Tag Archives: Politics

The Labour Manifesto and the Myth of “Free Stuff”

I keep hearing and seeing  people saying “Labour just want to give everyone free stuff.” Let’s briefly take a look at this.

• Good Education for all benefits all of us and leads to greater prosperity for everyone;

• well funded health ensure that all of us benefit, being happier, more productive, and living more fulfilled lives. That benefits everyone;

• fairer benefits mean that if sickness, disability and unemployment should come, no one will be left destitute. We all benefit;

• higher minimum wage means more money to spend in the economy. We all benefit by this increase. 100 years ago even Henry Ford knew that if workers are paid more, they buy more of your goods. More jobs;

• mass machine automation is coming: we need to rethink how we structure work, payment and society. These will be in so called middle class jobs too, disrupting everything we know about how work, earnings, profit and reward are understood;

• water companies being owned by the regions means the profits get ploughed straight back in to those communities. Everyone benefits.

And so on.

The phrase “Free stuff” is utter nonsensical term. Everyone pays in one form of another, everyone benefits. If “free stuff” were even a true statement, then how would one describe the situation in Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and so on, where tax is higher, public services and ownership so much better provided for, and quality of life, productivity, and satisfaction is very high.

What a basket case.

“Let them eat left-overs” – is UK Food Waste too high?

The government’s minister for Food has been urging us to eat our left-overs and pay more attention to how we store food to keep it longer. He says that during these times when most people’s budgets are squeezed, due to depressed wages and rising prices since the start of the financial crisis, we should adopt a more frugal approach to our food waste.

I don’t particularly like, or trust, when government ministers start micro-managing our lives, even if it is good advice. I find it all just a bit patronising really. I saw his comments as nannying and called it ‘humiliating.’ I may have over reacted, but my assertion was that families were already cutting costs by choosing cheaper foods and that people on tight budgets were not going to waste food. But I decided to look into this matter further.

As prime minister, around the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2008, Gordon Brown also took on the cruse of urging us all to stop wasting food. Back then, The Guardian reported, “The Cabinet Office review of food policy states that the UK throws away an annual 4.1 million tonnes of edible goods, the equivalent of £420 for every home,” and quoted Brown as saying:

“If we are to get food prices down, we must also do more to deal with unnecessary demand – such as all of us doing more to cut food waste which is costing the average household in Britain around £8 per week.”

Brown’s implicit assertion that unnecessary food demand (ie: waste) was causing high food prices is really quite a peculiar in many ways. As this chart from BBC News shows, 2008 saw an unusually high peak in food prices which ‘corrected’ back to the average by around March 2009. That he attributed the high price to high demand fits within his economic paradigm as a ‘supply side’ economist, but that it was attributable to ‘waste’ is debatable seen as it would be hard to show that the price ‘correction’ was because of reduced demand due to tackling waste.

World Food Prices

Currently, according to The Telegraph the government is now saying “that discarding food costs the average household £480 a year, rising to £680 for a family with children, the equivalent of about £50 a month.” However, the total amount thrown away is now quoted at 7.2 million tons, or 6.5 metric tonnes. (The Telegraph likes using imperial measures; they are after all British, what.)

Just to confuse matters, the “Love Food, Hate Waste” website states that household food waste is around 7.2 million tonnes. (I presume that the Telegraph is just incompetent.) More shocking still, household food and drink waste is reported as being only 49% of the total that is wasted in the UK. The website says that 3.2 million tonnes is wasted just in the manufacturing and processing of food!

I was struck by the close similarity in the 2008 and current stated values of the discarded food, having risen by about 14%, and yet the quantity had risen by nearly 60%.

So, using an inflation calculator, I worked out that the current discarded food value figure was probably achieved by taking a crude rounding of the 2008 value after adjusting for inflation. (According to This is Money, inflation from 2008 to 2012 is probably somewhere between 12.6% and 16%.) As we can see from the volatility in the world food prices between the summer of 2008 and now, employing such a straight calculation of 2008’s discarded food values in to today’s values would not be realistic at all.

As for the increase in the quantity of food discarded by households, this could be accounted for by either an increase in purchases or an increase in household, by 60%. That’s a lot. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2012 there were 26.4 million households in the UK. [http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_284823.pdf]  up from 25.0 million households in 2008, a rise of only around 3%. [www.ons.gov.uk/…/social-trends-41—household-and-families.pdf] So, the rise in waste isn’t due to an increase in the number of households. Figures were not so easy to find on food demand over the last 5 years, but it is probably safe to say that the quantities in weight have not gone up by 60%.

How have these figures been calculated and what are their source?

A 2011 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) attempted to quantify food losses and wastes. They modeled the quantification based on “available data and [there own] assumptions,” providing the model equations in the annex of that document (if you want to check their working out.) SIK calculated the per capita food wasted by consumers was around 95-115kg per year by Europeans. Taking the upper bound of that figure and multiplying by the estimated population of the UK you get – did you guess? – around 7.2 million tonnes.

A DEFRA press release in 2008 stated, “WRAP studies issued in 2007 found that UK households create 6.7 million tonnes of food waste each year, some 19 per cent of municipal waste.  This figure means that we are throwing away one third of the food we buy (16.5 kg\hh\wk bought – 5.2 kg\hh\wk thrown away.” This appears to be at variance with the amount of waste reported by the Guardian and others in 2008, but compares better with the SIK study from 2011.

These are still astonishing numbers. The SIK study works out at around between 260g and 315g waste per day per person. That seems a lot. The DEFRA study seems to suggest around 290g per person per day.

So, despite my annoyance at this issue being pointed out by the government, when I’d much prefer they did something about jobs, growth and the crisis in capitalism, I have to swallow my pride and admit (damn it) – there does seem to be an issue in the UK with households wasting food.

So, get along to www.lovefoodhatewaste.com and find out how you can reduce the amount of food you waste. And if it’s not you wasting it, then let’s do what what we’ve been trained to do by this government, and point the finger at the neighbour with the most bin bags outside on collection day…

Updates

Since writing this blog entry, the other newspapers have picked up on the story with negative and bemused responses from all outlets. The prime minister has said that the information has been taken out of context, and that it doesn’t look good.

It gets worse though. Many people in the media and on Twitter have pointed out that the Tory MP, who has accused the very poorest families of “wasting” to much food, has a personal fortune of £110 million!

I’ve thought more about this too. Have the researchers from DEFRA taken in to account standard food wastage from the parts that either can’t or don’t normally get eaten? For potatoes peelings, carrots peeling and topping, oranges peel, apple cores, the odd rotten whatever, because no matter how hard you try to look after fruit, veg, bread, it happens. How about tea bags? And of course, the parts of food you can’t eat when preping, such as the eye of the lettuce, the base of cauliflower, fat off the chop, and bones of the turkey?

Whilst we all need to be less wasteful, in all areas of our consumption and not just food, I generally believe that most people really do try their best not to waste food. I know I’m just going to keep an eye on it myself.

“Ideas are more powerful than guns.”
Tony Benn, August 2007

The working class of the past were very aware of philosophical thoughts and argument. They came from a system of education and a society in which thought was valued just as much as employable skills. Men down the working mens clubs might not use high academic language, but they knew how to discuss and debate the issues. They would also have listened to union and labour speakers teaching about these things, building on the thoughts and knowledge that was developing out of the social revolutions of the late 19th century.

In the pursuit of skills for employability, tangible qualifications and testable learning, the idea of thought and philosophy for self enrichment has been totally lost. But ideas are powerful. More powerful than weapons, as Tony Benn put it. And ideas, once they take hold and grow roots, become the powerhouse for change.

Tony Benn reflects on Thatcher

There’s a rather poignant piece from Tony Benn on the Margaret Thatcher he knew in today’s Guardian:

“Margaret Thatcher was a very powerful, rightwing force in society. She followed her beliefs and had clear objectives. Her policy was to reverse the trends in modern politics that were made possible by the trade unions being legalised. She decided to eradicate the power of the unions, undermine local government and privatise assets – and these were the three policies of the labour movement.

It was not about style with her; it was substance – I don’t think she listened to spin doctors, she just had a clear idea and followed it through.

It was a major attack on democracy and at first it carried some public support, but then it became unstuck, and in the end, it was rejected. But ideas always come back and the modern Tory party is influenced by her ideas.

Although I thought she was wrong, she said what she meant and meant what she said. It was not about style with her; it was substance – I don’t think she listened to spin doctors, she just had a clear idea and followed it through.

I remember her at the funeral of MP Eric Heffer. I was asked to make a speech and as I was waiting, there was someone behind me coughing. It was Mrs Thatcher, and at the end I thanked her for coming and she burst into tears. She had come out of respect for someone whose opinions she disagreed with.”

Mrs Thatcher: My thoughts on the passing of the Iron Lady

She was the Prime Minister of my childhood. She was Mrs Thatcher. Or Maggie. It all depended on the context. But was she certainly a ‘Mrs.’ It felt as stern and cold as she was. Or seemed. Because out of nowhere, she would suddenly exude the vulnerability of a woman, the pride of a mother, and the doting of a wife. Her voice on her Radio 4 Desert Island Discs appearance is unmistakable, distinctive, yet strangely alluring. She used her sexuality, and she knew how to charm.

Yet she failed to charm a nation, at least in the sense of the word ‘charming’, anyway. She managed to be incredibly divisive. Of course, even as a young man, I don’t think I really understood why. Why shouldn’t I believe the mantra of ‘the medicine’ that had to be tough to be kind; the industries that could never survive and inevitably had to go; the unions that needed to be defeated; that the freedom of the individual was sacrosanct?

When she became leader of the Conservative Party, Mrs Thatcher entered the shadow cabinet meeting room, took a book out of her handbag and started waving it about. ‘This’, Thatcher said sternly, ‘is what we believe’, and banged a copy of the Austrian-born economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom down on the table. In it, Hayek argues that Western democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States, have “progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past,” and that the only chance to build a decent world is “to improve the general level of wealth” via the activities of free markets.

Mrs Thatcher admired Hayek greatly, and became friends through correspondence with him. Hayek had, if that is possible, an even more outrageous view of the Pinochet regime. Hayek was not only full of praise for the economic policies of the Pinochet Regime, but also supportive in political terms. He was concerned that Chile, and the Apartheid regime in South Africa too, did not receive a fair coverage from the ‘liberal’ press in Western countries, and suggested in his infamous interview with El Mercurio that a dictator like Pinochet might be a necessary step towards a liberal democracy.

Under the barbed restraints of dictatorship and with the guidance of University of Chicago-trained economists, Pinochet had gouged out nearly every vestige of the public sector, privatizing everything from utilities to the Chilean state pension program. Hayek returned gushing, and wrote Thatcher, urging her to follow Chile’s aggressive model more faithfully.

In her reply, Thatcher explained tersely that “in Britain, with our democratic institutions and the need for a higher degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times, the process may seem painfully slow.”

http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine/reviews/new-road-serfdom

In The Downing Street Years, 1995, Mrs Thatcher expands on her philosophy of Individualism. “I was also impressed by the writing of the American theologian and social scientist Michael Novak who put into new and striking language what I had always believed about individuals and communities. Mr Novak stressed the fact that what he called ‘democratic capitalism’ was a moral and social, not just an economic system, that it encouraged a range of virtues … These were important insights which, along with our thinking about the effects of the dependency culture, provided the intellectual basis for my approach to those great questions brought together in political parlance as ‘the quality of life’.”

Hayek also dismissed the idea of ‘Social Justice’ saying that there could be no such thing. Society is made up of individuals, and it is they as agents that have responsibility; Society is not an agent and therefore cannot have responsibility. This belief is ultimately what led Mrs Thatcher to say in her 1987 Interview for “Women’s Own” magazine, “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

Many believe that the policies of Thatcher’s government and her dogged determination to put down the unions at all cost destroyed the north, by destroying mining, steel, ship building and manufacturing industries. She then proceeded to say that the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people made unemployed by this were responsible for their own situations.

For Thatcher, Hayek and her economic hero Milton Friedman, society and government had no responsibility. She said, “It is not my job, nor the job of any politician to offer people salvation. It is part of my political faith that people must save themselves.

“The encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives and rewards for skill and hard work… and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property … they are certainly what I am trying to defend.”

At heart, Mrs Thatcher was, together with Ronald Reagan, what we now term ‘neo-liberal’. She was responsible for making popular the philosophy of self interest and took no responsibility for her or her government actions. She believed that only the free market could produce wealth and prosperity for the nation, and that by allowing the rich to get richer, we would all benefit as the wealth, in her words echoing the words of Friedman, would literally ‘trickled down’. It is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services, and without any attempt to justify them in terms of their effect on the production of goods and services; and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself – the profit motive, which is capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs. [She perhaps had a vested interest: her husband was a multi-millionaire after all.]

She rose to the top despite all that was against her, but she became a product of her own self demons. Former Conservative MP David Mellor said, “She started reforming things that simply didn’t need reforming.” And so continues to this day in the ‘Heir to Thatcher’, PM David Cameron.

I believe that you can be critical without being disrespectful. I dislike everything she stood for philosophically and politically, but yet I find her admirable and alluring. As a person, I respect her death in that way.

But whilst I will not vilify her, I will counter the idea that her actions in government were ‘good’, because I and many feel that they were far from it in many ways. However, I feel the families of the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster will be as restrained about her death as she was about theirs.

Rest in peace, Mrs Thatcher. Maggie. Mother of Mark and Carol.