Taking on the benefits blame game

This post was originally published on New Internationalist on 3 April 2013.

It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.

One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.

Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’

Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.

On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.

There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.

Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.

A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.

In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.

Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.

However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 420,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.

What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.

We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.

Under The Radar: Achub S4C

First appeared in Red Pepper – Oct/Nov 2011

Amy Hall talks to the activists fighting to save the only Welsh language television channel.

The creation of a Welsh language television channel has been on of the major achievements in the campaign for the protection of the Welsh language over the past 40 years. S4C or Sianel Pedwar Cymru (Channel 4 Wales) was eventually established after a long campaign with Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) – often the younger and more radical side of Welsh language activism – at the forefront. Before S4C was established, Welsh language television was catered for by BBC Wales, but the programmes were sporadic and generally on the fringes of the schedule.

The solution for many came during discussions over a new fourth channel in the UK  in the late 1970s. Both the Conservatives and Labour promised a fourth channel in the UK in the late 1970s. Both the Conservatives and Labour promised a fourth channel broadcast in Wales and dedicated to the Welsh language. But when the Conservatives were elected in 1979 they changed their minds, outraging campaigners, many of whom refused to pay TV licences.

Often engaged in direct action scaling and sometimes deliberately damaging television masts; a number of campaigners went to prison. Former MP Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike in 1980 f the decision wasn’t reversed. In 1982 it was, and Welsh language campaigners won their own television channel: S4C.

One of the aims of S4C was to reflect the variety of Welsh culture and experiences in a channel relevant to the people of Wales. In reality coverage hasn’t always lived up to the aspirations of campaigners, focusing on a fairly narrow range of Welsh life. As well as providing Welsh language news and sports coverage, entertainment and children’s programmes, it features offerings like Fferm  Ffactor: an ‘X Factor‘ for farming with one unlucky person eliminated each episode in the battle for Farmer of the Year.

Bilingualism in Wales has grown rapidly in recent years with approximately 22 per cent of the population now speaking Welsh. Yet just as the Welsh language audience is growing the channel for Welsh speakers is being threatened. Current government proposals will sift funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the BBC, which campaigners fear will threaten S4C as the BBC suffers cuts of its own and has to look at its priorities.

Heledd Melangell Williams is a student from Nant Peris who has been heavily involved in recent campaigning around S4C: “The most frustrating thing for me is that thee was such a big and succesful campaign to get S4C and so many people went to prison, then they can just take it all away – I’m shocked people can do that.”

She is clear that the BBC will not prioritise Welsh language television: “If the BBC had to make a choice between funding an episode of Doctor Who and funding a Welsh language music programme then it would be Doctor Who. A minority language can’t compete with those viewing figures.”

The threat to S4C has led Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg to start a new campaign in its defence. Its first protest, in Cardiff, attracted over 2,000 people. Other actions have included two protesters climbing a television relay building near Caernarfon, a camp outside the BBC in Bangor and occupations of BBC offices in Cardiff and Carmarthen. Some people are also refusing to pay their TV licenses in an echo of the past campaign.

The first court cases have now taken place as people return to direct action. Cymdeithas activist Jamie Bevan is refusing to pay his court fine or stick to the limits of  curfew imposed on him for breaking into Conservative MP Jonathan Evan’s office. He argues that Welsh judges would send a clear message to London by not imposing penalties on Welsh language activists. He now faces a custodial sentence. There have also been arrests after Cymdeithas activists painted ‘Achub S4C’ (Save S4C) on BBC buildings in London.

Heledd Williams explains why young people like her care so much about the channel: “My generation has grown up with Welsh being around as a normal language, in school and on the television, and we want to show that there is a place for it in the modern world.”

The channel has been criticised for recent low viewing figures and a lack of willingness to work with new talent, but Williams says what it needs is a new direction, not a slashing of funding: “Since this campaign has been going it has raised awareness about S4C and the viewing figures have gone up slightly. They are also producing more imaginative programming.”

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg says it will keep battling until S4C is truly secure and independent. With more than 60 towns and cities currently bidding to host the UK’s first local television services, Cymdeithas also wants provision for Welsh language broadcasting to be written into the licences in Welsh speaking areas from the beginning.

Campaigners argue that the threat to S4C shows that Westminster is not interested in protecting the language. They are calling for the devolution of Welsh broadcasting to Wales to allow Welsh speakers to control their own television channel and develop S4C into a broadcaster that represents the diversity of Wales’ rapidly growing number of Welsh speakers.

This article was written a while ago but to get the latest on the campaign go to the Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg website in English and Welsh.

To buy this issue of the magazine or subscribe to Red Pepper go to their website here.

Direct action at Millbank: Where’s the hijack?

First appeared on The National Student on November 17 2010

‘A small minority ruined it for the rest’ seems to be one of the favourite phrases from those commentating on last week’s protests over rises to university fees and cuts to contact time in Higher Education and Educational Maintenance Allowance to college students. There was still another 50, 000 people on that march so I would say nobody ‘ruined’ it for anyone.

But the movement against education cuts is now in danger of being ruined, not by violence or criminal damage but by the reactions of people like NUS President Aaron Porter who described the thousands of people at the Millbank Conservative Party HQ as “distracting from the message”, although he has now back tracked after intense criticism and says he supports direct action but still talks of ‘undermining’ and ‘infiltration’.

I was there when Porter was challenged on lack of support from the NUS for student activism by Jess Worth from the New Internationalist at student campaigning conference Shared Planet. They were both on a panel discussing how to build a strong student movement and he said the mistakes of the past would not be made again. He also said that the NUS would support students taking direct action unlike the NUS in Ireland which had recently distanced itself from student protest and occupation which ended with violence at the hands of riot police. I spoke to him after the debate was over and he reiterated how he was committed to taking action and would communicate this to Students Union officers.

When I was in university lack of NUS and student union support for student activism was obvious on many occasions. Many students’ union officers are thrown into roles with little to no experience of campaigning on the issues student activists are fighting for, and even though they may support them in this many are career politicians wanting to toe the party line or scared of being too ‘out there’.

A lecture theatre at my former university was occupied over the university’s involvement in the arms trade and divestment, part of a wider UK student movement at the time which saw occupations in universities all over the country. We received support from many lecturers, some of whom came to do talks and show films, while our Ethical & Environmental officer described a peaceful sit in as ‘intimidating’ to other students. Being involved in protest or direct action is all too often portrayed as something for the fringes of society, not a justifiable way for people to act despite the fact that it often gets results.

That’s not to say that our student officers were completely unsupportive of campaigning. For example, towards the end of my time at university earlier this year our city got paid a visit from the ‘Welsh Defence League’, the Welsh version of far right group the English Defence League. A few sabbatical officers, including our President attended meetings about counter demos to the EDL and I even spotted a few of them on the day. Although they were reluctant to outwardly encourage others too loudly to join it, the fact they were there made a real difference to students that saw them and could feel that the people we had elected into our union, to be the voice of students actually took interest in important issues and not just party politics and sports teams. I visited my former university this weekend and was glad to see students still wearing their “no to cuts” t shirts with student’s union branding.

Largely thanks to NUS motivation and organisation 52, 000 people took to the streets on last Wednesday. For many of these students it was their first protest and they wouldn’t have been there without the active encouragement of their students union’s. There is now thousands of people who will have caught the bug, enjoying the thrill of making their physical presence felt, thanks to encouragement from the NUS they aren’t worried about being in trouble for protesting or being seen banner waving.

Every campaign will have different reactions and different methods but its important it stays united in its aims. People are angry and this is just the beginning, by attempting to distance themselves from direct action Porter, and others risk delegitimising and disempoweriong the whole movement.

The direct action taken at Millbank represented the anger of thousands of students. While only a few people caused any damage to the building many just took advantage of the opportunity to get inside the building and make the space theirs. Hundreds of genuine students and lecturers were outside cheering them on. A lot of people who had never taken direct action before were compelled to ignore stewards telling them to carry on to the march and instead joined the hundreds outside Tory HQ, whether from being swept up in the excitement, a need to make their anger known or just realising the importance of the moment.

Clegg warned of “Greek-style unrest” over cuts in an interview with the Observer before the general election and now this is beginning he is enemy number one. Many students voted for the Lib Dems on their tuition fee policies and much to the joy of the other two parties, especially Labour they have betrayed their promises and, it has now emerged, they planned to break this promise before the election even happened. There is also a Tory villain, reducing public services and looking after the rich is what they’re known for, something the Labour Party seems very keen to promote.

The issue of cuts in education can’t be dropped now with the excuse of a few smashed windows or a movement disunited at the hands of politician types. One passive protest won’t unfortunately change much, there needs to be a sustained campaign that goes down every avenue: Negotiation, protest, direct action and anything else.

Students are already organising: Manchester and Sussex Universities have had occupations over the issue and a mass student walkout has been planned for November 24. Some lecturers have also spoken out in favour of grassroots action: Last week 100 lecturers and staff from Goldsmith’s University in London signed a statement in support of the protests part of which said, “The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation.”

After a media onslaught of shock that ‘adults’ were sticking up for the ‘student trouble makers’ another statement was released saying that while the lecturers did not condone violence but wanted to “condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.”

A fear of being too radical seems to be behind a lot of NUS rejection of the direct action. But it is the politicians who do not always tow the party line, who aren’t afraid to let their voices and more importantly the voices of the people whey are meant to be representing be heard who end up being most respected.