Old Folk

So, I’ve been meaning to post some music for a couple of weeks now. I recently caught The Rails playing at The Musician in Leicester and had a damn lovely time.

First off, it’s a great venue. While typical of its type – walls emblazoned with signed photos; the subtle aroma of stale lager and wood polish; a handwritten sign: ‘no hipsters’ – it wears it heart on its sleeve and prides itself on the sound engineering. 

The Rails themselves are a husband and wife folk duo (though they’ve previously toured with additional musicians) with slightly daunting CVs. The bittersweet, female vocals are provided by Kami Thompson, daughter of Richard and Linda and sibling of Teddy. The folk guitar with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude is brought by James Walbourne who as well spending time in The Pernice Brothers and Son Volt has toured with Uncle Tupelo and The Pogues. If that’s not enough Tami has worked with Will Oldham as well. Basically, I’m whimpering at this point. 

And they didn’t disappoint. Playing to all 58 of us they were mildly hungover, consistently charming, and played like their lives depended on it. A couple of my favourites from the evening:

The first can be found on their fantastic Australia EP, which you can get here.

The second is on the Thompson Family LP which is over here somewhere.

You should definitely get them both for yourself this Christmas.

Glass houses

  
‘Police knows that in this country, we believe in policing by consent. And if we are to protect that principle, we must not only improve public trust and confidence in the police, but we must ensure that police forces properly reflect the communities they serve.’ 

Thus spoke Theresa May in her speech to the Black Police Association last week. It’s a statement that is, I believe, impossible to disagree with. The importance of trust – emphasised by several high profile race related crimes that have gone unsolved – cannot be overstated. 

As such I applaud Ms May for her words. The current state of affairs – 5.5% of police officers are from an ethnic minority compared to around 13% of the population- ‘is simply not good enough’. 

Still, while we’re on this topic, it’d be remiss of me not to remind the Home Secretary of another pressing race relations issue in the UK. To start, lets paraphrase her speech a little:

Politicians knows that in this country, we believe in ruling by consent. And if we are to protect that principle, we must not only improve public trust and confidence in politics, but we must ensure that political parties properly reflect the communities they serve.

It’s a statement that is, I believe, impossible to disagree with. The importance of trust – emphasised by the historic patterns of low voter registration amongst minorities – cannot be overstated. 

So some food for thought:

6.6% of MPs are from an ethnic minority;

5.2% of Conservative MPs are from an ethnic minority;

5.3% of members of the House of Lords are from an ethnic minority;

4% of local councillors are from an ethnic minority; 

3.7% of top level civil servants are from an ethnic minority;

None of the four ‘great offices of state‘have ever been held by someone from an ethnic minority;

Clearly there is a huge imbalance between the make-up of public services and the people they serve but we are surely best off starting with reform of our political representation since these are the people who can implement the changes that are needed.

Further Reading

12 charts that show just how different the Tory cabinet is to the people it represents

Cautious optimism about the future from the Runnymede Trust

Alan Milburn’s overlooked report on elitism in Britain

Random reading (or, stories I can’t believe I missed)

Leicester Police ignoring burglaries at odd numbered houses.

Earth on fire

The small print taketh away

For the average person (and I’m exceedingly average, if that’s possible) unpacking the government’s fiscal policy is a Herculean task: changes to tax credits; increases in the minimum wage; cuts to government departments; caps on public sector pay; changes to inheritance tax; decreases in corporation tax; pension tax relief restrictions; age limits on housing benefit; alignment of job-seeker and employment support allowance; savings assumed through clamping down on tax evasion; changes to the personal income allowance and tax taper rates; the climate change levy; the benefits cap; and a whole bevy of other reforms and tweaks I have neither the time nor patience to list. We cannot accuse either the Coalition or, latterly, the Conservatives of taking a laissez-faire approach to this topic.

Alongside that, newspapers, politicians, think tanks and bloggers provide a myriad of alternate viewpoints supported by baffling and seemingly contradictory statistics. Technological improvement has brought many things but at this point I feel exhausted by information overload.

Unfortunately, I realised that I’m yet to rant about the summer budget and that with the spending review due in just over a month, I needed to do so now. I’m going to try and keep this short and simple (again, a little like myself) but I apologise in advance if I get lost somewhere along the way.

Plenty has been written about how the changes to tax credits and the ‘living wage’ will affect individual households with the general conclusion seeming to be that no one’s quite sure but that the government may be dodging the impact analysis bullet.

While I broadly agree with the proposal to reduce working tax credits (basically, a subsidy which allows corporations to pay absurdly low wages) while increasing the minimum wage it’s a very delicate process and I’m not sure we’ve suitably protected household incomes. There is also understandable concern that the ‘living wage’ may have a serious impact on smaller businesses and the public sector.

When it comes to wage increases, the real pressure does not fall on central government but on local councils and the private companies that fulfill contracts on their behalf. The Local Government Association recently reported that local councils face an increase in wage bills of around £1BN a year by 2020[i]. At the same time they face a cap on annual public sector wage increases of around 1%. That leaves them with two options:

  1. Balance the books by giving lower wage increases to staff on higher salaries. i.e. many public sector workers face several years of wage rises of less than 1%. This is worth contrasting with the increase in Minimum Income Standards of somewhere between 22% and 28% over the last 7 years[ii].
  2. Cut staffing levels, hopefully without any direct effect on the vital services they offer.

If that doesn’t fill you with enough dread take a moment to consider the impact on a specific sector. While a lot of our homecare is provided by private companies they do so by winning contracts, 70% of which are paid for by local councils. The UK Homecare Association recently estimated that care firms face a shortfall of £750M in the first year after the implementation of the ‘living wage'[iii].

These are the organisations that care for our families and friends ensuring that they stay healthy and active and, importantly from a national view, help to reduce the burden on the hospitals and residential care homes. If homecare is not adequate then recovering patients have to stay in hospital. This is bad for them and bad for the country. NHS England statistics show that in the past 12 months there have been 1,042,434 days lost due to patients being unable to be discharged[iv]. Given the increasing financial difficulties that face our hospitals we are surely on the verge of a crisis in health provision. And I haven’t even mentioned cuts to mental health services, GPs taking early retirement or junior doctors’ interminable war of words with Jeremy Hunt. Thus far the government has offered little in the way of support. We can only hope that will change in the upcoming spending review.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the planned cuts in corporation tax and new inheritance tax rules will cost us somewhere around £3BN a year by the end of this parliament[v]. They may be excellent ways of improving our economic growth or helping to making our society fairer, they may not. I just don’t know enough to be sure.

My point here is simple: Increasing the wages of low-earners is vitally important. It’s not sustainable for the taxpayers to keep subsidising their incomes at the current level. Frankly, it’s no way to run a country. However, it seems to come with unpalatable consequences that we can’t continue to ignore. The role of a government is to ensure that while it balances spending and borrowing it does so neither at the expense of its people nor the key services they require. Right now, I don’t think that’s what is happening. It’s time the economic debate in this country evolved from who will cut the most to balance the books, to how can we find the money to keep this society fair, open and safe for everyone.

[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33499166

[ii] Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Minimum Income Standards 2015 https://www.jrf.org.uk/file/47124/download?token=7wlhr6kz

[iii] http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2015/07/home-care-bosses-call-treasury-fund-workers%E2%80%99-wage-hike

[iv] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/nhs-feels-the-strain-as-hospital-bed-blocking-by-elderly-patients-hits-record-levels-10125422.html

[v] Data sourced from table 2.1, Summer Budget 2015

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In case you’re wondering where all the music is, I recently released the second part of this month’s Skewed Quiff here.

Indier than thou

I’ve had many accusations thrown at me over the years. Far too great and diverse a throng of insults and insinuations to enumerate individually here, however amusing that might be. A few were impressively barbaric. A handful dripped with bile and venom. A smattering had been exhausted to within an inch of their patience. Most contained – somewhere in their angry little hearts – a bitter kernel of truth.

All of us know we’re not really good people. Selflessness is an increasingly rare virtue. You’ve got to take care of yourself right? It’s a dog eat dog world.

It’s just no fun having someone point it out to you.

As such, on rare occasions – seemingly chosen on whim – I decide to do something about myself. Unfortunately, deciding to do something usually seems to be enough to assuage my guilt and so actually doing something often amounts to very little – a bit like this time.

Earlier this year, a friend of a friend of a friend accused me of being a hipster. Fuck off, I said – but a little less politely than that. Unsurprisingly, I was already running a mental checklist: stylishly unkempt facial hair – check; wearing outdated fashion in a non-ironic way – check; seeming urge to only like utterly obscure bands – check. Still, the facial hair hadn’t so much been styled as shaped by idleness. And the fashion was only outdated as I still think I can wear the same clothes as I did when I was 21. I should do something about the music, though, but what?

I could try listening to Radio 1 for a week or borrow my better half’s laptop, perhaps. I could, could, watch the steaming pile of soullessness that is X-Factor. I wasn’t going to though, was I? I wasn’t going to do any of those things. Instead, what I did was investigate some of my favourite artists of yesteryear to find out what they’re up to currently. Artists that, by purely staying together for ages, must have bigger fanbases now, right? You can’t call them obscure anymore, damn you.

I guess that you could argue that some of them became too popular for an ‘indier than thou’ snob to continue liking but, on the whole, I mainly stopped listening to them because they couldn’t replicate a record which I fell in love with. Basically, I asked them to achieve the impossible and they merrily didn’t do it.

Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One; Iron and Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days; Low’s Secret Name; Silver Jews’ American Water; The National’s Boxer; Calexico’s The Black Light; Deerhunter’s Microcastle; and Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar. All of these are records which a younger, prettier me fell in love with. Records that still cause me to suffer nostalgia nausea whenever I happen to cross their musical path. Records to which comparisons cannot be made because they are a part of my emotional history.

So, I present two songs from each of the above – an old favourite and a new joy. Except for The Silver Jews. They broke up in 2009, so I chose a song from 1994 I hadn’t heard before – obviously. And The National, for whom I dipped into Matt Berninger’s (and Brent Knopf of Menomena – who are also wonderful, check out Friend or Foe) excellent side project El Vy . The National are far too popular for me to like anymore.

Half of these really good songs and a bunch of other rather lovely stuff is featured on this month’s Skewed Quiff which comes in two sides. Side A is available here and now. Side B will appear when I’ve got a couple of hours to spare.

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