Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is one of those days every year when we think of the role of the women who brought us into the world, and how much they have done and sacrificed for us and our welfare, from when we were a mere collection of cells, to now when we are studying for degrees (some would say our brain cells are perhaps not much more developed than when we were but a collection of cells in some respects). However much progress has been made (albeit painfully slowly) towards equal pay and representation for women in our society, women will always be pressurized to juggle their work and home lives to a greater extent than men.

What worries me is that this noble cause where women rightly have more of a choice in living their lives as they want to live them has created a culture and a mindset where those who choose – actively, rather than subjects of some false consciousness or religious pressure – to stay at home or only work part time to be with the kids as they come home from school, are targeted as a drain on society and the public purse. Housewives (sorry), homemakers, stay-at-home mums: whatever the word we use for them, their work is indeed that – work, which for example produces far more of a social good than the likes of bankers or estate agents or lawyers. Yet it is not categorised as such, and our society does not reward it, it penalizes it.

This is nothing to do with a woman being made to feel guilty for not pursuing her career – of course women should strive for the top echelons of the work pyramid, breaking the glass ceiling and entering the boardrooms; it is nothing to do with sexism – I firmly believe a ‘househusband’ can do the same job, and in our modern age with “all sorts of families” (Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993), including women with higher-paying jobs or same-sex parents, this is increasingly common. However there is a cultural bias against those women who choose to remain at home and work bloody hard to raise a family, often while holding down part-time or volunteering work, and this is reflected in our nation’s appallingly inadequate childcare arrangements.

In other countries – such as Germany with its stronger economy – there are subsidized childcare benefits, or help for mothers. Child tax credits and SureStart centres used to come close to this, but these are being slashed by the Coalition, which prefers to reward bankers, those earning above £150,000 a year, and potentially those who are married as opposed to all parents, co-habiting parents included. Mothers who decide to give up or put their careers on hold are penalised again later as they pick up their state pension, at a time when older people are living in fuel poverty, struggling to finish paying a mortgage and helping their children to get onto the housing ladder or with university tuition. They may even have to bring up another generation, as their children cannot afford childcare for their own sprogs so have to hand them over to the grandparents, who have no recognition or help from the state for helping bring up the politicians, doctors or teachers of tomorrow.

Nowadays, if you’re not contributing to economic growth or paying income tax, you effectively do not exist.  If you are doing your best to balance all of your commitments and bring up well rounded children you are ignored. It is about time mums who choose to stay at home for all or part of the time are recognised and treated with the respect they deserve by our policymakers.


Ageism – The Last Acceptable ‘-ism’?

Ageism is very different to the other ‘-isms’ we try to avoid in today’s supposedly enlightened, tolerant society. Most men will never be female and vice-versa, and we will never truly experience life as another race to the one we were born as. However, barring some sort of untimely death, we will all one day be old. Yet this is the group in society which is perhaps the most vulnerable and ignored.

It may be humorous, but some of the jokes around the notoriously ageist BBC’s choice of old-time crooner Engelbert Humperdinck to represent the UK at Eurovision have masked some alarming underlying currents of ageism and ridicule which are common in today’s media and discourse but usually pass unnoticed. Some of them have been about dementia and Alzheimer’s. There has also been serious criticism that he has been chosen, arguing that he should get out of the way and allow young talent to fluorish. People in the public eye who dare to continue in their career beyond 65 get sniffed at, despite still having the energy and drive to continue working. Why should he crawl into some care home and age quietly, with no fuss?

This brings us onto the more unnerving aspects of ageism in today’s society. The care system in England is a disgrace. Almost on a weekly basis there are reports of neglect and abuse in care homes up and down the country, with some staff accusing patients of “attention seeking” for desperately needing help to relieve themselves, children and grandchildren never visiting them, and pensioners still at home never getting out of bed because if they did they would freeze, as they cannot afford to put the heating on and pay the bills to the six main lecherous price-fixing gas companies (who are the real drain on our society). Meanwhile people are forced to sell their homes or inheritances to pay for their parents’ care because they receive little or no help from the government. Never mind inheritance tax, what about the low and middle income people who receive nothing from their parents because they have to give it to a private organisation which may or may not treat their loved ones with dignity and respect?

The state machine also picks on the elderly because they are vulnerable, in the same way that they pick on the young, the unemployed and the disabled. While the heads of top banks avoid paying tax altogether or manipulate it so they only pay the lower corporation tax, and Osborne no doubt prepares to justify lowering the 50p top rate in the Budget, ordinary retired pensioners are being routinely harassed to pay back money handed to them by mistake, without having it explained to them that it doesn’t have to be in a lump sum. I know a 93-year-old lady who took the trouble to write a letter asking why her winter fuel allowance was being slashed, and all she got back was a letter saying there is no money left and why doesn’t she ‘go online’ to find out more. Now there are many tech-savvy elderly people out there, but I don’t know many nonagenarians who served in the war who have a Gmail account and Facebook profile.

We live in ‘tough times’, as they keep ramming down our throats, and money doesn’t grow on trees. Yet times were harder in the 1940s austerity period and they managed to establish the National Health Service. Instead of spending money on the implementation of the Health and Social Care Bill (a laughable title for the effective privatisation that awaits us), why not set some aside for the eventual creation of a National Care Service for the elderly, or at least a free service for the poorest old people? Andy Burnham called for one in 2010, and now sadly Labour, in its’ attempt to appear economically competent, has gone quiet on the proposal. Yet it can be done.

It’s about time the elderly who don’t need patronising were allowed to continue living their lives to the full, and it’s about time those who no longer can do so without help are treated like human beings, and not a burden on the public purse which should die quietly.

The Iron Lady gives history a good handbagging

I could have written a blog post today about the exciting announcement regarding HS2 (in my view a worthy investment), or Ed Miliband’s speech about Labour being the party “for all times, not just bad times”, but instead I thought it would be much more fun to review the Iron Lady, out now in cinemas.

It’s a terrific irony that this film is funded by the UK Arts Council and National Lottery funding, not only because the former is being slashed by the Coalition’s Thatcherite scythe, but also because it would have been a more accurate representation of recent history if they had put 49 potential scenarios in the 1980s down on as many balls, and let Camelot or Guinevere decide the rest.

Seriously – Labour hat off – this was a noble attempt at capturing the spirit of one of Britain’s most prominent prime ministers; Meryl Streep’s impersonation of The Lady Who Was Not For Turning had me once or twice shivering in my seat, with her every mannerism and facial expression noted and re-enacted, along with that deep commanding voice the PR gurus told Mrs. Thatcher to adopt. Right up to the closing scenes, it displayed her dogged determination accurately, and managed to humanize her and generate sympathy towards her when she steadfastly refused to accept that her mind was beginning to unravel. Anyone who knows anything about Alzheimer’s, what it must be like to be elderly and lonely, and the denial of grief would appreciate this side of the film.

However, this was the problem: it could have been about any old lady looking back on her life and missing her husband (although this aspect was slightly unsettling and disturbing at times). The historical dimension to the film went beyond playing with history to deliver a message and artistic licence, almost to the point where you wondered if the film had been written by Tory publicists. The focus was entirely on Thatcher’s ‘Glorious’ moments and ‘triumphs’, mostly over men, for example her selection and early life, the Falklands war and the 1979 election. There was some fleeting real footage of the miner’s strike and the poll tax riots, and the entire period 1982 to 1990 was dealt with in approximately ninety seconds. At one point, I was appalled to see a shot of her dancing with Nelson Mandela. I expected it to focus primarily on her as an individual by the title, however there was not even a passing reference to the unemployment of the period, Thatcher’s response to the emergence of AIDS, the Westland affair, section 28, the clashes with the NUJ, Ken Livingstone and Liverpool Council…

This was not a documentary, and films are supposed to paint splashes of black and white over what was in reality only differing shades of grey. Even her deepest detractors have to admit that she had some leadership qualities (albeit perhaps without much idea of compromise), that she was – is – only human and was doing what she thought was right. However members of BULS who want to see this in the cinemas soon may find themselves wincing and cringing at many stages in this film.  

2012 – Will it be a Good Year for Animal Welfare?

How many of us will be making New Year’s resolutions to pay more attention to the welfare of animals we eat and the wildlife in our countryside? 

On 1st January 2012, the EU-wide ban on selling eggs from battery farms will come into force. Although in other EU nations (including the land of le Coq, France), the ban will hardly be rigorously enforced because they don’t seem to care that much for EU laws and haven’t yet made the necessary alterations to farms and cages, and the new, larger ‘enriched cages’ which will be used to supply our biggest supermarkets with eggs are not exactly a massive liberation for hens, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction, and an expression in law that we should not be tolerating these cruel means of achieving ‘efficiency’ in food production.

Unfortunately, however, this change will come at the same time as renewed calls for a repeal of the Hunting Ban. On Boxing Day, the Agriculture Minister, Jim Paice, suggested as much by arguing that the act is ‘unworkable’ and difficult to enforce. Although sadly this is in many respects the case, and it would be naive to say that the ban ended the inhumane and uncivilised ‘sport’ of fox hunting completely, it is still an expression of disapproval which should remain on the statute books for ever if we are to carry on calling ourselves an ‘animal loving nation’.

The visit by long-term animal rights campaigner and shadow minister Chris Williamson to BULS last term reminded us that the fight for even the most basic animal welfare is far from over, and that 2012 can only be a good year for animal welfare if we go out and fight against the vested interests of the food industry and those who seek a return of legalised fox hunting, in government and elsewhere. Just because a law has pitfalls and loopholes, that does not mean that the fundamentals behind it are not right, and that we cannot aim to tighten it and increase the number of prosecutions in future.

2012 need not be the year that the cause of animal rights takes a giant leap backwards.

An Englishman’s Home is… beyond his wildest dreams

For some reason, going back into the mists of time, the British people have an obsession with private home ownership, even though most of us should technically never be able to afford one without borrowing. In Continental Europe, people are far more satisfied to rent, either from private landlords or more ‘trustworthy’ institutions – maybe there is some correlation between these statistics and the lower levels of stress and dissatisfaction there compared to the UK.

Nevertheless, we are where we are, and there is no going back on the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 however much we might want to reverse it (indeed, many of us may actually agree with it, being as it was extremely popular with the low paid, who for the first time had a stake in their council homes and some sense of freedom, however delusional). What we have now is a housing crisis coming at the worst possible time, during a dire economic climate caused by sub-prime mortgages themselves.

Tensions over housing and its’ availability have an effect on many areas of life, including levels of antagonism towards immigrants, the environment, growth, inequality in our cities, personal debt, and of course the Daily Mail and Daily Express front pages. We need to deal with this timebomb if we are to stem a rise in far-right politics and avoid a lost generation of young people. However, worryingly this government is going about it completely the wrong way.

Not only has it made squatting illegal when there are more empty properties than there are homeless people in this country, but it has appallingly placed a cap on housing benefit, effectively pricing the poor out of our capital city and entire swathes of the country – those parts of the country which have job vacancies. The government is slashing the public sector and saddling young people who go to university with ever higher debt, meaning their chances of even being able to look forward to putting down a deposit are negligible.

What our housing market needs is a Keynesian-style investment in house building and construction; not only would this lower house prices for first-time buyers, but it would also ease tensions in the community and increase demand in the economy generally, leading to growth and the beginning of the end of the deficit that the ConDems love to remind us about so much. As a bonus, it would even lead to a return of Location Location Location to our TV screens. Gordon Brown’s plan before the proverbial shit hit the fan in 2007 was to build 3 million new homes – we need this sort of commitment now, coupled with a healthy proliferation of 1940s-inspired New Towns (hopefully better designed than the likes of Milton Keynes) and more social housing. Today’s announcement from Cameron and Clegg about guaranteeing 95% mortgages may look like a repetition of exactly what went wrong in the first place, but should not be dismissed entirely, as it is the taxpayer, not the banks, helping first-time buyers, and there is real potential for an increase in demand as a result.

However it goes nowhere near far enough. If we can’t get people to fall out of love with the owner-occupier dream, then we need to build, build, build, spending more money in the short term to get us out of the mess in the long term.

A Freezing Future

So much for the government constantly pandering to the grey vote because only the elderly turn out at elections. I made my weekly phone call home earlier today to find a set of anxious parents worried about how they are going to pay the bills this winter. If it turns out to be as icy as last year’s, they are going to be in trouble, they said. The reason? Not an overspend on needless festive gifts, or even the artificial and inflated energy prices, but a Chancellor who said ‘We are all in this together.’

The Winter Fuel Allowance, introduced by Gordon Brown, has been a lifeline to pensioners in fuel poverty up and down the country, and it is now being cut from £250 to £200 for the over 60s, and from £400 to £300 for the over 80s (these are the payments for those claiming pension credit, but the picture is just as severe for the slightly better-off pensioner too). Can you imagine what the reaction would be if this percentage cut was given to MPs? Or grants for new businesses? The only similar stinging cutbacks have been given to students, with tuition fees and EMA. It is indefensible, especially at a time like this, when Britain’s elderly – who have been paying taxes all their lives – are being encouraged to stay at home rather than go into care homes because their children have to re-mortgage their homes to pay for the costs, and are being told they can be treated at home rather than in hospitals thanks to NHS cuts and privatisation, to then simultaneously force them to ration their heating to only a few hours a week.

I have neighbours who are vulnerable and in their nineties, who told me they assumed there had been a mistake in their payment, and phoned up to query this only to be told by an unsympathetic call centre drone that their payments had been slashed, and that they should have noticed this when Osborne made his budget statement back in April. Oh yes, because of course all 90-year-olds are fully aware of the nation’s fiscal and benefits arrangements at every given turn. Why was there not at least a leafleting or information campaign to warn them of this change so they could save up to pay for what should be essential, and, if I had my way, provided by the state, instead of six greedy price-fixing profiteering firms?

When I said that this was a scandal and they should protest to their MP, their attitude was one of resignation and quiet despair. They didn’t feel there was any point, as there was a deficit to be paid off and they would just have to get by.

This Con-Dem coalition never ceases to amaze me, not just at how callous they are towards the most vulnerable in our society, but also because they get away with it.


That Old Chestnut

David Cameron has a nerve. Not only has he U-turned over his pledge in opposition to hold a referendum over the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union, but today he had the temerity to force Nicolas Sarkozy to back down and accept his presence at key Eurozone talks to try to deal with the Greek debt crisis on Wednesday.

Once again, only one year into the new government, a Conservative prime minister is becoming about as stable on Europe as Edwina Currie is on her feet. We all know deep down he is a staunch Euro-sceptic, so why doesn’t he have the guts to come out and be frank with the British people, and say that he would love us to turn our backs on our continental partners, but that he also loves us to lecture and patronise them on economic policy, despite the fact that UK growth is anaemic at best, and backwards at worst, thanks to his policies.

A referendum on EU membership now would of course be absurd, but having called for one in opposition, the PM should stick to his guns and create a disunited and discredited government, and do us all a favour by breaking up the coalition and triggering a general election. You can’t have your bun and eat it, and you can’t be half in, half out, of the EU – leaving the Eurozone (or more accurately, Germany) to do all the hard work and then turning up to talks this week to act as one of the key players while facing a referendum proposal at home from your own backbenchers is hypocritical and downright embarrassing for Britain.

It was Ed Miliband, incidentally, who called on Cameron to give up his trip Down Under and attend the meeting, therefore whether or not you agree that Cameron has a right to be there, it is clear that the Labour leader is ahead of the curve on this one, as he was on phone hacking and as he was at PMQs this week.

It might sound like a cheap shot from the comforts of opposition – and we all know Blair and Brown disagreed over the Euro – however it is clear that yet again the Tories are divided over Europe. Europhile or Europhobe, this is one of the few reliable constants of the European project.