Sunday, 21 May 2017

The rise of the British kleptocracy

About six or seven years ago you might have found me spouting all kinds of libertarian claptrap. I put it down to being young(ish) and stupid and intellectually lazy. It wasn't until I entered a serious study of regulation did I really realise exactly how intellectually bankrupt it is as a philosophy. We can take much from it for guiding principles but as a model for society to run on, fuhgeddaboudit.

I am also tempered by a realisation that we are being screwed. I think even back I the day I would rail against "crony capitalism" but at the same time I still favoured maximum privatisation. I would often cite many of the NHS scandals involving deaths from negligence. As it happens, care standards in the private sector fare little better when put to scrutiny and all the while we see "care barons" creaming millions off the top. 

To a point I still see a requirement for council cuts if only to shed the pension liabilities accumulated by New Labour. That era did nothing to endear the public sector to conservatives. But what we see instead of modernisation and streamlining is service amalgamations which is neither efficient nor good for democracy.
One of the more alarming examples is Bath police station. Bath, a city in its own right with its own policing needs, losing its own police station, instead being serviced by Keynsham near Bristol. This leads to much of a police officers time will either being spent processing criminals or making the 25 minute journey between the two cities. The move could turns police into expensive taxi drivers for recidivists.

One other "efficiency" was case load for drugs rehabilitation. I recently spoke with a former caseworker who resigned in disgust. The system as was allowed caseworkers to select a manageable load with the authority to remove disruptive "clients" who could potentially cause others in the group to relapse. With drug addicts you can only help the ones who have hit rock bottom and want to be helped. This trial programme has a one hundred percent success rate. The accountants though saw fit to interfere with the day to day management, insisting that a group of thirteen be expanded to twenty three. The aim was to reduce the numbers sent to prison. 

That aim of itself is laudable in that prison has limited uses, but ultimately it was a cost saving measure over any real policy decision. The result being that caseworkers were lumbered with addicts who were not ready, actually did belong in jail, and were so disruptive to the group that people seeking genuine help stopped attending. The result is addicts going untreated, where packs of addicts working together can steal up to £80k worth of goods in a single day.

This story will be familiar to most public servants who will have had the rug pulled out from under them, sabotaging good work. The withdrawal of universal school meals is actually a false economy in that a lot has been invested to make it work, contracts have been signed and ending them has consequences. When it comes to cuts everything is done to a short term agenda riding roughshod over years of financial planning.

Being a hardcore libertarian and largely oblivious to this kind of case, I hadn't really through through what I was advocating. The assumption being that cuts to service would be accompanied by proportionate tax cuts. That's the thing about Conservatives though. They are quite keen on reducing the size of the state and cancelling services, just not so keen the the aspect you need to make it all work. Tax cuts. 

Everywhere you look now services are taking a cut. Legal services are cut to the bone and if you land yourself in trouble you find that justice is really only for those who can afford it. On top of these we see parks going to ruin, potholes unfilled and roads ungritted in severe weather. 
Understandably this prompts people to ask why it is they can always afford to splash out on diversity officers and eye-watering CEO payoffs and all the other stuff which is standard fare for The Taxpayers Alliance. But then the TPA just loves that as a propaganda tool to help the Toryboys build up consent for cuts. Working class Tories are being screwed by the system and still they beg for more.

The phenomenon of the public revolving door and crony salaries is one well documented over the years and every year produces a new crop of headlines. There is a cosseted class of technocrats who seem invulnerable to efficiencies and people are bloody angry about it. After a two decades of a golden hello culture and platinum pensions, right wing populists have all the righteous indignation they need to push for further cuts. I certainly didn't complain when Bristol city council was pruned of a few thousand people. 

As it happens though, the overall headcount probably didn't shrink in any meaningful way. The headcount is disguised by outsourcing, usually to tier one consultancy groups known for having their hands deep in the till. The story of this managed decline is charted well in the back pages of Private Eye.
Someone on Twitter today remarked that this is not a recession. This is a robbery. The centralisation, confiscation and trashing of our local services has nothing to do with reducing the size of the state for ideological reasons, nor is it it especially a response to the financial crisis. It is all part of the trend where you pay ever more for ever less - until such a time where the state feels it has no obligation whatsoever to its citizens. 

One way or another they will privatise the NHS in full. Toryboys might well be delighted but it would stand to reason that in those circumstances we be allowed to keep what we pay in National Insurance. But that's not going to happen is it? We're going to have to pay twice. This is a Tory kleptocracy. 

I rather suspect the destination is the same as the USA. Go to any US city and you will find clean and pristine city centres but if you go off piste you will find a shabby, run down street scene where the street furniture has not been renewed in more than twenty years, the pavements are cracked the weeds grow from the gutters and the playgrounds demolished by vandals and the weather. But you WILL pay for it nonetheless.
We are told that Conservative policy is to bring about greater fiscal responsibility, encouraging us to be more frugal and to invest - just like the generation that came before us. Except of course your pension vanishes the moment you go to collect it, inflation eats away at your savings and if you're younger than me and working class you can forget about getting on the housing ladder. Especially now that Theresa May is going to make sure your home ends up in the hands of Beardie Branson. That's not what the policy actually is, but it's the eventual destination. This is not a pro-growth agenda. This is just a manoeuvre to take the rest of what is left.
You would think this would be fertile territory for a working class movement like Labour but I think most people understand that there is no magic money tree and we're not in a position to be borrowing heavily - and not for the sort of wasteful spending we see from Labour. Warehousing people on welfare and bloating the public sector isn't the answer. It's part of the reason we are here to begin with. Aside from Corbyn's renationlaisation hobby horse, I don't really see much difference between this Labour and Blair's Labour.
The short of it is that over the years our property has been appropriated by the state, centralised and sold off. We don't own our councils. They are corporates with ultimate authority, more beholden to central government, effectively part of a surveillance and control system. They are not of us, they are alien to us. Corbyn is no more interested in reversing this trend than May. There is nothing a leftist loves more.

If Britain is to build a genuine civic democracy (assuming we are not already too late) then we need to "take back control". As much as we fought for the right to say no to the EU we must also do the same to ensure Westminster cannot take more of what is ours. Theresa May's authoritarianism and anti-market approach is just another permutation of the command and control economy. If we are to have democracy at all then it is the people, not the government who must be sovereign. 

This is ultimately what The Harrogate Agenda is designed to address in recognition that Brexit of itself does little. While the EU may provide the means and the opportunity for our government to fleece us, unless we shitcan the system we live under, we are no better off for leaving. 
In a way it is sad that Cameron could never bring substance to the Big Society idea. Britain at its best was when there was a balance between public participation, voluntarism and an integrated state. When I say integrated, I mean one which depended on public participation and actively invited it. We have replaced that now. 
A recent Radio 4 clip illustrates what I'm talking about, where volunteers at a school sports day were given different coloured t-shirts to indicate their level of security clearance. It is this sort of corrosive paranoia that has destroyed community youth activities. Voluntarism has been purged. This gives rise to an insular, antisocial and lonely society where people are prohibited form participation. Just how government likes it. 

They tell us the current economic model is unsustainable. If the state the financier and provider then I have no doubt that it is. Social care and childminding has to be a community effort - as it once was, rather than administered by state registered operatives. If we do not fund a way to rebuild communities then they surely will take the last of what we have - to make us all isolated economic units in a soulless managerial landscape. In order for that to happen, local authorities need to be by the people, for the people - and not outstations of Whitehall. Unless we become local government we will be servants of it. Serfs on the land.
We must give up this tainted notion that Westminster can provide solutions. We should have learned by now that all it does is take and the more power we lend to it, the more it screws us. Put a red hat or a blue hat on it, it's all the same. Garbage in, garbage out. Very occasionally you might need to ask it for help, but in return they will rob you of your property, your dignity, your birthright and anything else that isn't nailed down. They will reduce you to a number, they will erase your heritage and demolish your democratic rights. If we do not draw a line in the sand now, then Britain as a decent and fair country is finished.

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