Thursday, June 10, 2010

The “tesco-isation” of charity (2010)

From the May 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Some charities, such as the NSPCC, are now run as businesses. 
Every Little Helps

While nineteenth century writers like Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley were questioning its institutional morality the law held that it was an offence to be cruel to animals but not to children. Indeed, when the law was eventually changed the first prosecution had to be brought by the RSPCA and to describe the victim as “a small animal” because that – as distinct from “a small child” – was the sole description then recognised in law. Contributing to the impetus for change was the foundation in Liverpool in 1883 and later in London of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which in 1889 became a National Society, with branches across Great Britain and Ireland. It was in that year that the first Act, commonly known as “the children's charter”, passed through Parliament, making child cruelty an arrestable offence, establishing guidelines on the employment of children and – perhaps not so welcome – outlawing begging. Since then the NSPCC (although officially it has a royal charter it has kept the “National” in its title to prevent confusion with the RSPCA) has carried on a persistent struggle in one of the more distressing – and persistent – areas of society.


At present it runs something like 180 local projects working to raise public consciousness about child cruelty, to provide support to families where the stresses of survival may erupt into frustrations which are taken out on the children and to intervene in cases when active abuse has been identified. There is also a telephone helpline and an on-line service offering advice and information. Among its most successful ventures has been the Full Stop campaign, with its harrowing images of neglected and battered children, which raised a total of £250 million during the eight years up to 2007. Overall the NSPCC's income during 2009 was £150 million of which £116 million came from donations.

But this is 2010; British capitalism is in the throes of an historically damaging slump when the financiers and the manipulators who lurk in advertising and public relations are keen to advise anyone they think is in need of their uniquely brilliant recipe for survival. The Tory MP Gerald Howarth has called the NSPCC “completely incompetent” – although this could be his response to their pushing too competently for the reduction of the homosexual age of consent to 16. Not surprisingly Fathers4Justice has chimed in, with accusations of promoting a “portrayal of men as violent abusers” – and has emphasised its point by a brief invasion of the Society's headquarters. Most tellingly, doubts have been expressed about the Full Stop campaign actually being of benefit to any children. Analysts have been picking over the bones of all this and it seems they have diagnosed a need to go with the swing and so have prescribed a new, exciting Brand NSPCC.


The last Chief Executive of the NSPCC was Dame Mary Marsh, who held the job between 2000 and 2009. Before that she was in school headships, including at the then trendy Holland Park in London. During her time at the NSPCC it trebled its income and launched Full Stop. After which, it seemed, she decided to re-invent herself as founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme whose name largely speaks for itself and for its intended role in what Dame Mary calls “the third sector”.

In rather different style she also became a non-executive director of the massive HSBC Bank. Coming after her was Andrew Flanagan, whose experience of organisations like the NSPCC was practically nil. But he brought other prospects for he has a definite pedigree in media and marketing, including ten years as chief executive at Scotland's biggest media firm SMG where he was in charge of the company's takeover of Virgin radio and of Ginger Productions, owned by the allegedly “talented” Chris Evans. Flanagan says at the time he was (unfortunate phrase) “looking for something to get my teeth into” and he found the offer of the top job at the NSPCC “hard to resist”, the meaning of which he is happy to elaborate on: “...Things are going to be a lot tougher... The board felt someone with business skills might be better able to steer it through...there was great enthusiasm (in the NSPCC) and deep passion for the cause but business had perhaps more to offer in terms of in innovation and efficiency”.

Workers who once earned their living at the mothballed Corus steel plant or in the derelict motor factories in the Midlands would have learned the true meaning of that ominous phrase. Those who toil and worry about protecting vulnerable children might not have been so prescient.


It did not take long for the meaning of “innovation and efficiency” to become apparent. Something over 40 NSPCC projects will be closed across the country, including the newest treatment and therapeutic facility in Bath. Another victim will be at Barrow, which was established after local people raised £180,000 to fund a branch there, and where a Face Book – Save Safe NSPCC Barrow – attracted well over 1,000 friends. A joint letter by Flanagan and the NSPCC chairman in the Guardian of 19 February 2010 asserted that the planned closures will allow for new services which will “focus on priority areas of abuse”. One aspect of this “focus” has resulted in the closure of the Society's final salary pension fund, with its attendant threat to the living standards of retired workers. It brings to mind the phrase used by Iain Duncan Smith, ex-Tory leader who recovered from his spell as one of John Major's Eurosceptic “bastards” to take charge of David Cameron's Social Justice Policy Group, that there has to be a process of “Tescoisation” of charity organisations. Which will mean running Child Protection Services as a retail business, keeping a strict eye on costs, competition and prices – and getting rid of redundant workers. Except that there will be no Club Card rebates and that every little will not count.


Which leads us to the matter of redundancy. The word means superfluous, no longer needed. How does this concept fit in with child cruelty? Has the problem reduced so that children are safe enough not to justify any organised support and observation? In December 2007 a NSPCC statement, based on Home Office information, showed that there is no cause for complacency. Although there is some yearly fluctuation in the figures for known incidence of child homicide, the overall rate in England and Wales has stayed roughly similar since the 1970s. Each week one to two children are killed by another person and each week at least one child dies from cruelty. Every ten days in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of the parents. Among those figures are some of the most horrifying, sickening examples of children dying after prolonged suffering – of repression, neglect and violence. Like Maria Colwell, beaten to death by her stepfather in 1973 – which enforced the recognition of non-accidental injury of children as major social problem. Which did not save Victoria ClimbiĆ©, battered and starved, in 2001, Peter Connolly in 2007, savagely beaten over a long period and more recently Khyra Ishaq whose parents starved her and her siblings until her death exposed what was happening in that appalling house. After each such tragedy the gutter press wallow in hypocrisy, ministers roll out meticulously worded statements and appoint an enquiry chaired by some superannuated judge or senior civil servant. There is a bulky report which concludes with assurances that “lessons have been learned ... measures will be put in place so that this does not happen again“. But “this” does happen again – a fact which suggests that the problem is being viewed from the wrong direction.


An article in the British Journal of General Practice for 1 September 2008, written by Jane Roberts, a GP in Easington Co. Durham, the “most deprived ward in the (Primary Care) Trust” reviewed some of the evidence that child cruelty, while not exclusive to any socio-economic group (there are examples of some pretty awful treatment to the children of very rich families) has a perceptible link with poverty. Easington has four times as many children on their child protection register as Durham, the richest ward in the Trust. This local example is typical of the wider situation. A 2008 NSPCC report on child abuse commented that “...most children on child protection registers are from low-income families and the most commonly identified stress factors in all registered cases of child abuse are unemployment and debt, which are closely related to poverty”. The report then quoted a conclusion (which must have been deflating for them) of the University of York's (Living With Hardship 24/7, November 2007), that “...we will not end cruelty to children without ending child poverty”.

But this conclusion, depressing as it is, needs to be seen in proportion. If poverty is the basis of the maltreatment of children, where and to what effect does poverty originate? We have had too many assurances to deal with it, like Blair's florid pledge to lead a government whose “...historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty” to give any weight to them. A great many motivated people devote themselves to palliating, unrewarding work in this field. But poverty is too complex, too staminal; it is the ground where masses of social sickness flourish – brutality to children, crime, alienation, disease...And so it will remain for as long a society is tolerated which rends its people into two opposing classes, based on the privileges or denial of ownership. Every little helps is not enough. The cure of child abuse has to begin with massive historical change.

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 148

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    How shall we vote? (2010)

    From the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Part of the deal for the Tory-LibDem coalition government is that there’s to be a referendum on electoral reform. But is electoral reform really necessary?
    We might as well give our answer straightaway: No, it isn't. A majority seeking to replace capitalism by socialism only requires one thing of an electoral system under capitalism – that it should allow a majority opinion to reflect itself as a majority of seats in parliament. Socialists are not interested in whether the system ensures a strong and stable government of capitalism nor in whether it ensures a fair representation of capitalist political parties. As the existing electoral system in Britain does allow a majority viewpoint to be translated into a majority of seats, we see no point in diverting any of our energies from our task of working towards the emergence of a socialist majority to supporting electoral reform within capitalism.

    Voting in socialism
    However, since socialism will be a fully democratic society we do have an interest in what is and what is not a fair electoral system since such a system will be an essential part of the democratic decision-making and administrative structure of socialist society.

    From the point of view of democratic theory, an electoral system should ensure that the persons elected really are representative. The case against the first-past-the-post system that applies in Britain is that it does not necessarily do this when there are more than two candidates. This is because it allows a candidate to be elected with less than 50 percent of the votes (that is to say, against the will of a majority of the voters), as were most MPs, of all parties, in the recent general election.

    There are various ways of avoiding this. Organising a run-off between the top two candidates in a second ballot (as in France) or, what amounts to the same thing, allowing voters to place the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4, etc) and, if no candidate gets 50 percent, to eliminate the bottom candidates and redistribute their votes amongst the others until one of them does reach this figure. This system, known as the Alternative Vote (the mysterious AV the media talks about), is widely used in trade unions for the election of their officials and is the system that is to be voted on in the proposed referendum.

    A variant of AV, known as the Supplementary Vote or Instant Run-off, is already used in England for the election of mayors. Under it voters vote 1, 2 only (or just “1” if they want) and, if no candidate gets 50 percent, then the No 2 votes of the third and other candidates are redistributed between the top two. In other words, there is no chance of the candidate finishing third getting elected, as is possible under pure AV.

    The system favoured by the Liberals is neither of these but the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is used in regional and local elections in Northern Ireland and in local elections in Scotland. Under it voters again place the candidates in order of preference but in a multi-member rather than a single-member constituency. A candidate is not elected unless, and until, after successive redistributions of the votes of the bottom candidates, they obtain a certain quota of votes. It is frequently described as a system of proportional representation even by its partisans but in fact it is not. It is essentially a system, like the Second Ballot and the Alternative Vote, for ensuring that those elected attain a minimum level of representativity. It is only incidentally that, in a context of competing political parties, it ensures the representation of minority parties enjoying a certain minimum, but not necessarily low, level of support amongst voters.

    As all the above systems are compatible with democratic theory, no doubt, depending on historically-inherited circumstances and the preferences of people in a particular area, they will continue into socialist society for the various delegate bodies that will form part of its democratic decision-making structure, along with other systems such as choice by lot (as for juries today).

    Party Representation
    Proportional representation, properly so-called, is a different matter as it presupposes the existence of competing political parties and was in fact devised precisely for such parties. It requires multi-member constituencies (which can be the whole country, as in Israel and in Scotland and Wales for the election of MEPs) and party lists rather than individual candidates. A great variety of PR systems exist (a different version, mixed with first-past-the-post, is used in mainland Britain for the election of regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London) but these are all based on the principle that the seats should be allocated to parties in more or less strict proportion to the number of votes obtained.

    The essence of democracy is popular participation not competing parties. In socialism elections will not be about deciding which particular party is to come to ‘power’ and form the government. Politics in socialism will not be about coercive power and its exercise and so won't really be politics at all in its present-day sense of the ‘art and practice of government’ or ‘the conduct of state affairs’. Being a classless society of free and equal men and women, socialism will not have a coercive state machine nor a government to control it. The conduct of public affairs in socialism will be about people participating in the running of their lives in a non-antagonistic context of co-operation to further the common good.

    Socialist democracy will be a participatory democracy rather than the choice every four or five years, with or without proportional representation, between rival bands of professional politicians that passes for democracy today.
    Adam Buick

    Cooking the Books: How capitalism moves (2010)

    A Cooking the Books column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Last month’s general election was dominated by “the economy” but the politicians never learn. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they were still claiming to be able to control the way the capitalist economy works.

    You might have thought that the Labour Party would have become more cautious about such claims following the exploding of Gordon Brown’s claim to have put an end to boom and bust. But no. “The economy is coming out of recession thanks to Labour’s measures”, claimed a leaflet put out for the Labour candidate in Streatham.

    The economy does seem to be beginning to come out of the biggest slump since the end of the last world war, but this was bound to occur sooner or later as the movement of the capitalist economy is cyclical. A period of recession and stagnation is followed by a period of expansion just as a period of expansion is followed by a period of recession, each period creating the conditions for the other. This in accordance “the economic law of motion of modern society” which Marx said in his Preface to Capital he had set out to lay bare.

    The Labour government happened to be in office when the recovery stage of the cycle showed some modest signs of beginning. But if they want to claim credit for this by virtue of simply been in office at the time, then they should also accept responsibility for the recession that preceded it when they were also in office. In fact they and their policies were responsible for neither. Uncontrollable capitalism was.

    The other parties, naturally, claimed that the Labour government had been responsible for the recession – and that their policies would bring it to an end.

    “We’ll cut Gordon Brown’s waste and debt to get our economy moving”, promised the election address of the Tory candidate in Vauxhall, “Labour are now the party of unemployment. Conservatives will get Britain working again by boosting enterprise”.

    The LibDems were no different. “Labour promised us economic stability, but they have failed”, said a leaflet put out on behalf of their candidate for Richmond Park. “Only the Lib Dems and Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable have a plan that will get our economy moving forward again.”

    But no government has the power to get the economy “moving”. All governments do is preside over the workings of the capitalist economy as it moves forward and backwards of its own accord, irrespective of what they may or may not do.

    So why do politicians claim to have a power they do not have and make promises on this basis? There are only two possible answers. They either take us for fools or they are fools themselves.