What this Tory tax break tells us

This post first appeared on LabourList.

Good news, everyone! Well, not everyone. Good news, couples! That is, couples who are married. Couples who are married, where one of them is a basic rate taxpayer, and the other one earns less than the personal allowance. If that’s your particular niche, then congratulations! You can now register for the marriage tax allowance, saving yourself anything up to the life-changing sum of £212 a year. Although this policy is, as David Cameron reminds us, ‘about far more than pounds and pence. It’s about valuing commitment’.

Famously, JK Rowling – after publishing six bestsellling children’s books, establishing a charitable trust with an annual budget of £5.1 million, being awarded an OBE, winning countless awards, and encouraging an entire generation of children to fall in love with reading – finally became a productive and valuable member of society by getting married, in 2001. As a former single mother, she responded to David Cameron’s belief in the symbolic importance of financial rewards for married couples, in 2010:

“Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say ‘it’s not the money, it’s the message’. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money.”

But let’s say for the moment that it is the message. Let’s say it is for the government to tell people how to arrange their personal lives. What other messages are they sending out?

The young woman who finally ended an abusive relationship and got her violent partner out of the house – only to be evicted, because as a single person under 35 she was entitled to £150 a month less in housing benefit. What’s the message for her?

Then there was the woman who was accused of benefit fraud, because her ex-partner came round sometimes to see their kids. The DWP gave her a choice. Let your partner move back in, and we’ll add you to his claim for sickness benefits: if you don’t, we’ll stop your income support anyway, and prosecute you while we’re at it. “I’m just worried because they’re going to pay all the money straight to him,” she told me. “What if he decides not to let me have any?” What message about relationships is the government trying to send by forcing a separated couple back under the same roof?

Another woman receiving income support wanted to make sure she didn’t commit benefit fraud without realising it: she mentioned to a DWP adviser that she’d started seeing someone, and asked how often he was allowed to stay over before they were deemed to be living together. “Never,” she was told. “You’re not allowed to be in a relationship if you’re on income support.” Is that the message? You need to get married – so make sure you don’t give away the goods first?

If you’re thinking that these are extreme examples of a reasonable rule – that we should avoid, as far as possible, giving taxpayers’ money to people not in work – then how about the handful of working single mums I heard from one week? They were all having their income topped up by working tax credits, and had all received a letter saying HMRC had reason to believe they were living with a partner, and claiming fraudulently. “I don’t have a partner but I do let my teenage daughter’s boyfriend stay over sometimes – is that not allowed?” The letters – apparently sent out at random – caused a lot of confusion, but for me the message was clear: you can work, and pay tax, and bring up your kids, but as long as you are a single parent you are not to be trusted.

In any case, don’t forget just what sort of married couples will be rewarded by this tax break. One basic rate taxpayer, and one person earning under the personal allowance: otherwise known as one person going out to work, and the other one not. If you want to stay at home and look after your kids, the government will support your lifestyle, no questions asked – as long as you’ve married someone who can support it too. So be sure to stay on hubby’s good side, ladies! Perhaps next the government will find it helpful to distribute copies of the Ann Summers catalogue and a 1950 edition of Woman’s Own.

It’s tempting to imagine that this sort of socially backward appeal to good old family values is another Tory attempt to wrest back some of the support, from the right wing of their voters and their own party, that they’re losing to UKIP. But Cameron has been banging on about this tax allowance for so long – the last decade, on and off – that it seems he really does buy into the absurd, cargo-cultist belief that marriage makes people richer, more stable and better parents.

Either way, it’s a timely reminder of the Tories’ priorities. The marriage tax break is a message about what we can expect if they get back in for another five years. I just hope people are listening to it

Rape 101

Ooookay. Thanks, the internet. I’d got most of my column written at about half seven last night – wasn’t about much, had a few jokes. And then Twitter informed me that some Missouri Republican Congressman I’d never heard of had been talking about rape and abortion. There’s a sentence that never bodes well for your evening.


It’s tempting to dismiss the stupid things some American politicians say about rape with a simple, heartfelt expression of relief that we don’t live there. However, Akin’s attempt to specify ‘legitimate’ rape is an uncomfortable reminder of Ken Clarke’s ‘classic rape‘ comments of last year. It also blends in well with the comments of some Assange supporters, on Twitter and elsewhere. These include both those whom we might have hoped to hold to a higher standard (oh, former Python Terry Jones. You spent so long dressed as a woman – I’d thought you might have had more sympathy for real ones) and those who sadly fail to surprise us. The opinions of George Galloway (from about 20 minutes in, if you haven’t seen it and you’re in the mood to be enraged) would be far easier to laugh off if we didn’t have to deal with the fact that, like Rep. Akin, the guy’s an elected representative. And unlike Akin, he technically represents a constituency in this country, even if he hasn’t been there since he was elected. It looks like it might be time to dust off the ‘Rape 101’ textbooks once again.


1 – Julian Assange is accused of rape. I thought this whole ‘it was only sex without a condom!’ thing was cleared up by now, but I’ve still been seeing tweets to that effect over the weekend. You can read a list of the accusations here, but to summarise: he’s accused of holding a woman down in order to have sex with her, penetrating a woman in her sleep, and having sex without a condom against the woman’s wishes.


I know that doesn’t in any way mean he did it, but suggestions that he’s only wanted under a quirk of the Swedish legal system need to stop.


Besides which, ‘sex without a condom’ is hardly a trivial affair, as this account from the F-Word blog demonstrates. There’s a massive difference between ‘consenting to sex’ and ‘consenting to potential HIV and/or babies’.


2 – with reference to the fact that Assange is accused of raping a woman while she slept: you do not invite sex by being asleep next to someone. If you were walking down a dark street alone, someone might reasonably comment that you could have taken more steps to ensure your safety. They’d be unlikely to claim they assumed you wanted to be stabbed.


If you’re in bed with another person, here’s what you need to do to prevent a rape occurring: don’t rape them.


3 – The fact that a person has done some things you agree with does not make them incapable of rape. Sad but true.


4 – moving on from Assange to Akin, apparently it’s necessary to explain that you can get pregnant by being raped. The idea that the female reproductive system shuts down during rape is far from new, so if you’ve been labouring under this illusion allow me to rob you of it: you’re thinking of ducks. Conception is easier for ducks if it happens during consensual sex, for reasons related to their corkscrew-shaped vaginas and ballistic penises. When it comes to humans, however, a 1996 study found that an estimated 32,101 pregnancies occur as a result of rape every year in the US, and concluded that ‘Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency. It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies and is closely linked with family and domestic violence. As we address the epidemic of unintended pregnancies in the United States, greater attention and effort should be aimed at preventing and identifying unwanted pregnancies that result from sexual victimization.’


5 – there’s no such thing as legitimate rape. When Akin said this, he didn’t mean ‘legitimate’ as in ‘acceptable’. What a relief, right? Until you realise that what he meant by ‘legitimate rape’ was ‘rape I’m prepared to believe happened’. We’re back at Ken Clarke’s notion that rape only happens when a strange man leaps out of the bushes, possibly armed, and forces himself on a woman (the only difference being: Ken never tried to claim that at this point the woman’s cervix slams shut), and that in every other circumstance, rape is a misunderstanding.


In American politics, the definition of rape is important in healthcare as well as in the justice system. Last year, you might remember, Republicans including Akin tried to further limit the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, with a bill which initially specified that abortion would only be funded in cases of ‘forcible’ rape. (‘Forcible’, incidentally, was part of Ken Clarke’s limited definition, too.) That would have ruled out Medicaid assistance for abortions resulting from: statutory rape, drug rape, date rape, rape of women with limited mental capacity, and possibly, given that many states don’t have a legal definition of ‘forcible rape’ (perhaps because it’s, y’know, a tautology), all rapes in those states.


In the end the Republicans bowed to pressure and took the ‘forcible rape’ bit out of the bill. But the concept keeps returning, so prevalently that I’m starting to become seriously concerned about sex education, here as well as in the States. Keep saying it until it sticks: sex without consent is rape. How is that so hard to understand?


This post originally appeared on LabourList.

Where will Labour’s money come from?

This post originally appeared on LabourList earlier today.

Last week’s news that, like all parties, Labour’s income was down in 2011, comes as no surprise, as we’d just spent rather a lot of it on a general election – but nevertheless, sorting out party funding remains a major challenge. Labour’s new Commercial Director was due to start in post last week – there will have been many responses to Louise Mensch’s news this morning, but his is likely to have been “damn, that’s gonna be expensive.”

The kind of cash-for-access soliciting of donations ‘exposed’ (as though we didn’t all know it went on) earlier this year needs to become a thing of the past – if there are fifty shades of grey area, this behaviour is definitely at the ‘corruption’ end of the spectrum. The worry is that the coalition parties will take the excuse of a wide-ranging reform of party funding and use it to shaft Labour on trade union donations.

In April Ed Miliband made the ‘offer’ of a £5000 cap on individual donations, – something that would hurt us in the run up to general elections, as well as preventing the Tories from being able to promise that if you slip them a quarter of a million pounds you can chat to the PM over nachos. But the coalition parties rejected it on the grounds that it didn’t touch the £8m annual income Labour gets from the trade union political levy payers.

That was a few months ago, in the aftermath of the Bell Pottinger/Peter Cruddas mess, when all three main parties realised it was in the interests of us all to aim for a point at which the public does not see ‘politician’ as another way of saying ‘money-grabbing bastard’, and as a result Nick Clegg convened all-party talks on the subject. Since then, as the focus of political reform has shifted (i.e. to Nick Clegg tearfully insisting that since he didn’t get the Lords reform or the Kinder Egg he was promised, he is not going to tidy up the constituency boundaries, and he doesn’t care if he gets sent to bed early), we’ve heard little about it – but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

Peter Wheeler pointed out on LabourList yesterday that we’ll soon have to deal with trade union ballots to renew the political funds. If that’s a debate we only need to have within the unions, it should be a winnable one – but we should be prepared for more interference than that on the issue of trade union funding.

So what about Labour’s other income streams? There’s membership, of course. As you’ll have seen if you read the story above about our fall in income, our rate of membership increase drastically decelerated after the post-election frenzy and leadership election boosts of 2010 – we gained 38000 new members that year, and, apparently, 39 further new members in 2011. That’s quite a drop-off, and although a lot of it will be down to the rapid exits of those who only joined to vote in the leadership election, and the disappointment of those who were hoping Ed’s first act as leader would be to reinstate the old Clause Four, I certainly wouldn’t discount more practical concerns. Many of the new members we gained in 2010 joined at a reduced membership rate – I seem to remember there was a 1p rate at one point – and were catapulted up to the full cost when their first year of membership was up. Few of us have much disposable income to play with these days, and if a member hasn’t been engaged in the party in their first year, you can hardly blame them if their direct debit to us was the first one to go.

The +1 campaign, encouraging each Labour member to sign up a friend, is a good idea, since I’m led to believe that unlike me, most of our members know at least one person from outside the party. (I can’t help with this one. I’m all recruited out. All of my friends are either party members, former party members, or never going to be party members. My mom’s a member, my grandparents are members, my adult sisters are all members, my nine-year-old sister can play The Red Flag on the violin and my kitten’s called Kinnock.)

But beyond the membership rate itself, we need to improve what we’re doing to raise funds from our members and supporters. With a by-election due in Manchester on top of the police commissioner election, we’re getting back in the swing of raffles and auctions for signed whisky bottles and copies of Tom Watson’s book. But what else? As Emma Burnell pointed out a few months ago, there are a number of organisations in the UK and abroad from whom we can learn in terms of member-led fundraising – not only how to get our members to cough up for the cost of leaflets, but also how to ensure that they feel a part of the campaigns they contribute towards. There’s a balancing act here – if we hold a fundraising dinner where the tickets are £50, we’ll raise some money, but we’ll also exclude a lot of our own members from attending.

I believe the key here is variety – we need opportunities for contributions of all sizes, and I’ll be interested to see what John McCaffrey comes up with. In the meantime, if you’re looking for someone to raise funds for you locally, there are more than fifty people registered on Labour Exchange with the skills to help you out…

Why the country is like Marge Simpson and you might want to avoid the Noddy wallpaper

(This post originally appeared on LabourList on Monday June 25th.)

Living under this government is starting to feel a bit like being the wife or mother in a certain kind of family sitcom. A Marge Simpson, Lois Griffin, Jill Taylor, all the way back to Alice in The Honeymooners and probably beyond – throughout the decades, these ladies of the small screen have made the mistake, week after week, of leaving their husbands and/or children unattended, and come home to find the kitchen on fire, a holiday resort opening in the garden, a nuclear reactor in the airing cupboard. Opening the paper (by which I of course mean ‘browser’) or switching on the Today programme can feel a lot like this – pushing the front door open to see what harebrained scheme the ministerial gang has dreamed up in your absence.

“You said you were going to fix the education system! Fixit! Why is it all over the kitchen floor?”

“Hey honey, check it out!” he says, “I’m bringing CSEs back!”

“Oh, Michael,” you wearily sigh, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Yesterday, as it so often is, it was the Prime Minister, excitedly announcing to his long-suffering nation his plans to scrap Housing Benefit for everyone under 25. I almost hate to spoil his fun. I can even convince myself, sometimes, if I squint, that he means well. But it’s one of those moments where, as a country, we have to put on our best Marge Simpson ‘hrmmmm’ noise and say “David – sweetie – are you quite sure you’ve thought this through?”

Trailing a wider, long-term plan for welfare benefits slash-and-burn announced today, D-Cam told the Mail on Sunday:

A couple will say, “We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?”’


We are sending out strange signals on working, housing and families. Take two young people: one who has worked hard, got themselves a reasonable job and is living at home thinking, “Can I afford to buy or rent a flat?” whereas another has got himself on to Jobseeker’s Allowance and then gets housing benefit.


One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.’


We are still spending nearly £2 billion on housing benefit for under-25s – a fortune. We need a debate about welfare and what we expect of people.


The system currently sends the signal you are better off not working, or working less. It encourages people not to work and have children, but we should help people to work AND have children.’

in his speech today he is to say “For literally millions, the passage to independence is several years living in their childhood bedroom; while for many others it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.”


Now, I’d love to go into more detail about everything that’s wrong with those last 250 words, but I’ve been keeping a sort of mental time-sheet and it’s becoming clear that I spend almost as much time criticising the Prime Minister while wearing pyjamas as I do on other, more essential life tasks, such as waiting for buses and worrying about how I’d defend my flat against zombies. So let’s all take a moment to shout “HOUSING BENEFIT IS AN IN-WORK BENEFIT!”, move on and have a look at how this is going to work in practice.


Cameron is clear about what ‘doing the right thing’ is. You leave school or university, move back in with your parents ‘in your childhood bedroom’, get a well-paid job immediately and save up enough money to move out, preferably into your marital home, where you and the new Mr. or Mrs. You can get to know each other while decorating the nursery. (Remember, your children will be expected to live in there until they hit thirty, so best to avoid the Noddy wallpaper.)


Let’s consider a few situations where that might not apply.


You can’t move back in with your parents. Maybe you’re a care leaver, or your parents threw you out (accounting for nearly 10,000 homeless households last year, with many more who won’t have shown up on the statistics).

Result: you’re homeless.


You don’t have a childhood bedroom. Maybe – rents being what they are – your parents simply downsized while you were at university. Or maybe a younger sibling now has your childhood bedroom. Yes, the Tories are coming up with policies to restrict the number of children poor people can have (and “David Cameron wanted you aborted!” would certainly have added an interesting flavour to our sibling rows as children, dunno about you), but what about families that already exist?

Result: Best case scenario, you’re on your parents’ sofa.


You don’t find work. Answering all the above cases with “Get a job!” is all very well – I mean, it doesn’t necessarily solve any problems, but it’s a snappy 3-word slogan, and that’s the main thing – but unfortunately it can be countered with the even snappier ‘What job?’ Back in April there were an average of 20 applications chasing every vacancy.

Result: If you’re lucky enough to still be living with your parents, by the time you’ve found a job and saved up enough, you could be there until you’re forty. If you’re not, you’re homeless.


You do find work. You’re living on your own, or with a partner, and/or with kids. You’re working, but your wages don’t pay the rent, so you get housing benefit to top it up. But you’re still under 25, so that housing benefit is taken away.

Result: Time to head back to the childhood bedroom, taking your own kids with you. Except that, of course, since you moved out, your parents were assessed as under-occupying their home and have been forced to move themselves. Hope there’s room for all of you on that sofa.


Your circumstances change. Congratulations! You’ve done the right thing! You’ve met the love of your life, you’ve got married (because spending £21000 on marquee hire and cake is all part of Doing The Right Thing, in this age of austerity), you’re living together, you have any number of beautiful children and you almost always know where they all are. Or, if it turns out that your mum’s sofa didn’t bring all the potential partners to the yard, you’ve worked and managed to save up and move out on your own. And all before you’re 25! Well done! Mr. Cameron awards you the Olympic gold medal for the 100-metre Right Thing sprint. Until your partner dies. Or leaves you. Or you get made redundant.

Result: see above.


Now, it’s tempting to think that exceptions will be made for the cases above. The Prime Minister has already promised an exemption in cases of domestic violence – he’s not a monster! He just wants to tackle the feckless youths!


But he seems to be ruling these exceptions out. Shelter have been crossing their fingers that these proposals won’t apply to parents under 25 – but Cameron has expressly criticised the benefits system for ‘encouraging people to have children’, which is his way of saying ‘ensuring that if people are not in a well-paid job, their children will still not starve’. Unless he goes back on this by retaining HB for households with children – thus undermining what he has set out to achieve – he’s going to need such a complex system of exemptions that the entire policy will be unworkable. Or he’s going to go ahead and make children homeless. It’s his call.


The problem successive governments, including our own, have failed to grasp is that there is no test for fecklessness. No feck detector, if you will. These rules are made crudely or not at all. If you decide to hurt single parents because you believe that having a child before you get married is morally wrong, then you are making a decision to hurt children. If you want to punish people for not looking for work, then you will punish people for whom there are no jobs to be found.

The Prime Minister is making his vision clear today – not another harebrained scheme, after all, but a very scary long-term plan, including the undignified jettisoning of the Liberal Democrats. We can hold all the policy forums we want about how to win the next election by courting the middle ground and the floating voters and the South – Cameron plans to win it by hurting kids and the vulnerable and the poor.

Our challenge is to beat him while remembering to defend those who need defending – not just to win, but to make winning worthwhile. Cameron’s vision for Britain means dividing our disadvantaged kids up between the streets and the sofas. We need to offer them something better than that.

I finally got my sodding ballot papers. Am I happy now? Not exactly…

Here’s how it went:

Last week I wrote this post for LabourList, expressing my growing alarm that my ballot papers for the NEC and NPF elections – along with those of a number of other members, particularly councillors – hadn’t shown up yet, and that with the deadline to vote looming, this could mean a number of people missing out on a vote. My basic concern here is that if you want to give members any confidence that these bodies can actually represent them – rather than being, say, a tokenistic and meaningless sham – you should probably try to make sure that everyone’s allowed to vote.

Later that same day the party sent out an email to NEC and NPF candidates, and all Labour councillors, saying that as a result of the above issues, they were extending the deadline to vote (from June 13th to June 15th) and also extending the deadline to request a replacement ballot paper to Monday June 11th. They also requested that members wait until after Saturday’s post had arrived before calling.

On Monday, being a patient sort, I decided to wait until after Monday’s post before calling. But – oops – the deadline for calling to request a replacement was noon, and it was afternoon before my post arrived. So, no votes for me.

Well, fair enough, my fault – I’d had a whole 3-hour window in which to call to chase up the ballot papers that should have been delivered to my house, and if I’d read the email properly I would have known that.

However, on the advice of one of the NEC candidates, I dropped a fairly irritable email to Iain McNicol, along the lines of: I live on the internet, and I’d still failed to get hold of the ballot papers I had a right to. How exactly were members who aren’t Twitter-harassed by the candidates on a daily basis – and, more pertinently, who don’t use email – supposed to know that there’s an election happening, let alone when the deadline for voting is or what to do if they haven’t received their ballots?

On Tuesday, callooh cal-frickin-lay, my ballot papers arrived! I voted with glee and alacrity (noting as I did so that the process of voting online involved entering the security codes from one ballot paper, voting, logging out, then entering the website address again, entering the security codes from the other ballot paper and voting again – which is great if you know how many ballot papers you should have, but is otherwise likely to involve a lot of unused ballot papers going in the recycling bin).

Today, I got a reply from Iain McNicol’s office. Ici:

Dear Ms Fletcher-Hackwood

Thank you for your email raising concerns about the internal Labour Party elections for which the ballot is currently in progress.

A number of members did contact us last week about late or non-arrival of ballot packs.  Although these had all been printed and posted by 29 May, it was clear that some deliveries in certain areas – specifically those relating to councillors (whose packs contained an additional insert and so were heavier and subjected to a different mail sort by the company involved) – got caught up in the post over the long Jubilee bank holiday weekend.

Throughout this process the Party has monitored the situation and been in constant contact with ERS, the independent scrutineer. Although it was apparent by the end of last week that ballots either had been delivered or were starting to drop in all areas, we were concerned that in a very small number of cases some packs were still caught in the mail.

As a result, in order to ensure that everyone would have the opportunity to case their vote, we extended the deadline for the ballot from 5.00pm on Wednesday 13 June to 12.00pm on Friday 15 June, and also extended the deadline for anyone who had not received their ballot paper to 12.00pm on Monday 11 June.  

A statement to that effect was posted on the Labour Party website and an email was sent to all candidates advising them of these new arrangements. In addition, an email was sent to all ALC members, as we were aware that it was among this cohort that the problem of delayed delivery was most acute. Those messages emphasised that the deadline for requesting a replacement ballot was midday on Monday 11 June. The reason for that was because we needed the afternoon to obtain the data and produce the new ballots in time to mail out on the Tuesday, so that people would receive the replacements in time make use of them.

I note from your message to the General Secretary that you acknowledge receiving that email. I am very sorry to hear that your ballot pack had still not arrived as of Monday morning, but since you did not contact us to request a reissue before the 12 noon deadline I am afraid we cannot send you a replacement ballot paper. However, I sincerely hope your ballot pack will arrive in time for you to vote in these elections.

More generally, we very much regret the fact that there were delays with some ballot papers as a consequence of postal problems, though I should stress that the number of requests for replacements has been extremely small. Nonetheless we will be reviewing the process to see what steps may be taken to avoid any similar such problems in the future.

Yours sincerely


Now, Iain McNicol is, of course, a dude. However, I think that email leaves a few questions unanswered. Like:

1. Was that extensions of deadlines anything like sufficient?

2. If ‘A statement to that effect was posted on the Labour Party website and an email was sent to all candidates advising them of these new arrangements. In addition, an email was sent to all ALC members’, then great, but how is the Party dealing with the potential disenfranchisement of every member who doesn’t use email, or even who doesn’t check them every single day? (And yes, that does apply to a lot of councillors, much as it drives me nuts.)

3. When I’m concerned that a large number of members may not have known these elections were happening at all, or when, whether and how they could vote, should I be reassured by the fact that ‘the number of requests for replacements has been extremely small‘?

Disability bullies, City fans and Batmobile lessons

What I’ve been reading today:

Ah, the Telegraph. It really is the Daily Mail with longer words, isn’t it? But where the Mail Online borders its spittle-flecked articles of incitement to hatred by captioning pictures of women with twenties slang (‘Blushing Mila Kunis slips on a 70s wedding dress…’), the sidebar adjoining the Telegraph blog instead carries the titles of previous posts by the author you’re currently reading, to remind you why you don’t like her. ‘Heterosexual marriage? I’m sorry, you can’t discuss that’? Ah, this’ll be Cristina Odone.

Even by her standards, however, this piece – “Iain Duncan Smith must not give in to the ‘disability bullies’” – seemed as though it must surely be a joke. But since she apparently meant it, let me just run through what’s wrong with it.

1. The picture. As an example of the bullying poor IDS has to put up with, Odone gives the example in her article of the Hardest Hit march in London last year, where some of the protesters ‘threw fake blood on the pavement’ (how messy!), while others ‘wore gloves’ (…eh?). Leaving aside the question of whether such behaviour is really worse than contributing to a disablist culture and forcing vulnerable people further into poverty: I can’t help noticing that the placards in the photo all say ‘Blair’ on, and it’s not preceded by ‘bring back’. If the ‘disabled lobby’ have been so unreasonably vile to this government, why couldn’t the Telegraph find a more recent picture?

2. This sentence: “The system clearly needs radical changes: it allows alcoholics and drug addicts to take away more than someone who’s blind; it allows anyone to fake a back ache and stay off work, earning money as they do so.” A few points here. Taking benefits off half a million people is not a radical change. It is lazy. It is a lazy, badly-thought-out attempt to recoup the £1bn annual cost of benefit fraud because going after the £15bn cost of tax avoidance is just too damn difficult. (Side-note: did Britain’s richest people have to chuck paint about to get the government to scrap the 50p tax rate? No. They just didn’t pay it. Would that we could all afford such quiet dignity.)

You know what else is lazy? Setting “alcoholics and drug addicts” up against  “‘real’ disabled people”. DLA is based on how much, as a result of your disability, you need extra money – not how much you deserve it. That’s because we still, for the time being, have a welfare state, not a panel of society ladies distributing alms. If you’re on daily dialysis, you probably do need DLA more than if you are, say, David Blunkett. But the idea that addicts receive more than people with sensory disabilities as a matter of course is simply false.

Speaking of which:

3. This sentence. “Few claimants are ever seen or checked, and stolen identities are now a huge factor.” I reckon someone who fakes a back-ache to stay off work probably still puts in more effort on a daily basis than Cristina Odone appears to have done on this article. Confirming that this sentence is simply not true would have taken all the journalistic endeavour required to just ask someone who has ever claimed DLA.

Stolen identities a huge factor? Huge? The fraud rate for DLA is 0.5% (figure from a PCS pamphlet, which you can download here). But let’s say it was huge – how is chucking half a million people off benefits going to combat identity fraud? Come to that, how is it going to deal with people faking back-ache? Here’s the thing about liars – they lie. Making genuinely disabled people jump through hoops in an attempt to catch the 0.5% of claimants who are already willing to deceive is as ineffective as it is cruel.

4. Finally, the entire basis of this article is backwards and wrong. Bullies? Bullies use power to get their own way. As a group already substantially more likely than the rest of the population to live in poverty (again, the DWP’s own figures!), what power do people who rely on DLA have in their fight against the government? The vote? No elections for a few years. Legal help? Not since the government scrapped legal aid for social welfare. Well, why don’t they write and present an exhaustively researched report calling the basis of the government’s proposed changes into question? Oh, that’s right – they did! And the media largely ignored it.

With every other avenue closed off, to criticise disabled people for loudly exercising their right to protest is appalling. If you haven’t done so already, have a read of Polly Toynbee’s summary of the coalition’s Monday, and ask yourself – who’s bullying who?

Video of the day:

On a much lighter note, I was lucky enough to the in the Town Hall during the Man City celebrations. I’m not a City fan (or a football fan at all, for which I apologise to everyone in Manchester) but it was still an exciting event to witness, as this picture from the clock-tower demonstrates:

As the square filled up I was watching from the safety of the members room thanks to my new discovery – the Albert Square webcam! Turns out the Manchester Digital Development Agency have webcams in various locations around the city centre, so you can watch the progress on the Central Library too. I really like it. But since that’s not technically a video, have this instead: Andrew Lansley faces the righteous anger of the Royal College of Nursing!

And finally – the coolest thing I’ve seen on the internet today:

Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky hosted their first How-To Festival, an opportunity to learn how to do 50 things, in 5 hours, in one day, all for free. From work-related training like networking and ‘creating a brand for yourself’, to life skills like making omelettes and changing your Facebook privacy setting, to fun stuff like hip-hop dancing, winning at Scrabble and HOLY HELL THEY TAUGHT HOW TO TURN YOUR CAR INTO A BATMOBILE – I can’t think of a better way to promote lifelong learning and encourage people to use their local library. Photos are on their Facebook page (sadly none of the Batmobile).

In praise of…Trafford (Labour)

(This post first appeared yesterday on LabourList.)

A  couple of weeks ago I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, criticising his comparison between Manchester’s Labour council and Tory-run Trafford. It was ridiculous, I said, to compare our city with the leafy suburbs. Trafford is just more of a David Cameron kind of place.

Of course, it turned out that I had some readers from Trafford, and they had their own thoughts about the Prime Minister singing the praises of the council. David Cameron’s insistence that Trafford had managed, by ‘sharing services and binning the Mayor’s personalised number plate’, to avoid cutting frontline services, is difficult to square with what Trafford residents are seeing on the ground: cuts to youth services, early years services, support for older people, mental health services, learning disability services, the voluntary sector and more.

So they weren’t thrilled about me describing Trafford as David Cameron’s spiritual home, either. Clearly, I needed to make it up to the Labour supporters of Trafford. And that’s how I came to spend part of Saturday morning crammed among the waists of several hundred United fans, on a tram heading into Altrincham, and out of my comfort zone.

My destination was the ward of Broadheath, currently held by three Conservative councillors, including the sitting Mayor, Ken Weston. There, I found myself sitting on the living-room floor of a Labour Party member called Pat, being offered a choice of orange juice and lemonade, while every activist there was given chance to introduce themselves, to chat with the candidate, Andrew Leask (pictured above with me), about the key issues coming up on the doorstep, and to avail themselves of a 25-page ‘volunteer briefing pack’, plus the latest Voter ID flowchart.

In other words, five minutes after arriving in Pat’s living-room, I was fairly sure that Broadheath Labour’s campaign was going against everything I believe in when it comes to campaigning. We’re sitting around talking and drinking juice, twelve days before polling day? Somebody took the time to write up 25 pages of candidate biography, electoral strategy and a list of the local Tory cuts – and expects all the volunteers to read it? Manchester Labour would never stand for this sort of nonsense. New campaigning techniques? Sure. But if you’re not on a doorstep, you’re wasting time.

Except that Broadheath Labour have got more or less the same contact rate as my own Manchester ward of Fallowfield. In Fallowfield, I’m fortunate enough to be able to build on the work of hard-working Labour councillors and campaigners over years and years, and my job has mostly been to re-contact our supporters to check that they’re still our supporters (yep), and to ask former Lib Dem voters and undecideds whether they might vote Labour this year (yep, mostly).

In Broadheath, on the other hand, they had a contact rate of more or less zero until February. For the last few weeks, they’ve been working to a target of 500 contacts a week – and mostly, they’ve been achieving it. When I was sitting on Pat’s living-room floor, it was because there were fifteen other activists in the room and we’d run out of chairs. Campaign organiser Sam Bacon assured me that that wasn’t exceptional. This isn’t new campaigning techniques for the sake of it: it’s genuinely impressive. Mayor Ken Weston looks set to lose more than his license plate.

I had a chat to Sam and some of the Broadheath Labour team about how they’ve been running the campaign. It was a little Edgbaston-esque: a lot of time had gone into recruiting volunteers before they’d moved onto Voter ID. They’d done some of that on the doorstep – while asking voters what issues were going to be important to them in this election – and some by advertising for volunteers.

Actually, controversially, Sam had advertised for ‘interns’ – unpaid, of course – but with absolutely no intention of requiring the time commitment that MPs expect of their unpaid interns – he was simply looking for volunteers, to give as many evening and weekend hours as they were able and willing to give. He reckons that the word ‘intern’ can make volunteers feel a little more invested in a campaign; a little more like they’re getting some useful experience and transferable skills out of it.

“What worries me about Labour’s usual approach to campaigning is that a CLP might pay someone to design their website,” says Sam, by way of example, “while they’ve got an experienced web designer on their campaign team, but as soon as she walked into the campaign office they sent her out with a leaflet round.” He admits that it does take time and effort to find out how volunteers can contribute; but maintains that it enhances the contribution of committed activists, while enabling a contribution from those who can’t always get out on the doorstep.

The campaign employs a busy mum to make sure all their key players are in the right place at the right time – her parental commitments mean she doesn’t feel able to get out leafleting or doorknocking as often as she’d like, but she’s happy to harass the rest of the team by email. They have a volunteer in overall charge of communication, and a couple of youngsters have been tasked with updating the Twitter account. They have Pat, whose main role is to make her living-room available when asked, and who offers the volunteers breakfast every week.

I’ll be honest, in normal circumstances this would all set off my waste-of-time klaxon, but not even the klaxon is gonna argue with fifteen to twenty regular volunteers every weekend. It turns out that giving activists a little responsibility (and maybe the offer of breakfast) might just be what Labour needs to teach the Tories a lesson, in David Cameron’s favourite council right here in the North West.

Find out more about Broadheath Labour here.