Saturday, 28 February 2015

How the Church could play a key role in ensuring migrants exercise their democratic right to vote

The news that the votes of migrants could prove decisive in the upcoming general election represents a significant challenge to the political parties, as well as an opportunity for the Church to play a positive role in the democratic process.
The research conducted  by the University of Manchester and Migrants Rights Network, confirmed that four million foreign-born voters in England and Wales will be eligible to cast a vote on May 7.
Migrants could constitute more than a third of voters in about 25 seats in England and Wales and at least a quarter of the electorate in more than 50 seats.
In at least 70 seats the migrant share of the electorate will be double the majority of the current MP.
“Foreign-born residents of the UK could have an immediate impact in the May 2015 general election,” says the report. “Not only could migrant voters comprise a significant number of overall potential voters on May 7 but they could turn out in substantial numbers within some key marginal constituencies.”

The question though must be one of access and voter registration. The research found that four million migrants are registered but how many are not? In my own area of East London, canvassers knocking on doors have certainly found many people not registered to vote – a lot of them migrants.
Then there are those registered who may not vote. Obviously at this stage canvassing door to door maybe a way to get the message over but there could also be a role for Church networks.
The mainline political parties in different areas of the country really don’t seem to know how to address this problem of getting migrants registered and voting. Yet it is vital to democracy that a way is found to reach this crucial group of people.
The Churches seem to offer an ideal opportunity. The Catholic Church in particular represents one place where people of many different races but united by their faith come together. The community organisers of Citizens UK and London Citizens recognised long ago the value of the churches in reaching the migrant communities.
The successful living wage campaign, for example, launched by London Citizens grew out of the churches, with their networks enabling the organisation to penetrate low pay areas like security and hospitality -  areas that trade unions alone had been unable to do.
The Churches could play a similar role in relation to making sure that the migrant communities that fill the pews are both registered to vote and do vote. This could be done by groups involved in social justice like J&P, Catholic Association for Racial Justice and Caritas Social Action Network. However, there could also be impromptu groups set up just concerned with voter registration.
In the latter case there would be no question of party political bias it would be simply using the forum of the Church as an opportunity to ensure that all parishioners are registered to vote and aware that an election is taking place.  The Church would no doubt support such a move, given its support for the democratic process and enfranchisment of all peoples.
A full scale voter registration exercise conducted via the social justice structures of the Church could help ensure that not only migrants but the whole church going population become aware that there is an election coming and they should be taking part by exercising their vote. This would be a very positive way in which the Church could contribute to the democratic process.

*Migrant vote could be decisive - morning star - 19/3/2015

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Carlos Reyes "dwellings" exhibition opens eyes to unjust world

An excellent photographic exhibition from photojournalist Carlos Reyes Manzo focusing on “dwellings” has been unveiled at the Peltz gallery in London.

Carlos has brought together many images from across the world displaying the lives of struggle of so many people.

Some of the images show no more than shacks, others formerly substantial dwellings then destroyed. One of the latter images concerned a house destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force.

The exhibition is also a chronicle of Carlos’s journalistic journey, taking in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 to Ethiopia in the 1980s and Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of this century. There are also contrasting images of England, including scenes from Brighton and London streets.

The exhibition shows struggle and hope – concern that things don’t seem to be getting any better across the world as the decades go by, yet the resilience of people to survive and wherever and however prosper.

Carlos told of his own journey, as someone who was expelled from Chile to Panama, after being held in  the Tres Alamos concentration camp in Santiago  by the murderous Pinochet regime. Carlos eventually arrived in Britain, where he lived in some of the worst sort of dwellings in Britain at the time, as he started his journalistic journey. “I realised what was happening in Britain then was happening all around the world,” said Carlos, who recalled graphic images of war in Afghanistan with people losing their legs and the struggle of Roma families against discrimination.

One image shows a dalit woman in India standing with dignity, despite having stood and been ignored for four hours.

Chilean ambassador Rolando Drago paid tribute to how Carlos’s work illustrated the suffering of humanity across the world, the lack of opportunity and need for human rights.

The exhibition has been organised by the politics department at Birbeck College as part of its ongoing work on housing issues. The other collaborators in the work are the Birbeck Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies.

*The exhibition runs until 20 March at Peltz Gallery, Birbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square London, WC1H OPD

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Disillusion with political class must not be used as excuse to remove democracy

The recent revelations of more cash for access politicians has further fed the feeling of discontent and disillusion amongst the electorate regarding the political class.

Parties like UKIP have fed off this discontent, declaring the political class are out of touch with ordinary people. The disillusion is further fed by those who declare they’re all the same, there is nothing between the two main parties. This process of feeding disillusion is unlikely to bring about a more accountable functioning democracy.
Not all politicians are corrupt, in fact very few are. Most are in touch with what is going on in their constituencies, largely as a result of weekly surgeries when constituents bring their various problems through the door. There have undoubtedly been abuses, as shown by the expenses scandal and the latest cash for access revelations. However, it is unwise to turn these exceptional cases into a norm that can be used as a pretext for dismantling democracy.

There is a growing call in some areas of the world that good governance is more important than democracy. This is a dangerous call, as it usually ends with some sort of authoritarian regime.

There have already been signs of this type of unrepresentative government being imposed in the wake of the financial crisis, where for example in Italy, the democratically elected government was replaced by a technocratic version.

The more the democratic political system is derided as being totally corrupt, the more it plays to the promoters of these authoritarian tendencies. It is important in these dangerous times to not create a perfect storm whereby a growing disillusion with the democratic political system delivers right wing authoritarian regimes whose only interest is to serve the already rich elites.
A democratic system no matter how imperfect is the only way that ordinary people can retain any control over their own lives – it is why people fought so long and hard for the vote – a technocratic dictator is no substitute.

published - Tablet (7/3/2015), Universe (6/3/2015), Catholic Times (6/3/2015)

Monday, 23 February 2015

“Eleanor Marx” offers a beacon of hope but also a reminder of how much there is still to do in the feminist/class struggles

This excellent book telling the story of Eleanor Marx grips from start to finish, bringing out the myriad qualities of the daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx.

A socialist, political activist, orator, journalist, actress, translator and intellectual, Eleanor Marx died at a tragically young age.

The book charts the development of the international labour movement with all its different elements in the latter part of the 19th century. Eleanor Marx and Frederick Engels particularly always see the importance of organising with the working class in order that they can emancipate themselves from virtual wage slavery. There is always a wary eye to the middle class inspired actions to help the working class, whilst always remaining in control themselves.

The book has many lessons for a world today which in terms of class consciousness seems to have gone backwards to a period that predates the early optimistic developments of the late 19th century.  Today, the working class are largely written out of the script in many forums, being described in derogatory terms like chavs, whilst the middle classes do charity for the poor.

A fascinating element of the book is the constant battle of Eleanor Marx for feminist liberation. She finds early on, that despite her efforts on behalf of the struggle for socialism she is still getting tied down by the tasks that fell to women, even in the enlightened world of the Marx household.

 She then gets stuck with her “husband” Edward Aveling who proves a drain on her personal and emotional life, acting as the worst type of male parasite. Sadly, he eventually drags her down, bringing about a premature death in 1898 at the age of 43.

Eleanor Marx is a book that inspires but also raises much cause for reflection., The biggest question arising has to be how far have the class and feminist struggles progressed since the 1890s?  

The close of the 19th and beginning of the 20st century were times of grinding poverty but also hope. There were visionary figures like Marx and Engels, the development of the new unions, a fledgling Labour Party and the sight of working people gaining consciousness and really flexing their own industrial muscles. There was the suffragete movement that did much to advance the cause of women to at least receive a vote in the society that they did so much to maintain.

Then came the First World War, which was a convenient way of halting the march of organised labour by dividing the peoples of Europe on nationalistic grounds so that once again worker fought worker on behalf of the ruling elites.

Today, women have gained more rights but they still remain second class citizens in society. The hope must be that as women come to dominate the workforce that they will carry the beacon of Eleanor Marx forward and also lead the trade union movement.

The labour movement generally though needs reinvigorating, reinventing and renewing in the present age. It is a sobering thought that if the labour movement in the form of the unions and representative left of centre parties, like Labour, were functioning in anyway effectively beyond tokenistic status, then the capitalists would not have been able to so easily dump the cost of the banking crisis on the workers. There is much to do.

There have been advances in the status of women but they remain, in the main, second class citizens in a largely male dominated patriarchal world. The largest exploited class. One interesting question that the life of Eleanor Marx does pose, is how far the position of women can ever advance as long as the patriarchal institution of marriage continues to assert such a dominant role in society. There has to be a better way of both sexes living, working and procreating together than this restrictive covenant on life.

Eleanor Marx offers a beacon of hope but also a warning of the need to fight on for justice both in the world of work and the domestic setting in which many people live, work and have their being.

*Eleanor Marx: A Life  by Rachel Holmes is published by Bloomsbury, cost £25

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why foodbanks?

The enormous growth in the number of people going to foodbanks over the past five years is one of the major achievements of the Coalition Government.

One month before the Coalition came to power in 2010, there were 54 foodbanks, today the number has increased to 423. Some 41,000 people went to foodbanks n 2009/10, compared to 913,000 being given three days emergency food and support last year (330,000 were children).

In contrast over the same period the number of billionaires in the UK has gone from 53 to 100. The richest 1,000 people now have £450 billion of the wealth – an increase of £150 billion in the past three years.

This scenario of more people going to foodbanks whilst the super-rich get richer has come to represent the true vision of David Cameron’s Big Society.

The demand for foodbanks has grown at the same time as the government has been cutting away the safety net of the welfare state. This has been done to the accompaniment of the mood music in the media, that those on benefits are scroungers and skivers.

The danger moving forward is that foodbanks get institutionalised, effectively becoming a charitable alternative to the welfare state.

Some 8,318 tonnes of food was donated by the public in last 12 months. 30,000 people have volunteered at foodbanks over the past year. 27,000 frontline care professionals such as doctors or care workers have vouchers to issue for foodbanks.

The growth in the number of people going to foodbanks at a time when the economy is recovering, provides further proof that those living in poverty are not sharing in the benefits of the recovery. Notably, a quarter of those attending foodbanks are in low paid work.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said: “People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system. They are drawn from the six million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low-paid or bitty employment.”

The Trussell Trust, which runs the foodbank network across the UK, point out that there have been 500,000 people coming to foodbanks in the six month period between April and September this year, 38% more than for the comparable period for last year.

Currently, 45% of food bank referrals are due to benefit delays and changes, including sanctions and 22% of the 500,000 that came cite low income as the main trigger for the crisis.

David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said: “Substantial numbers are needing help because of problems with the social security system but what's new is that we're also seeing a marked rise in numbers of people coming to us with 'low income' as the primary cause of their crisis.


“Incomes for the poorest have not been increasing in line with inflation and many, whether in low paid work or on welfare, are not yet seeing the benefits of economic recovery. Instead, they are living on a financial knife edge where one small change in circumstances or a ‘life shock’ can force them into a crisis where they cannot afford to eat.”

A report compiled by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty has credited the foodbanks for staging “a social Dunkirk.”

The report, Feeding Britain, makes recommendations concerning changes to the benefits system, to stop delays and the implementation of the living wage to counter low pay. However, it is the third recommendation to create a new generation of “super” food banks that is most controversial. The new foodbanks would combine food aid with welfare advice and advocacy. This network of foodbanks would bring together the existing players with supermarkets and the state.

The report suggests the supermarkets could redeploy some of this food and play a much more hands on role in helping out with the foodbanks.

This suggestion goes to the heart of the dilemma, a step toward institutionalising foodbanks, rather than seeing them as a temporary measure to deal with a hunger crisis.

The story of foodbanks in Canada provides a salutary lesson. 

Foodbanks were introduced in Canada in the early 1980s in what was perceived as a tough economic time.

There are now 700 foodbanks in Canada, providing help to 800,000 people. The number has increased by nearly 100,000 over the past six years – as the country has come out of economic recession. There have been an abundance of low income jobs created as part of the economic recovery – sound familiar?

Writing in the Guardian, Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, tells how foodbanks have become a second tier of the benefits system in Canada. “The sad fact is that in Canada, with its 30-year track record of increasingly corporatised food charity, recent national data shows that one in eight households or 3.9 million individuals (11.6% of the population) are still experiencing food insecurity,” said Graham, who criticises plans for super foodbanks as only addressing the supply side of the question, thereby recommending “a vanguard role for the charitable food industry and food waste in the battle against structurally caused food poverty.”

The institutionalisation of food banks leads to the depoliticisation of the issue of hunger. “This can only lead to the long-term institutionalisation of food banking and diminish political appetite for progressive reform,” said Graham, who claims that in  Canada, the food charity industry has fostered the de-politicisation of hunger, so it is now a matter primarily for community and corporate charity, and not a human rights question demanding the urgent attention of the state.

“Today, Canadian public perception of food charity is that it should take care of domestic hunger. Governments can look the other way,” said Graham, who suggests that a right to food should be entrenched in domestic law backed by international statute, then the obligation  to deal with hunger would be put fully back under the responsibilities of the state.

Former Leeds West MP John Battle, who has been doing some research work on foodbanks in Leeds, warns that “foodbanks could become institutionalised as an alternative to the welfare state. “

He believes that the real issue is low pay, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. “This cannot be allowed to go on, with the poor effectively being left to pick up the scraps from the rich man’s table,” said Mr Battle who pointed out that the ‘Feeding Britain’ report found many of those using foodbanks were on zero hours contracts.

He insisted that the implementation of a living wage and maintaining of the welfare state is the direction in which things should be heading.

Notably the tone of the government has changed toward foodbanks, with initial scepticism and even hostility – a potential £22 million from an EU fund was rejected in 2013, that could have gone toward this work – now seemingly turning to broad support.

The net result of simply expanding the foodbank network is that Churches and charities can continue to feel good about helping out the poor in a purely charitable way, whilst the corporates gain a good helping of positive PR from their growing involvement in these ventures. In the meantime, the numbers going to foodbanks and living under the poverty line continues to grow. The issue has to be one of justice, put very simply, the right to eat and live.

It would be a true irony if a virtuous charitable endeavour like foodbanks evolved into a back door means to further emasculate the welfare state and build the low pay economy.

*Read on how foodbanks have become institutionalised

20/2/2015 "In the vanguard of feeding Britain - are foodbanks being used to undermine the welfare state?" - see:

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

New homily guidance can only lead to call for more cardboard priests

The revelation of a new directory from Archbishop Arthur Roche regarding homilies will surely bring forward the demand once again for more cardboard clergy.

The questions raised in the directory such as “what is the homily? what kind of attention does it deserve? and where do we find its contents?” must go through many people’s minds every week as they sit agog in the pews.

The cardboard clergy seem well suited to deliver satisfaction -
“The cardboard Priest is invaluable to hard-pressed clergy who need a

holiday. It is life-sized and comes in progressive, middle-of-the-road and

the Tridentine models. It is especially effective when stood behind the

lectern. Field trials have shown that when a cardboard Priest was

installed without the congregation knowing, 40% of those later

questioned had noticed no difference, while 25% said there had been a

considerable improvement,” say the producers. “Soon we hope to have available a cardboard Bishop which can be placed in the diocese while the real bishop is away in home. Trials models have been installed for same time in the Bishops Conference without being detected.”

The cardboard cut out could no doubt find useful employ in other areas of life as well?