Wednesday, January 30, 2008


What Do You Do When Someone Else Is Jobsworthed?

I’ve been tangled up in the frustrating, depressing coils of unhelpful bureaucracy more than once, and can generally talk my way through it (being both glib and gobby as required). This afternoon, however, I was stood behind a couple who were being given the runaround in a grotesquely rude way, and I was at a loss to know what to do. I’d gone over to pick up my repeat prescription from my local GPs’ surgery – a thrilling highlight to the day – and ended up waiting nearly twenty minutes behind a couple who the receptionist painfully obviously didn’t want to register.

I’m sure everyone gets stuck behind someone else in a queue from time to time, and it’s easy to blame the person in front of you. I know I tend to, and if it’s me that’s taking the long time at the head of a queue with some unusually complex demands, I feel embarrassed at keeping all the people behind me. This afternoon was quite different. I could hear more than enough of the conversation to wonder just what the receptionist was playing at, and to feel increasingly embarrassed at the way the people in front of me were being treated.

In short, the couple at the desk were trying to register with the practice – which, incidentally, has “REGISTERING NOW! We are now registering new patients” at the head of its website at this very moment – and the receptionist was being as obstructive as she possibly could. It was very difficult to see any possible reason for this other than that the couple were evidently new to Britain. Their English was faultless, but their accents (possibly Italian?), the passports they were presenting and the content of their conversation made this very plain. As far as I could tell, they had every single thing that the receptionist was asking for. It’s just that the receptionist kept asking for things again that they’d already presented, making them answer the same questions again, and saying that they could only register, if you’ll believe this, on separate days. Their little boy, for example, couldn’t register just then, oh no; he’d have to be registered when his dad came in for a medical check-up. Then she offered an appointment for the father on the 8th of February, but couldn’t offer the little boy one straight afterwards, because he wasn’t registered. Perhaps she just didn’t think to tell them that, twice a day, you can ring and make a within-twenty-four-hours appointment on a first come, first served basis? Or perhaps she was trying to discourage them from registering? And, of course, it was only when the little boy came in for his appointment – whenever that might be – that they could present his immunisation details. But they had the papers with them, insisted his papers, waving them. No, sorry; they had to take them away, and bring them back. I could see the photocopier from where I was standing. Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to attach a copy to the father’s file?

The father was getting rather resigned, and the mother rather stressed, but both were reasonable and polite throughout. So when, after a lot of this, the mother asked why she should have to come in five times for the same thing, what do you think the response was? Not, ‘I’m sorry, it’s been a long day’; not ‘I’m sorry, I know it seems tiresome, but everyone has to go through this’; not even the standard jobsworth ‘I’m sorry, these are the rules’. Just “If you’re not happy with the service here” – wait for it – “then you can register with the Barkantine Practice. They’re taking on new patients at the moment.” Just like you proclaim to be. And when the receptionist started upbraiding them with “Why haven’t you registered with the NHS before?” I knew the answer as well as the couple in front of me did, and so, having listened to much more of the conversation than I had, must the receptionist. First, it’s none of her business, anyway. And second, there’s no possibility that she didn’t know the answer before she was told: “We’ve only just got here.” She could have said, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s more complicated when you haven’t registered before.’ She didn’t. She clearly meant, ‘Why don’t you just f*** off back where you came from?’

Now, the surgery wasn’t busy. While I was there, only one other young couple came in. They saw the little boy playing round the outer door as they did so, and immediately went to his parents and alerted them, in a friendly and concerned rather than an officious manner. And when the little boy – who’d stood patiently for the first few minutes, but had clearly got very bored – wandered over to some of the NHS pamphlets on display, found some cards about smoking, picked them up, shuffled them, then accidentally dropped half of them on the floor, naturally I helped pick them up. His dad turned round to help and, as he wasn’t in mid-conversation with the jobsworth for that lone moment, I felt compelled to apologise to him, and tell him they weren’t usually that rude. Meaning ‘the staff here,’ but thinking ‘British people’. I wished him good luck, and shook his little boy’s hand when he said thank you. But that felt rather inadequate.

I’ve been registered there for a dozen years. All the doctors I’ve seen have been polite and professional, and usually friendly (if not always able to treat my exciting problems), and the receptionists have always been polite to me. I’ve never seen them rude to anyone, in fact. So I hope today was a shocking aberration, and not a policy. But what can I do, other than just writing a stiff letter? And what should I do if I see something like that again?

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Boris Pledges: I Will Have More Money Than Sense!

With Derek Conway suspended from even the Tories for fraudulently funnelling taxpayers’ cash to his family and Peter Hain brought down by repeatedly breaking the funding laws for which he had collective ministerial responsibility, surely no MP could be senseless enough to boast about their illegal election funding plans? Step forward Boris Johnson, hapless Tory London Mayoral candidate, in a new scandal spotted by Mayorwatch (though not by the Guardian in their own article on his funding). At least the police are forewarned when a candidate is so arrogant and stupid that he promises in advance to break the law.

The Guardian’s report on Boris Johnson’s campaign focused on the conflict of interest in one of his big donors being a property developer planning big buildings in London; accepting that was stupid of Mr Johnson. But what it missed, and Mayorwatch was the only site clued-up about London politics to spot, is that Mr Johnson’s campaign has promised to spend £1.25 million against a spending limit of £420,000; missing that was very stupid of the Guardian. You might think £420,000 is quite a strict spending limit, considering there are eight million people living in London, and compared to – say – the limit per head for a Parliamentary by-election, or the £20+ million that Labour and the Tories throw around on their sizzling overdrafts every General Election. You might even say it’s a sign that the Labour Government doesn’t take London elections seriously. But the fact remains, that limit is the law.

And Boris Johnson’s campaign has boasted that he will break the law by spending three times as much as the legal limit.

Mayoral spending limits are fixed by law, and take effect from the 18th of March. Mayorwatch reasonably thought it unlikely that two-thirds of a Mayoral campaign budget would be spent in the next month and a half, leaving only a third as much to spend in the two months when everyone’s paying attention, and asked Mr Johnson’s campaign for clarification. Their reply showed that arrogance and stupidity aren’t restricted to the candidate himself:
“We disclose financial information about the campaign when the electoral commission requires us to – they ask for names and details of amounts given but do not ask for information on what we spend it on. I'm afraid i am unable to disclose how much is spent on each area of campaigning… Since the current Mayor is currently running his campaign from City Hall, perhaps you can ask him the same questions and enlighten us on when he intents to stop using city hall staff for election purposes?”
Readers may well agree that Mr Livingstone is a bullying egomaniac with a careless disregard for financial propriety. By drawing attention to this, however, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson seeks to persuade people that the cure to Mr Livingstone’s dodgy ways is to elect an incompetent bullying egomaniac with a careless disregard for financial propriety. Mr Johnson’s pledge last week…
“Another day, another scandal at City Hall… Being the Mayor of London is a huge privilege and not one I will take lightly. From day one of my administration I will be accountable and open to scrutiny. The position will never be abused again.”
…has lasted about three days. Whoops!

If Boris Johnson isn’t taking the rules about the Mayor of London lightly, he’s doing a very good impression of it. But has he ever taken the job seriously? Tories were complaining for months after he’d become their candidate that he was doing nothing to get the job; also last Autumn, during the run-up to The Election That Never Was (yes, he was the Tory I alluded to at the bottom and never got around to following up), Mr Johnson announced he’d be standing again as Conservative candidate for Henley. It’s one thing to tell the eight million people of London that none of them are talented enough to run their own city, and that we need a viceroy from Henley to ride in and keep us plebs in order. But he’d previously said that, if he became Mayor, he wouldn’t stand again as an MP. So announcing he would be a candidate in both elections at the same time… Arrogant, you might conclude. And stupid. But most of all, it shows that he’s not really interested in the London job.

I was reading a piece on Intelligence and Ignorance yesterday that had a fairly reasonable sketch on each of the three main candidates for Mayor. He felt, however, that Mr Johnson was likely to be such a disaster that he’d be forced to vote for the dodgy Mr Livingstone to keep him out, despite thinking Brian Paddick would do the best job. So, with all the troubles and scandals surrounding the incumbent Mayor, Mr Livingstone probably rejoices that fear of Mr Johnson is his biggest asset. Well, Labour’s election pitch against Liberal Democrats who’d do a better job so often boils down to ‘We’re s**t, and we know we are, but, oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’

In London, Labour’s ‘You have to vote for our bully, because the Tory would be a disaster’ line can be exploded. For all those people who know Brian Paddick would make the best Mayor for London, but are tempted to support Ken Livingstone to keep a hopeless Tory bungler out of the job, there’s a simple solution. It is impossible to ‘let Boris in’ by voting for Brian first. The voting system for London Mayor (unlike for your MP) gives you two choices. When the vote’s counted, if your top choice isn’t in the top two, they look at your second choice. If that one’s in the top two, your vote just gets added to their stack. So even if you’re tempted that way, there’s no reason to hold your nose and vote for Mr Livingstone; you can vote on hope first, and let your back-up vote be about fear.

And when Mr Livingstone takes only his own ego seriously and Mr Johnson takes nothing seriously, doesn’t London deserve someone who’ll take the job seriously?

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Thursday, January 24, 2008


History Repeats Itself: First As Farce, Then As, Er, More Farce

So, a charismatic Glasgow socialist egomaniac with a propensity for lawsuits who founded his own party and screams that everyone else is a splitter has, er, split from his own party, claiming that he hasn’t left it, but they’ve left him. George Galloway’s apparent desertion of Respect is probably (assuming the usual love all those in the socialist fraternity have for each other) the only thing to give Tommy Sheridan a good belly-laugh for months. Let’s hope, as seems highly likely, that Mr Galloway now follows Mr Sheridan’s meteoric career path: that is, bursting into flames and crashing to earth. And not just because he’s currently the MP for the seat next to the one where I live, and is threatening to appear on our local ballot paper instead at the next General Election (eeeeuuww!).

Just a few nights ago, Film Four repeated two of the greatest (and funniest) films ever made, back to back – Carry On… Up the Khyber, followed by Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Disciples of the far left who’ve seen the latter spend much of their time claiming that they’re no longer anything like the People’s Front of Judea, and indeed that the filmmakers were nothing but stoodges of the capitalist system (which is why no international finance houses would touch it and it was paid for by famously conformist tool of the establishment, er, George Harrison).


With the tragic news also breaking today that Mr Peter Vain has had to resign from the Cabinet, merely because he broke the law that the Labour Government he’s part of introduced but didn’t think applied to them, and used money that the donors didn’t agree to, and laundered it through a thinktank that – as you would expect from Mr Hain – had no thoughts, just a name… It’s not tragic for British politics, of course, as people from across the political spectrum will find the downfall of this vacuous popinjay hilarious, but tragic for poor young Millennium. Who will he find to lavish his triple alliterations on now? Though perhaps it’ll be a relief, if the inventive young elephant no longer has to find so many synonyms for “orange”.

Perhaps Mr Hain might cheer himself up by joining Mr Galloway’s list? They deserve each other.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008


What Nick Should Have Said…

Nick Clegg was on the Today Programme from about 7.20 this morning. He was very strong, succinct and to the point on our new Health proposals, saying that if you want localism you need to put your money where your mouth is – unlike Labour and Tory ‘decentralisation’ where big government still dictates the cash. But he was forced onto the back foot over the Lisbon Treaty, and came back to his occasional Leadership contest soundbite of “um er um er” (though now recovering from it more swiftly). Jim Naughtie wanted to force him into saying he backed the Labour Government. Nick didn’t want to fall into that trap, though he might consult Paddy’s more trenchant defence of backing the Conservative Government over Maastricht because we believed in it – though at the time we were also the only party in favour of a referendum. The trouble was, he sounded shifty, and didn’t have a simple, knockout soundbite to make his case.

Now, I’m not convinced Liberal Democrat opposition to a referendum is right. My instinct is to have a referendum anyway, and the party’s never had a chance to vote on it; unless you count the clapometer on Ming’s speech in Brighton last year, or a Leadership vote between two candidates with the same position, the nearest we’ve had is the FPC’s arms being twisted by Ming for The Manifesto That Never Was. It’s not as clear a no-brainer as the huge constitutional changes in Maastricht – Lisbon is on nothing like the same scale, and it was the Tories who blocked a referendum then. It’s not as clear a no-brainer as the dead-in-the-water Constitution – Britain doesn’t have a written constitution, so any constitution, no matter what it said, would have been by definition a whacking great constitutional change. The Lisbon Treaty is mainly a tidying-up exercise and fiddling round the edges. Despite that, my presumption is in favour of asking the people. However, within the Liberal Democrats that ship appears to have sailed. What I can’t understand is why Nick, knowing this is a big issue, doesn’t have a better answer for his position.

So here’s a suggestion for our new Leader. Next time he’s asked, and pressed either to say he’s backing the Government or sound like he’s wriggling, taking several minutes even to clarify whether we’d abstain or not, try this:
“It’s very simple. There are two referendums we could have. A referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is a waste of time. The Treaty’s a pile of tedious bureaucracy – what’s the point of wasting the British people’s time with it? So we’d vote against that, but we are the only party that supports a referendum on the big issue: Europe, in or out. When you ask who we’re supporting, we’re supporting the Liberal Democrat position, which is to give the British people a say on the main issue. Labour doesn’t want to give anyone a say on anything; the Tories are afraid to give the British people a say on the big issue, and just want to waste time on Euro-nerd trivia. That’s the difference.”
Update: Lib Dem Voice is kinder, and has links for you to listen and make up your own mind. Of course, it’s always possible that the Speaker may not allow us to have a vote on the big issue referendum. But the other night he wouldn’t even allow a referendum on the Euro-nerd trivia issue when they were debating the Euro-nerd Trivia Treaty. So that’s less of an embarrassment for the Liberal Democrats than it is for the House of Commons, who voted in a Speaker who’s more interested in fixing things to save the Labour Government’s arse than in any sort of Parliamentary democracy.

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Monday, January 14, 2008


Go Brian!

Brian Paddick today officially launched his campaign to become Mayor of London. He’s the only candidate who’s really serious about London: Ken is only serious about Ken; Boris has yet to be serious about anything. I live in London, and Brian is just what we need. Surely everyone in his session at the one-day Lib Dem Conference on Saturday came away enthused by his humour, ideas, passion and, er, shortage of chairs.

Despite all that, Neil Woollcott thinks Brian isn’t showing us all enough love. He even asks the mournful question, “Is Brian Paddick ashamed to be a Lib Dem?”

In a word, no.

In fact, I can’t think of any other candidate who’s been more eager to promote our policies in his TV appearances – and he’s also a very definite conviction Liberal. Since he started openly seeking our nomination last year, I’ve never heard a public pronouncement from him where the words “Liberal Democrat” don’t pass his lips.

The question is, though, who is his election campaign aimed at? It could talk just to the vaguely Lib Dem vote in London, and aim to get towards 20% on a good day (or closer to 10% on a bad one). Or it could try and go further. Brian’s definitely the “go further” candidate, and I’d much rather have Ken out of office and Brian as Mayor than make sure the website uses the right colours. More importantly, it leads with a man qualified to do the job, and other pages showcase what Liberal Democrats are doing all round the capital.

I know that in the ’90s politicians trying to separate themselves from their parties got out of hand – usually Tories preferring to appear as independents to a party label slightly less popular in the polls of the time than Ebola Virus – and you can still find plenty of Tory MPs whose websites make it immensely difficult to spot their affiliation. And I’m not a huge fan of presidential politics. But, really, this is a Mayoral contest, where one person is being picked to have practically all the authority over eight million people. If there’s one job in British politics that can’t possibly avoid being presidential… This is it ;-)

Oh, and glancing at the front page of Brian’s new site: no, it doesn’t have the party colours. But it has a brace of Lib Dem MPs pictured on it, five Lib Dem click-buttons at the bottom and a “Join the Lib Dems” right at the top, the statement “Brian Paddick is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London,” oh, yes, and the words “Liberal Democrat” or “Lib Dem” seven times. All on the front page. He doesn’t look like he’s in the closet to me…

And I Can’t Resist… Serious About Peter Vain

It’s a measure of what a laughing stock the tangerine-toned declaration-dodger has become that I can’t tell you with absolute certainty that this is just a gag. Either way, it made me laugh.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Nasty ‘Nice’ Tories’ Latest: Back to the Workhouse

In the rosy glow of post-Christmas overindulgence, the Tories have hit on a bonkers brilliant Neanderthal new idea to prove they are the nasty ‘nice’ party, inspired by the nasty nice workhouse patrons in Oliver Twist. So, to bring welfare back to the Nineteenth Century forward into the Twenty-first Century, they would help the poor by making them toil for gruel. Meanwhile, the Chancellor and Prime Minister are offering their very best snake oil to public service workers as ‘good for you’ when what they mean is ‘good for themselves’. Both parties are bringing the word ‘patronage’ back to basics.

Twisted Tories

You can see how all this happened. Sitting back over their enormous meals in their enormous houses, Tory MPs watched the BBC’s new adaptation of Oliver Twist and empathised with the enormous workhouse patrons who were so nasty nice in the way they patronised the inmates. You know that scene where Oliver is dragged in from demanding extra gruel (which, like benefits, has fallen well behind inflation), and the workhouse patrons peer in outrage over their tottering towers of pies to condemn the young scrounger for his presumption? Well, you can just see the Tory front bench (educated at Eton, which is almost as character-building as the workhouse) nodding at these fine public-spirited chaps who look and sound so much like themselves: ‘Hear hear! That’s just what the feckless ingrates deserve. Now let’s have another goose’ [beckons nubile researcher]. You see, poor people are all intentionally evil and love living on next to nothing, so the Conservatives just can’t help their nasty ever so nice instinct to give these low-life-chance, low-life-expectancy people an extra kicking.

Of course, this chimes in terribly well with Mr Brown’s philosophy. Unlike the Conservatives, he doesn’t want to kick the poor, but he does want to boss them about. Labour’s whole approach is that they know what’s good for people much better than people themselves, and it’s not as if the Labour Government has a record of astounding cock-ups in their bossiness, is it? Oh. Since the Labour Government took office eleven years ago, Mr Brown’s iron hand – suffering badly from mettle fatigue since losing someone else to blame for his decisions – has enforced his dogmatic belief that everyone must be in any sort of work as a panacea to, well, everything. It doesn’t matter if some people or some families know something else would work better; Gordon Brown is better-informed about the lives of sixty-million-odd people than they are themselves. In this climate, it’s no great surprise that Labour’s response to the latest Tory wheeze is not ‘You’re a bossy, bloated throwback to the Nineteenth Century who’s in it to subsidise your mates in big business at taxpayers’ expense and to humiliate the poor while you’re at it,’ but a feeble ‘It would probably cost too much’. Well, the Labour Government should know about throwing wads of public money at private consultants and not getting much back for it, but I fear they’ve not learnt any lessons from it. So what they’re probably thinking is ‘Well, we didn’t think of it, so it must be wrong. But in a little while, when we do think of it, we’ll call everyone who then disagrees deliberately evil’. They’ve got form, and you only have to give them time before the cosy consensus between Labour and the Tories sees Labour adopting more Tory ideas, or vice versa.

Living on any sort of benefits isn’t luxury. It’s a crap life, and no Tory MP who claims claimants are on the life of Riley would consider that they or their families could get by on anything like it. Of course there are things that need to change in the benefits system: if you’re out of work for a long time, you feel hopeless, and there’s no-one giving you hope. There should be far better training to help you be, and feel, employable again. And the crazy poverty trap that I remember Liberal Democrats complaining about as far back as the 1980s must be changed – the trap where if you try to work you lose money through the Byzantine web of benefit bureaucracy. But that’s more difficult, and less headline-friendly, than just whipping up nastiness Tory niceness.

Of course Tories like Mr Cameron who’ve always had more to live on in a year than benefit recipients have in a lifetime say this is an easy life. That’s what I believe Freudians call ‘projection’. And that part of their mind-set that isn’t a nasty instinct of class warfare is a hangover from the blind alley of Twentieth Century politics, the Marxism and anti-Marxism that insisted there were only two sides to politics, and that both were all about money. Only the most stubbornly Tory economic determinist would insist that all people on benefits contribute nothing to society, and so must be made to do ‘something’. Being on benefits does not mean you’re anti-social; being in work does not excuse you from being a git because you pay income tax (or have fancy advisors to help you dodge it). It is both criminally stupid and morally offensive to argue that the only way to contribute to society is through money, but it’s exactly what both Tories and Labour believe.

Then What’s It For?

But let’s say for the sake of argument that that was true, that there were no charity volunteers or extended families or artists or any other sort of contributors among the people not ‘working’. What good is saying that all people out of work are by definition feckless and lazy and must be ordered into what the big government thinks is good for them going to do? Raise their dignity? Hardly. Is ‘community work’ just some worthless activity to make people feel punished for being out of work? Then it’ll only make people feel worthless, and be no use in getting them into real jobs. Is it, instead, doing real work for the Government that genuinely needs doing? In which case, will benefit levels rise to the minimum wage? If they stay as slave rates – and it’s pretty much the definition of slavery that you either do the work you’re ordered to or starve in the gutter – for work that needs doing, then surely that will put out of work the people who’d be doing it otherwise? Which means that they can be forced into the effective slavery too, if all their jobs have been undercut by the wageless ones. Hurrah! And so we have a deflationary spiral in government costs, at just the tiny expense of a new slave class denied all choice over their lives, unless they ‘choose’ to be starving and homeless. Which I don’t think is a price most taxpayers, being human beings before being economic units, are prepared to pay.

The Labour Government is, of course, also trying to drive down public sector wages, though not – yet – in so drastic a way. I don’t know enough, economically, to make an informed argument about whether or not three-year pay deals for the public sector are on balance the right thing to press for, though Millennium Dome and Bernard Salmon have each suggested that that sort of Labour Government target may not be altogether effective. What I do know is that the weasel words heard yesterday from the Prime Minister and his Chancellor were self-serving spin. I’m happy to listen to the economic case about stewarding the nation’s finances – but saying that fixed pay would be good for public sector workers because it gives them stability is a lie. At least, I hope the country’s top politicians were lying to us; the alternative is that they know less about economics than I do. Fixed costs make it easier for the Labour Government to plan ahead, which may or may not be good for the economy as a whole. But for the public sector workers involved, they have unpredictable costs on a fixed income. Without their knowing what inflation is, they have less “long-term stability,” not more; rather than being better able to plan ahead, they must simply hope that the Labour Government has got it right and they won’t end up losing money over the next few years. Because when has Labour ever made a mistake?

Like ID cards, this public sector price-fixing is being sold as something that’ll make people’s lives easier, but in fact it’s just to make people easier for the government to organise.

Sick Plans

The last thing I want to write about – pun intended – is the Tory plan to victimise people who are sick or disabled. Labour, too, have been increasingly targeting their invective against recipients of incapacity benefit; because whether you hate the poor (Tory) or believe work is the source of all moral virtue (Labour), through not being in work, sick or disabled people are probably scroungers and evildoers and should be criticised whenever possible. And, yes, some people on long-term incapacity benefit have had their lives complicated by living in areas the Tories dive-bombed in the ’80s and having been put onto a different benefit than whatever-that-year’s-thing-you-get-that-counts-you-as-unemployed was in order to cover up the collateral damage. But how exactly does setting an arbitrary target for getting people off any sort of benefit help anyone, unless you’re a cynical politician who thinks plucking a number out of the air sounds ‘tough’?

And now for the bit that I don’t really want to write. I’m on incapacity benefit. In two years of blogging, I’ve never typed that before, though some of you may have read between the lines. I’ve not written it because, in the way this country looks at people like me, I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed for being on benefit, and I feel ashamed of why I have to be. I suffer from a number of thoroughly unglamorous, unpredictable and generally humiliating long-term health conditions. Many people are worse off than I am, and some days are better than others. Some days I can get out, or type an article; some days I can do very little other than be stuck on the loo all day, and that offers precious little dignity, still less the life of Riley. Last night I had to miss yet another Federal Policy Committee meeting because I wasn’t well enough to leave the flat; I was sacked from each of my last two jobs because eventually, not every day but most of them, I was too ill to work. And when on occasion I go through good ‘patches’, though they never last, I wonder how, if they do, an employer is going to employ someone who can be very talented at their job when they’re there, but on a lot of days won’t be able to be there at all, and won’t know until it hits. It’s not exactly brilliant for planning ahead. My self-worth is low enough, and I suspect the same of hundreds of thousands like me. The government standing over me with a stick is going to make no-one feel better – except the sort who like hitting weaker people with sticks.

At this moment, I have a 20-page form in front of me that I have to fill out, as I do each year, to say just what is wrong with me and how it affects me. And soon I’ll be seeing a government-enforcement-doctor, who’ll ask me questions that I’ve answered on the form because no-one actually reads the things, and who I’ll have to stop before they ask me follow-up questions because they won’t have heard all the thrilling different things wrong with me yet. And I’m worried right now, as I am each time, because if it’s a better day and I can make it to that appointment, I might not seem like there’s enough wrong with me. And if it’s a worse day and I can’t make it, I’ll be penalised for that, too.

Best bit of bureaucracy: being told I’ve been struck from hospital appointments for one condition last year because I had to cancel more than two of them – because of a different condition. ‘Come back when you’re cured’ is a pretty weird message for a hospital to give, unless I’m very old-fashioned.

Tory rhetoric is designed to make people feel afraid – afraid, for people in work, that someone else is doing unfeasibly well by taking them for a ride. And afraid, if they’re not in work, that if they dare to pipe up they’ll be told ‘You’re well enough to make a fuss – so we’ll stop your benefit, and anyway no-one should listen to you because you’re by definition scum’. And that cynical threat is what’s made me stick my head above the parapet, though I’m afraid, too. But if someone like me doesn’t say ‘Sod off, you vindictive bastards, and how would you like it?’ then who will?

Update: Two extra references. On the subject of the Tories and Labour choosing as their victims the people least able to hit back, I was unable to find an online copy of the old Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch of a Tory Budget – raising taxes on wheelchairs, white sticks and so on – so here’s one of Call-Me-Dave-Kids Cameron-style kindler, gentler, more understanding solutions to social problems. For a more up-to-date take on the nasty ‘nice’ new policies, I’ve come across the Daily (Maybe), who sums them up in brutal style.

Further Update: Three more references! Gavin Whenman has drawn my attention to a brilliant Balloon cartoon.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008


The Way Back

Thirty years ago this evening, with Star Wars opening in cinemas across the country, the BBC broadcast the first episode of Blake’s 7. Aged seven, I was captivated by both, but despite each starring a band of rebels fighting an oppressive galactic power, they’re not the same sort of thing. The leader of the rebels in one was a princess; in the other, a convicted paedophile. True, all charges of child molestation against Blake were faked to discredit him, but what drama today (let alone one aiming for a substantial child audience) would risk its hero being labelled a paedo-terrorist?

Most series start with a ‘pilot’ episode that sets up everything we might expect from the series. While The Way Back introduces the main character, very little else carried over; it’s more like a prologue than a conventional pilot episode. Set on Earth, with ordinary people slugging along under a drably authoritarian administration, the hero is initially very sniffy about getting heroic – and, in the rest of the series, this is the man who’ll turn out to be the only nice one. With only two of the other regular characters appearing (and even then only as cameos near the end), the focus is on how Blake becomes himself, and on the faceless banality of the system that forces him to react.

The most memorable characters of the series – anti-hero Avon, iconic villain Servalan – are yet to appear and give bastardism personality. Instead, we have a story that could almost be a Play For Today about a futuristic Soviet state, something which dates it almost as much as the constant presence of security cameras as a signifier of oppression; one strain of totalitarianism has since lost, the other won. The central character is an apparently ordinary person who finds his life is a lie, his memory is a lie and the whole system is a lie, which then lies about him in the most horrible way to destroy his credibility as a political threat. Very few later episodes deal with such edgy material; very few are anything like as brutal; and very few are anything like as impressive. Despite it being almost completely different from the rest, it remains hugely powerful, both as a piece of drama in its own right and as a statement of what our heroes are there to fight against through the rest of the series.

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