Occupying against an Occupation

It’s difficult to dismiss the demands of the Cambridge Occupation as unrealistic. They’re largely focused on the way the University of Cambridge can provide humanitarian support to the people of Gaza (and stop material support to the arms industry which supplies all sides in this conflict). The occupation of the Law Faculty does not try to, or expect to end the occupation of the West Bank and the stranglehold on Gaza, but it clearly implies in that we all must do out part (this post’s title is misleading). Some might ask “well, what about the Israelis?”. But the choice to phrase demands in this way, approach the issue not from ‘whose side are we on’, but ‘what can we do to alleviate suffering and struggle for peace’ is illuminating. Unlike the odd and angry fringe that turns up to certain anti-war protests and grimly cheers on the ‘armed resistance’ of the day, unlike the frankly upsetting rally the Sunday before last, organised by the Board of Deputies, whose speakers glibly cheered on the IDF, neither of whose creeds had any effect but to alienate people with connections to one, both, or neither side, the Cambridge Occupiers are learning, sharing, and developing the consciousness not only of what is wrong in the world, but how to fix it.

It’s also impossible to call the occupation irresponsible. The university authorities were at once trying to find a way of seal off fire exits, cutting communications, and switching off lights (which, if you look at the rooms, could be a significant fire hazard, and something not usually done at night anyway), while at the same time, they suddenly became aware of the importance of not connecting to the mains equipment whose appliance-testing status is unknown. Their conversations made it plain their interest was not in regulations or users’ interests – or even ‘building security’; they could see how well-run the occupation was, and they were frequently informed that the occupation would not hamper ordinary students’ use of the space. The people ‘in charge’ clearly had no idea of the practicalities (in fact, one of the law fellows also had staggeringly little understanding of the legalities), and the people quietly and calmly doing overtime were hardly in a position to point out what could and could not be done. At times the meeting was terse with the proctor, but everyone made an effort to be friendly to the security staff. The approach taken by the university authorities seem to be as much an attempt to demoralise as anything else. That is their best hope of avoiding actually considering change. For the protesters must face up not simply to the authority of a proctor in full academic dress, but to the inertia of an 800-year old institution.

The Cambridge Occupation is one of 17 of its kind (link mentions the 16 others) – and it’s continuing with a programme of activities as I write. If you’re in the area, do pop by.

Update: Two things, one on the point at hand, which is to say the occupation has clarified its position on the question of the Israeli victims – and it’s really good to see how much importance was placed on engaging with Israeli and Jewish students (the student societies in question, however, were mostly hostile to dialogue). The second is that the occupation is finally over.

Unite: Second Thoughts

Ok, as depressingly significant as those first impressions of Unite were, I have to qualify them.

For though the trunk of the organisation looks pretty rotten, many of the branches still bear fruit. Mine have got themselves one of these multi-year pay deals* – but not the awful two point something that public-sector workers are being pressured to accept – a guaranteed RPI deal. Pay guarantees like this mean we’re not constantly on the defensive. We can concentrate on improving conditions and job security. I’ve been helping out with distributing some questionnaires on behalf of the branch that will not only give some useful info on the way the pay scales work in practice, but will also function as a form of outreach to non-members.

And that union pin? One of the reps asked if I’d like one. This is, of course, the wrong way round – it’s the people without the branch contacts and resources that need this the most. I’ve since got a magazine “United” through the post. It does look good.

Anyway, I think my involvement in Unite will have to remain on the back burner a little, as I’m trying to maximise the organisational support I can give to the IWW branch currently emerging in Cambridge. We’ve just set the date for our first IU 620 (Education Workers) organising committee meeting (7pm, 10th Dec, if you’re interested).

* I ought to point out that this isn’t my Wardening job at the Meeting House, but another job elsewhere. Last time round at the Meeting House, we asked for a round 4% (we couldn’t recall the exact figure at the time), and got 4%.

Unite: First Impressions

I’ve finally received my membership pack from Unite (Amicus Section). And, I have to say, I’m underwhelmed. Now, I wasn’t expecting anything personalised, I wasn’t expecting an enormous goodie bag, and I wasn’t expecting anything desperately radical. But the welcome pack makes me wonder if I’ve joined a union or if I have, in fact, simply purchased an insurance scheme. Two or three glossies, a membership card with a national ‘phone number, and another card with the ‘phone number on it to give to someone else so they can sign up.

I do want to emphasise that I don’t join unions to collect the badges and get cool stash, or whatever term it is the students are using nowadays for their branded paraphernalia. But I am completely left in the dark by my union as to how I am supposed to organise or even get involved, I ended up asking a branch rep specifically. As a graduate student, I was a (non-dues-paying) member of the UCU, and I got a leaflet on exactly that, a poster to stick up, and a full-colour UCU magazine, plus a few other bits and bobs. When I joined the IWW last year, I got a full constitution (the preamble of which is printed on the inside of the folding membership card), a BIROC rulebook, and a general guidebook which contained some IWW history, arguing the case for class consciousness and industrial unionism, and, importantly, a ‘Wobspeak’ lexicon, explaining all the technical terminology. I got a little IWW badge, some leaflets to begin with, and have since been sent a certain amount of organising material on a fairly frequent basis, not to mention all the internal documents. These came in very handy when we got round to setting up a General Membership Group in the summer.

Shortly after I joined, I was made very aware that there’s a lot of commotion at the top. From the sounds of it, the national officers of Amicus and T&G had used the merger which is creating ‘Unite’ to install themselves comfortably for the forseeable future. Someone in Amicus called Jerry Hicks realised Derek Simpson (Amicus General Secretary) could be forced on a technicality to accept a challenge to his position. I don’t know all that much about the exact legal and constitutional issues involved, but a letter sent to each branch by Hicks really caused me to think twice about my membership. He claims that a certain ‘fat cat’ (presumably Simpson) receives “wages of £126,939 plus perks, free car and a virtually free £million house for ever”; Hicks himself pledges to take an average skilled worker’s wage.

£126,939. Words just fail me, so I’ll stop there.

In other news, Sainsbury’s Basics Bread has mysteriously returned to the shelves, priced at 30p. I’ve not been able to buy any, however, as it is always ot of stock.

Update on Unite: Just realised they are sponsoring the NUS Extraordinary Conference organised by the NUS’ ruling factions to push through constitutional changes which would turn the NUS into a bureaucrat’s dream. Fitting, really.

Fighting on all fronts

I recently went to a meeting of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (henceforth CNWP), interested to see what they have to say, and what their ‘big idea’ is (other than the obvious). The campaign seems to be driven largely by the steam of the Socialist Party (henceforth SP), but, like all campaigns, draws in people from outside the group(s) that set it up. That the SP are trying something other than the usual ‘join us, all the other sects are bad’ approach is at least to their credit.

Anyway, their ‘big’ idea seems to be getting the Unions to set up a brand new party in the style of the Labour Party as it began as the Labour Representation Committee, forming a socialist challenge to Labour with its roots firmly in the working class. So, I had to ask if they’d noticed what actually happened to that little project. I wasn’t too satisfied with the response, which amounted to “Well, we’ve got to try and try again”. That said, I can’t blame them for trying, it looks like the best hope of sparking a left challenge to Labour in England.

But society can’t be changed from above. The closer a left party gets to power, the more it is forced to choose between its ambition and its principles. And because of the way government works, it’s incredibly difficult to stick to principles once they get their hands on the levers – not just in terms of temptation, but because government is institutionally authoritarian and because it’s also subject to outside pressures such as capital and foreign governments. That isn’t to say there isn’t a role for left parties, though – it’s undeniable that the state is frequently used as a weapon to quell dissent and to intervene in a class war on behalf of the ruling class. Anti-union legislation being a pretty good example. Trying to use the state to effect a revolution simply won’t work, but the point is that you can stop or hamper a the right’s efforts to use the state as its weapon, grabbing what concessions you can for the working class while you’re at it.

Alright, if we’re happy to agree society can’t be changed from above, we still have to deal with another division in how we do it. Can we do it through organising within, or by creating an new society alongside it? Many embrace one and disregard the latter, some do both, not always conscious of why. On the one hand, there’s the argument that we can’t use existing structures to our own ends. On the other, there’s the problem that co-ops and communes are subject to capitalist pressures as well as potentially drying up due to disengagement with the rest of the world. Both criticisms are right. But the conclusions aren’t. We need the communes and the co-ops as research and experimentation to develop models for a new society. But we also need to stand our ground and make advances in order to create an environment in which they can become part of that society.

Ultimately, it seems to me that organising in the workplace, where we actually have power in numbers, is the driving force which makes both a left party and a grassroots project viable and useful. But the other two are necessary – we need to fight on all fronts, and to do that most effectively, we need to link the struggles. We persuade people on the picket line that they don’t need bosses by pointing to the grassroots projects, we build the political consciousness in the workplace by discussing the way legislation affects us, and we make sure the limitations of the projects and the parties are known, reinforcing the importance of the workplace struggle.

So if we want a new workers’ party, the first thing that we need to do differently is to clearly state at every opportunity that the party alone is insufficient. It must be kept in check by a strong working-class with radical unions doing their bit to reclaim the economic side of society, and complemented by grassroots structures which demonstrate and create this other world that is possible. Its mission is not to create a new society, but to provide some cover while make the change ourselves.

First they came for the Own Brand Tuna…

Sainsbury’s have discontinued their Basics Bread. We march tomorrow.

In all seriousness, with dairy products increasing virtually every week, and everything else slowly creeping up, it irritates me that Basics food is disappearing. The last few weeks, Basics Bread was repeatedly sold out, so it’s not as if there’s a shortage of demand. Chicken Pies, which continue to sell well, were taken off for a while, but seem to have reappeared. Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s have the cheek to slap on the extra-large price tags on things even when they go up. I’ve known them to raise prices after doing their ‘price checks’ with competitors, and advertise the ‘price check’. That said, why the Swiss Rolls still fluctuate day-to-day between 15p and 17p as they have done for months, I have no idea. Either there is a great sadistic intelligence behind JS waging a methodical and Machiavellian class war, or it’s run by an office full of incompetent managers on a permanent caffeine buzz, obsessively fiddling with the prices, hearing all this ‘credit crunch’ talk and whirling themselves into a coffee-induced panic.

The Basics Bread tagline (for all Sainsbury’s Basics have one) was ‘likes to be buttered up’. We will remember it.

(and yes, the tuna went up by about a third before passing away a few weeks ago)

NUS Consultation Response

Part of the continuing saga of the Governance ‘Review’ in the National Union of Students. The situation now is that the National Organisation of Labour Students, the ‘Organised Independent’ faction/clique/whatever thay’re calling themselves nowadays, which between them control the union failed to jam their square peg into the round hole of Conference 2008 (ENS report here), some prior history here), so they’re now in the process of taking some fine sandpaper to the edges of their square peg. And throwing lots of resources into bashing the hole into shape. Anyway, they produced a new, more honest consultation document this time because they picked up the fact that everyone was a bit peeved at their antics last year.

If you’re a student, send yours off by the end of the month to reform@nus.org.uk. The ‘core consultation document’ is here (pdf), but I cannot presently penetrate the revamped NUS website (or an old one) to give you the actual proposals; naturally, the consulation document doesn’t deign to provide a convenient link. What I sent was generally a mild but constructive approach, but to be honest, the need for real radical reform to the organisation goes much deeper.

“The purpose of NUS”

“Did we get this right? Are you happy with NUS’ new Mission and Strategy? Do you agree with the vision for “Zones”?”

The description is adequate. The consultation document is too vague to respond to in this section. See below for more responses to the actual proposals.

“Finance and Legal Issues”

“Not everyone was comfortable with the final structure proposed. Are there ways in which we could improve the proposal?”

Liberation campaigns should either have full representation on the board or should be autonomous from its jurisdiction – preferably the latter or even both. The sections of the proposed constitution gave the board far too much power, and the constitution should restrict that power to only those powers which are legally necessary – i.e. far fewer than those granted by the proposed constitution. Lay trustees are unnecessary, potentially unaccountable, and a waste of time to administer and account for separately. The financial clause is too wide-ranging, it could be invoked to veto anything. The ideal of a division of powers between ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ would not exist in practice.

“Full Time Officers or “National Office Bearers””

“Do you think the structure we proposed for the officer team was right? Is there anything you would change?”

At the very least: The staff manager should be an elected ordinary member of the NUS. There is scope for abolishing the president.

“Making Policy”

“Some people were worried about these proposals. Do you think there are changes we can make? Do you have other ideas for better policy making that properly involve all our members?”

Zone Conferences will double the work. *Truly* uncontroversial motions should not need to wait until conference – or zone or congress – to be rubberstamped, a elected and representative NEC (Senate) should be able to get these out of the way. Controversial motions will still need to go to the conference floor anyway; if there is not enough time, make more time by extending conference or adding an interim one. ‘Consensus’ is open to abuse and any attempt to formalise it in a way that will ‘work’ for NUS would prevent such abuse would result in an incomprehesible mess of procedural motions. The consultation document appears to suggest the democratic problems are in member unions, but that the solutions are at the NUS level – this is inconsistent.

“The Annual Conference”

“Is there more we could have done to make Conference/Congress better? What changes would you like to see?”

Cross-campus exemption criteria should be part of the constitution. Minimum requirement for delegate elections in exempt member-unions should be a General Meeting, also should be in cosntitution.

“International and Part Time Students”

In principle, mostly fine. P/T students should not be reduced at all.

“Getting Involved in NUS”

“Do you think the proposal was the right one? Are there things you would have changed?”

This issue is linked in with “The Political Leadership”: expanding numbers of current students on the executive is the best way for people to get involved. Zone structures – potential for fragmentation where F/T Zone Officers become only channel of communication between zones. It’s a noticeable drawback of the team structure CUSU has; in a national organisation, one bad sabb could wreck NUS.

“Further Education”

“Do you think these proposals were right? Is there more we could have done?”

FE and HE issues debated in full and separately is good, though Zone Conference framework is dubious. Separate FE campaign, officer, etc. also good.

“Regions, Networks and Student Groups”

“Do you think these proposals were right? Is this the most effective approach to deliver partnership with student organisations?”

NUS Training quality reportedly patchy, largely found to be irrelevant to many unions that don’t fit the NUS’ (probably non-existent) ‘ideal’ member-union. Not sure proposals deal with this at all, they look like they’re just there to look good on paper. NUS’ relationship with asociated Trade Unions should be one of recognised autonomy for each where each supports the others by default, and by institutional provision.

“The Political Leadership”

“Was this proposal right? Do you think there are other ways we could structure the NUS leadership body?”

Proposal makes NUS more vulnerable to cronyism. Part-time executive members (‘block’) need to be paid a sum equivalent to a fraction of a full-timer’s wage if they are to do their job properly at a national level, and need to have the capacity to get things done rather than just moan from the sidelines, otherwise only those with money from parents or factions will be able to get involved.

“Accountability”

“Do you think the proposals were sufficient? Are these other things you would have put in place?”

Proposed Zone structures not actually able to hold officers to account as stated in consultation document. Full conferences need to be more than once a year, the seemingly frequent but certainly haphazard extraordinaries cannot hold officers to account.

Final remarks:

While there were a few good ideas, better autonomy for FE and various other groups, these could be implemented piecemeal while a new constitution can be written properly through a genuine consultation process searching for and sharing ideas before presenting to conference of multiple models with multiple options, rather than the leading questions used as a straw poll followed by a dramatic reveal of a fait accompli with virtually no time to amend, let alone discuss the details. The proposed constitution relegated democracy and autonomy to rules which were too easily changed for that purpose – a constitution is there to help guarantee democracy and autonomy, to allow flexibility in the rest. Because so many of its problematic (and unnecessary!) features are enmeshed in its structure, there is no quick fix to the proposal, the job needs doing properly starting from scratch.

When a third of conference outright rejects a constitutional change, of all things, you’re doing something very wrong, not to mention those who voted for it but had mixed feelings. It is not effective, responsible or ethical to tinker at the edges to please an extra few dozen people and force it through.

I understand that you are disappointed by the rejection of the proposal, and I understand that you may wish to accept that the foundations of the proposal are unsound, but I am afraid that this is the price of a botched job the first time round.

Please note that, as last year, due to the time frame of the consultation, CUSU has not endorsed any response to the document; my replies, as well as those of other CUSU officers, are in a personal capacity only.

The struggle against popularity

Boris Johnson has endorsed Barack Obama, apparently. Obviously the endorsement means precisely nothing with respect to the US presidential jambouree, but it does bring a few thoughts speedily to mind. First, I’ve heard the word ‘post-racial’ used of Obama’s campaign – the fact that Boris Johnson, the whiter-than-white Eton/Oxford classicist and Tory Mayor of London, the man who kicked the anti-racism message from the London Rise festival should endorse Barack Obama doesn’t inspire much confidence in the latter. Second – perhaps alternatively – this is a bit of an leap for the Tory – and it demonstrates just how reliant Boris is on his image. He has to keep up the high-profile stunts and meaningless controversies and celebrity connections, because as soon as he spends any time in the public mind as Boris the Chief Administrator, he is out of office.

Penny Red asks “Where are the heroes on the left?”. I suspect that her article is written tongue-in-cheek, but anyway. Heroes are a liability. OK, that’s clichéd, but there’s a few reasons for that, not all of them well-rehearsed. First, they have their flaws: every Great Man [sic] with Great Ideas seems to come with Great Vices. Secondly, they tend to inspire dogmatism – every successful leader (not to mention a number of unsuccessful ones) seems to come with an authoritarian rule over the movement that propelled them to success. Thirdly, they create false consciousness. For any movement to stay vibrant, it has to battle to get its ideas recognised and to build a far-reaching and comprehensive rejection of oppression. Keeping leaders, rather than the movement, in the spotlight is a shortcut often used, but usually that shortcut turns out to lead down a cul-de-sac. That third one is the crucial thing for the left. For one thing, we don’t have control of the media, we can’t trust the media, and any piggybacking on celebrities puts us at the mercy of the media, who can suddenly lose interest, or worse, discredit the icon of the movement.

High-profile leaders aren’t more accountable because they’re in the media all the time, either. I’m sure far more misery is created when Boris Johnson goes through his mayoral intray and rubber stamps whatever his minions (and overseers?) have directed his way than when he opines about how spiffing it would be if that coloured gentleman from Chicago could invite him over to the White House. But that doesn’t get reported. Most of it isn’t even publicly available for scrutiny. We shouldn’t be looking for high-profile character actors to lead us, we should be trying to make the politicians’ intrays something we all feel confident enough to demand access to, we need to spread recognition that politicians’ intrays are important enough to be of interest.

...and it looks like a rather muscular young man.

...and it looks like a rather muscular young man.


But it’s not only leaders. We fetishise organisations and institutions, too. With things like old universities and the British constitutions, this is obvious, but it’s also the defining problem of the left, and I think every group suffers. The IWW is pretty consistently good at promoting independent self-organisation, but there is one poster I can’t stand. The IWW is coming? No, it can be here and now if you want it, it’s you. One of the things that attacted me to the Quakers was the fact that they had got rid of almost all of the superficial rituals and organisational hierarchy that pervades religion. And yet, enthusiam for this state of affairs can extend into prickly defensiveness of the institutional shortcomings of the Religious Society of Friends (such as these).

Finally, and perhaps most prominently, I have had that wonderful experience of sitting down with activists with similar politics, trying to come out with specific plans and actions, until it becomes clear that many of those around the room are of several different opposing political sects, each determined to secure their faction’s demands, each convinced of their group’s ideological purity or whatever it is they get so excited about… each putting the interests of the group above the interests of the movement.

The leader is not the movement, the party is not the movement, the union is not the movement, the ideology is not the movement, the campaign is not the movement, the banner is not the movement, the demonstrations are not the movement. The movement is us.

Speaking to the material conditions

The Friend is a weekly Quaker magazine published by Friends in Britain, but not officially linked to BYM.

Quakers have been facing rather similar issues as Student Unions recently not only as recent changes in charities law have affected both SUs and religions, but also because of structural similarities and coincidences in development. So I was interested to see that there are others who have misgivings about these efficiency drives that come round every so often.

Oh dear! Fewer Sufferings will need more careful planning and organising. That will put power in the hands of those doing the planning and organising. That will strengthen even further growing managerialism within our Society.

Is this where charitable status and ‘public benefit’ lead us?

[…]

Anyone for sharing thoughts on reclaiming the Religious Society of Friends?

– John Nurse

On the same page, this gem:

I don’t doubt that Quaker Schools provide a wonderful education as set out at length in the Friend (11 July, p15); At over £500 a week, so they should! But that’s not the point: there are two fundamental reasons why we should part company with them at the earliest opportunity:

1) Our claimed commitment to equality can never be taken seriously while we are corporately connected with institutions that both reflect and reinforce privilege.

2) Historically they have played a major role in the dominance of the bourgeoisie within the Religious Society of Friends by creating the class-based cadres that effectively control it. The schools continue to feed that reality and its time to return to our roots

– David Bartlett

Not only that, another letter offers criticism of co-operatives from the left in favour of industrial democracy. Putting aside the desire to revel in the class-consciousness, all these letters nevertheless present problems with the way that Quakers work. Part of the problem with this is it is easy when placing emphasis on the RSoF being an inclusive place to also steer well clear of anything that sounds like evangelising. I must admit, I’m very hesitant. But because I’m a perfectionist and can’t stand to see bad leaflets being made, I do it.

In meeting this morning (Sunday, as I write this), we had some incredibly powerful ministry from two visiting Friends who encouraged us to get our hands dirty and try and engage with people who felt spiritually lost, rather than just trying to preserve an identity, a commonality including only those who already agree with us.

A Society for the Quakerly, so to speak, one that preserves the traditions without necessarily the determination to rigorously test and apply our convictions in the real world, being too afraid to mention its existence outside of the contexts it calls its own, I fear will inevitably end up becoming managerial and irrelevant (more irrelevant?), dominated by people motivated by good governance rather than being egalitarian and supportive of all.

If we want our change to be felt, we must first grow our roots in the places we want change. We need to ask people to shape us as we show them our ways.

There’s also the danger of going too far the other way, though, to look for essentially religious answers to more complex problems. Going to a Quaker meeting may help us work through our problems, but it doesn’t solve them. We live in a time of great economic and social alienation. Our culture is individualistic and is prone to leaving people feeling isolated. Our answers must be based on a recognition that Quakerism is not enough, we need to give each other the confidence and support to identify common problems, change the world not just on far-flung issues of international importance, often more the preserve of concerned liberals than of working-class people – but we need to focus on the troubles of our daily lives. These things that are so impolite to talk about – money, class, the various personal forms of oppression, and so on. Even that is insufficient, we need to do so much more, we need to campaign actively, visibly, and effectively for solutions. But we need to begin by being able to talk.

Disobedience so civil as to be almost… invisible

Local Council workers up and down the country have been on strike this week, with Unison and PCS out. The turnout at Wednesday’s demonstration was very poor, based on the number of people who definitely weren’t on strike but managed to get there anyway. That said, for Unison members especially, many of whom will never have been on strike before, it may be that this is a problem with branch organisation not having prepared the culture of being out on a picket. Or it may be because there’s not enough clarity about how much potential the campaign around public sector pay has, because the strike is not something the Labour-friendly heads of Unison are keen on. I’m not in Unison, so I can’t tell where the hold-up is. Maybe there needs to be some alternative action organised – not just demos and token speeches, but training and practical events that can happen so that people know that this isn’t a holiday, it’s a strike, and above all to make the thing feel more productive so that people leave confidently. The ‘strike picnic’ at lunchtime on Thursday was a nice idea, I don’t know how well it came off.

The Cambridge News has a report here (video here if it doesn’t show in the article), though I’m peeved they used the wrong value of inflation despite the fact that a clear point was made that using the CPI, which is inflation for rich people and businesses, rather than the higher RPI, which is inflation for everyone else and which always used to be the standard. It’s also sad that there’s no link-in with the fact that house prices in Cambridgeshire have risen recently where other areas have fallen (bringing down the RPI), which means Cambridgeshire workers are going to be hit extra hard in terms of rent and other housing-based costs.

More action looks to be on the cards for various unions, including discontinuous action in the autumn. This time is crucial for developing skills and confidence. It looks like the labour movement is starting to regain its feet, but the worst has probably yet to come. No doubt certain commentators will blame the impending recession on the union action that the recession will bring. Brown is already blaming public sector pay for inflation, despite the economic impossibility of this suggestion. In practice, it’s a combination of growing avarice among the rich, MPs included, and wider economic factors such as the price of oil (and, incidentally, oil and all transported goods would be a lot cheaper if we had emptier and thus more energy-efficient roads which would be possible if we had a decent public transport system which would be possible if the government and local councils were prepared to run them which would be politically possible if the government weren’t already in the pockets of those who benefit from the status quo and from ever-increasing privatisation).

Meanwhile, the fact that unions are having difficulty co-ordinating their action needs a remedy. It can’t all be done through local TUCs. I would hope it would be possible to have strike ballots delegate the exact timing of the strike (within a predefined period) to a committee that consists of reps from all the unions. Any other ideas of how to do it, or how to make sure a strike includes a good turnout for the picket?

Guilty until proven, er, guilty

Since Brown became Chancellor back in 1997, the Government has begun a systematic removal of certainty in the way it delivers its public services. Guaranteed support is replaced with conditional support. Free services get a charge slapped on them, which have to be claimed back in some form by those groups the government deems deserving enough.

That many people don’t fit the government’s moulds but still need access to services or support and thus can’t get it because the system is full of very deep holes is a pretty obvious result. So I’m going to talk about something else.

Perhaps it’s not so significant, but you really have to wonder how anyone can have confidence in a system that heavily penalises honesty. The principle of means testing is that the burden is on you to prove you deserve it. Except when it comes to financial components, it’s impossible to prove you have only a certain amount of money. If you apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), you have to declare how much money you have in any bank accounts or savings. Fair enough. But then they ask you for proof. What if you refuse? “Well, you claim to have more than the allowed limit in your bank account, but you can’t prove it, so we’re not going to be docking your dole money. Serves you right.” Or not. I know from experience that if you claim to have under the limit, they don’t ask for proof. (Interestingly, they’re not interested if any money in your bank account is offset by thousands of pounds worth of loans that the government has made you take out to pay for your education.)

Aside from being a huge waste of everyone’s time and paper, this exercise does pose a real problem to people who are taking every casual job that comes their way – the paperwork involved in providing all your pay slips, if you even got any to begin with, is staggering. And while I’m on the subject, the conditions for receiving JSA are terrible. Not only does the government explicitly claim you can get by on 48 quid a week (The ONS tells us that the cost of renting from the Local Authority was £45 per week in the cheapest area of England, which means an impossible £3 to buy food, jobs papers, and everything else is the best case scenario – compare this to the £158 not including rent the JRF suggests). Moroever, if you are seeking work, although 16 hours is the legal maximum, 9 hours in any given week on minimum wage will mean you exceed the limit and your application is closed. You have to start all over again – which is crazy if you’re in the aforementioned position of grabbing casual jobs as you see them.

I suspect a lot of this is to discourage people from registering for JSA so the government can present its shiny unemployment figures, accompanied by some pictures of nice identical pinewood and bright green and orange panelled near-empty jobcentres (bouncers on the door not pictured).

But anyway, I digress. Means testing has it backwards. If the government has the capability just to check how much you’ve got or are getting, they don’t need this proof. If they haven’t, they’re wasting JSA employees’ time making life harder for people who are on the edge to make them feel undeserving while the benefit fraudsters make off with the money the government is too stingy to pay people who need the money.