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    For all those knuckle-clutching articles about how girls everywhere are about to pirouette into twerking, puking, self-hating whorishness, we do not actually care about young women.

    Another week, another frenzy of concern-fapping over teenage girls. A few days ago, I was invited onto Channel 4 News to discuss a new report detailing how young people, much like not-young people, misunderstand consent and blame girls for rape. The presenter, Matt Frei, tried to orchestrate a fight between myself and the other guest, Labour MP Luciana Berger, because it’s not TV feminism unless two women shout at each other.

    As we approached the six minute, time-for-some-last-words mark, Frei was clearly floundering. It turns out that even respected broadcasters with years of experience have no idea how to handle the twisted narrative about girls, and sex, and how adults feel about girls having sex, and what precisely it is about all of this that constitutes news. He turned to Berger and said - I quote - “Miley Cyrus - should we just ignore her? Is she good or is she bad? What’s your judgement on her?”

    At which point I had to stop myself yelling Oh Fuck Off Fuck Off Just Fuck Off And Do Not Speak Ever Again at the camera in front of me. Which is a terrible way to treat an innocent piece of hardware.

    When the off-air lights blinked, I felt like I’d just gone through a Shakespearean shadow-play of the public conversation about young women right now, and it scared me. Berger and I had both come onto the programme to talk seriously about agency, about education and the importance of respecting young people, and instead we stumbled from slutshaming to pat ten-second pronouncements about sexual violence to manufactured controversy to worrying about the age of consent to deciding whether Miley Cyrus is empowered or exploited or both in the space of six minutes and twelve seconds exactly. Clearly, teenage girls aren’t the only ones who are confused.

    Teenage girls, however, don’t get to put down the notes on that painful, awkward confusion and switch to the next topic.They don’t get to change the channel. Moral panic is the register in which young women are spoken to and about, always.

    It should be no big shocker, then, that the second study out this week, a report by the charity Girlguiding, suggests that girls’ self-esteem is not just low but falling, year-on-year. As with any sociological study, the nature of the questions being asked - how much do girls care about make-up? How many wear nail-polish, push-up bras, high heels? - reveals as much as the answers do, in this case about our priorities around girls and the women they’re becoming. When we cannot help muster our masturbatory outrage over whether or not young girls are wearing push-up bras - always with the padded bras - should perhaps be less surprised to be that “87 per cent of girls aged 11-21 think women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability”.

    The tone of the reports on girls’ lack of confidence, on the persistence of myths of ignorance about rape and sexual violence, is as patronising as ever. The implication is that girls fret about their appearance, are confused about sex and consent and worried about the future because they are variously frivolous or stupid.

    They aren’t. They know perfectly well what’s going on, and why. It is not silly for girls to believe, for example, that society judges them on their appearance when it manifestly does and will continue to do so when they have become adult women unless we bring down patriarchy first.

    The Girlguiding report finds that, as well as being miserable, self-hating and cynical about the prospect of equality, young women are terrifically ambitious. They work hard, and they want to do well in their careers. This is not a contradiction.

    Ambition is demanded of us because we know mediocrity is not an option. When society tells women that if we are just averagely good-looking, or averagely smart, or reasonably high-achieving, we will never be loved and safe, perfectionism is an adaptive strategy. We learn that if we want love and security, we have to be perfect, and if it doesn't work out, well, that means we just weren't good enough. And we know it probably won’t work out well. Girls aren’t fools. They know what is being done to them. They know what means for their futures in terms of money and power.

    Girls get it. An under-reported, crucial facet of the study is the extent and cynicism of girls’ concerns about economic equality and unpaid work. A full 65% of girls aged 11-21 are worried about the cost of childcare, and while 58% say they "would like to become a leader in their chosen profession, 46% of them worry that having children will negatively affect their career.

    Girls know perfectly well that structural sexism means they can’t have everything they’re being told they must have. They are striving to have it all everyway, striving to have everything and be everything like good girls are supposed to, and it hasn't broken them yet, for good or ill. That's is one reason young women still do so well in school and at college despite our good grades not translating to real-world success. It's one reason we're so good at getting those entry-level service jobs: we are not burdened by the excess of ego, the desire to be treated like a human being first, that prevents many young men from engaging proactively with an economy that just wants self-effacing drones trained to smile till it hurts.

    The press just loves to act concerned about half-naked young ladies, preferably with illustrations to facilitate the concern. Somehow nothing changes. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe part of the function of the constant stream of news about young girls hurting and hating themselves isn’t to raise awareness. Maybe part of it is designed to be reassuring.

    It must be comforting, if you’re invested in the status quo, to hear that young women are punished and made miserable when they misbehave.

    I've said this before, but I'll repeat it: for all those knuckle-clutching articles about how girls everywhere are about to pirouette into twerking, puking, self-hating whorishness, we do not actually care about young women - not, that is, about female people who happen to be young. Instead, we care about Young Women (TM), fantasy Young Women as a semiotic skip for all our cultural anxieties. We value girls as commodities without paying them the respect that both their youth and their personhood deserves. Being fifteen is fucked up enough already without having the expectations, moral neuroses and guilty lusts of an entire culture projected onto this perfect empty shell you’re somehow supposed to be. Hollow yourself out and starve yourself down until you can swallow the shame of the world.

    We care about young women as symbols, not as people.

    And Miley Cyrus. Ah Miley. The Zaphod Beeblebrox of 2013, distracting attention away from power with well-timed hammer-humping. The way Miley Cyrus has been allowed to dominate months of necessary discussion about young women and what they do, about sex and celebrity and the pounding synthetic intersection of the two which is pop music is the ultimate example of our guilty, horny fascination with young girls’ sexual self-exploitation. We have discussed Miley Cyrus as a cipher for precarious womanhood everywhere to the extent that she has functionally become one.

    The ongoing Miley conversation is concern-fapping made flesh. Miley is not the only very young woman doing bold, original or shocking things in public right now, but she’s the one who gets to sum up all girls everywhere. Miley, not Lorde. Miley, not Daisy Coleman. Miley, not Malala Yousafsai. Miley, not Chelsea Manning.

    Of course, young trans women and women of colour, however heroic, could never be everygirl. That’s why Rihanna only gets to be a ‘bad influence’ on girls, but Miley somehow is all girls. She is the way we want to imagine all girls - slender young white innocence forever being corrupted, allowing us to stroke out another horrified concerngasm.

    In the real world, girls are not all the same. Attempting to make any one woman stand in for all women everywhere is demeaning to every woman anywhere. It tells us that we are all alike, that for all society's fascination with our feelings and fragility we are considered of a kind, replaceable. We’re all the same, and we’re all supposed to have the same problems. And that’s the problem.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m angry.

    I am angry on a personal level because I have fought for nine years, since I was a messed-up schoolgirl myself, for a world in which women could be treated like human beings, and it sometimes seems like nothing’s changed. It is as fucked-up and torturous to be a teenage girl now as it ever was, maybe moreso. I am angry because in those nine years I have seen countless miserable, self-hating, brilliant girls become miserable, self-hating, brilliant women who have somehow managed to survive and scrape through the shitty, sexist slimepile of rules and threats and contradictions to claw out a sense of self they could live with.

    Well, most of them managed to survive. Not all of them. And not all of the ones who did grew up to thrive. I have seen such pain and wasted potential over these years that I could cry, and sometimes, when I’m tired, I do. The emotional violence this society does to teenage girls and young women makes us all suffer in the end.

    So please, just stop it. Stop telling girls contradictory things. Stop telling them that they’re worthless if they’re not sexy, beautiful and willing and then shaming them into believing that if they were raped, it must have been their fault for dressing like sluts. Stop telling them they have to be high-achieving and independent and not rely on a man and then hating them for any freedom they manage to hold on to. Stop teaching young women to hate themselves. Stop it.

    Because let me tell you something else about young women today. I'm going to say it slowly and clearly so it doesn't get forgotten quite so fast. Young women today are brilliant.

    They. Are. Brilliant.

    If you are not stunned by how smart, how fearless, how fucking fantastic young women and girls are right now then maybe you’ve been watching too many twerking videos, or only paying attention to the news coverage that reassures us that yes, young girls are miserable, as they deserve to be. But you’d have to be glued to Bangerz pretty consistently not to notice how bloody great this generation is.

    Really, they’re great. They know the challenges in front of them and they are determined to overcome them. They’re as bright and ambitious as Millennials, except that they grew up with the internet and they have no illusions that good behaviour will get them everywhere. I don't mean to essentialise; I've met some brutal, boring teenage girls in my time, too. But the cohort is shaping up to be just about as spectacular as it’s going to have to be to fix the mess their parents made.

    I believe that today's young women might yet grow up to save this vicious world.

    But if we abuse that promise, if we carry on hurting them and insulting them and treating them as trash symbols of our own shame, then maybe we don’t deserve to be saved.


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    The tabloid is so cross it's dropped its paywall. Now that's cross.

    The Sun is cross with Russell Brand. It's really cross. It's Dropping The Paywall cross.

    After Brand wrote a Guardian piece yesterday criticising the Sun on Sunday for printing allegations he was unfaithful, the paper has hit back with a piece entitled "20 Reasons why Russell Brand is the biggest hypocrite in Britain" (we presume they've been reading Buzzfeed).

    These mostly boil down to one reason: has previously written for the Sun, which although he might not have realised it at the time, contractually obliges him to be nice about everything it does, ever.

    Seriously, the Sun's editor could punch a kitten and those three Shagger of the Year awards mean that he couldn't say a peep about it.

    The hitjob is yet another reminder that anyone who speaks up in favour of press reform can expect what Kelvin McKenzie allegedly offered John Major - a bucket of shit poured all over them. Previous examples include the Mail's multipage denunciation of one of the Leveson Inquiry assessors, as well as the paper's leaking of NS columnist Mehdi Hasan's job application letter after he criticised the paper on Leveson.

    PS. The Mole is quite taken with the Sun's casual cuss of the Guardian website - it claimed Brand's piece appeared on a "little-read media blog". The Guardian's website has 5.8m weekly uniques, while the Sun withdrew from the official auditing of its web traffic after introducing a paywall this year. 

    PPS. This was Brand's response. This one could run and run.

     


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    Elan Gale wasn't standing up for the little guy when he told a woman to "eat my dick" after she was allegedly rude to flight attendants. He was grandstanding, and sexists lapped it up.

    By now plenty of people will have heard about the quite-possibly-imaginary Elan Gale vs Diane “plane note row”. Depending on where you stand, it’s either hilarious or really frightening. Me, I’m veering towards the latter. Elan Gale, I hope I’m never on the number 12 bus, let alone on a plane with you.

    The plane note row (if it actually took place and wasn’t just some misogynist’s wildest fantasy) was live-tweeted by Gale last Thursday. It (allegedly) reached its height with Gale sending a note which included the line “eat my dick” to female passenger, having smugly tweeted out said note to all his followers.

     

     

     

     

    To put this in context, the woman – “Diane” – had been rude to flight attendants (a crime for which, as far as I am aware, the recommended punishment is not sexual harassment within a confined space). During the exchange that ensued, Gale pressured flight attendants to become complicit in his abuse by transferring the notes between him and “Diane” – who, he happened to tweet, was “in her late 40s or early 50s” and was wearing “mom jeans” (hence not only rude but not even shaggable!).

    Whether real or imagined, Gale’s behaviour was manipulative, misogynistic and self-aggrandising and yet he deliberately made it public in an effort to gain approval — and, most disturbingly, he got it. His twitter follower count tripled and #TeamElan became the boorish bystander’s hashtag of choice.

    In a later post in which he explains the whole scenario, Gale depicts himself as a noble saviour, propelled to heights of frat boy misogyny only due to memories of his former life as a common worker:

    My first job was in a video store. I rewinded tapes and put them back on the shelves. I was a caterer. I put ravioli into divided plates and cut bagels in half for hours at a time. The difference between someone being nice and someone being mean was the difference in how I felt when I went home that night.

    Well, whoop-de-doo! So Gale’s done shitty jobs. So have I. So have millions of other people, some of whom go on to better work, some of whom don’t. Having worked in service doesn’t make you a lifelong authority on the Woes of the Serving Classes. Other passengers on that flight will have known what it’s like to be at the mercy of The Customer. For all we know, “Diane” was one of them, too.

    I’m not wishing to suggest that waitresses and flight attendants aren’t treated badly. Nonetheless, what Gale proposes as a response only furthers any exploitation. It’s not just that it’s an incredible abuse of power to pressure workers to hand over offensive notes while they are trying to get on with their jobs (especially when their discomfort with this is made clear). Worst of all is the pretence that this all for the good of the little man:

    I don’t care what’s going on with you: Don’t be rude to people who are doing their job.

    Don’t do it.

    Don’t dismiss them. Don’t act like they are less than you. Don’t abuse them just because you’re the customer and “The Customer Is Always Right.”

    How very noble.

    I’ll be honest: I’ve met difficult customers and suppliers, some of whom have been female. I’ve often wanted to be rude to them and yes, it’s frustrated me that my job depends on me not responding. At no point, ever, have I wanted someone to appropriate whatever abuse I’m suffering in order to indulge in a little misogyny and sexual harassment on “my” behalf, not least because, as a woman, I feel it only extends the loss of power.

    First you’re insulted due to the power imbalance inherent in your work, then you’re insulted again by the reminder that, if anyone comes to your defence, it will be at the expense of basic respect for your sex. It has been decided, without your consent, that the continuation of misogyny is a price worth paying for some minor victory “for you” (and a hell of a lot of grandstanding for your saviour). And who has decided this? Someone who is neither a server nor a woman. How convenient.

    There are plenty of “Dianes” around. By that, I don’t mean women who are rude to flight attendants (although I’m sure there are plenty of those, too). I mean women whom men like Gale — privileged, self-styled men of principle — identify as Women of Privilege and hence suitable targets for all the misogynist shit they’re too inhibited to hurl at the average woman.

    Diane is Private Eye’s Polly Filler. She’s Louise Mensch, or Harriet Harman, or any female MP you can think of. She’s the middle-class white cis feminist to whom all the right-on dudes of Twitter are sending rape threats. She’s the yummy mummy in her 4×4, taking up road space that rightfully belongs to men like Gale. She’s the woman who makes misogyny okay. She’s the reason women who claim to be feminists don’t say a word when their nice, lefty male allies tell women such as Helen Lewis or Caitlin Moran that they are cunts and bitches. It’s not because there’s validity in sexist insults. There isn’t. “Eat my dick” is “eat my dick” in any context. No woman is ever asking for it.

    I’m not recommending standing by while customers abuse staff just because they can. However, to stand up for someone who’s being victimised or ignored rarely involves grandstanding. On the contrary, making a genuine stand can make you unpopular yourself or, at best, go unnoticed. That’s because it’s rarely about you. To take the complainer to one side and advise them to calm down, or to tell someone under pressure that you appreciate the work they do, isn’t particularly dramatic or interesting, but it’s the little things that matter.

    On the other hand, to spy an opportunity to be a sexist bully “for the good of humanity” — and to then use it — doesn’t make you a caring, if flawed, person. It’s not some complex balancing act between means and ends. It just means you’re a sexist bully. And if being nice and kind truly matters to you, that’s something you’d do well to think about.

    This blog originally appeared at Glosswatch.


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    "I would not have put it like that," says the Chancellor, after the Mayor of London states that "some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy".

    George Osborne has become the first senior Tory to distance himself from Boris Johnson's remarks about IQ and inequality.

    In a speech this week, the Mayor of London had said noted that 16 per cent of "our species" had an IQ of less than 85, and just two per cent of had an IQ of more than 130. Under such conditions, true equality was never possible, he said: "Indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity."

    On the Andrew Marr Show, Osborne said: "I would not have put it like that. I don't agree with everything he said. I think there is actually increasingly common agreement across the political spectrum you can't achieve equality of outcome, but you should be able to achieve equality of opportunity. You should give everyone, wherever they come from, the best chance, and, actually, education is the key to this."

    Boris Johnson's speech provoked near-unanimous condemnation from the left. In the Evening Standard, Jenni Russell called his argument "utter rubbish":

    Britain is a starkly unequal society where the dice are loaded against the poorest children and in favour of the richest from the moment of their conception. Success has infinitely more to do with background and upbringing than with talent or determination.

    In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley asked the Mayor:

    The Conservative party is also charged with being disdainful of ordinary people. Labour have clearly and repeatedly signalled that they plan to fight the next election campaign by attacking the Tories for not caring about the majority. Would it be smart to suggest that large swaths of the population should be written off on the grounds that they are too thick to compete?

    The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the comments revealed "careless, unpleasant elitism".

    But so far politicians on the right have largely remained silent. (The press were warmer: the Mail and Times reprinted extracts of the speech, while the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan wrote a piece entitled "Thank goodness for Boris". ConservativeHome's Iain Dale provided a rare dissenting voice.)

    While the Cabinet will be able to keep their heads down until the autumn statement takes over the news cycle, David Cameron may be unable to duck the question of whether he agrees with Johnson. He's flying to China tonight with a press pack in tow.

    Will any of them ask him if he thinks that inequality is good thing?


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Why George Osborne may get away with pinching Labour's lollipops (Guardian)

    Conservative strategy has long been to steal opposition ideas, says Chris Huhne. An economy on the mend can only help them take the credit.

    2. What will Boris do for those never likely to prosper? (Times)

    A winning Tory message must be about security as well as freedom, says Tim Montgomerie.

    3. Don't let dubious Pisa league tables dictate how we educate our children (Guardian)

    Once again Britain has done badly in the international assessment of schooling, writes Peter Wilby. But there is more to learning than this.

    4. Germany’s coalition will break promises (Financial Times)

    The political class will be tested by what the eurozone will throw at it, writes Wolfgang Münchau.

    5. The reforms the NHS really needs make a rubbish election strategy (Guardian)

    Andy Burnham deserves credit for championing new thinking on the kind of health service we need, says Jackie Ashley. But it's not soundbite-friendly.

    6. Green energy could kill Britain’s economy (Times)

    George Osborne needs to act fast if we are to benefit from falling gas prices in the rest of the world, says Matt Ridley. 

    7. Message to forecasters: Don’t assume that the future will turn out like the past (Independent)

    In no previous election has there been falling real wages and public sector job cuts, writes David Blanchflower. 

    8. Nearly a century after the Armenian genocide, these people are still being slaughtered in Syria (Independent)

    And now, almost unmentioned in the media, their holy places are also being desecrated, writes Robert Fisk. 

    9. Is it beyond the wit of tech wizards to stop phone theft? (Daily Telegraph)

    Genuine businesses will suffer for as long as IT companies refuse to crack the crime, says Boris Johnson. 

    10. Higher pay is the tonic that America needs (Financial Times)

    The argument for broad-based income growth is as compelling as it is watertight, says Edward Luce.


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    The planned change to the definition in the Energy Bill would cut the number of households classed as fuel poor from 3.2 million to 2.4 million.

    The coalition is seeking to demonstrate its commitment to helping "hardworking people with energy bills" (as ever, one wonders, what about less hardworking people?) by formally announcing its planned changes to green levies. It promises that the average customer will save £12 through the transfer of the Warm Homes Discount into general taxation (Labour's response is that the government is giving with one hand and taking with another), £30-£35 through a reduction in the cost of the Energy Company Obligation and £5 through savings to network costs, meaning an overall reduction of around £50. Labour has responded by noting that, with the average energy bill up £120, prices will still be around £70 higher than last year. Unless George Osborne has something extra up his sleeve for Thursday's Autumn Statement, the Tories are likely to find it harder than they hope to neutralise Miliband's price freeze. 

    The government's cost-of-living drive has also been undermined by the claim that it is seeking to reduce the number of households classed as fuel poor by changing the official definition. A report from the cross-party Commons environmental audit committee notes that the Energy Bill includes a clause redefining fuel poverty from any household that needs to spend more than 10% of its income "to maintain an adequate level of warmth" to any household that has "above average" fuel costs that leave them with "a residual income below the official poverty line". The effect of this change would be to reduce the number of households classed as fuel poor from 3.2 million to 2.4 million, or from 15% to 11%. This is because the new definition excludes any household that spends less than average on energy to keep warm (as many poorer families do). 

    Labour MP Joan Walley, who chairs the commitee, said: "The government is shifting the goalposts on fuel poverty so that official statistics record far fewer households as fuel-poor.

    "The changes to the fuel poverty definition and target, in part being made through amendments to the Energy Bill, should be stopped unless the government is prepared to make a public commitment to end fuel poverty altogether."

    A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change has responded by insisting that "the changes to the fuel poverty definition helps to get a better understanding of the causes and depth of fuel poverty, and to target policies more effectively". Energy minister Michael Fallon has previously told parliament: "The new definition allows us to understand much better what the actual depth of fuel poverty is in a particular household rather than simply the extent of it".

    But whether or not the change is well-intentioned, the perception that the coalition (which has become renowned for its abuse of statistics) is attempting to disguise the true number in fuel poverty is not one it should welcome. 


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    The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership gives the coalition's health reforms international legal backing.

    No doubt the launch of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in June was cause for much celebration in Brussels. The European Parliament is in the process of enabling a historic shift in world economics with countless, far-reaching consequences.

    A key part of the TTIP is 'harmonisation' between EU and US regulation, especially for regulation in the process of being formulated. In Britain, the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act has been prepared in the same vein – to 'harmonise' the UK with the US health system.

    This will open the floodgates for private healthcare providers that have made dizzying levels of profits from healthcare in the United States, while lobbying furiously against any attempts by President Obama to provide free care for people living in poverty. With the help of the Conservative government and soon the EU, these companies will soon be let loose, freed to do the same in Britain.

    Linda Kaucher is a leading expert on trade agreements. She has written and spoken extensively on the topic, most recently in an article in Chartist. In it, she lays out a disturbing truth about what is going on behind the scenes in Brussels, arguing that while on the surface the EU is a bastion of protections and rights, its true agenda is far more tenebrous.

    It is, she says, to "permanently fix corporate-driven neo-liberalism, within the EU and internationally, via trade agreements. Any reassertion of democracy within the EU structure or member states is prevented by legally binding international trade law." She also states that the agenda is "driven and effectively controlled by transnational corporations, especially transnational financial services corporations."

    How does this affect the NHS? It’s painfully simple. The agreement will provide a legal heavy hand to the corporations seeking to grind down the health service. It will act as a Transatlantic bridge between the Health and Social Care Act in the UK, which forces the NHS to compete for contracts, and the private companies in the US eager to take it on for their own gain.

    Kaucher says: "[The Health and Social Care Act] effectively enforces competitive tendering, and thus privatisation and liberalisation i.e. opening to transnational bidders - a shift to US-style profit-prioritised health provision."

    The TTIP ensures that the Health and Social Care Act has influence beyond UK borders. It gives the act international legal backing and sets the whole shift to privatisation in stone because once it is made law, it will be irreversible. Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) laws, fundamentals of the agreement, allow corporations legal protection for their profits regardless of patient care performance, with the power to sue any public sector organisation or government that threatens their interest.

    Once these ISDS tools are in place, lucrative contracts will be underwritten, even where a private provider is failing patients and the CCG wants a contract cancelled. In this case, the provider will be able to sue a CCG for future loss of earnings, thanks to the agreement, causing the loss of vast sums of taxpayer money on legal and administrative costs.

    Even more worrying is that, once the TTIP is enacted, repealing the Health and Social Care Act in the UK will become almost impossible. As Kaucher explains: "Even if outcomes of the NHS changes are disastrous, ISDS will effectively disallow any attempts by any future UK government to reverse the changes."

    'Harmonised' standards favour private companies over public sector providers and the coalition government, the standard bearer of big business, is tirelessly working away to deliver a privatised system to its sponsors. The government claims that in privatising the NHS it will be its 'liberator'. The term even made it into the title of Andrew Lansley’s now infamous report laying out the Conservatives’ plans for the NHS: Liberating the NHS.

    This is just more euphemistic language masking sinister intentions. In a 2010 speech Dr Jacky Davis, co-founder of Keep Our NHS Public, said: "Liberating the NHS really means unprecedented cuts, job losses, deniable of accountability and privatisation.

    "It means liberating the NHS budget to hand it over to the corporate sector; and among those companies waiting like vultures around a dying animal are the very same companies that spent a million dollars a day in the States lobbying against Obama’s healthcare reforms."

    The public need to be aware of this landmark shift and the way it affects them. So why has nothing about the TTIP appeared in the British press and why is the work of the European Parliament and Commission carried out in such a murky, underhand way?

    The public has the democratic right to contest the agreement, and fight for a health service that protects them. But how can they when MEPs do nothing to inform opinion or gather support back home? The NHS is in a very precarious position. It seems that soon, with the help of Brussels, its fate will be sealed.


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    Last Tango in Halifax is replete with the surreal poetry of life. Borgen, on the other hand, would be mercilessly mocked by the Twittering classes if it hadn't had the advantage of being made in Danish.

    Last Tango in Halifax; Borgen
    BBC 1; BBC 4

    It’s easy to sneer at Last TangoinHalifax (Tuesdays, 9pm), especially if you’ve never seen it. My dear T, for instance, caught sight of the cover of the Radio Times, on which one of its stars, Derek Jacobi, coud be seen posing with a rose between his teeth, and looked as if he was about to vomit. But the fact is: appearances deceive.

    Sally Wainwright’s drama about late-life love in the north of England – a huge hit for the BBC – is amazingly well-written and superbly acted, and reaches places and feelings ignored by quite a lot of television, which is mostly predictably metropolitan in its impulses. It’s also peculiarly gripping. Wainwright (Scott & Bailey, At Home With the Braithwaites) understands that everyday life is replete with surreal poetry, especially as told by those of a northern sensibility. Last Tango in Halifax is a soap opera as written by Alan Bennett: a confusion of sex and love affairs punctuated by tea and biscuits and the violent plumping of cushions.

    Alan (Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) are widowed septuagenarians who’ve fallen in love after getting in touch on Facebook (estranged for 60 years, they were once childhood sweethearts). In some ways, this is very simple: they want to marry before time runs out. In other ways, it’s complicated. Their love affair is the source of anxiety and some embarrassment for their grown-up daughters, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker). Caroline hates it when her mother talks about sex; Gillian worries that when her father moves in with Celia, she will no longer be able to manage her farm.

    Social class also plays a part, for this is a tale of Harrogate (posh) and Halifax (not so posh). In Harrogate, Caroline is the headmistress of a private school; her mother lives in the granny flat beside her elegant, detached Victorian house. In Halifax, life on the widowed Gillian’s farm is hardscrabble; rusty relics decorate the yard and she supplements her income with a job in a supermarket. The two women do not get on – a situation lately made even trickier following the revelation of Gillian’s drunken one-night stand with Caroline’s estranged husband John (Tony Gardner).

    Ah, yes. John: Wainwright’s most brilliant creation to date. What a creep! And how brilliantly played by Gardner, one of the great comic actors of our time. I could watch his floppy antics all day. Enraged (and perhaps slightly titillated) by his wife’s lesbianism – she is in love with a female colleague and has recently come out – he refuses to leave the marital home and now haunts it like a ghost, albeit it one who always has a mobile phone in his hand (to make surreptitious calls to the various women with whom he pretends to be in love). Self-pitying, spiteful, duplicitous, needy, lazy, opportunist and so wet even his own children require snorkels to breath in his presence, John is the pivot around which Last Tango’s elements of farce merrily spin.

    All this is wonderful. But what really makes Last Tango great is its attention to detail. The locations, and even the props, seem just right: you know people who live like this. On Gillian’s kitchen counter is an old, tin Tetley Bittermen tray that speaks volumes to me (doubtless her dead husband nicked it from the pub while in his cups).

    The dialogue, too, is like petit point: so minutely precise. People say “at finish” instead of “at the end”. Naughty magazines are “mucky”, badly-behaved people are “pillocks”. The word “allsorts” pops up all over the place, much more mischievous and heartfelt than the phrase “all kinds of things”. Its director, Euros Lyn, really knows what he is doing; the adult characters (I’m not talking about the ones in couples) kiss each other on the lips, something that’s commonplace in Yorkshire but which I’ve never seen in the south. It’s really terribly touching.

    Naturally, London media types – yes, yes, I know I’m one of them! –disdain this kind of drama, preferring instead the political soap Borgen, which has also returned for another series (Saturdays, 9pm). I’ve no idea why, because it seems to me to be little more than a dramatised press release. In Danish. With the odd lampshade you can covet and search for on eBay later. I don’t give a damn about Birgitte Nyborg’s dreary Moderates: aren’t they just an idealised version of the Liberal Democrats, only with better shoes?

    My strong feeling is that if Borgen was in English, the Twittering classes would hoot with laughter at its wooden dialogue, its circular, talky plotlines and its plodding zeal for compromise (its fans call this particular enthusiasm “nuanced”). Unfortunately, Birgitte’s smile and the fact that the series is subtitled has left them weirdly hard of hearing. It’s as if The Thick of It had never happened.


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    The 1% cap on public sector pay increases guarantees further real-terms cuts for workers.

    The defining question in British politics at the moment is if and when most families will start to feel the benefits of the economic recovery. At present, while output is rising at its fastest rate since the crisis, wage growth (just 0.7% in the most recent quarter) continues to lag behind inflation (2.2%). 

    In Labour's view, this is further evidence that the link between growth and earnings has been severed and will not be easily repaired. Ed Miliband’s team point to the pre-crash period, when incomes for millions of low-and middle-income earners stagnated even in times of strong output, as evidence that the market can no longer be relied upon to deliver for the majority. In an economy as unequal as Britain’s, any gains quickly flow to the top. If there is wage growth before the election, it will be of the unbalanced kind seen in April, when high earners collected their deferred bonuses in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate of tax (the one month since May 2010 in which real incomes rose).

    But the Treasury is confident that wages are merely a "lagging indicator" and that higher output will translate into higher salaries from next year. As George Osborne remarked after the publication of the most recent GDP figures, "If Britain is growing then the finances of Britain’s families will start to grow." The Treasury has released new research showing that overall worker compensation has kept pace with economic growth, although the gains have been distributed in the form of higher pension contributions and National Insurance Contributions, rather than higher wages. 

    While the debate over the nature of the squeeze (structural or cyclical?) continues, it's worth noting one group for whom there'll be no pre-election rise in living standards: public sector workers. In his most recent Budget, after freezing public sector salaries above £21,000 for the last two years, George Osborne extended the 1% cap on pay increases until 2015-16, entailing further real-terms cuts for workers. (In the most recent quarter, their pay fell in nominal terms by 0.4%.) 

    For Osborne, public sector pay restraint is an essential component of his deficit reduction programme (which, even after recent improvements, remains more than £40bn offtrack) but if the Tories want to expand their support, they would be wise to offer some relief. AsRenewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters, has noted, the majority of Tory target seats have a higher than average share of public sector workers, including 60% of Labour-held targets and half of the top 20 Lib Dem-held targets. While the Tories are likely to pledge to cut taxes for all workers, in the form of a £12,500 personal allowance, they should also consider easing the squeeze on the public sector.


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    Geldof tweeting the names of victims' relatives shows how hard it is to enforce reporting restrictions in the digital age.

    It was a confluence of all the worst things that could happen in a trial.

    First, it involved one of the most repulsive acts of child abuse one can recall: Ian Watkins, lead singer in the Lostprophets and two female fans who offered up their children to his depraved sexual desires.

    Watkins was pictured everywhere in reports of the trial, but his deeds were carefully edited because the details were simply too awful for any mainstream publication or broadcaster to divulge. Reporters livetweeting the trial fell silent, apologising that what they were hearing was just not fit for repetition.

    Watkins's co-defendants though, the women who had so betrayed their own children, remained unnamed to protect those children from future revelations about the depths to which their mothers had descended.

    There was a time when such anonymity would not have been necessary for babes in arms, who cannot know what is being written or broadcast about them. But now that archive searches have made what is written online carved in stone, courts take a belt and braces approach and effectively anonymise the guilty to protect the innocent.

    And that might just have worked in the short space of time between newspapers going online and the entire world joining them via Twitter and Facebook. But last week the "we know better" mob took to their social media accounts to make thoughts previously reserved for the dinner table and saloon bar very, very public. This reached a nadir when Peaches Geldof weighed in and named the two women, only removing them and issuing a grudging apology when it was pointed out to her she was committing a criminal offence in doing so.

    This was not before her sycophantic following had issued the usual "you go girl" encouragement which reinforces those doing something stupid on social media.

    South Wales Police had already taken to their Twitter account to issue warning and appeals in the wake of the trial to try to dissuade users from posting details that might lead to the identification of the children. South Wales police have 29,000 followers on Twitter, Peaches has 168,000. They are sadly outnumbered by a celebrity with more followers than some of the newspapers reporting the trial have readers.

    But before we castigate Peaches and others for flouting the law, they could perhaps be forgiven, in their ignorance of child and sex offence legislation, for believing they were permitted to publish these details.

    Why, when ignorance of the law is not an excuse? Well, because HM Courts Service had placed the name in the public domain on court lists automatically published online. This resulted in some "discussion" between the courts service and the Crown Prosecution Service on Friday. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that discussion.

    Did no one, anywhere, anticipate that this case was going to generate some heat on social media? A quick call to the news desks of any of the media covering it would have confirmed that it was going to do just that. Warnings of the restrictions in this case were too little, too late and that will make the job of shielding those children in the future all the more difficult.

    Step in the Solicitor General, Oliver Heald, who said last week that contempt law was "fit for the digital age". the equivalent of a police officer admonishing us for rubbernecking saying: "Nothing to see here, move along please."

    The Twitterhorde in this case had breached the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992. The clue to why I, respectfully, differ from the Solicitor General is there in the titles of the Acts - 1933, 1992. Contempt law was written in 1981.

    The courts have been left to shoehorn social media into existing legislation and it is not an easy fit. The courts tend to take the view that Twitter, Facebook and blogs are publication just like the dead-tree press. Anyone who has spent any time on here at all knows that is simply not the case. It is conversational and it is instantaneous. The only media it is equivalent to is the one we started with millennia ago – speech itself, and given the thumb-speed of some young users, it is even quicker than that.

    Do Twitter, Facebook and other platforms bear some responsibility in all this? I tend to think not, it is like blaming paper for what gets written upon it. The fact they have the power to remove what is written does not logically place upon them a duty to prevent it being posted in the first place. All over the world sensitive trials take place every day and if we go down the road of expecting internet platforms to police pre-publication we will break the internet.

    What is to be done then? Well, criminalising large numbers of people in order to encourage others to stay in line would be one option. But you cannot legislate away stupidity and the lessons learnt by prosecuting now, would not last long as new generations sign up for new versions of social media. You might get the message across to Twitter, but before long a new platform will come along with a new set of users just as blasé about the legal restrictions they might flout.

    Prosecutions get a lot of "I told you so" coverage in mainstream media – the very media that those flouting the law increasingly do not use.

    The Attorney General's Office, Crown Prosecution Service, the Courts Service and police need to plant themselves firmly on social media and use it for more than just promoting their press releases.

    Engage, watch how social media is reacting to a case and learn to predict when this might happen again.


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    On 5 December the House of Lords will debate proposals to modernise copyright law for the digital age. If carefully implemented, it will benefit researchers, institutions and creatives alike.

    The House of Lords will soon debate Government proposals to modernise copyright to make it fit for the 21st century economy. The debate will come hard on the heels of a recent court ruling in the US which showed how quickly the divide between the UK and other markets could grow if opportunities to respond to digital innovation are not taken.

    After nearly a decade of legal dispute, Judge Denny Chin ruled earlier this month that the Google Books project – which seeks to digitise, make searchable and viewable, small extracts of the world's printed heritage, including in-copyright material – is legal in the US. If upheld on appeal, this will be seen as a judgement of real significance. Our legal framework in the UK is very different, but in an increasingly connected global economy, we'd be wise to keep a close eye on what's happening in other major markets.

    Copyright law moderates our use of information and knowledge, protecting the rights of creators while enabling appropriate use by others. In the UK, the latest attempts to modernise copyright have their roots in the 2011 Hargreaves Review, commissioned by the Prime Minister. The report had UK competitiveness at its heart, indicating where we could do more to support growth and innovation through the use of intellectual property.

    Libraries play a unique role in the ecology of information and innovation. As a Legal Deposit library, the British Library has a double duty: to collect and preserve in perpetuity the work of creators and thinkers, and also to enable access to that intellectual heritage for researchers of all backgrounds who wish to study and make use of it. Librarians have an important role in copyright awareness, navigating this complex field of law for users of public libraries and the estimated 15 million people in education.

    The new proposals for UK research in the Hargreaves Review are now being taken forward by the Government, and those relating to libraries and archives are especially important. Copying for digital preservation would become lawful, including sound recordings and film for the first time. For an institution that has to look decades, even centuries, into the future, this is vital.

    Researchers would gain greater access to in-copyright sound and audiovisual material with the ability to copy sections of works for private, non-commercial purposes. It would also be possible to digitise in-copyright collections for visitors to use on library premises. And all of this could be done without the risk of being overridden with contracts.

    Of course, these measures will be carefully and sensitively implemented. My own background is in media and broadcasting, and I believe the creative industries – authors, designers, filmmakers – are one of the UK’s greatest assets and success stories. Indeed, the British Library’s Reading Rooms are used on a daily basis by many from these sectors. The new copyright exceptions are not and cannot be about undermining the legitimate interests of creators. Rather, the goal is to foster an environment where knowledge can be accessed and used in ways that benefit researchers, creators, and the increasing number among us who are both.

    Judge Chin argued that increasing access via Google Books is justifiable because of its potential to support the arts and sciences, to increase access to books and make them even more discoverable by readers, to support new kinds of research, and to stimulate new markets and sales.

    The proposed UK changes are far more modest, and are in many ways introducing digital copyright norms that other countries adopted years ago. Without doubt, however, they would enable greater, proportionate access to knowledge than is currently possible. Lawfully building on the knowledge and creativity of others drives innovation and discovery. That should be seen as a good thing for UK culture, creativity, industry and the economy as a whole.

    Roly Keating is Chief Executive of the British Library


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    The decision to base the bank in the Deputy PM's home city is the latest instance of government policy favouring the Lib Dems.

    To the joy of the Lib Dems, the coalition's British Business Bank, which has just been awarded an extra £250m, is to be permanently headquartered in Sheffield, the home of one Nick Clegg. The official line from BIS (run by Vince Cable) is that the city was chosen as the department has an unused building left over from the Capital for Enterprise programme, although it would be surprising if Clegg's political woes were not a consideration. 

    It's not the first time that the Lib Dems have been accused of pork barrel politics (an invaluable US term to describe the use of government money for the benefit of ministers' constituents). Of the 10 areas that Danny Alexander last month announced would benefit from rural fuel duty relief, eight are Lib Dem-held. Alexander's Inverness constituents have also benefited from tax breaks for ski lifts, funding for a tourist railway and the rescue of the London-Scotland sleeper train. 

    But after the government memorably chose to make the removal of an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters one of its first cuts, perhaps Clegg was owed some compensation. Either way, expect much more of this sort of thing as we get closer to May 2015. 


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    Four months after Lord Howell told parliament the “desolate” north-east was perfect fracking country, South Shields is showing more vibrancy, determination – and Toryphobia – than ever before.

    The striking miner William Jobling was one of the last men in Britain to be gibbeted publicly, a defilement of the dead that served as a gruesome warning to the living. He’d been drinking in an ale house in South Shields with Ralph Armstrong, another pitman who’d downed pickaxes. On the trudge home to Jarrow, Jobling stopped a local magistrate riding by named Nicholas Fairles and begged a few pennies. Fairles refused and Armstrong, who’d been walking some way behind, attacked the local worthy. The luckless Jobling didn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of a fair trial.

    It was 1832 and the ruling order didn’t take kindly to the miners of Durham and Northumberland flexing their muscles in the recently formed Northern Union of Pitmen, led by Thomas Hepburn. The inspirational Hepburn was sent down the pit from the age of eight, yet learned to read and write and was a respected Wesleyan lay preacher. Jobling and Armstrong were among thousands of colliers who refused to sign a bond committing them to slave another year in deadly conditions for a pittance – earnings that often had to be spent in the pit owners’ expensive “Tommy shops”.

    Armstrong, an ex-sailor turned miner, then killer – after Fairles died of his injuries – is believed to have fled back to sea. Jobling was arrested on Shields beach a couple of hours after the assault and dragged to the home of the fatally wounded magistrate, where it was established he was present but hadn’t struck a single blow. But the judiciary was a bulwark of the establishment and looked after its own better than any trade union – an injury to one was an injury to all on the bench. Jobling was hanged and his body covered with pitch, riveted into a cage and left swinging from gallows on Jarrow Slake close to the cottage of his wife, Isabella, for 25 days, until a bribed guard looked the other way and the family reclaimed it.

    I took my youngest son to see the sandstone plaque commemorating a miner celebrated as a martyr in north-east England. The modest plinth is on the site of the former Gaslight public house and, according to local folklore, near to where his remains were buried in an unmarked grave.

    “Knowing the past,” I told my lad, “helps us understand the present and create the future.” He nodded. Like any kid his age, he preferred to be on the rides in the seafront fairground to standing on the banks of the Tyne listening to another homily.

    South Shields is my home town, South Tyneside my patch. Coal and shipbuilding were the motors of the economy when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m hewn from a mining family, though I ply the cushier trade of journalism. My mam’s dad, my maternal grandfather, went down St Hilda’s and Boldon collieries before going to sea. Both pits are now gone; closed too is Harton, where my dad’s father was a miner after moving to the north-east from Cork. He subsequently laboured on building sites. Dad recalls their eviction in the 1930s, the family’s worldly possessions piled on a horse and cart when a downturn in construction left them penniless. Nostalgia in workingclass homes is punctuated by memories of the bad old days.

    Dad’s working life was the reverse of his father’s. A brickie, he travelled across the top end of England and North Wales for work, often cycling hundreds of miles. He laid a fair few bricks in the early days of the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria. The birth of my eldest sister (I’m the third of six) created a demand for regular wages nearer home, so he went underground.

    Westoe was a coastal pit, the huge concrete block housing winding gear an industrial watchtower dominating the skyline when we played on the sandy beaches. Five times a week for 25 years, my dad would walk into a cage to be dropped into the earth to cut coal three or four miles out under the North Sea. The mine was a super-pit, “million-tonners” they were called, the prodigious output supposedly guaranteeing work to the end of time.

    Before my dad quit in the early 1980s, one of my two brothers followed him down 1993 pit closure programme of the Major government, putting 1,000 men on the dole. Houses were built on the site but the jobs were never replaced. The same is true of shipbuilding jobs, which sank in their tens of thousands. The world-famous yards of my youth – Redhead’s, Brigham’s, Middle Dock – no longer build magnificent vessels to sail the seas. Nor do Palmer’s in Jarrow or, shut more recently, Swan Hunter in Wallsend.

    The sense of resentment is palpable in Shields when George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith smear the unemployed as skivers. The Conservatives dumped many a striver on to the dole then and now – with David Cameron’s austerity strangling the work out of a local economy where one in every three people is employed in health, education and public administration.

    Unemployment is persistently above the average and wages continually below, gross full-time pay averaging £425.50 a week against £507.60 nationally, according to the Office for National Statistics. Fighting for new jobs was the main promise of the Labour MP for South Shields, Emma Lewell-Buck, who succeeded David Miliband earlier this year when he retired to New York, but she is under no illusions – an event she organised for job hunters and employers only reinforced the scale of the mountain to climb.

    “When I got elected, I said that one of my pledges to the people of South Shields would be to do everything I could to bring jobs and employment to the town,” said Lewell-Buck, a former social worker. “I appreciate that one jobs fair isn’t going to solve all of our problems when we’ve got over 3,500 people unemployed, and 1,000 of them 16-to-24-year-olds. But I’m hoping that this will make some kind of dent in these figures.”

    The draining away of jobs, income, selfworth and respect is the most significant change I’ve witnessed in close on half a century. In the 1960s there was not a single house on our street, Rodin Avenue in Whiteleas, a large council estate on the edge of town, without an adult in work. If you did finish on a Friday, you started a new job on a Monday. My mother, an early transfer from manufacturing to the service sector – she took a bingo hall cleaning job when Wright’s Biscuits baked its last fig roll in 1973 – is able to list families house by house through their work: shipyards, miner, council, shipyards, Plessey’s electronics, miner ... 

    The employment conveyor belt started to malfunction in the early 1970s when unemployment topped a million for the first time since the war under Ted Heath. It worsened horribly under Thatcher, when the Jarrow March felt like yesterday. Dole queues shortened during the Labour era, but you don’t need to listen long before you hear complaints that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown valued Middle Englanders above traditional Labour voters, who felt taken for granted – and, disgracefully, to a large extent were by New Labour.

    On a trip home in October I rediscovered my old school reports (“I do think that a slightly more serious approach would be helpful”) in a box under the stairs of my parents’ house. The grammar I initially attended was transformed into a comprehensive after two years, Thatcher approving the plan when education secretary. Today it thrives as Harton Technology College with an “outstanding” tick from Ofsted. The executive head, Sir Ken Gibson, ribbed mercilessly by colleagues after he was pictured in Hello as Prince William’s first knighting, is justifiably proud. An inclusive school with an above average proportion of pupils on free school meals, it beats the national average for five good GCSEs including English and maths.

    Gibson is one of life’s optimists, despite witnessing third-generation unemployment in some homes. He’s opened a new sixth form, funded by Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme before it was abandoned by Michael Gove. Yet the spectre of youth unemployment hangs over the town, sapping young hope. “That makes it even more important for schools to do the best possible job they can to prepare the children for university, training or employment,” Gibson told me.

    Defiant optimism is a trademark of a town with the motto “Always Ready”. Ray Spencer, executive director of the Customs House arts centre, busy battling lost grants, is a glass-half-full man – though he’s retired his alter ego, the festival and panto favourite Tommy the Trumpeter. “It’s not all doom and gloom and there’s no point whinging about what happened,” he insists, pointing out that the flattened Middle Docks, where his dad worked for 42 years, is now his centre’s car park: “There is a real vibrancy in South Shields. People aren’t beaten down. We make the best of what is thrown at us and forge our own opportunities.”

    The Nissan car plant in nearby Sunderland is thriving and the Tyne is livelier than it was, with oil and gas exploration providing work on the river. Specialist engineering companies survived a deindustrialisation tsunami that claimed the larger employers.

    Shields is a lovely place to live, despite the shortage of jobs; sandy beaches and miles of National Trust cliff-top grassland, known as the Leas, are glories promoted by the council since they ceased calling the area “Catherine Cookson Country”.

    Lord (David) Howell, Thatcher’s former energy secretary and George Osborne’s zillionaire father-in-law, alas has yet to accept my public offer to introduce him to the joys of a “desolate” north-east (“There are,” he mooted back in July, “large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part of the north-east where there’s plenty of room for fracking ... ”). Where did the lofty Tory have in mind: Hadrian’s Wall? Beneath the Angel of the North? The precincts of Durham Cathedral? Holy Island? Northumberland National Park? Howell’s subsequent apology, admitting he meant the north-west (the Lake District?) cost the Tories even more votes.

    I’d happily buy the Tory peer an ice cream in Minchella’s parlour and a ride on the steam train in the South Marine Park or a walk in the Roman fort, before explaining that these kinds of prejudices – the same contempt that pith-helmeted colonialists showed natives of the British empire – are some of the reasons his son-in-law and Cameron are reviled.

    Howell’s crassness reinforced Tory phobia. South Shields remains the only parliamentary constituency since the Great Reform Act of 1832 (the year of Jobling’s gibbeting) never to have elected a Conservative MP. Of 29 Westminster seats in the north-east, the Tories hold two. Howell’s remarks help explain why.

    Janis Blower has chronicled life in the town for 42 years as a journalist on the Shields Gazette, Britain’s oldest provincial evening newspaper. Folk are almost immune to the ignorance of the likes of the Lord Howell. “He provoked more mockery than anger,” laughs Blower, “We’ve heard it all before from his type.” She’s another optimist, positive about South Tyneside Council’s £100m plan to redevelop the main shopping drag down King Street, which has struggled since House of Fraser shut the Binns department store nearly 20 years ago. Yet talk to Blower and the conversation inevitably turns as it always does to worries about jobs and pay.

    “There are new jobs,” she observes. “Not enough of them, true, but there are jobs. The difficulty is they’re too often low paid and on zero-hours contracts. It isn’t easy to bring up a family when you’ve no idea if any money will be coming in.”

    Ukip and the EDL are exploiting economic worries by scapegoating migrants, stirring up tensions in a town with a history of good community relations. The Yemeni community dates back to the start of the 20th century when Shields was a massive merchant port, Arabs recruited to stoke ship’s boilers staying in the town. I was a schoolboy in 1977 and the major event wasn’t the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. And not just because I was a republican from an early age. The undisputed highlight was the visit of Muhammad Ali and his new wife to have their wedding blessed by the imam of Laygate mosque. The most famous Muslim in the world in Shields was as bright a symbol of community harmony as the curry houses lining Ocean Road. Horror at EDL knuckleheads marching a few months ago was tempered by the hostile reaction of the decent majority to the hate-filled yobbery.

    I’ve no doubt Cameron and his brigade of toffs are as out of touch with life in, say, a city such as Portsmouth losing shipyard jobs as they are with South Shields. Economic class is a better guide to inequality and lack of interest than any north-south divide. Austerity is the enemy whether you live in northeast England or on the south coast. Or for that matter Yorkshire, Merseyside, Birmingham, Dartford, Trowbridge, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. But I can feel the gap widening between the north and a Torydominated government as it always does, economic and political divides reinforced by geographical remoteness from Blue Britain. The country is redividing into two nations.

    I, too, remain optimistic for my hometown yet it feels as if good people are constantly swimming against dangerous currents, determination and initiative undermined by malign economic forces and a regime in London that doesn’t care. They may no longer gibbet people but in the 21st century unemployment and low pay are cruel life sentences.


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    Why business should be making the case for immigration

    David Cameron’s recent announcement that the coalition will introduce a series of tough benefit restrictions to deter Romanians and Bulgarians from coming to the UK in January will come as little surprise to most of the population and indeed may be welcomed by many. However what is becoming surprising is the one sided nature of the conversation on immigration. At a series of fringe event’s in partnership with the ACCA at this year’s political party conferences all parties conceded the necessity of immigration to support economic growth; to succeed in what David Cameron has called ‘the global race’. 

    The irony of the debate on immigration is that the statistics illustrate a different argument from the one being portrayed in the media. At the Conservative conference Jonathan Porters, director of the National Institute for Economic and social research drew reference to the recent Fiscal Sustainability report, published by the Office for Budget Responsibility which considered the impact of reducing migration to the tens of thousands. The report found that “in 50 years from now there would either be hundreds of billions of pounds more in the national debt or we would pay about two or one per cent more in taxes”. The economic case for immigration is often ignored by politicians in favour of populist anti immigration stance; as John Longworth, Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce noted immigration is essential “we need to be able to fill the gaps in the UK economy. This is not to say that business shouldn’t be actively engaged in training UK citizens but, with the best will in the world, it’s impossible to do that in a very short space of time. So, we’re in a position where by necessity we need to be able to import those skills. Preventing that from happening actually impedes the economy overall and makes us all poorer”.

    In contrast with most other European countries, the UK attracts highly educated and skilled immigrants. In 2011, 32 per cent of recent EEA immigrants and 38 per cent of non-EEA immigrants had university degrees, compared with 21 per cent of the British adult population. But it isn’t just hard skills that Britain benefits from. As ACCA research has shown, business and finance leaders increasingly require international experience in order for them to perform effectively within a competitive market place. If businesses are to counter the negative press coverage they need to do more to demonstrate they are working hard to create opportunities for UK nationals.  “We need to massively commit to up-skilling our own population, which has been marginalised because of a lack of skills and training. A lot of industries already do a huge amount but until businesses begin to pull in the same direction, I don’t think we’ll fully get that resentment out of the press,” as suggested by Dr. Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the British Chamber of Commerce. 

    David Cameron’s recent announcement perpetuates the myth that immigrants come to the UK as ‘benefit tourists’. This myth seems particularly misplaced given that the European Commission argued in a recent report that EU member states, including the UK, have been unable to provide evidence of mobile EU citizens representing an excessive burden on social security systems in the host Member States. On the contrary, they in fact make a positive fiscal contribution, especially in the UK where, according to a UCL study, recent EEA immigrants have on average contributed 34 per cent more in taxes than they have received as transfers. Recent immigrants from countries outside the EEA have contributed 2 per cent more in taxes than they have received as transfers. Also in a recent study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration they found that recent immigrants (those who arrived after 1999 and who constituted 33 per cent of the overall immigrant population in the UK in 2011) were 45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives over the period 2000-11. They were also 3 per cent less likely to live in social housing. Furthermore the Centre of European Reform found that just 1.7 per cent of EU-8 are on Jobseeker’s Allowance. A far smaller proportion of EU-8 immigrants receive disability, pension, and child benefits than British people.  Very few European migrants live in social housing, and only 5 per cent receive housing benefit.

    Immigration is becoming a policy area fuelled by sensation and not facts. If the public is to be convinced that immigration has positive consequences we must have more evidence based education and those who have benefited must do more to disseminate the message.  

    The New Statesman in partnership with the ACCA will be producing a report on whether a cap on immigration is a cap on growth, it will be available from the 12th December both online and in the magazine.

     


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    While the SNP obsesses over independence, voters are more concerned with an unemployed population the size of Dundee.

    The 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England was described by Daniel Defoe as one "of policy" and "less [a] union of affection". The author of Robinson Crusoe was arguing that the economic benefits for both countries were what sustained the Union. Last week, Alex Salmond was inadvertently trying to reverse this settlement. But if he proved anything, it was not that there is a policy-based case for independence, rather that he deems such issues to be esoteric.

    One of the big economic arguments unveiled last Tuesday to entice Scots to vote for separation was to acquire "economic levers" such as corporation tax, which they would subsequently reduce by 3% in order to undercut the UK rate. This 3% cut, the SNP claims, would increase productivity by over 1% and create 27,000 jobs after 20 years. So vote Yes in 2014 and then wait 20 years.

    Even if you ignore the moral arguments about a race to the bottom in corporation tax, or that Joseph Stieglitz, one of the Scottish government's own economic advisors opposes the idea, or the fact that this modelling was based on a 3% reduction when the UK rate at the time was 26%, or the fact that the British government now plans to cut the main rate of corporation tax to 20% by 2015, the idea that 27,000 jobs after 20 years, around the same amount of time it took to build the Taj Mahal, is some sort of economic lever worth ending a 300-year-old Union for is clearly absurd.

    This is best highlighted when you consider the economic problems facing Scots. For example, in the past fortnight we’ve seen that unemployment in Scotland stands at around 199,000, which is greater than the population of Dundee, Scotland’s fourth largest city. The dole queue in Scotland is so long that if it was assembled in one straight line it could stretch from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The suggestion that voting for independence in 2014, so that by 2034 this figure would still continue to be larger than the population of Dundee is simply laughable.

    It is not surprising to discover that unemployment, not independence, is the top concern among Scots in numerous polls. In Scotland, as in most parts of the UK, constitutional issues like referendums, rank low among most voters’ concerns. Well-respected pollsters like Peter Kelner have observed that separatism is a "minority passion north of the border".

    Only at the start of the year, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found support for independence at its lowest since devolution – it’s barely changed since. In fact, support for independence is so low that when separatist campaigners get even within 10 points of the opposite camp, not only do the SNP see this as a "boost" but they also send out a press release. I honestly can’t imagine any other mainstream party highlighting the fact they are so far behind their rival in a political race.

    Nevertheless, when one considers that Scottish public’s opinion on separation has barely moved any further in the last 12 months than it has in the previous 168, it becomes clear that the divide between the people and the political class in Scotland could not be any further apart. All the referendum is doing is providing a Scotch Mist that conceals the real issues afflicting Scots.

    20 years from now, if the referendum outcome is as all the polls suggest, Scots will not look back and count the 27,000 jobs announced last week. They will instead wonder why, when their country’s politicians were confronted by a city’s worth of unemployed Scots, they chose to ignore the public’s main policy concern and focus on their antipathy towards the Union.

    James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign


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    Sheep Marketplace closed down over the weekend after someone got away with 96,000 bitcoins - and angry users are chasing him around the internet.

    One of the largest heists in bitcoin history is happening right now. 96,000 bitcoins - that’s roughly £60m as of the time of writing - was taken from the accounts of customers, vendors and administrators of the Sheep Marketplace over the weekend.

    Sheep was one of the main sites that came to replace the Silk Road when it closed in October, but it too has now closed as a result of this theft. It’s a little hard to work out exactly what’s happened, but Sheep customers have been piecing it together on reddit’s r/sheepmarketplace.

    Here's what happened: someone (or some group) managed to fake the balances in peoples’ accounts on the site, showing that they had their bitcoins in their wallets when they’d actually been transferred out. Over the course of a week the whole site was drained, until the weekend when the site's administrators realised what was happening and shut everything down.

    Originally it was thought that only 5,200BTC - or £3m - was taken, with a message posted on Sheep's homepage blaming a vendor called "EBOOK101" for finding and exploiting a bug. However, over the weekend it became clear that the amount stolen was much, much larger.

    In a normal robbery that money would be gone by now, but it isn't. Bitcoin is pseudonymous, not anonymous, and bitcoins can’t just disappear. It works because each and every transaction is public and visible to each and every other person using the Bitcoin network, and a person is only as anonymous as their link to their wallet.

    A couple of reddit users realised that the sheer size of the heist makes “tumbling” the coins - the normal method of laundering bitcoins - impossible, as long as they kept on their toes. Someone with bitcoin can send some to a tumbler like bitcoinfog, where it will be split into smaller subdivisions and mixed with other bitcoins from other places, recombining and splitting again several times over until the whole amount eventually comes out the other end, theoretically in such a way that it’s impossible to track. Silk Road’s in-built tumbler successfully foiled the FBI, allegedly.

    However, reddit user TheNodManOut managed to track where the first bunch of transfers out of Sheep went, and from there and silkroadreloaded2 worked out which tumbler that the thief was using. Here’s how silkroadreloaded2 describes what’s happened since (“Tomas” is the alleged owner of Sheep, and one of the suspects for many users):

    All day, we've been chasing the scoundrel with our stolen bitcoins through the blockchain. Around lunchtime (UK), I was chasing him across the roof of a moving train, (metaphorically). I was less than 20 minutes, or 2 blockchain confirmations, behind "Tomas".

    He was desperately creating new wallet addresses and moving his 49 retirement wallets through them, but having to wait for 3 or 4 confirmations each time before moving them again. Each time I caught up, I "666"ed him - sent 0.00666 bitcoins to mess up his lovely round numbers like 4,000. Then,all of a sudden, decimal places started appearing, and fractions of bitcoins were jumping from wallet to wallet like grasshoppers on a hotplate without stopping for confirmations.

    Shit!

    He was tumbling our stolen bitcoins a second time, and a tumbler is unbeatable....

    Unless you guess which one it is, nearly all the coins belong to the person you're tracking, jump in with him, and get jumbled up through the same wallets using the same algorithm. I was hopping from foot to foot shouting "come on!" at my laptop, waiting an age for 6 blockchain confirmations to get 0.5 btc into "bitcoin fog". My half a bitcoin got sliced and diced through loads of wallets and I followed the biggest chunk with blockchain.info - along with 96,000 stolen ones!

    Or, in other words:

    He gathered 96,000 in one pot, then split it into about 50 smaller ones. then he saw me 666ing them all. Imagine a sports stadium with 96,000 people in it, each with $1000.

    He sent them all via different routes all over the world, but the same 96,000 people then arrived at a different stadium and he went to bed.

    Now there are 96,001, and I just phoned you on my mobile to tell you where the stadium is.

    A major problem with tumblers is that they only work with lots of bitcoins coming and going from a lot of different sources - if a tumbler is taking in 96,000 bitcoins, those will massively outnumber all other bitcoins being tumbled and it’ll be easy to spot them coming out the other end. Mix in a little of your own with all those other ones and you'll find out the wallet addresses that the tumbler uses, and it should be easy to spot large transactions splitting off from there.

    The fascinating consequence of this is that you can see the stolen bitcoins on the public blockchain, and as long as there are people keeping tabs on it there’s going to be no way for the thief to cash in on their haul. Considering how people rely on tumblers to maintain anonymity when buying illegal stuff online, this unusual loophole is something of a revelation.

    Right now, as you’re reading this, you can watch as the the thief starts trying to move their bitcoins on again - it’s currently down to 92,000 bitcoins and dropping as smaller chunks begin going out. Selling those bitcoins and turning them into cash is going to be extremely difficult, as the major Bitcoin exchanges all demand proof of identity (specifically to avoid charges that they're involved in money laundering), and if they're broken down into smaller quantities to sell via a site like localbitcoins.com a paper trail will still be generated. As soon as it's possible to link one real-life bank account or identity to any bitcoins from that stash, it will be possible to work out their real-life identity.

    This counts as one of the largest robberies in history at Bitcoin's current market value, ranking in the same company as real-life thefts like the $108m diamond theft at the Harry Winston store in Paris in 2008. 96,000 bitcoins also places the thief as one of the wealthiest Bitcoin millionaires on the current rich list (but bear in mind that few serious Bitcoin players keep their currency in just one wallet) - and all without having to go to the trouble of wearing balaclavas or threatening someone with a gun.

    Let's watch and see what happens next.


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    We do not understand Walter Benjamin or Virginia Woolf's work by fixating on their deaths - so why should Levi be any different?

    This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com

    Primo Levi kills himself again and again. It’s been twenty-six years since he flung himself from the fourth floor of his apartment building, and for many people the circumstances of his death still take precedence over the deathlessness of his work. Levi left no suicide note, but for a writer of such dignified restraint, for a witness who withheld much of what he saw and felt, that isn’t surprising. He didn’t choose the surer and less violent means of poison, and although that might seem suspicious for a chemist sickened by violence, his suicide bears every mark of desperate impulsivity. Poison required a planning Levi simply could not muster, while falling over a fourth-floor railing took only a second’s small effort. That Levi was born and brought up in the very building in Turin which served as his means of destruction is a too-neat poeticism that probably would have disgusted him—he who eschewed ostentation and the gloat of the damned—which is another reason not to doubt his suicide but to see it as an immediate and irrepressible urge against another day’s pain.

    In his new book Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, philosopher and Shoah scholar Berel Lang reminds us that Levi’s health had been in shambles for years, owing mostly to a prostate condition, the surgery for which left him uncomfortable and incontinent. The fanged melancholy that had infected him since youth had returned and offered no promise of abatement. Although Levi either downplayed or denied its lingering severity, his eleven-month hell in Auschwitz forty-three years earlier had knifed out a crucial element of his spirit. Like many of the repatriated—and despite marriage, fatherhood and a laudable career as a chemist and, later, as an author—Levi had a difficult time fully trusting the chrysalis of civilization after Auschwitz. He was a man of unflinching probity who never succumbed to the cutthroat Hobbesian conception of human striving, or to that toxic strain of bitterness which contaminated and ultimately ended the writer Jean Améry (also a Shoah survivor and suicide). But there is sometimes in Levi’s work the itchy suspicion that the hell could happen again, or that it never really ended.

    Beneath that unperturbed and almost placid prose creeps a fatalism, a capitulation before the vastitude and depravity of what he named “the demolition of man.” The stupefied silence before this vastitude and depravity is part of why his work remains ever pregnant and never born, because “our language lacks words to express this offense.” Lang is particularly adept at addressing our kneejerk linguistic and conceptual reactions to Auschwitz: “ineffable,” “unimaginable,” “incomprehensible,” etc. The subject resists irony and apothegm alike. As a scientist, Levi didn’t surrender to the convenient belief that some human agency is beyond explication, even though he himself could offer no answer to such demonical madness. The mind doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Shoah, and the heart never even tried to understand.

    Eight days before committing suicide in 1950, Levi’s near-contemporary Cesare Pavese wrote a final diary entry: “Not words. An act.” Upon Levi’s suicide, Elie Wiesel famously said that we could engrave Levi’s name among the six million incinerated by the Third Reich. In her essay “Primo Levi’s Suicide Note,” Cynthia Ozick suggests: “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” (She refers to The Drowned and the Saved; “Lager” was Levi’s term for the death camps.) For Levi, as for Pavese, an act only now. His books, erroneously accused of being too sunny or too neutral, too suffused with scientific integrity, shame the barbarous Catholic notion that suffering leads to deliverance and is of itself holy. Suffering isn’t holy. To steal from Randall Jarrell’s formulation, we can’t call pain by another name in hope of diminishing its sting. Pain is pain: worthless, wasteful, replete with barren wrath.

    We do not behold the lives and work of Walter Benjamin or Virginia Woolf through the cracked prisms of their self-destruction, but Primo Levi is a special case. Lang speaks of the emotional investment we had in Levi, the optimist and survivor: he who emerged whole from the perdition of Hitlerism, who through the most arbitrary luck and against every odd endured to document the flames, the social contagion and moral catastrophe he quit trying to comprehend. His survival and testimony was one of the bantam victories against the Final Solution. His suicide, then, meant for some one more body added to the hideous count, meant a nullifying of that victory. But part of the skill of Lang’s approach is his even-keeled testing of the unknowables: given Levi’s saturnine disposition and family history of depression and suicide—his paternal grandfather leapt to his death from a window—there’s no way to be certain of Wiesel’s claim that Auschwitz succeeded in killing Levi.

    Lang’s measured stance might have a ready-made snicker waiting in reply—how could an outlier such as Auschwitz not have contributed to his despair, his demise?—but it’s a necessary reminder of Levi’s tremendous complexity as a man and the impossibility of ever fully knowing him. Lang’s study is an invaluable addition to the expanding array of scholarship on this potent writer. He combines an exact psycho-emotional analysis of Levi with the tempestuous social context in which his psyche developed, warped, and eventually self-destructed. If the book is too brief on insights into Levi’s actual work, it does not purport to be literary critique; rather, Lang has written a wise and deeply-felt examination of the personal and philosophical conditions that made Primo Levi’s work possible.

    In November of 1961, Italo Calvino wrote to Levi in praise of some science fiction stories Levi had sent him. Near the end of the letter Calvino added this caveat: “Of course you still do not possess the sureness of touch of a writer whose stylistic personality is already formed.” He then went on to hail Borges for being unmistakably himself even though Calvino must have known or suspected that Levi—master of muted clarity, of subdued assertion—was turned off by the inverted, batty world of Borges. Calvino was four years younger than his Italian contemporary and hadn’t experienced even a minium of the hell Levi had endured in his racked life, so the condescending tenor of that line, from friend to friend, is a bit hard to take. Still, Calvino accidentally underscored an important point about the work of Primo Levi: the fiction sputters and stalls next to the memoirs, his masterpieces If This Is A Man (published in America with the more market-friendly title Survival in Auschwitz)The Truce (in America called The Reawakening), Moments of ReprieveThe Periodic Table, and The Drowned and the Saved. His novels The Monkey’s Wrench and the terribly titled If Not Now, When? grope not necessarily after “stylistic personality” but after the proper architecture and employment of narrative invention.

    Why would the novel present a challenge to Levi’s talents when his memoirs everywhere demonstrate such excellence of expression and form, such distinction of sensibility and pitch? Levi himself once suggested that the composition of a memoir was simpler than a novel because a memoir’s framework was already erected: all one had to do was remember. That isn’t exactly an intentional misrepresentation of memoir writing—Levi’s powers of recall were outright preternatural—but of course he knew that a successful memoir requires more than mere remembering, especially since he admitted to massaging certain memories in order to achieve a harmony of form (in an interview with Philip Roth, Levi calls it the “filtered truth”).

    In his 1985 essay “Writing and the Holocaust,” Irving Howe contends that “Holocaust writings make their primary claim … through facts recorded or remembered.” He speaks to the “helplessness of the imagination before an evil that cannot quite be understood.” In other words: the sinister facts of the Lager render impotent the imaginative powers of every novelist. This is why the great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld concerns himself with only the before and after, never the during: not only because he never witnessed the gas and ovens—he escaped from a death camp in Transnistria at ten years old—but because even if he had witnessed them, they are beyond the reach and renderings of imagination. Or, to borrow from Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, both of which reside always in imagination before they manifest in act.

    Levi took an identical tack in his two novels, skirting the Lager altogether: The Monkey’s Wrench is a crawling, digressive tome about the art of storytelling and the love of work, and If Not Now, When? is an almost-adventure story about a renegade outfit of liberated Jews harassing Nazi designs at the close of the war. The novels don’t triumph as the memoirs do because Levi’s imagination either atrophies or explodes when confronted with the task of narrative invention. It’s as if the abattoir of Auschwitz—its insistent facts felt in limbs and blood, its dearth of digestible meaning—had crippled his capacity to provide the storytelling apparatus that facilitates character, plot, and the convincing cohesion every novel strives to achieve. This might also be responsible in part for Levi’s inability to appreciate Borges and Kafka: the roiling fancy of their imaginations could never match the gaunt faces he remembered.

    Any writer is irked by being cubicled as a one-trick magician, and for Levi, the tags “Holocaust writer” and “Jewish writer” were regrettable, although he grew to accept, even embrace, the latter. His detainment by Italian fascists and then by Nazis in Auschwitz altered how he perceived his Jewishness: it shifted, Lang writes, “from something presumptive, on the edge of consciousness and will, to a place close to the center of his self-identity.” If Ozick is correct in seeing Levi’s last book, The Drown and the Saved, as “the bitterest of suicide notes,” one brimming with a finally-vented fury, then neither the suicide nor the fury that caused it succeeds in depleting Levi’s identity and the work to which it gave life. “The injury cannot be healed,” he wrote in his final book, and he will not accept the blame for that. He is not our feel-good Lager survivor for many reasons but mainly because his work does not nod toward personal or communal redemption, toward martyrdom or the supposition that all bones are stronger at their broken places. In a 1948 essay called “Terror Beyond Evil,” Isaac Rosenthal wrote of the Lager: “By now we know all there is to know. But it hasn’t helped; we still don’t understand … besides, who wants to understand?” Rosenthal was right and wrong: right that we must never be willing to understand, wrong that in 1948 we knew all there was to know. It would take Primo Levi to help complete our knowledge of the limits of human understanding.

    This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com


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    New data shows how the tax credit and benefit system has played a vital role in preventing the living standards of middle income households from falling even further.

    The main finding from today's Office for National Statistics data is that the income of the median working age household fell by 6.4 per cent between 2007/08 and 2011/12. This staggering fact hasn't made the headlines today, illustrating that the squeeze on living standards is no longer 'news'. The political challenge is to stop it becoming an accepted, inevitable fact of our national life. History tells us that living standards fall during recessions then pick up when recovery returns. But the past is nov  guarantee of the future.

    The data published today breaks down trends in the components of household income and one of the most striking results is the significance of tax credits and benefits for middle income households over recent years:

    ·  Between 2007/08 and 2011/12, income from tax credits among the middle fifth of non-retired households rose from £280 in 2007/08 to £610 in 2011/12 due to an increase in both the percentage of such households in receipt of tax credits (from 6.3 per cent to 12.1 per cent) and in the average amount of tax credits received. As income for households in the middle of the distribution declined, most often due to lower wages or fewer hours worked, tax credits made up (some of) the difference.

    ·  Between 2007/08 and 2011/12, the average amount of housing benefit received by households in the middle fifth of non-retired households increased from £240 to £550 a year. The percentage of households in this group receiving housing benefit increased from 5.2 per cent to 9.2 per cent over the period, demonstrating that the rise in HB expenditure has in part been about cushioning income drops for households in the middle (a large proportion of whom will have been private renters).

    · Overall, the proportion of gross income going to the middle fifth of non-retired households in the form of cash benefits grew from 7.6 per cent to 12.3 per cent between 2007/08 and 2011/12. This has resulted from drops in employment income (and investment income for a minority) combined with rises in 'welfare' income. Such households in the middle of the distribution will almost certainly have at least one person in work.

    The chart below shows that 'cash benefits' always play a larger role in household income for those in the middle of the distribution after a recession; though it is clear that that trend is even more pronounced this time round.

    Cash benefits as a percentage of gross income for the middle quintile of non-retired households

    Two important insights follow from these figures.

    First, the benefits bill has continued to rise despite dramatic cuts in welfare spending because of the sheer scale of the decline in household income. Aggregate employment levels have held up better than expected, but rises in social security and tax credit expenditure won't stop until household income across the bottom and middle of the distribution begins to grow. That means more second earners, more people working full-time and - crucially - more workers getting a real-terms pay rise.

    Second, 'welfare' is not just something for the poor. The tax credit and benefit system has played a vital role in preventing the living standards of middle income households from falling even further than they actually have in recent years (as well as propping up demand in the economy). Contrary to its political caricature, the welfare state retains the potential to be a majoritarian institution, not simply one for the underclass.

    However, proponents of this view must confront how little purchase this argument currently has in popular debate and how strategically vulnerable the welfare state is - despite today's data on just how crucial it has been for the real 'middle England'. That demands plans for reforming welfare - to spend money better and reduce the 'costs of failure' - not just defending it.

    Graeme Cooke is Research Director at IPPR


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. The Conservative Party is in danger of dying on its knees (Daily Telegraph)

    The gap between the leadership and the parliamentary party remains troublingly wide, writes Benedict Brogan. 

    2. How Ed Miliband can continue to make the political weather (Guardian)

    The Tories ridiculed Labour's energy price freeze, writes Polly Toynbee. Now Osborne's autumn statement limps after it in imitation.

    3. The power of George Osborne is growing by the day (Independent)

    The rise of the Chancellor as such an overwhelmingly dominant figure is new, says Steve Richards. 

    4. China’s sins aren’t all about the Dalai Lama (Times)

    Everyone will ask Cameron about Tibet, writes Hugo Rifkind. They’ll forget the workers shoring up Beijing’s ‘economic miracle’.

    5. Osborne must focus on the deficit (Financial Times)

    Since the bidding war over living standards assumed prominence, Tory prospects have receded, writes Janan Ganesh.

    6. The lies behind this transatlantic trade deal (Guardian)

    Plans to create an EU-US single market will allow corporations to sue governments using secret panels, bypassing courts and parliaments, writes George Monbiot. 

    7. Toxic legacy of Fred Goodwin years at RBS leaves Ross McEwan with enormous task (Daily Mail)

    Any hope politicians had of cheering RBS on into a new era looks to be vanishing rapidly, says Alex Brummer. 

    8. Putin miscalculated over Ukraine (Financial Times)

    To Moscow the ‘colour revolutions’ were sinister, threatening its sphere of influence, writes Gideon Rachman. 

    9. Tin Man Cameron needs to show his heart (Times)

    The Tories are thought of – particularly by women and voters in the north – as lacking compassion, writes Rachel Sylvester. 

    10. PISA: Poor academic standards – and an even poorer test (Daily Telegraph)

    Britain’s schools may be in a bad way, but the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings are hardly the best judge, says Martin Stephen. 


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    All prices will still rise by at least 3.1% at a time when wages are rising by just 0.8%. But this remains a significant concession to Labour.

    After his defence of untrammelled capitalism last week, is Boris Johnson now taking inspiration from Ed Miliband? At first sight, this morning's Evening Standard headline, "Boris Johnson announces London Underground and bus fares freeze", suggests so. But read on and it transpires that this "freeze" is actually an inflation-linked rise. Most fares will now merely rise by 3.1%, rather than the expected 4.1% (although travelcards will still rise by the larger figure). For passengers, whose pay rose by an average of just 0.8% in the most recent quarter and who are already paying the highest fares in the world (up by 60% since Boris became mayor), that remains a steep increase.

    But given his initial reluctance to act, this is still a significant concession by the mayor to his political opponents. In September, 24 Labour MPs signed a Commons motion demanding that fares rise by no more than inflation. It stated: "Transport for London has reported unbudgeted operational surpluses for the previous three years and is showing evidence of regularly under-anticipating fares income and overestimating other expenditures (We) call on the mayor of London to use his discretion to freeze fares at RPI (retail price index) for 2014, easing the pressure on ordinary Londoners during the current cost of living crisis."

    In his recent speech on "the great Tory train robbery", Sadiq Khan, the shadow London minister and a potential mayoral candidate, said: "Boris Johnson has an abysmal record of hiking fares year on year that has contributed massively to the cost-of-living crisis in London. Since he became Mayor the cost of a single bus journey has increased by 56 percent. In 2008 a single pay-as-you-go journey on a bus or tram cost just 90 pence. The same journey today will cost you £1.40. The price of a travel card from zones 1-6 has increased by £440 a year. That’s a bigger hike than even gas and electricity bills.

    "In a few weeks’ time, the Mayor will be announcing the rate of fares for next year. Londoners simply cannot afford another inflation busting increase to the cost of travel. The Mayor must recognise that Londoners are struggling more than ever before and that their budgets can’t keep stretching forever. He must take action to ease the pressure for ordinary Londoners by freezing fares at least at the rate of inflation for 2014."

    Boris has now done just that. But after having their expectations raised by Labour's promised freeze in energy prices, voters are unlikely to thank him for it. 


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