The Nightmare of Universal Credit, Continued

 

A remarkable document was issued last month by the United Nations. Its author, Philip Alston, serves as UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and is tasked with exposing some of the more glaring global assaults on human dignity. Alston’s report makes for decidedly sober reading. It delineates a “sense of deep despair” pervading a country disfigured by hunger and suicide, where on a daily basis 14 million unfortunate souls battle poverty, of whom 1.5 million are condemned to a purgatory of utter destitution. Homelessness in this benighted land is rife, life expectancy stalled, and the social fabric of existence – parks, libraries, community centres – torn asunder. The state’s ruling class, though fabulously wealthy, comports itself to a cowed populace as unwavering guarantor of an austerity mandated by the imperative issue of public debt. Once upon a time the government evinced a spark of compassion for its citizens; now, however, for even the most vulnerable among them it insists on rigid compliance with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” legislation. In particular, an egregious measure by the name of Universal Credit spreads hardship and misery wherever introduced, treating those within its purview as “guinea pigs” confined to a laboratory of sadistic regulation.

The reader of Alston’s essay would be forgiven for being put in mind of a banana republic contending with a ruinous legacy of colonial subjugation , but in fact it relates to the United Kingdom – more narrowly, the Tory-dominated English portion of it – or in other words to one of the world’s richest imperial states. It may be supposed that he exaggerates the malign nature of Universal Credit; indeed, advocates of the policy, rising from upholstered seats in the British House of Commons with a haste befitting impugned philanthropists, were quick to allege as much. Members of our group know better. In the previous post on this blog, the present writer, Mark Conlon, sought to shed light on the tribulations of a Pathways fellow traveller forced to claim this one-size-fits-all benefit, an invention of  pious ideologue Iain Duncan Smith aimed at reducing expenditure on the ungodly and improvident masses. Although growing public outrage has led since then to small improvements in the Universal Credit system – for instance, Conservative magnanimity has gone so far as to remove a seven-day “waiting period” during which claimants were entitled to no assistance whatsoever – the below update demonstrates that it remains a procrustean bed of astounding cruelty and pigheadedness. Regardless of minor concessions to decency, the core of the project lies in disciplining the poor to the point where they have no shred of autonomy left.

Philip Alston notes that Universal Credit is a further step in the curtailment of the sort of welfare state outlined in the 1940s by William Beveridge, one where nobody would be allowed to slip through a safety net of minimum provision, let alone find themselves pushed through it by a hostile sanction-wielding bureaucracy. It is almost, one might say, the final nail in the coffin of that peculiar Liberal grandee. Unless scrapped by an incoming Labour administration of determinedly Corbynite persuasion – it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Blairite version of the party was only marginally less savage than its Tory counterpart in imposing welfare “conditionality” – its implementation portends deprivation on a staggering scale. Here in the Potteries, homeless people already crowd the streets in derelict profusion, and not infrequently they die on them; yet the intransigent “rollout” of Universal Credit isn’t complete, meaning worse is to come. Speaking with me last week, our UC-afflicted friend wondered why the seemingly anomalous word “credit” appears in the title of the payment. Perhaps it’s because, from the perspective of its nefarious designers, those trapped within its web mortgage control over their lives for whatever crumbs of subsistence may fall from the neoliberal table.  

 

Since the previous instalment detailing my saga of claiming this “benefit” – a loose term of description – matters have moved on apace. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) conducted a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in order to determine whether I’m in a fit state to take a job. I wasn’t in the least surprised when, in common with numerous other claimants, I scored zero points on the test, meaning the DWP believes me to suffer from no physical or psychological ailments that would constitute a barrier to employment. In reality, my mental health has been far from good of late, in large part due to the DWP’s bullying tactics, and I discussed this on the lengthy IB50 form you’re required to fill in.

The information I received concerning my WCA appeared to indicate a misunderstanding between myself and the DWP, as it referred almost solely to physical health, which I didn’t consider to be in question and consequently hadn’t mentioned on my IB50. Much of it had to do with irrelevant topics such as whether I was capable of using a kettle or washing machine. Right at the tail-end of the report was the following observation: “Neil has mental health issues and is currently on medications supervised by his GP.” Full stop, that was it – out of a total of nearly 400 words. I was going to appeal the decision, yet feel there is no point in engaging further with these automatons.

In August, after tripping over an untied lace and falling down a flight of stairs outside my flat, I was rushed by ambulance to the local A&E unit and diagnosed with concussion. I was in a serious enough condition to be kept in hospital overnight, and owing to the concussion had no recollection that the accident had caused me to miss a Jobcentre Plus (JCP) appointment. The next time I visited a cashpoint, I found there was no money available for withdrawal, as the DWP had halted payment of Universal Credit in retaliation for the overlooked appointment. It’s their way of making sure you contact them urgently when they deem you’ve not obeyed instructions to the letter. They could have ascertained by phone that I had a more than valid reason for nonattendance, but preferred once again to leave me penniless. As a result of the fall, I now experience short-term memory loss, though it’s unlikely the DWP will take that into account where future appointments are concerned.

Recently, nearly every single payment of UC has contained some kind of problem or mistake. Last month, for example, I found out that “recovery of overpaid Working Tax Credits” had resulted in a deduction of £79, or no less than 29% of the expected sum. I phoned the DWP, which inevitably involves at least forty minutes on hold, and explained that I’m not in receipt of such credits. It turned out, however, that the overpayment in question dated back to the 2014-15 tax year, leaving me mystified as to how the issue had suddenly arisen after an interval of several years. I was told that HMRC had helped themselves without prior notice to the cash, and that I’d need to talk with them to sort things out. All too predictably, HMRC proved unwilling or unable to help, merely advising me instead to contact the DWP!

An inescapable feature of Universal Credit is the sheer amount of time taken up by compliance with its endless rules. I have to go online frequently to provide evidence of my quest for work, which involves compiling a “journal” of job applications, interviews and feedback of various kinds. In addition to sitting written tests set by employers, I’ve secured a number of interviews in recent months, and I resent this coercive behaviour on the part of the DWP. I’m not a teenager, but a man in my fifties who is genuinely in search of a job. A few months ago, it wasn’t possible for me to get online due to illness and lack of home internet, and later I discovered an email from the DWP stating that my UC had been “suspended” due to failure to complete my journal regularly enough. Since a claimant’s designated “work coach” can be longer be reached directly by phone or email, I had to visit the Jobcentre to sort this out. Though the account was reactivated, my next payment was lower than it should have been, and fixing the mess required another expensive bus trip to speak with JCP staff in person.

In addition to all the other negative aspects of Universal Credit, I’ve been forced to “intermit” my part-time/distance learning university undergraduate course, as apparently it was making me “unavailable for work” according to DWP logic. For the same reason, I’ll have to abandon my voluntary work helping homeless people at a local drop-in centre. I live in constant anxiety brought on by worrying about the forthcoming payment of UC – whether the “calculation” carried out by the DWP will prove for the umpteenth time to be wrong, and indeed whether I’ll receive the money at all. I can just hope to wriggle through the next few weeks without suffering more setbacks at the hand of this nightmarish system.

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The Nightmare of Universal Credit

 

Over the course of its existence, our group on occasion has attracted what the present author, Mark Conlon, is tempted to call fellow travellers: people without personal experience of psychosis, or indeed mental illness of any description, who nonetheless were drawn to our communistic ethos – I use the phrase loosely, yet not altogether flippantly – to an extent sufficient to make them frequent attendees of our weekly meetings. One such person departed our ranks last year to take up full-time employment in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent’s slightly less deprived neighbour to the west. He thereby escaped the overbearing attention of the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions, a body seemingly dedicated to treating its “clients” – i.e., impoverished social security claimants – as a pariah class fit only for the cruellest persecution (the barely literate but ruthlessly judgemental Esther McVey presides over the DWP as current Grand Inquisitor, having inherited the post from her no less invidious mentor Iain Duncan Smith). Though his presence is greatly missed, comfort can be derived from the fact that we no longer need worry that our erstwhile comrade is going hungry as a consequence of the scandalously low rates of unemployment benefit dispensed by McVey’s penny-pinching fiefdom.

The harshest instrument of DWP torment is Universal Credit, and here another of our fellow travellers enters the frame. As explained in his essay below, he recently had to claim this pernicious and entirely unnecessary substitute for a raft of older payments that provided, if scarcely financial surety in the sense originally envisaged by Aneurin Bevan, then at least viable means of keeping one’s head above water. The results have been devastating, reducing a dignified man – and I hope he won’t take issue with what I’m about to say – to a shadow of his former self. He’s now on a path to recovery, but millions of others routinely face similar degradation. This, once one strips away Tory rhetoric on the bogus topic of “making work pay” via reform of an allegedly labyrinthine welfare apparatus, perhaps stands revealed as the malign intent behind Universal Credit: to render dependence on the state – for the poor, that is, corporations and banks being ever more reliant upon taxpayer largesse – so demeaning that gross exploitation in Britain’s “gig” economy seems by comparison an attractive proposition; and failing that dismal recourse, suicide beckons as the sole exit from a life of impecunious harassment at the hands of a pitiless bureaucracy. The writer of the essay, whose anonymity I’ve respected in order to shield him from the prying quango that is Jobcentre Plus, is too measured and generous in his assessment to suggest as much. However, on the evidence of the following chronicle of calculated governmental malfeasance, it’s hard to conclude otherwise.

 

Universal Credit (UC) is a new benefit from the DWP. It replaces six common benefits – including Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Housing Benefit – with a single monthly payment. This new method of payment is being rolled out nationally, supposedly to simplify the system. The “Housing Element” of UC means that a tenant receives the rent money, to be handed on to the landlord, instead of Housing Benefit paying it directly. That, of course, could have consequences for those unable to budget their money properly over each month. A government spokesman stated that this will help recipients learn to take responsibility!

Despite experiencing a recurrent problem with depression and anxiety, until recently I was employed by a housing association and had not needed to claim benefits for several years. However, I was finding the position, which involved dealing with ex-offenders, an increasingly stressful one, to the point where I was vexed-up in the mornings just knowing I would be in the office later. In August 2017, following a period of annual leave, I decided not to return to work, as by this time I was on medication for stress. I approached the Jobcentre, discovering that these days all applications for benefit must be completed online, and that I would have to claim Universal Credit. I had been on JSA before, yet never UC.

To start with, there was an enquiry concerning the reason I left my job, which included an interview by telephone with the DWP. I was then allowed to apply for UC, doing so on September 3rd of last year. The procedure involves seven “waiting days” during which applicants are not entitled to any income, followed by a further five weeks before receiving a first payment. Fortunately, I had some savings from my job, and access if necessary to an authorised overdraft. After six weeks had gone by, I phoned the DWP office in Wolverhampton to find out how my claim was progressing, only to discover that it had been closed on the basis that I’d returned to work! After a rigmarole of proving that this was not the case, which entailed paying my GP for letters about the state of my health, a fresh claim was opened on my behalf. As it was classified as a “new” claim, this meant another six-week waiting period. By this time I was running out of money.

The situation became more even complicated when I applied for what the DWP refers to as an Advance Payment. I was told by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) to ask for £300, but received only £158, to be repaid from my first six months of UC income. As the weeks ticked by, I was forced to borrow from friends, and ended up on a number of occasions at a foodbank. I was well into my overdraft, and also ran up credit card debts, meaning I’m now on a debt management plan. Meanwhile, I’d received a County Court Summons due to my landlord, a housing association, seeking a Possession Order to evict me from my flat, a development which resulted in additional stress. I had to see the CAB again, and consult a solicitor specialising in housing issues.

Luckily, just prior to the court date, I received a first UC payment. The length of time taken to process this claim, from initial application to first payment, amounted to sixteen weeks to the day! The “Housing Element” was paid directly to my landlord, which at least alleviated the arrears, by then well over £2000. At court I received a Suspended Possession Order, meaning that as long as the full monthly rent was paid, in addition to £65 monthly arrears, I could provisionally retain the flat. Any lapses of rent payments may result in the “suspended” part of the Order being revoked. A further £900 back payment was made to the landlord, although the account remains in arrears as of May 2018.

My court appearances were highly stressful, especially as I was unwell in any case. My GP gave me a three-month sick note (nowadays called a “fit note”) in an attempt to stop the DWP pressuring me on the subject of how hard I’d been looking for work. However, I was still instructed to attend the Jobcentre weekly, as if their “Work Coach” is more knowledgeable than NHS doctors, including the specialists on the Mental Health Team at Royal Stoke Hospital. Palpitations would begin whenever a brown envelope dropped through the letterbox, leading me to fear that my claim had been closed again. After rent and the Advance Payment instalment were deducted, I was left with a monthly total of £220.20 to cover electricity, water rates, Council Tax, food and other necessities. During winter months in particular, it isn’t a feasible sum to survive on, and I’m grateful to Burslem Foodbank for enabling me to eat, and for assistance in the form of a £140 electricity voucher.

I was managing to eke out a precarious existence, walking everywhere rather than taking the bus, when I went on “pay day” to withdraw £20 from a cashpoint, only to find that my account was overdrawn. I phoned a DWP service centre to ask what was going on, a nuisance in itself given that you can be on hold for up to forty minutes before anyone responds. I learned that my UC had been “sanctioned” owing to my failure a few weeks earlier to attend a Jobcentre meeting. This was despite the fact I’d told the DWP that the 8:45 am appointment was inconvenient, a recent doubling in the dosage of my medication meaning I was extremely drowsy at that stage of the morning, information the Jobcentre ignored on the grounds that it was received at short notice. Mercifully, my rent was still being paid, otherwise I could have found myself back in court.

It was a real struggle getting through a six-week sanction on a weekly “Hardship Payment” of £35. I was unable to buy washing powder, deodorant, loo paper or milk, or top up my mobile phone balance by a minimal £10 per month, and was left thoroughly depressed. With the sanction lifted and the Advance Payment loan finally repaid, I’m now back to an income of £254 per month, which continues to pose difficulties when the money has to stretch over an entire month, not simply 28 days as in the case of the benefits that UC has replaced. Although still suffering from terrible anxiety, and holding a doctor’s note that excuses me from looking for work, I’m applying for jobs, not merely for financial reasons but to get away from the clutches of Jobcentre staff and the DWP with their endless stream of letters.

I’ve just discovered that apparently I missed a second DWP appointment, one scheduled for February 22nd of this year. I have attended the Jobcentre weekly since September 2017, and can’t recall missing any such appointment. A “Decision Maker” will now consider the matter. I’ve spoken to the DWP by phone – exasperatingly, you seem never to speak with the same person twice – and have already been in touch with the CAB in case I’m sanctioned again. If that happens, I’ll need to apply for a “Mandatory Reconsideration” and provide evidence to explain why I was absent from a meeting I knew nothing about. Oddly enough, I’ve been to several meetings since the date in question, and it was only at the latest one that the February appointment was mentioned.

There exists a website page called “The Nightmare of Universal Credit” and I can understand why! Unfortunately, nearly all Stoke-on-Trent residents currently in receipt of JSA and ESA will be transferred to UC in coming months. For those affected by the changeover, Potteries Moneywise is a useful source of information and practical help. Good luck!

Some Personal Memories of North Staffs Voice for Mental Health, by David Sweetsur

 

In the previous article on this site, Mark Conlon, a fellow member of the Pathways Group and friend, outlined the stark reality of the paucity of mental health provision both nationally and in our own locality of Stoke-on-Trent, a reality made all the more forbidding for us by the recent closure of the charity, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health. As some kind of salve to such disheartening news, I’d like to offer some, perhaps more happy and personal, memories of my involvement with this much valued, and now missed, local charity.

As Chief Officer Carole Stone states in the letter sent out to members informing them of the charity’s closure, it had its beginnings way back in 1992, a time when St. Edward’s, not the newer Harplands, was the main psychiatric hospital in Stoke-on-Trent. I have spoken to some who spent time at this old hospital, and although no one would ever actively want to spend time on a psychiatric ward, most appear to have at least a few fond memories of it. It was set amidst beautiful grounds and seems to have come from a time when the word “asylum”, with its connotations of sanctuary and protection, was entirely apposite. However, many were not satisfied with the way they were treated in such places, and it was out of this dissatisfaction that the charity grew. As Carole points out:

“The charity was formed in 1994 as North Staffs Users Group. Its origins began in a meeting in 1992 between a service user and interested worker who at the time worked for the National Schizophrenia Federation (NSF). The idea evolved of establishing a group that could exert some influence over service provision in the statutory sector. The main impetus of this came from the dissatisfaction that service users felt about the way that they were treated by the statutory providers of mental health services.

Since those humble beginnings, the group has developed over the past 25 years. Our current membership is over 1300 and just last year, we visited over 70 different venues across North Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent. However the aims of the charity have always remained the same – to ensure that the voice of people who access mental health services is heard.”

It wasn’t surprising then, that with my own experience of mental ill health, and a fairly chequered relationship with mental health services, that I soon became aware of, as it was then, NSUG. I remember having a conversation with one of the staff members in which I outlined my various disgruntlements. Although I was too ill at that time to fully engage with any action that might be taken to help me, it was one of the few encounters I’d had which took what I was saying seriously and was sympathetic to my situation. While it seemed to me that I was being treated as some kind of pariah by mental health services, NSUG offered a wholly more understanding approach.

When I got somewhat better, I was able to offer my time to the charity as a volunteer, helping with the production of their newsletter, sometimes writing articles for it, but mostly assisting with proof reading and editing. After going through appropriate training, I also tried my hand at working as one of their “user representatives”, volunteers who would visit various mental health venues around the city, asking service users for their input on the care they were receiving, and raising any identified issues with the Trust. Such experience helped in my recovery from ill health, giving a structure, meaning and purpose to my days and adding vital stability to my previously chaotic existence.

The Pathways Group also received much needed support from the charity. After mental health staff were withdrawn from our meetings, NS Voice stepped in, visiting us on a monthly basis and offering their help. Indeed, through their intervention, the group now has the support of a social care worker, who can be contacted should any issues arise, and they also aided in drafting a set of ground rules, used to outline to members old and new what the group is about and what is expected of them.

Perhaps most of all, though, one remembers the people, both staff and volunteers, who helped run the charity. There was hard work from many, but there was much fun and camaraderie too, such as when we all gathered for our annual Christmas party. Indeed, the people there became not just colleagues but friends, and Mark and I have become particularly close to Phil Leese, one of the founding voices behind the charity who, despite many physical as well as mental health problems, continues to work tirelessly for the improvement of the treatment of service users.

It was then with great sadness that I received the news that NS Voice would be closing. I had attended a consultation meeting in which various members of the charity told of the good work it was doing, and indeed how it had helped them on their own path to better mental health. This, though, was to be to no avail, and I was reminded of a similar process which patients had gone through when the Bennett Centre, the mental health resource unit where I used to be treated, was closed in 2012. One does tend to get the impression that once the consultation phase is entered, the writing, as it were, is already on the wall and closure, no matter how vociferously and cogently argued against, is the fated outcome.

After it was confirmed that the charity would close, I remember speaking with the Volunteer Coordinator who pointed out the absurdity of a world where the work of NS Voice was deemed unnecessary, noting that it could be run for an entire year for less than the weekly wage of your average Premiership League football player. Indeed, at one of the last meetings of the charity, I recall the conversation becoming more political than usual, with some mentioning the enormous gap between rich and poor, and how if only tax avoidance and evasion were curtailed, perhaps there would be more funds for organisations like NS Voice.

Indeed, the government’s stated aim of reducing acute admissions to hospital by providing more community care and encouraging the third sector was flatly contradicted by the decision to close the charity. People who have the misfortune to experience mental ill health in Stoke-on-Trent are now then facing not only reduced provision in the statutory sector, but also in these other vital areas which often serve to keep people well and out of hospital. We also heard that another third sector service, Echo, which helps people who self-harm, was having its funding dramatically reduced, while there were further cuts to alcohol and drug services.

And so it was that as the charity officially closed its doors for the last time on 30th December 2017, we were all left with the feeling of a somewhat needless loss. The odd tear was shed by people who had been involved with NS Voice for a long time, and who would come to miss not only its support but the friends they had made. But there was also hope for the future. Perhaps we might form a new group? Perhaps we might, as the founders of NS Voice did all those years ago, formulate an abiding resolution to make things better, to seek change, to create something good out of something so apparently bad.

At Year’s End, a Snapshot of the UK’s Mental Health Debacle

The Dudson Centre, erstwhile base of operations for NS Voice

 

Earlier this month, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health, a charitable association in existence since the distant era of John Major’s government, was forced to shut down. Funding for its activities, the bulk of which was derived from local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), had been withdrawn over the course of the summer, and a subsequent scramble for alternative sources of income proved unavailing. Eight jobs have been “lost” – to use the limp euphemism customarily attached to such calamities, though the active verb “destroyed” more candidly portrays the situation – and offices have closed in Hanley’s Dudson Centre and at the area’s chief psychiatric facility, Harplands Hospital.  Longstanding campaigns of educational outreach have come to a premature halt, training programmes and vital advice sessions terminated, and psychiatric patients left without the skilled advocacy in which the organization excelled. Volunteers have been deprived of an outlet for their altruistic impulses, exposing Cameronian preachments about the “Big Society” as the windiest of rhetoric, while a quarterly newsletter sent to more than a thousand NS Voice members ceased publication following a final issue in October.

Carole Stone, ex-CEO of NS Voice, has stated that its disappearance could hardly have occurred at a more inexpedient juncture, coming as it does in the midst of deep cuts imposed on services across the board. Given the damaging repercussions closure will entail, the innocent bystander would be forgiven for thinking that a great deal of money must have hinged upon the decision. That, however, is not the case: running costs amounted to a decidedly modest £170,000, or less than the price of the average UK home now that neoliberal chicanery is left with nothing but the tumefaction of housing bubbles as a means to expand the economy. Evidently that sum is significant in the minds of the bean counters appointed to preside over such matters, a delegation of whom met with representatives of NS Voice in July to pay lip service to the latter’s entreaties for a stay of execution. It must be assumed that the smartly efficient actuaries were unmoved by the stories they heard concerning the crucial role the charity has played in the lives of Stoke-on-Trent residents; more surprisingly, taking into consideration the ardour generally aroused in their profession by “rebranding” and related image-based shenanigans, they remained unimpressed too that the appellation NS Voice is a recent substitute for the organization’s former name of NSUG, or North Staffs Users Group.

All of this, upsetting as it is, represents a mere microcosm of the nationwide imperilment and eradication of mental health services. In the general election unexpectedly held in June, the Conservatives, under the pious leadership of vicar’s daughter Theresa May, stumbled to a Pyrrhic victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – thereby bolstering the view previously expressed in this blog that Corbyn, his considerable virtues notwithstanding, would founder on the electoral rock of Brexit equivocation – and since then have continued to grind the vulnerable beneath the hobnailed boot of austerity. In the domain of socialized health care, the method employed has been the classic Chomskyan formula of instigating chaos and dissatisfaction via defunding, with privatization set to ride to the rescue as purportedly superior replacement. The cruel catch with regard to psychiatric services is that few corporations are clamouring to take them on, meaning that in a privatized scheme the poor are unlikely to benefit from anything more than nominal treatment. Any lingering trace of shame has vanished from Conservative propaganda, and consequently May and her ghoulish Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt loudly proclaim the exact opposite, namely that under Tory governance psychological and physical complaints bask in an unprecedented “parity of esteem” whereby each is in receipt of generous amounts of cash.

The facts are altogether at odds with such absurd sophistry. Paul Mason, BBC journalist turned Corbynite, has quipped that the Tories’ mantra of “strong and stable” would switch to “weird and nasty” in a world where thumbnail delineations were reflective of the truth. The nastiness is conspicuous in policies that function inescapably to ramp up the incidence of mental illness, pursued conjointly with measures designed to eviscerate state aid for those affected. Stagnant wages, precarious employment, epidemic homelessness and the “sanctioning” – that is to say, theft – of social security payments comprise the fertile soil in which psychological malady is sure to germinate. Meanwhile, there has been a 12% reduction since 2010 in the number of psychiatric nursing staff, and freedom of information requests have divulged the disturbing reality that a majority of CCGs are engaged in curtailing mental health expenditure. In November 2017, twelve prominent mental health charities wrote jointly to the government to warn that patients are “locked out” of a beleaguered and under-resourced system. Their pleas for increased revenue, issuing as they did from that currently despised segment of the populace, accredited experts, drew the risible response that an extra £1 billion would be invested in the problem by 2021, a total roughly equivalent to one fiftieth of the annual defence budget.

Aneurin Bevan, after creating the institution in 1948, predicted that the National Health Service would endure as long as people were willing to fight for it. The British ruling class, the globe’s most tenacious fraternity of capitalists, recognizes the accuracy of his observation; while striving to foster as much reactionary sentiment as it can through attacks on designated enemies – a tactic which of late has not stopped short of defaming the hitherto sacrosanct vocations of doctor and nurse – in large part it relies on apathy and political fatalism to ease its goal of dismantling the NHS and other surviving vestiges of the Bevanite welfare state. It’s to the enormous credit of those experiencing mental illness that, while coping with the formidable challenges posed by everyday life, a substantial body of them have battled against the lure of passivity through involvement in such campaigning groups as 38 Degrees and Disabled People Against Cuts. Tragically, unless activism of that kind develops critical mass, their future appears bleak.

By way of conclusion, the present author, Mark Conlon, is obliged once again to apologize for the dearth of articles published here over the past year, even if technically the meagre complement of four fulfils the promise I made twelve months ago to accelerate output from the level reached in 2016. At a time when the UK is transitioning from social democracy to Dickensian workhouse, Europe is beset by ethnonationalist barbarism, and a bellicose ignoramus in the White House jeopardises the very existence of the human species, the reader perhaps will sympathize with my reluctance to compose an incessant chronicle of gloom. Our group wishes visitors to this site the best for 2018, when one hopes passionately to see the sort of progressive change that would compel the most sternly Salingeresque of writers, this one included, to return reinvigorated to their keyboards.

Dave Williams’s Gallic Adventures

 

Recent events in French electoral politics have revealed a sombre reality: namely, that in a republic famed for the tumultuous leftism of 1793, 1871 and 1968, nearly eight million citizens are inclined in the current century to cast their vote in favour of a fascist president. That said candidate of the far right fell at the final hurdle, permitting an investment banker of deepest corporate hue to cross the finishing line, is meagre comfort indeed. In the Gallic context, populist revulsion at neoliberalism has assumed a sadly reactionary aspect. We have arrived, then, at a juncture that warrants a backward glance to somewhat happier times in France. In the summer of 2015, in the company of others from local mental health project Growthpoint, Pathways member Dave Williams travelled to the country on holiday, in what turned out to be an agreeable and occasionally eventful vacation. The following is Dave’s account of his escapades, much condensed by the present writer, Mark Conlon, from a handwritten travelogue of sprawling – I’m tempted to say Proustian – dimensions. Notwithstanding the fact that circumstances make this a not unfitting date for publication, apologies to Dave for the considerable lag between his conception and my realization. Mieux vaut tard que jamais!

 

Travelling in a people carrier, our eight-person group drove to Dover, and then on to our holiday destination in the Ardeche region of south-central France. The journey took two days in total, including a stopover in Paris during which we rode on the metro, took photographs of the Eiffel Tower, and toured the city on a bus equipped with headphones that supplied passengers with information about the city’s historic landmarks. The Arc de Triomphe was a particularly eye-catching sight. The capital was bustling with crowds, including one milling about at the base of the Tower, and the Parisian traffic was more than a little chaotic.

I had no clue what to expect when we reached the end of our drive, as this was my first holiday away from Britain. Arriving at our villa, I discovered it to have an amazing view, with surrounding mountains and a nearby river. It was quite isolated, with just a few other buildings dotted around. On closer inspection, the river in certain places could be waded across, and its water was extremely clear, enabling you to see fish moving beneath the surface. Once you’d got over an initial shock of coldness, it was warm enough for swimming. The temperature overall was very high, more so than I’d felt in my life up to that point. In the daytime heat, crickets could be heard chirping, though they became quiet at night.

One memorable day was spent kayaking, another novel activity for me. Each kayak was designed to hold two occupants. Early on, when we were still learning the correct technique, we hit some rapids, and both I and my fellow kayaker were tipped out into the swirling waters. Buoyed up by our lifejackets, we each grabbed onto a rock, but were instructed to let go by a guide who was positioned at that hazardous part of the river, and floated downstream to a pebble beach where we were able to get back into the boat. With the sun beating down on your back, sometimes it became too hot to continue and you had to take a cooling break. At the conclusion of the day I was sunburnt. However, we had no option but to paddle on to the finish, since there were high cliffs to either side of the stretch of river we were navigating.

The remainder of the holiday, by contrast, was highly relaxing. At times the others may have suspected I was sleeping, but really I was just taking in the peaceful atmosphere, the sound of crickets and gently coursing water, and the sort of sweltering weather I’d never encountered before. Even on the hottest of English days, I’ll never complain again about the temperatures we have in the UK! On one occasion I did go for a lengthy swim in the river, but was careful to take things at a measured pace.

Due to a convoy of cars heading for London, we missed our intended return ferry to England, and ended up having a look around the town of Dunkirk while we waited for the next one. I was fairly exhausted when I arrived home, but thoroughly enjoyed the whole trip: a good experience with good friends, and captivating French scenery that will stay in my mind for a long time.

 

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.

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