That Sinking Feeling: Trenton Oldfield and the 99%

“THIS IS A PROTEST, AN ACT OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, A METHODOLOGY OF REFUSING AND RESISTANCE. THIS ACT HAS EMPLOYED GUERRILLA TACTICS.”

Any reader would be forgiven for thinking the above quote is straight from the mouth of Che Guevara or Subcommandante Marcos, instead of former London School of Economics student, Trenton Oldfield.

On Saturday Oldfield, 35, shot to fame after diving into the Thames and swimming into the path of the 158th Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, before being hauled onto the umpire’s vessel and arrested by police – charged with a public order offence.

Prior to this spectacular act, Oldfield – who, thanks to the skill of the crews, narrowly missed being struck by the oars he swam under – posted a 2,000-word communiqué on his ‘Elitism Leads to Tyranny’ blog. The act, he declared, was to protest against ‘elitism’ – specifically targeting the boat race as “a site where elitists and those with elitist sympathies have come together every year…to perform, in the most public way, their ambition for the structures and subsequent benefits from elitism…”

Granted hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had Oldfield not been ensconced in writing his essay, which, among other things, recommends the setting off of stink bombs at networking events “designed for the elites and their sympathisers”, he might have given forethought to two things: how the public would perceive both protest and protestor, and whether this would help or hinder his cause.

A long-established rowing contest between two of the most prestigious and expensive universities in the country, both with disproportionately low intakes of state school students, may have seemed a natural target for a protest against elitism. But, despite Oldfield’s claims that the event “isn’t really advertised or promoted as something for the general public to attend” the Boat Race is actually a highly public event. It is witnessed by over a quarter of a million people lined up on the banks of the river and watched by around 7 million viewers.

It is also a sporting event and sport – bar a few exceptions (clay pigeon shooting, anyone?) is seen as something that brings people – of all backgrounds – together. Instead of choosing to target Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch, for example, Oldfield instead successfully sabotaged months of hard work and rigorous training by two young sporting teams at the top of their game. It was foul play, and will have cost his cause dearly – as emphasized by Oxford Rower, William Zeng, who later tweeted: “If you [Oldfield] say you are a protester then no matter what you say your cause may be, your action speaks too loudly for me to hear you.”

Just as damaging – if not his fault – is own backstory, which was quickly unearthed by the press. Educated at a £15,000 a year private school in Australia (where the former Prime Minister John Howard chose to send his two children), Oldfield graduated LSE – another leading university – in fact, ranked fourth behind (wait for it) Oxford and Cambridge (and St Andrews) – with an MSc in Contemporary Urbanism. He is also listed as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts – “an enlightenment organisation” – fellowship of which can cost between £230 and £3,000.

If Oldfield is concerned about inequality in this country he is right to be: analysis shows the UK to be, in terms of income, one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. If he is concerned at a lack of social mobility, he is right to be: one in five schoolchildren receive free school meals, but of these fewer than one in a hundred will study at Oxbridge.

Nevertheless, while his decision to employ “guerrilla tactics” against a nebulous term and to sabotage of a sporting event watched and enjoyed by swathes of the general public could well get his name in the history books, this foolish stunt will have done nothing to win over the 99%.

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From the West Country to the West Bank – an interview with Steve Hynd, in Jayyus, Occupied Palestinian Territory

“Have I seen awful things? Completely.” Only a few weeks ago, Steve Hynd was observing a protest near Jayyus – a small village in the West Bank, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – when the army fired tear gas canisters directly at the crowd as they were running away. One of the three inch-long steel canisters struck a protestor – standing a few feet away from him – in the neck.

For Hynd, the words ‘police tactics’ are a complete misnomer. “Why would you have soldiers stewarding a protest?” He says such tactics constitute not so much a policing strategy as “an aggressive attack on protest”. Since then, he’s stopped using the term Israeli Defence Force (IDF) – the military wing of the country’s security forces. The phrase, he says, suggests the force is there for defensive purposes, “but I’ve seen it overwhelmingly used for acts of aggression… when you say ‘army’ people understand that armies can be aggressive.”

Tear gas canisters, security forces, mass protest – all of this is a world away from where Hynd, 25, was a few years ago – brewing beer in his beloved local Stroud Brewery in the south west of England where he grew up. At the brewery, which Hynd describes as “no larger than a garden shed”, he was responsible for the entire brewing process. For seven months, he drove a truck around the Cotswold countryside, delivering beer to local pubs.

But as stark as the shift from the west country to the West Bank might seem, for Hynd there is an shared underlying theme – human interaction.

“[Drinking] beer is a social activity”, he says. “I care about people. I want them to be happy.” It’s this unwavering curiosity about his fellow human beings – their lives and stories – that fuelled his desire to come to Jayyus, as part of a volunteer scheme run by the World Council of Churches, overseen by Quaker Peace and Social Witness.

Hynd’s role here has three distinct elements. The first is monitoring human rights abuses at army-controlled checkpoints and in the village. He must be on call 24 hours a day. “If the army comes in at two in the morning, you have to be up monitoring that”, he says. Surprise raids and arrests are a frequent occurrence; the army can come any time between midnight and four in the morning. What are they looking for, I ask? “For ‘security reasons’”, Hynd says, sceptically. “Or ‘looking for a weapon.’” Hynd and his colleagues also act as what he calls a ‘Protective Presence’, just by being there – observing, filming and documenting. He thinks the presence of people like him, recording incidences like midnight raids, make people there – particularly those working for vulnerable communities – feel safer.

The last part of his role is to change people’s awareness of the conflict through blogs and articles. Here, he has his job set out for him. Unlike other Middle Eastern conflicts – like the brutal crackdown in Syria – that recently flared up in a spectacularly violent fashion, catching the world’s attention, Israel/Palestine is more of a slow burner; an intractable issue that generates more low-key, consistent coverage in the western media, but often fails to make the headlines in the way that the war in Libya did. There is a real risk, Hynd says, of such coverage leading to ‘emotional fatigue’. He worries that although “there is so much low level abuse going on”, it has been going on so long that it has become “normalised” in the minds of people back home.

To his credit, despite working in “one of the most loaded political conflicts in the world,” Hynd refuses to take sides. “I don’t feel it is useful to take sides in a conflict. I think it is incredibly unhelpful.” His approach is perhaps more akin to a foreign correspondent – striving to report facts and observations as he sees them – than that of a human rights activist per se. “What I’m trying to do is to try to tell people what I’m seeing …and only put the context in enough for the these observations to make sense” he says.

Cynics might look at the connection between Hynd’s work and a religious organisation with scepticism, or try to taint him with a typical ‘do-gooder’ brush. But listening to him recount these ‘observations’, there is a distinct lack of sanctimony or self-righteousness. If anything, Hynd is not so much ‘an activist’ as a natural journalist, fired by an incessant need to unearth and report people’s stories and embed them into the public’s consciousness. Yet, these stories leave a lasting mark. “Before, I knew about the conflict but I didn’t feel emotionally connected to it.” And now? “You’d have to be almost inhuman not to be moved by the things happening here.”

(You can read more about Steve’s exploits on Hynd’s Blog.)


Show us the money

In the early episodes of David Simon’s hit TV series, The Wire, Lester Freamon, a methodical and paternal veteran of Baltimore’s Major Crimes Unit, explains to his team the rationale behind his way of working: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f*** it’s gonna take you.”

At a time when the Coalition Government is aiming both to become the most transparent administration in the world and to inflict the deepest cuts to public spending since World War Two, trying to trace the money for new initiatives proves no easy task. Just last week the Government made two announcements: a U-turn on plans to cut a benefit that helps disabled people in residential care get out in their communities (a cut so callous some – this author included – thought it was probably only suggested in the first place to distract campaigners’ attention from other regressive reforms); and the establishment of a £1 billion ‘Youth Contract’ scheme to help deal with the highest youth unemployment levels since 1986.

The similarity between these two announcements is that nobody yet knows where the money has come from to fund them (or, in the case of the U-turn, to make up for the £135 million that would have been ‘saved’ had the Government persisted with its plan). Such ambiguity makes it hard to commend what would otherwise be welcome announcements, while also trying to figure out what cuts were made elsewhere to fund such decisions.

The Youth Contract is a particular case in point, for it is very similar to a scheme that was already in place, and proving successful, when the Coalition was formed. That scheme was the Future Jobs Fund – introduced in 2009 to create subsidised jobs for unemployed 18-24 year-olds. The Government’s own study shows that, overall, the FJF succeeded in preparing young people for work and that many of those who participated in the scheme reported “a significant improvement in self confidence” and “a positive change in aspirations and motivation to pursue their job goals”. Among those now employed many are convinced the FJF played a vital role in enabling them to find work.

Shortly after its formation in 2010, the Coalition Government decided to cut the FJF and then, barely more than a year after its Spending Review, to recreate it again – only this time offering wage subsidies to private sector employers (under the FJF any organisation from public, private or voluntary and community sectors was eligible to bid). The Youth Contract is comprised of 160,000 wage subsidies; 250,000 work experience placements, and 20,000 ‘incentive payments’ aimed at getting employers to take on young apprentices.

The new scheme will cost £1 billion, but it is not clear as to where this money come from. Officials are reported to have said that the funding comes from ‘other areas’ of government spending (assumed by some to translate to an even tighter squeeze on welfare budgets).

The money mystery doesn’t end with the funding of the project; it permeates much of the Government’s wider approach to tackling unemployment – via its welfare-to-work scheme: the Work Programme. Launched this summer, this operates on a payment by results basis: contracted organisations are paid depending on the length of time their client stays in work, and what out-of-work benefit they have moved off. Such is the Government’s faith in the Work Programme that once in office it saw fit to end all existing back-to-work schemes (including the FJF) and replace them with a single scheme. However, how successful it is and how much the providers are paid remains to be seen, as the Government won’t publish the results until Autumn 2012.

If the Government is to achieve its aim of being the most open administration in the world, then it needs to show – especially in an age of austerity – where the money for schemes like the Youth Contract really comes from. If its faith in the Work Programme is such that it can cut all existing – and successful – initiatives like the Future Jobs Fund (and even then still spend more money recreating it) it needs to show what rewards are going to whom, and for what. We need to be able to follow the money.


The strange death of universalism

The welfare state is being demolished. Brick-by-brick. Right down to the foundations. What is left depends on the passage of the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which maps out the most radical upheaval of the benefits system for sixty years. Yet, compared to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s plans to restructure the NHS, the Bill has received relatively little attention in the mainstream press; it has not caused as much public outcry.

The public has never championed the welfare state the same way it does the NHS, which – a new survey shows – inspires more pride in people than other institutions like the royal family. This is because of the two systems nearly all of us will at some point have to use healthcare, but it is a much smaller number of people who come into contact with welfare. Few would object to their taxes being put towards hospitals and doctors; many more would contend that they should pay for benefits. For a lot of people, the idea of paying into a pot only for it contents to be redistributed and used by others – perhaps undeservingly so – doesn’t have them reaching for their wallets.

And so the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide is born, and with it the longstanding idea of universalism – that we may all fall on hard times, one way or other, and need to draw on the welfare pot at some point in our lives – begins to die.

Research by the left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society reveals that public support for redistribution is falling. In its place, is a growing emphasis on contribution and increasing levels of concern that those claiming from the pot won’t put something back. More and more, that ‘something’ equals money. Even in the age of the ‘Big Society’ – with all the noise about volunteering and community engagement – non-work (or rather non-economic) forms of contribution are failing to be adequately valued. As recently explained by author Jenny Morris, to be ‘independent’ in this society is to be economically productive.

If the authors of the Fabian research are right, then public attitudes to benefits exert real influence over the welfare state’s development itself. Given that public appetite for a redistribution is diminishing, it is not surprising to see this reflected in politicians’ plans to overhaul the benefits system (although, one could argue these have as much to do with political ideology as they do with public opinion). More surprising is that these plans go to such extremes that even those who have worked and paid into the system are soon to find their support cut.

The fixation with economic contribution and those who are able to work, puts those who are not able to work in a precarious position. And while it is assumed that those who (*grits teeth*) are ‘genuinely’ disabled and will be recognised as being so, frequently the tests used to assess this are so critically flawed that even the people who designed them have spoken out against them.

With the Conservatives for the most part in charge (of the Department of Work & Pensions, as well as the Government), the Lib Dems have little room to manoeuvre. A recent poll for The Sun showed Clegg’s party to be polling at 9% – one point above UKIP. Yet Labour – in the midst of its soul-searching policy review exercise – appears to be moving to the right on welfare. Mindful, I’m sure, of think tanks like ippr telling his party that welfare is thought of as synonymous with dependency, and that it remains an issue that leaves Labour vulnerable, Ed Miliband is keen to appear tough on welfare – calling for a system based on values – “the value of work”.

This is an admirable aim. No-one is suggesting that families who work should not be better off than were they on benefits, or that a very small minority (which, depending on what paper you read, is a lot smaller than you might think) do abuse the system. But in a system in which the focus on economic contribution is so strong, you are either, as Morris suggests, one of two things: financially independent or so vulnerable you need to be ‘looked after’. Many disabled people fall somewhere in the middle.

A new report by Demos, commissioned by the disability charity Scope, and which is following the plight of six disabled families every six months over the course of this Parliament, shows that even families who have worked, do work or want to work; who care for and look after family members; who volunteer in their communities, are feeling the safety net snapping under them.

At a time when Labour is seeking to redefine its stance on so many issues, there is a real opportunity for a deep and wide-ranging debate on what it is we need from our welfare state; how it could be ensured that this ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide is broken down, rather than entrenched; and how other forms of contribution and participation should be recognised and rewarded. With the Coalition busy demolishing the welfare state as we know it, it is up to the party that founded it, and other universalist institutions like the NHS, to defend it. You never know: one day, you might need it.


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