Jamie Oliver’s pukka poverty

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Preston, the Lancashire city with some of the highest rates of unemployment in England. Looking for food on low- and fixed-incomes in Preston is not easy, and the results are less salubrious fare than “25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence” as Jamie Oliver says he wants to “teleport” a poor family to see.

Besides Preston’s covered markets, in which you can buy from a wide selection of fruits, vegetables, South Asian and East Asian ingredients, Caribbean and East African foods, tripe, black pudding, fish and pigs trotters, stands the city centre branch of Iceland. The city center branch is rarely empty, and when I potter round for my usuals, it’s pretty much packed from the checkouts all the way back to the vacuum packed value bacon. Outside the entrance is a circular seating area based around an “inspirational” mosaic which has been hacked, scuffed and ignored from the day it was installed. Chain-smokers and women eating Greggs from the packet sit around watching other Prestonians go about their business. From the seating area outside a pub, men of a certain age consider the world through their pint glasses.

Inside Iceland the world of Jamie Oliver is far from peoples’ minds. A mother and her exuberant bundle of hyperactivity stop-start along the aisles, picking up or putting down the various in-house prepared meals Iceland proudly advertise as being a step above the kind of value meal cost-cutters which were involved in the horse-meat scandal. There are other mother-with-children grouplets all over the store, bagging multi-pack crisps, cartons of £1 orange juice and yoghurts. Everything the man in front of me puts out onto the checkout are in cardboard boxes: a Sunday roast, a pasta-bake type affair with sausages, Yorkshire pudding filled with beef slices. I stock up on pasta meals too, and a pork pie, and Yazoo milkshakes.

Oliver has skirted around the realities of poverty and poor living in Britain, though only with a camera crew or researchers around him. His most often quoted remark this week – concerning the couple eating cheesy chips in front of a “massive fucking television” – is typical of his comfortable ignorance. The poor are predominately proud as a rule, who want to show a brave face and nothing of the feet flicking madly underneath the water. Suggesting the aspirational route – eat pasta! make your own pasta! rustle up some ricotta fritters with tomato sauce! – is only throwing the map down from a very tall height, and that map probably doesn’t show the best route to travel. In the middle are jobs which can’t be found, money which is almost impossible to save, demands from banks and utility services that cannot be ignored, and food which has to be affordable, often for anybody but the person buying it. The low- and fixed- income families who want to show their children that they, like any other family, can sit down in front of a television aren’t trying to put TV over nutrition; it’s wanting to carry on as normal with as little negative judgement from strangers as possible.

Eating pasta with mussles in front of a moderately sized television may well be an option for some on low- and fixed-incomes, Jamie, but not from where I’m looking.

Affordable food is not necessarily healthy food. It can be, and indeed really should be if supermarkets had any morals about them. There are options but they’re shrinking. The price of chicken, once a fairly safe option for cheap stand-by meals, has gone through the roof. Most other meats have seen similar price rises. Fresh fruit and veg, so often packed into bags of 6- or more, cannot always be stored away for long amount of times, and they’re not as cheap as they used to be either. Faced with mounting living costs or the need to visit a foodbank, the low- and fixed income poor can’t count as an option the dozen or so ingredients required to make the “cheap” foods so many middle class TV chefs assume just lie waiting in the pantries and fridges of the nation. I wonder if Oliver knows this, deep down, and refuses to accept it.

There are moments of sense and reason in the Oliver interview, given to promote another of his social-conscience television shows. He is right to point to local markets and more sensible purchases, but has gone about it in the completely wrong way. The little dictator attitude is that of most typical Tories and small-c conservatives, who have provided a generation-and-then-some-long soundtrack of tuts and moans from the sidelines on most subjects under the sun. Education? Not as good as it was for the poor or those Northerners, don’t you know. Jobs? They’ve got no grit, those poor and unemployed folks, that’s the problem, need to bring National Service back, I say!

Let’s not demonise the low- and fixed-income poor. There’s ingenuity with that pride and sense too. It makes good copy to draw attention to cheesy chips and expensive unhealthy options, but that distracts from the real economic hardships facing millions across the country.  Maybe the best recipe for Jamie Oliver is not to brag about 101 solutions to national poverty whilst preparing yourself for another lucrative television programme. Come to Iceland or B&M Bargains without a camera or researcher to watch the reality of those people who can’t just be marched into a market for a swift transformation into people who could pick up dozens of fresh ingredients and all the necessary herbs and spices without denting their weekly budget.  It’s not “poverty” as our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known it, but whatever we’ve got cannot be fixed with theatrical gasps at the sight of a Greggs pastie or Bird’s Eye fish-finger. If you want people to see the Sicilian fishermen with their mussels and pasta, Jamie, you’re going to have to pay….

Advertisements

Right to Recall

Remember the expenses scandal? Hazel Blears waving a cheque around, duck ponds and trouser presses (“It’s a bit Alan Partridge”, said Chris Huhne, who probably wishes that was the end of the word association game connecting “MP for Eastleigh” with “controversy”.)

The aftermath flushed out all suggestions and attempts to clean up politics as though the establishment was blowing down the garden hose that had been stuffed on the tallest ledge of the shed for the best part of the year. “PR! Smaller House of Commons! An independent expenses regime! Dealing with lobbyi….Stuff!”

One of the bright ideas coming through all of this mild panic was the “right to recall”, a mechanism through which people could get their MP off the green benches and into the Job Centre…Or at least an enforced by-election of some sort. The Labour Party love “right to recall” so much that they still put it on their website – look, it’s here in their manifesto section.  And the Tories thought it was a good idea too – in April of last year they explained how right to recall might work.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg described plans for a right to recall in a Q&A session in August last year.  And now….Well…

…it’s not easily found anywhere.  The usual websites tend to fall silent on the matter, and Hansard is not an easy stamping ground for looking at where the proposal has landed. Just how long is the long grass?

“Right to recall” is a messy process if handled incorrectly, which it might just be if the proposals are given the same treatment as those to reduce the number of MPs by 50 (which I support, though the specifics of the legislation has created some absolute howler constituencies ).

Would the trigger be an official Parliamentary review? In all cases? Would Liam Fox, for example, be subject to a recall by-election if the good burghers of North Somerset were able to organise enough signatures on a website? If Parliament or an independent review decides that Mr or Mrs MP has not committed an offence even though the “court of public opinion” thinks otherwise, would a petition still be allowed?

There’s all the usual lines in the background about “turkeys”, “christmas” and “the voting for”, and of course professional troublemakers will be in their element attempting to deselect the Prime Minister for looking at them funny. (I notice the NUS has now gone very quiet over its ill-fated recall attempt for all those nasty Liberal Democrat MP, maybe the take up of their wacky scheme didn’t match their lofty ambitions?).

I hope that someone can bring back the recall scheme where it belongs, because as a powerful tool it is one of the most effective. But it needs to be properly configured, and not open to the kind of nutter magnet tendencies you see in the (otherwise flawless) e-petition scheme. Members of Parliament have not been whiter-than-white….ever…..but the mood music at the moment has no patience for wrongdoing amongst our elected masters. “Right to recall” is not a very British policy and would take a while to slot into our mindset. (It has not moved from “shouldn’t grumble” to “Whose Streets?! Our Streets?!” without any intervening period, despite the over-the-top self-promotion of the Occupy ”movement”).

“Right to recall” byelections would open up political and democratic debate, and Lord knows we need a bit more debate recently. They would be rare, of course, because the rules would require a structure that ensured it was used properly by both Parliament and the electors. Those MPs who slipped through the expenses scandal with only nips and cuts to their pride need to feel the heat of the “recall” threat – I’m a democrat, that’s my default position, and recall triggers fits very comfortably into a democratic model.

The age of the local referendum and devolved power is approaching – the Localism Act is a great tool and one which the Liberal Democrats should be rightly proud of producing. This might not be a sexy subject, but it’s important and relevant today as it was during the depths of the expenses scam.

But until someone pokes the Cabinet Office to remind them about this policy, one wonders if it’ll ever be enacted? What’s that people say about the more things change…..

porn anyone can edit

With social media merrily building extensions and BBQ pits to its walled gardens, other sites of this world web of ours appear to be struggling to attract enough people to pick their own fruit. Remember Wikipedia? Encyclopaedia anyone can edit, and formerly one of the great phenomenons of the Internet, now sadly diminished.

Amongst the noise generated by Facebook and Google+ (and if you think the Facebook fandago has died down, wait until the Timeline format is launched), a loud and occasionally chaotic controversy has played out, developed and died on the great Wiki policy pages. If the media decide to take a look, it could  blow open another hole in the debate about internet freedom and censorship.

Behind all the Wiki articles on sporting events, capital cities and electoral statistics, an army of editors and administrators busy themselves on the site’s version of message boards. Here the various, numerous, often contradictory and highly muddled ”rules” are bashed out using the infamous “consensus model”, which usually means nobody agreeing on anything and the editing policy carrying on regardless for another six months. Diplomatic discussions around the tables of middle-sized companies have nothing on the Wiki model, especially now so few editors are taking on the roles of admins leaving a small set of middle management (the so-called “marzipan layer”) to fix the rules of their own ends.

Out of nowhere, 13 year old editor admitted he had joined the Wikipedia project on Pornography, a group which exists to co-ordinate the editing of articles related to pornographic material. An editor created a policy discussion asking if, under Florida law where the Wikipedia servers are based, this was something to legislate against. The debate flourished into a bewildering half-page analysis of policy, philosophy and social norms across both sides of the Atlantic.

Much of the votes opposing a ban on underage editors contributing to the Porn project used recognisably libertarian opinions; Wikipedia is not censored, nor should it act in loco parentis. We tend to see the Internet generally, and sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia specifically, as places where inappropriate material  might just be round the corner. If the editor really is 13, and genuinely wants to assist in editing articles related to Pornography, what stops could be installed which would not encourage other site owners to close down undesirable quarters ‘for the sake of the children’ ?

There is the issue of responsibility running through this which comes from stepping back from auto-response reactions relating to allowing users of the ‘net to run free like the 60s really had changed the world. Porn (the imagery) and porn (the concept) are separate issues; discuss the latter with your children and make sure they don’t search Internet History without someone over their shoulder. It would be a PR disaster for Wiki to be associated with adult material, even if the project itself is designed to educate and inform people about everything from the Vietnam War to the vulva (needless to say, perhaps, but one of those links is NWS).

Wiki does not have the mindset, amongst its users, to block material or build high walls around contentious subjects. On the whole Wiki is a centre-left/liberal organisation, and one which considers it a virtue if mature editors wish to contribute to difficult, minority interest content. The policy debate this single 13-year old started chipped at the core of the Wiki body. It’s not as though the project contains sexually arousing content, as such, with articles on anti-pornography movements and sexual objectifications under the umbrella terms of the project. The articles relating to lesbianism lacks any moving images on girl-on-girl action, and if you clicked on auto-fellatio expecting a treat you’ll leave disappointed.

Wiki retains the potential it always had as an ambitious, well-meaning project, even though the fleeting regular editors and increased administrative regime has left it looking exhausted and out-dated. The lack of a social-media companion tool alongside Wiki leaves the site appearing cold and unappealing. Debates on how to exclude and block editors, however responsible the wider debate may be, can do only more damage. Ultimately we are dealing here with something keyboard diplomats cannot legislate for – parental responsibility. Wikipedia could attract trouble it did not expect if an issue like this is mishandled.