The Obscurer

Why The Sea Is Boiling Hot

Perhaps someone could help me out here, but was Fagin, from “Oliver Twist”, a hypnotist as well as a pickpocket? I’ve never read Dickens’s novel, and it is a few years since I last watched “Oliver!”; but I don’t remember anything about hypnotism. There certainly isn’t a song called “Look into my eyes”, I know that for sure.

The reason I am asking, of course, is because of the minor furore that has reared its head following a couple of Labour Party political adverts. The first, depicting Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as flying pigs, alongside the words “The day the Tory sums add up” was criticised since both Howard and Letwin are Jewish, and of course the pig is not considered kosher. Now, if Jewish people are genuinely offended by this sort of thing, then who am I to argue? Personally, I think it is just a lame idea and that is the end of the matter. Yes pigs might fly when the Tory sums add up, and pigs might fly when one of the parties thinks up a genuinely clever advert. I would like to think, in this day and age, that people don’t go around thinking of Howard and Letwin as Jews anyway; I certainly don’t, and much as I dislike Alistair Campbell (whose ranting email to the BBC was hilarious, and illustrated why I have missed him really) I doubt he does either; I cannot imagine he would deliberately come up with an anti-Semitic poster. As I say, I cannot argue that the idea isn’t offensive as I am not Jewish, but I am pretty sure it is not anti-Semitic; the thought that Labour would purposefully indulge in such a campaign seems ridiculous.

Having just recovered from that, out comes the next idea, showing Michael Howard swinging a watch, and the words “I can spend the same money twice”. Now I would think that this is a not particularly sophisticated allusion suggesting that for you to believe the Tories’ sums you would need to be hypnotised, but it seems I have not looked deep enough into it. Apparently, it is said, this is a reference to the famous hypnotist Fagin; I would say it might as well be a reference to Paul Mckenna or some even less famous act currently playing to empty houses on Blackpool’s North pier. Even stranger, it has also been suggested that this advert may be a reference to Shylock. Who next? Maureen Lipman from those BT adds? Well, I have read “The Merchant of Venice”, although it was a while ago, and I am pretty sure there is nothing about hypnotism in the play.

Anyway, if the advert is meant to show Howard as Shylock, it does make me wonder just how many 16th century Venetians carried pocket watches around with them; presumably more than I thought. If the advert said “he wants to pick a pocket or two”, or “he wants a pound of flesh”, then perhaps the critics would have a point.

I hope that this is mainly just about politics; Labour have come up with some ideas for a negative ad campaign, and the Tories have found a way to try to discredit them. In itself this is fair enough; I have no problem with a bit of negative campaigning (why not show the folly in your opponents policies?) so long as there is some positive campaigning too, and some adverts, like the 1979 “Labour isn’t Working” poster can rightly be considered as classics. Bruce Anderson in The Independent considers that “this election campaign is already one of the dirtiest ever” and the “Tories have a problem. Will they retaliate in kind, or do they try to take the moral high ground?” This suggests he is already trying to claim the moral high ground for the Tories – “they started it” – and so when the Tories inevitably do attack Labour they can claim this in their defence.

But you could say that the Tory negative campaign has already begun; the charge of anti-Semitism against Labour is negative in itself. Anderson even says that one of the Labour tactics is “the repeated use of Michael Howard’s name in Labour election material aimed at Muslims. Michael Howard, Michael Howard: if the name is repeated enough, Labour assumes that Muslims will get the subliminal message. The leader of the Tory party is a J.. – is Michael Howard.” If even mentioning the Tory leader’s name is anti-Semitic, then Labour really are in trouble.

Whatever the reason, whether it is out of genuine offence, or political point scoring, I think that the accusations of anti-Semitism are unhelpful; it is a term full of historical meaning, entwined with evil, through the pogroms, through the holocaust. Genuine anti-Semitism is nasty and ugly, but it is also a terrible charge to make against someone; and if it is going to be bandied about in the way it has been in the past week or so, then I think it that as a term it will become devalued.

PostScript: the latest Labour idea is for Howard and Letwin to be standing holding a blackboard with the sum “2+2=5” written upon it in chalk. Well, I am sorry, but this is simply outrageous. How can 2+2=5 unless there is some interest charged, unless there is some usury afoot. This is a clear reference to Shylock. I don’t know if you know, but both Howard and Letwin are Jews! This is an affront to our intelligence. I demand the adverts withdrawal.

Poverty Of Ideas

A couple of weeks ago, whilst writing about immigration policy, I mentioned that “when the BNP and their like criticise immigrants for just coming over here to claim benefit, they don’t seem to subject our own home-grown benefit claimants to the same scrutiny, as if social security abuse is solely the preserve of weird foreigners”. To my surprise, the following week, while looking through a couple of editions of the Daily Express that were lying around work, I found two stories that did just that. Oh, the front pages were still full of fears of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, but on two consecutive days, if you delved deep enough, you could read stories about hard working foreigners being employed in jobs that locals were not prepared to do (perhaps it is unfair to include the Express in the grouping “the BNP and their like”; but you know what I mean).

Well, I am never happy when I appear to be in agreement with the Express, so I would like to clarify my position. The whole tone of the Express articles suggested that the local Britons simply could not be bothered to work in their local factories, and so the companies were forced into employing immigrants who would be prepared to work for low wages. Now I dare say some people could accurately be described as not being bothered to work; but what most of the people interviewed actually said was that they would be worse off working in their local factory than if they stayed on benefit. They are victims of the poverty trap, and this can be a genuine problem.

I spent 6 months on the dole (strictly speaking, on income support) in 1992. It was, without doubt, the grimmest period of my life, and an extremely unhealthy situation to be in. Looking back now, I suspect that I was actually going through some sort of breakdown by the time I finally got a permanent job; certainly, my mental health was not the best, but over a period of months of full time employment I managed to get myself out of the hole. I know not every person will react to unemployment in the same way, but I really cannot imagine what must go through the minds of people growing up in areas where there are very few prospects at all.

Two points about the benefits system stick in my mind from around this time. The first came when I managed to get a job working in telesales, on a commission-only basis. I was a very poor salesman, and some weeks I made less money than the dole; other weeks, although I earned more than the dole, once travelling cost were taken off I was still out of pocket. One week I actually earned no money at all. In my final week, because I had made no sales, and because a sale from the previous week had been cancelled, I actually owed my employer money. No; selling is not my forte. When I inquired about whether I could get any financial assistance from social security to bolster my potential weekly earnings of zilch I was told I couldn’t, because I had a full time job. How much I actually earned was irrelevant; working over 18 hours meant no help whatsoever.

The second point I remember came after the telesales firm let me go (Why? What had I done wrong?). During one of my job centre interviews I was told that I was allowed to work part time and still claim benefit; I could earn £5 initially, but after that, for every pound I earned, I would lose a pound of benefit.

Now, I was still living with my parents at the time, and I thought that working commission-only was preferable to relying on income support; if things went badly, and I earned less than the dole, I still had a roof over my head, I still got fed, I had no dependants to worry about. For me it was worth the gamble in the hope that I could earn a decent wage and perhaps move on from there. I did finally get off the dole, and it was to another commission-only job, working for a timeshare company. It was grim, though better than nothing; but I can well imagine people in a different situation simply not being able to take the risk I could.

In September of that year I remember watching the Tory Party conference when a delegate rose to the platform and said it was ridiculous that people were forced by the system to stay on benefits. He raised the very points I have mentioned; the loss of entitlement if you get a full time job, regardless of your income; losing £1 of benefit for every £1 you earn. This needed to be reformed he said. He then walked off the platform to a mixture of silence and disinterest from the audience.

What is amusing, though, is that earlier that year, during the General Election, the Labour Party had been attacked for their taxation policy. They had suggested raising income tax for the richest in society, and abolishing the ceiling for National Insurance payments. This was roundly criticised as a huge disincentive for people; why should the richest bother to work more when the government was going to take 60p out of every £1 they earned? No one seemed concerned about the disincentive that already existed for the poorest people, the unemployed, who would love to be able keep just 40p out of every £1 earned when returning to the workforce.

It surely cannot be that difficult to devise a system where people do not lose more in benefit than they earn in wages when they return to work. There must be some sliding scale that can be devised where as people earn more money (and pay taxes) their benefit is gradually reduced, and then reduced further over time until they no longer rely on benefits. I am sure I could work it out myself, given a free afternoon. Or perhaps not.

I don’t think I am being naïve. I am sure there are people who actually do not want to work, who are happy to live on state handouts, who rely on their giro to supplement a life of crime. But there are also people who want to work, but who simply cannot afford to because of the inflexibilities of the system. We should reform the system; to help the latter, and to remove an excuse for the former.

Returning to immigration briefly, it was interesting to hear Charles Clarke the other day unveiling his new “crackdown”, without actually saying there were any problems with the current policy to crackdown on. Indeed, when Jeremy Paxman interviewed him on Newsnight and he was directly asked if we have too many immigrants at the moment, he said that numbers are about right and everything is fine and dandy. The reason for the announcement was to restore public confidence.

I would have thought that if there aren’t any concerns over immigration, then the best way to restore public confidence is to say “there aren’t any concerns over immigration”. Am I wrong?Yes, I know, I suppose I am wrong. This announcement is as much about being seen to be doing something, and about spiking the Tories’ guns on the issue. But I am tired. I am already bored with the election campaign, and it hasn’t even begun yet.