Monday, 8 November 2010

Challenging corporate welfare - mood builds on the High Street

Something just a little radical seems to be stirring across Britain. It's no French-style insurrection, just yet. But, as the cuts really start to bite, we may be seeing the first promise of a rather more serious public dissent. It's even got celebrities like Paul O'Grady going all 'La Marseillaise'.

Is it class war? Probably not. But there is evidence of a gathering cross-class support for active street resistance, even civil disobedience.

Here's a flavour of that nascent mood from a GP writing in a letters page about the unprecedented attack on the welfare state:

"I sympathise with the attitude of the unions and other protestors demonstrating against spending cuts. However, I would dispute the description of protests as being class warfare. I am a GP, which presumably makes me middle class, whatever that means. Not only do I support the protests, but I would suggest that the response to the Government’s austerity measures in this country has been far too meek and mild. I know that many others, whatever their so-called class, feel the same way. The French have the right idea: vive la Revolution!"

The middle classes have always been strongly resistant to any shrinking of the state. They, after all, take most from the public sector, whether in jobs, education, health or benefits - it's a curious irony how poverty and its social debris service the better-off at the expense of the poor.

But there's also something more class consensual, more fraternal, emerging as people from all backgrounds begin to comprehend the enormous social implications of this vast attack on the public sphere.

Writing in the Independent, Yasmin Alibha-Brown suggests:

"The mission is ideological – to demolish the principles and structures of the welfare state, including the humane idea of a shared and caring nation, where those who can support those who can't and even the minority who won't. I have paid taxes since 1975. Some of the money has gone to the "undeserving" indigent – so what? I know about privation. During desperate times, my mum lied to get loans and sometimes "forgot" to pay back neighbours. When the classes are divided by serious inequality, you do what you have to. The poor are castigated if they envy the rich, but the rich, it seems, can now freely express and enact the politics of resentment."
Smooth Etonians like Cameron and Osborne, of course, haven't the remotest idea about what it's like to struggle on paltry benefits and live a life of anxious insecurity. Nor do they feel the slightest concern for the long-term health of people now subjected to this ruthless purge.

Now we have William Hague playing to the Daily Mail gallery with the latest government threat to make 'feckless' claimants do unpaid, menial work or have their benefits withdrawn. It's the standard diversion: blame and punish those at the bottom for the greed and chaos caused by those at the top.

Yet, here too, we're seeing some hope of a gathering resistance, as the Benefits and Work website relates:

"Opposition to the cuts by claimants themselves is undoubtedly growing...At the moment opposition to the cuts is far from organised and is centred around child benefit and housing benefit, at least in the media and amongst politicians. But the message seems to be: begin to make your voice heard in any way you can and who knows what coalitions may grow amongst those who are the targets of these attacks."

John Pilger urges us all to "stand and fight", deriding the bogus message being played-up by a servant media:

"There is no economic rationale for the assault described cravenly by the BBC as a "public spending review". The debt is exclusively the responsibility of those who incurred it, the super-rich and the gamblers. However, that's beside the point. What is happening in Britain is the seizure of an opportunity to destroy the tenuous humanity of the modern state. It is a coup, a "shock doctrine" as applied to Pinochet's Chile and Yeltsin's Russia."

While the corporate fat cats and back-in-bonus bankers plunder more of the public kitty, the ideological assault on the poorest intensifies, all willingly executed, notes Pilger, by Liberalism's sleekest:

"Liberalism, the vainest ideology, has hauled up its ladder. The chief opportunist, Nick Clegg, gave no electoral hint of his odious faction's compliance with the dismantling of much of British postwar society. The theft of £83bn in jobs and services matches almost exactly the amount of tax legally avoided by piratical corporations. Without fanfare, the super-rich have been assured they can dodge up to £40bn in tax payments in the secrecy of Swiss banks. The day this was sewn up, Osborne attacked those who "cheat" the welfare system. He omitted the real amount lost, a minuscule £0.5bn, and that £10.5bn in benefit payments was not claimed at all. Labour is his silent partner."

The link between, on the one hand, corporate dependency - bank bailouts, tax privileges and other gratuities to big business - and, on the other, the final abandonment of the public sector, is starting to compute rather angrily on the High Street.

Following recent exposures, Vodafone have felt the wrath of public protests over their £6 billion tax evasion. Many of their key UK stores were forced to close after pickets highlighted the company's gross theft while jobs, benefits and services are being slashed.

The affair has also helped emphasise the revolving door that usually complements such financial largesse. Vodafone had, grudgingly, looked set to pay up:

"Then, suddenly, the exchequer – run by George Osborne – cancelled almost all of the outstanding tax bill, in a move a senior figure in Revenues and Customs says is “an unbelievable cave-in.” A few days after the decision, Osborne was promoting Vodafone on a tax-payer funded trip to India. He then appointed Andy Halford, the finance director of Vodafone, to the government’s Advisory Board on Business Tax Rates, apparently because he thinks this is a model of how the Tories think it should be done."

The ongoing actions all make for good, popular street education.

Aware of the potential backlash over such greed and favour, some of the big banks like Nat West and RBS have launched charm offensives, smooching customers with sweet-talk of 'improved services' and 'caring attention'.

Meanwhile, as the cuts deepen, it's boom time for
top corporations and other private sector companies contracted to the Department of Works and Pensions:

"The scale of the DWP’s infiltration by the private sector is revealed in a list of the top 100 suppliers to the department in 2009 –10 who, between them, walked away with almost £4.6 billion of public funds.

At the top of the list is a company few will ever have heard of, property management company Telereal Trillium who received a staggering £783 million of taxpayer’ cash.

Next in line was American computer giants Hewlett Packard, who took almost £657 million out of the department.

Further down the list at number six, job brokers A4E walked away with over £150 million of public money, even though the Public Accounts Committee reported last month that A4E had:

“achieved on average less than half what they promised in the contracts they signed with the Department. Against an average target of 36% of participants into work, A4E has to date found work for 15% of mandatory participants.”

Equally dismaying for many claimants will be the discovery that Atos Origin also pocketed over £150 million from the public purse. In Atos’ case the cash is for carrying out medicals whose findings are overturned in over 50% of appeals relating to incapacity benefit and over 40% of appeals relating to employment and support allowance."

Corporate parasites and private carpetbaggers, writ large.

Here's the top 10 (from the top 100) suppliers to the DWP 2009-2010:

1 Telereal Trillium £782,949,477.68
2 HP Enterprise Services £656,863,100.86
3 Learning Skills Council £244,979,729
4 British Telecom Plc £232,815,357.01
5 Royal Mail Holdings Plc £175,300,755.13
6 Action for Employment Ltd £150,835,957.26
7 Atos Origin £150,798,434.69
8 Working Links £134,722,405.31
9 Accenture £87,114,892.12
10 Shaw Trust £71,251,397.48

It's not just the administrative costs of public sector cuts and changes to the benefits system that are staggering and unworkable. It's the social carnage and despair that coming generations will have to face.

Thatcherism never went away. It just morphed seamlessly into Blairism, finding its latest brand in coalition-style protection of the rich while 'Con-Demning' the poor.

We're meant to be reassured by Cameron, Clegg and 'wise old uncle' Vince Cable that we're 'all in this together', on an 'emergency footing' to 'save the country'. The lie is becoming all too obvious. Even election-schmoozed liberals are now waking-up to the real truth of who's being saved and who's being sacrificed.

The sham palliative that there's 'no alternative' to the cuts is acted-out relentlessly by an echo-chamber media, the 'national consultation' getting every available minute on Question Time and other protective props for our fictional democracy. As BBC staff strike to protect their own cuts-endangered pensions, you won't see establishment gents like David Dimbleby rushing to join the picket lines.

With what passes at the BBC for 'critical analysis', we also hear of the government's newly-launched transparency website, the latest spin on how to to be 'accountable' while dismantling the welfare state. It's as though producing accounts for removing the basics of society will somehow make us feel better about the loss.

People, all people, have a fundamental human right to a living income, good health and real social security. 'Sorting the budget deficit' is nothing more than a spurious pretext for lavishing the banks, servicing the private sector and dispensing greater welfare to the rich. We're seeing naked state intervention on behalf of the already wealthy and privileged while meagre state 'assistance' to the poorest is being further shrunk in the name of more neoliberal 'solutions'.

What to do? Stay at home, watch the X Factor and hope it will all just, somehow, improve? We all need a little escapism, a little respite from the economic and political gloom. But the stakes here are massive, impacting on the very future of our telly-diverted kids.

Radical responses to that winter-approaching reality may still be in its autumnal phase, but, encouragingly, a promising resistance to the cold frost of this government's biting austerity and protection of the rich looks to be forming.



It's also well worth reading George Monbiot's latest piece on the tax evasion/benefits purge issue, including this revealing nugget:

"Workers at the Revenue tell me that some offices have been instructed not to chase business debts of less than £20,000, but are still expected to send threatening letters to people who've accidentally been given an extra £200 in tax credits. "The whole system is falling apart. It's predicated on allowing big business to get away with billions, while pursuing the poorest.""

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