Category Archives: Politics

We sound a little bit like Christians

The Labour Party is full of the faithful. I’ve heard both Corbynites and Owenites claim that their side will win because they must. That Labour can and will win the next election because the Tories are awful, and that a vaguely defined alternative to both centre-left and centre-right economics will create greater prosperity because every single economy in the developed world is slowing down. There may be good reasons to believe that one’s side will succeed, but it is not wise to argue that because the situation is bad, it will get better.

For the left, the situation has gotten bad before and then not recovered for a very long time. The First World War was a futile disaster of imperial hubris that killed millions. It was followed by the end of the Liberal Party as a party of government, and Conservative dominance during the interwar period. The situation is bad, and the left may stay on the back foot.

Martin Luther King once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. This makes some sense from his Christian perspective. If there is a loving God then there may be some purpose behind our reality. It may be leading somewhere. Somewhere more peaceful, more truthful and more compassionate.

But this belief in a brighter tomorrow is also prevalent on the supposedly atheistic left, where there is no overriding benevolent force to justify the faith. Instead it is human nature and the unconscious forces of the universe that are said to be the engine driving positive change forward. Steven Pinker argues persuasively that rates of all kinds of violence have been in overall decline since we were barely mastering tools. But in this case there is substantial evidence to justify his claim. What reason do we have to believe that the left will recover any time soon?

The last time the Conservatives defeated a Labour government, they took power for eighteen years. Before the New Labour years of 1997-2010 no Labour Prime Minister had ever won two elections in a row. The Conservatives ruled in Britain for more years in the 20th century than the Soviet Union did in Russia. If the next two hundred years reflect the last two hundred, then politics will likely be dominated by reactionaries and conservatives. We may want to think otherwise, but is that suggested by reason or by faith?

“A conspiracy against the public”

“I’ve always treated neoliberalism as a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. They desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labor.”

These are the words of the great anthropologist and geographer, David Harvey. They contain a lot of truth but also hint at an argument that I have heard many times on the left which is not true. This argument says that because neoliberalism is the ideology of the ruling class, it must be imposed upon the masses against our will. Of course sometimes neoliberalism is imposed. Greece is the most recent example of a country that has been pushed into adopting policies that are not popular with its public and that they did not vote for.

But the public frequently vote for neoliberalism. Think of the New Democrats, New Labour and more recently David Cameron’s Conservative Party and the German Christian Democrats led by Angela Merkel. All these groups support a lower-tax, more socially and economically liberal form of politics than the old left.

So we must be wary of the notion that any move away from the old left is a betrayal of democracy. If the outcomes of the past three elections are anything to go by, our politicians are not striking out on their own, but moving with public opinion.

What’s wrong with British party funding anyway?

It’s often hard for liberal socialist types like myself to remember, but the last Labour Prime Minister but one resigned in the midst of a party funding scandal. When most of us hear mention of Tony Blair, we think “war criminal”, so it is easy to forget that the rush into an illegal war happened four years before Tony Blair’s resignation, and that the disgrace that finally brought him down was the cash for honours scandal.

The bulk of the Labour Party’s £17.94 million spending on the 2005 election was paid for by cheap loans from very wealthy individuals. Many of these wealthy Labour supporters were nominated for peerages by Tony Blair. No guilt could be proven, but it was incredibly suspicious and painted the Labour hierarchy in a terrible light.

Party funding, and the financial gains available more broadly to politicians, are intimately tied up with some of their more disastrous policies. The Private Finance Initiative, or PFI, is just one policy that has been criticised by the Conservative Party and Labour in opposition, but carried out by both parties in government. This policy of off-balance-sheet expenditure leads to vastly over-inflated costs and is widely regarded as a complete waste of money[1][2][3][4]. PFI has been opposed at various times from figures as diverse as Vince Cable, Philip Hammond, and even George Osborne.

Despite it being a terrible policy, my own former MP, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, was a long-time supporter of PFI. One of the companies he was a director of, Alliance Medical Holdings Ltd, won a PFI contract to refurbish a London hospital, despite offering a worse deal than the NHS itself. This is a widespread issue since many politicians from both the main parties go on to receive directorships and other non-executive positions in the companies that benefit from PFI. Companies bid to cream money from the public purse, and they are supported in this because they offer a cut to politicians. There are registers of interest, but all that means is that some of the corruption is visible to the public. Technically, politicians are supposed to face the electorate, but my constituency is a safe Tory seat – one that nobody bothered to campaign in at the last election. My beloved Sir Malcolm Rifkind was finally forced to resign after it was revealed that he and Jack Straw had been offering to sell political influence to what they thought was a Chinese company.

The Conservative Party sells itself more brazenly than the Labour Party. Those who donate more than £50,000 to the Tories are invited to the Leader’s Group, which gives them access to the Prime Minister. The Conservatives get almost all of their money from individual and corporate donations, which are regarded as less contentious than union donations for reasons that are entirely beyond me. The unions are where the Labour Party gets half of its funding from, and most of the rest from public funding.

So how should political parties be funded? Small donations of a few thousand pounds or less are not likely to sway parties a great deal, so are not a grave threat to democracy. The problem arises when large donations, like the half of Conservative Party funding that comes from the financial sector, lead to the capture of parties by these private interests. This is one of the reasons why there has been no effective regulation of finance by the Conservative-led coalition and why there is going to be another financial crisis.

This is also why the 2006 Hayden Phillips inquiry, 2008 Ministry of Justice report and 2011 Committee on Standards in Public Life report all proposed a cap on donations per party per year per person. No cap was actually put in place because Labour lacked the foresight when in office to vote through a fair and balanced reform that could have hit both main parties equally and settle the question for good. The current Conservative government is planning to exclusively limit donations to the Labour Party. They’re changing the law on Trade Union donations so that individual members have to opt-in for donations to be given, whilst there is no requirement for shareholders to even be consulted on donations made by the companies they own.

So what should have been done when Labour was in office and how can the system be reformed in future? I don’t see why corporate donations of any kind, whether from unions or companies, should be allowed. In the United States companies are regarded as legal persons, but that is not the case here. This is supposed to be government of the people, by the people, for the people, so it is only people who should be able to make donations and influence the system.

During a transition to a more democratic system, the law could be changed so that instead of unions and companies making block donations they can propose donations that individual members can allow or not allow, up to the maximum limit per person per party per year. Party spending should also be capped, and the remaining administrative costs of the parties that are not covered by small donations could be covered by a transparent system of public funding in which parties receive a fixed sum per vote in general elections, as recommended by the 2011 Committee on Standards in Public Life report.

Some people complain that public funding of political parties is unfair because it involves my taxes being spent on something that I don’t approve of. But my taxes are currently spent on things I don’t approve on based on the whims of private donors, and the amount of money that is misspent because of the wonky priorities of those at the top of our political pyramid is far greater than the cost of public funding ever would be.

This issue is especially pressing now because the Conservative government’s reforms will effectively defund the Labour Party and leave us with an even less pluralistic political landscape than we currently have. Party funding by private individuals should be limited, and now is the time for a debate on how that can be effectively and fairly achieved.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/apr/07/olympics-2012-m25-pfi

[2] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtreasy/1146/114608.htm

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8267472/It-is-time-to-derail-the-PFI-gravy-train.html

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/may/25/pfi-corruption-transport-roads

Whatever you do at this election, vote

This election is a good time to look back over the last twenty years. A lot has changed, and a lot will change in the future.

Twenty years ago there was no Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. The age of consent for homosexual acts was 5 years higher than the age of consent for heterosexual acts. There were no gay marriages or even civil partnerships. Interest rates were set by the treasury and there was no Office of Budget Responsibility.

Since then there have been great improvements. Across the income spectrum people are richer, broadband access is near-universal, and the public as a whole has become more individualistic[1]. London has a governing assembly[2], Northern Ireland is at peace, and the British people are in the process of getting our very own high speed rail network.

There have also been colossal failures. Tony Blair forced a divided Labour party into rushing into an illegal war in Iraq. This was opposed by a quarter of Labour MPs and all Liberal Democrat MPs, and supported by almost the entire Conservative Parliamentary Party. There was also a massive banking crisis, which was made possible by a lack of regulatory oversight. In the run up to this crisis there were calls for less regulation by the press and the Conservative Party[3]. The Labour government also ran a deficit in the run up to the crisis, although the deficit by 2008 was 2.1% of GDP, compared with an inherited deficit in 1997 of 3.9%, and under David Cameron and George Osborne the Conservative Party had promised to match Labour’s spending plans. The deficit then rose to eye watering levels as a consequence, rather than cause, of the financial crisis.

All the major reforms of the Blair government, from devolution, to Bank of England independence, to civil partnerships, were opposed by the Conservative Party. The major failures – Iraq and the financial crisis – were a consequence of the Labour Party leadership adopting conservative practice. Then there was the coalition.

Most people forget that by the time of the 2010 election the UK economy was in recovery, with an annualised growth rate of 2.1%. The first two years of austerity were a failure – both 2012 and 2013 saw a quarter of negative growth. Since then, the coalition has effectively softened austerity and as a consequence there has been a steady return to growth in the last couple of years. The greatest achievement of the coalition apart from saving the British public from the 2012 recession is the legalisation of gay marriage, which was opposed by the majority of Conservative MPs and made possible by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party.

Looking ahead, the Tories have promised to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, a policy which will disproportionately benefit those at the top of the income spectrum (IFS 2015). They will also extend the right to buy to about 500,000 people, a policy which amounts to confiscating the social housing of councils and Housing Associations, and selling that housing on at well below market value. The policy is inherently unfair – why should someone who lives in social housing be given a cut rate house to sell on, when someone on a lower income whose private rent is much more expensive receives nothing?

In contrast, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have proposed a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2 million and the Labour Party have also promised to increase the minimum wage and end non-dom status. Labour will also extend rental contracts and abolish letting agent’s fees, whilst putting an upper limit on private rent rises so they do not outpace those of the market.

The politicians listen to those who vote. Pensioners and those with higher incomes have greater influence than the young and those with lower incomes because they vote in greater numbers. If you live in a Labour/Tory marginal, I strongly urge you to vote Labour, and if you live in a Lib Dem/Tory marginal, I strongly urge you to vote Lib Dem. But whatever you do this election, please vote.

[1] http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/downloads/bsa-30-downloads.aspx

[2] The original London Assembly – called the Greater London Council – was abolished by Margaret Thatcher.

[3] http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Politics/documents/2007/08/17/ECPGcomplete.pdf – p54.

Je suis Boris

Boris Nemstov, the fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, is dead. Shot four times in the back in the middle of Russia’s capital city. At the time, security cameras in the area were all pointed away from the scene and at the Kremlin.

Dmitry Kiselev, Russia’s closest equivalent to a Fox News anchorman, has accused the West of murdering Boris Nemstov. Specifically he accused the CIA. Kiselev says “who benefits?” His answer is the West.

There are similarities to the murder of former FSB agent Litvenenko nine years ago. An enemy of the Kremlin was murdered, and the Kremlin and Kremlin-aligned news sources blamed the West. The theory is that the enemies of Russia killed the enemies of Russia in order to weaken Russia.

Putin’s popularity stands at 86%.

Internship

I was on an internship in London. They couldn’t pay me because-

I couldn’t afford to get the Tube so I’d get up in Slough at 1 am and walk to work in the East End. I’d get there at ten to seven. Work until five, walk back, shower, clean my teeth and get into bed at about ten to one in the morning. But, you know, when you’re doing something you love you don’t need sleep.

What I want from my Labour Party:

Declaration that all newly privatised companies will be returned to public ownership without compensation, effectively preventing new privatization and forcing public discussion on the issue.

A law preventing any ex politician from being employed by any company which has benefited from legislation they enacted, effectively removing a huge part of the “retirement fund” practice of politics.

And end to the ban on sympathy strikes.

A functional tax system in which people pay based on what they earn rather than what’s left after they pretend all their money is in Ireland.

A law forcing newspapers’ apologies and retractions to take up the same page space as the initial lies.

A ban on political donations worth more than £5000.
Full cross party investigations and reports into equality, social mobility, democracy and economic democracy.

A vitriolic public campaign against Lord Rothermore and the Murdoch family as people who “hate Britain” an the grounds that they refuse to legally domicile here and also hate Britain.

A cap on rents in London.

Investigation into the possibility of turning the big six energy companies into customer owned partnerships.

Worker’s representation in all companies employing more than 2000 people.

An English devolution bill.

More bank holidays.

A long term plan to reduce the working week to twenty hours.

Declaration that they will not make any working, dependant or disabled people living in poverty poorer through any changes in the law.