Monday, 29 September 2014

Please help get clarity on the future of the RVT

Please help get clarity on the future of the RVT

There's not many more wonderful or important gay venues in London than the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

In many ways it's hard to tell the history of gay and lesbian London without it. For sixty odd years the no bullshit fabulousness of its club nights – with its drag acts and theatrical performances – have been a kind of safe haven from the outside world for LGBT people across London, one of the handful of places in which the words 'gay community' makes sense. First, from its role in the sexual revolution of the post-war period, then its position on the frontline of the AIDS crisis in 1980s (Paul O'Grady, a regular Tavern performer back then, talks about this movingly here). It's recent cameo in the movie Pride is just the latest recognition of its status.

Today it's endured as a bulwark against the wanky nonsence of a lot of Soho; a place where you can see many of the same faces mixed in with the new each time you go, and probably the first place I felt at home when I moved to London a few years back.

All of which made me sad to hear and read that it might be at risk. What we do know is it's either been sold, or is about to be sold, to investors. Who exactly is unclear, but most likely from abroad.

One of its previous owners will continue to manage the place for now, and they've done an amazing job over the last decade to keep it thriving. But by all accounts the Tavern's long-term future is still unclear. There are still persistent rumours that it will eventually be torn down, transformed into apartments, a hotel, or otherwise sanitised out of all recognition.

Anyone who's been to RVT will know its location makes it prime real estate. Indeed sadly none of this can be stripped from the wider context of the creeping gentrification and commercialisation of a lot of South London, including parts of the gay scene. To see the RVT go the same way would be a real act of cultural vandalism. Sadly, as yet there's been a stony silence from the Tavern's new owners on their intentions.

So, a small campaign has started up to get assurances about its future, and to secure the Tavern as a community asset under the recent Localism Act. If successful with Lambeth Council, this last measure would give the community the right to bid for the Tavern in the event that its put up for the sale again. It's not impossible that some local group would come forward to bid for the place.

In the meantime, the questions that need to be asked and which many people are anxiously waiting the answers to are:

  • Who has bought the RVT?
  • What are the new owners' plans for the place both in the short term and in the long term?
  • Will they share those plans, or consult on them?
  • Can the new owners provide proper assurances that it will stay open as a gay venue, and true to its long history, for the long-term?
On all of these, there have been no answers. So if you are reading this and are as fond of the RVT as many of us are, please take time to either share this blog or ask the questions of RVT yourself via Twitter @TheRVT or email INFO@RVT.ORG.UK. And please push the issue to local politicians, media etc.

Again, this is not about denigrating the management of the Tavern, who have kept it alive and kicking over the years. It's just about getting clarity and assurances over its long-term future, and that any plans for it stay true to its character. If this were any other bar, we could all just find somewhere else to get pissed on a weekend. But the strength of the RVT is that it engenders greater feeling than that, and it means more than that – past and present. Those who go there aren't just its customers, but a community too, so we should act like it until its future is secured.

EDIT: Thanks to everyone who has helped push this issue. The RVT have now put out a statement in response. It's here: 

Good news that they're engaging on it, but sadly the statement is mysteriously silent on most of the questions people are asking. The most simple one being who owns the RVT and what their long-term intentions are. It's important we all keep asking that, which many of us will - this has only deepened the mystery for me, anyway!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A thing for the New Statesman here
The British middle class is sinking. Is our politics big enough to meet the challenge?
An interesting statistic crept out of the Department for Work and Pensions last week, while the pubs of Britain no doubt buzzed with discussion about Jean-Claude Junker or how someone in Ed Miliband's office may or may not have recognised someone at a FT summer drinks reception.
According to the DWP, the average household income in 2012-13 was £440, unchanged on the year before. It represents the third consecutive year of stagnation or decline (depending on how you cut the figures). As the IFS have noted, in real terms this leaves median household income in roughly the same place as it was in 2002, and comes off the back of painfully slow wage growth from the start of the 2000s.
In the same week the increase in the price of homes reached an all-time high. Add in that a majority of people on typical incomes now have less than one month's income as savings, plus the slow hollowing-out of middle income jobs, and a pretty clear picture emerges. The foundations of middle class life – a decent income, assets, savings, pensions – are getting harder and harder to attain, especially for those just starting out. In many cases, debt has filled the gap.
This goes beyond just failures of the private sector. The welfare safety net has also become residualised. People on reasonable incomes can work their whole life and receive only paltry amounts when they lose their job. When it comes to both work and the state, people in the middle have been putting more in than they've been getting out for a long time.
It should go without saying that working class communities have had it hardest over the last thirty years. But the idea of middle class decline too is too often met with derision, especially among progressives.
Part of this is down to a distorted view of what "middle class" is, a popular association with what is in effect the upper middle classes; the world of piano recitals and Waitrose where "struggle" means difficulty meeting school fees. Of course, the middle class contains many like this too and they are doing more than fine. In fact, the most interesting development that experts havepointed to in recent years is the fracturing and polarisation of the middle class, between the upper echelons and those at the lower end. And previous generations who started out at the lower end of the middle class, bought a house at the right time, settled into a profession and now face retiring near the top may well be the last to make that journey en masse. In short, the bottom is falling out of the British middle class.
There's been a lot of talk about "narratives" recently. There's also been a lot of talk about how Ed Miliband doesn't have "a narrative". But in his defence, he's one of the few at the top of British politics to grasp this phenemenon, whatever his other difficulties. He's not totally alone – some figures on the right, for instance, including the brilliant Peter Franklin at ConHome, have twigged too. But wider interest is otherwise conspicuous by its absence, in Westminster at least.
Instead we get slightly echoey outdated debates about Europe, whether X or Y is "pro-business" or "anti-business", whether a particular view of public services is sufficiently "reforming" and so on and so forth. But surely the shape of that discussion changes in the face of such huge societal shifts? No doubt this failure to catch up is partly because the senior ranks of the commentariat are largely made up of those at the comfortable end of things (themselves probably among the last who can expect to make a good living out of a profession like journalism) - but it's depressing all the same.
To be fair, the answers are neither easy nor obvious. The likes of Resolution Foundation have been fantastic at laying out the problem of stagnating wages and ways to ameloriate it, but no one has come up with a wholesale plan for reversing the trend. Some of this is because it rubs up against global head winds and the modern divorce between power and politics. It probably requires trans-national solutions, or at least a revisiting of the way Britain approaches globalisation – a debate that hasn't even been opened here.
But those who over-play the inability of national government to fix things are also wrong, and usually have a vested ideological interest in doing so (in this sense the argument between those favouring a "bigger" or "shrunken" Labour offer in opposition is mostly phony, and a proxy for a bigger one about what can be achieved in government). Ideas that would be both effective and achievable include wholesale reform of corporate governance to include a significant role for workers; profit-sharing and other ways of spreading wealth; lower-cost routes into home ownership; breaking up and remaking British banking; decentralisation to cities; the prioritisation of vocational "middle skills"; prioritising British industry in procurement; reform of takeovers etc. When it comes to welfare, there is IPPR's National Salary Insurance scheme or SMF's "flexicurity" proposals.
All of this can only start, though, with a recognition that our current journey back to basically the same political economy as we had before the crash is not what success looks like. It wasn't good enough then and it isn't now.
Marx famously wrote:
The lower strata of the middle class... all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.
Things may not be as apocalyptic or revolutionary now, but they are bad, and contradictions within modern British capitalism mean the lower end of the middle class is sinking. The entire middle is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. The result is entire neighbourhoods – which on the face of things look serene – in fact struggling to keep their head above water, facing futures significantly less secure, less stable and less well-off than their parents. This shapes millions of people's everyday lives and influences their political attitudes, and it should influence our political discussion too. At the moment, though, it doesn't seem to be. Future generations will surely look back and wonder what on earth we were talking about instead.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory

Piece for NewStatesman
Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory 

Defeat would open up space for reinvention.

The British Conservative Party needs shock therapy. It may still scrape back into government in next year's general election but if it does, barring a miracle, it will be on a smaller share of the national vote than in 2010. This has been the case every time its been victorious since 1950. As a growing number within the party recognise, it's reaching a point where things have become unsustainable. Forty per cent of voters now say they wouldn’t even consider voting Conservative, while the party has little base among ethnic minority and working class voters, especially in the north. Once-proud Tory heartlands like Sheffield and Manchester now have not even a single Conservative councillor. As the impressive David Skelton of Renewal has argued, voting Conservative in these parts has become counter-cultural.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the left was forced into a reckoning. It had suffered successive electoral defeats but it had also been intellectually defeated, with the end of the Cold War and shifts in the country's social fabric. The Conservatives have never really undergone such a reckoning, largely because Thatcher was never defeated at the ballot box, mostly thanks to a divided opposition. And so a mythology has grown up and still has hold over the party: that her brand of free market triumphalism won over the whole country, benefited the whole country, and can do so again.
This was always dubious – but has sustained itself even as the impact of her legacy on country and party sews division and resentment, especially in the deindustrialised north, and the "party of the rich" image has been baked in. As a creed, Thatcherism has come to rest on public deference to business elites, a faith that whatever their excesses, their inherent superiority will benefit us all in the end, which has been severely undermined by the financial crisis and flatlining wages.
Moreover, Britain may be a conservative country, with many attracted to Thatcher's ethics of self-reliance and discipline. But few outside the south-east ever shared the values of break-neck economic liberalism to which those ethics gave rise. A lot of people don't like to be made to feel powerless to forces shaping their lives, or like losers for not wanting to be self-made billionaires.
And yet Thatcherism remains the default instinct for much of the party – any departure is usually tactical or skin deep (with the notable exception of gay rights). Contrary to what many on the left think, the Conservative tradition is rich and long pre-dates the neoliberal era, encompassing communitarian and even social democratic schools of thought. Yet these days, any thinking in its ranks which entails fundamentally challenging the Thatcherite comfort zone is tossed aside. If the party get back in to power in 2015, this sleepwalking will continue, even if in its obliviousness it further erodes the electoral ground on which they can be returned.
Increasingly it seems that the only thing that can reverse the trend is Ed Miliband, smiling from the steps of 10 Downing Street. If this sounds like preposterous accelerationist tosh, think about it. Being beaten after just one term by a man the party's leading lights have long deemed unelectable would provoke huge internal recriminations. In this post-mortem there will open up space for those who understand the need to reinvent the party, from top to bottom both ideologically and organisationally; a project that Cameron initially grasped and then retreated from.Even if the initial leadership contest doesn't produce such a candidate, Labour may still rescue the Conservatives with their spell in government – though only if Miliband is as successful as he intends to be.
Unlike his predecessors, the Labour leader has made clear his desire to rework the political economy that Thatcher brought into place and New Labour left largely in tact. If (and it's still a huge if) he is successful, it would re-wire the rules of British politics: towards intervention in markets to make them work for consumers; towards active industrial policy and economic populism. Living standards and wages – reform of the economy to make it deliver for ordinary people - would become the central issues of British politics.
Such ground is the only place from which Conservative renewal can be fought, given the kind of votes they need to win. Were they to move onto it, combined with already potent messages on welfare and crime, they would be a formidable threat. Yet they seem incapable of doing so of their own accord. It's almost certainly too late in this Parliament, having already surrendered so much ground Labour in favour of a much narrower agenda. Increasingly, it seems, they will have to be forced there.
This may still be a little sunny, admittedly. Defeat for the Conservatives could well just result in a prolonged turn to the right and doubling-down, as it did last time. But unlike before, there's a range of intelligent and interesting people in Conservative ranks who understand what the party needs to do to broaden its appeal, and have placed reforming capitalism at the heart of their pitch. Jesse Norman, Skelton at Renewal, and Rob Halfon are just a few. Though currently fighting an uphill battle, they have already laid down a marker for any future battle to come. And who knows, their ascent may yet end up being Miliband's biggest threat, and greatest achievement.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

In-work poverty is the greatest moral outrage of our generation - it deserves to be treated like it

Blog from January, originally here.

The moral outrage of in-work poverty

All things considered, I thought some of the reaction on the left recently to George Osborne’s intervention on the minimum wage bordered on the churlish. Even if Osborne’s conversion does owe more to psephology than theology, that a Conservative Chancellor sees Government action on it as a vote winner can only be a positive thing in the long term.
That said, as the Westminster road show has quickly moved on to other matters, the issue of low pay certainly shouldn’t be allowed to be ticked off as covered or consigned to footnotes in next year’s election. Not least for the Conservatives because it will take more than one policy announcement to reach the type of voters that have felt long ignored by them
More importantly, the matter demands far more attention than that – and a great deal more anger among Westminster opinion formers than it’s currently granted.
It’s also not just about economics, but the withering of a basic social contract, and something that goes to the heart of what’s gone wrong with work in this country.
No matter what popular mythology tells us, a great many people don’t actually like work; it’s supposed to perform a function. The bargain used to be that if people looked for work, got themselves out of bed and contributed, they would at least be afforded the dignity and self-sufficiency of being able to pay for a roof over their heads and food for them and their kids. Maybe over time there’d come the chance of a higher wage or home ownership.
It’s an understanding that has sustained support for capitalism, through all its flaws, for generations. Ultimately it survived in Britain because it could – when run in the right way – put food on the table for the vast majority.
Now all of that is unravelling. People are putting more in but getting less out. Growth up and wages flatlining. The jobs market hollowed out, making social mobility even harder. Affordable housing disappearing, rents ballooning. Increasingly, people are subjected to having to rely on help of the state or others to prop them up – not momentarily, but permanently.
A miserable litany of facts bears this out, so numerous they could fill the rest of this page. To spare you and give just a few: over 90% of new claims for housing support are from people in work, while the Trussell Trust say half of people who need to use their food banks have a job. For the first time, more living on the breadline are in work than not. Two out of three children growing up in poverty do so in working households.
This applies to people who come here looking for a better life, too. For some reason, the likes of McDonalds and Costa have started to get their employees to bear a tiny flag of their home nation on their name badge. Visit one and the panoply of nations represented is a reminder if needed that these are the sort of jobs migrants do when they arrive: low paid and insecure. Its useful context for when politicians go headline hunting on ‘benefit tourism’. The number of migrants claiming social security is infinitesimally small, of course. But given most work, it’s likely that the bulk of those who do claim are in employment. Figures are hard to come by, but take the Working Tax Credit – 14.5% of its claimants are non-UK national, compared to 6.4% of out-of-work support (just 2.7% of JSA is claimed by EU migrants).
Contrary, then, to those who look to play people of different nationalities off against each other, their plight is a tiny part of a much broader picture affecting millions of their British neighbours and friends.
The sense of contributing more and getting less is echoed higher up the income scale too – higher tuition fees for the same standard of education; house prices up, quality down – but it is most acutely felt by those on lower incomes. It’s hardly any wonder so much of the electorate are so angry. Nor that many, grimly, take it out on those they (wrongly) deem to be getting an easy ride while they struggle.
Somewhere along the line, something has gone badly wrong. And given that low wage, insecure jobs are about the only jobs we’re creating as a country at the moment, it’s a crisis which will only get worse without action.
Even putting aside issues of GDP and central government spending, restoring that basic social compact of work providing a decent life is fundamental to restoring the spiritual and moral health of a country that calls itself first world. Certainly no one in public life can ever again talk credibly about ‘work being the best route out of poverty’, of opportunity or aspiration, without acknowledging it.
Tackling the cost of living is a vital part of this, of course, but it’s only one half of the challenge. Many uncomfortable with asking more from the powerful push lower tax as the answer, but even abolishing all tax on people on the minimum wage, at great expense, would still leave them with less money than a Living Wage paid by their employer.
Even at £7 an hour, a full time worker in London takes home just over £1,000 a month. The average private rent in the city is £520 a month per person for a flatshare. A Zone 1-3 travelcard: £136. Then there’s council tax, utility bills, and so on.
Far stronger across the board action on the Living Wage (and London Living Wage) is simply non-negotiable, not least as it would have a positive upward pressure on the wages just above it too. Employee representation on company boards also desperately needs to be strengthened if the distribution of rewards are ever to be addressed properly, and sectoral collective bargaining strengthened. These last two are partly what has distinguished the ‘Coordinated Market Economies’ of northern Europe which Labour rightly admires.
Needless to say we have not arrived at this sorry state through the failure of any one individual, government or even party. But that someone in Britain can now work a 37 hour week and still not be able to provide the basics for themselves and their family is a national disgrace, and the starkest symptom of how far we’ve fallen as a country. If our politics can’t fix it, we’ve every right to wonder what it’s there for.