Sunday, March 05, 2017

Book review - School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education

School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education

by Melissa Benn

Biteback Publishing

review by Tim Barton

published in Hastings Independent, issue #71, 03.03.17

Sick of privatisation for profit? Sick of government cash incentives for private businesses whilst starving state run ones of cash? Sick of them then claiming the 'failing' ones are 'failing' because state run organisations 'don't work'? Sick of government cash bail-outs when these privatised ventures fail? Sick of the fact that many of them, granted support, are still in profit whilst 'failing'? And in the case of ARK, run by hedge-fund managers and bankers? Sick of new build schools taking public loans on high interest, hamstringing local finance for generations?

Melissa Benn traces the messy history of state education, private schools (all too often allied with religious organisations, and thus tax exempt), and the new 'academies' in her book 'School Wars'. She shows how the 'choice and diversity' revolution simply amplifies the social divide; how selection continues to exacerbate the divide in academies via vocational specialism; how funding for profit has seen powerful lobbies arise to promote privatisation of our schools; how little cash is invested by charitable trusts, but public funds are disproportionately redirected to them from the state sector; how nepotistic choices are made by government to ensure 'independent commissions' have their conclusions decided in advance; how outsourcing of peripheral functions is a goldmine for corner cutters; how the anti-state school ideology of Thatcher was expanded under Blair, then the coalition, and continues, gloves off, today.

'Plainly, the aim was to create a majority of privately managed institutions, including many primaries, leaving a rump of struggling schools within the ambit of local authorities, themselves undermined by savage budget cuts,' says Benn, leading even more surely to poorer results for poorer children. Indeed, often councillors have been presented with a 'no academy, no school' ultimatum.

The National Union of Teachers opposes both academies and 'free schools', criticising them for using unqualified teachers and for being out of Local Education Authority control. NUT leader, Christine Bloomer, has said that 'not since the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has legislation other than that intended to counter terrorism, or deal with financial crisis, been rushed through all Parliamentary stages in quite this fashion'. The unseemly greedy rush for another un-mined business opportunity often sees advocates cite the 'Swedish model' of academies. Both the NUT and Benn criticises this comparison. The class divides seen in Britain are quite different: a better model in that of the USA, where success is far more equivocal.

One of the other issues with academies is just who will sponsor them. Religious organisations are ne of the main contenders. Almost all are 'chain store' businesses, run for profit ('the education market is worth over £10 billion') and obsessed with quantification of results, achieved all too often at the expense of quality and through the use of 'vocational' 'equivalents' ('efficiency is the new accountability'). Anyone who has experienced both learning through academic study (eg, GCSE's and A-levels) and through vocational study (eg, NVQ's) will know that, frequently, good 'results' may be achievable via the latter but not good 'education'. Too much labelling, too much testing – bad enough at middle school, but, appallingly, being pushed hard at primary too.

Meanwhile, a savage philistinism defines government assaults on core curriculum, especially with it's reprehensible attack on the humanities, leaving only fusty 19th century literature on the table. It was said of Gove (also arguably also applies to academies and free schools, both literally and conceptually), 'Behind a pretentious facade, he would be shoddy in design and execution'.

Benn makes a very strong case for continuing the comprehensive education experiment, and for the deliberate ideological sabotage and misrepresentation of it by politicians and the media. She cites the profound, if slow, impact of free comprehensive education for all on post-War society. Distributed equally to all, and creating common ground and understanding between communities, classes, religions, comprehensive ideal is potentially greatly rewarding for our society as a whole. Benn sees any failure of the poor to attain the promised social mobility that should derive from it as being a product of the continued lionisation of selective schools, that maintain the Class Ceiling in our divided nation.

Tory government, especially, showed 'no confidence in an education that did not prejudge an individual's worth or facilitate an escalation of enclaves for the favoured few'. Cyril Norwood is quoted on public schools, 'It is hard to resist the argument that a state which draws its leaders in overwhelming proportion from a class so limited as this is not a democracy but a plutocracy' and suggests reform is impossible with a two-tier system. The new 'free market' in schools, in fact, creates even more strata.

The case for a continuation of such issues under academies is well made.

One of ARK's hedge-fund founders says that 'as a committed Church of England Christian, I believe we are all made in God's image'. Do we really want a profiteering God squad to control curriculum at a state maintained non-church school like Castledown? Do we really want wealthy lobbyists with an inside track on government, with corporate sponsors registered, unregulated, in the Caymen Islands (see The Great City Academy Fraud, by Francis Beckett), profiteering from our children? Tales from other local ARK academies are of high staff turnover, rigid costcutting, and excessive target-driven pressure on teachers and pupils alike'. Stephen Ball (The Education Debate) is quite adamant 'of course, we will see these schools close when they start to make a loss', after 'milking profits [...] to the detriment of educational quality'.

Is 'the creeping privatisation of primary education' acceptable at all? It is impossible not to conclude that these schemes, intended in part as a progressive initiative, are turning into the means to destroy good egalitarian education.


Hands Off Castledown

If you are against the proposal to change Castledown into an ARK academy, if you feel that the consultation has been handled appallingly, if you have questions that you want answered about this then PLEASE EMAIL Stuart Gallimore, the governors, and Dominic Herrington (Regional Schools Commissioner) to complain and include the following addresses in every email so that everyone knows you oppose this:
Stuart Gallimore:
Dominic Herrington (RSC):
Governing Body:
Kerri Burns: head@castledown.e-sussex.sch
Amber Rudd (MP):
Bryony Mackenzie (SE Today):
Richard Gladstone (Hastings Observer):

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review - Cut Out: Living Without Welfare

Cut Out: Living Without Welfare

by Jeremy Seabrook

Pluto Press, RRP £12.99, available at Bookbuster for £10.99

review by Tim Barton

The stories in this book could wring tears from a stone.

Seabrook, a journalist well known to readers of New Statesman and The Guardian, has assembled here a collection of first-hand experiences from a wide range of welfare recipients. The full spectrum of benefits are covered here, and every tale is one of increasing hardship.

A picture of the effects of the Tory government's enforced, artificial, chosen, and propagandised 'austerity' programme is built over the 244 pages of this book. Seabrook gives a few pages here and there to position the problems faced by 'the poor' in a context of a crisis of capitalism, and these are excellent analysis. But he has no need to resort to copious amounts of theory – the heart-breaking narratives here speak for themselves, and well illustrate the issues.

The continuing inroads of privatisation, the search for asset-stripping profiteering, the pedalling of capitalism as the 'only path', the marginalisation and demonisation of dissent (as illustrated all too well by the current establishment class-war on Corbyn) are graphically exposed.

The realisation that 'this could happen to any of us' is masked and hidden away, neighbour is turned against neighbour, a sense of 'us and them' is encouraged by a tabloid media. But not the 'us and them' of the old left versus right class war, on no, instead it is an 'us and them' of the lower classes versus their own - the marginally successful against all welfare claimants; the 'able' against the 'disabled'; the working poor (and everyone else) against immigrants.

Meanwhile those holding the oven doors open an shovelling us in on behalf of a vicious elite and themselves one pay-packet from the dole, one target missed from unemployment, one restructure away from a down-sizing and takeover by G4S and their ilk.

The vindictiveness or otherwise of recent reforms aside, DWP figures showed a three-fold increase of deaths amongst claimants between 2011 and 2014. Amongst the more recent figure are 2380 who dies with two weeks of being declared 'fit for work' by ATOS. ATOS have been replaced by US firm MAXIMUS, who already are costing twice as much, have a massive backlog, and are reported;y no better than ATOS. Official figures of refusals (a third), followed by appeal (60% appeal; 60% of appeals are reversed), do not tally with my experience: a straw-poll amongst my disabled acquaintances indicates 9/10 have been refused on every reassessment, taking for granted it will occur whether there has been a change in their circumstances or not, and all are advised third party support agencies in the town that an appeal will be successful.

To the DWP it is a game, but to claimants of our safety-net welfare provision it is literally a matter of life or death. To the elites, pitting the poor against the poor is the main tranche of there ongoing class war to keep us in our place. Mega-corporations rob the tax system of billions every year, but pennies at the bottom are the focus. 'Alienation' is resulting in radicalisation: but that, too, is a positive to the elites, as it 'justifies' more turning of the screws, more legislation to corral us, more successful entrenchment of anti-solidarity 'values'.

Seabrook's book is a must-read in the battle to rehumanise our system. He sees a drive for greater fairness plus genuine positive reformation of welfare as the only solutions, and has little time for radical solutions along the lines of 'the overthrow of capitalism' - because he sees little chance of it, but also because he sees much of the dissent organised on such lines as overly fond of 'theological exegeses of the scripture attributed to Marx'. It is only here that I do not see eye to eye with him. There are other, liberatory, strands to contemporary dissent that, I think, are not blindly in hoc to 'Marxism', and his own book is a superb illustration of why, really, it is only radical actions such as 'the overthrow of capitalism' that can begin to solve the 'problem' of poverty.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Revolution Will Be Digitized, by John Doe

The Revolution Will Be Digitized

John Doe

Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. It affects all of us, the world over. The debate over its sudden acceleration has raged for years, with politicians, academics and activists alike helpless to stop its steady growth despite countless speeches, statistical analyses, a few meagre protests, and the occasional documentary. Still, questions remain: why? And why now?

The Panama Papers provide a compelling answer to these questions: massive, pervasive corruption. And it’s not a coincidence that the answer comes from a law firm. More than just a cog in the machine of “wealth management,” Mossack Fonseca used its influence to write and bend laws worldwide to favour the interests of criminals over a period of decades. In the case of the island of Niue, the firm essentially ran a tax haven from start to finish. Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack would have us believe that their firm’s shell companies, sometimes called “special purpose vehicles,” are just like cars. But used car salesmen don’t write laws. And the only “special purpose” of the vehicles they produced was too often fraud, on a grand scale.

Shell companies are often associated with the crime of tax evasion, but the Panama Papers show beyond a shadow of a doubt that although shell companies are not illegal by definition, they are used to carry out a wide array of serious crimes that go beyond evading taxes. I decided to expose Mossack Fonseca because I thought its founders, employees and clients should have to answer for their roles in these crimes, only some of which have come to light thus far. It will take years, possibly decades, for the full extent of the firm’s sordid acts to become known.

In the meantime, a new global debate has started, which is encouraging. Unlike the polite rhetoric of yesteryear that carefully omitted any suggestion of wrongdoing by the elite, this debate focuses directly on what matters.

In that regard, I have a few thoughts.

For the record, I do not work for any government or intelligence agency, directly or as a contractor, and I never have. My viewpoint is entirely my own, as was my decision to share the documents with Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), not for any specific political purpose, but simply because I understood enough about their contents to realize the scale of the injustices they described.

The prevailing media narrative thus far has focused on the scandal of what is legal and allowed in this system. What is allowed is indeed scandalous and must be changed. But we must not lose sight of another important fact: the law firm, its founders, and employees actually did knowingly violate myriad laws worldwide, repeatedly. Publicly they plead ignorance, but the documents show detailed knowledge and deliberate wrongdoing. At the very least we already know that Mossack personally perjured himself before a federal court in Nevada, and we also know that his information technology staff attempted to cover up the underlying lies. They should all be prosecuted accordingly with no special treatment.

In the end, thousands of prosecutions could stem from the Panama Papers, if only law enforcement could access and evaluate the actual documents. ICIJ and its partner publications have rightly stated that they will not provide them to law enforcement agencies. I, however, would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement to the extent that I am able.

That being said, I have watched as one after another, whistleblowers and activists in the United States and Europe have had their lives destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in after shining a light on obvious wrongdoing. Edward Snowden is stranded in Moscow, exiled due to the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. For his revelations about the NSA, he deserves a hero’s welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment. Bradley Birkenfeld was awarded millions for his information concerning Swiss bank UBS—and was still given a prison sentence by the Justice Department. Antoine Deltour is presently on trial for providing journalists with information about how Luxembourg granted secret “sweetheart” tax deals to multi-national corporations, effectively stealing billions in tax revenues from its neighbour countries. And there are plenty more examples.

Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution, full stop. Until governments codify legal protections for whistleblowers into law, enforcement agencies will simply have to depend on their own resources or on-going global media coverage for documents.

In the meantime, I call on the European Commission, the British Parliament, the United States Congress, and all nations to take swift action not only to protect whistleblowers, but to put an end to the global abuse of corporate registers. In the European Union, every member state’s corporate register should be freely accessible, with detailed data plainly available on ultimate beneficial owners. The United Kingdom can be proud of its domestic initiatives thus far, but it still has a vital role to play by ending financial secrecy on its various island territories, which are unquestionably the cornerstone of institutional corruption worldwide. And the United States can clearly no longer trust its fifty states to make sound decisions about their own corporate data. It is long past time for Congress to step in and force transparency by setting standards for disclosure and public access.

And while it’s one thing to extol the virtues of government transparency at summits and in sound bites, it’s quite another to actually implement it. It is an open secret that in the United States, elected representatives spend the majority of their time fundraising. Tax evasion cannot possibly be fixed while elected officials are pleading for money from the very elites who have the strongest incentives to avoid taxes relative to any other segment of the population. These unsavoury political practices have come full circle and they are irreconcilable. Reform of America’s broken campaign finance system cannot wait.

Of course, those are hardly the only issues that need fixing. Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand has been curiously quiet about his country’s role in enabling the financial fraud Mecca that is the Cook Islands. In Britain, the Tories have been shameless about concealing their own practices involving offshore companies, while Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the United States Treasury, just announced her resignation to work instead for HSBC, one of the most notorious banks on the planet (not coincidentally headquartered in London). And so the familiar swish of America’s revolving door echoes amidst deafening global silence from thousands of yet-to-be-discovered ultimate beneficial owners who are likely praying that her replacement is equally spineless. In the face of political cowardice, it’s tempting to yield to defeatism, to argue that the status quo remains fundamentally unchanged, while the Panama Papers are, if nothing else, a glaring symptom of our society’s progressively diseased and decaying moral fabric.

But the issue is finally on the table, and that change takes time is no surprise. For fifty years, executive, legislative, and judicial branches around the globe have utterly failed to address the metastasizing tax havens spotting Earth’s surface. Even today, Panama says it wants to be known for more than papers, but its government has conveniently examined only one of the horses on its offshore merry-go-round.

Banks, financial regulators and tax authorities have failed. Decisions have been made that have spared the wealthy while focusing instead on reining in middle- and low-income citizens.

Hopelessly backward and inefficient courts have failed. Judges have too often acquiesced to the arguments of the rich, whose lawyers—and not just Mossack Fonseca—are well trained in honouring the letter of the law, while simultaneously doing everything in their power to desecrate its spirit. The media has failed. Many news networks are cartoonish parodies of their former selves, individual billionaires appear to have taken up newspaper ownership as a hobby, limiting coverage of serious matters concerning the wealthy, and serious investigative journalists lack funding. The impact is real: in addition to Süddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ, and despite explicit claims to the contrary, several major media outlets did have editors review documents from the Panama Papers. They chose not to cover them. The sad truth is that among the most prominent and capable media organizations in the world there was not a single one interested in reporting on the story. Even Wikileaks didn’t answer its tip line repeatedly.

But most of all, the legal profession has failed. Democratic governance depends upon responsible individuals throughout the entire system who understand and uphold the law, not who understand and exploit it. On average, lawyers have become so deeply corrupt that it is imperative for major changes in the profession to take place, far beyond the meek proposals already on the table. To start, the term “legal ethics,” upon which codes of conduct and licensure are nominally based, has become an oxymoron. Mossack Fonseca did not work in a vacuum—despite repeated fines and documented regulatory violations, it found allies and clients at major law firms in virtually every nation. If the industry’s shattered economics were not already evidence enough, there is now no denying that lawyers can no longer be permitted to regulate one another. It simply doesn’t work. Those able to pay the most can always find a lawyer to serve their ends, whether that lawyer is at Mossack Fonseca or another firm of which we remain unaware. What about the rest of society?

The collective impact of these failures has been a complete erosion of ethical standards, ultimately leading to a novel system we still call Capitalism, but which is tantamount to economic slavery. In this system—our system—the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters, who exist in a world apart where the intangible shackles are carefully hidden amongst reams of unreachable legalese. The horrific magnitude of detriment to the world should shock us all awake. But when it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause for even greater concern. It signals that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner. So now is the time for real action, and that starts with asking questions.

Historians can easily recount how issues involving taxation and imbalances of power have led to revolutions in ages past. Then, military might was necessary to subjugate peoples, whereas now, curtailing information access is just as effective or more so, since the act is often invisible. Yet we live in a time of inexpensive, limitless digital storage and fast internet connections that transcend national boundaries. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots: from start to finish, inception to global media distribution, the next revolution will be digitized.

Or perhaps it has already begun.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists

Review: Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists

Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists
Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain
Published by New Internationalist
£9.99 pbk at Bookbuster
review by Tim Barton

From the founding of National Propaganda, the precursor to the Economic League, in 1919, through '50s America's McCarthyism, 80's Britain's 'Boys from the Black Stuff', to today's The Consulting Association, and revelations regarding police infiltration of eco-activism, 'blacklisting' has been an open 'secret'.
'Proving' it formally, well, that has been more challenging.
This book relates the story of the exposure of Construction industry blacklisting in this country, and transnationally, by investigative reporter Phil Chamberlain and campaigner Dave Smith, who has himself been on the blacklist. The book also exposes the long history of blacklisting and the efforts of capital, police and state to infiltrate and undermine groups and individuals looking to defend workers' rights.
Over the last century, those with power and money have consistently sought top justify spying on heir workforce, and suppressing 'bad eggs' on the grounds of, variously, theft, aggressive behaviour, and, more 'honestly' anti-Communism.
The authors have exposed third party agencies involved in running blacklists for industry, and in doing so reveal the unsurprising reality: that these agencies are run in collusion with police government and industry, often with ex-Metropolitan Police as staff; that they are clearly targeting organisation that support workers' rights (primarily the Union movement); and that they are targeting individual workers' who 'cause trouble' – where 'trouble' is statistically far more likely to include raising safety issues with management and union than any of the 'unethical' behaviours those running and using blacklists claim are the issue.
And some 'reasons' appear absurd: for example, Syd Scroggie (whose interesting biography is briefly outlined in the book) was blacklisted as a 'subversive' after 'writing to a newspaper in support of Edinburgh District Council's decision to buy a portrait of Nelson Mandela'. The authors have interviewed 100s of workers that appear on blacklists, as well as union reps, company reps, and Special Branch spies.
The book took years to complete, with considerable effort made to suppress it on spurious legal grounds. Many documents needed to create the full picture were never forthcoming – one, telling, example is the blocking of a construction industry report held in the National Archive 'on grounds of national security', said report containing 'considerable background information on unions and industry from the Department of Employment, and some from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Information Research Department' on 'subversion' in 'public life'.
The picture emerges of an Orwellian national and transnational propaganda machine, establishing close linkage between corporations and state security, aimed clearly at workers' organisations that seek to protect our rights. The agencies were small offices, with a small secretarial team, selling clearance on a £3000 a year subscription with a 'per search' fee on any workers taken on in many large industrial combines. Personnel departments would call in by phone, and if a name was on the list you would not get the job. Sometimes, new employees, already on the job for a few days or even just a few hours, would be sacked – a few relate here how sympathetic managers on site had shown them the list (on large projects, long lists) on which they appeared. The actor Ricky Tomlinson, originally a plumber, was reportedly 'gobsmacked' when his name was revealed (in 2002) to have been on a late 70s / early 80s industry blacklist. A whole chapter is given to blacklisting on the Olympic site in East London, and another on police and security service connivance and infiltration.
However, this is not just of 'historical interest': it is still going on, daily, and is ruining the lives of decent and rightly aggrieved workers who have a will to support the health and safety, as well as pay and employment rights, of their fellows – often issues that are literally 'a matter of life & death', but the fixing of which will hit someone's bottom line. Ask the wrong questions, and your card is marked. The practice is not deemed relevant at employment tribunals, exposing 'fundamental problems in the current tribunal system', but some unions (not all, some regarding 'subversives' as negatively as companies do) have pursued redress as they class such blacklisting as 'unlawful conspiracy', with some successes over the last three years.
It wasn't until 2013 that the TUC were moved to organise a day of action against blacklisting. In that year, Michael Meacher MP gave 'an apology for the way you have been betrayed by the state, by the courts, by the Information Commissioner's Office, by the political parties – all of them – and by the police and by the media'. Hollow words to those who have witnessed divorce, poverty, suicides... as a result of being unable to work.
How do things stand now, in 2015? 'All monitoring of domestic extremism [sic] is now under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command SO15 unit with police spies now deployed by the Special Project Teams of SO15. So state spying on trade unionists and peaceful leftwing activists is now categorised as counter-terrorism'. This book is a must-read eye-opener, indeed.