Friday, 24 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Messiah, or Just A Very Naughty Boy?

Up till about ten days ago my interest in the Labour Party leadership elections mostly consisted of rolling my eyes and groaning when it was mentioned on the news. I'm not a party member, and didn't even vote for them in the general election. However I'm aware their spineless submission to the conservative agenda and post-Blair moral stagnation is one reason why bad things happen in Britain, and go increasingly unquestioned. They are in a position to make changes, and resist, but they don't. I generally liked Ed Miliband, but it was depressing to see him giving in to a pre-set agenda and failing to make the running against an unpopular government.

I was equally uninterested when I saw old-school Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn had gone onto the ballot, and only raised a sniff of curiosity when I saw the first prediction he might win. However, when all the polls started to say so, and the ghastly vampire Blair emerged from his coffin to threaten us, I realised we might have a potentially interesting situation. Also, some right-on lefty type people I follow on Twitter started tweeting about Corbyn as if he was The Saviour or something.

Anyway, Corbyn was in Bristol Thursday night so I went to see if the messiah had turned up. He hadn't, he was stuck on a train, which only proves my conviction that First Great Western is part of a larger conspiracy to keep the people down, oppress them and generally break their spirits. Anyway, the room was rammed, and the mood seemed pretty upbeat: even the assorted socialist newspaper sellers managed to avoid fighting. A man in a Mao cap gave out leaflets for the Communist Party that said 'Tories and Labour are just the same'. Next to me, a respectable middle-aged black lady took one of these, pointed at the headline, and said in a resigned sort of way, 'Well, it's true."

Corbyn turned up, and got a standing ovation just for arriving. I don't know if I have unreasonably high expectations of politicians but I stuck to my chair. Anyway, he gave a perfectly passable speech outlining how he had ended up on the ballot paper. He buttered up Bristol with a few Bristol-related Labour facts, then moved onto the horrors of Tory Britain: homelessness, welfare cuts, tuition fees, etc. He talked about the economic crisis, the bank bailouts and the subsequent cuts, and how all that was caused by the bankers and not hard-working nurses and teachers. So far, so standard. "The problem was not that we were too left-wing but that we weren't distinctive enough from the Tories" he said.

Corbyn then moved to questions, suggesting he took some about economic stuff, trade unions etc, then welfare, then international stuff last. The first person got up and asked a question about proportional representation. Second person about EU and Greece. Since these were the questions I'd have asked, I didn't bother putting my hand up. Third question: how can we detoxify the Labour party? Fourth question: Greece again - how would Corbyn defend the UK if we ended up in a similar situation? (At the time, I thought this was a daft question - later, I decided it was the most salient one asked all night, but more of that later.) Final question in this section: was he in favour of Universal Basic Income?

At this point in the evening I had a little revelation: the 300 people in the room were way ahead of Corbyn. Not in terms of left-wingness but in terms of what they were prepared to think about. Corbyn was talking about what had gone wrong: everyone had passed that point some time ago, and was looking for ways to put it right. It's some indication of the conservative slant of the media that someone who's portrayed as a dangerous radical on the fringes of acceptable politics can be left behind by 300 ordinary people.

Anyway, Jeremy answered some of the questions. He hedged his bets on PR, saying he didn't want to lose the geographical link. He said Greece leaving the Euro was inevitable, the debt would be written off eventually. He blamed the European Central Bank, and said we needed a EU for the people and the workers. He had a little rant about xenophobia and nationalism. Although I don't actually recall anyone asking the question, he said he'd renationalise the railways, which got massive cheer of the night.

More questions: arms sales to the middle east, getting young people engaged in politics. Wasn't Thatcher and neoliberalism the problem? Someone asked a rambling and incoherent question about an industrial dispute going on at Rolls Royce, who are a large Bristol employer. Last question: if he didn't make leader, would he defect to the Greens?

Corbyn seemed on home turf dealing with the arms sales stuff, something he has long had an interest in. He criticised Saudi Arabia, including its treatment of women, the only time he mentioned women's rights all night. He said young people were political, and that social media was key. He was kind to the incoherent man from Rolls Royce, and spoke to him with respect, which made me realise why everyone in his constituency likes him.

Unlike the other leadership candidates, Corbyn didn't seem to need some kind of mental check or aide-memoire to generate responses. I guess that's because he's standing on what he believes, rather than on what a focus group told him to think. That's a good thing, but is it enough? It's sad that meaning what you say is the highest we've come to hope for in a politician, and that someone even doing so can lead to an outbreak of mild hysteria amongst sane and intelligent people. To me, the important question is: is what he believes in, good enough?

Corbyn talked a good deal about the errors of the Iraq war, and our awful stand on human rights in the middle east. He talked about the BBC, and about Tony Benn, and about trade unions and Trident. He talked about the need for the Labour Party to have a period of thought about what it stands for. He said: "We've all shouted at the TV. It's better that we're here, talking to each other." He talked about the need for a movement not just a party. But I wasn't sure what he meant - he kept referring to the 'the Labour movement'. I couldn't agree more about having a real discussion instead of shouting at the TV. But I wasn't sure how he envisages this 'Movement'. Is it a thing led by the Labour Party and trade unions, or is it a wider, more inclusive thing?

And herein lie my doubts. I think Jeremy seemed like a nice bloke. He seemed reliable, sane, and thoughtful. I just don't know if that, right now, is what we need in a leader of the opposition. I don't know if it's enough.

Here's the questions Corbyn wouldn't answer: PR. The EU. Basic Incomes. Whether he'd work with the Greens. He doesn't like nationalism. Does that mean the SNP? In short, all the really pressing issues about how we deal with the democratic crisis that's happening in Britain and across Europe. Would he put together a one-off coalition to break the Tory stranglehold and bring in a new type of electoral system? I have no idea. Would he carry on in an unreformed EU (let's be honest, it won't reform), letting in cheap labour which chips away at the unionised, industrial jobs that he's so in favour of? I have no idea, either. He said he believed in "Economic and environmental justice." But when he talked about Saudi Arabia, he only mentioned selling them arms. He didn't mention them selling us petrol, which is how they get money to buy arms, which frankly they could purchase elsewhere.

To be fair, I do think Corbyn might try and protect some of the things that got built up in the last great wave of social-democratisation, after the second world war. He might have some decent ideas about investing in infrastructure and so on, but the fact is we're in a very difficult situation where a small sector of the economy has enormous power of the rest of it, and that sector is Big Finance. It's also the bits that that have done well out of a financialised economy: the landlords, rentiers, and assorted companies that got PFI contracts and so on.

And here's where I came back to the question somebody asked earlier on. What would he do to defend us if we found ourselves in a situation like Greece? At the time, I thought this was a daft question: we're not in the Euro, so we can't have the money turned off, like the ECB did to the Greeks. But later, I thought, what would happen if somebody did actually try and bring in radical changes in Britain? What if there was a Labour-SNP-Green coalition and it got elected, or was about to? I'm fairly sure all hell would break loose. Both the media and the City of London would do everything in their power to stop it. So I think this may have been the most important question asked. I don't have an answer to it. I suspect Corbyn hasn't either.

All in all, I felt that what Corbyn didn't answer was more telling than what he did. I think he seemed like a perfectly nice guy, a competent, confident, if not an especially charismatic speaker. But he ain't the messiah. Sorry.

Nonetheless, there were a bunch of startling things going on in that room. First, the staggering level of dissonance between what people were concerned about/prepared to consider, and what the media talk about. Second, the gap between what the audience wanted to talk about and what Jeremy Corbyn wanted to talk about was really quite big too. Thirdly, everyone there was raring to go, they just weren't quite sure where to go to it. If Jeremy had suggested we all marched down the Council House and turned it into the Paris Commune, I'm fairly sure everyone would have picked up their bags and followed. He didn't, obviously.

And here's the thing. Given that Corbyn is campaigning for the leadership of the Labour Party, you might expect that meeting to have been a leader looking for a movement. What it actually looked like, was a movement looking for a leader. I'm not convinced it's found it, yet.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Some Uncharitable Thoughts

I don't know whether you've seen this upsetting story from Bristol recently. An elderly lady who had spent time doing charity fundraising committed suicide, allegedly prompted, in part, by a deluge of fundraising communications from organisations asking for support.

I personally have an elderly neighbour aged 90, and she constantly complains about the quantity of charity letters she receives. Recently, I offered to take away a bunch of letters and use the SAE's inside to get rid of some of them. Here is the pile of bumpf, pictured. It includes post-it notes, sticky things for the fridge, greetings cards, and 12 pence in coins.

Because I have access to a computer and printer, and knowledge of how the system works, it is easy for me to tell these people to go away. For my 90-year old neighbour it's not so easy: she doesn't use a computer, has arthritic hands that make writing a chore, and doesn't know about the data protection act. She doesn't know that if you tell people to go away they legally have to abide by that. Fortunately she is not psychologically vulnerable, but she does get annoyed by the deluge of mail, the guilt-tripping, and the necessary recycling involved.

Having taken away the letters, I was depressed by not only the sheer volume but also the dodgy tactics therein. Guilt-tripping was just the start: there was also the random, unsolicited crap, like fridge stickers, which can surely serve no purpose other than going straight to landfill. Why, for example, is Mencap sending out recipe cards? How is that relevant to the purpose of the charity, which is to help people with learning disabilities?

The worst guilt-tripping tactics came from World Villages for Children, which sellotaped 12 pence in coins to its letter, along with this charming message. They also mention in the small print that they transfer your data out of the EU, so data protection doesn't apply. Incidentally, World Villages for Children scores a terrible 1 out of four stars for financial accountability on this useful charity-rating website.

About half of the charities were so desperate for cash they added grabby little messages on the backs of envelopes, like 'Don't forget to include your cheque or postal order!' Only one out of 15, the medical charity Smile Train, managed to sound actually grateful to its donors.

Others, like this leaflet from Arthritis Research UK, were simply tactless. My neighbour's hands look like that.

Another communication, from an organisation called 'Together Against Cancer' seemed to be from a group that runs juicing workshops. Nonetheless they have a bona fide charity number. Why, you may ask?

Well, Britain has archaic charity laws and what is considered a charitable activity is rather weird. (Public schools, for a start.) Let's take Smile Train, the people who bothered to actually thank their donors. Smile Train's appeal focuses on a child in Tanzania. I've been to Tanzania: it really is atrociously poor. Everything, including the healthcare system, is frankly utterly buggered. If Smile Train want to help the victims, that's good. But should they want to discuss how and why there's no adequate healthcare in Tanzania, with either, say the Tanzanian government, or the IMF, which ran its finances for some years, then their charity status will disappear faster than you can say 'charitable purposes'. Juicing workshops, on the other hand, will tickbox some priority like 'health education', and thus pass through the check.

Some years ago I actually had a job opening these charity donation envelopes. I don't want to say which charity, but I will say it was a great job, which I enjoyed. One of the things I liked was the little letters people would include with their donation cheques, saying how sorry they were about the bad things that had happened, how much they'd personally like to help, but couldn't or wouldn't know how, and how glad they were that you could send someone out there for them. It really was heart-warming, and renewed your faith in human nature.

However, one of the things I realised in this job was that if you send out an appeal saying something like 'Help a child like Bob (Bob, typically, will be a large-eyed child), his home has been swept away in a flood', then out of about 100 donations received, at least one person will think that their money is actually going to Bob. In person. About ten donors who are a bit brighter will realise that 'a child like' is the operative bit of that sentence, and assume, quite reasonably, that their donation will be going to help people caught up in the flood. It may not, of course.

Why? Well, lets suppose that Bob's home floods on the first of the month: the charity sends out it's 'Help Bob' appeal two days later, on the third. People respond over the next week: the money comes in, is processed, banked, cleared and marked up as 'Bob: the flood'. By then it will be at earliest the 14th of the month, and frankly if you wait till then to spend that money, Bob will already have died of dysentery. In reality what happened is that the agency swung into action on the evening of the 1st, worked out where the flood was, what equipment was needed, and loaded it onto a plane. By the second or the third of the month, while the fundraising team is tweaking the appeal ('Maybe make the eyes a big bigger, and the flood look a bit scarier?') huge amounts of money will be rushing out of the charity's accounts to pay for staff, transportation, medical supplies, or whatever is needed. Your tenner, marked up 'Bob: the flood, funding appeal' will go back into the pot to pay for the next hour of need. There's actually nothing wrong with that.

Of course, your tenner, if you have responded to a more general appeal ('Remember Bob? Help us help the next child') may go to something less glamorous. It may fund the CEO to point out to the government that maybe aid money should be spent on flood prevention. It may go to the salary of the Finance Manager who pays the bill for the equipment and plane that was hired. It may pay the person who opened your 'Help Bob' donation envelope. However, part of the problem is that people don't like this idea. They want all their money to be spent on Bob. This just isn't possible.

Everyone who runs a charity is struggling to get money to cover all that stuff I just listed, that nobody wants to fund. There is a limited amount of funds to be given, and all these organisations are competing against each other to cover all this nobody-wants-to-fund-it stuff. Fundraising staff have targets, and their career rises or falls on meeting them, on behalf of their employer. And so sometimes they forget that actually, the basis of the whole thing rides on the little handwritten notes that say 'I was so upset to read about Bob, I hope he is OK now' not on the Fundraising Manager of Charity X getting a 0.1% increase of donations in sector as compared to Charity Y. The whole shebang relies on human goodwill, which is an intangible, and you can't always see when it's been spent.

If everyone stops caring because they are so sick of being deluged in vile, cynical, whiny fundraising appeals, then at some point both X and Y will be raising 0% of frankly fuck all. And then when will Bob be? Bob, the poor generic large-eyed victim of whatever, will be sadly, regrettably drowned.