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Thursday, 6 December 2018

Statistics are people, with the tears wiped away


Note: this is a previously unpublished blog, that I wrote back in 2013 or 2014 (and 'found' years later on an old hard drive). There are bits that are possibly inaccurate, now. But I wanted to leave it as intact as I could. Apologies for its unedited form for which I make no excuses.

‘This is really important, I’ve put an expectation into Job Centre Plus sites that people will be sanctioned. I’ve done this because it’s the law. My worry is the variation that we are getting [between job centre sites].
‘I have been to job centres recently where they’ve admitted that they have not been doing it [sanction]. They now are and we are getting good results out of it.

These are the words of Neil Couling a senior civil servant at the Department of Work and Pensions, to the House of Commons Work and Pensions select committee on 26 Novemeber 2013.

In my opinion I think it's unlikely I will witness a more cruel civil servant.

In his evidence, Mr Couling appeared to be telling lawmakers that there was a ‘variation’ between the number of sanctions being dished out by different job centres. 

Attitudes towards sanctions reflect a wider, toxic debate about poverty in the UK. When a politician like Nick Clegg can tell his party faithful he’s helping ‘turn Britain around,’ he’s not lying. He literally is turning the country around, so the people cannot see who is really shafting them.

Right now, public opinion is full-square behind policies that punish the poor and unemployed. If you ask someone in the street, or at a dinner party, what they think about benefit sanctions, assuming they’ve heard of them at all (not likely), they will, generally, be in favour of them.

Believing, against the evidence, that sanctions are applied fairly, without malice and as a last resort, this is the British ‘way’, well the English way, but it’s a lie. The public are content that punishment should be meted out to a minority in society that senior politicians and the media agree are a ‘skiving,’ ‘scrounging,’ stain on society. But this is a lie.

And people dislike being deceived so, when they recognize they have been hoodwinked, they turn. Iraq is one example, I believe that sanctions, could be similar.

Clearly sanctions are being applied unlawfully, the DWP’s own figures support this (More than 50% of reconsiderations are upheld, a similar proportion of independent tribunals overturn sanctions).

Couling seems to be aware that, to have public trust, the DWP’s policy of sanctioning needs to be seen to be reasonable, he’s many things, including intelligent, but he’s not stupid. Back in November 2013 he told MPs that his department closely monitored its employees to guard against ‘rogue sanctions.’

He told lawmakers that his department kept data on what individual job centre advisors were doing and that this was important in order to retain the public’s trust. He was lying.
‘I don’t want to create an oppressive regime here,’ he said, ‘but to find out if there are rogue sanctions going on. We don’t want the sanctions system falling into disrepute,’ he said.

Mr Couling’s, remarks hinted that he was in some way sensitive to the idea that policy, in this case a policy of immiserating claimants, had to be seen to be justified for the public to regard it as legitimate, like workhouses.

I therefore put a series of questions to the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act, to get a clearer idea of precisely how the department deals with rogue sanctions, to find out how effective he was at searching out bad practice.

I asked:
·       How many times has the DWP taken action against staff who consistently recommend sanctions a high proportion of which are subsequently overturned?
·       What does the action taken against these staff consist of?
·       How many times has DWP taken action against staff for refusing to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or for not sanctioning enough?
·       What does the action against DWP staff, who refused to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or did not refer enough, consist of?
The department could not give a single example of when it had taken action taken against staff for issuing rogue sanctions.
The department could not give details of any disciplinary action taken against staff who issued rogue sanctions.
The department could not say how many times, if any, it had taken action against staff for refusing to sanction.
Finally, the department could not say how many times it had taken action against staff who had not issued the expected number of sanctions.
In a statement the DWP said:
We do not have a set expectation for how many referrals are appropriate for each office.’
‘The information which is gathered regarding the number of sanctions referrals made for each office is collected purely for monitoring purposes. This is to ensure that all offices are following the policy and raising a doubt with a Decision Maker where a doubt exists.’
‘Should a member of staff be found to be using sanctions inappropriately, or not using them at all, this should be raised by their Line Manager as part of their ongoing performance. This may identify a training need, or where appropriate, the need for a member of staff to be put on a Personal Improvement Plan. We are committed to ensuring that all sanctions referrals made within our Jobcentres are made appropriately and it is for this reason that we collect the data referred to by Mr Couling to the Select Committee.’

The department cannot not cite a single instance in which it has taken action taken against a staff member for issuing rogue sanctions. It cannot cite an example of a single case in which it has taken action against a ‘rogue’ sanctioneer.

There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether the DWP has put in place ‘sanctions’ targets. Couling and the DWP vehemently deny any such thing, preferring the euphemism of ‘expectations’. In some ways talk of a target culture is a red herring. And anyone who knows anything about abuse, knows the maddening fruitlessness of focusing on ‘lies’.

Far from falling into disrepute because too many were being sanctioned, Couling seemed to think the opposite was the case. On his heroic travels around job centres Mr Couling found that a small number of advisors didn’t believe in sanctions, were too squeamish and, therefore, refused to use them.

Statistics are people, with the tears wiped away, but one only has to look at the statistics to see that the DWP consciously, willfully, rationally and massively raised the bar in terms of how many sanctions it wants to see. Check the ONS statistics for the number of sanctions dished out by job centres in Oct 2012, then look again, a month later. Witness that sanctions leapt by hundreds, even thousands of per cent across every job centre in the land just a month later. This was an orgy of sanctioning activity and no-one was spared.
Note also that the number of sanctions dished out have stayed at those elevated levels ever since.

This so-called ‘expectation’, to paraphrase the Marx Brothers, ‘looks like a target, it behaves like a target, don’t be misled, it is a target.’

Autumn 2012 will be seen as the moment the DWP turned the thumbscrews on the unemployed, the disabled and the poor with a vigorous expectation that more and more people should be punished for being out of a job, for being ill or for being disabled.

So far all the main political parties have got away with it (until Corbyn arrived, Labour fully supported sanctions). And it is difficult to see how matters can play out politically, for people in this part of the population. But play out, it will, somehow. Perhaps we are already starting to see it in increased levels of violence at job centres (assaults on staff up 45 per cent), anecdotal reports of mothers stealing baby food and attempts to burn down job centres Perhaps there will be riots. Or maybe just an explosion in street homelessness.

Meanwhile, the regime of sanctioning looks set to encompass ever wider swathes of society. And it is here, occasionally, one hears poverty campaigners hint at a note of optimism, because, the DWP recently upped the ante once again.

Under Universal, for the first time, workers could be sanctioned.
Anyone in receipt of benefit and working less than 35 hours per week will have to demonstrate to the DWP that they are doing enough to find additional full-time hours, or else risk being sanctioned. This is a significant development, with up to 12 million families potentially affected. That’s 12 million people who will come face-to-face with the reality of a mendacious sanctioning regime. That’s a lot more dinner parties, chats down the pub, Saturday nights in front of the X-factor etc where ‘sanctioning’ will become a fractious, despairing and angry topic of conversation.

If the DWP behaves true to form, then these workers, members of the lower middle class (participants in general elections many of them) can expect to be demonized as undeserving and under scrutiny. They too will have the activities listed in their ‘jobs seeker diary’ (FOI – how will the DWP monitor the work-related activity of par-time workers, and they will be angry.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Momentum: the quickest campaign outfit on the block?

Momentum comes in for a lot of criticism from the media. I can’t but help think that this is in large part a consequence of the success they have had in influencing Labour Party policy making, in particular, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the party.
The NEC is obviously a body they’ve set out to influence, as was demonstrated by their success in getting all their ‘slate’ candidates elected to the NEC in early September.
But it is not just in their success at winning high profile elections that’s impressed me, it’s also in their ability to stay on top of the issues at the NEC and ensure that, when needed, the campaign’s digitally engaged activists are mobilised to bring external pressure to bear.
A case in point was the mini-furore that erupted this week upon the leaked details about mandatory re-selection, a policy supported by the Labour Party membership, but apparently subject to a trade union / parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) stitch up.
I received an email ‘call to action’ from Momentum at 10:08 am, urging me to email NEC members to get them to reject plans that might undermine the further democratisation of the PLP.

Three hours later and NEC members’ phones had been inundated with messages from Momentum members urging them to reject the plans allegedly under consideration by the NEC.
Here’s the Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh commenting on what he’d heard:

Prominent NEC members with close links to Momentum, ie Jon Lansman, were quiet on the issue, though his preference for open selections, was clearly very strongly reflected in the email sent out by Momentum.
Whatever you think of Momentum, as a campaigning group, I can’t think of anyone else that remains so effective at mobilising its activist base in this way.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The curse of unlimited choice: music technology

I’ve never been a fan of the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks and Peter Thiels of this world.
But, the German music tech entrepreneur (sound engineer, musician, coder and artist) Robert Hencke, is different. He’s fascinating.
Imagine being the co-founder of a genre defining $18 million music software company and then decrying what your incredible piece of technology has done!
That’s what Hencke, co-founder of Ableton, does in this excellent presentation, which is essentially a treatise about the tyranny of choice that comes with technological abundance.

I've been obsessed with music production down the years and finally bought my first copy of Ableton about 10 years ago. The software combines incredible power and versatility with a bewildering capacity to stifle creativity. I have had a love-hate relationship with the programme  ever since I bought it. My feelings towards it are  well expressed by Robert in this talk.
That said, I constantly go back to Ableton, knowing that the urge to get another synthesiser or plug-in, learning or even building a fully modular synth, is almost certainly unnecessary and will get me no closer to the type of music or art I want to produce. Certainly no closer than the universe of synthesis, composition and emulation that exists in Ableton.
Others disagree, having basically rinsed Ableton as part of their studio and liver performances for years already. 
There is something intensely creative about limiting your choices of technology, mastering a piece of equipment, pushing it beyond its absolute capability and creating something entirely new as a by-product.
Ultimately, this is what I think Hencke is urging us all to do.
It is a great talk by someone who’s clearly still in touch with his fundamental creative drives and needs, he even comes tantalisingly close to saying Ableton should be scrapped altogether!
Well work a watch.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Hayek, astroturf and centrism

In my efforts to understand astroturfed political campaigns, I decided to read Hayek’s polemical essay ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’.

The essay is the source of Hayek's reference to “second hand dealers in ideas” often assumed to mean think tanks. I’m not sure this is what he meant in 1949, regardless of how apt it feels today.

Hayek’s "intellectuals" are journalists, school teachers and other purveyors of knowledge. They are the second-hand dealers in ideas whose role is to act as an intermediary between social, political and cultural ideas and the public at large who, he assumes, are inescapably under their influence.*

In the essay he rails against a media and cultural world dominated by socialist intellectuals , putting this dominance down to the awe-inspiring utopianism of socialist ideas in contrast to the workaday “practical”  “sensible” “realistic” (dare I say) centrism of liberalism.

Hayek complains that: “what [liberals] lack is a liberal Utopia… a program which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty… which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today to be politically possible.”

This quote could literally have been uttered by David Cameron or Tony Blair. It is precisely the kind of “what works is what’s best” managerialism that guided first term New Labour. It feels entirely apt for a society chugging along with 3% growth, decent wage growth and a public sector borrowing requirement of 37-40% of GDP.

Hayek didn’t believe he was living in an actually existing capitalist society.

And I think it is precisely this that's is at the root of the failure to adequately respond to the crisis of 2008. It is the reason why liberalism offered, at most, an apologia to 2008 according to this week’s Financial Times. It is possible Hayek would have campaigned for Brexit, though our current no-deal trajectory sits ill with the centrism in his 1949 essay.

All of which is to say that Hayek and today’s “intellectual neoliberals” in the media continue to spectacularly miss the point.  

In a society marked by social distress, it is insanity to think a media ‘huddle’ with Michael Gove a masterstroke of social action.

When millions of children cannot get a decent diet; if you don't know where next week's wages are coming from; if one of the great markers of human progress has gone into unprecedented reverse, then no amount of editorializing, lobby briefings or press releases is likely to shift public opinion.

Because Hayek was wrong, fatally wrong, if he believed that public opinion turned solely on whatever vision or anti-vision is on offer from media intellectuals.

Surely this is what the 2017 general election result, and all opinion polls since, conclusively demonstrated? Public opinion does not turn on whatever latest smear is concocted in the Westminster lobby, it turns on the deep and long-standing churnings in people’s everyday material conditions.

Unless and until liberals are able to understand that a politics that addresses 2008 and its fallout is the new centrism, they will stay irrelevant.

*Note - I find the essay useful in getting my head around the funding decisions of charities like the Political and Economic Research Trust (PERT). Not just the money it gave to the TaxPayers Alliance, but the money doled out to early culture war outfits like the New Culture Forum. I’m researching a longer piece on this, including how PERT ended up funding a campaign to have traffic lights abolished).   

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

A letter to the patrons of the CAA

All reasonable people should be working hard to ensure Antisemitism is stamped out and that the issue is not inflamed.
Unfortunately a petition by the Campaign Against Antisemitism appears to have done just that.
The title of the charity’s petition ‘For the many, not the Jew’ could hardly have been more inflammatory.
The result has been an outpouring of violent comments in support of the petition that are nothing less than incitement to political violence (I won't share or link to the comments here, the petition is easily found). Thankfully, in his response to questions raised by the Skwarkbox blog, the Chairman of the CAA condemned the comments.

I am struggling to think of another campaigning organisation (perhaps other than Leave.EU or UKIP) that has acted in such an irresponsible way.
It is true that neither the CAA, nor its patrons, are responsible for comments placed in support of its petition. But it is equally true that the comments do the charity, its officers, trustees and patrons no credit whatsoever, in fact they devalue it.
The charity counts a former Archbishop of Canterbury, sitting MPs, lords and high profile barristers among its patrons. In addition to writing to them, I have also written to the charity.
It is beyond comprehension that those associated with the CAA would not do whatever they can, however small, to de-escalate this.

The text of my letter is below.

Dear Sir / Madam
As a patron of the Charity ‘The Campaign Against Antisemitism’ I must draw your attention to the charity’s petition ‘For the Many, not the Jew,’ currently hosted at  ( )
In particular, I wish to raise with you the many instances in which petitioners are choosing to deploy violent language against the leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP.
Whilst neither the charity, nor you as a patron, are in any way responsible for the comments people chose to make, I do feel that in the current climate you and the CAA have a responsibility to help de-escalate and perhaps even distance yourselves from these comments.
Barely two years have passed since a sitting MP was murdered in the street by a man who espoused hard right views. It is a tragedy to see comments of a similar, violent nature being recorded alongside the CAA's petition.
It is incumbent on all people involved in public life to act in a responsible way and, where possible, to use their influence to de-escalate this type of inflammatory and violent rhetoric.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely

Friday, 24 August 2018

'Cults’ 'Cranks' and understanding fake news

‘Cranks’ recently became a shorthand to describe a particular group of social media campaigners who support the leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.

It differs from the ‘cult’ catch-all beloved of a section of commentators. An important difference being the consensus, even among Corbyn supporters, that ‘cranks’ are a particular sub-set whose views are informed by questionable conspiracy theory.

Still, as a label, ‘cult’ is also problematic. It writes off whole swathes of digitally engaged people, mostly motivated by a sense of injustice, and hope for a better future.

The notion of the unthinking, unquestioning cult-like dupe is not particularly helpful for us in trying to understand what is going on in our society. Take the phenomenon of  'fake news' and a paper by Alice Marwick which questions the effectiveness of traditional fact checking or media literacy campaigns in countering it.

There’s no reasoned or rational ‘magic bullet’ to fake news. A well argued or irrefutable fact is rarely sufficient to end a fake news narrative, it probably never was. Instead, Marwick argues, we need to understand how people ‘make meaning’ from media and stop pretending that shot-in-the-arm fact checking or media literacy projects will change things.

She argues:
“A socio-technical approach to understand how and why people share fake news reveals complex social motivations that will not be easily changed.” (p480)
Though US-centric, her paper has helped me understand what motivates, and gives agency to, those in and around digital activist spaces who are often described as Corbyn ‘cultists’.

Fandom: Trekkies, Brosettes and Dungeons and Dragons

There is often something herd-like about the way people get behind Corbyn on Twitter. At times I find it a bit uncomfortable with it (who am I to criticise?).
But in her paper Marwick suggests the possibility of using ‘fandom’ as a frame to understand what could be going on in these digital activist circles.
Fandom is a phenomenon cultural theorists have written about for decades, from: Klingon-speaking Star Trek groupies to the Brossettes, Beatlemania and football fanzine editors.
The relevance of fan culture here is summed up by the observation that: 
“Fans did not simply consume content: they produced their own in the form of fan art, fan films and fan fiction.”
It’s easy to label people a ‘cult’, all the better to dismiss them, but isn't it more likely that Corbyn activists are simply bringing a pretty standard cultural tradition, that of  'the fan' to their organised digital activism? Of course Trekkies and fanzine editors were rarely political. In contrast today’s digital activists have agency and, in the case of Corbyn, a political figurehead. I suspect it's really this latter combination that really irks people.

Voice and agency

History is replete with examples of elites horrified at the sound of the politically disenfranchised finding their voice.
Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind, notes that US elites were often at least as disgusted by the verbal speech acts of women or slaves, as they were of their emancipatory ideas.
In their ‘catch all’ denunciations of ‘cultists’ it feels like ‘sensible’ media commentators, politicians and influencers are, at least partly, objecting to the same thing.

Friday, 15 June 2018

A lie is halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on (pt2)

I like a bit of symmetry in my social media content. So, after Tuesday's post about how fake news outruns truth on Twitter, I’m following up with an example of a bit of ‘truth’ that’s taken nearly half a century to catch up with an apparently false cultural idea. You may be familiar with the ‘infamous’ Stanford Prison experiments of the 1970s? These ethically dubious experiments saw students voluntarily incarcerated in a mock prison, policed by ‘mock’ student prison guards. Soon into the experiment the mock guards began mistreating the volunteer prisoners. A chilling conclusion drawn from the study was that even ‘normal’ people tend to abuse their power over others, given a certain set of circumstances. But a new French documentary blows the lid off the 46-year-old experiment. The film includes in-depth interviews with students and academics who were there. Is the truth finally catching up with the ‘fake’ findings of the Stanford Prison experiment, nearly half a century after its findings became embedded in western cultural lore? Blog is here: