Democracy is not just for election day

” I don’t want to discriminate against anyone, apart from UKIP voters.” – Bloke who owns a garden centre in East Sussex.

The other night, I made the regrettable choice of staying up to watch the election results come in. I feel like a true twenty-something, being aggressively adult enough to nerd out over the election results, and yet irresponsible enough to stay up so late that I couldn’t drive home in the morning due to being too tired.

And yet there are people out there who couldn’t be bothered to vote on Thursday.

 But as much as I sit on my high horse, and sneer at the ignorance that is the 34% that passively allowed the conservatives to live on, the fact is that democracy is not just for election day, it’s for all the time.

 Lefties will be in mourning, for the progress that could have been, if Rupert Murdoch & chums had not been successful in their campaign of terror. But our battle is not over. Even if our democracy is a sham, it is still the best we’ve got.

Just in case you didn’t vote, because everything is fine, and nothing needs to change, I’m just going to leave you with this table from 2009 (from a 2011 ward profile – the most recent I could find), about kids in poverty.

From a 2011 Ward Profile.
From a 2011 Ward Profile.

So how can we change shit?

We need a fairer voting system

 In 2011, a referendum was held, asking people whether they wanted the Alternative Vote (AV). It was one of the things that the Liberal Democrats pushed for, even with the Conservative party in power. Unfortunately, the Conservatives then put out a fear campaign, saying that this is the system that will let in the BNP and other such nonsense. Nobody understood the proposed system, and went into the polling office with a stout opposition to change. The results weren’t even close.

 I will wager that those who were scared of the BNP are now scared of the SNP, and look at where that’s got us.

Bar chart of seats won in 2015
From http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/heres-how-the-election-results-would-look-under-a-proportional-voting-system–gJenQmaW2gW
Bar chart showing % of the national vote for each party
From http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/heres-how-the-election-results-would-look-under-a-proportional-voting-system–gJenQmaW2gW

UKIP has over twice as many votes as the SNP, and yet the SNP has 55 more seats than UKIP. Now, I don’t support UKIP, I don’t like them at all, but those that do should have their views expressed in parliament, unfortunately.

Proportional representation is the idea that seats are allocated in proportion to number of votes (this is different to AV). The argument for First Past the Post (FPP), our current system, over a more proportional system, is that we’ll end up with less hung parliaments, apparently. The real problem with proportional representation is that it threatens Labour/Conservative “safe seats”, so pushing an alternative voting system through parliament is difficult in the current political climate.

Here’s my final graph on the matter, showing the distribution of the number of votes/number of seats. Bear in mind that it’s on a logarithmic scale, so the differences are somewhat exaggerated, but it is nonetheless enlightening.

UK General Election – Votes per No. of Seats (logarithmic scale).

I’m not going to go into detail about the different PR systems, because there’s an entire Wikipedia article on it, but here’s a petition you can sign:

https://www.change.org/p/david-cameron-reform-our-voting-system-to-make-it-fair-and-representative-makeseatsmatchvotes

Or you can join the electoral reform society:

http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

And this has been put up by the green party:

http://action.greenparty.org.uk/

The government’s own petition website is on hiatus, which gives me great faith.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/

Signing a petition is less effort than rioting, so I suggest we start with that.

The next question is whether voting should be compulsory, but compulsory voting does not automatically translate into voter engagement. If people go to the polling office without knowing why they’re voting, then that is still a failed system. However, if the “Apathy party” had been accounted for in this election, they’d be in charge of the UK right now. [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/the-one-map-that-shows-how-nonvoting-would-have-won-the-general-election-if-it-were-a-party-10238290.html]

Would a “None of the above” option result in chaos? India, Greece, Nevada in the US, and the Ukraine all have this option, although if “None of the above” wins in India or Nevada, the next highest party wins. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/None_of_the_above]

Are the Conservatives a good thing?

NB: This section isn’t particularly cohesive, but it does contain a lot of interesting links and graphs.

I suggest you start by reading their manifesto, which actually does lay out what they intend to do. The problem with relying entirely on news articles is that you get things like “Michael Gove hearts hanging” and “Nicky Morgan wants to lock up all children until they’re 18 and blind”. I won’t lie, I am also guilty of buying into this, but please read newspapers (and manifestos) with a critical mind. Otherwise you’re as bad as the Rupert Murdoch fanbase.

The Conservatives actually want to invest in a series of great things, such as transport, the NHS, apprenticeships, development of British agriculture and GM crops, and scientific institutions as part of a “Northern Powerhouse”. The problem is that at the same time they’re offering tax relief to some of these industries, and no increase in tax to anyone else. We actually don’t want to tax the rich too much, because going above 40% causes the rich to leave. That means that the investments are being funded by cuts to other areas, such as the Disability Work Access Scheme, and caps on welfare. Then again,

The problems with sudden benefit sanctions can be seen here.

Here’s a fun graph about the distribution of welfare spending.

Breakdown of public spending on welfare, from ukpublicspending.co.uk

Here’s another fun graph. I don’t know what non-classified Health entails either.

Green – Health n.e.c (not elsewhere classified – how mysterious) Red – Research & Development Blue – Public Health Service

Interestingly, the biggest spending sink in Health Care is Medical transport, which isn’t on this graph because it totally obscures the rest of the data.

And here are some charts of total public spending now, vs. 2010:

http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk is my new favourite website, if I’m honest.

The interesting thing to note is that overall spending has not changed that much, with the biggest changes being in interest paid on public debt, and pensions.

Here is an extremely interesting read on why, actually, austerity isn’t working for the economy – in fact, it “negatively correlated with growth throughout the EU”. It has a whole bunch of fab graphs, and it’s written by a guy who’s about to do his PhD in politics.

This is what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has to say in its report on manifestos:

“The last five years have seen considerable policy activity in the tax and benefit sphere: in total, some £56 billion per year of giveaways and £89 billion per year of takeaways by 2015—16. Most of the main tax reforms have simply changed rates or thresholds within current structures — the increase in the main rate of VAT, cuts to the main corporation tax rate, real cuts to the rates of fuel duties and the big increase in the income tax personal allowance being the most important. Only for pensions and savings has there been a significant reshaping in terms of what is taxed and what is not. Changes to benefits have mostly been straightforward cuts in generosity, with more significant structural reform coming in the next parliament — the introduction of the single-tier pension, the introduction of universal credit and the replacement of disability living allowance (DLA) with personal independence payment (PIP).

As for what is to come, there are important areas of agreement between the main UK parties. There is apparently a huge amount of money to be extracted through a clampdown on tax avoidance (mysteriously missed by all previous clampdowns)*. There is yet more money to be extracted from those on very high incomes saving in a private pension. The main rates of income tax, National Insurance contributions (NICs) and VAT will not be increased. The ‘triple lock’ on indexation of the basic state pension will remain and most pensioner benefits will be protected. There is also a shared lack of any attempt to paint a coherent strategy for tax reform, a shared desire to impose further, often absurd, complications to the tax system, and a shared lack of willingness to set out specific benefit measures that chime with the parties’ rhetoric. On that last point: on the one hand, the Conservatives have spent two years promising substantial additional benefit cuts of £12 billion a year whilst failing to come up with more than 10% of that figure in actual cuts; on the other hand, Labour’s promised ‘toughness’ involves reducing spending by almost nothing by taking winter fuel payments from the small number of pensioners subject to the higher rates of income tax, and most likely by literally nothing by limiting the uprating of child benefit rates.”

*This is my favourite sentence, because of its ultra-sass.

You can read the report here, which is totally worth doing judging by the overall sassyness of the excerpt from the executive summary.

We can’t change the results of the election

So the best thing to do now is wait and see what happens (who knows, in five years Britain may be a thriving powerhouse of economic growth, technology, and rich people, even if it is the result of all the poor starving to death and/or catching hypothermia).

In the mean time, you can join the political party of your choice (approx £25-£40 for a normal human, considerably less if you’re poor/a student), which means that you get a say in their policies. If you’re busy complaining that none of the existing parties have policies that suit you, I suggest joining a party that aligns with your ideologies, and submitting your own.

Change.org is the place for petitioning, particularly whilst the government’s e-petition site is shut down. The Conservatives have been in a position of unchallenged power for a couple of days, and there’s already an army of animal rights enthusiasts out to prevent fox hunting from being reintroduced.

You can go and chat to your MP. Some MPs are probably more helpful than others, but most have surgeries within their constituencies where you can see them. Alternatively, you can write them a letter.

If all else fails, you can go and face-sit outside parliament.

All tea parties take place like this from now on.
From here: http://www.reddit.com/r/worldnews/comments/2p2s2u/a_facesitting_protest_is_happening_outside/
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An Open Letter to the Department of Work and Pensions

So in summary:

I cared full time for my dying mother for 3 months, while taking time out of university to do so. I apply for carer’s allowance, and am denied it, because I am a student, and am classes as doing 21 hours of SUPERVISED study per week, despite taking an official interruption from the university, for a year. The system is broken, not only for me, but for every stressed out informal carer who is trying to prop up a family member, and who is unable to work. There is not enough support there. Here is my open letter to the people who are meant to look after the vulnerable.


Dear Sir/Madam,

 

You have decided that I am not eligible for Carer’s Allowance (CA) because I was in full-time education, despite the fact that I have taken a full year’s interruption from my course to care full time for my dying mother.

The law states:

 

“5.—(1) For the purposes of 3 section 70(3) of the Contributions and Benefits Act, a person shall be treated as receiving full-time education for any period during which he attends a course of education at a university, college, school or other educational establishment for twenty-one hours or more a week. (2) In calculating the hours of attendance under paragraph (1) of this regulation– (a) there shall be included the time spent receiving instruction or tuition, undertaking supervised study, examination or practical work or taking part in any exercise, experiment or project for which provision is made in the curriculum of the course; and (b) there shall be excluded any time occupied by meal breaks or spent on unsupervised study, whether undertaken on or off the premises of the educational establishment. (3) In determining the duration of a period of full-time education under paragraph (1) of this regulation, a person who has started on a course of education shall be treated as attending it for the usual number of hours per week throughout any vacation or any temporary interruption of his attendance until the end of the course or such earlier date as he abandons it or is dismissed from it.” [1],

“In determining the duration of a period of full-time education under paragraph (1) of this regulation, a person who has started on a course of education shall be treated as attending it for the usual number of hours per week throughout any vacation or any temporary interruption of his attendance until the end of the course or such earlier date as he abandons it or is dismissed from it” [2].

 

The University states the following regarding periods of interruption:

 

“During your period of interruption you will not be a registered student of the University and your right to be on University premises will be that of a member of the public. You may not undertake work on University premises as you are not covered by our insurance arrangements. You should note also that you will lose onsite IT and student library access…” [3].

 

I will also add that the University does not charge tuition fees over this period, nor does student finance provide support. The University does not acknowledge me as a student over this period, and even if it had done I was still living 3 hours away. I have no access to their resources; it would be literally impossible for me to undertake supervised study at this time; how the hell do you expect me to rack up 21 hours a week?

It is clear to me that those in charge of the distribution of CA have no experience in informal care themselves, as they would otherwise know that full time care is too intensive to allow for luxuries such as further education.

My mother and I were lucky, as we were in a situation where my 19 year old sister had a job that just about supported us, along with what was left of my mother’s finances (not a lot, as she’d given up work over a year ago). We had friends and family that offered a support network, but I am sure that there are many people who are not that lucky.

Given that my MP, Dr Liam Fox has written to you on my behalf, and given that you remained resolute in your, as Dr Fox said, “inconsistencies”, I have resigned myself to the belief that you will never provide myself and my sister with the financial support that we are entitled to.

It seems a farce when I consider that, if I had dropped out of education completely, you would have given me benefits. It’s a funny reward system you have.

 

Whilst I’m at it, I thought I should just highlight some of the other implications of being an informal carer:

 

PERSONAL LOSS OF WORK

Let’s assume that I had not decided to care for my mother, and that I completed my degree over this year, as planned. According to the institute of physics, “[graduate] respondents with MPhys/MSci degrees had an average salary of £23,300” [4], so let’s assume that I would have gone into work by September 2015; that’s a year of income that I have lost. Also, it reduces the number of years I will work in my lifetime, and so I will have lost more than £23,300, as I will be losing my final year of salary, which we can expect to be higher.

Funnily enough, that could have been the money that I rely on for my own care when I am retired.

I’ll add that student finance have also decided they want ~£700 back, because I wasn’t at university this year. So my absence from university alone has already economically screwed me.

 

ECONOMIC

“Carers save the economy an estimated £119 billion per year with the unpaid care they provide, an average of £18,473 per carer.”[5]

 

Let’s go over how much money the government saved because I cared for my mother. The money advice service estimates a cost of £11,000 a year for 14 hours a week [6]; let’s assume my mother needed 4 home visits a day over the last 3 months – that comes to £5,500. That’s not including any care that she would have needed whilst my sister was supporting her, and before I started full time care.

Now if we estimate the cost of my continuous day and night care using the same source, over the last three months, I am owed £37,500.

If we (however unrealistically), assume that I sleep for 8 hours a day, carer’s allowance would amount to £0.54 an hour. Even assuming the minimum of 35 hours per week, it works out at £1.75 an hour. That’s 37% of the minimum wage. To top it all off, DWP, you are still refusing to even pay me the grand total of £736.20.

 

HEALTH

And finally, let’s have a brief look at the impact caring has on health.

 

“People providing high levels of care are twice as likely to be permanently sick or disabled, and 625,000 people have health problems because of their caring responsibilities.”[7]

 

Here are just the symptoms of Caregiver Stress, and Caregiver Burnout respectively[8]:

 

  • Anxiety, depression, irritability
  • Feeling tired and run down
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Overreacting to minor nuisances
  • New or worsening health problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling increasingly resentful
  • Drinking, smoking, or eating more
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Cutting back on leisure activities

 

  • You have much less energy than you once had
  • It seems like you catch every cold or flu that’s going around
  • You’re constantly exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break
  • You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you don’t care anymore
  • Your life revolves around caregiving, but it gives you little satisfaction
  • You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available
  • You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for
  • You feel helpless and hopeless

 

I hope that you appreciate the I am writing this letter to highlight a serious problem with the legalities that define who is entitled to your support, as well as the more general failings of the existing system, and the penalisation of those who are trying to do the right thing. The DWP does extremely important work; I only wish that it worked better.

Yours faithfully,

[1] Social Security (Invalid Care Allowance) Regulations, regulation 5

[2] Social Security (Contributions and Benefits) Act 1992, section 70(3).

[3] The University of Manchester. Principles in respect of interruptions to an Undergraduate or Postgraduate Taught Programme of Study – Guidance for students. http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=4780  (accessed 29/01/15)

[4] http://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2012/file_55924.pdf

[5] http://www.employersforcarers.org/news/item/936-carers-uk-responds-to-rise-in-allowance-threshold-for-carers

[6] https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/care-home-or-home-care

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/helping-carers-to-stay-healthy

[8] http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/caregiving-stress-and-burnout.htm


That was lengthy. Thanks for reading.