The politics of local government: council tax, services and cuts…

It was only this week that Eric Pickles was attempting to shift attention away from the government’s 25.6% local government cuts by criticising councils who are or will be rejecting the government’s offer to provide funds for the councils to extend the council tax freeze. Pickles argued that local councils have a ‘moral’ obligation, as councils who choose to increase council tax are undermining ‘hard-working tax-payers’. This ignores the problems councils have experienced, as they try to offset the ever-increasing reduction in their budgets alongside their depleted revenue from the council tax freeze. The problem councils have regarding their budgets and how to deal with the government-led austerity measures is something I tackled last year.

Firstly, for councils to set illegal budgets, there would need to be a coordinated response by a considerable number of councils to have a realistic chance of working. However, council tax provides one of the few ways for the council to increase its revenue to be able to cover essential social services – something Pickles is ignoring when he talks about ‘morality’ (means about as much as ‘morals’ does for Cameron re capitalism). I also discussed the potential use of the Tax Incremental Financing, which has been restricted by the Treasury:

Given the market, relying upon such income may prove difficult; especially given the severity of the cuts – offsetting loses through this would be difficult. Also, such borrowing is focused upon private sector investment, which is unreliable and driven by profit, not equality. It also has a hint of PFI to it. The Tax Increment Financing is about using projected future gains through taxes to fund investments, rather than a concentration on maintaining current services. Therefore, the effects this will have in the short-term is limited, especially when attempting to stop cuts to the front line, such as the cut to the Crisis Centre. This is not to undermine its potential for investing in areas, particularly deprived ones. However, there are concerns this can result in gentrification.

Essentially, the government is cleverly taking the attention and blame away from themselves and making people blame their local councils. This is especially damaging, as the divide between the North and South gets bigger (consider this breakdown of cuts to local councils, and their disproportionate effects). If the council tax is raised by more than 3.5% then it triggers a local referendum (despite concerns, regarding the ability to hold referendums, by the Electoral Commission, the government brought these proposals forward by a year); it has been mused that such an option can raise awareness to the problems and constraints being placed on the councils up and down the country.

Brighton have decided to increase council tax by 3.5% (avoiding a referendum), given that the government is cutting their budget by 33% over four years, arguing that it will equate to only 57p a week more for the average family. Given the government would only cover 2.5%, and the freeze would put up taxes in the long run given that it is a one-year ‘gimmick’ as the grant is worth £3m, so Brighton would be £5.4m worse off if they accepted the grant, Brighton’s decision is logical. Surrey County Council have also decided to raise their council tax, as they also commented on the gimmick nature of the proposal and how if they took it they would end up with a £70m funding hole. Despite this, a campaign to make council tax fairer and income based so that people with less money and resources don’t suffer through any raise, is also essential.

France’s process of decentralisation started really in 1982, with Article 1 of the Constitution amended to emphasise the importance of decentralisation stating that the “Constitution states that any transfer of jurisdiction must go hand-in-hand with the provision of resources equivalent to those previously budgeted for the performance of those particular functions.” However, despite more roles and apparent power being given to the French local government, there has been complaint against the inadequate transfer of resources for these new roles – especially given the recent three-year freeze on resource transfers between the state and local government.

UK councils face similar problems when it comes to being conferred with extra rights such as providing a watered down and cut social fund scheme, without adequate resources to cover such a move, as shown in a recent letter by many charities against the proposals:

Crisis loans and community care grants are the ultimate safety net for the most vulnerable in society. For example, they enable women and children fleeing domestic violence to clothe themselves and furnish their homes; or parents in rural areas who cannot afford a car to visit their child if they are taken into hospital unexpectedly. We are deeply concerned at the government’s proposals to abolish these elements of the social fund and pass some of the funding to local authorities, without any statutory obligation to ensure they provide emergency support to vulnerable people. With councils already experiencing large cuts to central government grants, we fear that some areas will choose to provide no, or extremely limited, support – especially given that funding for crisis loans will be almost halved from £67m in 2010-11 to £36m in 2013. The government’s own research shows some local authorities expect the extra funding will be diverted to plug gaps elsewhere.

When the councils are being criticised for wanting to increase council tax given their limited options, but then are passed more responsibilities without adequate resources alongside excessive cuts to their budgets, the government is playing the media and the public in an attempt to deflect attention away from their own failings and inadequacies. We have to make people more aware of the facts and the structural limitations for councils and encourage positive action within the limited choices available.

Political Economy and Mental Distress…

On reflection, regarding a letter to the Guardian re the devastating effects the welfare system changes and the larger political economic direction of the government will have upon people’s lives, I think it is important to pay specific focus upon the often hidden consequences such changes can have on primarily invisible, mental conditions. Mental illness frequently has a considerably nastier stigma attached to it, in contrast to physical illnesses; you only have to look at the production of mental illness policy in France, recently, to see how individual unrepresentative cases are utilised to ‘justify’ repressive, authoritarian and sickening detention centres and surveillance systems to ‘police’ mentally distress.

Likewise, UK policy on welfare, social support services etc. is based upon a neoliberal discourse of callous ideological desire to promote a laissez faire unequal system, where those without the cash are left to fend for themselves. The authors of the letter state clearly that some people have already taken their life, through desperation. Reports have been made regarding ATOS highlighting the damages of their practices, and their strict attitude towards benefit claimants.  Again, such policies are ‘justified’ through atypical examples of people breaching the system, making out anyone on benefits are ‘scroungers’. Of course, those bankers (if we can call them that, Fred Goodwin), corporate bosses and elites creaming the system and spitting their dummy out threatening to flee the shores if they are even touched economically, well they are ‘essential’ for the economy.

People ‘manipulating’ the welfare system are often doing so out of desperation, not economic greed. There is a massive difference. The effects such economic political changes will have on people will create stress, alongside the fear of the atrocious ideologically driven harsher medical tests. Fearing you will lose your job, house, can’t afford food, bills and unsure about the increasing level of cuts and economic devastation is bound to have detrimental effects to people’s health. However, GDP will count this as economic growth; but that’s another issue.

As political activists, the effects of the current governmental direction and the situation of mental distress in general is important to consider. After all, we are all human beings, and the current policies and direction are treating some people’s lives as totally ‘unliveable’. By this, Judith Butler’s views of ethics are important and is something I have written about before. Essentially, Butler argues that everyone is vulnerable, that is what connects us together, but when someone’s vulnerability is not taken into account there life is deemed ‘unliveable'; only when it is seen as ‘liveable’ are they treat ethically. Essentially, those experiencing mental distress are often treat as ‘unliveable’, as people become frustrated and fed up of those experiencing problems; this has only been intensified through the current political economy with a sickening blame culture developing.

Real support, so people aren’t thrown on the scrap heap, where crisis centres aren’t shut, people aren’t shoved onto drugs, medical tests aren’t made impossible and waiting lists don’t take weeks or even months, is essential. We need to recognise that mental distress can happen to anyone, one in three in fact, and until we start treating it like a political economic issue, the harder the situation for many people will get.

The recirculation of ‘underclass’…

There has always been some term to describe the ‘bottom’ of society, in a case of classic simplification, groups of people are branded and stigmatised with highly loaded concepts. It appears that the ‘underclass’ is doing the rounds, with its Social Darwinistic associations the term is often utilised to ‘justify’ repressive policies such as tighter welfare requirements, cuts in provisions and services in the name of ‘helping’. Often, the underlying social structural factors are ignored, as people – the disabled, unemployed, single mothers, students, certain ethnic groups, women etc. – are lumped together as one ‘class’ and directed towards un-tailored and simplistic often repressive policies.

The Prince of Wales Trust has today said that there is the development of a youth underclass in the UK, with an ‘aspiration gap’ (structural factors, seemingly overlooked in comparison to values) forming between the rich and poor. For me, the ‘underclass’ – as a term – attempts to pigeon hole certain groups, emphasising the individual, their values, whilst ignoring any strong critical analysis of the underlying wider political and economic ramifications. There are underclass theorists who do try to relate the underclass concept to wider structural factors, but the term’s main associates are those such as Charles Murray, who utilise individualistic arguments, ignoring causal factors, privileging correlation – arguing crime, unemployment and out of marriage relations are almost ‘naturally’ part of the underclass (Murary even likened the underclass to cancer). Central to the underclass concept is picking atypical examples of say welfare claimants and utilising it to generalise all experience.

This isn’t to deny that there is genuine hardship (anyone who reads my blog, or follows me politically should know my views here) and serious concern regarding the real attacks upon welfare, jobs and education etc. that are undermining people’s chances, opportunities and experiences – especially in line with the current government’s direction. But the term, underclass, is too simplistic, associated with agency (but reductive) led repressive policies, views and theories – whilst ignoring the diversification of experience. The wider political economy is central to the repressive social, political and economic direction of the government – sadly, the underclass concept, which is set for a forceful return, does not competently allow for such an illumination.

Ed Miliband and the Internal Deflection…

Ed Miliband’s record and direction as Labour leader is developing into a burning issue. For me, his consistent hails to LibDem members/supporters/voters, for instance, is evidence of attempted internal deflection; in other words – instead, of spelling out Labour’s vision and differentiation to the Coalition, Ed Miliband focuses upon the easier target. This can be effective, projecting your internal problems onto others wins votes – especially given the current voting system. But it fails to fundamentally challenge the current political direction of callous, unfair economic, political and social policy. It fails to provide groups who are frequently prevented from having a voice, a voice.

Sadly, the nature of our ‘democracy’ often results in people leaning towards Labour through a lack of choice, apathy and hatred for the current government. I get that, and as I have said before, Labour’s grass-roots are overwhelmingly progressive. Labour’s problem, however, are hierarchical relations shutting out these progressive views, as the leadership becomes increasingly defined by the vested interests of the media and corporations etc. Of course, this isn’t to deny the need to appeal to LibDem voters. But this should happen naturally, if Labour concentrated on articulating a new vision/path.

This wont be addressed if Labour Mps make out that Labour are ‘bogged’ down in the North, and need to appeal to the ‘squeezed middle’ as Ivan Lewis argued today. Apparently, Lewis believes that Labour are the party standing up for benefit claimants, immigrants and minority groups. But, where are Labour as disabled people protest against their support and services being viciously cut? Why do Labour support ATOS, ESA and tougher welfare requirements, whilst buying into the welfare ‘scrounger’ rhetoric? I could go on, but Labour have a lot of questions to answer when it comes to sticking up for the frequency oppressed.

It’s all part of a neoliberal framing and hegemonic discourse that stigmatise those who do not see the current social, economic and political hardship as the remedy/’truth’. This is taking place at an international level, too, as shown by the recent imposition of boundary checks for European countries, playing up to neoliberal and racist scare stories. This is also true when considering the effects of European, specifically Euro Zone, country guidelines regarding the deficit and debt levels – placing substantial pressure upon countries to cut with venom. Labour’s own internal problems do relate, but there are notable grass-root movements, inside and outside Labour, which provide substantial ability for resistance. Regardless, the current global system is unsustainable, as is Labour’s and Ed Miliband’s deflection.

Political economy and rhetorical gestures…

The term ‘solidarity’ has been central to French welfare policies and social security for many years, with its origins in the French Revolution its original conception stressed the obligations of the wealthiest towards the poorest. However, commentators now argue such an emphasis has been replaced by a focus on the rights of the wealthiest. Solidarity now relates to security – security of one’s living standards – well if you have a decent set of living standards that is. ‘Solidarity’ has become a rhetorical gesture.

In a similar vein, the UK government preaches about the ‘inevitability’ and ‘naturalness’ of cuts, that they are making ‘difficult decisions’ in the ‘national interest’. These terms are again rhetorical facades. Difficult decisions would be to question the actual order of society, its foundation and structuring. Cath Elliot sums up the sheer excitement some are feeling as they cheer along the ideologically driven cuts with the news of a Rally Against Debt planned:

Meanwhile, back in the real world, those of us who have known all along that these cuts are purely ideological have finally had it confirmed by the sudden emergence of a group intent not only on cheerleading for the cuts, but on staging a march and rally for them as well, and by a Tory minister going decidedly off script.

Hurting the poor isn’t a ‘difficult decision’ nor is it in the ‘national interest'; they relish it. Making society fairer would be the really difficult decision as it would require a radical restructuring of society. But, in a classic case of discursive reversal, we are made to feel that we are all suffering for the ‘greater good’. That as the days go by, and as more people you know tell you they have lost their job, benefit or can no longer afford to fill their car up or buy the shopping we should accept this as a price to pay for being ‘in this together’.

Rhetoric and language is a key part of enclosure by global/national/local political structures. As discussed previously, neoliberal shaped ‘logic’ constructs people who dare to criticise the current sadistic plans as ‘perverse’, ‘pathological’ and plainly ‘thick’. How could we be so damn selfish? But then, whilst corporation tax is cut, we have our PM lecturing Pakistan about their tax system! More specifically, that the rich aren’t paying enough. Now, not only is this extremely ironic, it is unbelievable that Cameron feels comfortable with saying such a thing when he knows that many people back in the UK think rightly our tax system is unfair. But, the merging of NI and income tax is just an example of how this government feels that the rich pay too much on tax. Yes, too much.

As Andre Gorz (1997) says:

‎Globalization and the intensified competition in every market in every country are used as all-purpose justifications: for the fall in real wages, the dismantling of social welfare systems, spiralling unemployment, generalized job insecurity, deteriorating working conditions, and so on. We are told these things are inevitable and natural.

Sitting back in ignorance isn’t a ‘vote winner’…

Labour have a problem. Well, they have many. But this one relates to the recent poll where whilst 49% of the respondents blame Labour for the the £81bn cuts, only 26% blame the perpetrators – the Coalition. I have raised the problems that Labour’s faux promotion of a supposed ‘alternative’ causes, especially its inability for countering the dominant neoliberal hegemonic discourse.

It is clear to see why people blame Labour. They don’t appear to be any different. In fact, they would be initiating similar cuts to the Tories this year. Whilst the Coalition goes further through aiming for an eradication of the structural deficit in a Parliament, Darling even argued that Labour’s plans would have resulted in cuts ‘worse than Thatcher’. With no clear alternative being purported by the mainstream parties, apathy and despair sets in. However, this isn’t to deny the ability people have for progressive resistance. But, Labour would be wrong to assume they can ignorantly sit back and take the protest vote without articulating a different direction.

Labour are even blamed more than the banks for the cuts, 31% to 29%. Given Labour’s inability to critique the obscene levels of bankers’ bonuses, the banks’ ability to offset their loses through corporation tax (set to be very low compared to other Western developed countries) and the government’s plans to allow banks (and other organisations) to escape paying extra corporation tax if investing from a foreign country, this is hardly surprising. Especially given Labour’s own record regarding bank ‘regulation’. Instead, Labour cherry pick the things they wish to ‘challenge’.

However, 70% of the respondents believe the cuts are being implemented too quickly – something Labour will be quick to highlight. But here we have a situation where people are actually against the Coalition’s plans, but they are instead blaming Labour for these policies with many believing the Conservatives have the best economic policies. Why? Well firstly, the last Labour government failed to articulate and defend why it did what it did. Secondly, Labour have been in a state of flux ever since Ed Miliband was elected. He fails to inspire, alongside supporting a dangerous proliferation of the dominant neoliberal paradigm.

Interestingly, the state of the global economy was blamed more than the Coalition for the cuts – 18% to 10%; providing traction for further mainstream criticism of the global economic system. I referred to these problems the other day in relation to France, and the rise of the far right. But as long as the Ed Miliband’s get scared away from saying anything that might go against the neoliberal grain; join in with the Warsi bashing of the labour movement; fail to defend those being scapegoated in the name of welfare reform; and act like love struck puppies with the banks – then Labour will fail to challenge a damaging economic hegemony.

However, all is not lost. What we do have is people power (and the Greens!). We don’t need to only mobilise through self-interested and bias political structures, whilst it is often necessary. As demonstrated, we need to continue to build the movement against the government from below; as frankly the top down approach is failing.

France, austerity and Le Pen…

Firstly, apologies for the lack of blogging. Third year university is proving to be on another level re work load! This blog is one I have been wanting to do for a while and can be seen as a sequel to my blog on the neopolitics of hate in the UK.

The rise of the far right in France, to me, relates to the historic cuts that France are enacting. These cuts have largely occurred because France are wanting to meet European restrictions, which are possibly to become more fixed through the European Commission being granted control over fines (much to France’s despair) so countries such as France can’t get away from fines as easily. Such restrictions include the requirement to have a deficit no more than 3% of GDP and a debt no more than 60% of GDP; as France’s deficit was around 7-8% last year, they are being pressured by their European partners, especially Germany (who have enacted such restrictions into national law) to cut. Whilst I am for European integration, there needs to be serious questions raised about the neoliberal path the Union is increasingly tightening.

France tried to distance themselves from the austerity line, and still do; but after detrimental pension reform, cuts and historical reductions of spending France have also gone down the path of neoliberal ‘reform’. This has contributed, as shown by the following quote, to making Sarkozy the most unpopular President in the Fifth Republic’s history:

Surveys show deep dissatisfaction with his domestic and economic policies and authoritarian personality.

Given this and Sarkozy’s recent actions such as banning the Burka and provoking anger to the way he dealt with Roman immigration, it is easier to understand reasons for why the National Front is on the rise. According to two recent polls, if a Presidential election was held now, Sarkozy would be seriously challenged by the National Front leader Le Pen.

Whilst there are rightful reservations regarding jumping to conclusions (as explained here), such a poll should make people stop and think about why should views are increasingly rising. Sarkozy’s polling ratings are dropping, the people don’t trust him and according to Melissa Bounoua, a French journalist, Le Pen is starting to make worrying inroads (sound familiar?):

What if these polls help her? Back in September, I met her. It was crystal clear how good a political animal she is. She has changed her discourse to introduce social issues and was noticeably softer on immigration. She is currently using these figures to claim she doubled her points in less than three months on national TV. Her brand new Facebook pagequickly gained a lot of fans, just like movie stars after the Oscars ceremony. Posters already present her as “Marine”, with almost no mention of FN (like Socialist party candidate “Ségolène” Royal in 2007). Her strategy has started, and it may work.

And as the FT report:

However, since her election in January, the 42-year-old Ms Le Pen has already succeeded in winning wider support than her father by courting working class voters with a greater emphasis on social protection. She has also ditched the old anti-semitic rhetoric, to focus on the fears sparked by a growing Muslim population in Europe.

As I said the other day, there are other reasons for why people are racist. However, there are connections between cutting people’s support, destroying communities and encouraging hate. As mentioned, Sarkozy has also done his fair share to spread this hate. For instance, his 2003 sex work policies making passive soliciting (so the way you act, for example) an arrestable offence on the suspicion you may be a sex worker has targeted migrant sex workers; forcing them to tell the authorities who their pimp is (if they have one), yet only if the pimp is convicted are they allowed to stay in the country! These sex work policies are largely governed by immigration scares. Ignoring the complexities of migrant sex work, Sarkozy framed these changes in line with ‘national security’,  increased racial tensions alongside undermining sex workers’ rights.

There are clear connections between the rise of far right parties and neoliberal policies; such times can spread hate and fear, alongside destroying communities and people’s livelihoods. Of course, there are other reasons – but it is hard to deny the connections and the paralleling movements in countries such as the UK as well.