing the tyranny of choice.

The sheer number of choices available to politicians is a tyranny.

From expenses for underpants to abstaining from critical votes, the sheer amount of time and energy devoted to Politicians’ choices diminishes political utility. The Electorate can become the Choice Architects of Parliament by democratically limiting alternatives and providing decision support tools.

Traditionally, Parliament has excluded the Electorate from many Parliamentary processes. Indeed with around thirty-five million eligible voters, Parliament can only function by being efficient. The true scale of the tyranny of choice can be expressed, mathematically, and this gives the Choice Architects of Parliament powerful tools to determine how efficient Politicians are being. The exclusion of the Electorate from some Parliamentary processes and admission into others can end the moral hazard and confirmation biases inherent in a closed decision-making group.

Queueing theory has its origins in research by Agner Krarup Erlang when he created models to describe the Copenhagen telephone exchange and has provided such important results as the Queueing Rule Of Thumb, which can be used to determine how many Politicians are required and if a Politician is efficiently making choices. This reduction of the tyranny of choices only begins the radical reform of Parliament by transforming Politicians into fit for purpose Decision Makers whose optimisation of resources for the Electorate is a Public Good. Identifying which Politicians are failing the Electorate in aggregate becomes a simple task of a well designed Randomised Control Trial.

Defaults

A large body of research has shown that, paribus ceteris, Politician are people and choose options that are presented as a default.

The Choice Architects of Parliament will create the defaults of deselection and prosecution for Politicians cause harm to the Electorate. The Precautionary Principle, applied to Legislators will ensure the best choices are available to Parliament at all times.

Historically, the defaults presented to Politicians have been those defaults prepared by Think Tanks, Lobbyists, Consultants and the Civil Service. While there is nothing undemocratic about seeking the advice of Experts, the pool of expertise has diminished in recent years until it has, largely, become an unnecessary barrier to efficiency and a source of largesse for rewarding anchoring biases and bandwagon effects. Fundamentally the Choice Architects of Parliament will minimise the framing effect of these expert consultations which can result in failure by default as the direct outcome of the Dunning-Kruger Effect discovered in a range of notionally independent Think Tanks, Lobbyists and Consultants.

In contrast to genuinely principle based policies, Politicians have come to rely on the self-assembly policies, for which consultations provides defaults and instructions, in the same way that people value furniture that they have assembled themselves. Research has shown that people value a book shelf more if they assemble it themselves than if it is already assembled. The Political Pareidolia of Consultation Defaults will be ended by the Choice Architects of Parliament by evidence based defaults for Politicians.

A simple and enduring evidence based default for Politicians is to be recalled from office should they choose a default purely because it is a default. In evidence based policy, default policies can be randomised in order to ensure that Politicians are not simply choosing the first option on the list. Research at the Department of Work and Pensions has demonstrated that Claimants understand and appreciate the value of sanctions in making good choices and there is no evidence that Politicians are not the same as Claimants. The Sanction Regime will be the Primary Default for Politicians in Policy Formation and no secret will be made of that; because, then, Politicians can make the right and informed choice and, importantly, feed back those choices to Think Tanks, Lobbyists, Consultants and the Civil Service with appropriate behaviours.

Choice over time

Choices where outcomes manifest in the future are influenced by several biases.

Politicians tend to be myopic, preferring present opinion poll or ideological outcomes at the expense of future concrete outcomes for the Electorate. This leads over exploitation of present day resources at the expense of the future. Political projections about the future tend to be inaccurate with uncertainty promoting overestimation of the likelihood of positive outcomes for vanity projects.

The Choice Architects of Parliament have several ways to structure choice architecture to compensate for or reduce these ideological and opinion poll biases. Where Politicians have an uncertain future, they are motivated to overestimate the likelihood of salient or desirable outcomes and the resulting poor choices cascade outwards into the Electorate with consequences that are, generally, unforseen by the Politician. By making all Political Choices by a politician contribute to the future wellbeing of the Politician, Policy will be driven to improve.

The default Sanction Regime is only functionally effective if the Sanctions escalate over time. The current Sanction Regime for Politicians consists of not being elected at the next General Election. There are rare occasions when a Politician resigns inducing a by-election. This is not a Sanction in the same way as a General Election as it is controlled by the Politician. Similarly, being Suspended from the House is a Sanction under the control of the Speaker.

Partitioning options and attributes

The ways in which options and attributes are grouped influence the choices that are made. 

Option partitioning requires division of a budget into categories. The attributes of a category are clumped or divided according to Government Department and Ideology. Politicians have a tendency to claim resources are scarce and allocated equally across categories. By itemising ideologically acceptable attributes and aggregating ideologically undesirable attributes, Politicians managed consumption by managing the number of attributes into types of categorizations.

The Choice Architects of Parliament will undertake a root and branch review of ideological choices and manage Political expectations by recalling Politicians where their ideological categories do not match those of the Electorate. The choice tools available to Politicians will cease to be limited to those provided by Lobbyists and Think Tanks.

Indeed each Individual Lobbyist and Think Tank will cease to be treated as an attribute of Political Life in Parliament and become a Category within the Register of Members’ Interests. Similarly, each Elector will become a Category for each “Elected Representative”. This will ensure that Politicians allocate the scare resources of their time equally across Electorate and Special Interests. The consumption of Lobbying can, therefore, be managed by the Choice Architects of Parliament.

Avoiding attribute overload

Politicians would optimally consider all of a Policy’s attributes when deciding between options. Cognitive constraints, result in weighing attributes in the same way as choices. As a result, The Choice Architects of Parliament will choose to limit the number of attributes of a policy, weighing the cognitive effort required to consider multiple attributes against the value of improved Governance. In order to ensuring cognitive attribute overload does not occur, the number of Politicians will be increased by reducing the size of Constituencies. Thus Politicians will be both more accountable and less prone to attribute overload.

This presents challenges if Politicians ideologically commit to different attributes to the Electorate and so the Choice Architects of Parliament provide tools for sorting, informing and recalling Politicians. The principal means of avoiding attribute overload will become the Political Capability Assessment. Rather than belabouring the difficulties of partitioning attributes and categories, Politicians will be periodically assessed for their suitability by Political Activity Practitioners selected from the General Electorate.

Translating attributes

The presentation of information about attributes reduces the cognitive effort associated with representation and so reduces the failure of Politicians to do as the Electorate instructs. The Choice Architects of Parliament will accomplished this by increasing evaluability and comparability of attributes. The Choice Architects of Parliament will convert commonly used metrics into metrics Politicians are assumed to care about. Such as “Expenses per Majority” and “Lobbyists per Day”. Non-linear metrics will be transformed into linear metrics and evaluative labels will be added to numerical metrics, explicitly calculating consequences such as “Swing to deselection” and “probability of prison”.

The Choice Architects of Parliament

For too long, Politicians have avoided the reality of their situation. In particular, the finances of Parliamentary Politicians has been allowed to drift along making poor choices with poor consequences for Constituents.With the advent of Behavioural Economics it has become clear that something must be done to curb the poor choices of politicians.

Imagine how much easier it would be for a Minister to refrain from sending an aide out to purchase sex aids if all purchases of goods or services by all Politicians were restricted to the use of a Parliamentary Credit Card. By having a Parliamentary Credit Card updating a database in real time, Politicians can make good purchasing decisions and demonstrate their accountability in real time. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority would transform from being a bureaucratic nightmare into being a modern and efficient Politicians’ Financial Services Organisation.

Paperwork would be eliminated as transactions would automatically register and enter the public domain through the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority Website. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority showing approval or rejection of expense items giving feedback to the Electorate in real time. Rejected items could be annotated quickly to ensure Politicians understand the consequences of their choices.

Politicians have always been accused of using the ambiguity of Parliamentary and Constituency Homes as a source of income. The difficulty of maintaining two dwellings is a common one that can result in suboptimal resource allocation. The resulting problem of spare rooms has been solved for a range of Benefits Claimants by adjusting the level of support available. The same principle, applied to Politicians, has a simple and elegant solution which helps them to avoid attribute overload – both in their own accommodation and in policy formation.

By housing Politicians in the Tower Blocks in and around the precincts of Parliament, the suboptimal resource allocation of resources to accommodation vanishes and Politicians are motivated to ensure the highest standards for accommodation within the constraints provided by the Tenant Management Organisation. By ensuring the Tenant Management Organisation is responsible for providing Tower Block Housing within Local Authority constraints, Politicians can both choose to relieve themselves of poor choices about maintenance and provide a pathfinder for excellence in housing choices over time.

While expenses and housing are major concerns, the single most important behaviour Politicians engage in is voting in Parliament. Poor voting decisions have serious, long-term outcomes that adversely affect the Electorate. Politicians who have expectations that decisions made in the first year of office will not have an effect in the fifth year of office experience no loss aversion. By following the Precautionary Principle, Politician who make poor voting decisions would have their term of office shortened thus bringing the date of their next election forwards. Sufficient poor voting decisions would trigger an early General Election. This ensures Party Whips are given the opportunity to avoid loss though an early election with motivation to ensure Politicians make good decisions at all stages of a Parliament.

The danger of applying a time tariff to voting decisions is that Politicians will attempt to game the system with poor decisions. In order to ensure Politicians are as motivated as their Party to make good decisions, Randomised Control Trials will be run against each and every vote in Parliament. Politicians are randomly matched against a representative sample of voters from their Constituency and their actual vote. Politicians who are so selected will be obliged to discuss their decision-making during a Political Capability Assessment.

In order to ensure that the Political Capability Assessment is fair and realistic, the Political Activity Practitioners will be selected from the General Electorate and Expertise will be excluded in order to ensure avoidance of The Political Pareidolia of Consultation Defaults. In line with the practices of the Work Capability Assessment process, there will be a rejection rate for all assessments. The rejection rate will be evidenced based on the number of people who voted against the Politician at the last election. The ordeal of appealing against the Political Capability Assessment will focus Politicians on making better decisions and becomes a necessary part of political life.

The Choice Architects of Parliament are in their early days and have little, if any, concrete proposals developed to the state of implementation. Randomised Control Trials have a role to play in the selection and election of Politicians prior to any Parliament. Not only are Politicians going to be more efficient and effective at making decisions they will be making better decisions. The kind of decisions that they can be responsible for. Because they will be held to be responsible and that means there will be consequences for all they do.

 Independent Standards Authority MP costs. Interactive map.

Article by Hubert Huzzah.

 Picture: George Grosz and John Heartfield: “Jederman sein eigner Fussball”, 1919.