Monthly Archives: January 2014

Missing: a UK government policy for maxed out families

So the latest economic statistics show that a broadly based recovery is taking hold in the UK. Phooey!

Even with the best gloss on the percentage growth figures, total GDP remains below that before the crash of 2008.

And the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has been casting about for a form of words to explain why interest rates cannot rise even when unemployment falls below 7%.

Of course, the latest jobless statistics were published before a couple of high street banks announced a further cull of staff.

You only have to look at continuing falls in house prices in regions such as the North-east of England to know that recovery is still to arrive outside London and the commuter belt.

But that’s all right. Transport for London has been told to expect treble the predicted number of commuters to arrive daily at stations such as Farringdon when Crossrail opens. That means more house price rises in the South, boosted by the Help to Buy scheme that has already delivered more Stamp Duty to Treasury coffers. Yes, with one hand George Osborne gives, with the other he takes away.

Meanwhile, the rest of the nation suffers a brain drain of the brightest and best. And small- and medium-sized companies still cannot borrow the money they need to expand, which just exacerbates the problem.

At least the government has a policy on that issue. What goes unmentioned in ministerial comments about the economy is any policy to deal with the drag on recovery, and the personal tragedies, represented by household debt of £1.4 trillion. There are nine million people living with serious debt, according to the government’s Money Advice Service.

Christmas spending

It’s not as if ministers don’t know the scale of the problem. I imagine Iain Duncan-Smith still reads the reports published by his Centre for Social Justice. The staggering figure above came from Maxed Out, a report written by a Labour former minister, Chris Pond, which put the average household debt at £54,141 compared with £29,000 a decade ago.

That figure might well have increased after the Christmas spending enabled by payday loans. During Debt Awareness Week this month, the StepChange debt charity reported that it was approached by new clients owing £230 million.

In the absence of a policy, the top result on Google when you search for ‘UK government policy personal debt’ is headlined Options for paying off your debts. We all paid to bail-out the banks and endured the so-called Great Recession from which the wealthy appear to be recovering considerably faster than the rest of us, helped along by a cut in the top rate of income tax. But there’s no bail-out for families trapped by debt that they were encouraged to accumulate, nay had thrust upon them by the banks and credit card companies during the last credit-propelled ‘recovery’.

So what’s the government’s answer? A rise in the minimum wage to restore its lost value. Peanuts compared with the national wealth squandered on saving the RBS group etc etc. Oh, and more cuts to benefits to drive people into Mac jobs on zero hours contracts.

But the bankers must have their bonuses, or the service economy of the capital might suffer. Heaven knows what hardship City traders might suffer if all the Polish plumbers and Bulgarian baristas went home.

Household debt

What won’t happen soon is any meaningful reduction in household debt, and particularly the consumer debt that has trebled since 1993 to reach £158 billion. That’s bad news for the high street and bad news for manufacturers looking for domestic sales growth. It will also mean more family breakdown and more personal insolvencies. Perhaps it’s time for a national policy on debt forgiveness for families.

I don’t doubt that jobless statistics will shortly record a reduction to below 7%. But how many of the people losing their jobs in the months ahead will be joining those scraping a living in the growing army of the self-employed? Or eking out an existence on a pension taken too early, because some employers just don’t take on older workers.

And what’s ahead for those in work? Not much in the way of pay rises so far, with increases in wages running at 0.9% while inflation under the Consumer Prices Index is at 2.1%. I don’t know whose cost of living that index records, but it doesn’t match the increases in my energy, food or travel bills.

Still, the dwindling band of full-time staff can make up some of the shortfall by working longer hours, filling the gaps in the workforce by those let go, under contracts of employment that invite you to ‘be helpful’ with catch-all job descriptions. Oh, and don’t forget to clear the kitchen sink before you go home.




Electric musings: on Wintersmith and Peter Knight’s departure from Steeleye Span

There’s an argument that many bands outstay their welcome, clinging on past some notional sell-by date for rock and rollers to have new music worth sharing with an audience.

So when violinist Peter Knight announced, on the eve of Steeleye Span’s tour to promote their Wintersmith album, that he was leaving when the tour finished, it could be seen as going out on a high.

Will the loss of Knight’s distinctive fiddle playing and writing spell the end for the band? Too early to say, but I’ve a suspicion there’ll be more to come, with newcomer guitarist Julian Littman finding his writing feet and, perhaps, former member Bob Johnson continuing to contribute songs too, even if ill-health stops him touring. Just listen to Littman’s Dark Morris for the continuation of Steeleye’s tradition of marrying ‘folk’ with hard rock riffs – the best example since Thomas the Rhymer in my book.

The Wintersmith collaboration with SF author Sir Terry Pratchett to capture his Disc World in music deservedly reignited fans’ enthusiasm for a stalwart folk-rock band that has sometimes seemed content to rework old favourites from the tradition rather than explore new ground.

Those critics who cared to listen to Wintersmith ladled out the superlatives and there has even been some radio play outside the folk ghetto. If Steeleye had been ageing Americans, they’d have got a whole lot more attention in the press and on TV, but UK media folk always seem embarrassed by any mention of Morris dancing.

Yet this is a world away from the twee olde English folk that, for some, is still represented by All Around My Hat, though it didn’t seem to worry guests John Spiers and Jon Boden when they ran back on stage to join in the encores at a gig at the Barbican before Christmas.

They’d already brought additional muscle to the live performances of songs from Wintersmith that were only lacking labelmate Katherine Tickell’s Northumbrian pipes to capture the full impact of the album.

At one point on stage there were so many pieces of percussion being played by so many people during Knight’s instrumental The Dark Morris Tune, that I was reminded of a Yes performance of Tales from Topographic Oceans at the Rainbow in the mid 70s. But perhaps that shows my weakness for a concept album.

Here are Maddy Prior’s thoughts on Knight’s departure and Wintersmith in an interview with Emma Hartley from her excellent Glamour Cave folk blog.

It’s always possible that Knight will change his mind and return to the Steeleye fold, though his comment that ‘enough is enough’ and complaint at the lack of democracy in choosing the album cover art suggest otherwise. But Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp in the past have taken time out and returned. In the meantime, Wintersmith’s closing song, We Shall Wear Midnight, is a fitting lament to his contribution to the band and a fine tribute to Pratchett.

PS: It’s both amazing how close Erasure’s rendition of Gaudete is to Steeleye’s unaccompanied version (ignoring slight differences of pronunciation), and how sinister Vince Clark’s keyboards sound. Almost a Wintersmith outtake…

 Update February 27: Just caught up with the news that Steeleye have added a new violin player, Jessie May Smart, for live dates in 2014.