Refections on the General Election

A few days after the election a colleague tweeted:

“Rise in support for Corbyn, Sanders & other movements tells us… people are open to big narratives about structural change” #systemschange

The reason I don’t think this is true, even though the respected economist Stephanie Flanders said the same thing to the RSA after the Brexit vote, is as follows.

Brexit, Trump, Saunders, Netherlands, Austria (first time round) were all examples of people voting principally for candidates defined by what they opposed, usually ‘the establishment’; they were not votes in favour of a particular ideology or plan. So too the election and re-election of Corbyn within the Labour Party – brought about not least by frustration from some Party stalwarts and ideological support from newer, inexperienced and predominantly young members. In its own way Macron’s vote in France was negative too, rejecting both traditional parties as well as the obvious (and established) FN ‘protest’ option; though En Marche’s subsequent Parliamentary vote has set course for a positive way forward. The problem with installing a government on the basis that they oppose what you oppose is that you have no yardstick by which to judge success – who do you vote for when they disappoint? That way anarchy lies.

I was talking to arch-Brexiteer Daniel Hannan earlier in the year: I said that everyone who supported ‘Remain’ knew what they wanted the world to look like in the weeks after the vote, whilst barely no two Brexiteers could agree on their vision of life in or out of Europe – and he agreed. Research shows that although many people who voted Brexit (overwhelmingly the less well educated) had no vision: they were voting ‘against’ the establishment both for conventional, rational reasons but also through anti-foreigner, anti-establishment, even anti-Green and anti-feminist sentiments. There was no coherence to the Brexit ‘movement’ other than around what it was – and is – against.

On June 8th in the UK election we saw exactly the same happening, not on a national scale but on a local one:

– In Scotland there was a swing against the majority party (the fact that both Con and Lab benefited from this suggests it was an anti-SNP/anti-independence swing, not a pro-Lab or pro-Con one)

– In England (apart from London and the North West) there was an ‘anti-the-party-of-my-local-MP’ swing – big anti-Labour swings in the north east (though not enough to lose seats) but also across the east and west Midlands, taking out Stoke South, Mansfield, Walsall N, North East Derbyshire; Tories lost vote share (and seats) in their heartlands too.

– London was different; Labour did exceptionally well because its people and most of its MPs are solidly ‘Remain’, because there was no sizeable UKIP vote ‘up for grabs’ and because Sadiq Khan is popular and active.

– I’ve had to revise my analysis to account for the North West, where Labour did well. It has to be seen in the context of doing very badly in the county elections, nationwide, just five weeks earlier. What changed in the interim was Andy Burnham’s election as Manchester Mayor (highlighted by perceptions of his leadership around the Manchester bombing). The words ‘Labour’ and ‘success’ came together in the media and Labour held North West marginal seats that it had contemplated losing.

The seat I used to represent, High Peak, is a case in point. In May we lost 3 of our 4 Labour county council seats there yet Ruth George won the Parliamentary seat on June 8th with an incredible 14% swing – despite being in the East Midlands. Does this contradict what I said about the Midlands above? No – because in High Peak (split 50:50 on Brexit) 90% of the population receive their media from Manchester, not the East Midlands (the rest get Yorkshire TV). High Peak was thus infected by the ‘Burnham Buzz’, the equivalent of London’s ‘Khan Chorus’. (High Peak also has an extremely sophisticated electorate – who, in their wisdom, elected me three times from 1997. Blue collar workers, who moved away from Labour elsewhere, are under-represented there).

Two more seats: by no stretch of the imagination need Labour ever contemplate relying on Canterbury or Kensington to deliver a majority. Canterbury was a fluke: a massive 40% of the electorate are students there and the timing of the election was perfect in maximising both anti-Tory passion (corralled by Labour’s policy on student fees – thank heaven we don’t have to implement that now!) and the phase of the University year. Sheffield Hallam was similar. Three weeks later, after term had ended, that vote would have been dispersed to the four winds. In Kensington an unpopular MP linked to a very unpopular cause (Brexit, in London) paid the price; her Labour successor has had an unenviable, literal, baptism of fire. Backing up this claim I cite the fact that in my own west London home the three forever Conservative wards of Chiswick all returned Labour majorities for the first time ever – because the Tory candidate lost votes by not opposing Brexit in this 70% ‘Remain’ area.

So, don’t get out the bunting quite yet. There’s a long way to go before a very fluid electorate is likely to coalesce around a progressive government or coalition… Meanwhile Labour’s big challenge is to consolidate those areas once called ‘heartlands’ as well as the conventional ‘swing seats’, where a distinct and worrying lack of progress was made in June. Perhaps this reflects the fact that our leadership has little or no experience of ‘pitching’ for the swing vote in the centre ground of politics…

Reflections in the cold light of (election) day

So we have another Conservative government – but for how long? With memories of the recent coalition still raw we’ve seen a return to two party politics as an unlikely Labour leader claimed the silver medal to widespread praise. Don’t laud him too much: this was a high turnout election (that’s good) but ‘highest ever Labour/Tory vote’ claims are disingenuous, as the electorate’s never been this big before.
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The irony is that this was a long, 7 week campaign which Theresa May could and should have won: her robotic, hermetically sealed, intensely personal approach was so dire it couldn’t disguise the lack of proper plans for Brexit or the economy; it was the Conservatives what lost it. It was a long campaign; if 3 weeks shorter Mrs May would not yet have tumbled down the polls so far and would have won. A short campaign delayed by 4 weeks, and the students would have dispersed from their university towns for the summer and made less of an impact (Canterbury – where 4 in ten electors are students – Reading and Sheffield Hallam might not have happened). And again the Tories would have won.
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The Tory campaign was without doubt the most inept I’ve ever seen from any party – and I remember 1983 – yet Labour still couldn’t beat them! We regained our 2010 position, itself the worst outcome for Labour for 30 years. The battleground ‘swing’ seats, especially of the East and West Midlands, stayed blue – except, I have to say, my own old constituency of High Peak (1997-2010) in Derbyshire, which Labour took on a 15% swing! I can’t explain that, especially as Labour lost all but one of its county councillors there just 5 weeks earlier. The seat voted 50:50 on Brexit but it has a well educated population and few traditional working class families for Labour to alienate. Plus a weak incumbent who’d made no mark in 7 years in office. High Peak behaved as its geography suggests – like a north-west seat, with a successful Andy Burnham trending on its local media – and not a Midlands one, where Labour provided little to prompt aspiration.
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Labour had no antidote for the Tory / Brexit onslaught which robbed them of Mansfield, Walsall, Stoke South and High Peak’s neighbour, North East Derbyshire – all losses which should have been even more remarkable than the gains of Kensington or Canterbury. We’ve taken such seats for granted for too long, not ‘working’ them enough between elections – which is when politics really happens.
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Labour’s ‘success’, such as it was, was based on four main things:
  • a campaign that suited Corbyn’s ‘rousing’ style (there’s a place for making existing supporters and idealists feel good and empowered, but it doesn’t attract swing voters);
  • a cohesive and radical manifesto that commanded broad support across Labour as it would have in any European social democrat party (but thank heavens we don’t now have to pay for it);
  • phenomenal success in London, where Sadiq Khan rules OK, where there’s little UKIP presence and a very strong anti-Brexit feeling – and where pretty well every Labour candidate (except Jeremy and Diane) was united in NOT having JC on their leaflets or visiting their patch!
  • Scotland, where the pendulum swung Labour’s way after a ‘couldn’t get any worse’, unrepresentative 2015 result.
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So now, today, we have the prospect of a Theresa May / Democratic Unionist Party ‘arrangement’ (the ‘Made-DUP’ alliance as some are calling it) keeping the Conservatives in office but not in power. I’m not too worried about the scary end of DUP politics – my dealings with them in the past suggest they are less monolithic, more tolerant on social and economic matters than they are painted, and the scary civil rights stuff ‘s a devolved issue, not for a Westminster coalition. But what’s really worrying is the impact that Government partisanship could have on Northern Ireland politics. As the neutral, the arbiter, Mrs May simply cannot slap Arlene Foster’s wrist in Stormont one day and beg the DUP battalion to follow her through the Westminster lobby the next… Either the ‘loose coalition’ won’t work or the peace process won’t. What a choice!
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The most promising thing to come out of politics in the last few days is the start of informal cross party talks between backbenchers (and others?) on how to organise and deliver a Parliamentary majority against the hardest interpretations of Brexit and the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ faction within the Tory party (they’re wrong, by the way, very wrong). That will involve breaking down tribal barriers and genuine engagement on the issues: is it too much to hope that Opposition leaders might follow their troops into battle on this, talking the language of friendship with the sizeable number of Tory backbenchers who see this as an opportunity to get the genuinely best deal from withdrawal from the EU – or even not withdraw completely?
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If we can do it on Europe I just hope that Labour’s Party managers are looking at other issues too, where Conservative allies, even ministers, can be enticed by the prospect of winning a majority vote of Parliament on manifesto issues common to all parties: on climate change, company governance, the relief of poverty, for starters.
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We’ll see. Meanwhile, don’t put those garden posters away quite yet…

What is the future of civil society?

“There are no boundaries”: a response to Julia Unwin’s dilemmas

Julia Unwin, chair of Civil Society Futures, published “three dilemmas” for civil society. Here, Tom Levitt responds.

This isn’t a dilemma: there are no boundaries. Perhaps a generation ago it helped to categorise but today it doesn’t, the approach needs to be inclusive. Whilst I welcome the idea of the ‘for purpose’ company, B Corp is a distraction, not least because it only applies to 100 small companies in UK after a decade of existence. It doesn’t answer this question: “If a ‘for profit’ company commits its entire work force to supporting a charity partner over a period, in innovative ways, producing value to both parties, is it behaving as part of civil society?” I’d say yes, of course. Does the same apply if only half the workforce is involved? Yes… and so on, ad absurdum. Where do you draw the line?

What’s the difference between a profit and a surplus? Does it really matter? The American version of ‘non-profit’ is at least defined (organisations dependent upon external funding for their survival) whereas ours isn’t so concise. The only true ‘not for profits’ are taxpayer-funded services, charities, voluntary groups – and companies that have gone bust. Social enterprises and B Corps are ‘for-profits’ but it’s what they do with their profits that makes them different from companies which exist to drive ‘shareholder value’ only, who take money out of their companies to benefit (principally) ‘the few’. Even CICs are allowed to take some of their surplus/profit out of the system! Shareholder value is very much under scrutiny as more and more business leaders, as at Unilever, argue that environmental sustainability and community engagement are actually the best ways to deliver long term shareholder value. Does that make them part of civil society? (When we say ‘not for profit’ we mean ‘not for dividend’ but that’s not very catchy!)

A well run business will regard its workforce as a community and espouse community values of engagement, representation, activism and sharing; the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership does all of these things. Does that make JLP part of civil society?

We don’t need to spend time and effort excluding people and organisations from our definition of civil society: if it has a bill and it quacks, it’s a duck. Let’s get swimming together…

Dilemma 2. Civil society is one of the places where we express affiliation and associational life is our great, and growing, strength. Many voluntary organisations invest heavily and successfully in developing an active and engaged membership. But trustees are charged with governing for today’s beneficiaries as well as future generations. Does that create impossible conflicts within organisations with growing and more engaged and voluble memberships? Do we risk the engagement of members who quite naturally will have demands and aspirations for now? Are members our stakeholders, or are they are owners?

Those conflicts can and do arise. As Martin Luther King said:

‘Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary’.

In other words, every charity should have the goal of putting itself out of business by conquering the cause of the injustice against which they fight; that’s how you serve the beneficiaries of the future. Whilst this isn’t usually a realistic (lifetime) goal it should, nevertheless, always be reflected in the mission and programme of both individual charities and civil society in general.

You identify two risks here: one, that I call the ‘philanthropist’s risk’ is that s/he may choose to fund a campaign which isn’t a priority, or in a way which is not appropriate, perhaps operating in isolation from others and possibly even undermining those with a more rational approach. Bill Gates is a star not for the quantity of money he donates to good causes but for the fact that he delivers nothing: he uses his wealth to enhance and coordinate proven ways of working by others. The ‘democratic risk’ is that the majority have the right to be wrong. A charity with ‘youth’ in its name had a very democratic structure which, over the years, delivered an elected trustee board with an average age of over 60. The membership had to be told they were wrong – a brave action – but re-organisation was well handled and it worked.

‘Membership’ – an active, engaged, controlling mass membership – is not the flavour of the month in the charity world where today ‘followers’ (in both the ancient and the modern, Facebook sense) and supporters are the most wooed. This helps protect the mission from transient changes in public mood and other influences (given appropriate safeguards) and leaner, slimmer organisations are more agile than those which are constantly looking over their shoulders to judge public or members’ moods. But a compromise is needed: the charity sector is paying a price, literally, for regarding supporters as money-fodder rather than building relationships with them.

Few businesses could be described as democratic but they certainly know how to build brand loyalty…

Dilemma 3. We know that reputation is a hugely valued asset. We gamble with it at our peril. And yet active civil society will always want to empower people to take action. Our risk frameworks and control systems may protect our reputation. But do they also dampen enthusiasm and engagement and make it difficult for people to take initiative? Does our proper desire to be business-like and professional, stop us from allowing people to take action?

The charity sector is notorious for its risk aversion and fear of failure. Whilst the latter is justifiably seen as letting down the beneficiary, the former prevents many (especially mid-sized) charities from maximising their impacts. A balance must be struck.

A good example of this is the way that charities regard business as a resource. Traditionally this is an arm’s length relationship although the charity arm is normally outstretched, palm upwards. A recent report says that in 2012 only 20 per cent of our largest charities agreed with the statement:

‘…by effectively harnessing our corporate partners’ competences and non-cash assets [our organisation] can make much more of an impact on our mission delivery objectives than through cash-based relationships’.

In 2013 it was 34, 48 in 2015 and 60 per cent agreed by 2016. Things are changing. The Dell Foundation has identified a significant shift in corporate philanthropy: given a choice between a $100,000 gift and an equivalent value in counselling, skilled volunteering or access to decision-makers only two fifths of the 700 NGOs they work with, worldwide, would today choose the cash.

I’m interested in what ‘action’ Julia have in mind in the last sentence. Some would argue that the swing from ‘public funded’ to ‘state funded’ charity-run services has both grown charity capacity and stifled innovation as it (usually) pays for reliability of pre-existing services. As state funding dries up (half of government funding to medium sized charities has already gone) that idea will be tested in years to come! One thing that stifles action, of course, is the Lobbying Act, often creating an over-compensation in a community not used to being regulated in this way.

If ‘action’ means ‘taking part in demonstrations’, forget it (useful for cause-building, no good at getting results). If ‘action’ means empowering collective activity to directly serve beneficiaries then that focus will be more important than ever. As the public sector shrinks (for evidence, look no further than care provision in relation to growing demand) the imagination, capacity and determination of civil society will be tested as never before. New forms of collaborative, integrated, collegiate, cross sector working are needed, based more than ever on local initiatives; the state may still need to coordinate but the routes to results are not paved with gold. We’ll never again go back to the halcyon days of even ten years ago…

 

What’s New about NewCo?

Tom’s June 2017 Contribution to the CBI’s Great Business Debate

There’s little novelty in defining one’s business as a force for good. Over the years we’ve seen the emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility wax and wane, stagnate or mature; movements like Blueprint have blossomed and we’ve seen Richard Branson’s B Team, Benefit Corporations and the B Corps emerge. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals recognise the essential role that business has in ensuring that humanity and the planet continue to have a world we can share.

NewCo has no particular claim to the moral high ground but it does provide a platform for companies to share passion and purpose. The NewCo movement is neither a legal status nor a certification scheme but a coming together of for-profit companies, of all shapes and sizes, who want to do things differently. They’re enablers, collaborators, innovators, they’re transparent, open-minded and nimble, connected to communities, each other and the world through the internet. Starting in San Francisco five years ago they’re in 16 cities around the world, mostly in US but including London; driven by ideas and stories they see business as an expression of identity and reject the old corporate model of ‘command and control’. Most are small, all are ambitious and mission-driven but they include Google, whose goal is to make information accessible to all, P&G, Barclays, the BBC and hundreds of smaller enterprises.

On one day in May, 44 NewCos in London opened their doors and invited the world in. Many of the 300 visitors were London Business School MBA students and alumni, sharing hour-long seminars in up to five premises during the day. I visited three:

One celebrates good food and good cooking by serving up packs of ingredients for you to cook at home – with close to zero waste. 300 UK employees ‘serve’ customers every day across 9 countries, all coming with typical NewCo condiments of happy excitement, powerful enthusiasm and innovative flair.

Another works with major charities to develop new forms of fundraising, motivated by the fact that demand for the services that charities provide continues to grow – demand that they’ll be unable to meet unless charities can find innovative new ways to fund their work. The new era they anticipate is unwaveringly online where they seek to promote commerce, extend markets and develop business strategies. Using the tools of business, as it were, to create public good.

A third is a vibrant incubator of new talent, with a good record of turning ideas into business reality. In recent years 35 of the 40 start-ups it’s launched have failed – that’s the way of the world. One in eight ideas succeeding is a good rate and it’s been achieved by encouraging the positive attributes of innovation to go to scale.

This movement has an energy which is rare amongst businesses. NewCos are driven by purpose and operate within traditional business rules whilst integrating them with a positive way of life. It would be wonderful to think that a movement measured in hundreds could become mainstream within a decade.

Thanks to Toast for the fridge

The fridge settles in to Hounslow Foodbox

I once won a holiday in Cuba, then found I couldn’t go. Apart from that, a fridge-freezer is the biggest prize I’ve ever won – and I mean big! This one’s an all singing, all dancing one in which you could house a small family. So big in fact, that…

I digested the news and went to the model’s web site, getting out my tape measure. There are 28 stairs up to my flat and this is a double breasted machine almost six feet tall. Good news! The corridor from my front door is wider than the fridge is deep – by almost 10cm. But – oh, no! – there’s a radiator in the way. And there’ll be no room for it in my kitchen without major surgery. And I live alone – do I really need it?

Half a mile from my home is the Hounslow Foodbox, a busy foodbank. Too busy. There shouldn’t be such demand, though it’s a sign of the times. As supermarkets have (finally) chosen to adopt policies of zero food waste, a shortage of supply for foodbanks is unlikely. But the policy also means a growth in the quantities of chilled and frozen food that they make available and that simulates a demand for… fridges. And freezers.
So thank you, Toast. That’s where my fridge freezer is now, looking after the food that will feed people in Hounslow who would otherwise go hungry. Some people donate a fiver, others a can of baked beans. I just handed over £1,200-worth of electrical goods, for free.
I do, however, keep very quiet about the other part of my raffle prize, which came about not from buying a ticket but through contributing to the crowdfunding effort to get Toast off the ground, a business that will (appropriately) use out of date bread for making a range of fine artisan beers. A very worthy cause in itself. I also won two dozen bottles of each of three varieties of their ale.
As I said, I’ve measured the width of the corridor and counted the stairs. I’m absolutely confident that the beer will fit both through my front door and in my kitchen. And I’m looking forward to being proved right!

Investor Schroder commits to zero carbon energy

Tom Levitt reports on his outing to the 2017  Schroder’s AGM on behalf of ShareAction’s AGM Army… (This article also appears on ShareAction’s web site)

There’s always an air of anticipation at a corporate AGM: will my question be taken seriously? How long must I wait before my moment in the spotlight? What clever way of not quite saying ‘no’ will they come up with?

At the Schroder’s 2017 AGM I needn’t have worried. The previous month they were named ‘Most Responsible Asset Manager in Europe’ by ShareAction so we were amongst friends; and with barely 40 people present we were done in an hour.

Tom and Anne-Marie prepare for (Share)Action

So I was confident when I stood up to ask ‘Will you join other companies in the RE100 initiative to commit to 100 per cent renewable energy in your own operations within a reasonable time scale, to be set by you?’ The answer came: ‘Yes.’

Actually, the official answer, given by the Chairman, was ‘We use 60 per cent renewable now, we’ll achieve 75 per cent in 2020 and 100 per cent in 2025’, but when I asked CEO Peter Harrison later ‘Does that mean you’ll be joining the RE100?’ his reply was much more succinct: ‘Yes’.

Something for me and Anne-Marie Williams, ShareAction’s Investor Engagement Manager, to celebrate! Her question (just before mine, in her own right) concerned the lengths the company would go to in persuading their investees to work to avoid that 2 degree rise in global warming. Her reply from CEO Peter Harrison was very positive, making me even more optimistic about mine to follow. Avoiding the two degrees requires a rapid drop of 60 per cent in fossil fuel use, he agreed. Experts today say that figure’s 80, but he’s headed in the right direction.

Talking to Peter Harrison after the meeting he clearly ‘got it’, acknowledging the responsibility of investors in changing investee policy on climate change. ‘The reason we have a climate change problem is because so many people have taken so many short term decisions over so long,’ he said, absolutely hitting the nail on the head. I’ve since had his permission to use that quote in my next book, The Company Citizen, to be published towards the end of the year!

Peter then graciously accepted Anne-Marie’s offer to put Schroder’s in touch with RE100 to get them working together on a timetable of action for 2025.

Why had it taken this responsible business until now to commit? Their global company may, in some countries, operate out of accommodation where they’re not in charge of decisions on energy supplies – or where zero carbon energy may not be readily available. But they’re on course to meet their 2020 target and have 7 years to make it 100 per cent by 2025.

I somehow think they’ll do it… result!

Greece is the Word… for Refugees

In March 2017 Tom spent a week in Athens including four days teaching English and providing conversation practice, as a volunteer, to refugees based in the squatter community. Here’s what he found…

They say the camera never lies. Everything I’ve seen and heard on TV about the plight of Middle East refugees was borne out by four days working in Athens recently, with migrants in the squatter communities around the city’s historic university and anarchist quarter.

Former office blocks, schools and abandoned government buildings provide around 6 hubs in this community, mostly squats, taken over with various degrees of permission. They’re within a square mile of dense, mature city, home now to migrants who have risked their lives, savings and sanity to escape war, fear and personal oppression.

Inscribed ‘Dedicated to the poor and homeless of the world’: Athens street art

There’s D who, five years ago, at 18, started university in Syria, a Christian who was excused conscription because he was studying pharmacy. A year later the derogation was reversed but rather than sign up for Assad’s army he transferred to Beirut to study where, a few months later, he heard that his parents and two siblings back home had been killed. He finished his degree and a few weeks ago invested his savings in the traffickers to take him to the west. After a couple of false turns (deliberately, to extract more money?) he found himself in Greece, with nowhere to go, no money left and no way forward; just a pharmacy degree, excellent English and a blend of hope and acquiescence.

K had been a nurse in Iraq for over 20 years. This family man was proud of his Kurdish health service but the day he came home to find his village razed to the ground, by ISIS, he knew it was time to flee. He rounded up his wife and child and within days they were transported, at great cost and by mysterious men, to the Greek Islands and hence to Athens. Three weeks ago the wife and child had bought their way to Germany on a bus. ‘I don’t know how the traffickers did it,’ he said, but they took all the money he had and he could see no way to be reunited with his family.

M, an Afghan, had also been on the islands: ‘Our boat set off at night for the mainland and was intercepted by police,’ he said. ‘It was dark, we were scared: then we cheered! This was the Greek police, not the Turks. We’d made it!’ M had walked from Afghanistan to the Turkish coast (‘Actually, I occasionally did a few miles by taxi’) to avoid most of the traffickers’ costs. Another boy told me he was one of 90 on a 9 metre inflatable boat which had been sinking with a puncture when they were caught. ‘I’m from Afghanistan, of course I can’t swim’.

Few of the refugees are able to work but some are in the informal economy – ‘there’s always demand for a barber!’ smiled a Pakistani man. ‘I admit, I’m an economic migrant’, confessed an Algerian baker, impressed that I knew his home town of Oran, as he settled down to sleep on a sofa. It was 3pm: bedless, he would be on the streets all night, once the drop-in centre closed.

Then there was N, a man of passive disposition, huge dignity and an educated smile: a former policy adviser. Married to a politician who’d gone before him and reached a camp in Europe proper, internal Kurdish politics had driven him and his two delightful children – the daughter, an aspiring microbiologist with perfect English – to leave it all behind. And go where? He would not have chosen Greece, where the economy can barely support its own people let alone tens of thousands of penniless visitors. Nor would he have chosen Britain: ‘Brexit?’ he said: ‘You’re crazy. Oh, what will happen to Ireland now?’ We met in a busy make-do community centre where everything was free, even the cafeteria. It was popular with refugees for its language classes in English, German and Farsi, advice bureaux, yoga, library and creche. These were all managed by young northern European and American volunteers, almost all white, mostly women, abounding in piercings, tattoos and dreadlocks – plus the occasional English public school background.

Welcome to the anarchist community: ‘We don’t work with the NGOs’, a young woman stressed to me on day one. This was apparently the only condition I had to swear to uphold before being let in to offer English conversation to the day visitors. Not working with NGOs (or governments, naturally) meant that what benefits were available in the camps outside the city – such as regular, small cash payments – were not provided here.

The squat where we gave English classes to giggling pre-teen Afghan girls was home to dozens of families, from every Middle East country and beyond. I gave our star pupil – a girl of 11 – a globe the size of a grapefruit. She loved it, fascinated: ‘That’s Greece? Really? And England – so small!’

The building had been attacked by fascist fire-bombers a few weeks earlier, fortunately without injury. Scorch marks on the outer wall were worn like a proud badge. ‘Locals accept us’, I was told, ‘they bring us gifts. They’re almost as poor as we are.’ The previously generous state pension in Greece was recently halved; acceptance isn’t the same as celebration. Gifts too came from abroad: on one day a convoy of 26 anarchist vans and lorries arrived from France, Belgium and Spain, with clothes, bedding and food. The street was like a scene from Mad Max, without the guns. Was this the right way to do things, I thought: what had the convoy cost? What if, instead of practical things, they’d sent money? A Euro in Greece goes further than a Euro in France. More to the point, if the refugees had money, even the same pittance as they’d get as of right in the camps outside the city, they might not only choose with dignity what to eat or wear but they’d be contributing to the hog-tied Greek economy, making together perhaps a significant contribution to the businesses that were so struggling around them, yet so separate from them.

Like the refugees, the anarchists were themselves an international band, set apart from the mainstream of their own societies, deliberately, preferring to avoid contact with authority. There were local traditions to uphold: it was in this area that the riots of 1973 undermined the junta and triggered democracy. The reputation of the locality for its street art pre-dates the refugee crisis: ’graffiti’ isn’t a Greek word for no reason.

Stepping out of ‘the system’ is risky. Few of the refugees I met had yet become hardened or cynical. Yet whatever hope they had left was theoretical, just about triumphing over experience. For how much longer? Whatever they were fleeing from had changed their lives forever before they even left and, where the trigger for departure was war, was changing them still – and not for the better. Yet these were people who had once had ambition, plans, families. They still have smiles, however rueful, even the ability to laugh. One joked ‘Put me in your suitcase, take me to London!’

These were the lucky ones: they’d got away, in most cases because they could afford to – back then. Every one of the adults and many of those younger understood the politics behind their situation and the reality of their slim prospects.

They were people with families who had done what they felt was best. They appreciated a degree of rules and order, unlike their polite and generous hosts. Whilst the risks they were taking in the manner of their migration were always odds-against success, this was better than the near certainty of humiliation, degradation and possible murder at home.

22 March 2017: a day I’ll remember

The killing of a policeman in Parliament took place just yards away from me…

Yesterday (22 March) was such a remarkable day: I was about 20 yards from where the policeman was killed, just minutes before the attack happened.

It started with me chairing an event for Fair for You in the Terrace Pavilion, overlooking the Thames, at which a remarkable woman called Lisa told our guests what a difference we, as an ethical loan social enterprise, had made to her family’s life. I offered her and Chris, a new supporter of FFY who’d come from Cheltenham for the event, a tour of Parliament, always a nostalgic moment for me. We visited the Terrace and in Portcullis House, at 2.30, Lisa suddenly screamed ‘There’s my MP!’ so I grabbed Seema Malhotra to come and say a quick hello! Seema was on her way to vote and the guy with her, Don Brind, was, moments later, an eye witness of what happened.

We left Portcullis House and crossed New Palace Yard to enter Westminster Hall, where I used the privilege of the ex-MP to show my guests the chapel in the crypt – including the cupboard where suffragette Emily Wilding Davison spent census night in 1911. I had once arranged for High Peak’s Kinder Children’s Choir to sing in the crypt, a rare and wonderful moment in that spectacularly beautiful room. With us in the crypt yesterday were David Amess, a Conservative MP, and his four guests from the Maldives including a government minister and the deputy ambassador.

As Lisa, Chris and I were leaving the crypt, passing the memorial book for my friend Jo Cox, there was a commotion as two very scared women ran into the crypt from a private, side entrance. I recognised one as Gemma Doyle, another former MP whom I know from when she worked for the Labour Party. Her colleague had seen the man wielding the knife.

We remained in the crypt for two hours (possibly longer than anyone since Emily?) venturing out just once to be told by a police officer to stay where we were (at least he knew we were there!). The ten of us followed events on Twitter and David spoke to his staff on the phone – they’d seen the incident from their office window. We had no idea of the scale of either the crime or the lockdown response. At one point a security officer came down to take the young woman’s details as a witness; he was close to tears.

MPs, staff and public are held in Westminster Hall during the Parliament lock-down

We were eventually corralled out to join a crowd in Westminster Hall and, half an hour later, 1,000 of us were led by armed police to Westminster Abbey where we were held for a further three hours. MPs, peers, staff, journalists and visitors; no frustration, no panic… very stoical English! At last we had access to loos and something slightly resembling tea. And biscuits. Chatted to Tom Watson, Maurice Glasman, Caroline Flint, many others.

Eventually (9pm) we were released: to a media horde who pounced on me – so I did the proper thing, with a dozen lights and cameras, mostly foreign journalists – followed by my second chat with BBC’s Nick Robinson in a week! A quick chat with my old boss, a visibly shaken Hilary Benn, then Chris and I paid for Lisa to have a taxi back to Hounslow. We collected our coats from Parliament (by now reopened for that very purpose) where I shared a hug with Yvette Cooper.

It was only later – post-adrenergic shock – that I started to realise what I had been through – and, more to the point, what might have been. I was proud of Fair for You, my friends, and the institution of which I was once – and perhaps always will be – a part.

History repeats itself! Signs of the Times

Congratulations to Dawn Butler MP for being the first MP to ask a Parliamentary Question in Sign
Language (BSL) in the House of Commons. I was delighted to be asked to comment on Radio 4’s Today programme the next day (here I am at 1 hour 40 minutes in). But my good friend Dawn wasn’t the first to use BSL in the House!

I’d done so in a half hour debate on Deaf Awareness training late at night back in April 1998. I signed the last paragraph as I spoke, whilst up in the Strangers Gallery a BSL interpreter translated for the benefit of 20 Deaf people who had come for the occasion. My speech, interpreted later by John Lea, was later made into a VHS video (pictured) and distributed. This was before the days of social media!

I had a later debate, in April 2000, about BSL itself; and from 1998-2003 I sat as a trustee (my first time on a major national charity board) for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (now Action on Hearing Loss). I’m still a patron of the National Association of Deafened People and in the period before I went to Parliament, 1993-97, I worked as a consultant on deaf people’s access to mainstream services.

Even I wasn’t the first to use BSL in the House of Commons, though I was the first on TV: (later Sir) Malcolm Bruce used BSL briefly in the 1980s, though as this was before television came to the Commons there’s no record.

Dawn’s intervention – made at peak time of the Parliamentary day! – created a sensation amongst Deaf people on Twitter, another Sign of the times. And it deserved to, because my campaign was for legal recognition of BSL, which happened in 2003. Hers was to go beyond that, to try to establish a right for Deaf people to be able to use BSL when accessing key services such as health, law, etc. To his credit, Leader of the House David Liddington in his reply did reply that the Department for Education was about to announce that fluency in BSL would be accepted as an equivalent qualification to fluent spoken English in apprenticeships. Which is a great step forward.

Well done, Dawn!

6 Reasons why Hammond is Right on NICs

In the 2017 Budget Chancellor Philip Hammond raised National Insurance payments for some self employed people…

…and then a week later withdrew the policy. However, I still support it, as do the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the CBI, the Financial Times…

The Chancellor has a problem that would be no different for Labour. The recent massive increase in self employment is bad news for the economy because it’s been about exploitation, not entrepreneurialism. As a result of big companies either insisting on self-employment in the ‘gig’ economy or even de-employing people (see UCATT’s recent report on this) some people’s rights are being restricted. But that’s not what Hammond’s change to NIC is all about.

Here are six reasons why the Tories were RIGHT to raise NIC for some self employed people and deserve Labour support:

– the big switch to (often bogus) self employment has cost government many millions in lost tax income because the Treasury no longer receives employer’s NIC (or higher employee’s NIC) from them

– last year the self employed got an automatic right to a state pension without being asked to contribute any more towards it

– most self employed people in the gig economy won’t be affected by the rise in NIC because their net earnings are under £16k

– a self employed person with a declared income of £16k probably has a real income of at least £20k because they can offset expenses against tax (which PAYE employees can’t)

– at 11% the self employed will still pay less NIC than employees (12%) (though yes, they have fewer entitlements) and they aren’t required to do auto-enrolment on pensions

– when Labour needed more money for the NHS we brought in a NIC rise with no controversy at all!

Self employment is very complex. It used to represent convenience for the artisan, opportunity for the entrepreneur, release for the hobbyist – no longer. Big business has benefitted from growing self employment because they reduce their NIC payments by outsourcing. Those obliged to go independent have seen their NI contributions fall even where headline pay is unchanged. Modern self employment raises huge challenges around benefits, training, career development and social mobility.

The Budget wasn’t about the rights of self employed people nor the abuse of the status, though they’re important. And nor (London colleagues please note) does any part of the tax system acknowledge London weighting. A review is looking at all these issues and I trust Matthew Taylor to consider them properly, not just in fiscal terms.

Labour’s challenge to the Budget should be about living standards, corporate taxation and Brexit impact. In particular, when the revised National Living Wage came in, only in 2016, it established that minimum wage legislation should raise the lowest paid up to the official poverty level by 2020 – this commitment was dropped in the 2017 Budget. The relatively minor adjustment on NICs is not where we should focus.

For the record, I’ve been self employed both as an individual and as a company.

The fact that the decision is a manifesto breach is incidental, a problem for the Tories, not for Labour; leaving the EU Single Market would be a bigger manifesto breach! It was a daft commitment but it’s what governments do. If Hammond argued ‘changed circumstances’ he’d be right. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, the NIC change is about tax justice.