Sunday, 30 January 2011

UK Uncut Needs To Get Serious

Does anyone at UK Uncut know this man?

Keir's continuing his critique of the UK Uncut movement.

Today saw yet more store occupations. It has been a trademark protest from the group, determined that they will make the likes of Sir Philip Green and bosses of Tesco, Vodafone and Boots pay their fair whack of tax.

It's a novel idea. Keir understands that the thinking is that if they continue to shut these stores down, infrequently and for short periods of time, then it will affect the profits of these companies enough to say "Ok, we'll pay our tax". It could also act as a tool to embarrass the businesses and their bosses.

Now, in the 12 months until August 29 2009 Arcadia, parent company of Topshop, made £213.6m in pre-tax profits. Arcadia owns around 2,500 stores in the UK. If we work on the basis that each store creates the same profit (which it doesn't, but bear with Keir), we can deduce that every Arcadia-owned store makes £85,440 profit every year.

There were 253 business days in 2009. So let's say each store therefore made £377.71 profit for Arcadia every day. Today's demo was scheduled on the UK Uncut Facebook event page to run from 1pm until 3pm. Let's assume every store opens from 9am until 6pm; it would make £37.52 in profit per hour. So, if UK Uncut successfully shut down stores for the 2-hour duration of their demos, they will stop around £80 of profit being made.

And frankly, anyone walking by and realising they can't go in because it's been shut will probably pop back later if it's that important.

Keir knows that constant, national occupations of this kind will block more profits. And he knows the maths aren't as simple as all that. But the point should be clear; these demos don't really hurt the big businesses. And even if they did, business owners like Sir Philip Green would probably hire more security instead of paying their taxes.

These store occupations are nice, novel profile-raisers. And Keir understands that certain people like to think they're making change by Tweeting the numbers of police officers who use pepper spray. But middle-class angst at the police won't change much.

UK Uncut needs to move on if it wants to achieve anything. As Keir explained the other day, movements need to win if people are to be kept and drawn in and if the power of the movement is to be respected.

David Gauke, pictured above, is the Conservative Party Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire South West. He is not as high-profile as Sir Philip Green, nowhere near as rich and people don't go to his empire for fast-fashion fixes. He is, however, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. And he has the power to change corporate taxation policy. He is also responsible for the "strategic oversight of the UK tax system including direct, indirect, business and personal taxation" and is the "Leader Minister on European and International tax issues."

David Gauke can change tax policy. Topshop and Boots store managers cannot.

It's time for UK Uncut to get serious if it wants to force change. If it doesn't, then by all means it should keep up the store occupations as some weekend fun to cure boredom and a tool for Laurie Penny's career progression.


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Flames Of Discontent Appeased By Defeat

Keir, like many others, has watched as a movement of people have been stirred into action since the appointment of the slashers in Her Majesty's most recent Government. To say this has been a movement of peaks and troughs is to state the glaringly obvious.

It's hard to ascertain when this whole movement started. And it has at times been a broader movement, encompassing other organisations. The nadir of its turnout and exposure was undoubtedly on 10th November 2010 when an estimated 50,000 people lined the streets of London, mobilised by the NUS, the anti-cuts movement, single-issue groups and political parties. Keir watched on as an event full of potential descended into chaos.

This was followed by another protest 2 weeks later with varying reports of turnout size; "several thousand" appears to be the consensus. After this demo, "kettling" entered mainstream language as something unconnected to a cup of tea and, rightly, the police became the target for a lot of anger from the public.

Meanwhile, occupations were taking place at University campuses across the country. Some of these were pretty impressive, especially when NUS President Aaron Porter was held to account for his foot-dragging at an occupation at UCL.

40,000 people were then expected in the capital on December 9th as people took to the streets to fight the proposed rise in tuition fees that had become the central issue of the broader anti-cuts movement. This was the day of the vote in parliament; a vote that was won by the Government and the fee increase went into law.

Since then, the anti-cuts movement has, arguably, focused on tax-avoidance by large companies such as Vodafone and Topshop. Occupations in branches of these companies have at times shut down stores and have highlighted the cause. But, as with the tuition fees issue, nothing has been won by the movement.

A look at the (very good) mapping of actions on the UK Uncut website gives an idea of the way things have gone since. Turnout at actions around the country have varied. A Saturday protest in London drew 50. Also, 25 people took to the streets in Cardiff on a Saturday afternoon in December, 30-40 got their gloves on in Bristol and a dozen turned up for an event in Birmingham just a few days ago.

And just today, whilst attending another event, Laurie Penny, online mouthpiece for the UK Uncut demos, tweeted:

"In trafalgar square. There are actually more visiting school groups that [sic] protesters. This SUCKS. Get it together guys!"

First of all, Keir must commend Penny for her excellent, positive language in her attempt to mobilise people. Frankly, if someone told Keir to "get it together", he'd be straight onto his white horse, sword in sheath, ready to bring down the Establishment. Inspirational stuff.

But there's a serious point. Keir wants the same end that these demonstrations seek. He didn't want fees to go up and he wants Philip Green to pay his taxes. Most people probably feel the same. But the decline in turnout during the course of the last few months speaks of the deep problem of this movement.

What has been won? Nothing. In fact, some things have been painfully lost as we all saw when the cowardly Liberal Democrats became complicit in the rise in tuition fees.

Penny and her cohorts need to understand that not everyone is driven by cloudy idealism. People like winning. And consistently picking, and inevitably losing, unwinnable fights just disheartens them. Not only does losing turn people off, but winning will draw people in.

That's not to say losing never helps a movement to grow. It of course can. But it only can if your movement is strong, close and powerful; built on an interwoven strand of tight relationships that will last through victories and defeats. This movement though, as is attested to by many involved in it, is built mainly on social network "relationships". Penny herself says,

"Solidarity has gone hypertextual. The student movement that made its voice so powerfully audible was largely organised on Twitter."

From 50,000 in November, to a dozen in January. It's maybe a slight misrepresentation to compare those two figures, but the point is clear. Turnout, and therefore power, has nose-dived.

That lack of power has meant nothing has been won. The Government continues to savagely cuts funding to our most valuable services, meaning we pay more. Meanwhile, the blind eye remains turned to the tax-avoiding billionaires who refuse to pay their bit back to the society that set the conditions for them to flourish, in order that the most vulnerable can put food onto their table.

And if the power of the anti-cuts movement keeps sinking at its current trajectory nothing will be won. Before long all that will remain will be Laurie Penny sitting alone at Trafalgar Square, tweeting "This SUCKS" every weekend.


Sunday, 16 January 2011

Legitimacy Of Appointments Manifested In Glasman

Keir couldn't help but notice the collective gush from those in attendance at the Fabian Conference after hearing Maurice Glasman speak about the future of the party. That gushing continued after the newly ennobled academic was the feature of an article in The Observer today.

From what Keir knows of Glasman, he seems to be a very knowledgeable guy. He has worked closely with Community Organisers in the UK and has been very influential within the Labour Party to try and guide the organisational culture towards a more relational, more mutualistic and more action-fuelled model. His influence could be felt in Ed Miliband's speech at the same Fabian Conference he attended, just as it could in the famous Gordon Brown speech of May 3rd.

A man with considerable expertise, wisdom and knowledge, now appointed to our second chamber to help scrutinise the conduct of Government. Many people would agree with Keir, it seems, that he is an excellent addition to the House of Lords.

So, Keir couldn't help but wonder how many of those people, so complimentary of Glasman and his appointment to the House, would also back proposals to make the House an elected chamber.

You only need to read the Guardian article to realise that people like Glasman are acutely able to perform the duties of peerage. They are thinkers, they are quiet and they work in the shadows. They are also highly unlikely to run for election.

Now, Keir is a democrat. But modern democracy is about more than merely giving people a vote on everything. The House of Lords is meant to scrutinise Government, delay and amend legislation and, on occasion, throw policies out. It is also to remain, always, in the shadow of the primacy of the Commons. If we are to elect both Houses, this primacy will be gone. In the 2001 General Election, turnout was below 60%. A Commons, elected by just 60% of the people, scrutinised by a Lords elected by the same amount? Keir doesn't fancy that.

Furthermore, some proposals suggest Lords elections at different times to Commons elections. Frankly, that's crazy. What if the election for the Commons gets a 60% turnout and the Lords election gets a 75% turnout? Could the Lords lay claim to being more democratically legitimate? Probably. And if this happened, our Parliament would be finished as we know it.

As honourable as many MPs are, we know that politics has become a career these days. That is absolutely fine. Being an MP is a difficult job and the professionalisation of Members of Parliament is, in Keir's opinion, a good thing. But the House of Lords contains people with explicit expertise, abilities and knowledge. They are not careerists; they are selected by our elected representatives (elected representatives who we entrust with the power to govern) to help to scrutinise them. They are from all trades, professions, religions, businesses, cultural institutions, sporting institutions and many other areas of society.

We have 650 elected Members of Parliament in Westminster, 60 Welsh Assembly Members in Cardiff Bay, 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood and 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland. Add to that some 22,000 elected Councillors throughout the United Kingdom. We have a flourishing democracy in terms of voting. Let us not spoil the functional aspect of our democracy with the lazy symbolism of creating a wholly-elected second chamber.

There's even more to the argument, but everyone hates a lengthy blog post.

Don't misunderstand; the House of Lords needs reforming. There are too many peers and there are too many unjust peerages dished out. Life peerages are questionable and there needs to be more faith leaders than just Christian leaders. But if we want people with the considerable talent of the likes of Lord Glasman, another elected House is not the way to go.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Ie Dros Gymru

Keir has awoken from his long Christmas slumber. So hello to you all and Happy New Year.

Pleasantries out of the way, now to address the first issue of 2011.

A few days back, Keir attended the launch for the "Yes For Wales" campaign in Cardiff. Both contributors here at Keir Hardie Blogs are wholeheartedly behind the campaign for a "Yes" vote in March's referendum and here's very brief summary of why.

Wales has grown in many ways since devolution was voted in so narrowly in 1997. Culturally, economically, politically...even linguistically. However, arguably the moment when the maturity of the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) became clear to all was on November 30th, 2010. It was on this day when Wales took the most talked about issue at the time and, hand-in-hand with the progressive political make-up of WAG, showed that there was an alternative to the devastating Tory cuts. Leighton Andrews, the WAG Education Minister, announced that Welsh domiciled students will see no increase to their tuition fees, just days before the UK Government in Westminster gave it's blessing to Universities to raise fees to as high as £9,000 per year. Until this moment, Keir was in the "Yes" camp, but not vehemently. But after this display of political direction, that vehemence was attained.

The timing of this referendum is perfect for Wales and for "Yes" enthusiasts. Attitudes to devolution have changed massively since the narrow victory in the 1997 referendum. A survey conducted in 2003 showed that whilst only 22.4% of people saw the Assembly as having the most influence over how Wales is run, 56% thought it ought to have the most influence. In the same survey, 43% of people said the Assembly's power over Health had seen services improve whilst only 9% said they thought services had reduced in quality and 31.4% said Education had improved compared to 6.7% saying the opposite.

However, most telling, in Keir's point of view, was the impact on the identity and culture in Wales that the survey showed devolution has had. Attendance at Welsh schools is up, the take-up of Welsh GCSE and A Level is up, the number of Welsh speakers is up. And this identity growth is also reflected in the survey. In 1997, 17.2% of people said they felt "Welsh, not British," and 25.7% of people said they felt "more Welsh than British". By 2003, those figures had increased to 22.7% and 28.1% respectively. When broken down into age groups, these attitudes are even more promising. The percentage of 18-24 year olds who said they felt "Welsh, not British", was higher than the national average, at 27.4%. Also higher than the national average was the 36.9% people in that age group that said they felt "more Welsh than British". Keir would hazard a guess that now, in 2010, those percentages are even higher. The fact that the younger you go down the scale, the "more Welsh" people feel shows the impact that devolution has had on identities.

For these reasons, and others not outlined here (mainly because of laziness) Keir will be voting "Yes." And for these reasons, Keir is confident of a win for the "Yes" campaign far greater than that famous win in 1997.