8 Progressive Moves of the Coalition Government

I’m not exactly a fan of the last government, but given that I indulge in a lot of Tory-bashing and yet complain about excessive partisanship in British and American politics, I felt this list would be a testing and productive experiment to engage in. It is easy enough to pay lip service to the concept of rising above tribal politics but that depends on being able to evaluate the positions of your opponents on their merits. And in my own case, where I have less common ground with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than even many in my own party, it can be more difficult.

1.The introduction of same-sex marriage. Few people would have expected it to be a Conservative-led government to be the one to introduce same-sex marriage: indeed David Cameron took a big political risk in forcing the policy past the opposition of the majority of his own backbenchers. But now the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is a practice that has been buried in the history books. It is heartening to see the fight for equal marriage being won even in the more conservative parts of the Western world.

2. Referendum on electoral reform. It is already half-forgotten about, and those who do remember are largely constitutional reformers bitter about it being turned into a vote on Nick Clegg. But after a century of debate coming to nothing- despite New Labour’s supposed commitment to replacing First Past The Post- the people got their first chance in British history to decide how to elect their representatives.

3. The pupil premium. The case for providing extra funding that ‘follows’ state school pupils from disadvantaged background is overwhelming. There is so much evidence that shows such children are more likely to need and benefit from various forms of extra support that schools simply cannot provide without additional resources. I do believe the last government cared about improving educational opportunities for children. It was this vigourous enthusiasm that led to them floating daft ideas like evening classes for pupils on free school meals. (This struck me as punishing children with extra work just for being poor!) Sadly the government chose to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which has rendered sixth form education nonviable for thousands of those very same students.

4. Universal Free School Meals for under 7s. There were so many obvious benefits to this policy that I outlined in this article at the time.

5. Rationalisation of Stamp Duty. The Chancellor has certainly made his mark on the tax system. One of the few improvements he made was the recent transformation of Stamp Duty that has been needed ever since house prices went crazy in the early 2000s. As well as quietly raising rates on expensive houses acquired by non-UK residents, Osborne did away with the ‘block’ rates. Previously someone buying a £249,999 house would pay 1% duty on the entire value, while a £250,000 house would attract a 3% tax also on the entire value. I am glad to see the back of this absurd structure in favour of income-tax style phased bands. It would be even better to go further and scrap Stamp Duty altogether on the primary residence in favour of imposing Capital Gains Tax. Would that not represent a move from taxing home ownership to taxing unearned rises in house values?

6. Meeting International Development budget target of 0.7% of GDP. It might not be popular, but the desperate poverty that exists in the world doesn’t go away because the nation’s finances need repairing. Our obligation as one of the richest countries in the world to help is not a luxury spending item we can discard, so I applaud the principled position to protect the Department for International Development’s budget from spending cuts.

7. Accepting Parliament’s opposition to intervention in Syria. Although the Prime Minister did not actually have to seek Parliament’s consent for his proposed military actions, he made constitutional history by doing so. It is to his credit that he did so and to Ed Miliband’s credit that he decided to join the opposition to war, thus defeating the government.

8. Cabinet appointments made for the long term. Gone are the days of the Cabinet musical chairs that Blair used to maintain a vice-like grip on his government. Where previously a minister could not be certain of remaining in post for much longer that 6 months, Cameron seemed to prefer stability and allowing ministers time to see their own policies to fruition. Most key people remained in position for four years of the Coalition, while the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary all remained for the full term.

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Aspiration Can Belong To The Left

I have prepared the article below for a Labour-linked blog. While still reeling from the shock result of the election, with Labour making very limited headway in England and all but wiped out in Scotland, I think it’s crucial that the upcoming leadership election is not defined by the ‘aspiration’ espoused by so-called ‘modernisers’.

 

People are still working out why the election outcome was so strong for the Conservatives. They managed to more or less maintain their 2010 position and capitalise on the collapse of the Lib Dems to build a wafer-thin majority. So the question must be asked: how did Labour gain so little ground over the past five years? I don’t think the Mansion Tax lost Miliband the election: once the perception of a weak leader and economic incompetence was formed, it was fatal to Labour’s election prospects.

 

In politics, if a narrative is repeated often enough and is not challenged, it rapidly comes to be treated as fact. Within the Labour movement, one such story threatens to cloud our judgment: it is said we’ll never be re-elected unless we ‘get aspiration’. The words themselves ring true, but the idea attached to them is flawed.

 

The truly popular governments of the past were propelled into power because they understood the aspirations of large sections of society. The Attlee government promised nothing less than a war on poverty and injustice. Thatcher and Blair after her saw the longing for freedom to own, speculate and just maybe make big money.

 

Aspiration means different things to different generations. And thus in the meritocratic society governments inherited in the 80s and 90s, when opportunity and wealth (to varying degrees) was in the hands of the many and not the few, it was popular to go easy on the rich and powerful. Naturally so, when kids from council estates were growing up to become millionaire investment bankers, even the poorest support generous tax breaks for millionaires!
Some have attributed Labour’s defeat to its moderately redistributionist platform. They call for a return to the early Blair orthodoxy of avoiding anything that smacks of tax-and-spend like the plague. But to do so would be to wrongly assume the electorate of 2020 wants the same as that of 1997.

 

The young people of today don’t aspire to own a large house in Islington. They’ll count themselves lucky if they can afford a part-share in a tiny flat in Peckham. Gone are the hopes of a stable, rewarding career when today millions scratch out an existence on scraps of agency work or zero hours contract. In these and countless other ways, it seems the hopes of the many have been comprehensively trashed by powerful interests. Governments of all parties have chosen not to address these issues, leading to the toxic feeling of disempowerment and betrayal that so many would-be voters feel.

 

Labour exists to represent working people, so why don’t we get back to that job? If we show voters that we’re in tune with their most simple aspirations, they’ll respond. Our offer in 2020 should be based on aspirational socialism. Let’s promise the next generation the affordable, quality homes it needs; equal access to a world-class education and confidence in having a good job and protection from a strong welfare system. Also, our children deserve the best start in life, so let’s resurrect our pledge to eliminate child poverty altogether.

 

As a country, we seem to have forgotten how to get these basics right. Solutions exist, but they will cost billions of pounds to implement. Labour will have to explain where its priorities would lie if it were elected in 2020. It would inherit a devastated public sector crying out for investment, an eroded tax base to pay for it and probably a small budget deficit to close. Labour must be frank: a just society costs money and we will expect the most privileged to help out.

 

Progressive tax rises should be intelligently designed: for example taxing unearned wealth through Capital Gains Tax or ending tax breaks for landlords is fairer than taxing wages. And above all, our emphasis must be resolutely on these taxes allowing opportunity to be shared with ordinary people. To that end, every tax increase should be linked with a spending policy to aid social mobility. That’s what aspirational socialism means: opportunity for all, ensured by everybody making a fair contribution.

Talking ‘Bout A Revolution

With Britain’s general election taking place on Thursday, the heat and noise of campaigning is now crowding out most other news stories in the media. (Which is probably just as well, as the so-called ‘news’ story of the royal birth has consequently got little more than the prominence it deserves!) But at this stage in the election, all the speeches, accusations and adverts become less important. I believe that voters aren’t listening. How could they? The sound of our politicians arguing would deafen the most earnest listener.

In the hours before polling day, the true fight moves from the national stage to the grassroots. Save for a final rallying cry or a major gaffe, the party leaders have diminishing influence on the success of their campaign. That’s my theory.

It will not surprise you to read that I am endorsing the Labour Party.

The past five years have been wearying. Injustice deeply offends me, and the Coalition Government has ensured it is in plentiful supply. Reading a newspaper has on occasion felt about as fun as a tooth extraction, as I have watched the welfare state undermined by cuts, workfare and privatisation. We’ve seen local government devastated, public assets sold off, workers’ rights threatened, legal aid slashed and our country isolated in the European Union.

Which is not to say the Coalition has not done some good for the country. Particularly in its early years, it introduced some praiseworthy measures like the electoral reform referendum and an (admittedly half-hearted) attempt to restore our eroded civil liberties. Today, nobody would argue with the ‘pupil premium’ that has shielded poorer students from the freeze on the schools budget, and universal free school meals for 4-7 year-olds.

I even have some warm words for the Prime Minister. Although I do not agree with his values, and think he is something of a bully, he is also prepared do do what he thinks is right even when it damages him to do so. For example, he made constitutional history by consulting Parliament before intervening in the Syria conflict. True, he didn’t know Ed Miliband would withdraw his support and defeat the Government, but I respect Cameron for taking the risk giving the people’s representatives a say.

Nevertheless, some constitutional tweaking here and a little education funding there is of little comfort to the thousands of homeless, the million people dependent on foodbanks and the excluded poor that shame the Coalition.

But in the age of multiparty politics, the Opposition has to work to earn its support: it can’t wait for a tide of anger with the government of the day to carry it to power. And yes, I think Labour deserves support.

Labour’s offer contains many attractive and some unappealing elements. They cannot protect the country from further austerity measures, although their failure to challenge the Conservatives’ story on the economy early enough has left Miliband unable to be upfront about his plans. His perfectly sensible plan to eliminate the structural budget deficit whilst allowing room for £30 billion annual borrowing for investment is the most prudent of those put forward. It also allows for spending cuts to be limited to £6 billion this year and just £1 billion next year, provided Labour’s plans for tax rises of the same size are implemented. Compare this with the Conservatives’ £50-70 billion worth of cuts and we see this is the difference between cutting with a butter knife and an axe.

And the difference is greater than just the scale of cuts: what happens after them is just as important. If it is a Conservative government that balances the books, do you think they are going to priorities tax cuts or regenerating collapsing public services? Austerity is not going to magically end the moment the deficit is cleared: we need a government that will choose not to make it permanent. Look at the US if you want to see what happens when a society doesn’t invest in services.

The case for Labour rests on so much more than limiting spending cuts. It’s also about values. Labour has talked a lot about the importance on being ‘on your side’ and addressing the sense that politicians don’t work for ordinary people. It could well be an empty slogan, but I think it is something deeper that Miliband has identified. New Labour, in its eagerness to look competent and please the Establishment, did nothing to stop vested interests exploiting the people of Britain. It wouldn’t have been difficult to keep house prices under control, to provide a little economic security to workers or break up the oligopolies that rip off consumers in energy, transport, banking, and so many other industries. But the Conservatives didn’t care and Labour chose not to help. I think Miliband is determined that it should never let the country down like that again.

For all the talk about Ed Miliband being weak and incompetent, he would make a better Prime Minister than any of the party leaders. Yes, he’s a nerd, but does it hurt to have an intellectual running the country? Does it hurt to have a leader with integrity and passion, like him? As we’ve seen, he is exceptionally strong when the occasion demands. Incidentally, his critics need to decide if he is the ruthless schemer who stabbed his brother in the back (because David Miliband clearly had a God-given right to the leadership) or the bumbling fool who shouldn’t be left in charge of a lemonade stall.

But why should a socialist like me vote Labour and not for left-wing challenger with a more exciting manifesto? The wasted vote argument is important but well-worn, and doesn’t apply to Scotland where there is talk of the Scottish Nationalists ‘massacring’ Labour; parts of Wales where the Welsh nationalists have a fighting chance  and Brighton Pavilion where the Greens defending their single seat.

As far as the Greens are concerned, I am worried that their leadership seems more concerned with attacking Labour for not being ‘pure’ enough than defeating the Conservatives. I found the above clip from the BBC opposition leaders’ debate most telling, with the Green leader bellowing at Ed Miliband whilst he was attempting to expose UKIP’s desire to break up the NHS. My experience of my local Green Party is not positive either; their candidate’s opportunism and hypocrisy would make the Lib Dems blush!

It is easy for smaller parties like the Greens to be critical of the main opposition. When they have never been in power, it is fine to dodge the realities and hard truths that constrain major parties. That is not to say that the establish parties do not need challenging: the Greens have a vital role to play in demonstrating that public anger with the old politics is not exclusively of the toxic UKIP variety.

The SNP is not quite as radical is it likes to make out, as its cosy relationship with Rupert Murdoch demonstrates. However SNP gains at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives enhance the prospect of a left-wing government. Also, while I am more confident as to the red-blooded socialism of Plaid Cymru than the SNP, it doesn’t make sense to vote against the hardworking and decent Labour MPs that represent many Welsh and Scottish constituencies.

Nobody will win this election. There is no prospect of the Tories improving on their 2010 seat total, and they are certain to lose seats to some extent. Labour will make respectable gains in England, but their net gains will be limited by the probable SNP landslide in Scotland. I believe the result will be close to this forecast produced by associates of Nate Silver.

If the prediction is correct, the Tories will fall about 45 seats short of the 323 needed to form a government. Labour will be about 10 seats behind the Tories. The SNP will multiply from 7 to 50 MPs, while the Lib Dems slump from 57 to around 25. The forecast is consistent with reports from campaigners that neither the Greens or UKIP will translate their increased support into more than one seat each.

If the Tories managed to unite all their potential supporters behind them, that is to say they could secure backing from the Lib Dems, UKIP and the right-wing Northern Ireland Unionists behind them, they would still have just around 315 MPs. A Tory government is highly unlikely unless they win no fewer than 290 seats on Thursday- just 13 losses. I wouldn’t bet on that.

It is clear Labour’s preference is for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats- it has ruled out so much as an informal deal with the SNP. Yet if, as looks likely, Labour falls short of 290 seats, only co-operation with the SNP provides a majority. At 275 seats or fewer, Labour would have to call on the SNP and other parties.

Miliband has said he would rather remain in Opposition than co-operate with the SNP. Yet if there is an anti-Conservative majority in the House of Commons, he won’t actually have a choice. Well, technically he could form a Grand Coalition with the Conservatives, but it’s more likely that UKIP will win the election!

I reckon the next election could arrive a lot sooner than 2020.

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.

Who will save the NHS?

Next year, the National Health Service is projected to spend £2 billion more than it has. After inflation, “efficiency savings” and transfers are accounted for, the NHS budget has been static for five years. In that time, demand for its services has grown to a surprising extent, unfortunately at the same time the Health and Social Care Act fragmented and commericialised it, draining more of its scarce resources at the same time. So, with the same resources at its disposal, the NHS has to:

  • Provide healthcare for 2.5 million more people, mainly children and pensioners (who account for the majority of GP and A&E (ER) visits
  • Meet PFI repayments that have risen by over £1 billion per year
  • Meet the costs of a £1.4 billion shake up
  • Treat growing numbers of diabetics (who account for 10% of the NHS budget)
  • Contribute more to spending on social care

Is it any wonder that the NHS is under visible strain? Whilst the Government boasts that it has ‘protected’ the NHS budget by protecting it from actual cuts, it has neglected to provide for a large expansion of the population and long-running demographic trends that demand an expansion of the service. The Coalition might point out that, despite this, patients are still being treated, surgeries still being performed… In short, the NHS is still functioning, and is more efficient to boot. But that overlooks the very real decline in the quality of healthcare it offers. It is now harder than ever to secure non-emergency medical treatment; waiting lists for surgery have once more become an issue; and there is a growing sense that care is being ‘rationed’.

Privately, politicians are beginning to acknowledge that the present situation is unsustainable. Not only is the NHS is now faced with the prospect of running out of money at the end of the financial year, but that £2 billion shortfall is projected to grow to as much as £30 billion by 2020. That figure may be slightly alarmist, but the shortfall will be at least half of that. There is a consensus that “something must be done” but nobody is prepared to discuss the grim implications in an election year.

https://thepoliticalidealist.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/9e975-nhs.jpg

Image source: scirocco2morocco.blogspot.co.uk

Actually, that’s not quite right. Andy Burnham privately floated the ideas of increases in National Insurance (NI) and later Inheritance Tax to bolster the NHS, but on both occasions was hastily slapped down by the Shadow Chancellor, who categorically ruled out both measures, for fear of being painted as a ‘tax and spend’ party. No, Labour’s official position is that the NHS deficit can be met by savings from the integration of social care services into the NHS. Tellingly, this was announced last week by junior Labour spokesperson Liz Kendall, and not Mr Burnham.

Possibly because the policy is nonsensical.

Supposing that administrative savings could be made, it’s doubtful that they would plug the deficit. The most optimistic estimate of savings is £8 billion a year- some 40% of the social care budget! It’s unlikely that administration consumes nearly half of social care spending, to say the least. It follows that all Labour would achieve is the postponement of the funding crisis by one or two years. Administrative savings cannot pay for the new hospitals, the thousands of extra hospital beds, the new doctors and nurses and the millions of extra prescriptions that Britain needs.

If Labour lacks answers, the Conservatives do not. They are pondering whether to adopt the NI-rise policy so foolishly discarded by Labour, or to accept the proposals made by Reform, the right-wing think tank. It seems Reform’s preferred method of sustaining Britain’s universal health service is not to sustain it. They propose a £120 per-year NHS ‘membership fee’, charges for overnight hospital visits and the means testing of continuing care. This is supplemented by ominous rumours of the next Conservative government imposing a £10 ‘administration fee’ for GP visits or charging patients for ‘self-inflicted’ health issues. These measures would certainly prevent the system becoming bankrupt, but it would be the end of the NHS as a ‘free’, collective public service.

The NHS will be on a sustainable footing- that is, will have the expanded resources it needs- within the next few years. The only question is if that will be achieved through higher public spending or the imposition of fees. Regardless of the calculations made by the evangelical Tory right, the public will not tolerate the latter. (Ultimately, I trust Labour to keep the service intact, even if it is currently in denial about what that will entail.) The extra NHS funding will come from higher taxation, which parties are choosing to reject, or even deeper spending cuts made elsewhere. But with the next Government inheriting a budget deficit of £70 billion and the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities, schools and the student finance system all straining just to meet their legal obligations on the lowest possible budget, I can’t see any spare money lying around.

Johnson’s Water Cannon Arrive

The Mayor of London has completed the purchase of three water cannon from the German federal police force. The £218,000 weapons cannot be used unless the Home Secretary approves their use in Great Britain (rather than Northern Ireland). Evidently Mr Johnson is sufficiently confident of securing her blessing that he feels able to spend a lot of Londoners’ money on the purchase.

Mr Johnson is not just buying “any ordinary” water cannon either: the reason German police are selling is that they are phasing out that particular model due to safety concerns. They are currently being sued by a man who lost vision in one eye after being attacked with one of the cannon.

Various newspapers report that, since then, Johnson’s weapons have been used by the German police to demolish windows in buildings ahead of raids. This shows the sheer force that they produce: it’s not like being sprayed with a garden hose. These are military grade weapons, a favourite of brutal dictatorships to disperse protests.

Who’s to say that legitimate protests won’t be the next target of British police? Few would disagree with claims that London’s Metropolitan Police are notoriously heavy-handed. It only takes a few violent people to provoke harsh police retaliation on an entire crowd.

Boris Johnson says that the cannon are a vital ‘asset’ in the event of a repeat of riots like those of 2011. But, to borrow from his exquisite vocabulary, we’ve heard similar “piffle” from our politicians before. The terrorist attacks of 2001 and 2005 prompted a massive expansion of police and state power at the expense of civil liberties. We were assured that British police, who were unarmed since time immemorial, would only carry guns “under exceptional circumstances”. Now, in London (albeit not in the rest of the UK), there’s nothing unusual about seeing police officers carrying formidable firearms on day-to-day patrols. Moreover, in the name of the “War on Terror”, politicians tore up protections against detention without trial; imposed restrictions on our democratic right to protest (in case terrorists attack the free world by demonstrating?); and have even legalised secret courts.

Where does it end?

It doesn’t. When the emergency of Islamist terrorists recedes, it will be rioters, or eco-terrorists. Each threat seems to warrant a further expansion of state power at the expense of hard-won civil liberties. Yet no politician is going to reverse this process: not out of some imagined conspiracy to subjugate the people, but because any reversal will be seen as undermining “security”. Look at the debate on nuclear disarmament and you’ll see what happens to politicians seen as ‘weak’ on security.

The introduction of water cannon to London would be a threat because, soon enough, there will be more than three of them, they won’t just be in London and they won’t just be used for riot dispersal. How many similar precedents do we want to set?

Tories Turn Away From a Green Future

The Conservative Party has promised to deny subsidy for onshore windfarms not already granted planning permission. This policy would come into effect in the unlikely event that the Conservatives win next year’s election outright. Moreover, future planning applications for wind turbines will be under the sole discretion of local authorities, rather than central government under “nationally significant infrastructure” rules. Given that virtually all power stations built in the UK have direct or implicit subsidy, and can often be inflicted on local councils against their will, this marks a strongly anti-renewables bias in energy policy.

There is zero prospect that Tory-dominated councils in the “Shires”, which make up most of Britain’s landmass, will approve.any major windfarm under the proposed system. Much though the ‘greener’ councils might be keen to support renewable projects, it’s hard to see hundreds of turbines being built in Islington or Brighton and Hove. Consequently, there will be very little further increase in wind energy beyond the previously planned projects that will carry Britain to its statutory 2020 renewable energy target.

It’s clear that the Conservatives, as their Lib Dem collaborators have alleged, are pandering to the right-wing “provincial” nimbies who have migrated to UKIP. Lib Dem and Labour silence on the urgent need for more renewable energy now and into the future shows that once more, the political class is failing to act in the long-term interests of the country. It’s hard to blame them entirely, though, representative democracy is such that, if voters are more concerned about the “unspoiled” view from the outskirts of their village than their country’s energy security and the world’s collective interest, then their MP will probably feel the need to represent that view.

But the country expects leadership as well as representation from its government. Take the case of the budget deficit: David Cameron talks of the importance of perusing brutal and unpopular spending cuts for the “benefit” of future generations by keeping the National Debt to a minimum. The political Establishment easily mustered the “courage” to inform the public that existing levels of government spending were unsustainable. Why can’t they do the same with our current, ecologically unsound lifestyle and, for that matter, tax rates that are far below levels that correspond with the provision of a functioning NHS?

The Conservatives contradict their stated aims of “strong leadership” and “prudence” by undermining the development of renewable energy projects. It would be disappointing, but few of us expect our political leaders to shape public opinion. Democracy demands that voters have choice, but that’s not what leaders who fixate on opinion polls and focus groups offer us.

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.

Prisoners Have the Right To Read

On the 1st November 2013, the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, introduced harsh new rules on the sending of items to prisoners. Inmates are no longer allowed to receive clothing, birthday cards from their children, or books. As clothing and books are very hard to come by in prisons, the effect is to prevent prisoners reading, and for women prisoners (who do not wear uniforms), leaving them to rely on the prison-issue underwear. They are only provided with one set.

The Howard League for Penal Reform highlighted these new rules in a Politics.co.uk article on Sunday. A petition calling on Chris Grayling to modify the rules was promptly set up and has since collected over 5,000 signatures. Grayling has a hang ’em and flog ’em approach to justice, which has proved hugely popular. He is not going to bend to the will of a few thousand bleeding heart liberals over this, and given the feeble response of the Opposition to the benefits cap, I doubt they’ll have the courage to challenge the policy. The best course of action is to stress the benefits of books in rehabilitating prisoners and hope that a more pragmatic Justice minister listens in the future. There is a compromise to be reached, though, and I will attempt to outline one.

Let us work from two premises. One, criminals are in prison to be punished and therefore allowing them to receive gifts would be inappropriate. Two, a major cause of crime is the poor education and social exclusion of criminals. Prisoners are much more likely than members of the general public to be illiterate, and this perpetuates their exclusion. Therefore, prisoners should have access to books to aid in their education. The two premises can be met: don’t allow prisoners to receive books as gifts, but allow prisoners to buy from a special HM Prison Service Postal Bookshop (which can stock only books of educational value, not the likes of 50 Shades of Grey) using their earnings from prison jobs.

After all, prisoners are allowed to buy cigarettes and the like using the token wages they receive. If they can buy drugs that are bad for them, why not books that might just do them some good? The fact that they had to work for the books also sends a suitably “tough” message.

If we cut off prisoners’ access to educational materials, we are making it more difficult for them to complete their sentences having acquired new skills that they can offer to society. If prisoners are cast back into the world with just as few skills as when they entered, evidence shows that they are likely to fall back into crime. Ultimately, a justice system that fails to change the behaviour of criminals is not fit for purpose. Chris Grayling’s new rules don’t derail all rehabilitation measures taking place in the prisons system, but they are a significant obstacle.

Does Grayling want to do what’s right, or what’s popular?

The “Benefits Cap” Shames Britain

Later this week, Conservative, Lib Dem and a large number of Labour MPs will mill through the “Ayes” lobby in Parliament to vote for a measure highlighted in George Osborne. Which is the lucky measure that attracts the unanimous support of the frontbenches? That would be the legislation that will require every new Parliament to set a “cap” on the annual figure spent by the government. The cap, which will rise by the (lower) CPI inflation rate and excludes Job Seekers’ Allowance and the Basic State Pension, will therefore bind governments for five years until a general election and the new Parliament sets a new cap.

Should the cap be exceeded in a given year, the Chancellor will have to explain to Parliament why. That explanation will be followed by a vote by MPs on whether to authorise the continued payment of benefits for the rest of the financial year. The risk does not so much lie in Parliament failing to ratify an emergency rise- although I can imagine the Tory daydreams about wrangling in Parliament (similar to Congress and its artificial cliffs and sequesters) in which some future government is forced to make brutal, sudden reductions in benefit rates in order to gain Parliamentary assent. No, more likely scenario is that future governments set a low cap at the beginning of each Parliament, for fear of the political fallout surrounding any big increase on the previous Parliament’s cap. Then the government would be perpetually stingy on benefits spending, adverse to the risk of breaching the cap. In the event of a recession, as demand for income support and JSA-linked benefits rocketed, the government would impose cuts to avoid Parliament forcing it to do so anyway.

Then there are cumulative factors that will erode the true value of the cap. Britain is a country with a growing population and economy. Yet the cap will be set in cash terms, meaning there is no automatic link between an increase in the number of families needing Child Benefit; pensioners needing Fuel Payments, etc., and the cash value of that cap. But I guarantee that a future Chancellor seeking a 5% rise in the benefits cap in response to 5% population growth wouldn’t get a fair hearing. S/he will be vilified by the media and the Conservatives as wanting a “multibillion pound benefits binge”. Any response to demographic changes will be portrayed as throwing £50 notes at tracksuit-wearing, foreign born, unemployed single mothers with twelve criminal children. Little by little, spending on social security will be eroded because the political cost of doing anything else will be too high.

And in the future, when government finances are in surplus, the economy is flourishing and a government wants to expand the benefits system in the interests of social justice, for example in introducing universal free social care, they will be almost unable to do so because they must brave a political mudstorm at the beginning of the Parliament to make room for it in the benefits cap.

The Conservatives know exactly what they are doing with this cap. The cap is not about tackling growth in a massive section of public expenditure- indeed, at 10.4% of GDP spent on pensions and social security in 2011, spending is actually low by postwar standards. No, this is about a stealthy attack on the welfare state that will draw in future governments for decades to come, long after IDS and his cuts have become a distant memory.

What is so shameful is that the Labour leadership, which has had some success in turning the tide of public opinion against the Conservatives and their toxic attacks on the young, the poor and the disabled people who rely on the welfare system, is not only too cowardly to oppose the scheme, but is now instructing its MPs to vote for the measure. The Labour Party should display the moral fibre needed to resist this populist move: if Labour highlighted the problems with the Bill now, opposition to it might not be popular but it would not be unpopular either. That’s why I’m backing the large backbench rebellion that is brewing on the Opposition benches. The Labour leadership is right on so many issues, but any MP who collaborates with the Conservative Party on this rancid measure is letting Britain down.