Beginning to See the Light: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
‘Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long years
Stole million man’s soul an faith..’
This week we begin with last week’s parliamentary testimony from Dominic Cummings’. Which only endorsed what we already knew; that government decisions resulted in one of the highest death rates in the richer world and prolonged economic restrictions.
Cummings’ testimony exposed how a vacuum of political leadership shaped England’s pandemic response, whilst countries such as Senegal, Greece and South Korea with solid leadership managed the situation far better.
As Cummings noted: ‘It’s completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just as the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there.’ In Scotland, their first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, set up a Scottish Covid-19 advisory group in early April 2020, which operated transparently and published minutes in stark contrast to Johnson’s aversion to detail and hard work.
The other mystery was, in a supposed parliamentary democracy, where were the opposition?
Labour decided not to politicise what was a national emergency. Unlike the Tories’ during the financial crash of 2008, who were quite happy to blame the crisis on Labour’s overspending with such skillful repetition that focus groups soon repeated these lines ad nauseum.
‘The other mystery was, in a supposed parliamentary democracy, where were the opposition?’
We have known for some time that herd immunity was official policy; that hospital patients were discharged to care homes without a test which added considerably to the death toll; that lockdown was imposed too late; that outsourcing test and trace to the private sector spelled disaster.
In summary, our pandemic strategy was led by a man who regretted the first lockdown on the grounds that it damaged the economy, who thought Covid was a scare story.
In response Labour praised aspects of the government’s handling of the crisis as ‘an amazing piece of work’ a month into lockdown. When one right-wing commentator declared that Starmer’s ‘definition of opposition is to work out where the Tories are going – and get there first’, he was essentially correct, allowing government attack lines on ‘Captain Hindsight’ to cut through. In January, Labour even took the position of opposing the shut-down of schools in a new lockdown, only U-turning when it learned the government was imminently going to order it.
As a result, the electorate have let Johnson off. Yes, he made mistakes, but it was uncharted waters, who could have done more?
What Cumming’s confirms is that due to Johnson’s incompetence, inhumanity, laziness and hubris, and the entirely avoidable, disastrous decisions made by his team, tens of thousands of people suffered premature and avoidable deaths, and they did so alone.
Politically, none of this seems to matter, the vaccine programme has got the government off the hook. If there is to be an official inquiry it’s a long way off, which will not surprise Cummings, who tweeted last week that the ‘point of the inquiry is the opposite of learning, it is to delay scrutiny, preserve the broken system & distract public from real Qs’
Of the many statements made by Cummings the one that struck me as the most prescient was, ‘It’s just completely crackers… that Boris Johnson is in there.’ He also declared it ‘crazy’ that someone like himself could have acquired such a powerful position in government.
‘tens of thousands of people suffered premature and avoidable deaths, and they did so alone’
Putting Cummings to one-side, 2-years ago, when the Tories were looking for a new leader, their sole concern was improving their chances of winning an election.
Whilst popularity and campaigning skills are always significant factors when choosing a new party leader, so are other criteria such as competence, professionalism, grip, integrity, and trustworthiness.
Looking at the overall picture, Johnson was ill-qualified to be PM. Irrespective, the party collectively looked the other way and selected someone who was good for winning an election and bad at every aspect of governing. ‘If you dance with the devil, then you haven’t got a clue, for you think you’ll change the devil, but the devil changes you.’
What summed up how Johnson governs was this quote from last summer when Cummings says he complained to the prime minister: ‘This whole system is chaos, this building is chaos.’ Mr Johnson laughed and replied: ‘Chaos isn’t that bad, chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.’ Johnson appears to see that by perpetuating a constant state of confusion it enhances his authority. During Covid this chaos theory simply led to more deaths.
Despite this, and likely choreographed by their party managers, Tory MPs continue to dismiss this entire testimony. In the same cynical way that they selected Johnson they calculate that voters won’t have much time for the accusations of an oddball who outraged them with his lockdown-busting.
For them it’s a zero same sum game, as long as the Tory poll rating is buoyant, and Johnson still looks like a winner he can do as he pleases.
‘voters won’t have much time for the accusations of an oddball who outraged them with his lockdown-busting’
Besides ‘getting it done’, the other key tenet of the election campaign orchestrated for Johnson by Dominic Cummings, was ‘levelling up.’ Which has rarely, if ever been properly defined, but is taken to mean equalising living standards / wages / whatever, between London and the SE and other parts of the country.
Despite this promise, figures released last week revealed a steep rise in child poverty to 4.3m children. However, when the Labour MP Gareth Thomas challenged the PM on this increase, Johnson responded saying, ‘We are seeing fewer households now with children in poverty than 10 years ago.’
Whilst his statement was clearly untrue it seems to worry very few people. The true data via the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2010 there were 3.6 million children living below the poverty line, and now there are 4.3 million, with 200,000 more since last year.
How the government justifies this untruth is characteristically by under-hand methods. The universally used measure of poverty, in Britain and internationally, is relative, counting anyone living below 60% of a country’s median income. The government has a measure called ‘absolute poverty’ which is based on 2010’s numbers therefore it is using a median figure that is 11-yrs out-of-date and commensurately lower that today’s benchmark. Following are more examples of levelling up:’
- Using their sleight of hand ‘absolute poverty’ measure, when counting incomes before housing costs there are still 100,000 more poor children.
- The new official figures, highlighted by the Child Poverty Action Group, show that 2.9 million children live on less than 50% of the median.
- 600,000 more kids plunged into those depths since 2010.
Johnson, in his levelling-up may wish to consider child poverty in the north-east which has increased by a third in 5-years and is now the UK’s second highest. The political question is when will inhabitants of those northern seats discover the deceit that they are due more austerity. Blackpool is listed by the Living Wage Commission as having seven of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK.
What is even worse is the fact that the government doesn’t care because research shows that voters don’t. A recent Ipsos Mori poll for King’s College London revealed that many people blamed poor people for their misfortune. Even mid-pandemic, as unemployment rose, nearly half the population thought those losing their jobs were to blame because of their own poor performance at work – only 31% said it was bad luck.
We are imbued with the Thatcherite ethos, where success comes from hard work and ambition. Pity for those on low incomes is waning, which is a problem for Labour who champions the underdog.
Figures released last week confirm that poverty is primarily caused by ‘low’ wages: 75% of poor children are now in working families; poor despite working hard and having ambition.
‘75% of poor children are now in working families; poor despite working hard and having ambition’
Whilst there will no doubt be a fanfare when the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, makes permanent the £20 added to universal credit in the pandemic, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the £37bn of benefit cuts made by George Osborne.
Johnson might boast that ‘We are levelling up across the country with the biggest investment for a generation.’ Indeed, there will likely be capital spending on a few eye-catching northern projects and industry openings, at the same time the reality is that the Treasury is imposing yet another 8% cut on councils in the north, as everywhere, meaning fewer jobs and worse services with cuts to most government departments too.
The things about levelling-up is that it is becoming more akin to levelling down! I say this as London now has the highest poverty per capita. The use of ‘averages’ makes London streets appear paved with gold, as City incomes disguise the country’s deepest deprivation, hiding in borough after borough. But as there are no Tory target seats in the capital (they may lose London suburbs), a Labour mayor can expect no favours from the Treasury.
‘City incomes disguise the country’s deepest deprivation, hiding in borough after borough’
London can be as both pampered and out of touch, to an anti-British ‘enemy within’ that actively keeps the rest of the country down. Because of this Labour is viewed as representing the privileged ‘metro-liberal’ cities – with none more privileged, metropolitan, or liberal than the UK capital.
What better sums up London for the many is the fact that there are still 6-households from Grenfell Tower stuck in temporary accommodation, itself a product of administrative corruption, ignorance and incompetence.
Previously, governments attitudes to regional inequality have been in-line with their overall approach to inequality, e.g., ‘post-war Labour’s top-down redistribution, Thatcher’s inegalitarian neoliberalism, or Blairite redistribution by skimming the proceeds of growth.’
The Johnson administration are finding that their attitudes to regional inequality sit uncomfortably with some of their other values. For example, some in the party favour the £20 uplift to universal credit be withdrawn because ‘we need to try to get people into work’. Or, more accurately, a bit of hardship would focus the mind and stop them sitting around.
In contrast, the government acknowledges regional inequality, and promises all manner of economic support, providing it is in areas that vote Tory. The populace of Darlington is not being told to get of their backside and find work, they are finding it for them.
Ministers have always followed the marginal seats; it so happens their location is no longer only in the home counties. The Tories are willing to accept the regional grievances of some but not all. As with Brexit this is about ‘supposed authenticity’; the ‘industrial’ north is considered authentically British, its concerns legitimate; London is deemed inauthentic, and its migrant communities foreign.
Part of the regional inequality issue is that London is cast as having the power. Whilst is might be the centre of power, what power does its residents have? The official measure of geographical deprivation, the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, underplays poverty in London by using a formula that attaches far more weight to unemployment measures, where London has scored well in recent years, than to housing poverty, where London is a disaster zone.
This is changing, London’s boroughs have been hit by C-19, and the shift to working from home and the enforced closure of the culture and hospitality sectors. This has led to some of the biggest rises in unemployment, with universal credit claims from unemployed people trebling in Brent and Newham between February 2020 and March 2021. In addition:
- Of the 20 British local authorities with the highest proportion of working-age people claiming universal credit while out of work, six are now in London, whereas before the pandemic there were none.
- Over 50% of the boroughs in London are above Darlington in the table.
- Islington is worse hit than Coventry, Boston, and Bridgend.
Figures published this month show unemployment rising fastest among ethnic minorities, with one in 10 black, Asian and minority ethnic women unemployed in the first quarter of this year. Before the pandemic, unemployment was higher among black people than other ethnic groups.
As a result, London finds itself at the mercy of several political trends:
- It is an easy target for the Tories, the capital caricatured as elite and out of touch, and resented as a beacon of privilege in other parts of the country.
- The Covid-era increase in public empathy for benefit claimants may not last – particularly regarding those who are out of work.
- The racial element. If London is not being described as home to the gilded, woke elite, right-wingers portray it as full of violent black criminals, or swarming with Muslim radicals. With a government that is trying to downplay the prevalence of racism, and deny any form of institutional racism, unemployment among young black Londoners will receive little sympathy from the electorate.
There are many people who regard London, and Londoners as an elite, out of touch, and resenting a beacon of privilege. ‘Deborah Mattinson, in her book, ‘Beyond the Red Wall’, showed that for many of the ‘red wall’ voters in her focus groups, levelling up is a zero-sum game – London must suffer for other regions to prosper.’
What the citizens of the red wall need to grasp is that, as recently as 2019, is that London with 13% of the UKs total population, produced between 22-23%.
It’s put tax revenues that fund the ‘red walls’ shiny new schemes. Perhaps it’s time we Londoners left the rest of you to your own devices? We can always make the M25 into a moat!
‘London calling at the top of the dial
And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?’
Interesting timing of Philip’s column this week – when he hit ‘send’ on last week’s missive Dastardly Dom was in full flow and looking to deliver his estocada to fell the snorting, wild-maned Blonde d’Aquitaine bull.
Surely, a week after being ‘exposed’ as being unfit for office and at least partly culpable for thousands of avoidable deaths the battle would be on to take the helm? Not a bit of it – nothing sticks to the Teflon Don, and in fact he even managed to find time to whisk Cash ‘n Carrie down the aisle at Westminster Cathedral thereby putting to bed the myth that in the eyes of the Catholic church all consummated sacramental marriages are permanent.
There are still some tricky waters to navigate – such as the potential for a third wave, uncertainty about what freedoms will be restored on June 21st and a high profile rebellion against plans to trim the foreign aid budget, but the vaccine roll-out has given him such an air of invincibility that nobody seems capable of landing a blow. Particularly the leader of the ‘opposition’.
Boris is even managing to distance himself from any suggestion that there was a delay in placing India on the ‘red list’ of countries as he sought a trade deal; with infections, if not hospitalisations, on the rise with a dominant strain that is anything up to 40% more transmissible, the BBC now refers to ‘the Delta variant, which originated in India’. Snappy.
Philip then returns to the issue of inequality which has been such a mainstay of his column, but with a slightly different twist. The intergenerational divide is one that has become increasingly stark during the pandemic and if those that have benefitted from decades of house price inflation and stable employment have had a ‘good’ lockdown, young people that have lost their jobs and struggle with the cost of accommodation have had a very different experience.
However, in this column Philip looks at the ‘hidden’ inequality that exists in the capital; where the rift between the haves and the have nots is stark, yet is masked by figures that consider averages skewed by the great wealth of a minority whilst children are plunged into poverty in increasing numbers.
Two tracks this week, just for fun – The Rolling Stones and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and The Clash and ‘London Calling’. Enjoy.
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s
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