Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A second purely hypothetical conversation

The scene: A party leader is seated behind a large desk, to his right is a strategic adviser. A third man, enters the room, he is a longstanding party representative who was first elected when the other two were literally still in nappies.

Strategic adviser:  [using an unnecessarily curt and patronising tone] Good afternoon, please take a seat ... I hope you appreciate that we have taken valuable time out of our very busy schedules to see you.

Old school politician: Yes lad, I am aware that you boys are busy, however I had rather been hoping that this would be a confidential discussion.

Strategic adviser:  Oh, I'm afraid that would be totally out of the question.

Old school politician:  How come?

Strategic adviser: Well as his strategic adviser it is important that I am party to any discussions that take place, but my presence will also be of benefit to you, as I will be quickly able to address your concerns in regards to official party policy.

Old school politician: [addressing party leader] Is this what our once great party has been reduced to?
   
Strategic adviser:  Perhaps things were different in your day, but without my input there wouldn't be a chance of us returning to power.

Old school politician:  What do you mean by your "input"? ... What exactly is it that you do for the party?
   
Strategic adviser:  I help to develop the party line on the issues of the day. My team do extensive research and determine which will be the most popular policies on any given issue. Once the core policy lines are determined I help the party to define central narratives in order to convey our message to the voter.

Old school politician: [addressing party leader] Hark at that gibberish, have you nowt to say to me young lad?

Party leader: To be honest, I'd be lost without policy advice. Politics has changed a lot since your day. 

Old school politician:  [Irked tone of voice] What do you mean since my day? I am still an active elected representative for this party am I not?
  
Strategic adviser:  [insincerity obvious in tone of voice] Sorry old man, no offence intended. Perhaps we should say, politics has changed a lot since you were first elected?

Old school politician:  Well, in some ways things have changed a lot since 1970, but other things remain the same. Empty populism is still empty populism.
   
Strategic adviser:  [Agitated] I'm not sure what you're getting at ...

Old school politician:  Well to spell it out for you young lad, what this party needs is ideology, integrity and a strong message on social justice. It doesn't matter how you package up all of the strategies that your polls tell you the public won't hate, your "narrative" is never going to work because it's not coherent. In order to have a coherent narrative there needs to be a moral foundation to the story. Your story has no moral because it's built on a foundation of opinion polls and bloody management speak.

Party leader: [trying to calm the situation] Well, since we don't have a lot of time, perhaps we should move onto this list of issues you would like to raise? [holding sheet of paper]
   
Strategic adviser:  [consults his copy of the list as if inspecting something utterly distasteful - like a used condom perhaps] Well, item one on your list is trade unions, perhaps it would be logical to start there?

Old school politician: [impassioned] Surely it is insanity to break the historic link with the trade unions, not only was this party founded to represent the interests of the workers, the unions still provide 80% of our funding!
   
Strategic adviser:  Well that may be true, but the right-wing press are eating us alive. They hate the unions and they're using our links to the unions as a stick to beat us with.

Old school politician:  But the unions aren't all that bad, the tabloids journalists criticise the unions because they are the paid mouthpieces of the corporate establishment. Every time the right-wing hark on about trade unions, we should compare our funding with that of the government. Surely a message that we are funded by millions of working people, whilst the government are funded by a few dozen multi-millionaires isn't that hard to fit into your "narrative"? [contempt in voice obvious as the word "narrative" is spat out]
   
Strategic adviser: Look, we're moving on from the unions, and there's nothing old school dinosaurs like you can do to stop it. We simply can't create the kinds of polices that will be popular with the press if the unions are allowed to interfere.

Old school politician:  [seethingly angry but attempting to remain calm] So let me ask you this ... Where are you going to make up the 80% of our funding you're going to lose by doing this? 
   
Strategic adviser:  Well we're hoping that we'll get state funding of political parties onto the agenda...

Old school politician: So you're trashing our main source of revenue and all you've got to offer is some vague hopes? What are you going to do if the other parties refuse to go along with central funding?
   
Strategic adviser: Well, we'd have to look at direct funding from business and major donors.

Old school politician:  [raised voice, turning to shouting] What? You mean we'd have to adopt the same crony capitalist funding arrangements as the government? Are you crazy? Don't you think that these businesses and wealthy donors might want to influence policy too? Don't you see the insanity of throwing away donations from the unions because of their influence over party policy and replacing their donations with capitalist donations, and giving the bloody capitalists even more influence over party policy?

Party leader:  [interrupts because things are getting too confrontational again] Well, lets say that we agree to disagree on that one. What's next?
   
Strategic adviser: [sarcastic tone] It seems our policy on the health service isn't to your satisfaction.

Old school politician: If we actually had a policy on the health service, then perhaps I might be able to form an opinion on whether it is satisfactory or not!
   
Strategic adviser: [clearly irritated] What do you mean by that?

Old school politician: I meant what I said young lad, something you young pretenders should learn a thing or two about.

Party leader: But we do have a policy on the health service, though don't we? [worryingly this seems to be asked as a genuine question, as if he himself is in doubt about the existence of party policy on the health service]
 
Old school politician: [Angry reaction again]  It doesn't matter. As far as the public are concerned, you don't have a clear policy on the health service and you're not doing enough to combat the ongoing privatisation. I mean even the Early Day Motion against the keystone privatisation amendment was first proposed by that Green MP wasn't it? ... Then what? You just let the government rewrite it in slightly different words so that all services would still have to be tendered to the private sector and the lowest bids would still have to be accepted, irrespective of patient safety or quality of service ... You just let them sell it off in front of your noses!

Party leader: [conciliatory tone] Well you're clearly upset about this ...
   
Strategic adviser: [Interrupts] Look, there's nothing we can do about it anyway. The health service must be privatised because of the US-EU free trade agreement. There's nothing a few old school lefties like you can do about it.

Old school politician: So you're telling me that national health policy has been completely outsourced, and now it is now decided between a bunch of unelected neoliberal technocrats in Brussels and the bloody Americans?

Party leader: Well I wouldn't put it like that...
 
Old school politician:  How would you put it then?

Party leader: Well, it's just out of out hands now isn't it?
   
Strategic adviser: [interjects before the old school politician can start shouting again] OK, so we've established that there's nothing we can do to accommodate your concerns about the health service, what's next ... Zero Hours Contracts?

Old school politician:  Well we should oppose them.
   
Strategic adviser:  We can't.

Old school politician:  Why on earth not?
   
Strategic adviser:  Because we didn't oppose them when we were in power, in fact we let them spread like wildfire.

Old school politician: What has that got to do with opposing them now?
   
Strategic adviser:  [adopts intensely patronising tone] Well, if we begin opposing them now, when we didn't oppose them before, that makes us look inconsistent. If the polls tell us just one thing, it's that the voters hate inconsistency.

Old school politician:  What a load of cobblers.
   
Strategic adviser:  Look we can't oppose Zero Hour Contracts because the government and the right-wing press would just accuse us of opportunism, and that's that.

Party leader:  [adopts cheerful tone, because he seems rather pleased that the old school politician is merely bubbling with unspoken rage rather than shouting] So what's next?
   
Strategic adviser: Legal loan sharks? What do you even mean by that?

Old school politician: You know, those parasitical companies that make usurious five thousand percent loans to the mentally ill, the financially illiterate, the absolutely bloody desperate... What do you call them again?

Party leader: Payday loan companies. [sense of smugness at knowing the answer] 

Old school politician:  Yes, that's them. They suck money out of the poorest communities, they donate money to the bloody government and they are so immoral they're even regulated in the United States! We should oppose them and promise to ban them.
   
Strategic adviser:  No can do!

Old school politician:  What?
   
Strategic adviser:  [adopts excruciatingly patronising tone again] We can't oppose them now because we didn't oppose them when we were in power. If we change our position now, we'll look inconsistent, we'll look like opportunists.

Old school politician:  [addressing party leader] Hark at this gibberish again. Is it not better to admit we made a mistake and do something that is morally right?

Party leader: [intake of breath, about to speak]

Strategic adviser:  [interrupts] Certainly not.

Party leader: [intejects quickly to avoid more argument on the subject] What's next on the agenda?
 
Strategic adviser: [distainfully reads out list] Workfare ... Atos ... retroactive law ... Royal Mail privatisation ... PFI ... Look here. These are all things we introduced last time we were in power! I'm getting tired of repeating myself, we can't change course now. We mustn't appear inconsistent so it's just better to keep our heads down and wait until we get back into power.

Old school politician: And then what? We'll address them when we're back in government?

Party leader: Perhaps.

Strategic adviser: [fires scornful look at party leader, in the manner of a teacher scolding a child that has stepped out of line] We can't be seen to make any such promises.

Old school politician:  So given you're refusing to actually oppose anything that the current government are doing, why should anyone vote for us?

Strategic adviser: Well, you know as well as I do that some 20% people always vote for us because they're political tribalists, enough of the rest will be impressed at the consistency of our narratives.

Old school politician:  Consistently shite they are!

Strategic adviser: [taking moral high ground] Well, you'll convince nobody with foul language.

Old school politician: Well I certainly wasn't getting through with reason was I?

Party leader: [scanning list] Well there are just a couple more items on your list, what's this about fracking? 

Old school politician: Well there the environmental case against fracking, but you should really be attacking them on their blatant conflicts of interest.
 
Party leader: well... 

Strategic adviser: [interrupts] Look the environmental case is a no go. The press would paint us as environmentalist hippies, so we can't go there, and the conflicts of interest angle is also unworkable ...

Old school politician:  Why? There's at least half a dozen of them with major interests in the fracking business they've just given a huge tax break to.

Strategic adviser: Well if we attack their conflicts of interest, then they'll attack ours.

Old school politician:  We shouldn't damn well have conflicts of interest. I don't have conflicts of interest. I don't accept corporate donations. I don't accept corporate freebies and junkets.

Strategic adviser: Well, most of your colleagues do. Nobody but you is going to vote in favour of stopping corporate donations to politicians. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas you know!

Party leader: What's this last one? Internet Censorship...

Strategic adviser: Well we can't oppose that can we?

Old school politician: [exasperated] Why not?

Strategic adviser: Because their strategists have played a blinder on that one by tying it up with rape porn and child abuse. If we oppose the introduction of internet censorship, the average Joe will think we're opposing it because we approve of porn and child abuse. Nope, it just won't wash.

Party leader: Okay, that's about it then isn't it. Thank you for raising these concerns.

Old school politician leaves the room muttering about historic party figures spinning in their graves.

Strategic adviser: I don't see why you waste your time with these dinosaurs. Can't you just deselect them and replace then with reliable people that know how to stay "on message"?

Party leader: No, not really. We can't force them out, but they're a dying breed anyway. Most of them have gone in the last 19 years, and the few that remain are getting old. Anyhow, they do still have some popular appeal with left-wing voters don't they?

Strategic adviser: How many times have I told you to forget about left-wing voters. They don't matter. They'll vote for us because they have no other alternative. They're hardly going to vote for the other two parties are they?

Party leader: I suppose not.

Strategic adviser: [laughing] I mean does he really think that people would vote for militants like him? Nobody wants their politicians banging on about ethics and integrity and social justice do they?

Party leader:  [laughing in the manner of someone that clearly doesn't understand what's funny] I suppose not.

Strategic adviser: Right, who have we got next? Oh, it's the guys from Policy Exchange. They've got some great ideas we should look at...

 Another Angry Voice  is a not-for-profit page which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only source of revenue for  Another Angry Voice  is the  PayPal  donations box (which can be found in the right hand column, fairly near the top of the page). If you could afford to make a donation to help keep this site going, it would be massively appreciated.

David Howell and the fracking business

On 30 July 2013 George Osborne's father-in law David Howell stunned the House of Lords with some absurd remarks about the North East of England during a debate about fracking. His remarks were so ridiculous that they even drew gasps from the assorted unelected political stooges that occupy the anti-democratic upper house. Here's what he said:
"there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly in part of the North East where there's plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody's residence"
Howell's remarks provoked a frenzy of criticism and some furious back peddling from Tory high command. The Tory hierarchy were remarkably quick to distance themselves from his comments and seemed ever so keen to stress that Howell hasn't been a government energy adviser since April 2013, even though there was absolutely no public announcement of his leaving at the time (we'll come back to this later).

As I come from North Yorkshire I feel inclined to criticise his clueless dismissal of the North East* as "desolate" and "uninhabited", not least because he was part of the Thatcher government of the 1980s that inflicted so much desolation on the North East with their ideological war against big industry.

* Note for pedants: North Yorkshire may be in the Yorkshire and Humber European election region, but to me, a North Yorkshireman, it is in the North East. If you are in doubt about this, look at the map of England and note the position of Manchester and York. You'll notice that York is significantly further north than Manchester, meaning that if Manchester is in the North West, North Yorkshire is quite clearly the North East.

Howell's comments reveal that he is obviously some clueless southern toff that is only capable of imagining incredibly scenic northern places like the Northumberland coast or the Yorkshire Dales purely in terms of the cash his corporate mates could extract by trashing them. Howell's remarks demonstrate that he clearly has nothing but ignorant contempt for an entire region.

Howell's ignorance of my region make me angry (especially given the socio-economic damage his party have inflicted on the North East economy) however I'm going to avoid focusing upon his casual contempt for the North East and it's people and getting bogged down in writing an impassioned defence of my region. Anyone with a grain of sense can see that the North East is not some desolate uninhabited wasteland where fracking rigs will pass unnoticed by the non-existent population, and anyone is capable of finding out for themselves how beautiful the Noth East actually is by visiting (or learning more about) places like the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, Hadrian's Wall, Whitby, York, or the spectacular Northumberland coast.


The reason I'm going to skip past the impassioned defence of my region is that it has already been done by many people already since Howell's comments were made, and in my view there is actually a much more significant issue to consider, and as is usually the case with Tories, the real story can be found by following the money.

Howell has several direct interests in the fracking business. The one that has been discussed the most in the press is his role as president of the British Institute of Energy Economics, sponsored by Shell and BP amongst others (companies that must have been delighted when Howell's son-in-law George Osborne delivered them an enormous tax break on their fracking interests just two weeks ago).

As well as the BIEE lobbying interest that has been widely reported in the press, Howell is also the chairman of another energy lobbying group called Windsor Energy Group. On the Windsor Energy Linkedin profile (registration necessary) they boast about "building bridges between the public and the private sectors" and brag about their lack of openness and transparency - "discussions are kept non-attributable to allow full and frank exchanges of views". The financial backers of Howell's energy lobbying group listed on their webpage include the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Chinese government, various petrochemical companies including British Gas, British Petroleum, Shell, Marathon Oil, Kuwait Petroleum, Petrofac, PDVSA, and even NATO!

It is absolutely clear from these two declared financial interests that Howell is a professional lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, and a small amount of further digging reveals that several of his clients have direct financial interests in the fracking business.

Shell - One of the largest players in the global fracking business
BP - Major investments in fracking.
British Gas - 40% owner of Cuadrilla (who already have dozens of fracking licenses across the UK) .
Marathon Oil - Major player in the US fracking business


The fact that Howell is an energy industry lobbyist should raise the question of how, given such brazen conflicts of interest, he is even allowed to participate in debates on fracking in the unelected upper house. Some people might say that it is fine, as long as he declares his conflicts of interest, however I disagree. If the individual in question represents clients with major investments in a particular industry, then they should have absolutely no right to interfere in the legislative process when it comes to regulations governing that industry. The fact that the unelected industry lobbyist David Howell was speaking in parliament at all, is actually far more offensive than his casually contemptuous remarks about the North East.

Another, more serious question needs to be raised about Howell's roles in government. Tory HQ were ever so keen to stress that Howell is no longer a government adviser, and that he hasn't been since April. It seems quite odd that they are now so keen to stress this fact, given that they didn't even bother to inform the public, or the press, when he left his government advisory position in April.

It is absolutely clear that whilst Howell was working as a paid energy policy adviser to the Tory government, he was also working as a lobbyist for several fossil fuel companies, with major interests in the fracking business. Perhaps it is just a "coincidence" that shortly after Howell finished advising the government, they announced that they are to slash taxes on fracking in half, cut regulation on the fracking industry and also cut subsidies on the renewable energy sector? Perhaps it is just serendipity for Howell's clients with major investments in fracking, that the government he was a paid energy adviser to, announced legislation that will be hugely beneficial to them, just a few weeks after he finished providing his energy policy advice?

Even if we assume the best, and imagine that Howell (a keen fracking enthusiast and vocal critic of renewable energy) had absolutely nothing to do with the government developing an extremely pro-fracking policy agenda, and rolling back investment in the renewable sector, the fact that he is an energy lobbyist and this is exactly what the government happened to decide whilst he was advising them looks awfully suspect. In my view, there is absolutely no way that it is justifiable for a government to take policy advice from someone with major interests in the industry they are advising on. Even if this this kind of enormous conflict of interest is not used by the lobbyist in order to influence legislation in a way that would benefit their clients, the impression that they could still leaves a revolting stink of suspicion.

In my view, industry lobbyists should have absolutely no right to interfere in the legislative process when it comes to regulation of the industry that they represent, and that they have no business at all advising the government on the very same policy area in which they work as a paid lobbyist.

As offensive as I find Howell's casual contempt for the region that I'm proud to call home, the stench of Tory conflicts of interest is far more repugnant.

 Another Angry Voice  is a not-for-profit page which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only source of revenue for  Another Angry Voice  is the  PayPal  donations box (which can be found in the right hand column, fairly near the top of the page). If you could afford to make a donation to help keep this site going, it would be massively appreciated.



More articles from
 ANOTHER ANGRY VOICE 
             
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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An unfair dismissal thought experiment

In a departure from my usual writing style I'm going to produce this article in the style of a thought experiment.
Firstly I'd like you to think of someone that is dear to you. Think of someone who is a diligent hard worker and takes pride in doing things properly. We all know someone who takes pride in their work: a father, a sister, a child or a firm friend.

Now imagine that this specific person is sacked by their employer on the flimsiest of grounds. Perhaps they complained about a safety violation at work, perhaps they had taken time off due to childbirth or a bereavement in the family, perhaps they were deemed too active in the trade union movement, perhaps they began suffering a serious illness or disability, perhaps they were a whistleblower, or perhaps they simply refused to give their boss a blowjob.
Now imagine this person thrust into financial uncertainty, their salary is no more, yet the bills and the financial commitments they have just keep accumulating. They are certain that they deserve unfair dismissal compensation, but then they find out that the government has slashed the amount they would have been entitled to, and large upfront fees have been put in place in order to deter them from lodging an unfair dismissal case, and another enormous fee is payable if the case actually reaches tribunal.
If your loved one has someone to turn to for financial assistance, that may be lucky for them, however many people with the hard-worker mentality also have a lot of pride when it comes to financial matters. A lot of people are too proud to ask their best friend, their father, their brother or perhaps a distant wealthy uncle to lend them £1,200. Would your loved one be one of these people that are too proud to beg?

If your loved one has nobody to turn to, or they're too proud to ask for help, who can they turn to? They can't turn to a high street bank. The likelihood of a bank lending a large sum to an individual without a salary in these economic circumstances is very low indeed. Perhaps they could turn to a No-Win No-Fee lawyer? The problem with this is that the government have already confiscated a large chunk of their compensation entitlement, a No-Win, No-Fee lawyer is just going to take another significant chunk out of the compensation, leaving your loved one with a mere fraction of what they deserve as compensation for their unfair sacking.

Perhaps your loved one scrapes together enough to cover the upfront legal fees, but they are left in dire poverty as the process of seeking legal redress spans into weeks and months. Perhaps their sheer financial desperation leaves than with no other choice but to turn to a Payday lender (that charges some 5,000% APR) for just enough cash to make ends meet.

Perhaps then your loved one finds out that the Chairman of the group that administers the Payday lending company they have turned to donated well over £500,000 to the Conservative party. The very party that introduced the new legislation to slash unfair dismissal entitlements and compel payment of upfront fees before people are even allowed to seek legal redress for their unfair sacking.

Imagine your loved one in this desperate situation. Would they be too proud to cry at this injustice?
Now imagine that they found out that the millionaire donor to the Conservative party was actually the one that drew up the new unfair dismissal legislation for the Conservative party in the first place.

What would their reaction to this information be?

Would they be angry? Would they adopt a stoic attitude? Would they meekly accept that injustices like these are just the way things are in modern Britain?
This isn't some fanciful tale. The process that has been described here will happen to the loved ones of thousands of people across the country as the new unfair dismissal legislation comes into force (with the active complicity of the Liberal Democrats). Perhaps these loved ones won't know about the role of the major Tory party donor with financial links to the Payday loan sector in all of this, but desperate circumstances like these will certainly happen to thousands of people's loved ones nonetheless.
  • The major Conservative party donor with a major financial interest in the Payday lending sector, Adrian Beecroft did actually design the new unfair dismissal legislation in a policy document called The Beecroft Report (which was originally lambasted by Liberal Democrats like Vince Cable, but then formed the backbone of the reforms he pushed through parliament).


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Tory priorities: Serve the rich, smash the poor
                     
The "making work pay" fallacy
         
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George Osborne's economic extremism
                     

Monday, July 29, 2013

Wage Repression explained



Wage repression is a fairly self-explanatory term meaning the deliberate undermining of wages by employers. Wage repression is most often used by private sector employers in order to cut their payroll expenditure, but taken as a whole, the state is actually the largest employer, and is just as capable of repressing wages as the private sector.

The idea that economic efficiency can be increased through the repression of wages is an article of faith for ideological neoliberals. Witness the effects of the current Tory austerity programme on wages, or think back to the 1980s when the collective bargaining rights of millions of workers were attacked by Margerat Thatcher's government.

I say that wage repression is an article of neoliberal faith because (much like a lot of orthodox neoliberal theory) there is actually little actual evidence that wage repression is good for the national economy, and in fact, a lot of evidence that it is actually harmful.

The reason that the subject of wage repression is important now, is that the UK is currently enduring the longest period of wage repression in over a century, in which the average wage has fallen in real terms every single month for three consecutive years (every month since the Tory led government came to power).

History

The idea that wage repression is actually bad for the economy is hardly a new one. Quakers and other non-conformist religious groups realised early in the industrial revolution that by paying reasonable wages, and providing additional benefits such as education and healthcare, they themselves benefited from the massively increased productivity of a loyal, healthy and educated workforce (as compared to the bitterly exploited, poor, unhealthy, malnourished and ill-educated workforces of the less ethically minded of the early industrial pioneers). Probably the most famous rejection of wage repression was the high pay / low price policy of the American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (hardly a "leftie" by any stretch of the imagination), who paid high wages and made low profit margins on his vehicles, so that his employees would return their wages back to his business through the purchase of the vehicles they themselves had been constructing.

To put the historic objection to wage repression into reasonably simple economic terms: Wage repression is bad because it reduces the disposable income of workers - When workers have less money to spend, this results in a fall in consumer spending - When consumer spending falls, aggregate demand falls - When aggregate demand falls the economy falls into low-growth, recession or depression.

I don't think it takes a lot of brains to realise that the less money the public have in their pockets, the less they are going to spend, and that this fall in spending will have a negative knock-on effect on the wider economy.

Private sector wage repression


Ever since the global financial sector meltdown of 2007-08 the private sector have gleefully used "the crisis" to justify wage repression. Millions of workers have suffered pay cuts or below inflation wage rises year, after year, after year. Meanwhile the FTSE 100 has risen to back to pre-crisis levels, British corporations are hoarding £billion in assets and executive pay is skyrocketing.

Over the last three years private sector workers have experience real terms wage cuts every single month, as the rate of inflation massively outstrips their rate of pay increase. The average British worker has lost 9% of their salary to inflation. Meanwhile the corporate executives have got fat engorging themselves on ludicrous pay hikes and bonuses. The average salary and bonuses of FTSE100 directors rose 33% in 2010, a whopping 49% in 2011, another 27% in 2012, and 14% in 2013, whilst their workers barely scraped a below inflation 1% average pay rise.

Wage repression and the welfare state

the welfare state was originally designed in order to support those that couldn't work (the elderly, the disabled, the sick, mothers with newborns) and those that found themselves temporarily unemployed.

Since the beginning of the neoliberal era in 1979, the role of the welfare state has become ever more distorted, as it has been used to facilitate private sector wage repression.

In the 1980s the Conservative government completely abandoned the idea of maintaining near-full employment and enacted policies which resulted in millions of people suffering long term unemployment. The benefits system was used to provide these millions with a subsistence income, just enough to keep them alive and available for work. The creation of mass unemployment was a deliberate strategy to aid wage repression by creating a vast standing army of unemployed people, willing to work for low wages in order to undermine workers wages. The Tory attacks on trade union rights went hand-in-hand with their policy of creating an artificial labour surplus via mass unemployment.


When New Labour came to power in 1997 they did very little to reverse the Tory wage repression policies; unemployment declined gradually, but nothing like the full employment era of the 1950s and 60s was achieved. New Labour also kept in place all of the oppressive anti-trade union laws enacted by their Tory predecessors. In fact, in some ways they allowed things to get much worse, through their refusal to legislate to prevent the rise in exploitative employment practices like Zero Hours Contracts.

What New Labour did instead was to use the benefits system to boost low wages, essentially facilitating the payment of poverty wages by exploitative employers by topping up earnings with benefits like Tax Credits and Housing Benefits.

When the typical reactionary anti-benefits ranter sees these payments, they don't even think about the role of wage repression in the situation, they simply label the victims of this exploitation as scroungers without the slightest thought for who the beneficiaries actually are. The real scroungers in this situation are obviously the private companies who increase their profit margins by paying poverty wages, and then expect the taxpayer to make up the shortfall so that their workers actually have enough money to survive.

To me, this stuff hardly seems difficult to understand, however it does seem to be far beyond the cognitive skills of most Tory voting anti-welfare reactionaries to grasp that the real "scroungers" are not the underpaid workers that actually receive these benefits, but the exploitative employers that benefit from cheap labour whilst the taxpayer makes up the shortfall.

Now that the Conservatives are back in power, they are determined to undo the New Labour welfare reforms designed to mitigate the worst effects of wage repression. They have launched round after round of benefits cuts, always relying on the combination of "scrounger narratives" and the absurd "making work pay" fallacy to create pseudo-justifications for their attacks on in-work benefits.

When benefits like Tax Credits are used to mitigate the effects of private sector wage repression, cutting these benefits can be seen as a deliberate attempt to increase the effects of wage repression.

Public sector wage repression


Wage repression is not exclusive to the private sector, it is also used by the state on workers that are directly employed by the state. In 2013 the Tory led Government (with the backing of the ever servile Liberal Democrats) imposed a below inflation 1% pay cap on public sector workers (except for MPs themselves of course, they'll collect a vast 11% pay rise). To put this into perspective, 75% of local government workers earn less than £21,000 a year. Capping their wage rises at 1% whilst simultaneously giving an average £100,000 a year tax break to Britain's 13,000 income millionaires is frankly obscene.

Another way in which the Tory led government are deliberately increasing levels of wage repression is through below inflation rises in the National Minimum Wage. This means that the incomes of millions of the lowest paid workers in Britain are suffering real terms income cuts.

Less repressive economies


It is obviously very difficult to make analyses between different countries given that there are so many factors other than levels of wage repression that can influence economic growth, however I think it is worth noting that the five countries with the highest National Minimum Wages have all significantly outperformed the UK economy since the effects of the global financial sector meltdown hit in 2007-08.

Conclusion

 
It would take willful ignorance to overlook the fact that the longest period of wage repression in a Century has coincided with the weakest period of economic performance in a Century.

This period of wage repression and economic contraction has also coincided with a period of unprecedented corporate largesse, with soaring executive pay, corporate asset hoarding and lavish cuts in Corporation Tax by the Tory government.

The Tory government haven't just lavished wage repressing businesses and their highest earners with huge tax-cuts, they have joined in with the wage repression too by imposing real terms cuts on public sector workers (apart from themselves of course), on in-work benefits, and on the salaries of those unlucky enough to be earning just the National Minimum Wage.

The stagnating UK economy is a clear illustration of the kind of economic destruction that results from building an economy on a foundation of ruthless self-interest. When an economy is administered by a government that can't see the glaring flaws in their beloved neoliberal pseudo-economic theories, the ruling class will give absolute priority to serving the financial interests of a tiny economic minority and repressing the incomes of everyone else to pay for it. When this crony capitalist "serve the rich, smash the poor" mentality is elevated above all other considerations (such as long-term economic stability, stimulation of economic demand, combating poverty, increasing national productivity, cutting the trade deficit or improving general public welfare) the economic consequences can be dire. But worse than that, the social consequences of driving the majority into greater poverty in order to enrich a tiny minority are even worse, given the fact that most negative social indicators arise from poverty and inequality.





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Sunday, July 28, 2013

How David Cameron's Internet firewall would change the internet

This article will detail a number of practical considerations relating to the roll-out of mandatory opt-out national "porn firewalls" announced by David Cameron in July 2013. For a much more comprehensive article detailing various other considerations such as the morality of censorship, please see my previous article on the subject, and for a satirical look at the process that may have led to these proposals, please check out this purely hypothetical conversation.

Firewall implementation

The Prime Minister has clearly stated that these Internet censorship filters will be rolled out on an opt-out basis. If the legislation is passed (which is extremely likely given that all opponents will be smeared as pornography supporters and associated with rape porn, paedophilia and the corruption of childhood - an untenable position for the Labour party opposition) it seems likely that you will soon be presented with an option by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) which will probably look something like this.
Parental controls have been installed on your Internet connection.
In order to manage these controls select change settings.
[ticked box] Accept
[unticked box] Change settings

[NEXT]
If you chose to accept and leave the settings unchanged (as some 95% of computer users always do) the full "parental control" firewall will be installed automatically. If you chose to change the settings, you will likely be confronted with a second page, with "parental control" options which will appear something like this:
Deselect categories to disable filtering
[ticked box] Pornography
[ticked box] Games
[ticked box] Social Networking
[ticked box] File sharing sites
[ticked box] Alcohol
[ticked box] Smoking
[ticked box] Drugs
[ticked box] Violent material and weapons
[ticked box] Extremist and terrorist related content
[ticked box] Anorexia and eating disorder websites
[ticked box] Suicide related websites
[ticked box] Web forums
[ticked box] Esoteric material
[ticked box] Web blocking circumvention tools
[SAVE]
Note: The Open Rights Group have described a similar censorship regime, however, their site seems to be describing an opt-in configuration and the Prime Minister has explicitly stated that the "parental control" filters will be installed on an opt-out basis, hence the slight difference between what ORG state as a possibility and what I have described here.


Web user profiling

The fact that Internet users will be expected to either accept the firewall or to consciously opt out of various options will create an excellent opportunity for web user profiling. The ability of US and UK intelligence agencies to access our private information has been made absolutely clear from the Snowden revelations. Knowing people's choices in their firewall options will be of enormous benefit to intelligence agencies and the countless private sector subcontractors that they provide with open access to our private data and communications.

Perhaps the simplest way to think about web user profiling is to consider it as a kind of credit rating. People that accept the filter without altering the options will be considered "low risk", whilst those that change the options will increase the likelihood that they are subjected to surveillance. An individual that unblocks pornography, alcohol and cigarettes would probably still fall into a fairly "low risk" category, those that enable circumvention tools (P2P networks, Proxy websites, VPNs ...) would be considered "high risk" and anyone daft enough to deliberately unblock extremist and terrorist content would be basically asking to be put into the "very high risk" category and subjected to repeated state surveillance.

Web monitoring

That national surveillance organisations have the powers to compel private companies to reveal our private data to them is absolutely beyond question now. The roll out of so-called "parental control" filters at the national scale will be a wonderful opportunity for the surveillance state to access our online activity because all of our web activity will be funneled through the firewall programmes for vetting.

This kind of continuous monitoring is precisely the method already used by the TalkTalk firewall system that David Cameron has based his web censorship model upon. That the operator of the TalkTalk firewall, that David Cameron is full of praise for, is the Chinese company Huawei (which has been deemed a threat to American national security by US intelligence officials) seems to be of no concern at all to the Prime Minister.

Blacklisting

Dr Martyn Thomas, chair of the IT policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology stated that:


"There's certainly a concern about the process of how a web address gets added to a blacklist - who knows about it? And who has an opportunity to appeal against it?"
Given that Cameron is full of praise for the unaccountable Huawei system operated by TalkTalk, it seems likely that the web monitoring systems will be installed on an ad hoc basis by the various ISPs with little or no accountability and no recourse to appeal should a website find itself added to the blacklist by the keyword algorithms used by the ISPs.

Essentially, if a website is found to include too many blacklisted words such as "porn", "rape", "sex", "violence", "war", "dieting tips", "depression", "play", "games", "chat", "forum", "Facebook", "Twitter", "suicide", "bet", "gambling", "terrorism", "Taliban", "weapons",  "spiritualism", "protest", "alcohol", "drugs", "beer", "cannabis", "smoking", "cigarettes" or contains any kind of chat facilities it will be automatically added to one or more of the web filtering categories and there will be little or nothing that the website owner will be able to do to reverse the censorship of their site.

There is however an alternative to algorithmic keyword blacklisting, which is the establishment of a national web monitoring and categorisation system. It may seem preferable to have a large bureaucracy of web monitors assessing which censorship categories a website will be subjected to, however there is absolutely nothing like this in the Conservative party proposals, and it would be extremely unlikely that they would set up an independent monitoring bureaucracy, given the normal methodology of the Tory party is the outsourcing of the functions of government to the private sector.

Conflicts of interest

If web censorship is left up to the individual ISPs to administer on an ad hoc basis (as seems likely), surely huge conflicts of interests may arise. Just as Tesco stopped stocking copies of Private Eye magazine after they exposed various dodgy Tesco tax-dodging scams, surely ISP will be tempted to use their new censorship powers to prevent their customers from gaining accessing websites that are critical of their business practices, or that expose their tax-dodging activities.

Accidental filtering

It is absolutely clear that whichever web censorship system is adopted (ad hoc algorithmic keyword analysis or a national censorship bureaucracy), mistakes will be made. There would obviously be more potential for mistakes with the probable ad hoc implementation of algorithmic censorship, since web crawling bots are unable to discern the correct context in which words are used, they'll simply stamp out websites that breech their arbitrary keyword analysis rules.

An independent web censorship bureaucracy would make fewer mistakes because human analysis should avoid the worst cases of arbitrary keyword censorship, since humans are more capable of determining words in their proper context. However mistakes will still be made, especially by people with personal agendas to push.

To demonstrate how a human administered system is fallible, perhaps we should consider how "pornography" is defined. To most people pornography probably means something like "content created explicitly for the purposes of sexual gratification", however this isn't really an accurate description. To a "pervert", kidswear catalogues or perfectly innocent pictures of children at the beach are pornographic material to be used for sexual gratification. Should access to these kinds of images be banned? How about the work of countless artists throughout the ages who have created artistic representations of the naked human form? To a prudish person working at a government censorship agency, the temptation to abuse their powers in order to censor things that are not actually explicitly pornographic, but which they disapprove of, would surely be overwhelming, especially if they knew that there was little oversight or recourse to appeal against their arbitrary decisions.

Web content

Whichever web censorship system is implemented (the almost certain ad hoc algo-bot arrangement favoured by David Cameron, or the state censorship bureau option) there will be a number of consequences for websites owners.

Sites that rely on commercial revenue will obviously be disincentivised from publishing content deemed likely to trigger the censorship algorithms. Coverage of important issues like pornography, child abuse, LGBT issues, eating disorders, depression, suicide, domestic violence, drug use and sexual health advice will be forced out of mainstream coverage, and made virtually inaccessible to anyone whose family has enabled web censorship in their home.Another factor to consider is that any website which allows user interactions will be in danger of suffering web censorship if they don't carefully moderate and delete any comments or links posted on their site that may trigger the algorithms. Probably the safest way to ensure that no such thing happens would be for websites to not only self censor the content of the site, but to remove the possibility of user interaction entirely.

Larger commercial websites will probably have greater recourse to appeal against being blacklisted, given that they will employ teams of web traffic analysts, who will be able to determine whether the site is being blocked by particular ISPs and legal teams to confront ISPs and prepare legal actions, but smaller commercial websites and independent non-commercial sites will just have to suffer, probably without even knowing they've been found guilty without trial and blacklisted, resulting in severe erosion of their readership or commercial revenues.

David Cameron's Internet firewall will silence countless independent websites and harm the commercial revenues of many legitimate businesses. It will drive coverage of certain legitimate issues off the Internet, and also drive website owners to shut down the freedom to comment on their content.

Not only will Cameron's firewall directly censor the Internet, it will also lead to indirect censorship as people take self-censorship measures out of fear of being silenced entirely by Cameron's Internet firewall regime.


It is probable that small websites like mine will be censored by the firewall because I have occasionally chosen to write about issues such as pornography, terrorism and drugs (see the list of "bad words" I used in the blacklisting section of this very article). Because I have a life outside of my social activism I barely find enough time in the day to even write and publicise my work, let alone devote countless hours to scouring my traffic stats to figure out whether my work is being blocked by a Tory state censorship regime and attempting to mount legal appeals.

Freedom of speech

Unlike citizens of the United States, the British public have no national constitutional guarantees of their freedom of speech. If access to an American website were blocked under instruction from the American government for nothing more than triggering an automatic keyword algorithm, the owner of the website would be able to claim a breach of their constitutional right to free speech had occurred and seek legal redress.

The closest thing the UK has to a constitutional right to freedom of expression is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but there are so many get-out clauses written into this legislation that it is rendered virtually meaningless. Even it were applicable, the Conservatives are absolutely determined to scrap the Human Rights Act and become the first country ever to withdraw from the ECHR, presumably so that there are fewer legal challenges to mad Tory policies such as Cameron's Internet censorship firewall, secret courts, private sector justice, retroactively applied laws and the Internet snooper's charter.

It seems unlikely, even if small, independent bloggers like myself found out that their website was being censored by the Cameron Internet firewall regime, that they would have any recourse to the courts to challenge the state mandated censorship of their work.

Denial of Service

One interesting area to consider is how the UK state deals with other groups that attempt to block access to web content. One of the strategies employed by activist groups such as Anonymous is called a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS). These attacks are used to block access to a target website by flooding it with millions of fake requests for information.

The UK government has essentially classified this kind of protest strategy as "economic terrorism" and outlawed the practice, setting a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for individuals that are involved in launching DDoS attacks.

The introduction of David Cameron's Internet censorship regime will leave us in the ludicrous situation where an individual could face 10 years in jail for attempting to temporarily block access to criminal organisations like HSBC or Barclays, whilst the government actually forces ISPs to introduce web filtering firewalls to permanently block access to countless perfectly legal websites.

Conclusion

Even if we naively assume that David Cameron's opt-out "parental controls" have not been designed as a Trojan Horse to implement mass web censorship and surveillance in order to crush political dissent, it is undeniably going to result in the accidental censorship of countless websites (commercial and non-profit alike) that trigger the "bad word" algorithms used in the kind of web censorship technology David Cameron champions.

Due to lack of oversight and accountability, the grounds for legal recourse for commercial losses or freedom of speech violations will be marginal.

The existence of a national web censorship regime, won't just result in the explicit censorship of perfectly legal material, it will also lead to a massive rise in self-censorship as website owners refuse to discuss certain topics, and shut down their forums out of fear of triggering the censorship algo-bots.

The potential for abuse of the system by the secret services, their private contractors, other government agencies and the private ISP companies (that will be given free reign to administer their own web-censorship regimes) is enormous.

The hypocrisy of the government mandating ISPs to permanently block access to perfectly legal material, whilst threatening individuals that may attempt to temporarily block access to criminal organisations with up to 10 years imprisonment couldn't be clearer.

All the while Cameron's "protect the innocence of childhood" pseudo-justification for the introduction of a vast web surveillance and censorship operation will be glaringly invalidated on a daily basis by the continued existence of stuff like Page 3 of the S*n, government jobs websites offering lap-dancing work to under-18s, the Daily Mail "sidebar of smut" and Number 1 smash hit songs about inflicting brutal anal abuse.

What you can do ...

The petition on the government website needs 100,000 signatures to force apolitical debate on the issue. If you are opposed to David Cameron's "firewall" please sign it and share it as widely as you are able.

The petition


Another Angry Voice is a not-for-profit page which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only source of revenue for Another Angry Voice is the  PayPal  donations box (which can be found in the right hand column, fairly near the top of the page). If you could afford to make a donation to help keep this site going, it would be massively appreciated.



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