I need some help. Please Retweet.

Hi. This isn’t a post discussing anything. Basically I need help.

In the past three weeks I have been approached by 3 people in real world, who have had notices their Employment Support Allowance is being stopped. Not one of them is fit for work, barely fit for life. On my timeline, at least half the people on there who need ESA(including those who are bedbound) seem to be dealing with notices that their claims are being stopped. Citizen’s advice bureau and welfare rights agents have been hard hit across the country, and quite frankly projects which rely on receding state funding and don’t pass those skills to those who need them are going to useless now. I don’t believe for one second protest about welfare and local authority cuts is going to attract much attention at the momen. It is not currently politically expedient. I dont see how welfare rights agencies are going to be able to cope with what is starting to happen.

The Tax Credit cuts are kicking in soon, and so will the Housing Benefit cuts. Not to mention the sly behind the scenes stuff that happens, and staffing cuts within DWP.

We need to organise.


Basically my benefit knowledge is fairly good with structure, law, and certain aspects of the appeals- but understanding benefit legislation is like standing on shifting sands. It gets rusty. My debt counselling skills are out of date, although I get the basics.

I need to access the following:

1) an organisation who is willing to share their welfare rights and debt advice training materials so they can be used by other people.

2) A web developer who can help me put together a website which can hold these materials so that people can gain these skills and train themselves and other people up to offer advice within their communities.

From anyone reading from Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, or Calderdale: I need people who are willing to learn this information to train up as informal benefits advisors. People who can give a bit of time, and be available even if it is by email or phone to assist with appeals. Any accountants, or solicitors who can donate time to assist people in challenging evictions and to help with benefit problems. Debt counsellors.


MY email address is lisaansell7@gmail.com


If the anti-cuts ‘movement’ is to have any point at all….

 This blog post appears in full here:on @hackofalltrades blog.

This blog is a partial departure from the norm here. It’s a response to a period of change in the UK that I saw play-out once before in Canada and feel needs to be fundamentally challenged, having seen its devastating social consequences there. More immediately, this is a follow-on from Lisa Ansell’s blog on the Big Society, and the importance of grounding our resistance in the immediate needs of those hit hardest by the social injustices of the current government’s cuts. It’s an attempt to make our resistance to injustice ‘more like people’.


Black Panther Emory Douglas' 'Paperboy'

Black Panther Emory Douglas’ ‘Paperboy’

The Black Panther Party doesn’t get mentioned much by most people I work with. Maybe it’s because I’m based in the UK? Maybe because the staff at larger voluntary organisations are disproportionately white? Maybe it’s because there’s been a long-term effort to distance ourselves, as a sector, from radical politics?

I don’t doubt that the answer is some combination of these things and more I haven’t mentioned.  Without delving into the motivations too deeply, I think the Panthers provide an example that requires revisiting in light of the ‘Big Society’, the cuts, and most importantly, the notion of community organising that has been held-up by David Cameron and Company since before last years’ election.

This blog is partly a response to Lisa Ansell’s excellent post on ‘using the Big Society to fight the cuts’ – a pragmatic look at opposing the current government’s agenda, and the impacts it will have on peoples’ lives. I think the Panthers’ offer some key learning in this area, while they are often unknown or dismissed by the voluntary sector for their Maoist leanings or their advocacy of armed self-defence.

Without delving into these debates either, the Black Panthers succeeded (for a time, at least) in combining active campaigning and critical DIY service provision, as Lisa (rightly) suggests we need to, if we want to build a truly broad-based movement that includes and is led by those most impacted by the current ‘austerity measures’.

A challenge for the ‘left’ and the ‘centre’

This is a challenge to both the activist ‘left’ and the voluntary sector ‘centre’, acknowledging the need to step in and create alternatives to the state when it fails to provide for basic human needs, AND for the fundamental importance of actively challenging (by, as Malcolm X stated, ‘any means necessary’) those shortcomings. On a philosophical level, these ideas can seem in contradiction, but in the lives of people who are seeing critical lifelines disappear, both approaches are essential.

This was something Huey P. Newton and the Panthers understood. Like other movements that have emerged organically from the communities they supported, the Panthers knew that in order to get their political platform taken seriously in poor, black neighbourhoods, they needed to demonstrate how it related to peoples’ immediate needs, as well as their bigger picture aspirations and values.

They started ‘Breakfast for schools’ programmes in schools, they defended people against police brutality, they assisted the elderly to get to the shops and to medical appointments, providing those appointments themselves when people had no insurance to cover them… but through all of these efforts, the Panthers maintained that what they were doing was a stop-gap to pave the path for a more just world in which their services wouldn’t be required because they would be guaranteed rights for all. The government could never pretend that what the Panthers were providing was a justification for their own lack of provision; quite the opposite! They tried to ignore, discredit and otherwise undermine it, realising that the challenge presented by the group was far more fundamental to their power than the challenges of much of the mainstream organised left.

Black Panthers as a model voluntary organisation?

The Black Panthers were a model voluntary organisation, in the sense that they provided leadership, opportunities and infrastructure for people to support their local community’s core needs. But in doing so, they never pretended their makeshift provision could be the whole solution, within a country that systemically marginalised minority communities from coast-to-coast.

This combination of services and activism created a deep credibility throughout the United States.

The Panthers were not intellectuals presenting ideas for bigger picture change without obvious benefit to those hit hardest by inequality. Simultaneously, they weren’t offering piecemeal or plaster solutions to vast social ills, as so many charities had in those same communities. Instead, the Panthers offered people the opportunity to become active players in their own liberation – whether through the creation of immediate services, or the organised resistance to their state-imposed oppression.


Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’

The Panthers’ approach was closely mirrored by the community organising of Saul Alinsky in Chicago (albeit, without the guns and non-racially specific), which Barack Obama was trained in the methods of, and is (in name, at least) behind parts of the Big Society agenda. The government seemed to have missed the analysis that I (and many others) have pulled from this period of history…

What this means for charities and activists?

So while the protests of tens-of-thousands of students facing the loss of
their education prospects provide an inspiring example and clear demonstration of public opinion, it is not the entire solution.

Alternatively, most of the health or literacy services cobbled together by voluntary organisations on increasingly ragged shoestring budgets are important, but also incomplete in weaving an inclusive, believable and holistic narrative of positive social change for those at the wrong end of the current cuts.

‘More Like People’

I usually talk about the ‘More Like People’ idea in relation to institutional voluntary organisations. In this case I feel it also applies to the ad hoc activist groups that can be equally alienating to people impacted directly by loses more fundamental than say, libraries and forests (not to discredit the public movements around each of these important issues, but only to put them into perspective).

How can we – those of us concerned with equality in the face of a drastically clawed-back state – create the conditions for greater social justice? I think we can blur the lines – stop retreading the Blairite notion that services and campaigns should be inherently separate from one another. Stop trying to hold a philosophical high ground by refusing to step in where the state is clearly failing.

Whether or not the government’s model of community organising recognises the factors critical to its pioneers’ successes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, its lessons are not ones we can afford to ignore in 2011…

Text of Judgement against Julian Assange in full.

Here is a text of the entire Assange judgment.

Please pay particular attention to the details of the alleged offences. The attempts to discredit and smear the accuser and her representation, and the attempts to mislead the court. I don’t know if Assange is a rapist, but I do know that he is being extradited to answer questions about alleged incidents. Hardly a cruel or unusual punishment.

The thing is, when your reputation is entirely created in the media it is very easy to seduce people with smoke and mirrors and to play up to rancid stereotypes about what is relevant when discussing sexual offences. To distract people by chucking shit around. Not so easy in a courtroom.


Great Post on Food Speculation not by me…

THis post can be found here.

I know what your next blog should be about”, David said, twisting his pint of stout between two hands like it was a delicate piece of Lalique crystal. “I don’t do requests, dear” I replied in my best Bette Davis voice. But the truth is that, sitting there outside The Windmill pub next to the Young Vic, shivering but determined to enjoy my fag, I perked up. My last big post on Cameron’s Big Society had been read by over 12,000 people and I was feeling the pressure – desperate not to do a Grisham and follow it with shite, but also convinced that one post was not enough to do a JD Salinger and never write again.

Add the fact that some of the dozens of comments the post attracted were scathing and personal and I had a full-blown crisis of confidence: blinded by ideology; not offering any alternatives; inhumane for not having given change to the homeless person in that story; biased and partisan.

I may be all these things. But this is my blog, my voice, my opinion. You don’t have to read it. You certainly don’t have to agree with it. It does not claim to be impartial. I wear my ideology on my lapel like a red carnation.

David went on to suggest a piece on the recent Cameron speech during his trip to Egypt which was followed by official visits to several oppressive Middle-Eastern regimes accompanied by an assortment of weapons manufacturers. The implicit – no, explicit – hypocrisy in the PR stunt had outraged David so much that he tore to pieces his newspaper (if the Evening Standard can be considered such these days).

“I think you should do something on the dismantling of the NHS”, chimed in my niece, as she passed me the wedge of lime from her Mexican beer to put in my vodka – austerity measures apparently extended to citrus fruit…  Light bulb! “Thank you so much”, I chirped. She looked pleased; convinced that her suggestion had won the day. It had not. But that simple action of sharing a piece of lime had kindled something. If I could take another esoteric subject and make it accessible or even funny, maybe I could retire. So, here goes.


*the IDIOT in question, is me

Ever since the collapse of the finance sector a couple of years ago, pressure has been mounting on the institutions at the centre of it to be more prudent in the way they gamble, loan money, take unreasonable risks, sell those debts on, insure against non-payment, bet on non-payment and make an excessive amount of money if things go well and even more if things go badly. The loans market became too hot; too many beady eyes on it; too many investors got jittery. So, the hunt was on for the next big money-spinner. Because it seems that, like fictional dinosaurs in a blockbuster picture, greed will find a way.

The next fashionable market in which to dabble is food. That’s right: wheat, rice, olive oil, soya, coffee beans, anything you can think of. Floods in China? Let’s speculate on the price of grain. Drought in Africa? Let’s make a hefty bet on maize going up. Let’s cause the price to spike even more by doing so.

Let’s go further than that! Eighteen months ago, in a luxury apartment on Curzon Street in Mayfair, a private hedge-fund managed on behalf of millionaire investors bought 240,000 tons of cocoa beans – 7% of the world’s supply. They then stored it, depriving the market, speculated on the price, then sold. The result was the highest prices of chocolate in more than three decades. It is a de-regulated free-for-all. Food is the next crude oil or precious metal. This is how it works:

I get up early one morning and go to my local betting shop. I make a hefty bet that the price of limes will go up. What an idiot, you’re thinking. I then go to my local market. Let us say that people need limes. Let us say there is nowhere else to buy limes – the next town is not within a reasonable distance. I buy ALL the limes. I pop them in my garage. I do the same the next day and the day after that. I then set up a stall and sell my limes to the now desperate buyers at a much inflated price. In the next town’s market, the price also goes up. I collect on my bet too! More money. I fix myself a vodka & tonic with the last of my limes and ponder which food to deprive my local market of next. And the real beauty of all this? I am doing it all with other people’s money at no risk to myself.

This is what is happening right now. It is a significant contributing factor to the global spikes in food prices; a contributing factor to the spike in hunger and poverty in the developing world; the major catalyst for unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The same unrest that makes crude oil prices go up. Which make food prices climb further. It is a circular barrel, perpetually turning around on itself and printing monopoly money. Good times for Curzon Street. With 4% inflation, bad times for you.

So, why is there no regulation? Dominant economic theory has, after all, evolved to say that properly regulated markets work better than de-regulated or over-regulated ones. The President of the G20 is asking for the issue to be looked at. A paper has been put forward signed by 10 EU finance ministers, including France and Germany asking for regulation. The US and the UK are resisting the move. Why?

Over half of the funding for the Tory party comes from companies and individuals working in financial services. More than a quarter of Tory MPs and peers have held jobs in the banking sector. This includes 70 Tory MPs. That’s 13 more MPs than the Liberal Democrats have. That is the real coalition. They include:

Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde – Chair of Trafalgar Capital Management 2001-10;

Pay-master General Francis Maude – Solomon Bros and Morgan Stanley;

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin – NM Rothschild & Son 1986-2009;

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell – Lazard Bros from 1979-2009

Commons Leader Sir George Young – Samuel Hill Merchant Bank

The original committee the government set up to look at the Finance sector contains almost exclusively corporate executives, including representatives of Santander, Standard Chartered, Citigroup, Schroders, RBS, Vodafone, Tesco, British American Tobacco,  BP, HSBC, Sony and Barclays.

Eleven Conservative MPs have held senior positions at Barclays at one time or another; eight at Rothchild & Son; four at Lehman Bros, including Steve Baker MP who was “Chief Architect, Global Financing and Asset Servicing Platforms” at Lehman Bros from 2006-2008 – the year of the company’s collapse which sparked the financial crisis.

Mr Baker explains his job at Lehman Bros on his personal website: “Instrumental in forming the strategy and design for the global financing programme, supporting the multi-million dollar securities lending business. Also central to determining the strategy for the critical function of maintaining, and controlling the risk associated with, many billions of dollars of assets under management. My work at Lehman Brothers particularly
informs my present work on reforming the financial system.” And in a recent article, he warns: “The greatest danger to civilization is not climate change, but bad economics”, pinpointing the problem with economic science as “the inability of its practitioners to foresee events such as a massive credit-fuelled boom which caused a bank collapse and recession”. That would be the bank for which Mr Baker was working just before it collapsed.

And these are the men in charge of our financial regulation. It is like hiring Dr Shipman as a cook or Gary Glitter as a nanny.

To the rallying cries of: “enough of bashing the banks”, my response is: “you have missed the point”. The structural fall-out of the crisis is that, through a series of acquisitions and insolvencies, there are less financial institutions, but they are bigger, more concentrated, more powerful. All that we have witnessed is a round of musical chairs. The people that influence policy and legislation have just moved sideways and when the music stopped only very few – artless enough not to cover their own arse – have been left standing. The seats of power are still occupied by the very same people that made a total mess of things before. Only now, having drained the housing and loans market, they have moved to a playing field where the human cost is even more direct and devastating: food.

There are those who say that this is a very complicated issue, which must not be over-simplified by a leftie simpleton. It is true that my background in competition law and economics and many years investigating competition issues for the OFT have not brought me into direct contact with this particular sector. But it is also true that whenever I have sat across a table from a hired consultant economist that has said “this is a very complicated issue, which must not be over-simplified”, I knew I was on to something. For every commentator they can point to that says this isn’t happening, I can point to a number that say it is.

The detestable truth is that on the very same day that you and I read reports of hundreds, possibly thousands, dying in Libya others are reading an article entitled 9 Agriculture Stocks to Consider Before the Middle East Dust Settles. “Amongst the many lessons we can pull from the events unfolding on the streets of the Middle East, from Tunis to Manama, is that commodity prices are rising and the world is going to need more food over the next century” it explains.

So, when I see David Cameron’s smug, tanned face telling me “it is time to move away from Retribution and into Recovery” I have violent impulses. Violent. Because, recovery cannot occur when we have failed to learn the most basic lesson from the last nightmare: A system which rewards, even incentivises, greed at no personal risk unfailingly brings the very worst out in people and will cause catastrophes of increasing magnitude.

And that is my biased, partisan, ideology-blinded opinion on that. I have had enough of this government’s limes.


Is journalism really threatened by ‘Citizen Journalists?’

There seems to be an orthodoxy developing. Journalism is under threat, by bloggers. ‘Citizen Journalists’. People on the ground who don’t understand the skills involved in journalism.  We are apparently threatening the future of the news organisations.


Bloggers are not journalists. I know very few bloggers who consider themselves to be so. When you read a blog, you read read thoughts and perspectives unfettered by editorial restrictions. Perspectives dictated by the myriad of factors which brought that person to that opinion. That isn’t journalism. You may get access to voices journalism would never have brought you to, you may see evidence in the form of videos and pictures direct from the ground- but it isn’t journalism. Like any information it be evaluated by the reader. People are fairly media savvy and know it is a blog they are reading.

Those voices are no threat in themselves, and when journalism is the stuff of information, analysis and reporting on what is happening, then additional voices and opinions are a good thing.  A threat is only be posed when those voices highlight the shortcomings of those touting what they do as journalism.

Take the issue of the housing benefit cuts. While the mainstream media were knocking themselves out over the extra 10% cut to housing benefit that Labour had made clear they would oppose- the cut that would leave most people homeless and in debt was largely missing from the debate. If you watched our mainstream media, you would believe that this was a debate about who deserved to be left destitute and who didn’t, or unemployed people living in Kensington mansions.

The narrative of our mainstream media is dominated by what the elites at the heart of it understand. What they deem to be important, or as appealing to the prejudices of readers who will part with cash. The Westminster bubble they surround themselves with, and the minor differences between our political parties.

‘Citizen journalists’ only highlight the gap between political rhetoric and reality..When political agendas rely directly on the people being affected being marginalised, and inaudible by the mainstream press- then those voices suddenly become threatening.

When the budget was read, like many I wasn’t listening to figure out an interesting take on it for a deadline that day. I was sat with a calculator figuring out how that cut would affect me. When my local council is threatening to cut services, or my ex colleagues spend months trying to work in impossible conditions, with notices their jobs are at risk hanging over their heads- that is their lives. When they are struggling to continue at work, because bullying and harassment is going through the roof because there is a quick buck to be saved in redundancy payments- this is happening. When yet another friend has to appeal against their ESA being withdrawn- because the plate in their head, lack of short term memory and inability to carry out a sequence of basic tasks is insufficient reason for them not to be working for an employer who has no use for them- it isn’t an issue we are discussing to influence a media narrative. When we talk about how we are going to fight what is happening, we are not talking about this because we just got a Labour party membership and we want to help them get re-elected..

When the reality that you see around you is not reflected on the news and you realise that for various reasons the news is not interested and mainstream journalism relies on myths and misconceptions about the reality of people you know, areas you understand and your own life- then real voices from grass roots become a threat. If entire are newspapers are devoted to spreading lies, hatred and misinformation- then bloggers who can show this for what it is are a threat.

None of that makes us journalists, and our silence will not somehow alleviate a threat to a changing mainstream media. We don’t want jobs as reporters, and we didn’t get 3 years learning how to disseminate information, or adhere to professional standards. Our occasional inclusion in the more mainstream press does not mean we have glittering careers ahead of us, or that we want them.

If the narrative your organisation chooses is onewhich  ignores reality in favour of protecting the political interests, or you want content for free, and qualified journalists are not happy to oblige, then journalistic standards are threatened. When much of your output as a media organisation is ‘churnalism’, and ignores the standards you claim are threatened by those who talk about their reality-then I could see how bloggers could be perceived as a threat.

But bloggers and so called ‘citizen journalists’ are no threat to any journalist I know. Some of us may occasionally have pieces picked up by more mainstream news organisations, but that is because we are a novelty or relevant to a particular situation. We may be a sign that journalism needs to up it’s game and figure out what made it so important in the first place.

If the lines between journalism and opinion and comment have become blurred, then that is a situation for our news organisation’s to fix. Not something that will be fixed by us remaining silent for fear of threatening a livelihood we do not have, want or are ever likely to get.

You ever really hope you aren’t seeing what you think you are seeing?

I’m not sure what I am watching on television as events in Libya unfold. I have been out all day, and away from internet or television. I saw tweets as Gadaffi’s speech went on for hours. I saw how amusing people thought it was, and some of the batshit things he said.

But I saw tweets that appeared to be a dictator threatening to destroy his people. Simultaneously tweets were coming out saying young people were being taken from their houses.. I managed to catch the news earlier and what I appeared to be seeing were people begging the west to intervene in  … I don’t actually want to say what appears to be unfolding. I hope I have misunderstood or so little information is coming out that an accurate assessment is impossible.

I watched Douglas Alexander on Newsnight last night justifying Gaddafi being brought back into a community that wanted their corporations to benefit from Libya’s resources. Gaddaffi has some very nice weapons. I am sure the arms manufacturers accompanying David Cameron on his trip to the Middle East could give you catalogue numbers and a volume discount. 

Underneath the fear I have about what is happening to people in Libya tonight, are the fears about what this could be the catalyst for. The thin veneer of liberal values we use to justify our actions in the world appears to be shattering.

Still, if I was one of those decent hardworking people our political parties value, I would be worried about the response of the markets, or the effect on our economy. The British should be seeking to retain their share of the Middle East arms market.

Why am I always beating up on Labour….?

I just got another email asking why I am always beating up on Labour. Well, here it is. Whatever the soundbites might be leading people to believe, the Labour manifesto was a hairs breadth from the Conservative’s. In the weeks preceding the election, the IFS published the difference between what all parties promised in the election and what they would need to do to deliver those promises. The gap between what the Conservatives said, and what Labour said was pretty much the same. Labour would just have used a different phrase to ‘Labour did it’.

The Browne Review- commissioned by Labour. The Big Society? Labours much vaunted expansion of Third Sector. Marketisation of services and privatisation? Same under Labour, different names. Welfare cuts? Labour are committed to achieving 20% cuts across departments by focusing on welfare. Same as the coalition. Housing benefit? Bar the extra ten percent, Labour’s manifesto-identical to Conservative statements on housing benefit. ESA? LAbour. It goes on and on and on…with very little actual evidence of difference apart from speed and scale.

The problems we are facing are those of political consensus. Labour didn’t become my best hope by virtue of not wearing blue ties.

In addition to not opposing the cuts, and pretending that they are- Labour are currently the biggest impediment to opposing them. Because Labour are now portrayed as the opposition, any criticism of their policies is a faux pas, and will result in Labour activists heckling you for pointing out the reality of situation. Labour sponsored blogs and activists are doing everything they can to marginalise those who actually oppose the cuts in a way that doesn’t involve voting Labour and hoping for the best..

The tribalism being whipped up to hide the similarity in Labour and Coalition promises is more effective than I ever could have imagined in preventing real discussion about the situation we are in.

And when the coalition fall, Labour have no reason to do any different.

For those who believe I should lobby the party from within, and not be openly critical outside that- you cant lobby a party to change if you cant even discuss how much they need to change. For those who feel that Labour have some divine right to be treated as the most effective political vehicle for opposition to the cuts- that would actually require them doing so. And they are not.

I am of the opinion that the coalition are pushing through so much, so quickly because they know their time in Government will be short. In my mind, Labour pose a much longer term threat.

I am a Labour party member, they get my dues each month. But I have never seen blind faith to be that helpful in a democracy which now demands that people ask questions of their parties before it is too late to do so. My question to you would be: why are you so incensed by someone being critical of a democratic party and lobbying me instead of them?