Friday, 13 July 2018

Stop Trump

Stop Trump - A report

On the afternoon of the 13th July I joined hundreds of thousands of people in marching through London in opposition to Donald Trump the far-right president of the beating heart of the global capitalist-imperialist system, the USA.

It was the biggest protest I've ever been on, thousands of home made signs, music, chants speaches etc. even though I ended up going on my own because it was all a bit last minute I was really glad I had the chance to participate, in just a small way in standing up to the head of the monster.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Homelessness, a Tory Minsiter who doesn't get it but who actually does?

(This is one of those Facebook posts that got too long and had to become a blog post instead!)

Last week we all heard that the new minister for homelessness Heather Wheeler didn't acknowledge Conservative cuts as the reason for homelessness but, when grilled a little further, admitted that she didn't know why homelessness was on the rise (this was all shortly after saying that she'll quit this role is she doesn't solve the issue within a few years).

Anyway, it seems that Heather Wheeler has now had the opportunity to learn something about homelessness which is obviously good (even if we'd be naïve to think that she's likely to change her mind about much as a result) as seen in this article:

But at this point after reading the article there is something that overshadows all that. I am now on a personal mission to stop people talking absolute nonsense about homelessness numbers:

This article says:

"Latest statistics show 4,751 people slept outside overnight in 2017".

When people who are supposed to know and understand homelessness can't get their head around simple statistics we've got just as big or bigger issue than the Tory Minister who has obviously taken on a role that she isn't prepared for.

This is a complete misunderstanding of the figures! On one night during 2017 that number is how many people we all managed to count in our annual street count (in England alone, not for the UK as a whole).

It may be close to accurate for the single night it was taken on (although almost certainly many people were not found) but to state that this is how many people slept out during the entire year is just wrong and will lead people to vastly underestimate the problem and therefore propose solutions that can't work.

At least 8000 people were recorded as having slept rough during 2017 in London alone (according to figures from the CHAIN database). Homelessness is not a static issue, meaning that there are not a fixed number of people with 'homeless' branded on their foreheads. It's a fluid issue. People become homeless, they may sleep on the streets for a while, they may sofa surf or squat and then eventually they may get housed again, hopefully.

A snapshot of the number of rough sleepers at any given moment is pretty much irrelevant compared to the rate at which people are flowing onto the streets over a given time and how long on average they're stuck there. That's why you can't just build 4751 new homes for homeless people and deal with the issue just like that.

Homelessness is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to much bigger housing supply issues and issues about security of tenure and affordability and rough sleeping is the most visible tip of that tip. You have to deal with the whole damn iceberg if you want the most ugly visible and painful bits of the problem to go away.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Justice for Grenfell


On the 14th of June 2017 a fire broke out in a tower block in West London. It took 24 hours to get it under control and over 60 to get it fully out. At least 71 people have died. 

The story of Grenfell didn't start at 54 minutes past midnight on 14/07/17 though. It's one episode in the long neo-liberal journey towards the total destruction of social housing in the UK. In this case it was in the aftermath of huge cuts to the body that regulates social housing. Roger Jarman the former head of housing at the Audit Commission - which has previously inspected social housing for safety - wrote to the Guardian newspaper in the days after the fire saying this:

"Unlike the healthcare, social care and education sectors, social housing in England no longer has an inspection regime that assesses the performance of landlords delivering services to the 4 million households living in housing association or local authority housing. Between 2000 and 2010 the Audit Commission carried out 1,400 housing inspections of housing associations and local authorities, but when the commission was abolished by the coalition government these inspections stopped".

The tenants who lived there had already given stark warning of what could happen. They had been ignored. 

2 days after the fire, on Friday 16th of June word spread via social media that a protest was planned. I was free that evening and jumped straight onto the train after work. I arrived in Kensignton to find the town hall occupied and local people filling the streets. 

We then began marching towards the tower:

The atmosphere was like nothing I'd experienced before on a protest. While the likes of the Socialist Workers Party had predictably turned up there was nothing they could do to 'manage' this protest, they were spectators at best. 

On route all vehicles stopped, car horns were beeping loudly, people were getting off buses to join in with the protest, people were shouting and whistling from balconies along the way. As we arrived speeches were given, almost all from local people as far as I could tell. 

Demands were read out. Posters were up all over the place with names and pictures of those who were still missing, many people were in tears. 

The Justice for Grenfell campaign continues. 

There will be no justice until people responsible for cutting corners are fully identified and dealt with and social housing rises again and the working class in the UK are saved from the clutches of corrupt housing associations that have long lost their purpose, greedy scheming private landlords, massive capitalist housing developers and the banks.

All of us who live at the mercy of landlords who don't give a shit about us unless the rent is late live at risk of fire, mould, pest infestations, poisoning and being worn down by cold and damp conditions. This kind of housing is killing us all slowly.

Decent social housing for all, democratically controlled by the residents is a revolutionary demand. When we have control of our own homes and our streets and our neighbourhoods we will be well on the way to taking control of our lives and living in the safe, healthy conditions that the class of people who have built the entire cities we live in deserve.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Leave it to the left

I've seen what happens when Liberals go toe to toe with the right in a debate. When they face off with anyone from mainstream conservatives to the alt-right to full-on fascists it nearly always ends in embarrassment.

Why should we socialists feel embarrassed by the antics of liberals that get in over their heads?

Because, for better or worse we get associated with them, especially when it comes to dealing with the reactionary right.

I've seen enough of liberals tying themselves up in knots, stumbling over their words, saying things they didn't mean to say (or at least saying things they didn't like the sound of when they came out). And the 'logical', 'strong', 'intelligent' right winger launches blow after blow with a smile on their face as, to their delight, everything they expected to happen when they got into a debate with a liberal does, in fact, happen:

The average liberal's world view turns out to be mere fluff. Full of inconsistencies, based on assumptions about expected norms of 'right' and 'wrong' and belief that social pressure can continue to enforce these, lacking any background study and so failing to understand the philosophical points at stake in each round they begin to look for a way out, or worse they begin seeking compromise or approval.

Why does this happen?

Because the right wing arguments are perfectly suited to their natural environment, capitalism. They often make fairly good sense in a world where everyone is an individual, responsible for whether they 'win' or 'lose'. In this world, plainly, everyone, is already getting what they deserve, because they deserve whatever they managed to grab during this short life and 'losers' deserve their lot too.

Liberals enter into the debate with the same basic individualist assumptions, even if they've got icing on top of theirs, it's the same cake.

If you accept a world where capitalists have freedom to run a private business you're going to struggle to show how people who don't own that business get a say in how it operates. If you accept a world where everyone has to compete to survive you will find it quite a challenge to justify inserting in special clauses that limit the way this operates to ensure that people who are ostensibly 'losing' don't get such a rough deal.

It gets worse.

I have literally heard liberals argue that all migration is good on the basis that "if we don't let migrants in who's going to do all the shit jobs we don't want to do?" At which point, presumably the fascist who hadn't considered the benefits of importing a class of slaves to clean their toilets begins to reconsider their position...

Leave it to the left. Please.

Let us show how the right are acting as lap dogs for the capitalist class who own our homes and our workplaces and run our government, require us to feel atomised and isolated, blaming ourselves for anything that goes wrong and/or being willing to step on people's heads to stay just above them on the ladder while the capitalists are ten floors up at the party already, egging us on and laughing. Listen then, to how our message - that if we all learn to have a bit of solidarity with the rest of our class  and start working together against these greedy bastards we can win - starts to sound a bit more appealing... no? Where are the right wing going to go now they've been exposed?

Let us show that private businesses are based on systematic theft and that the socialist alternative where industry is run democratically by the class of people who do the work, not unaccountable bosses is the only solid ground for demanding equality for all. Not begging the boss to be nicer, or kissing the bosses ass as the right advocate.

Let us show that people deserve the right to settle where ever they want but also deserve the right not to be bombed or starved out of their homes too. That bosses do try to use open borders to bring in cheap labour but that, obviously, isn't the fault of the workers than come to take up the offer. That the value of all working class people, immigrant or not isn't found in whether we can be of useful service to the boss or please the ruling class by adhering to their bourgeois morality or nationalism, but in our human dignity.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Solving homelessness; novelty gestures, manipulation or housing activism

Novelty gestures

Special vending machines, reverse advent calendars, so called 'tiny houses' and attempts to squat and set up encampments for homeless people on derelict land, coats tied onto lampposts etc. These are examples of the 'novelty gesture' approach to solving homelessness. In some ways they're a bit like the old soup runs/ soup kitchens but they're way more fun and they generate much better social media content.

Image result for coats tied to lampposts for homeless people
Homelessness in the UK is at critical level and continuing to worsen. It's an acknowledged fact that there is a very serious housing crisis and that the entire housing market is broken from the perspective of millions of working class people, especially younger people. Real people are dying and real families are being torn apart. So does this model have what it takes?

Image result for tiny houses homelessAbsolutely not. This response continues in the tired old tradition of charity designed to make dire poverty feel slightly more tolerable but lacking any ambition to change the fundamental situation. At it's worst practitioners of the 'novelty gesture' approach limit their involvement to one off random outings where homeless people are not even consulted on what they want or need in any way.

The first vending machine for the homeless, set up by the charity Action Hunger in the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre, Nottingham. The real goals of this approach are to: get rid of waste food and old clothing, make givers feel better about themselves and provide them with the experience of a little adventure. Whether the practice is illegal - such a squat or handing out food against the wishes of local authorities or whether it's all permitted and above board makes no difference, it's simply not effective, doesn't really set out to change anything and only succeeds in treating homeless people like pet projects and receptacles for waste.

Image result for food not bombsThrowing spare change into a hat was never going to solve the housing crisis, neither was setting homeless people to work selling magazines or getting them to eat copious amounts of soup. And that's because, if we're all honest, they're not even vaguely intending to.


What about manipulating people into changing their behaviour so they make correct life decisions? Could this solve homelessness? This is the basis of most of the professional work done with homeless people in the UK. Again, no. However it's dressed up it's a way of blaming individuals for being the victims of systematic problems and cajoling them into doing things that commissioners of services find acceptable.

Maybe if homeless people would take more responsibility, maybe if homeless people would learn to be more independent, maybe if homeless people would stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs? Maybe it would turn out that there wasn't really a housing crisis after all, it was just a growing number of lazy stupid people who couldn't get their shit together all along and they could have had somewhere to live if they'd just put the effort in.

No. That's not the one. It's not setting out to solve homelessness. It does nothing to make housing more accessible, or affordable or to win more security for tenants... it just sets up hoops for people to jump through in order to help ration what little housing is available for the very poor.

Housing Activism

Housing activism is different:

  • Treat the crisis of homelessness as a housing issue - soup can't fix it. 
  • Treat housing as a right - stop trying to work out who deserves it. 
1. First of all you can't have the people you're trying to help dying on you. Homeless people's average age of death in the UK is around 47. You also need to beat that crappy idea that people need to hit some kind of 'rock bottom' before they'll accept help. Rock bottom is often death, even if it's not it's just letting people fall further into the abyss making the journey out that much harder and longer. People who are traumatised and suffering from extreme depression or anxiety or other issues are not some how magically going to say - "okay I guess the only way is up from here!". It just hurts people so you do need to start with meeting some immediate needs - food, clothing, basic shelter, safety. But's it's got to be well organised and reliable and involve the homeless people in planning and operationally.

(If you feel I've slated your good work above under the 'novelty gesture approach' try thinking about what you're doing as 'step 1 housing activism' instead. You may need to think about how you can make some tweaks to make it more reliable and include the intended recipients in what you're doing but that's achievable right? - I encourage you not to stop there though, could you go on to step 2 below or link up with others who are attempting it?)

2. Step 2 is case work. Even under the existing system people do have some rights. Some people have a right to housing from their local authority, some evictions are illegal but does everyone who is a victim of this housing crisis know exactly where they stand? No. You can learn the ins and outs of homelessness and housing law. You can find out what help people are owed, you can understand the codes of guidance that local authorities work from, how case law has impacted on the way the system works. You can find out what landlords can and can't do, you can advise tenants getting into difficulties how to avoid being chucked out. You can offer to go along to court with people, you can even start calling yourself a 'legal advisor' if you get confident enough (since it's not a protected term like 'solicitor'. 

3. Finally, you've got to campaign to change the system. You know how to maximise people's ability to get what they need out of the current system but is it enough? No it is not. We need:
  • A mass social housing building programme - now.
  • Unions of tenants beating back landlord tyranny.
  • Legislation that recognises the fundamental right to suitable, safe, affordable accommodation for all. 
This is the answer to homelessness. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Stop saying that there are only 4134 homeless people in England

In the autumn of 2016 all local authorities were required to either count or estimate the number of people sleeping rough on their patch. The returns came in with figures ranging from Westminster’s 280 to West Devon’s zero. When they were all added up they totalled 4134. This is currently the latest official national count of people sleeping outside in England therefore, isn’t it fair enough for people to talk about this as a fairly reliable indication of how many people are homeless in this country?

No, categorically, it is not. This real figure is probably around 60 times higher. The real number of homeless people is so completely incomparable with the results of that count it needs addressing. It needs addressing not just because it’s so wildly misleading but also because if the figure is more like 250,000 we have a very significant problem that requires a structural shift in the way our society handles housing. If it’s around 4000 we have a sad, but marginal issue which probably requires someone, somewhere to just have a heart and provide them all with a home.

So where is the disconnect between the two? I’ll tackle this in stages….

1.       This 4134 figure is just those people that can either be found or are known by agencies supporting them to have slept outside on the night when their count was done. Obviously, some people won’t have been found, or won’t have been known to anyone who was present when they came up with the estimates.

2.       This 4134 figure is just a snapshot. Even if it had been accurate on the night it was taken it could have halved or doubled by the next night. Homelessness is not a static issue. Treating it as static makes out that homelessness is an integral part of who some people are, not a temporary condition of being without accommodation. Homelessness must be understood as being in motion all the time, there are people losing their accommodation and becoming homeless and there are people finding accommodation who were previously homeless and becoming housed. If the rate at which people are becoming homeless is greater than the rate at which homeless people are getting housed then a snapshot count taken on a series of nights will show the number of people stuck in the middle, who are currently without anywhere to live, will be going up.

3.       The first two points there are quibbles really compared to this; homelessness doesn’t simply mean ‘sleeping outside’. Homelessness is a state in which a person has no accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy or could be reasonably expected to occupy.

a.       A person fleeing domestic violence has a legal right to occupy their former home but can’t be reasonably expected to stay there.

b.      A person whose friend is allowing them and their kids to sleep on their living room floor for a little while because they refuse to see them on the streets or in the hands of social services has no legal right to that living room floor and must be recognised as being homeless.

4.       A further category of people should also be categorised as homeless; those people who are currently occupying specialist temporary accommodation for homeless people. This may be a Night Shelter provided by a small charity, a supported housing project (hostel) provided by a housing association or a room in a B+B provided by the local authority as a part of their statutory duties under the 1996 housing act or by social services because there were children involved.  

It’s once you add in those last two categories that you get close to the real figure. Shelter have done the hard work in estimating these and it was them who came up with the 250,000 figure albeit almost a year ago now so we can’t keep on quoting that one forever.

A quarter of a million people in this country with nowhere to call home is a huge issue. In London it’s 1 in every 51 people and it’s getting worse every year. This is the direct result of the attack on social housing and the pushing of the private rented sector.

Despite the cheap talk from the Tory government about support for social housing they have put a stop to councils being able to borrow money to build it, they have given developers new loopholes to avoid planning regulations which require them to provide it, they have redefined what it means to include houses for sale which only people on way above average incomes could afford and they have accelerated the speed at which it’s being sold off.

At the same time, despite the whining of private landlords over them not being able to deduct mortgage interest from their tax payments (this is taken to be an all-out ideological assault on their right to exist and practice their ‘profession’) the Tories have, over the years laid on all of the conditions necessary for their sector to more than double in size since the turn of the century. The scene was set by the ripping up of private renters’ rights in the 80s and the financial incentivisation of buy-to-let in the 90s. All the while the government were busy creating a new market for private landlords by selling off social housing and preventing more being built, changing the rules to allow local authorities to discharge their homelessness duties by setting people up with private tenancies and filibustering bills written to provide tenants with just a few simple protections again.

Reliance on the private rented sector for housing will lead to what it always led to from the beginning of the industrial revolution up until the mass building of social housing and the expansion of homeownership in the post-war 20th century – slums and homelessness. And it’s already well on its way.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is 88 years old. Born in 1928 he witnessed the bulk of 20th century history, not through the eyes of a passive observer but as someone who was actively involved and also constantly reflecting intelligently on the events unfolding throughout what was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic centuries in human history.

On 10th May 2017 he gave a lecture entitled "Racing for the Precipice: Is the Human Experiment Doomed?" at The Concert Hall in Reading, England. I was lucky enough to have been offered a ticket by someone with the foresight to buy a few before they all sold out. It was a memorable evening. Chomsky is of an age where if you haven't seen him in the flesh yet you don't really expect you will get the chance. Kropotkin lived until he was 78, so did Malatesta (dying when Chomsky was aged 4) and even the old man Rudolf Rocker died 3 years younger than Chomsky is now. He's doing exceptionally well for an anarchist, (it's only a shame he hasn't chosen to grow a huge beard!) so it was a real treat and a surprise to get the chance.

The theme and Chomsky's introduction instantly reminded me of Kropotkin's 'species-ism' outlook found in books like 'Mutual Aid - A Factor of Evolution' and 'Conquest of Bread'. The idea of stepping back and looking at humanity as a species and asking the questions, where have we come from and how has this shaped us? Where are we destined to end up? And ultimately, what kind of species are we, can we pull together to survive and thrive or will we fail?

The diagnosis was less optimistic than 100 years ago when Kropotkin was giving his last lectures. We may be an intelligent species but intelligent species don't necessarily fare better, in fact it's the most simplistic species that go on for millions upon millions of years. We've already surpassed our life expectancy. Not only that, but now, through the looming dangers of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe we have directly threatened our own existence in a very real and concrete way, and the one weapon we have in our favour, democracy, is failing. 

This grim take on the prospects for the human species aptly reflected the mood in the car on the way there as we'd discussed the prospects for the coming UK general election with most people having already conceded it to the Conservatives who remained stubbornly ahead in the polls by a margin of up to 20 points (although this is dropping now). The idea that we as humans might be fundamentally selfish/ idiotic/ stubborn probably seemed plausible enough to most of the enlightened, well educated audience members. 

Here is where this approach can hit the limits of how far it's going to take us. By treating humanity as one big lump, (or at best divided between a minority of progressive individuals and a mass of idiots) we naturally move on to supposing that we, as humans, mostly have relatively fixed attributes - whether these be for the better as in Kropotkin or for the worse as in Chomsky's lecture. 

So if we really are a recklessly short sighted and short tempered and possibly short lived species it's hard for a person to know what to do. If you've decided that you don't want to see the end of life on earth as we know it, if you think you've got an idea of what kind of social system could take us back from the precipice and allow us to go on to survive and thrive, then what? How do we get from here; at one and a half minutes to midnight on doomsday clock, to there; peace and harmony and justice?

The options seem limited, do we try to persuade people? If so who? In a world where some people have much more power and influence or sheer money to do something about all this than others then surely them? Or do we start to think about how we could protect ourselves and the people we care about from impending doom? Or do we prefer to try to to stay pure, and to at least ensure that if the world is going to die it's not going to be our fault? 

Chomsky's voice is silent on this issue, like a last warning from a person who has seen us repeatedly refuse to learn lessons from the past intentionally leaving us to frantically search for the answers ourselves if we want to prove him wrong.

Proving such a pessimistic assessment from such an intelligent man wrong will be no easy task. As the capitalist system enters what must surely be it's final decades before we face the crossroads of revolution or collapse we will need now more than ever to be armed with the right analysis and theory and be ready to take the right actions derived from it. Both Chomsky and Kropotkin's methods of analysing human history undoubtedly have a basis in science but neither of them seem willing to engage with and contribute towards a whole field of study set up to answer these questions; scientific socialism. Anarchists everywhere avoid it, probably because it sounds exclusively Marxist and so arrogant but it's a treasure trove. 

I've found (to my gratification) that in general people don't listen to someone ranting on at them trying to convince them to think a certain way. They have to grab hold of questions for themselves, wrestle with them, attack the key texts, fight the seminal thinkers and come out the other side and face the original problem again. 

To deal with the challenge that Chomsky left in this lecture, and for another way to approach the problem in itself I recommend starting with this short pamphlet from Engels: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Don't take my word or Engels word or Chomsky's for anything, see what you think.