Walmart’s Smartest Move Yet

American retailing giant Walmart, owners of ASDA in the UK, yesterday committed to paying their 500,000 workers at least $9 an hour by August, rising to $10 in 2016. This compares with a federal minimum wage of just $7.25, which President Obama has sought to raise to $10.10 (unfortunately blocked by Republican-controlled Congress). The move has been welcomed by America’s flourishing anti-low pay movement, despite it seeking a doubling of the federal minimum wage.

At the same time, Walmart going to give employees more ‘control’ over the hitherto erratic shift system that made life particularly difficult for employees with families to support and care for. To be sure, Walmart has taken significant steps away from its past as a bad employer.

I have conflicting views on this development. I certainly do not believe anybody should feel grateful to Walmart for finally living up to its most basic responsibilities as a highly profitable, multinational employer to pay more than the joke that is the federal minimum wage and give its workers a limited degree of security. When people are earning their income from you, you can’t leave them worrying if you’ll give them the hours they need to feed their children next week.

Retail lobbyists in the US have cited the move as proof that retailers do not need to be forced to pay higher wages. That is nonsense. There are tens of millions who languish on poverty pay still. A handful of chains, like Walmart and Ikea, raising their game barely dents that figure. Moreover, employers should not feel that they’re risking their competitive advantages by paying $9 or $10 an hour.

On the other hand, I would not dismiss the significance of the pay increase either. I doubt any commitment to guarantee pay above the minimum wage by the likes of Walmart would have been thought plausible ten or twenty years ago. Campaigning for a $15 minimum wage would have been thought nonsensical. It certainly would have been difficult to mobilise so many low-paid workers to that cause. The very fact that Walmart has made any concession to its employees at all represents a seismic social change.

Of course, Walmart might have calculated that this pay rise should be just enough to blunt the workers’ rights campaigns and alleviate pressure for future concessions. We don’t know. That calculation is wrong in any case: the same process is occurring in the American workforce as is beginning to occur in the UK’s: workers are beginning to organise and raise their aspirations in parts of the economy that never had trade unions. The supermarkets, the fast food restaurants, cleaning firms, industries where employees have rarely been a priority and are at last acting to improve their lot.

They won’t be waiting for Congress or the President to help them out, but they’ll get round to that in due course. (Who knows, they might even get the GOP on board… one day). Until employment regulations are improved, employees will have to fight for every dollar and every guaranteed hour.

Changing the law would be so much simpler.

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Labour: Is It Really ‘Anti-business’?

In the closest and most hotly-contested election for a generation, politicians are going to throw a lot of mud at each other. The Conservatives and their supporters have mastered this art very well: they believe that if they take a line and repeat it often and loudly enough, it will become the prevailing view, even if there is little evidence to support it. They’re trying that now. By screaming that Labour is stuck in a ‘seventies mindset’ and is ‘anti-business’, they hope to undermine Labour’s economic credibility.

To be fair, Labour is fighting on its most radical manifesto for a generation. Vested interests have a lot to fear from us. Labour has committed to break virtual cartels that exist in energy and transport markets; crackdown on corporate tax dodgers and exploitative zero-hours contracts; control speculation in land and housing and a large uprating in the minimum wage.

Will these measures cost businesses? Only those who are bad corporate citizens. Good businesses already pay fair taxes and wages. Good businesses add value to our economy through innovation and hard work, not profiteering. Good businesses welcome real competition.

Labour is a vibrant, democratic political movement and we exist to serve the people of Britain, not the CEOs and shareholders. Except in the City of London, people have the vote, corporations do not. Our aim should not be to prioritise business over other concerns for the sake of it (or, as with the Conservatives, because Monaco-domiciled businesspeople have given us large donations) but to help business as partners in the British economy. Labour has every interest in helping business create British jobs, innovative new products and services and drive investment. And that’s exactly what the next Labour government will do.

Would an anti-business party commit to keeping Corporation Tax rates at the lowest in the G7 economies? (Rates that are too low, in my opinion) Would it slash the business rates that are crippling small enterprises? Would it fight so hard to keep Britain in the European Union citing ‘trading benefits’? Would its Business spokesman introduce the Small Business Saturday campaign?

Every businessperson from the start-up entrepreneur to the billionaire shareholder has nothing to fear and everything to gain from a Labour government as long as they are committed to social responsibility and playing by the rules.

These are the people corrupt interests want you to imagine when they throw claims about ‘anti-business’ approaches around. They don’t want you to think of HSBC, which was caught hiding its clients’ money from billions of pounds of tax liabilities (and then given a ‘get out of jail free card’ from the same Tory ministers who say we can’t afford extra NHS funding). They don’t want you to think of Amazon, which has been shameless in its abuse of employment rights and tax regulations. And then there’s Rupert Murdoch, who has been allowed to do more or less as he likes because of his ownership of four national newspapers. Ed Miliband has so far been very bold in making that point, but the attacks on him from those with interests in this rotten section of the business world are only going to get fiercer as polling day approaches.

As the attacks intensify, Labour must not waver. Some figures from the old days of New Labour have called for ‘concessions’ and a more moderate tone. In other words, they call for abandonment of some of the more radical proposals. I think that would be a huge mistake.

British politics today is a world away from the scene that existed 20 or even 10 years ago. Today, the electorate has become tired of leaders who are too scared to act to end injustices inflicted by the wealthy and the powerful. It is all too easy to criticise the problems created by modern capitalism. But empty words and bland generalisms will no longer cut it with the voters. They want a government that is not afraid to act. I hope Labour is bold enough to be that government.

Should Businesses Join Political Parties?

The outgoing President of the (right-wing) Australian Liberal Party, Alan Stockdale, has called for corporations to be given the option to ‘join’ the Liberals as affiliates, similar to the link trade unions and Labour parties around the world. It should be noted that the role of President is not as influential as that of the Leader in the Liberal Party, and as such his speech floated many ideas which are unlikely to be acted on. However, Mr Stockdale has prompted a broad, international debate about the relationship between political parties and corporations.

Most democracies suffer from the financial and political entanglement of political parties and vested interests. However, as EU law requires shareholder approval for any corporate donations,  the problem is, in theory, reduced to that of rich individuals buying political influence. That is a huge problem, but it pales in comparison to Australia and the US, where political parties depend on corporations for the bulk of their funding. In the US’ case, it’s the only way they can raise the billions of dollars needed to fund a space race in political advertising that grows more expensive, but less effective, with every campaign.

It is not difficult to trace the origin of various governments’ policies to their financial backing by various industries. For example, Hollywood’s well-documented support for the Democratic Party might help explain the latter’s backing for draconian ‘intellectual property’ legislation. Similarly, the open wallets of companies such as Exxon Mobil and Domino’s Pizza coincided with the last Republican administration’s lax regulation of the oil and fast food industries. Thus, it seems that corporations exert more than enough influence on political parties as it is. Imagine the havoc that would follow corporate membership of political parties, with the associated rights to vote in selections and conferences. Surely our democracies should outlaw commercialised politics (or is that politicised commercialism?), not formalise it.

An alternative viewpoint has been put to me. For several decades in Britain, voters did not have a choice between Labour and Conservative governments. Rather, they chose between Conservative-CBI (Confederation of British Industry) coalitions and Labour-TUC (Trade Union Congress) coalitions. Whilst this is an exaggeration, it is true that there were clear, transparent bonds between business and the Conservative Party. Some argue that this is preferable to the shady, secretive influence that business will exert regardless of the law.

http://progressivecynic.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/corruption_wins.jpg?w=594

Furthermore, Labour parties are open about their formal associations with trade unions and their members. Why apply the same principle to business?

In fact, there are several good reasons. Corporations would probably exercise block votes, and their money often is able to breach any formal restrictions on their powers within organisations, as businesses’ donations to charity have shown. Moreover, individual members, realising their inevitable powerlessness compared to the bloc votes and resources of, say, Wal-Mart, would abandon political parties en masse, undermining the principle of participatory democracy. There could even be pressure within parties to give businesses votes in general elections.

But there is one reason above all others why political parties should strongly oppose any formal business affliation: it would be electoral suicide. Voters are (fairly) tolerant of trade union involvement in politics because unions do not exist to exploit others, and are fundamentally democratic institutions. The same cannot be said of commercial interests. Every policy a business-affiliate party announced would be scrutinised to see how it benefits one commercial interest or another. Ultimately, voters cannot trust parties which are not run for the benefit of people.

But if the Liberal Party is inclined to agree with their President’s suggestions, many would welcome their inevitable descent into irrelevance.

I think the ent…

I think the entire government should be privatised. Chuck E. Cheese could run the parks; everything operated by tokens. Drop in a token, go on the swing set. Drop in another token, take a walk. Drop in a token, look at a duck.

Ron Swanson (the ‘Parks and Recreation’ character) explains his capitalist dream for social goods.

It’s the Government, Stupid

British politicians are addicted to privatisation. When Margaret Thatcher began her project of hacking away at the public sector, she justified it on the grounds that the state monopolies were bloated and inefficient. She was right insofar as any monopoly is prone to inefficiency without the forces of competition at work. But at some point, it became clear that privatisation was about ideology rather than generating competition (competition can be generated without sell-offs). Within years, sell-offs were imposed on what economists call “natural monopolies”, services that can’t really be opened to competition. For example, it’s only practical to install one set of electricity cables and water pipes to serve a given house, so power and water distribution are natural monopolies.

Under the post-war settlement, natural monopolies were generally taken under public control to defend against their abuse by private owners. Since 1979, consecutive governments have not only reversed this, but they have hived off governmental operations into for -profit, privately owned entities. New Labour sold off (on the cheap, of course) the National Air Traffic control service. A key asset, of supreme importance, now under commercial control. There are endless similar examples, such as the firm charged with overseeing nuclear reactor designs.

Now, the Government is formulating plans to flog-off the Land Registry, the 150 year-old government office which oversees property rights and title deeds for every house, office, shop, farm and disused scrap of land in Britain. To give a business the ability to set whatever administrative fee it likes to register every propriety sale in the country is like giving a child the keys to a sweetshop and asking it to take just one chocolate bar. Businesses like to say they have a “duty” to maximise their return to shareholders. This isn’t just an invitation for profiteering, this is sending a limousine to profiteering’s house with the promise of a champagne reception just for coming along.

If the government- sorry, what remains of the public government- seriously imagines that these governmental corporations won’t abuse their powers, they are either naive or blinded by their ideology. Government must be of the people, for the people and by the people. Business is done for shareholders and by managers. The two don’t mix, and I hope that fact is recognised before Serco is put in charge of the Army.

UKIP Just Isn’t Racist

When the Tea Party emerged in the US, it posed a threat to the political establishment. Not because it stood a ‘whelk’s chance in a supernova’ of winning control the White House, despite the partiality of much of the American public to underfunded public services and rabid social conservatism, but because it could damage the authority and standing of the existing parties. When leading figures in the Tea Party openly talked of breaking away from the GOP because it was not right-wing enough (how strange that claim sounds to European ears!), they could have ‘crashed’ the American political system. Had they followed through on their threat, the Republicans would have been reduced to permanent opposition, with the Democrats in permanent government by default, because of the split right-wing vote. This would have actually hurt the Democrats, as they’d have lacked a popular mandate.

In the UK, there have been parallels drawn between UKIP and the Tea Party. Both are populist, libertarian-based movements which emerged from virtually nowhere to representing perhaps a fifth of the electorate. But there are differences: UKIP is a de facto splinter group from the Conservatives, so it will test its electoral mettle as an autonomous political party. Consequently, UKIP is drawing support from all over the political spectrum in a way that the Tea Party never could.

The result is that the three main political parties have reacted with a combination of aggression and moral superiority towards UKIP. The latter is badly, badly misjudged. Take the latest case; the outcry about the so-called ‘racist posters’.

About one in ten of those 26 million unemployed Europeans are in fact British. The other 23.4 million are not going to move to the UK- at least, only a small proportion of them are, given that we’ve got a shortage of jobs. Without a doubt, the poster is misleading and reactionary.

But is it racist?

No.

There has been large scale migration to the UK in the past from eastern Europe, and it has had many benefits. Yet these are benefits which have gone to the privileged. On the whole, it is the working class which has borne the brunt of unnecessary competition with migrants for jobs and services. For people like Gillian Duffy, the grandmother who was so disgracefully accused of ‘bigotry’ by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown for worrying that her grandchildren were struggling to find school places, immigration has had real costs. UKIP is profiting from the somewhat justified feeling in the working class that nobody else is fighting their corner.

The Conservative government of 1979-97 destroyed the systems (trade unions, regulations, public services, the welfare state) that protected the living standards of all of us, but particularly the working class. The New Labour government which followed failed to restore them, then applied loose immigration controls. The resulting combination was the perfect recipe for a race to the bottom on wages, escalating housing costs and strained public services. Of course it’s to the benefit of genuine bigots to blame the migrants themselves for this. Nevertheless, nobody could blame the migrants if there had been adequate checks and balances to prevent a scenario in which groups of eight, nine, ten migrants would pay astronomical rents for shared two-bedroom flats to slum landlords out of their illegally sub-minimum wage pay packets.

The typical Guardianista might attack UKIP supporters as being racist. That only aids UKIP in their cynical attempt to capitalise on the frustration of the disadvantaged. Until the established political parties have a more meaningful response to these fears about immigration and the European Union, other than simply branding them as ‘racist’, UKIP will flourish. We need to tackle UKIP head-on.

That doesn’t mean we have to capitulate to their toxic migrant-bashing, far from it. There has to be a tangible, straightforward policy solution that protects everyone’s standard of living. The ‘old’ White British working class and the ‘new’ minority ethnic working class both deserve a hand-up, and it is up to our politicians to show that the advancement of one of these groups does not come at the expense of the other.

‘Immigration’ is blamed for our high unemployment, creaking public services and lack of housing. What about creating more schools, hospitals, homes and jobs until there are enough to go round? Some complain that their communities are changing beyond recognition. What about slowing and controlling further immigration, giving our multi-racial society enough time to integrate recent migrants. We’re worried that the influx of low-cost labour from eastern Europe is depressing wages in unskilled jobs. What about developing trade unions and statutory pay requirements to ensure that wages rise?

The ‘answer to UKIP’ lies in offering the people of Britain, wherever they come from, a better society to aim for than one riddled with class and ethnic divisions. We need people to see through this ‘divide and rule’ and focus on those who are actually responsible for the economic and social inequality and insecurity that is afflicting us all. Yet the interests of big business and the ‘uber-rich’ are much harder to take on than those of immigrants.

Progress Towards a Democratic Internet

The European Parliament has voted through the Connected
Continent Regulation, widely known as the “net neutrality” law. Subject to approval by a summit of culture ministers, the law will come into effect this winter. The move is a landmark parting of the ways between Europe and the US on policy as to the future of our Internet. But we aren’t all technology nerds: few people are aware of the battle taking place over the soul of the “people’s network” in legislatures and regulators’ offices around the world. So what is net neutrality?

In short, net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should treat all traffic equally, whatever its source. That means that websites should not be able to pay your broadband supplier to give them preferential download speed. Landline and mobile broadband providers should not block access to content that rivals their own “bundled” content. For example, Vodafone should allow its network users to use Last.fm even if it has a deal to sell Spotify subscriptions to its users.
The case for net neutrality legislation is solid. Without it, the world will suffer with a two-tier Internet in which established web services squeeze out start-ups by snapping up most of the available bandwidth. If web users stray beyond the “higher web”, where the Digital Establishment offers users lightning fast speeds but little choice, they will find themselves in a decaying, traffic-free and grindingly slow lower web. The level playing field that allowed innovative new services like Wikipedia, YouTube and WordPress to develop will be gone: the Internet will become a game for the big guys only, with everyone else virtually locked out. The process is already beginning, with Google conducting a multimillion dollar deal with Verizon, one of America’s largest ISPs.

A two-tier Internet might not have emerged yet. It won’t have by next year. But in 5 years or so, the trend will be entrenched and impossible to reverse. The European Union bloc has sufficient clout to ensure genuine net neutrality within its borders. But what about the other 92% of the world’s population? The Internet will begin to look quite different as regulations vary.

Some ISPs have warned that the EU has cut off a vital new funding stream needed to cope with the exponential growth in bandwidth-heavy traffic. They complain that they will have to pass on higher costs to consumers. That’s not true: those additional costs will exist anyway. If YouTube had to buy the bandwidth needed for users to access its content, it couldn’t cover that cost with advertising. It would be forced to charge for its service. Internet use would become dependent on a hundred little subscriptions, outweighing any saving made in broadband costs.

So I thank the European Parliament from remaining true to the democratic principles upon which the Internet was founded.

Tony Benn: a Great British Socialist

Britain was rocked on Friday by the tragic news of the death of Tony Benn. The radical Labour politician, an MP from 1950-2001, became a hero of the British left, particularly after the 1970s.

Benn had a privileged background: as a child he attended the elite Westminster School, earning a place to study PPE at New College, Oxford. His father, William Benn, was Secretary of State for India in the first Labour government, whilst Benn himself was in line to inherit a seat in the House of Lords, as 2nd Viscount Stansgate. Most people growing up in a family of such wealth and status would develop a narrow understanding of the world, unable and eventually unwilling to see life through the eyes of working people. But not Tony Benn.

Benn was elected as the MP for Bristol South East in 1950, at the tender age of 25. He quickly developed a reputation as a modern, witty and charismatic figure. He was gifted in the older political art of public speaking, but equally so with the television camera- something of an advantage in ’50s Britain, where most of the political class remained “telephobic”.

During the first decade of his political career, Benn was what we would come a “young, up and coming” politician associated with the centre-ground of the Labour Party. This began to change in 1960, when Benn inherited the Viscount Stansgate title and was disqualified from the House of Commons (people may not sit in both the Lords and the Commons). Benn attracted support from the Labour grassroots when he campaigned for the right to renounce his title, and succeeded after three years of hard campaigning. Famously, he renounced his seat in the Lords just 20 minutes after the legislation permitting it was passed. Quite literally, he could not wait until the ink was dry to return to the electoral scene.

Benn ascended to frontbench politics upon the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964. As Postmaster General, Benn implemented a number of innovative policies, such as the National Girobank (a state-owned bank, operating out of Post Offices, which extended low-cost services such as current accounts to those left out by other banks, especially the working class)  and Postbus, which saw post vans doubled up as buses to improve public transport in rural areas. A touch of radicalism also began to creep into Benn’s politics, with his (unsuccessful) attempt to have postage stamps redesigned sans the iconic portrait of the Queen.

It is said that people tend to become more right-wing as they get older, as the pain of life squeezes out any trace of idealism or hope. In Benn we have the rare case of a Cabinet minister becoming more left-wing and spirited as time progressed. He attributed this to his experience as a Cabinet minister in the first Wilson government convincing him that conservatism was woven into the very way government and the Labour Party worked. That is a debate that we could have for ages, but it undoubtedly showed in Benn’s conduct as the Secretary of State for Industry upon Labour’s return to power in 1974. His one-year tenure in that role saw the government dabble in industrial democracy (fostering worker co-operatives); a more friendly approach with the trade unions; and the passing of the Health and Safety Act, which remains largely intact today. Though “health and safety” is much derided today as a manifestation of the “nanny state”, we should remember how important it is to guaranteeing decent working conditions and public spaces for everyone.

Who knows what other achievements Benn could have made in reforming the British economy if he had had longer to work on it. He was reshuffled to Energy, undoubtedly a demotion intended to punish him for his role in the “No” campaign in the referendum on Britain’s staying in the European Economic Community and his increasingly critical tone towards government policy. All it did was give Benn the spare time to lead internal opposition towards the IMF-imposed austerity programme from 1976. It was at this time that he made his first bid for Leadership of the Labour Party, following the resignation of Harold Wilson. At the time, the Leader was elected solely by Labour MPs, who were much more conservative than grassroots members. Consequently, Benn came 4th with just 11% of the vote.

His resignation from the Labour frontbench following its defeat in the 1979 marked the peak of his power but not of his profile. Benn was the subject of brutal attacks by the press, branding him part of the “loony left”- the growing left wing of the Labour Party advocating policies that were polar opposites of Thatcherism. But it was Benn that the Establishment feared, for if any politician could sell a radical manifesto to the country it would be Benn, not the likes of Michael Foot or even Ken Livingstone. When Tony Benn spoke of unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC and unprecedented redistribution of wealth; it scared the Establishment because he might just have made it happen. We don’t know what the world would have looked like if he had actually secured the leadership of the Labour Party in the 1980s, if Bennite-style “socialism plus” had been offered to the electorate, but this great intellectual and fighter was not the focus of the Left’s attention for no reason.
At the outset of the 1980s, Benn looked like he was destined for the top of British politics, as the ideology he devoted his career to was in the ascendency. Imagine how it must have felt a decade later when his party was moving in the “wrong” direction (seemingly irreversibly), his supporters had become a weak force in the Labour Party and he was increasingly written off as a “loon”. In his shoes, most of us would have left politics, or the Labour Party. Tony Benn fought on, unafraid to cause trouble on the backbenchers were he sought fit. On several occasions, he attempted to introduce legislation that would abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords. It’s a wonder that he served on the backbenches for four years of New Labour government without a serious run-in with Tony Blair, who is in many ways Benn’s opposite. Pragmatic rather than ideological. Vacant rather than philosophical. Smooth rather than honest.

Tony Benn left the House of Commons in 2001, “in order to spend more time on politics”. He served as President of the Stop the War coalition and later the Coalition of Resistance against Cuts and Privatisation. He was a busy writer, authoring several perceptive books and articles on topics as diverse as socialism, the British constitution, history and activism- as well as publishing his diaries, which he kept studiously from his early twenties to his death. He released his final volume, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, last year. If you haven’t read any of his works yet, I strongly recommend you do so: they offer a sharp, honest and witty account of the thoughts of a truly brilliant mind and a snapshot of a political stage that has transformed over the past sixty years.

Tony Benn will be remembered as a political hero who contributed greatly to British politics and to socialist thinking. His belief in doing what is right instead of what is convienient, and his commitment to achieving something bigger than day-to-day wrangling over headlines and opinion polls, is what marks him out as a politician with a difference. The best way to honour his memory is to take up the fight for social justice where he left off.

We will miss Tony Benn.

Let’s Take Back Our Co-operative

The British co-operative movement has seen better days. Just as the waves of carpetbagging and consolidation were fading into memory, the UK’s second largest co-operatively owned institution is seeing its finances and principles come crashing down into the mud before it. Management say that a series of bad decisions by the Co-operative Bank during the financial crash created the multibillion black hole that is forcing their hand.

But what is the fuss about? What is the loosely accountable board of the Co-operative Group doing that is so controversial?

The Co-operative Group has built up a debt mountain following a buyout spree, in which the group attempted to grow inorganically by taking over (mediocre) rivals like Somerfield convinience stores and the Britannia building society, then absorbing them wholesale into its general retail and banking operations. Trouble is, the former is associated with high prices and shoddy customer service, whilst the latter had what seemed to be a large but manageable hangover of post-crunch bad debt. In what has been colourfully described as “a crusade of corporate imperialism”, the mutual that “did things differently” diluted its record on customer service and responsibility. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it.

Last year, it became apparent that the black hole in Britannia’s finances was much larger than previously thought- ironically, this emerged when the bank’s takeover bid for another financial institution fell apart. The Co-operative Group’s banking division was broke. After the Group pumped over a billion pounds into it, then surrendered a 70% shareholding in the bank to US-owned vulture funds, that crisis was over. But now the Group itself is broke.

So I understand that the members’ dividend had to be scrapped, and that some of the Groups’ business must be sold to ease its debts. It will be regrettable to see the “whole life” model of the Co-operative go: there was a time when it provided everything from the sweets you ate as a child to the clothes you were, the mortgage you bought your home with, the holidays you went on, the car you drove to your funeral service. As a mutual, it drove prices down and standards up for everyone. It might still do so in the future.

But I’m not on board with the thousands of redundancies that executives are inflicting on the Group’s workforce… whilst planning to award themselves over 50% pay rises.

Under the proposals, revealed today by the Observer, new chief executive Euan Sutherland will receive a base salary of £1.5 million this year, plus a retention payment of £1.5 million. With other extras included he will receive a total of £3.66 million – by contrast, his predecessor Peter Marks received £1.3 million last year.
Other executives in Mr Sutherland’s team will take home amounts similarly inflated beyond what was being paid out in the past – between £500,000 and £650,000 compared to between £200,000 and £400,000.

Independent on Sunday

The new management are not to blame for the Co-operative Group’s current problems. But they are to blame for the injustice of paying themselves obscene bonuses whilst forcing their workers onto the dole. Completely at odds with the Group’s anti-capitalist principles.

This is a member-owned organisation, and we have the power to force our representatives to exercise more restraint. I appeal to fellow members to co-operate to do this, otherwise we might as well not be a co-operative.

Watch this space.

FLASHBACK: Why Chavez Will Be Missed

Originally published 6th March 2013. One year on, Chavez’s Bolivarian Socialism looks further from realisation than ever.

Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, died of cancer yesterday. The nation has entered a week of mourning,  and the United States just about suppressed its glee. Though some would describe him as a “socialist hero”, the South American underdog who led the people in standing up to big business and alleged US imperialism, Chavez leaves a record that was far from spotless. I struggled with this fine balance in a post written last year:

Under Chavez, the state has rolled
out social investment programmes,
free healthcare, upgraded schools
and more, funded by oil revenues
(London buses largely run on fuel
imported from them, after a deal
between Chavez himself and the
Mayor). The radical administration
has had to endure a hostile world
press, but some of the criticism is
justified. The nationalisation of a
number of sectors of the economy,
for example, has damaged foreign
investment, because TNCs know
that their factories will probably be
seized as soon as they open.
Additionally, queues outside
supermarkets have become
commonplace after they became a
state monopoly. Often, public
ownership of some sectors of the
economy can be beneficial, but it
doesn’t have any chance of working
under amateurish governance as
we’ve seen here (besides, who ever
could have seen a state monopoly
of supermarkets as a good idea?).
But another thing that Chavez has
going for him is that he is a
democrat, which has previously
been a rarity over there. Remember
when the US backed coup was
launched to reverse his economic
reforms? The people were having
none of it, and within days Chavez
was back in office. He knows full
well that democratic principles can
work against him as well as for
him.
His ideals are sound ones: he
understands social responsibility
and he understands aspiration. He
has achieved so much improving
the prospects of the children of
the slums (and the slums are a
whole new story). I can easily say
that, overall, Chavez’s 14 years in
office have been beneficial. But
while it is hugely entertaining to
watch multinational firms being onI
the receiving end of the blackmail
and bullying for once, the
government is guilty of economic
mismanagement. To conclude, its
heart is in the right place, but it
has been crude in implementing its
principles.

Further to this, Hugo Chavez’s anti-American stance led him into distasteful friendships with dictators such as those of Libya (like Tony Blair) and North Korea. Also, there are alleged breaches of human rights that have taken place under his government (I wonder how this compares with Guantanamo Bay). I shall leave it to the better informed to decide if his government’s human rights record is significantly worse than those of the Blair-Bush alliance.

However, with South America it is often a matter of relativity. I mentioned the slums in my article extract: Venezuela had such a divided society that the slums, which housed a large percentage of the population, were ignored by pubic service providers and seen as a playground by the military. Indeed, this ignoring was so literal that these slums just didn’t exist on maps. This was highly symbolic of the value of the unwashed masses to the dictators.

On balance, the world has lost a valuable, if flawed, radical. Our minds must now turn to the matter of whether the bad statist and the sound socialist reforms will survive without a big personality like Chavez to push them through. I’m not so optimistic today.