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The “Clean for the Queen” campaign is Tory Britain at its worst

Behind the usual monarchist deference is an insidious attempt to redefine poverty as a moral choice, rather than a result of the government’s austerity.

Forelocks at the ready, peasants. It’s time to Clean for the Queen. In honour of Her Majesty’s birthday, Tory politicians and major retailers have come together to encourage all good citizens to clean up their neighborhoods next weekend. Around the country, purple billboards, formatted in the style of those cloyingly awful “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, urge the underclass to “spruce up your streets! vacuum your villages!”, as if Hyacinth Bouquet had suddenly been appointed Supreme Leader. The jolly press releases fail to mention that the reason the neighbourhoods got dirty in the first place is that the council cleaners were fired. Major sponsors of the event include McDonalds, Greggs, Costa and Kentucky Fried Chicken, who are hardly irresponsible for the mess. 

Worse still, someone has persuaded a number of Tory ministers to dress up as day-labourers, complete with litter-pickers, gurning in purple uniforms. No Tory minister should be allowed to pose in public with household cleaning items. Have they forgotten the prime minister’s many eye-watering attempts to look comfortable in a high-vis jacket? Have they forgotten Boris Johnson’s appalling photo-op after the London riots, waggling a broom like a fascinating tribal artefact from a conquered nation?

The Mayor of London is graciously providing free binbags for all those lucky serfs who might want to have a go at cleaning the high streets while they wait for the food banks to open. There will presumably be songsheets on offer so that the formerly feckless youth of Cardiff and Coventry can perform sprightly choruses as they scrub, and choreographers to co-ordinate a marvellous broom-dance. Bono can do a solo as the unquiet ghost of Nye Bevan. 

 It’s a fantasy right out of Dickens – as long as you’ve not actually read Dickens and base your conception of British society entirely on the muppet musical remakes, which have a whole lot less violence and disease and a whole lot more singing penguins. 

In a week when more cuts to public services and welfare benefits were announced in the wake of troubling economic forecasts, all the state has to offer is a roll of free binbags and the exhortation to scrub and smile.  It has been some years since the Conservative party quietly dropped “We’re All In This Together” as a campaign slogan. Let’s be realistic: this is Tory Britain, and the only thing we’re all in together is the rain. It just won’t do to talk about money, particularly when you’re busy gutting and skinning the welfare state so you can decorate your office with its pelt.  Gone is the embarrassing pretence at cross-class solidarity: these days, it’s all about standing up straight and remembering all the verses to “God Save The Queen”, even the dodgy one about slaughtering Scotsmen.  We don’t talk about money, and who has it. That would be common. 

Last week, Cameron’s snug mask of patrician concern slipped when he mocked the leader of the opposition for looking, essentially, like a pleb. Jeremy Corbyn was trying to discuss cuts to the health service in Cameron’s own constituency when the prime minister suggested that instead of yammering on about the NHS the Labour leader ought to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”.

This plea for decorum came, lest we forget, from a man who recently had to publicly deny having had sex with a dead pig. But the wealthy and their children may do as they please: nobody is scouting around Eton for volunteers to Clean for the Queen. 

If it’s common to talk about money, it’s downright oikish to talk about poverty. The Queen doesn’t want to hear that nonsense. In fact, the government is halfway to winning its battle to redefine child poverty as a measure of something other than the actual amount of money that families actually have. 

Previously, the government has had to deliver reports to parliament about how many children were poor, but those figures were getting embarrassing, so Iain Duncan Smith has been fighting for some time to remove that requirement. The state will still publish the figures but will no longer have to formally tell MPs how many kids are living below the poverty line, which is set at 60 per cent of the median income. Instead, the DWP will be allowed to report on other things, like whether the children’s parents are employed, which is convenient, as thanks to wage suppression you no longer have to be out of work to be flat broke. New standards of acceptable child deprivation will presumably include how adorable and well-mannered the little ragamuffins are, and whether they’ve wiped their noses and learned to recite the names of every former colony of the British Empire before they get their evening gruel. What does it matter if these children live in poverty, as long as they keep Christmas in their hearts? 

At least they can be kept busy mopping for the monarchy. Most of the organisations getting involved in the scheme appear to be schools and scouting groups, which is interesting, as I thought we had laws about child labour. But cleaning is an onerous and unhealthy job that people generally require a salary to do. 

I’m not sure if anyone has explained this to Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Iain Duncan Smith. I’d like to know, in fact, when any of these men last cleaned anything – their desks, their suits, their financial records, anything at all. They may actually believe that dirt magically appears and disappears in proportion to one’s moral uprightness, measured, of course, by wealth. The right sort of people have their dusting and polishing done by the staff or, in a pinch, the wife. Recently, cleaners at the Foreign Office were disciplined after demanding less insulting wages. It must have come as a great surprise to the ministers there that government departments are not, in fact, tidied by elves while good Tories are tucked up in their beds dreaming of lucrative private sector contracts to come.

Back in the real world, the reason Britain has a problem with litter because local councils have been forced to cut their budgets by up to 40 per cent in two years, for no good reason other than to fund Tory tax breaks for the same companies that are sponsoring “Clean for the Queen”. Councils have had to choose between closing their child crisis centres, shutting down libraries, or firing half their cleaning staff. Many of the “grot spots” that the beleaguered Clean For The Queen social media team has chosen to shame in public are untidy precisely because they’ve had to get rid of the people who were actually employed to tidy up. 

Now those same people are being asked to do the work for free. In 2014 John McArthur, a 59-year-old worker from Motherwell, was made redundant from his minimum wage job at a local recycling centre – and then forced to do the same job for free as part of a “Community Work Placement” designed to motivate the unemployed to get back to work.

The point of all this is to redefine poverty as a moral choice, a lapse of judgement, as if the soaring numbers of people sleeping on the streets have done the equivalent of leaving the house without their trousers on. They have simply forgotten to be rich. Similarly, the sick and disabled people whose benefits have now been cut to just £73 pounds a week have not tried hard enough to not have cancer, or broken bones, or bipolar disorder. If having to decide between starving and freezing doesn’t motivate the surplus population to miracle acts of self-healing, imagine how much more gumption they’ll have when we replace benefits with small packets of Disney stickers, motivational quotes and maybe some collectible plastic figurines of the royal family where you can pull a string and have the Duke of Edinburgh ask you why you haven’t got a job yet.

The poor don’t need money, they need a better attitude. Recently Frank Field, who is a Labour MP in the same way that Donald Trump is a man of the people, opined in the Telegraph that children should be required to sit through lessons in how to avoid poverty – not by joining a union and agitating for humane wages, but by getting married. This advice, aimed at young girls, would have appeared retrograde in the 1950s, but in today’s Britain it is acceptable for a politician to declare that marriage must be prioritised as “the great civilising force on males”. “Of course no one should advocate the continuation of a partnership that involves mental or physical abuse,” writes Field. “But the possibility of such abuse must not be used to promote single parenthood.”

Motivation is not the problem. People are not, on the whole, unemployed or underemployed because they are lazy or feckless or make poor choices. People are unemployed because there are fewer jobs available, and those that remain pay far less than they once did as the cost of living continues to rise. This is not happening by chance, but as a direct result of government cuts that are destroying the public services ordinary people rely on in the name of “balancing the books”. The books in question, if you’re wondering, have roundly failed to balance.

It’s all about incentives. The poor need to be incentivised to work, even when there are few jobs available and fewer still that pay a liveable wage. By the same logic, if we simply stop providing chemotherapy to cancer patients, they will be incentivised to heal themselves. If we stop teaching science in schools, our children will be incentivised to become astrophysicists. If we drive a hundred thousand disabled people into the sea they will be incentivised to grow gills and fins. I expect the white paper from the Department for a Work and Pensions within weeks. Oddly, the well-off do not seem to require negative incentives, but positive ones – unlike the feckless poor, the flighty rich must be tempted with government handouts and soft, welcoming tax deals unless we want them to flee the capital, which would be a disaster for reasons explained with mumbling and a patrician handwave.

If all that makes the difference between penury and survival is the right incentives, then poverty is not an artefact of inequality, but a moral choice. If social breakdown comes about not because of austerity but because of falling standards, then people shouldn’t blame their bosses or elected leaders for their cramping stomachs and freezing homes. Instead, they get to blame themselves, and blame each other. Soldier on in shame and exhaustion, as long as you don’t get so depressed that you can’t work.

Britain is a dirty place, but the grime is where it’s always been – below the surface, settling into the cracks in sixty million anxious human hearts. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the Queen, the answer, of course, is nothing at all. The Queen is ninety years old. She does not care if the bins get taken out, and neither does the Cabinet, as long as we’re not out there actively upending wheelie bins in disgust. The Queen’s birthday is merely a convenient occasion for another cloying appeal to this country’s most subservient, cap-doffing instincts: don’t make a fuss. Sit up straight, peasants. Put on a proper suit and tie. Don’t talk about poverty. Don’t talk about inequality. Stiffen that upper lip while you sing the National Anthem. Polish your front step till it shines. Scrub and smile. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.