A feminist analysis of the potentials and pitfalls of Scottish independence

Book coverThere’s a new book out, you may have heard: Scottish Independence: A Feminist Response by Cat Boyd and Jenny Morrison – they have already had a launch in Edinburgh at the famous radical bookshop Word Power, and there is a Glasgow launch next week at Mono on Tuesday 26th, 6.30pm. I hear the Edinburgh launch was really successful with around 50 people squeezing themselves into that lovely wee space.

Disclaimer: Jenny is a pal of mine and I know very well how little time she and Cat had to write it- three weeks from start to publication. And I hope everyone will understand how tricky it was to reduce a potentially huge topic into something readable and useful for bringing undecided feminists over to considering a Yes vote (I know they didn’t want to just preach to the converted).

It is a very slim volume so don’t be afraid to pick it up and dip in. It still manages to cover a lot of ground and is, to my mind, a good primer on over-arching feminist approaches to and analyses of the issues around Scottish idependence.

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A Sorry Sort of Privilege

There’s a description in Carol Craig’s excellent book: The Tears that made the Clyde
of women and children hanging around the gates of factories and shipyards, or outside pubs. It was pay day and they were hoping to run into their men folk and shame them into giving them something from their pay to run the household, before everything was drunk away.
 At the time, it was common, accepted practice, for the man take all the money and spend it on his own pleasures. So much so, that trade unionists, recognising alcoholism as a problem, had a campaign to persuade landlords to refuse service once half of a man’s pay had been drunk.
 In other words, the most progressive, left wing men around at that time thought that it was reasonable for one member of a household, to spend half of the entire money for a family, for one week, on himself, in a single night.
 I read this, with a short lived sense of relief at how far we had come.
Short lived until I noticed the number of adult men coming into the advice centre, where I then worked, with raging substance issues and cheerfully tell me about the financial help they were getting from aged parents, from girlfriends, from ex partners even.
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Thoughts on the Bedroom Tax

I am sitting in the community centre on my estate, attending a meeting on the Bedroom Tax. 25 people have turned out. Not too bad for a weekday evening, but then these are worried people. A lot of them are looking at a 14% increase in on their rent. That’s £11, maybe £15 depending on the property. (1)

The bedroom only affects people on benefits. So everyone here is on the breadline anyway. There is no way anyone here has a spare £11 per week. This is food from their children’s mouths.  Or from the electricity, which everyone pays by key meter and is off half the time already.

I’m here as a benefits advisor, in case any legal questions come up. The idea is that maybe I can answer them. And I can, but only to crush any residual hope that might be remaining.

There are very few loopholes in this one.  From now on Housing Benefit will only cover one room for each couple, an extra room for any single adult and one room between every two kids. There’s a little bit of wiggle room for bereavement and a get out for foster parents, families of serving service people and (after a legal challenge by the Child Poverty Action Group) a recognition that severely disabled children may need a room to themselves.  That’s it.

The bedroom tax is not completely new. Tenants in the private sector have had to deal with reductions in their housing benefit for “extra rooms” for a long time.  But that only ever applied to new tenancies. People could plan ahead and avoid moving into houses that were too big under the rules. This is a massive cut to loads of peoples benefit, all in one go.

So, what to do if you find yourself with an “extra” bedroom?

You could try to transfer to a smaller place. Except there aren’t many. Council housing was built as family homes, for stable communities, back when governments cared about such things.

Apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment? There’s a fund, but its small and thousands of others will be applying too. Move to private rented accommodation? In Glasgow the private sector is tiny and run by criminals, who; by the way, will be loving this.

Get a job to cover the shortfall? Yeah Right! 30% of Glasgow’s working age population are currently out of work (2) and most jobs available are casual or part time or both.  Any money you did earn would be deducted from your benefits in any case. (3)

There’s only one possible conclusion, I can draw:

“The only answer to this is collective action”

It’s not lefty rhetoric, this time. There’s genuinely no other way through this. We have our backs against the wall.

I’ve recently read the Chartered Institute of Housing guidelines to Housing Associations and Local Authorities. (4) It’s interesting to pull back and see it from the landlord’s perspective.

Imagine for a minute that you the Chief Executive of a Council. (5)You have a whole load of housing at your disposal. You rent it out. Some tenants don’t have enough money to pay the rent. They claim housing Benefit and you recover the money from central government. You rely on this money to maintain the buildings and to provide services in your area.

So now central government has stopped paying the full cost of the rent and it’s effectively a cut to your council.  Another cut. On top of the cuts you’ve had already.

And the government is telling you to make up the difference by taking money from the grocery budget of the very poorest people in the area?! It’s as crazy as it is vicious.

Look at it that way and it not just about immiserating benefits claimants. It’s also about destroying council housing and messing up council services.

So what to do? The CIH recommends “a programme of home visits for face to face conversations with tenants.”

Many people in my area have already experienced this.  Some stranger, coming to their door and picking through their household budget, trying to find some little thing they could cut back on. Just try and imagine the humiliation of that for a minute?

But it blood out of a stone. The money isn’t there. So what to do instead? Evict 31% (6) of your tenants, and then process them all through the homeless persons unit?

No council or housing association can evict everyone who can’t or won’t pay and this is exactly why the bedroom tax can be defeated.

We go to the Anti- Bedroom Tax demo in town, me my husband and our baby boy. Someone’s brought along a piece of my own childhood. A banner reading “Paisley Anti Poll Tax Union” They must have kept it safe in a cupboard all these years.  A timely reminder of what can be achieved if we all stick together.

We drive home from the demo and I’m thinking about the future as we pull into the estate. Some 930 households here are facing the bedroom tax. (7) Not me though. As a homeowner it’s not my problem.

Except; of course, that it is.

This is a lovely estate. The children play out in the street. At Halloween, we got through three boxes of mini cupcakes, with all the kids coming to our door. Nice polite kids in handmade costumes.

Some with their mothers, but most allowed out on their own. A world away from the intimidating atmosphere of my neighbourhood as a child.

I want my son to grow up here, amongst these people; to play out safely in the streets and to dress up and collect sweeties from the neighbours on Halloween.

I don’t want to see those same neighbours, harassed or evicted out of the neighbourhood. A stable community like this is one of the underappreciated benefits of a fair society. And its benefit for everyone; not just the poorest.

It couldn’t survive the forced migration that the bedroom tax is intended to impose. Its for this reason, more than any other that I oppose the bedroom tax.

I hope this article has given you some sense of why you should too.

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(1)    This is the figure for my estate. The national average is actually higher, £14 (from the National Housing Federation)

(2)     (http://www.understandingglasgow.com/indicators/economic_participation/overview) .

(3)    Universal Credit (which replaces most other means tested benefits from October) actually has fairly generous income disregards. So after October raising the additional money might be more of an option for some people.  Unfortunately Bedroom tax begins in April, allowing 6 months in which to accrue some really crippling rent arrears.

(4)    http://www.cih.co.uk/resources/PDF/Scotland%20Policy%20Pdfs/Bedroom%20Tax/CIH_Bedroomtax_e.pdf

(5)    Actually, in Glasgow, all council housing has been semi privatised and farmed out to housing associations. I’m just using a council as an example, to simplify the argument.

(6)    http://www.housing.org.uk/policy/welfare_reform/%E2%80%98under-occupation%E2%80%99_penalty.aspx

(7)    Estimated based on national figures.

Thoughts on Etsy’s “Hobo Wedding”

It seems like this couple:

http://www.etsy.com/blog/en/2011/handmade-weddings-depression-era-hobo/

managed to get the internet up in arms after over their cultural appropriation of depression era poverty as their wedding theme.

This reminds me of something that happened when I was planning my own wedding.

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Kenwood House: Dream Venue

Hampstead Heath is a beautiful big park in London, which I just adore. At the top of the park is Kenwood House, an old manor house which is now run as museum and restaurant.

Kenwood House is licensed to perform marriages and I loved the idea of having my wedding there. I could picture myself coming out of this big white building, family and friends around me and looking out over rolling parkland at all the families picnicking and the kids running around. I just thought it would be perfect.

Hiring a manor house does not come cheap but I was encouraged to see that they also do a reception package in the kitchen, which is a good sized room, and can be decorated in something called “shabby chic”: which seems to involve a lot of meadowy flowers in mismatched vintage milk jugs and oldie worldie style table cloths and doiles and so on.

I checked the prices on the kitchen wedding and predictably it was still way out of our budget so I put the idea aside, set myself down to organise something more realistic and thought no more about it.
No more that is, until my Mum mentioned that she’d seen the package advertised with the slogan “Have your wedding below stairs.”  She was genuinely freaked out and literally couldn’t imagine why anyone would find the idea attractive. Her exact words were: “My whole life is about trying to get away from life “below stairs!” I never want to go back.”
I should point out here that my Mum is from the post war baby boomer generation and benefited from the social mobility of that period. She has never worked as a servant and, given the times she grew up in, it would have been deeply surprising thing if she had. 

Her own mother however (my grandmother), was “in service” from the age of 12 and clearly, the experience has cast a long enough shadow that the idea of celebrating anything “below stairs” still carries with it a sense of horror and shame. Even for the next generation. Even 70 years later. And yet this response had not, for a second occurred to me.

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In case you were wondering: here's how it turned out

What’s interesting to me here is the difference made by that one additional generation, that can transmute a grossly insensitive act of cultural appropriation into a perfectly acceptable wedding theme. An object of aspiration even. You really have to laugh at capitalism sometimes. They would have had me break the bank to buy a sanitised pastiche of my own family history.
Instead of which, we had a quaint registry office ceremony and pub reception, incorporating all the authentic customs of the 21st century white working class. It was just just so cute. I can’t wait to see a knock off version at 4 times the equivalent price in 70 years time.

Aside

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