Thursday, 3 April 2014

The French Socialist Party is repeating the failures of the mainstream left

Another day, another election drubbing for the left. The French Socialist party got a kicking in the recent local elections. Much of this has to do with the unpopularity of the French President Francoise Hollande. In May 2012, I posted optimistically on this blog about Hollande's success in becoming the President of France. And why not? Hollande offered some hope of an alternative to the austerity programme which has proved so devastating for millions of people in the EU. But that optimism proved false. Hollande may have started out with tax increase for the rich at a rate of 75% but he quickly succumbed to the austerity agenda announcing £50 billion of cuts. And here's the irony, the beneficiaries of this have been the French National Front headed by Marie Le Pen.

Once again, a party of the left has failed in Europe by following a neoliberal agenda, and by conceding ground to a right-wing political agenda, has encouraged the right. There are parallels between France and the UK, where UKIP has benefited by assuming the mantle of being the champions of the working class just as the Front National has in France. So when is the mainstream left going to begin to learn some lessons from this debacle? When is it going to reject the austerity agenda and promote a positive alternative which shows its support for the 99% with jobs, housing and support for public services, publicly delivered?
Hollande: repeating the same mistake and expecting a different result

Since the crash of 2008, wherever parties of the left have implemented austerity they have been decisively rejected by voters at the ballot box and the right have been the beneficiaries. There is a serious lesson for Ed Milliband and the Labour Party here. Recently Len Mckluskey, General Secretary of UNITE threatened to withdraw support from the Labour Party if they fail to win the next general election. Who can blame UNITE for talking this stance? Labour ceased to be a party of working people and the trade unions about twenty years ago. Until left mainstream parties can begin to articulate a positive alternative to neoliberlaism they will continue to fail. They are like Einstein's  madman endlessly repeating the same mistake and each time expecting a different result.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The NHS is a massive national asset that we must invest in

Today I am hearing the usual crap about pay rises for NHS staff, and this from a government which has increased the pay of top NHS managers by 11% in the past few years. I also had to put up with Peter Allen on BBC Radio 5Live launching a tirade of Tory propaganda against the leader of the Midwives union - " How can we pay for these pay rises - increase taxes?" Well yes, if necessary increase taxes if it means a better NHS! - but make sure those tax rises are paid not by genuinely hardworking people like public sector workers such as nurses, but the rich and the bankers who have had their snouts firmly in the trough for the past 30 years and more.

If it hadn't been for the economic mismanagement of this Tory-led government and near on five years of austerity our economy would now be in much better shape to deal with the economic difficulties we face, and we'd have a stronger NHS. This government is  entirely responsible for the mess we are in.

The NHS was created at a time of austerity, now we are much wealthier - is it unaffordable? NO!

Most importantly, we must reject the government's neoliberal political agenda with its mania about tax cuts which is beamed out every minute as propaganda by the corporate media. The 'story' they tell us about the economy is a false and misleading one. The NHS is a perfect example of this. Far from being a drain on resources that we 'can't afford' the NHS is a massive national asset which creates wealth for the UK. How? By maintaining the health and well-being of more than 60 million people, not to mention the money it puts into our economy by creating useful employment and ensuring that we are a more productive nation. Where would we be without it? We'd all be an awful lot poorer.

We need to change the terms of political and economic debate in this country and reject the false world view which we are being told we must believe. Until we do that we will continue to be subjected to a regime of 'economic necessity' which is calculated to make us all poorer whist a tiny and undeserving minority benefits at our expense.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

What we can all learn from Bob Crow

I was really shocked when I heard that Bob Crow had died this morning. He was only 52 years old and his sudden death will be a real blow to members of the RMT and trade unionists and workers everywhere. In his twelve years as leader of the union he increased its membership by 20,000, no mean feat in difficult times. He also did his best to ensure that his members were properly rewarded for their work and wasn't afraid to use industrial action to achieve better terms and conditions for them. That, of course, is how it should be and that is why he earned so much respect, even from his political enemies.

Bob Crow - a fighter for social justice who will be missed
The oft forgotten reality is that the wealth in our economy is created by workers. The trains and the infrastructure Bob Crow's members used in their daily work were built by workers, and the vital task of transporting millions is daily carried out by workers. What would happen without any of this? Capitalists, who are credited with creating wealth, are really the expropriators of the wealth that workers create. Since when has a shareholder or banker ever done any useful or essential work?

There will be more Bob Crows in the future and some of them will have been directly inspired by his example of shrewd tactics and tireless struggle for social justice. What can we learn from Bob Crow? The value of workers and the necessity of struggle by workers to achieve a better world for all. Every poorly paid worker can learn to join a union and to fight for a better standard of living. When Bob Crow was elected he was invited to Newsnight for an interview. He didn't go because he was celebrating with his mates in the pub. Tonight I will be raising a glass to the memory of Bob Crow and all the good things he achieved. RIP Bob.

Friday, 7 March 2014

What is democracy and how can we make it work for us?

Everybody knows what democracy is don't they? Citizens of a state who are eligible, get to vote every 4 to 5 years for representatives to an elected chamber, which is the seat of government. Wikipedia defines democracy as:
"Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally—either directly or indirectly through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws."
Then there is a whole lot of other stuff about the mechanisms of democracy such as voting systems and the structure of elected chambers which turns out to be pretty important because if that doesn't work, democracy doesn't work either.

In the West we have a system which has come to be known as 'liberal democracy' which we like to think is the best. We know that because our leaders, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, are always lecturing the rest of the world that they should be using our system. But its clear that something is wrong with Western liberal democracy, both here and in the USA. Fewer and fewer people want to vote and there is widespread disillusionment with the system. In 1950 83.9% of registered voters voted in the UK and in 2001 the number was 59.4%. Since then there has been an increase in the turnout but less than two thirds of registered voters voted in 2010, and the overall trend is downward. I believe that the disillusionment stems from the fact that democracy seems to work much better for some i.e. bankers than others i.e. the rest of us.

So maybe its time we should go back to thinking about what democracy really is and how it could work better for all of us. That is why I recently read David Graeber's book The Democracy Project. Graeber starts by talking about Occupy but the meat of his book is about democracy and decision making. It provides plenty of food for thought and is well worth reading. It also contains a few eye-openers for people who haven't studied the origins and development of democracy. I like Graebers' ideas about consensus, something which is commonly poo-poohed by people who like democracy. Consensus, far from being the shoddy compromise some would have us believe, can be very powerful and positive.

If we go back to the origins of democracy in ancient Greece it was a very different setup to the one we are used to called direct democracy. There were no representatives and all citizens participated in decision making. Of course not everyone was a citizen, and women and slaves did not get to vote. In contrast, representative democracy is a relatively modern concept, and one which was intended, when the American Republic was founded, to prevent direct democracy from happening. You see the founding fathers of the USA feared direct democracy, which they saw as mob rule, and were determined that decision making was going to remain in the hands of men they could trust - themselves, and people like them. According to Graeber they agreed with the 'Puritan preacher John Winthrop who wrote':
"a democracy is, among most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government."
So it follows that nowhere does the American constitution mention that the USA is a democracy. In fact the word 'democracy' had negative connotations for a long time and only became a popular term in the 19th century when politicians in the USA began to identify themselves as 'democrats'.  
Direct democracy in Switzerland
Given the current state of democracy in the West, in which a political class, divorced from the rest of society, has allied with corporate power to dominate democratic institutions and control law making, its not difficult to see our current democratic system as anything other than government for the 1%. 

If we want to take back that democracy for the 99%, perhaps electing representatives is not the answer. We definitely need to empower citizens and undertake root and branch reform of our democratic institutions, starting from the lowest level of local government. So maybe we can learn something from the ancient Greeks by cutting out the 'middle man' and establishing what the American founding fathers feared most -  a form of direct democracy that allows all citizens a voice in decision making. Think it can't be done? Well it happens in Switzerland which has a form of direct democracy, and if it can happen there it can happen here too. Democracy is much too important to be left in it's current state and it's something we should be having a national debate about. We need to make it work for us.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Rejoice! Cameron has found the 'magic money tree'!

Just in case you hadn't noticed we are still in the grip of austerity with Conservative Chancellor George Osborne and Ed Milliband both promising yet more cuts in government spending. In fact, there is no end in sight to austerity, with years of cuts to come. But what Ed and George don't appear to understand, and what I and many others have been arguing is that austerity cuts don't help our economy or make our finances stronger. If we hadn't had Osborne's cuts over the past 4 years our economy would be in a much better position now. Osborne has complained about the fact that we are borrowing too much money but his cuts have lead to greater borrowing. He has now borrowed as much in 3 years as the last government did in 13 years. He has failed.

Of course Cameron has staunchly supported his Chancellor through the years of austerity and he one famously said "there is no magic money tree". What he said was:
"It’s as if they think there’s some magic money tree.  Well let me tell you a plain truth: there isn’t.”
Of course he was talking about borrowing, something which Osborne has been doing rather a lot of, but let me tell you the real truth - there is a magic money tree. In fact, there are at least two magic money trees. One is called quantitative easing and the government used that to produce £375 billion worth of cash from thin air. Another is the way in which governments can suddenly find more money when they come under political pressure. 
David 'money no object' Cameron

This brings us to the recent terrible flooding events in the Somerset Levels, and on the Thames and Severn. The Somerset floods went on for weeks before the government showed some concern but the Thames flooding was a different matter. The latter is a Tory heartland and Cameron realised he had to be seen to be doing something - and fast. So he did an about-face reached for the 'magic money tree' and stated that "money is no object". According to the Telegraph Cameron 'promises to spend whatever is necessary as flooding worsens across southern England'

If the government hadn't been so busy cutting public spending including on flood defence, the Environment Agency, and fire services we might have be in a better position to cope with the current crisis. The message is clear, the austerity cuts were always political and a false economy. The reality is that a cut in one area often increases spending in another, and that is what is happening now.  Add to that the government's climate change denial credentials, Cameron's 'green crap', and the promotion of fossil fuel fracking and you have a government which is not only class-war driven but short-sighted and incompetent. More and more people will suffer from the multiple failings of the stupidest government ever but don't expect Cameron to be fazed by any of this, he has one of the biggest brass necks in political history.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Three whopping great Tory lies

I've been saying all along on this blog that Labour will win the next general election and I still subscribe to that view, although its beginning to look like Labour's majority could be quite small. If the Tories do win - or do a lot better than I expect - it will be in no small part due to the successful misleading propaganda that they have been churning out since May 2010. This is a government built on misleading statements and the chief protagonists have been David Cameron and George Osborne. Cameron is a perfect front man for a hard-right party like the Conservatives, and he effortlessly projects a sort of common-sense-bloke-next-door persona which seems to chime with a large section of the electorate. However, David Cameron has almost nothing in common with the overwhelming majority of the electorate, he is definitely not the bloke next door. He is a millionaire who inherited wealth from his tax dodging father and has never done a proper job in his life - I mean that in the sense of having had to go out and get a job in a competitive job market like the rest of us - see my previous post on him. The same is true of Gideon 'George' Osborne, though Osborne is much less smooth than Cameron and not much liked by the electorate.

There are the three great Tory whoppers that I would like to feature in this post because they are likely to have a significant impact on the election:

1. Labour was responsible for the economic crisis: the Tories were quick off the mark with this one. They used it during the election campaign and almost as soon as the Coalition was formed the mantra of Labour's economic incompetence and responsibility for the crisis was repeated endlessly while Labour, shell-shocked by the election result, footled around with its leadership campaign. By the time Milliband was elected the electorate had largely bought it. Of course its not true. How could even Labour be responsible for what was a global economic crisis? Of course they had some culpability in crawling to the banks with 'light-touch' regulation but responsible - no. In fact, under Labour's response to the global economic crisis the UK's economy was doing better than when Osborne subsequently got his hands on it.

2. Austerity is necessary: this is George Osborne's specialty. After the election Osborne tore out of the starting blocks to embed austerity as quickly as possible - for political reasons. His 'emergency budget' in June 2010 cut £81 billion from public spending, doing real harm to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK. Osborne's great claim was that the UK had 'maxed out its credit card' but he knows that UK debt is not the same as credit card debt. Analogies about government borrowing and household budgets and people's debt and spending on credit cards are misleading as economists know quite well. Nonetheless, a combination of relentless repetition about UK debt and the 'structural deficit' and Labour's spineless non-response have embedded this idea in the minds of many in the electorate. Austerity isn't a necessity its a political choice, undertaken to make the 99% pay for the failures of the 1%. It is classwar. The 2010 Green Party manifesto showed how the UK could re-vitalise our economy and pay down the deficit without austerity

3. The NHS is safe with us: the 2010 Tory manifesto claimed there would be 'no top down reorganisation of the NHS' and Cameron claimed it would be 'safe' with them. And what did the Coalition do as soon as it got into power? It introduced the Health and Social Care Bill which was intended to break-up and privatise the NHS. Lets be clear a privatised NHS is no longer the NHS. The NHS has not been protected from cuts as has been claimed by the government and now the NHS is in crisis, just like it was when the Tories were last in power in the 1980s and 1990s.

Of the three whoppers it seems the last one is the least likely to be believed by voters, but the first two are likely to have the greatest impact overall. Could this be the most dishonest government ever?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

George Osborne's economic failures

Getting on for four years of 'Tory' coalition government and it already seems like a lifetime. Earlier this week Chancellor George Osborne was once again talking about yet more cuts, a mere £25 billion this time. And where will the heaviest cuts fall? You've guessed it - welfare. The Tory assault in the poorest and most vulnerable shows no sign of letting up with talk of the state being reduced the 1948 levels. Austerity is still very much the agenda. These cuts will happen, conveniently for Osborne, after the Tories have won the next election, or so he thinks. So the good news is that the cuts could be prevented if Labour have the guts to stop the rot. Unfortunately, given Labour's timidity and slavish devotion to corporate power this is very unlikely.

If middle of the road commentators like Will Hutton are getting their knickers in a twist about this we can be sure there is more trouble ahead. In the '1948 levels' Guardian post linked above he said:
"The IMF, after assessing the experience of 107 countries between 1980 and 2012, recommends that, after a credit-crunch deficit, there should be a balance between tax increases and spending reductions. In Osborne-land over the next five years more than 95% is to come from spending cuts – a global first in self-harm."[my italics]
Now I'm not a fan of the IMF and I take its remedies with a large pinch of salt but its obvious that globally too many corporations are paying far too little tax. So are the rich. The 'excuse' for this is that it 'boosts growth' and 'creates jobs' but this is merely self-serving 'free' market propaganda. Tax cuts take money out of our economy - more often than not that money goes overseas or is spent by the rich on things like expensive houses, pushing up the housing market. In any case these tax cuts aren't invested in the productive economy and don't benefit the 99% in any way.

Osborne's strategy is supposed to be about getting rid of the 'structural deficit' which is the difference between the amount governments spend and the amount they get in income.  But as in all things economic there is nothing 'scientific' about the structural deficit concept. It's all about how government's choose to run the economy. The point is that dealing with a structural deficit by austerity cuts is a political choice not an economic necessity. There are clearly better alternatives. The obvious problem that we have in the UK at the moment is that corporations are paying too little in tax and there is too much tax avoidance. If Osborne's deficit reduction plan was working the government would be borrowing less -  but borrowing has increased because of a shrunken economy and falling incomes and taxes. The fact that Osborne has borrowed more in 3 years than the last Labour government did in 13 years shows the complete failure of his economic policies.

But then Osborne's 'economic policy' is not really an economic policy at all it's a political one. His aim is to complete the work that New Labour started in 1997, to finally destroy the post-war WWII settlement by privatising the public sector and ending the welfare state, thus returning us to the 1930s, with all the attendant poverty and misery that characterised those times.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Welcome to the Coalition school of hard knocks

Its hard to believe how things have changed since I was a student. I had my fees paid and a received a maintenance grant, which I just about managed to live on. I worked in the summer vacation by choice to earn extra money but I could have signed on. Being at university was about learning in the widest sense - not just about the subjects I was studying, and not just about hot-housing myself for a career Three great years and I came out of it with a good degree. If I hadn't it wouldn't have been the end of the world because I'd still have been able to get a decent job. 

The rot started to set in around the end of the eighties after I'd left university, and accelerated under New Labour with the introduction of loans for tuition fees, but after the crash and the election of the Coalition government things have become much, much worse. Despite the promises of the Liberal Democrats, the government trebled tuition fees and slashed the grant it gave to universities. Students are now facing debts of around £40,000 or more when they graduate and its clear that many will never be able to repay this debt burden. So how is it that something which was affordable - free access to higher education - has become unaffordable? The answer is simple - ideology. What New Labour and the Coalition have done is driven by 'free' market fundamentalism, not necessity - its a choice.

The coalition government are making students, the poor, disabled, unemployed and workers pay for the global economic crash which their 'free' market ideology was wholly responsible. Its class war, and a whole generation of young people in the UK are suffering because of the failures of the 'free' market. But they are not taking it lying down. They are fighting back with protests and occupations, and are building alliances with lecturers and college workers who are struggling against privatisation and for better pay.

As a result the government is using coercion to suppress the protests. Students are being spied on (as they always have been), and subjected to increasingly brutal attacks by the police. It beggars belief that this can be happening in our society with so little comment by the corporate media and an apparent lack of interest by our MPs in parliament (with the notable exception of Caroline Lucas). But as I've posted about before capitalism routinely uses coercion and violence to impose its 'free' market economy on us. That is why we are witnessing protests by students and workers all over the world. We live in an economy which is about continual suppression of people's freedoms and crisis management backed up by surveillance and brutality.

The government will no doubt expect to suppress the protest by victimising individual students and criminalising the leaders but they are storing up trouble for the future. A generation of the brightest people in the UK are becoming radicalised. They have no illusions about what is happening and they represent the best hope for positive change in the future. I wish them all the luck in the world in their struggles. Sadly, Nelson Mandela died this week. The student protesters can take hope and inspiration from his example.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

There is a simple green route to lower energy bills

As winter approaches more and more people are beginning to worry about paying energy bills, the recent row about the 'big six' energy companies has highlighted the real nature of the cosy cartel that controls the UK's energy. While Cameron and Milliband squabble about the solutions the obvious answers are being studiously avoided. Cameron is claiming that we need 'more competition' and trying to blame green energy tariffs for high energy bills , and Milliband has promised a 20 month price freeze if Labour win power. The first reposnse from the energy companies was to say the proposed price freeze would lead to blackouts, and their second was to raise energy prices which will mean bills going up from between 8.2% (SSE) and 10.4% (npower). As far as I can see both responses make a very good case for taking energy generation and supply out of the hands of the private sector.
The truth is that neither Cameron or Milliband have any solutions to our energy problems, either in terms of generation or supply. They are ideologically committed to privatisation and furthermore many MPs and government ministers have links with the energy companies. A recent report by the World Development Movement states:
"Research by the World Development Movement has revealed that one third of ministers in the UK government are linked to the finance and energy companies driving climate change. This energy-finance complex at the heart of government is allowing fossil fuel companies to push the planet to the brink of climate catastrophe, risking millions of lives, especially in the world’s poorest countries"
There are clearly powerful vested interests not only supporting our currently energy supply arrangements but also the further extraction and burning of fossil fuels, including through extreme energy such as tar sands and shale gas.

There is a simple and effective way we can keep warmer and save energy. By insulating our homes, which are notoriously energy inefficient, we can save money, keep warm, and reduce the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere. Furthermore, we can build houses that are much more energy efficient and which require little more than the heat we generate from our bodies to maintain a comfortable temperature. So hats off to the Guardian for doing a well-timed feature on a passivhaus in Oldham which has an energy bill of £20 per annum. But instead of following this common sense approach the government is set to do away with  legislation which could provide more energy efficient homes.

We can't make our homes more energy efficient and build thousands of passivhaus overnight, but we can set up and implement a programme which will do this kind of work and create hundreds of thousands of much needed jobs in the process - its called the Green New Deal and I've posted about it on this blog many times before. A Green New Deal would help us fight climate change, provide jobs for many of our 2.5 million unemployed, and help people who would otherwise suffer and fall ill because they can't afford to heat their homes. It's really a no-brainer but one that is obviously well beyond the wit and imagination of the so-called 'leaders' of our nation.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Capitalism depends upon coercion and violence

The media commonly portrays the 'enemies' of capitalism as violent and destructive. This applies to those who protest, even non-violently against the excesses and destructive nature of capitalism. One recent example is the Occupy movement in the USA. Although there were some clashes between protesters and the police, the violence was very much driven by the aggression and brutality of the police, and its clear that there was a concerted effort to shut down the Occupy movement nationally in the USA. And there lies the problem. Capitalists, and the tame politicians who support them, enact laws which restrict peaceful protest and labour unions, and use the police as proxies to push through measures which benefit them at the expense of the communities which they are exploiting. This is a very convenient arrangement which allows the capitalists and corporations themselves to remain aloof and 'above the fray', hiding behind the law.

One of the more recent examples of this has been the criminalisation of environmental protesters. Not only have the protesters been attacked and threatened with imprisonment but they have also been targeted by the security services, spied upon, and treated like terrorists. So why are these protestors being targeted? It is because they threaten business interests, and that tells you something very interesting about the police and security services - they are here to defend capitalism - not the people, who they are supposed to be protecting.

The front line in the battle for the environment is now taking place over fracking in the USA, UK and in Canada. In New Brunswick the Mi'kmaq people are trying to defend the rights to their land from companies who want to exploit extreme energy. But is the reaction of the authorities which has been extreme. When business interests were threatened the government reacted with a display of force including riot police, dogs and armed snipers in camouflage gear. Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets were used against the protesters. Its hard to believe that kind of level of coercion can be used against a peacefully protesting community, and its not surprising that it provoked real anger amongst those affected, which resulted in six police cars being burned. These events are similar to those that have been taking place in Balcombe in the UK where excessive force, though not tear gas and rubber bullets, has been used against locals and supporters protesting against fracking.
RCMP use pepper spray on protestors in New Brunswick

Of course there's nothing new about this kind of violence being used against those who threaten the interests of business. In the USA business have long hired strikebreakers and thugs to force their will on workers and communities. One of the most dramatic examples of this occurred in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 when 10,000 coal miners fought for 5 days with lawmen and 'agents' hired by the bosses. here is a quote from the Wikipedia page:

"The Battle of Blair Mountain was the result of economic exploitation of workers during a period of social transformation in the southern West Virginia coalfields.Beginning in 1870–1880, coal operators had established the company town system.Coal operators paid private detectives as well as public law enforcement agents to ensure that union organizers were kept out of the region. In order to accomplish this objective, agents of the coal operators used intimidation, harassment, espionage and even murder."
In the UK, strikebreakers were used in the 'Tonypandy Riots' in Wales in 1911 and troops shot dead striking miners. 

Capitalism is once again in crisis, and if you think the bad days of Blair Mountain are over think again. Those kind of clashes are still happening, and did recently in South Africa when the police shot dead 34 striking miners in the Marikana dispute. The reality is that the primary function of the police in capitalist economies is to defend the interests of business against the people they are exploiting, and the role of the media is to defend the police when they do it. Capitalism has always depended up coercion and the threat of harm to people and communities which don't comply. Even if that coercion is just the threat to destroy jobs and livelihoods as happened in Grangemouth recently.