Disaster Averted in Stoke-on-Trent

Nationalist chauvinism rebuffed: a defaced billboard prefigures Paul Nuttall's failure at the polls

Nationalist chauvinism rebuffed: a defaced billboard prefigures Paul Nuttall’s failure at the polls


You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln


The present author, Mark Conlon, is one of approximately 63,000 registered voters in the parliamentary constituency of Stoke Central, as are several other members of the Pathways group. Media coverage of our region is seldom flattering, displaying a narrow and tendentious focus on post-industrial anomie and its associated ills of unemployment, deprivation and crime. Due to Stoke-on-Trent holding the national record for abstention from voting, frequently we are characterized too as embodiments of political apathy. In my anecdotal experience, however, this has more to do with disdain for actual political parties than politics tout court: specifically, with the way in which the Potteries has been marginalized on the one hand by a Labour Party that has taken its allegiance for granted, and on the other by a Conservative Party that regards an area defiantly wedded to manufacturing as a vestigial throwback in the era of finance capital. Nor can it be said, when push comes to shove, and notwithstanding the ugly encroachment of far-right activism at various points since the Mosleyite 1930s, that the people of Stoke lack awareness of themselves as what Karl Marx called a class for itself instead of merely a class in itself. We shall see as much in the political episode discussed herein.

Stoke Central has had an uninterrupted procession of Labour MPs since its creation in 1950. For the past seven years, the incumbent has been Tristram Hunt, debonair Blairite academic and, inter alia, a condescending biographer of Friedrich Engels who sees no contradiction in crossing a picket line to deliver himself of a lecture on the history of Marxism. Hunt, whose first name does not mislead as to his patrician demeanour, was “parachuted” into the constituency in 2010 in blatant contravention of the wishes of Labour rank and file, who went so far as to set their branch secretary against him in the general election of that year. Aside from stray remarks on the inadvisability of nuns escaping their cloisters to take up teaching posts, he had an uneventful tenure as shadow education secretary, rallying no substantive opposition to Tory ravagement of state schooling. Finding the Potteries a little rough around the edges for his refined sensibilities, and the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party an unavailing vehicle for his ambitions, Hunt announced in January his intention to flee back to his natural habitat in the metropolis, there to take up a cushy job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. A by-election was thus triggered, set to take place concurrently on 23 February with a similar poll in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, where Labour MP Jamie Reid – regrettably, no relation to the artist of Sex Pistols repute – had outdone Hunt’s perfidy to constituents by abandoning them for a corporate vocation at the Sellafield nuclear plant.

Enter the frame one Paul Andrew Nuttall. Now here we have a slippery character. That rarest of species, a Liverpudlian Tory – so rare, indeed, that in his aborted career as history lecturer Nuttall was unable to gather the necessary data to complete a PhD thesis on the subject –  he moved further rightwards into the orbit of UKIP, becoming an MEP under that party’s imprimatur in 2009. His attendance at the European Parliament has been haphazard; seemingly only the burning issue of incandescent light bulbs has had gravitas sufficient to command his attention. In November of last year, after a farcical squabble among the UKIP demimonde over who should succeed Nigel Farage, Nuttall was elected leader of the party. He spews the reactionary boilerplate one would expect of such a figure, denouncing the futility of human rights, extolling the efficacy of capital punishment, and exhibiting contempt for the LGBT community and those afflicted by HIV. He peddles conspiratorial fantasies on climate change and a viral Kulturbolschewismus supposedly undermining the patriotic verities of bygone generations. Nativism and xenophobia form the basis of his agitation for a “hard” Brexit as preferred aftermath to the UK’s referendum vote favouring withdrawal from the European Union. He seems also to be an inveterate liar, spinning tall tales about his youthful footballing prowess and undocumented spectatorship at the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium tragedy. It was this opprobrious individual who, in late January, threw his hat into the ring as a contender in the Stoke Central contest.

For several weeks, Tontine Square in central Hanley was disfigured by a UKIP headquarters set up in an ex-pastry shop – a retail switch from pies to lies, as wags had it – from which issued propaganda proclaiming the party a staunch defender of the NHS. When its leader is on record as decrying socialized medicine in terms that would have defrosted the cold heart of Ayn Rand, cognitive dissonance is glaring. Few votes could have been garnered for the Europhobic cause when that leader saw fit to parade himself around an urban conurbation in garb more appropriate to an Edwardian country squire. On an edition of the BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Stoke on the evening of the by-election, solitary UKIP MP Douglas Carswell made a pitch for his party as champion of the sectional interest of the organized working class, and was surprisingly capable of maintaining a straight face in doing so, but only a minority of the electorate is naïve enough to believe this of Nuttall’s motley band of deregulators and flat tax advocates. So it proved in the early hours of 24 February, when Labour’s Gareth Snell saw off the UKIP challenge by securing 37.1% of the votes cast, Paul Nuttall’s share of 24.7% barely enabling him to edge out third-placed Conservative candidate Jack Brereton. Dr Zulfiqar Ali, despite the ostensibly imposing presence of Nuttall, or perhaps because of it given that Ali is a Muslim, more than doubled Liberal Democrat support by comparison with the 2015 general election. In Copeland, though Labour conceded the seat to the Conservatives for the first time since 1935, UKIP’s Fiona Mills was trounced.

Gareth Snell, formerly a councillor in Stoke Central’s neighbouring constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, is scarcely an inspiring addition to the House of Commons. His vulgar and scatological tweets in denigration of Brexit reveal a man cut from the shallow template of Labourite anti-intellectualism. No intellect appears to have intervened in the selection of such a man to represent constituents who are thoroughly disenchanted with the European project. It is a further instance of what has been the Achilles heel of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s stewardship, namely a shying away from engagement with the progressive sentiments underpinning the Brexit watershed. Without the aid of a newly acquired Corbynite mass membership drumming up partiality for Labour on the doorstep, ironically the anti-Corbyn Snell may have struggled to pass the winning post. Nevertheless, overall one can be thankful that matters turned out as well as they did in the wake of Tristram Hunt’s reckless betrayal of office. After his defeat, Paul Nuttall made the minatory prediction that “There’s a lot more to come from us.” Mercifully, Stoke-on-Trent will not be the arena for testing the accuracy of his claim.

An Apologetic New Year’s Message

The imposing facade of Webberley's bookshop, one of the casualties of 2016

The imposing façade of Webberley’s bookshop, one of the casualties of 2016


The present author, Mark Conlon, on behalf of the members of our group, wishes readers of this website the best for 2017. As a collective, we continue to meet on a regular basis at Hanley Library, to proselytize for new recruits, and to make what contribution we can to pushing back against social and political injustice. Unfortunately, that continued activity was not reflected in the number of articles published here in 2016: there appeared precisely one, albeit dedicated to what from a British angle was the weightiest issue of the year, the UK’s fractious abjuration of European federalism. 2016 exacted a heavy toll of noteworthy musicians, without online comment from this ardent musicophile, while I wrote nothing concerning the ostensible raison d’etre of the site, discussion of psychosis-related mental illness. I can only hope to rectify the situation in the coming year, with greater resolution than has been apparent since I made a similar pledge twelve months ago.

At one of our recent meetings, Dave Sweetsur remarked on the oneiric character of the past year. The vote to leave the European Union, an unexpected parting of the ways, turned the idea of a socialist Britain from pipe dream to achievable goal; pari passu, a Tory government enacted policies of nightmarish malice. David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, the less patrician but hardly less right-wing Theresa May, is focused more on instituting a draconian surveillance state than carrying out the will of the electorate, to which endeavour she devotes merely the recitation of vapid soundbites (“Brexit means Brexit”). Her instrument of legislative intrusion, named with lulling drabness the Investigatory Powers Act, portends the criminalization of all opposition to neoliberal triumphalism. The welfare state, meanwhile, has been degraded to a cruel laboratory of accumulation by dispossession, one in which asinine regulations and arbitrary withdrawals of benefit (“sanctions”) run amok, a scandal that Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake exhumed from the memory hole. From surging inequality to the corporate debasement of education, the UK is a macabre experiment in arresting human progress. Yet, thanks to a plebiscite that in retrospect has taken on a somewhat phantasmagoric air, there remains a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

Though in the facile sphere of journalese the two are often linked, the forward momentum gained through Brexit has been counteracted by the surreal elevation of Donald Trump, conman extraordinaire, to the position of President of the United States. America could have had, in Bernie Sanders, a social democrat of spotless repute as head of state, but chose instead – or at least, empowered via the peculiarities of an electoral college – a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Trump is proving worthy of the Klansmen’s adulation, selecting a cabinet of unvarnished racists, fanatical war hawks and anti-labour zealots. To take one representatively egregious example, his pick for chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Larry Kudlow, argued for an invasion of Iraq on the unceremonious grounds that his personal wealth would be swelled by a consequent rise in stock market indices. All pretence of noble intention seems finally to have been cast aside, which from the perspective of puncturing false consciousness has its advantageous aspect. We’re at a William Burroughs-like moment of naked clarity, when people see without blinkers what is on the end of every fork.

For those of us experiencing mental ill health, it’s impossible not to see that NHS services, all reassurances to the contrary notwithstanding, are at a desperate pass. The psychology department at the local Harplands Hospital has been farmed out to the community – that is to say, dismantled – while suicides by unmonitored inpatients are a seemingly ineradicable scourge. The nationwide crisis has been noticed even by the complacent BBC, which conducted an investigation into an anorexic Gloucestershire man, Simon Rickards, abandoned to wither away because of an acute shortage of psychiatric beds, some 15,000 of which have been eradicated since 2001. The laying waste of social care, similarly, has become so pronounced as to obtrude into mainstream awareness. Age UK reported in November 2016 that one in eight persons over 65 struggle to obtain the assistance they need with elementary tasks such as bathing; around 700,000 receive no help at all. A free market ideologue on the other side of the Atlantic, Grover Norquist, once quipped that his aim was to cut the state to the size where it could be drowned in the bathtub. The objective of May’s Tories appears just as radical, while rendering the phrase “the great unwashed” more than Burkean prejudice by preventing as many people as possible from venturing near a bathtub, or indeed washing facilities of any kind.

With “identitarian” fascists ascendant in Europe – Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders, for instance, is polling favourably after an acquittal on charges of hate speech – 2017 threatens to be a turbulent year. A dramatic rerun of the financial Sturm und Drang of 2008 may or may not be on the cards, but what Michael Hudson calls a “slow crash” of dwindling living standards continues unabated, and will provide fertile soil for the further growth of the far right. Hillary Clinton has been denied the opportunity to indulge in sabre-rattling over Russia, not by a sane advocate of peace, but by a man who tweets delightedly about his chance to preside over a nuclear arms race. Above everything, there looms the existential menace of climate change, now magnified by the scientific illiteracy of the incoming Trump administration. The latter plumbs truly deranged depths, with a presidential adviser, Anthony Scaramucci, conflating climate scientists with flat-earth cultists, and Trump himself gibbering on the hare-brained theme of global warming as a Chinese hoax designed to undermine the West. We in the Pathways group frequently laugh at the absurdity of the Trump phenomenon, yet really it’s no matter for levity. It’s said, with some justification in terms of the lamentable grasp of epistemology displayed by a section of the population, that we live in a “post-truth” era. Grim realities, however, won’t vanish simply by virtue of being viewed through an obfuscating lens of postmodern flippancy.

To go from major to minor tragedy, I should mention in conclusion the closure in 2016 of Webberley’s, a distinguished Potteries bookshop. The shop opened in 1913, the distant epoch of Balkan wars and The Rite of Spring, moving in 1924 to its iconic Percy Street premises in Hanley, where it steadfastly endured as independent retailer until suffering an unforeseen demise due to the retirement of its owners. From Ladybird books in the 1970s to Verso titles acquired in its closing sale, Webberley’s played an inestimable part in my education, and it’s saddening to think that it will no longer be there to fulfil a comparable role in the lives of others. In the latest entry on his blog, Dave Sweetsur discusses the choice of ravaged Stoke-on-Trent locations as setting for a recently released zombie movie, and the unflattering light thereby shone on the decline of a proud industrial city. The loss of Webberley’s, alas, has removed from our landscape another signifier of sentient life.

The Viewpoint of the Pathways Group on Brexit

Not exactly a downfall of Hegelian world-historical import: David Cameron's pathetic resignation speech

Not exactly a downfall of Hegelian world-historical import: David Cameron’s pathetic resignation speech


The contempt for elementary principles of democracy shown by the elites of the Council and Commission and their subordinates, not to speak of an army of obedient publicists in the media, is reciprocated by the disdain of the masses for the Parliament that supposedly represents them… In the absence of any collective vision of the structures of power that hold all those without capital in their grip, let alone of how to replace them, beleaguered minorities on the margins of social existence become the focus of every kind of projection and resentment.

Perry Anderson, ‘The New Old World’


Slightly over a week ago, on June 23, the UK voted in a momentous referendum to quit affiliation to the European Union. Forty-three years of membership, ratified in a previous plebiscite in June 1975, are set to be wound up, to the consternation of pollsters, EU commissioners and the bulk of Britain’s ruling class. A contest of mounting irascibility, culminating in the shocking murder of Europhile Labour Party MP Jo Cox, saw the Leave faction beat its Remain rival by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%. Some 33 million voters were split along geographic lines, with Scotland and Northern Ireland at variance with the overall trend in England and Wales, where London was the sole region to throw its weight behind Remain. Here in Stoke-on-Trent, a Leave vote of 69.4% was the largest registered in a major city. Designed as a sop to Conservative Party voters inclined to defect to the United Kingdom Independence Party, in the belief that state propaganda would ensure a pro-EU outcome, the referendum has turned out to be a monumental blunder on the part of incumbent prime minister David Cameron. The propaganda of what was dubbed “Project Fear” duly arrived in abundance, but failed to counter the bluster emanating from UKIP and the rabidly Eurosceptic wing of Cameron’s own party; nor did it cow an electorate in anti-establishment mood over austerity measures and the perceived hazards posed by migration into the UK from its EU neighbours, especially those poorer countries granted accession since 2004.

With a single exception, members of our group cast their votes in favour of Britain exiting the Union, the so-called “Brexit” option. (The exception was Frank, who, quite understandably, was troubled at the prospect of lending encouragement to the racists and xenophobes of UKIP.) We devoted much thought and discussion to the issue. In the end, the EU’s paucity of democratic accountability, an increasingly doctrinaire enforcement by the Union of a neoliberal agenda, the disastrous Eurozone, and aversion to David Cameron all played a role in our nearly unanimous decision. Dave Williams hoped that Brexit would lead eventually to a revival of UK manufacturing at the expense of parasitic finance capital, while Dave Sweetsur was at odds with the corrupt authoritarianism of EU mandarins such as Jean-Claude Juncker. The present author, Mark Conlon, did not veer from longstanding antipathy to the EU as bastion of capitalism. Not even the pleas of local MP Tristram Hunt, or the imprecation placed on Brexit by a jug-eared, inanely grinning war criminal with whom Hunt is not wholly unconnected, sufficed to persuade us of the error of our choice. The reader of our site must judge whether, as alleged by hysterical advocates of the Remain camp, our voting record damns us as uneducated dolts separated by a doctrinal hair’s breadth from adherence to outright fascism.

None of our group takes an iota of pleasure in the fact that the Leave coalition was dominated by populist rightwingers relentlessly harping on anti-immigrant prejudice as their chief means of leverage. We are not Europhobic Manicheans who imagine that nothing has been sacrificed. I’ve adverted previously in this blog to praiseworthy (if somewhat belated) EU directives concerning disabled persons, and those protections have been rendered moot, together with “bureaucratic” hindrances to capital accumulation – that is to say, rudimentary workplace rights – upheld by Brussels. Certainly such needless appurtenances will not be prized by the likes of UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Tory minister Michael Gove, whose noxious rhetoric went largely unanswered on the left, most egregiously by a Labour Party led into tepid EU endorsement by an erstwhile Bennite who’d lost the courage of his convictions. Above the hubbub of reactionary scapegoating, the ear strained vainly to catch any reference to the European Central Bank, neoliberal trade deals or the corporate asset stripping of Greece. There was a time when we would have heard loud denunciations of a “bosses’ club” from a substantial number of Labour MPs, but that era is long gone. Jeremy Corbyn, in snatching defeat from the jaws of what could have been a famous victory, has left one with nothing but disgust for a rejectionist campaign compounded of little besides falsehood and bigotry. In all probability, this pusillanimity will cost an otherwise admirable and sincere man either his job or the next general election.

Having stated that vital caveat, and bypassing Arthur Schopenhauer’s disparagement of an ignoble sentiment, let’s give way to schadenfreude and contemplate the discomfiture of some of those on the losing side. On the post-referendum morning of June 24, it was marvellous to behold the ashen faces of BBC presenters, stricken with bewilderment and terror as what George Soros terms the “alchemy of finance” threatened to ravage their pensions and portfolios. Voices quivered with a dolorous emotion echoed by David Cameron in his resignation announcement at 10 Downing Street – the prime ministerial departure is lamentably on hold pending a handover of power after the Conservatives’ party conference in October – as realization dawned that an unstinting contribution to Project Fear had come to naught. There will be less alarm felt by those too impoverished to take a personal interest in the irrationality (or “volatility” to use the standard journalistic circumlocution) of stock index fluctuations. As for the premier hoist by his own plebiscitary petard, only those of a saintly disposition will be able to resist savouring his demise. Ancient Rome had a practice called damnatio memoriae, reserved for those whose remembrance deserved to be erased from the historical record. It is a fate that Cameron fully merits. George Osborne, his co-conspirator in class warfare, is similarly doomed, and one can derive just as much joie de vivre from that. The Bullingdon boys dedicated themselves to marginalizing yet further the disposable people of a postindustrial UK, only to discover that, given an outlet for their disaffection, the latter are not as apathetic and susceptible to manipulation as Etonian elitism would cause one to believe.

With characteristic duplicity, Cameron has reneged on a promise to immediately implement Article 50, the Lisbon Treaty’s five-point mechanism for extrication from the EU, and no doubt will continue to procrastinate. US Secretary of State John Kerry, not content with sending Britain to the back of the global trading queue, is impudently goading him to nullify the referendum verdict. A course of withdrawal, nonetheless, has been set in motion, and the contagion of revolt may spread to France, Italy and other internally riven members of the Union. Many consequences might follow. EU-mandated austerity could be undermined as a result of Brexit, even as an embittered George Osborne, in the brief interlude remaining to him as Chancellor of the Exchequer, threatens to double down on the fiscal sadism of spending cuts. The summum malum of neoliberal hegemony, the secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is likely to be dealt a fatal blow by Britain’s absence from the fold. Ultimately an entire supranational edifice could implode, terminating a malignant trend highlighted by recent events in Ukraine: the development of the EU into an aggressive imperialist bloc. Assailed by reinvigorated Scottish and Irish nationalists, perfidious Albion – the venerable slur was resurrected during the Brexit campaign by French newspaper Le Parisien – may itself disintegrate. Conceivably we are on the verge of all that is solid melting into air, happily so when barely a year has passed since I was lamenting the demoralizing triumph of David Cameron in a national election.

In this Gramscian interregnum, a space has been opened for struggle outside the stifling confines of EU technocapitalism. The path will be far from easy, as modern-day successors to the gnomes of Zurich seek to vitiate any turn to the left. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and all the other investment bank leviathans – not to mention that scourge of economic autonomy, the International Monetary Fund – backed Remain, and will not be quiescent in defeat. Washington will be furious at the attenuation of the EU/NATO axis as unified belligerent against Putin’s Russia (accused by Western commentators of maintaining a sinister silence on the question of European federalism, though any statements issuing from the Kremlin would be interpreted as heinous interventionism). The Tories, naturally, will bend every sinew toward quashing resurgent leftist movements, and in this, at least, will be in complete ideological accord with UKIP. Without entertaining any utopian fantasies of what is possible, a start could be made with the election of a reformist administration pledged to renationalization of basic public services – something prohibited by the EU’s zeal for marketization – and to the restoration of democracy at a local level. That modest goal goes beyond anything achievable in an EU which has crushed the mild progressivism of Syriza under an iron heel.

In the short term, the outlook may appear discouraging. Already the government has announced a £250 billion subsidy to banks (the periphrastic “quantitative easing”), while abandoning the mass of the populace to sink or swim in turbulent economic waters. The NHS will be in the sights of privatizing hard-right Tories who won out in the referendum over their Europhile colleagues, and one can be sure that not a penny will be diverted to it from the fabled £350 million weekly subventions to be clawed back from spendthrift Brussels bureaucrats. Boris Johnson no longer looms menacingly on the horizon as bumbling potentate of a Eurosceptic junta, but a scarcely less grim future is portended by the career records of the quintet of politicians still in the Tory leadership race. However, a Conservative Party plunged by Brexit into dissension is a gravely weakened force. Its opponents, meanwhile, ought to take heart from the increased latitude for action now afforded them. From a broader perspective, it seems to me that there is everything to play for. Tariq Ali, writing in Counterpunch, offers a Mao Zedong quotation as succinct summary of post-Brexit results and prospects: “There is great disorder under heaven. The situation is excellent.”

A Look Back at 2015, and Forward to 2016

Egged on by young Thatcherite

A highlight of 2015: at the Conservative Party conference, egg-wielding protestor versus the physiognomy of privilege


The UN is to visit the UK to investigate whether Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have caused “grave or systematic violations” of disabled peoples’ rights… The UN’s special investigator on housing has previously urged the government to scrap the bedroom tax, after hearing “shocking” accounts of how it was affecting disabled and vulnerable people.

Report in the ‘The Independent’ online, August 2015


Britain has got its mojo back.

George Osborne addressing the US Council on Foreign Relations, December 2015


On behalf of our group, the present author, Mark Conlon, wishes readers of this blog good fortune for the coming twelve months. Not for the first time, though at this point the apology is more exigent, I must say sorry to followers of the site – for they exist, even if constituting a select band – on account of the lack of articles published over the past year. Perhaps the shockingly horrible outcome of May’s general election brought on a paralysis of writer’s block, and conceivably readers can be thankful to have been spared an outpouring of embittered philippics on the state of the nation. I’ll refrain from issuing rash promises regarding an accelerated work rate in the new year, but output can scarcely fail to rise.

It is not the case, after all, that we are in a era ill suited to the splenetic inclination of the keyboard polemicist. On the contrary, there is much to rail against, and some things to marvel at. Just after the election, I predicted that the Labour Party would move rightwards in the wake of its disastrous defeat, with the paralyzing grip of neoliberal ideology strengthened as a result. One is always pleased to have a gloomy prognostication turn out spectacularly wrong. V.I. Lenin maintained that, in politics, there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when years happen. We have seen an example of the phenomenon with the elevation to Labour leader of Jeremy Corbyn, a rapid and wholly unexpected volte face after thirty barren years in which Corbyn’s party distanced itself almost completely from social democratic principles. The Blairites still comprise a majority of Labour MPs, and many of them are striving furiously to topple this reincarnated George Lansbury and return Labour to the status of pliant tool of capital, but for the moment a remarkable grass-roots surge has snatched the leadership from their grasp.

The situation, nevertheless, remains desperate. What John Quiggin has termed zombie economics, a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from expedient state-shrinking nostra, staggers blindly on, trampling services and solidarity as it goes. David Cameron, in praising his administration’s response to the summer’s refugee crisis – that is to say, the flaccid inaction that followed excoriation of a “swarm” of sans papiers menacing Albion’s sacred shores – held up “extraordinary compassion” as the hallmark of the contemporary UK. Rarely, however, can rhetoric and reality have grown so thoroughly estranged. We inhabit a country, to quote Charles Fourier (and who could be more deliriously at odds with the mood of Tory Britain?) bent on the creation of “legions of starving men who sell themselves at bargain prices to conquerors and shop bosses.” Benefit sanctions facilitate the starvation, abrogation of workers’ rights fast tracks the exploitation. The conquerors and bosses, together with assorted spivs and toffs, comport themselves with haughty grandeur at a Tory conference held with breathtaking insouciance in the working class city of Manchester; only disabled activists in their wheelchairs, a lone egg thrower, and the taunts of a Mancunian petroleuse are forceful enough to quell the delegates’ triumphalist swagger, and then no more than fleetingly.

In September, Syriza’s Yanis Varoufakis appeared on Question Time, a BBC current affairs discussion programme. As embattled finance minister, Varoufakis may have failed miserably in his efforts to defend Greek workers from the depredations of the troika, but he at least was able to articulate a simple truth that escaped his fellow panellists, whose pro-establishment wafflings served merely to confirm that the “flagship” show is a vessel that lists heavily to the right: namely, that what the UK government calls “austerity” is class war under another banner. The campaign is conducted on two fronts, those of wealth confiscation and propaganda. Not only are the populace compelled to subsidize the recapitalization of criminal banks through a rescindment of access to social security; they are to be shamed into accepting that social security provision was always unsustainably prodigal, and must vanish in the name of tackling a sovereign debt crisis that, according to the propaganda narrative, has barely anything to do with bankers. In other words, rob the poor blind, but turn a determinedly blind eye to the robbery and sacrosanct assets of the rich, while concocting a story that makes it all seem moral.

A real-world consequence, far from the well-heeled circles in which such pestilent fables are hatched by Lynton Crosby and associated adepts of the dark arts, is that the members of our group live under an unremitting cloud of fear and uncertainty. They contend bravely with a raft of mental health problems, but find themselves at the mercy of the economics of the madhouse. At any moment, they could be pitched into hardship by the knavery of George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith. One Pathways participant has been left suspended in soul-withering limbo for over six months by the Department for Work and Pensions, the agency to which the scrofulous Smith clings like a limpet of malignity and incompetence, as its minions inch forward with an inquiry as to whether he is fit for employment (he transparently isn’t). We see all too clearly through the government’s machination, but that provides no guarantee against falling victim to it. None of us has economic security, and without it psychological composure rests on shifting sands. That this is a generalized state of affairs as we enter 2016 is heartbreaking and enraging. It is, I hope, one of the innumerable injustices that might catalyze change.

Dave Williams Visits Bodnant Garden


Our group’s Dave Williams recently visited Bodnant Garden in Conwy, North Wales. Established in 1874, Bodnant is an 80-acre National Trust site. It boasts many unusual plants and trees, gathered from as far afield as the Andes and the Himalayas, including types discovered in the early twentieth century by explorers who were sponsored by the Garden’s original owners.

Bodnant Garden receives 190,000 visitors annually, but without doubt Dave would have been one of the more observant among them. The present author, Mark Conlon, is perhaps Stoke-on-Trent’s least able practitioner of the art of gardening; Dave, however, more than makes up for it with his evergrowing expertise in all matters horticultural. He reads studiously on the subject, and puts in a good deal of practical spadework with the local Growthpoint project. He is, I would venture to suggest, a validation of Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.”

Dave says the following of his visit: Here are some of the photos I took during the Growthpoint trip to Bodnant Garden. I thoroughly enjoyed the outing. It was particularly pleasant to sit next to a fountain in the Garden and listen to the natural sound of running water. On the way back we stopped off for an hour in Llandudno, making for a full day’s excursion.


The Psychosis of the British Electorate

Vox populi, vox diaboli: the 'Daily Mail' enthuses over an unexpected Machtergreifung for the self-styled "party of the workers"

Vox populi, vox diaboli: the ‘Daily Mail’ salutes an unexpected Machtergreifung by the self-styled “party of the workers”


Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England.

D.H. Lawrence


Casting one’s vote for the Conservative Party, it seems, is the love that dare not speak its name. It is an act so base, so sordid, so lacking in the most elementary decency, that the present writer, Mark Conlon, has encountered no one in recent weeks willing to own up to it. And yet, on the morning of 8 May 2015, in defiance of all the polls, prognostications and tight-lipped prevarications of intent, we awoke to the dawning reality of a Conservative parliamentary majority. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in The Social Contract of the ephemeral sovereignty allotted the English people during elections, commented that “by the use they make of their brief moments of liberty, they deserve to lose it.” Rarely can his prose have resonated with such mournful truth. Those inclined to grasp at straws can take consolation in the ejection of the putrid Esther McVey from her Wirral constituency, but otherwise the Tories are back, 331 of them, emboldened that they have a mandate to “finish the job” of eradicating the last vestiges of the post-1945 social democratic settlement. Henceforth neoliberalism will reign uncontested, its victims judged unworthy of life or remembrance.

How did the catastrophe come to pass? By means of coalition, the Tories have adroitly manoeuvred the Liberal Democrats, who before 2010 stood for some residual values of social justice, into irrelevance. Deservedly, the bulk of Nick Clegg’s abject Petainists are out of their lucrative jobs in the House of Commons, though it’s improbable they’ll need to visit the food banks to which their treachery has condemned a million of their fellow citizens. Maladroitly, through an obstinate refusal to countenance coalition with the Scottish National Party, Ed Miliband has steered the Labour Party in Scotland into oblivion, while doing nothing to ignite enthusiasm for it in England. The Party under his stewardship, aside from half-hearted flirtations with rent controls and living wage legislation, remained doggedly wedded to what Tariq Ali calls an “extreme centre” ideology, whereby exponents of hard-right economic policies posture as centrists in the hope of fooling inattentive electorates. Were there an afterlife, his father Ralph Miliband would be looking down – or perhaps up – attempting telepathically to din chastening passages from Parliamentary Socialism into the head of an errant son. It’s too late now, however, to heed the call of Miliband pere to veer leftwards; already the Blairite vultures will be circling, orchestrating a return to the verities of New Labour as Thatcherism en travesti.

During the election campaign, I read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%. The book documents, in exhaustive and enraging detail, how that 1% have enriched themselves fabulously at the expense of everyone else. It is a mindboggling account of the rampant greed that, with the abetment of Westminster parliamentarians, has made the UK the most divisive polity in Europe. One wonders, if the 99% have even a dim awareness of the scale of wealth sequestration, how they possibly could have voted for politicians whose very raison d’etre is to accelerate the process. The electoral “roar of Middle England” may have been eulogized by the Daily Mail, but the vociferation of the petit bourgeoisie might have been muted if they knew quite how petty their assets are by comparison with the riches of the elite; as for those further down the social hierarchy who assented to having their pockets picked, seldom can false consciousness have breached such outer limits. At a Pathways meeting recently, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came up in discussion, and the forlorn leftist is tempted to take the title of that novel as self-descriptive. Has a form of mass psychosis taken hold, or a virulent strain of Stockholm syndrome infected the populace? Mutatis mutandis, substituting Katie Hopkins for Ann Coulter as virago of reaction, and disability benefit claimant for food stamp recipient as governmentally targeted folk devil, has the UK – or, more specifically, England – transformed into a simulacrum of its boorish transatlantic cousin?

To forestall the urge to launch into a Lawrentian invective against the country of my birth, I should of course note that the election results were skewed to a ludicrous degree by an indefensible voting system. Douglas Carswell, a Tory defector to UKIP, correctly identifies first-past-the-post as “dysfunctional” now that his currently favoured comrades have racked up 3.8 million votes but, with the exception of his own Clacton constituency, no seats. The SNP garnered barely 300,000 more votes than the Greens, yet the former is hegemonic in Scotland, the latter confined to a lone enclave in Brighton. The Conservative tally was 36.9% of those who voted, equating to 11.3 million persons out of a total population of 64.5 million, or in other words a proportion that confers zero legitimacy by the criteria of Tory trade union laws. Fully one third of those registered to vote abstained. Clearly, it is risible to suggest that this constitutes “democracy” in any meaningful sense of the term, though it dovetails well enough with Tory avidity for the reins of power, and will do so all the more when boundaries are redrawn to the advantage of Conservative candidates. Add in the influence of a press and broadcast media that are overwhelmingly hostile to progressive politics, and you are left with something closer to farce than an apotheosis at the ballot box of possessive individualism.

Porcine vulgarian Eric Pickles, local government minister in the coalition and reelected to his Essex seat of Brentwood and Ongar, tweeted that a “perfect day” had been had by the Conservatives on 7 May. It hardly requires adding that the divinely personified “markets” concur. Triumphant Prime Minister David Cameron promises that “something special” is in the offing from his administration, while Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, with utter predictability, vows to press ahead with an economic plan that thus far has cut an insufficiently harsh 10% from the wages of British workers. The “special” ingredient, rather than any Elysian Fields of prosperity situated at the distant end of an Osbornian budgetary canard, is likely to be a financial crash, of a still more shattering magnitude than that which convulsed the world in 2oo8. Meanwhile, millions will suffer grievously as intensified austerity hacks away at the NHS, social care, subsidized housing and anything else that renders life tolerable for those at the bottom of society. I fear that members of the Pathways group may be among them. None remotely deserve it, but then indiscriminate collective punishment is the whole point of waging class war from above.

Cleansing the UK’s Mentally Ill, Sanction by Murderous Sanction

‘The Match Seller’ by Otto Dix: as the UK’s disabled are sanctioned into beggary, to the apparent unconcern of the wider populace, a painting that resonates beyond Weimar Germany


He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

II Thessalonians 3:10


On his blog, A Day in the Life, the Pathways group’s Dave Sweetsur has written recently about the issue of benefit sanctions, one of the morbid symptoms of the senescence of capitalism. A sanction is a penalty levied on unemployed persons, whether ones claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or the main type of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), for what Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) moralistically terms “transgressions” against the rules pertaining to their benefit claims. Where they are not pure inventions of target-driven jobcentre staff, these “transgressions” are generally of an utterly trivial nature, as a glance at the several websites documenting them will show. They can consist of nothing more heinous than spelling mistakes on a form or marginal lateness for an appointment. The consequences of being subject to a sanction, however, are anything but minor. All financial support, or a hefty portion of it in the case of ESA recipients, ceases for a period ranging from a week to a scandalous three years, plunging those affected into an existential battle for bare survival. Theoretically, hardship payments are claimable to counter a slide into abject destitution, but in practice these are scarce, and in any event are to be disbursed as loans when current benefits undergo the transition to Universal Credit. Sanctions are now handed out by the thousands, outstripping in number the fines imposed by magistrates’ courts. As a sanction also serves to remove a person from official unemployment statistics, they go a considerable distance toward accounting for ostensible falls in those totals. The topic is of such grave import that the present author, Mark Conlon, felt that it warranted a second look here.

Dave drew connections between the manifest iniquity of sanctions and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, positing the DWP as an Eichmannesque “bureaucratic framework of oppression” implacably grinding expendable lives into dust. He articulated the shock and disbelief experienced by many when they realize what is going on in purportedly civilized twenty-first century Britain. Is it conceivable that human beings are being cast adrift without access to money, the sine qua non of existence in a capitalist society? That, to quote Aneurin Bevan’s famous Bellevue Hotel speech of July 1948, the condemnation of “millions of first-class people to semi-starvation” is once again the method by which Tories prefer to deal with economic slump? Unfortunately, from the standpoint of neoliberal ideology the answer is an unabashed yes. More, state-mandated penury is to be celebrated as both condign punishment and tough love: a just retribution against the incorrigibly workshy, and a stern exhortation to the rest to buckle down to a life of wage slavery, the strait gate which alone offers redemption from the mortal sin of profaning bourgeois relations of production. The apodictic pronouncements of the DWP make explicit what in effect is a species of Augustinian theology, whereby the supplicant “jobseeker” is expected to embrace servitude with masochistic elation, or else suffer damnation to a very real hell. Take, for example, a typical piece of sanctimony from the detestable Esther McVey, Minister of State for Employment. Speaking of the department’s plans, via psychometric testing, to “segment” the unemployed into subsets of deserving and undeserving poor, she explained that the former are those exhibiting “get up and go, the right attitude, the right teamplay.” Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Since June 2011, stricter “conditionality” (i.e., the obligation to jump through an ever proliferating myriad of bureaucratic hoops) has reduced the sanctioning apparatus to a Kafkaesque circus of cruelty and absurdity. Campaigning body 38 Degrees characterizes as “economic terrorism” the clear intent to inflict an annihilating precarity on an already vulnerable demographic, while Professor David Webster, of Glasgow University, talks of a “parallel secret penal system” having been assembled around sanctioning legislation. The maliciousness of sanctions is so glaring that a Conservative minister, Nick Boles, was struck by unaccustomed, if transitory, pangs of conscience over what he called an “inhuman inflexibility” in their operation. All this, it is pitiful to recall, is to prevent payment of derisory sums of money, which when added up annually would scarcely fund the upkeep of an MP’s moat, much less foot the bill for the $70,000 desks favoured by bailed-out bankers. JSA is a parsimonious £72.40 per week, and accounts for a mere 0.7% of government spending; ESA rates are only nominally higher. Any rational observer can see that inevitably the policy must issue in calamity. Personal indebtedness will rise to unserviceable levels, indigent people will be driven in desperation to crime, homelessness will ensue, and families will have to assume the financial burden of supporting those who are sanctioned, whose health is likely to deteriorate to the point where medical crises place great strain on the NHS. The Medical Research Council has warned, ominously, of “a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action.”

What of the fate within this draconian setup of the mentally ill? Clare Bambra and Kayleigh Garthwaite of Durham University have conducted research in Stockton-on-Tees into the impact of sanctions on those with mental health conditions. Their findings were horrifying. They discovered that Karen, a single mother on Jobseeker’s Allowance with children aged nine and eleven, had been sanctioned for failure to apply for a stipulated minimum of jobs – no fewer than seventeen – over the Christmas period of 2013. All three were left penniless, without the means to heat their home in the depths of winter. Jessica, a heavily pregnant woman of 23 previously in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance, but guilty of the unforgivable offence of being too ill to attend a jobcentre interview, told them that she had barely eaten for two weeks following a withdrawal of benefit. Her access to nutrition was restricted to the charitable donations of a Trussell Trust food bank, augmented by leftovers supplied by her sister; no money was available to power her fridge or cooker. Evidently, for those who administer this mockery of anything that might properly be termed a “social security” system, there exists no season of goodwill, nor duty of concern for the wellbeing of unborn babies. In light of the case studies presented, one must view the following statement by the Durham academics as an illustration of scholarly understatement: “The sanctioning of people with mental health problems is a particular problem – with the stress and anxiety of income loss adding to their underlying condition.”

In evidence submitted to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Bambra and Garthwaite urged that sanctions be scrapped or mitigated for those with psychological ailments. The most recent data, from 2014,  indicates that the opposite course is being pursued. Mentally unwell ESA claimants allocated to the Work Related Activity Group – a category for those deemed capable, often on the basis of bogus or inept assessments, of working at some future point – are being sanctioned at the rate of over a hundred per day. There can little doubt, in fact, that the mentally ill are being specifically targeted. They not infrequently ignore or delay opening mail, something the DWP seemingly regards as all the more reason to send out letters and impose penalties when the instructions therein are not obeyed punctiliously. They simply may not understand the workings of a Byzantine system, but this renders them easy prey for jobcentre “hit squads” (the description of whistleblower John Longden) tasked with tripping them up at every turn. Overall, a staggering six out of ten of those sanctioned have mental health diagnoses. There have been a number of victims whose maltreatment has been so egregious as to breach the carapace of media indifference. Ken Holt, for instance, has spoken to the press about his conviction that his bipolar daughter, Sheila, “cracked” under the pressure of endless threats that she would be sanctioned for not measuring up to the demands of the Work Programme, the government’s corporate welfare scheme designed to shovel public cash into the coffers of “training providers” such as Seetec and A4E. Sheila was sectioned, suffered a heart attack and subsequently fell into a coma. Even when she was comatose, the hectoring from the DWP did not relent. She has since died.

It hardly requires saying that a government capable of this degree of callousness  – as George Monbiot puts it, one with a parliamentary frontbench that “can rock with laughter as it truncates the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country” – is catastrophically lacking in empathy. Its leader, David Cameron, while presiding over mass hunger and an upsurge in food banks, can announce without irony that his eleven-year-old daughter will be going on “hunger strike” in opposition to the sacking of a brawling right-wing celebrity from the BBC. It would not baulk for a moment at the liquidation of all social security provision. Since the Labour Party introduced sanctions with its Clintonesque “New Deal” retrogressions, a detail of history to which Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves is unembarrassed to advert, it would be naïve to hope that a Labour administration might fundamentally alter things. With much of the population benumbed by propaganda scapegoating “scroungers” and the supposedly numberless hordes of benefit fraudsters, or at such a nadir of political consciousness as to look to poujadiste racists for solutions to an unfolding crisis of capitalism, the outlook for mentally ill people without jobs (that is to say, the majority) is exceptionally bleak.

Hannah Arendt, in a 1951 letter to Karl Jaspers, suggested that evil resides in “making human beings as human beings superfluous.” That is exactly the principle on which the sanctioning regime operates: it declares the frail and the fallible, those not able to conform to the dictates of an apparatchik machine – those who fall, as one might phrase it, outwith the Volksgemeinschaft of self-reliant citizens – to be unfit to live. It’s one reason I don’t consider as gratuitous the parallels drawn by Dave Sweetsur between the fascist nightmare and what’s occurring today (a worry that Dave, ever the scrupulously fair-minded liberal, has expressed to me). Certainly Dave is not alone in making the comparison. Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), in vigils held outside Downing Street and Parliament, has combined antiausterity protest with commemoration of the Holocaust. Disabled rights activists Black Triangle borrow their name from the badge that denoted “asocial” prisoners (including the mentally ill) in Nazi concentration camps. In 2012, The Guardian newspaper revealed the Coalition’s predilection for eugenics in a report on the £166 million in foreign aid given to India to expedite forced sterilization of the poor in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Whatever the present differences in scale and overt savagery, when a government broadcasts its contempt for human rights, and its intent to abolish the Human Rights Act after the 2015 general election, one can only fear a descent into worse forms of barbarism. One begins to glimpse what the much trumpeted “longterm economic plan” might have as its endgame: elimination of uneconomic Untermenschen.

To conclude on a personal note. Today I’ve turned 50 years of age. It’s dispiriting, to choose a mild adjective, to have spent 36 of those years – longer, if one dates the birth of neoliberal governance to the Callaghan administration of 1976 – under a darkening shadow of political reaction. It was obvious from the start that the neoliberal project (Thatcherism, monetarism, supply-side economics, call it what you will) was a bid to conduct an extirpative long march through the institutions of social democracy. It was impossible, however, to predict how far it would go. I am the last person to wax nostalgic about the era of my youth, the 1980s; we were still, as Marx would have it, in prehistory, and a pretty coarse and nasty one at that. Nonetheless, it was at least a prehistory in which workers, after a century of struggle, had won a modicum of dignity. Disqualification from unemployment benefits was rare, denial of all state assistance beyond the parameters even of Thatcherite immoderation. The “enemy within” was the National Union of Mineworkers. Thirty years on, with organized labour vanquished, and under the cloak of fiscal discipline, the enemy is the unemployed and the disabled, and by extension everyone in the country not insulated by wealth against the potential misfortune of unemployment or disability. If I were to indulge in a middle-aged cri de coeur, it would be the hope that, in the time left to me, the tide finally turns against a capitalist triumphalism that is dragging nearly all of us down to perdition. The victims of sanctions, together with all the other victims of neoliberalism, surely deserve no less.

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