Let Labour Face The Future

For an established political party, every defeat is painful. But some defeats hurt more than others: surprise losses are the worst. Labour expected defeat in 2010, but the idea that it wouldn’t at least improve its position in 2015 seemed all but impossible. And yet within hours of the close of polls in May, commentators (even so called ‘left wing’ ones) were rushing to write off the party’s chances in 2020.

Labour’s prospects do look bleak. The obliteration of the party in Scotland; Conservative plans to gerrymander by cutting the number of MPs to 600 (a number which happens to return the greatest proportion of Tory MPs); and now the financial devastation of the party threatened by the Trade Union Bill means only a groundswell in energy and support can get the party over the line at the next election.

But a more nuanced view of the party’s position is needed. In England it made a decent series of gains in marginal constituencies: were it not for losses in Scotland, Labour would have made a net gain of around 15 seats. The left is more united: Liberal Democrats are no longer in a position to divide the left in the costly way they have done for the past 30 years, whilst any seats lost to the SNP still have MPs that will support a Labour government and oppose a Conservative one. Moreover, it must be remembered that, for all the hype, the best the Conservatives have been able to manage is a majority thinner and weaker than that of the Major government of the 1990s.

As soon as the leadership election was called, three schools of thought emerged in the Labour Party about the best direction to take.

The first is that Miliband frightened off voters by moving the party to more traditionally left-wing positions. The key to electoral success is to make the party ‘credible’ with voters, mirroring Labour’s evolution in the 1990s. The theory is that by committing to iron discipline on spending and fiscal policy and prioritising the interests of business and the middle classes, Labour can convince voters that it is mature enough to govern once more. These ideas are espoused most vocally by leadership candidate Liz Kendall (presently trailing very badly in the race) but carry a lot of influence, particularly amongst older Labour MPs.

The second is that Miliband hit on broadly the right ideas: his moderate brand of social democracy balances the interests of different sections of society. And it’s true, the policy platform Labour fought on in May was a very strong one that was very popular. Proponents of this argument say that the perceived weakness of Miliband as a person coupled with the unchallenged ‘Labour overspending ruined the economy line’ put voters off an otherwise sound offer. This is the majority view within the party, one Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are broadly aligned with.

The third school at first looked very marginalised, and appeared to have no advocate within the race until Corbyn scraped together enough nominations from MPs to enter. That is that Labour’s offer was too uninspiring and offered little help to the young, the poor and the disaffected. An offer that promised more austerity, tweaks to the market and only gestures at ending inequality. Labour recognised the anger and pain that much of the country is feeling, but chose to position itself within the Establishment. Thus angry people went in their droves over to the SNP, to UKIP or, in most cases, didn’t bother to vote at all.

When Corbyn entered, everybody assumed that he would represent the fringe. Like other hard left candidates before him, he’d make a bit of noise and provide an outlet for angry members. If he was lucky, he’d win a little over 10% of the vote before falling back into obscurity.

Now Corbyn has a decent chance of winning.

It’s true that Labour’s centre of gravity has shifted since 2010. There has been a huge influx of new people at every level, from MPs to humble members, who have high hopes for the progress a Labour government could bring. The domination of the the party by Blairites and Brownites has ended, with both factions reduced to a rump of right-wingers and technocrats whose relevance diminishes by the day. True, some of the new blood of the party lies on its right, such as Chuka Umunna or Wes Streeting, but they are more ideologically flexible than true Blairites.

But in fact, thinking in terms of different wings and factions will only get us so far because these aren’t so important in this vote. This election is about hope.

Burnham entered the election as the heir apparent, poised to win on enthusiastic support from the grassroots, impressed with his performance as Shadow Health Secretary, and MPs, confident in him as an electoral asset. However he made the tactical error of responding to attacks on him as the ‘trade union’, ‘left’ or ‘continuity Miliband’ candidate by abruptly distancing himself from those labels. He joined bandwagons attacking the previous leader as ‘anti business’, he declared his support for the benefits cap and further spending cuts. By doing so he disappointed so many within and outside the party who want Labour to stand for meaningful change. By doing so he turned into a ‘vanilla’ candidate. By doing so he created the space for Corbyn.

The reason that Kendall’s campaign has collapsed is that she can offer activists and MPs nothing more to hope for than going into the next election fighting for a continuation of the Conservatives’ agenda. Even if that resonates with voters (it won’t- the Conservatives are more convincing conservatives than Labour and always will be) then what will the prize? Nothing will really change, just the seating arrangement in the House of Commons.

The thinking of many Labour members is that we lost two elections when we weren’t really fighting for what we believed in, so what would be the point of a third? Labour is running out of time: this time it lost Scotland, next time its heartlands in Wales and the north of England could fall if it doesn’t resolve what is becoming an existential crisis.

Jeremy Corbyn is an electoral risk. He is more left wing than I am on many issues, such as defence- and I know I hardly represent the moderate, cautious centreground! Political orthodoxy screams at us that Thatcherism can win votes but socialism does not. That’s why some voices in Labour argue that it would be immature, even cowardly, to elect a ‘right-on’ leader who may not impress voters. The tiresome expression is that we must avoid our ‘comfort zone’

I agree. But it’s Labour politicians who must vacate their comfort zone. They must be prepared to stand up and fight for principles and change that the people can believe in. Labour can commit itself to perpetual decline as a softer alternative to the Conservatives, or it can re-engage with its historical mission to stand up for the working people of Britain. That course is a gamble but Labour should try it before people stop listening altogether.

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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.

Why ‘No Thanks’ Is Getting No Joy

The debate in the political commentariat about the weekend’s YouGov poll of Scottish voters, which found a slender majority in favour of independence for the first time, has largely missed the point. It doesn’t actually matter if the ‘Yes’ campaign’s two point lead is within the margin of error. What matters is that the referendum campaign has become so close that margins of error are even relevant.

How has the ‘Better Together’ (latterly ‘No Thanks’) campaign managed to squander a 20 point-plus lead in a matter of weeks, and allowed Scottish independence to become a serious prospect.

Regular readers will know that I am firmly neutral on the referendum: I would not mind Scotland concluding that its distinctive culture and politics demand full nationhood. Whilst I acknowledge concerns that, as Scotland provides a large number of Labour MPs and just 1 Tory MP, independence would make it harder to elect progressive governments in the residual UK (rUK) dominated by a Tory-leaning England, I think rUK politics would quickly re-align. Also, as a democrat, I find the lack of a solution to the West Lothian question difficult to stomach. This is a problem that would only get worse with the guaranteed further devolution that will occur even in a ‘No’ vote. It cannot be right that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elect devolved legislatures with extensive powers, particularly over public spending in their own nations, and elect MPs who influence those decisions in England too, despite it lacking its own assembly. That unaccountability has allowed Scottish MPs to swing the votes which have inflicted tuition fees on English students. Thus independence would mitigate that anomaly, albeit in a rather drastic way.

Incidentally, I’m puzzled that the three main Westminster parties have all sung so heavily behind the ‘No’ campaign with any discussion or debate. I want to know why Labour activists like me are being pestered, using official party machinery, to donate time, money and energy to persuade Scots to vote ‘No’, when we have not been consulted on whether that should be Labour’s position. I don’t think the unionists running our parties have really thought through the case for independence and ‘staying together’.

My theory is evident when you look at the ‘No Thanks’ campaign. It’s headed by Alastair Darling. His role in saving the global financial system from collapse in 2008 is under-rated, and he strikes me as a decent and reasonable man. However, he is a technocrat, not a dreamer. In common with many former teenaged communists, he has grown into a middle-aged man with a very bland view of the world and the possibilities it offers. Is it any wonder that Darling’s constant prophesies that if Scotland votes Yes, the sky will fall in, the banks will fold and the good people of Scotland will be forced to return to the land… etc, have turned off potential supporters?

Then look at who is supporting ‘No Thanks’. Big business, particularly Big Oil. David Cameron. Tony Abbott. UKIP. If such a formidable coalition of the ‘forces of darkness’ has a common position, the natural instinct is to oppose it.

And my goodness, does the ‘No Thanks’ campaign know how to repel supporters. Like the patronising ‘Better Together’ mum…

This criticism of ‘No Thanks’ doesn’t mean I’m any keener on the Yes campaign. The difference is, the Yes campaign has had a degree of success.

Is Electoral Reform Really Dead?

Three years ago, 68% of British voters rejected one of one of the most limited electoral reforms that could have been proposed: the introduction of the Alternative (or Instant Runoff) Vote. They rejected it, not because of the actual merits or drawbacks of the system proposed (though the ‘No2AV’ campaign were successful in convincing many voters that they could not be expected to count to three competently) but because they wanted to give Nick Clegg a kicking. They succeeded, but in doing so they were said to eliminate any prospect of electoral reform ‘for a generation’.

I don’t think that’s strictly true. From today’s perspective, it could be concluded that the First Past the Post electoral system about to create greater discontent than ever, and pressure for a fairer replacement will mount. To see why, you only have to look at the possible outcomes of the next general election.

It appears that nobody is able to win the next general election outright. Polling data shows that, regrettably, Labour has very low levels of public trust in its ability to manage the economy, or in the competence of its leader. No Opposition in history has managed to defeat a Government, when the former has such limited public confidence less than a year before polling day. On the other hand, the Conservatives face immense public anger and have the factors of a split right-wing vote and a shrunken, demoralised activist base working against them. Governments that win re-election are generally gaining in opinion polls at this stage in the electoral cycle: the Tories have languished in the low thirties since 2011. Moreover, there is the simple fact that David Cameron is too tarnished by his most unpopular actions in government to restore his support to 2010 levels. The Conservatives can only lose seats next year.

Therefore, it would seem probable that a second hung parliament will be elected in 2015.The questions that then arise are:

  • Who will be the largest party? The largest party is almost certain to form the Government, as a ‘coalition of losers’ (e.g. the second and third placed parties) would lack a clear mandate.
  • How will the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens fare? These ‘medium sized’ parties are the probable junior coalition partners and their influence will be determined by the popularity of their leaders and the number of seats they secure. Also, it would be unwise to conclude that Labour and the Lib Dems would automatically choose to work with each other.
  • What kind of coalition would be formed? David Cameron has ‘ruled out’ a full coalition post-2015, pledging to lead a minority government backed by a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. Such a pledge will be quietly dropped if there is a Lib Dem choice of coalition partner, for example, as smaller parties are unlikely to accept such a deal.

The next election will produce a hung parliament in which the vote shares of the three medium sized parties bear no resemblance to their representation in the House of Commons. Pollsters project that UKIP and the Lib Dems will both win about 10-12% of the vote, but the former could win fewer than 10 seats whilst the latter hang on to over 30. Also the Green Party could win 5% of the vote and just 1 or 2 seats. In short, these parties will enter coalition negotiations whilst seething about the injustices of the electoral system. And, at least in the case of UKIP, there will also be public anger if a large protest vote translates into a handful of seats. It would be possible, even likely, that the electoral reform debate is reopened.

Image source: the Electoral Reform Society

While reforming the electoral system to the House of Commons remains a distant possibility, coalition negotiations might force the introduction of proportional representation in local councils, or even as part of House of Lords reform. There are huge advantages to both. I think electoral reform is a necessity in local government, where there are entrenched one-party strongholds covering most of the country, and on some authorities there are is no opposition whatsoever. In one London borough, a 40% vote for the Labour Party translated into 100% of the seats. The problems of one-party domination are self-evident, and contribute to the sense of powerlessness many citizens feel about local government. Given the contrast with local authorities in Scotland, where the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) has radically shifted power back into the hands of the electorate, there are positive precedents for such a reform.

One strength of FPTP is that it creates small, community-sized constituencies which allow for the decentralisation of selections by political candidates (which prevents party leaders eliminating dissenters from their backbenches) and community-sized politics. Advocates of reform should seek to maintain this link, perhaps pushing for STV or the Additional Member System, as used in the devolved nations. AMS sees a majority (60-80%) of MPs elected in single member constituencies, and the rest elected on a top-up basis which compensates under-represented parties, ultimately producing a proportional result. It would be possible to ‘have your cake and eat it’, having 400 constituency MPs and 200 extra list members ensuring fair representation of smaller parties. And better still, voting is as simple as putting a single cross on two ballot papers: voters don’t even have to count to three.

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.

Is Cutting the 40p Tax Band a Real Priority?

It is almost politically impossible to explicitly increase a tax rate, or to impose any new tax on individuals. But politicians struggle to square this with public demands for enhanced public services or, more recently, opposition to austerity measures. Consequently, ‘stealth taxes’- tax levies or other revenue raising measures designed to evade public notice- have become a widespread phenomenon, but Britain specialises in them. The Thatcher government more than doubled VAT, masking a tax hike in people’s shopping bills, whilst presenting itself as a ‘low tax’ administration. Later, Gordon Brown used various stealth taxes to finance much needed public investment. Today, left-wing opponents label the Coalition’s bedroom tax and tuition fees increase as stealth taxes (they were designed to cut spending, but both have actually cost the government money).

Meanwhile, right-wing critics accuse the Coalition of stealthily raising the tax contribution of the ‘middle class’ by raising the thresholds at which the 40p Income Tax band, Inheritance Tax and Stamp Duty are paid, at sub-inflation rates. That the former two affect about the richest 15% and 5% of the population respectively does not stop talk of ‘hitting the squeezed middle’. Nevertheless, as the thresholds fall in cash terms, more and more people pay the respective taxes, and they pay more of them. This ‘tax creep’ can raise billions of pounds, and can do so quite progressively, in stark contrast to the the rest of the Coalition’s regressive austerity agenda. In certain cases, tax creep could be a Good Thing.

The problem is, it offends the upper middle class, the Tories’ electoral bedrock. That’s why they have revived talk of cuts to the 40p Income Tax band and Inheritance Tax after the next general election. Cynics would suggest that the Conservatives said the same thing before the last election, but failed to honour such expensive policies. However, I think the Tories intend to follow through this time, aware that it costs less, politically and financially, to give tax breaks to the modestly affluent than the ‘filthy rich’, who have already benefited hugely from Tory government.

Given there will be a budget deficit of £70 billion in 2015 that will need filling, at least partly, through tax increases, there could be a fairer and more transparent means of doing so. For example, a 30p Income Tax band could be introduced at the current 40p band threshold (around £42,000) and frozen in cash terms. Over a period of several years, the 40p threshold would rise with inflation, over time creating a significant 30p band between the thresholds. This would have the benefit of increasing tax revenues whilst softening the impact on high(ish) earners. It would also mitigate the rather sharp rise from 20p to 40p Income Tax that can come as a shock to those promoted into the upper band.

Solutions are yet more complicated with regards to Inheritance Tax and Stamp Duty, particularly given their connection to the issue of housing. With British house prices rapidly soaring into the stratosphere (for example, London prices rose by 18.5% last year) policymakers are beginning to consider inheritances to be the difference between property ownership and rental ‘slavery’- being tied to an overpriced and insecure rentals market. As such, the 40% paid on inheritances above £325,000 has become deeply unpopular- though only with people with any hope of buying a house. The ‘have nots’ who expect modest inheritances generally don’t care.

Then there is Stamp Duty, peculiar in that it is not banded like other taxes. For example, someone buying a house for £249,999 pays 1% of the entire sum, £2,499.99 in Stamp Duty, but 3%, £7,500, on a £250,000 house. Before the post-2000 house price boom, the majority of homeowners would never have paid a penny in Stamp Duty, but most houses have ascended in value whilst Stamp Duty (SD) thresholds remain static. The Daily Telegraph complains that Stamp Duty dampens the housing market- as if a) house prices were not already increasing at an unhealthy rate and b) a few thousand pounds in tax is really noticed when the value of a given house rises by that much in the space of a month. However, it is fair to say SD is applied unfairly: it was designed to apply only to the most expensive houses, not all of them. Also, its ‘slab’ banding distorts house prices.

A new tax regime is needed to raise the several billion made by Stamp Duty, but in a more equitable fashion, ideally in a way which does not exacerbate the present housing crisis. The stealth tax of static SD bands should give way to a transparent tax system. I would like to float the idea that SD is abolished on homes worth less than £1 million. Instead, a reasonable rate of Capital Gains Tax (CGT) should be levied even on taxpayers’ main homes. This move, which would be politically untenable if not accompanied by a sweetener like the removal of SD, would mark a symbolic transition from taxing people’s need to house themselves to taxing unearned wealth. It would also shift the tax burden from cash-strapped first-time buyers to those in larger properties. And crucially, CGT would actively discourage housing speculation, a problem which is damaging our economy by restricting the mobility and spending power of workers.

There might be fairer and more honest ways of raising money for public services than ‘tax creep’. However, the aim of them must be an equitable and people-friendly distribution of social costs, not the placation of the Daily Telegraph.

Burnham: Pause NHS Privatisation

NHS privatisation is being forced through at pace and scale. Commissioners have been ordered to put all services out to the market. NHS spending on private and other providers has gone through the £10 billion barrier for the first time. When did the British public ever give their consent for this?

 

It is indefensible for the character of the country’s most valued institution to be changed in this way without the public being given a say.

Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham MP

Andy Burnham has written to the Chief Executive of NHS England to ask him to postpone all outsourcing deals until after the next General Election. He has made the request, which will not be agreed to, on the grounds that it would be undemocratic to proceed with such a radical change to a public service without implicit public endorsement. Burnham will be accused of gimmickry: don’t all governments accelerate the introduction of their policies before an election so as to render them irreversible if they lose? However, the Labour spokesman on Health is correct to say the Coalition lacks a mandate for the Health and Social Care (i.e. NHS privatisation) Act. The manifesto of the dominant Coalition partner guaranteed that no such Act would be approved. Politicians are often prone to neglecting their election commitments.

So what would a Labour government actually do for the NHS?

Despite agreeing with Burnham that the composition and purpose of the NHS should not be further distorted until/unless there is a popular mandate for the policy, I see no prospect of his request being heeded, which is a shame. There is also the risk that, if Labour were to win next year’s election, they would quietly drop their pledges to reverse the Coalition’s privatisations. Critics point to New Labour even accelerating the privatisation of public services after 1997.

When it comes to the NHS, I think this is unlikely, for several reasons.

Firstly, Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair. Tony Blair was much more of a despotic presidential leader, and excercised tight control over his Cabinet’s actions. Accordingly, his Health ministers would not have enjoyed the same security and independence that Andy Burnham (who is almost a Labour heavyweight now) does. Also, I doubt Ed Miliband has the ability to carelessly lie to the electorate that Blair has demonstrated. The Miliband fan club isn’t huge, but even his opponents are likely to concede that he’s honest.

Secondly, Labour has generally lived up to its stated main aim on healthcare. In 1997, it promised more resources for a service that was intentionally being run down. The NHS budget was then tripled in just 13 years. Blair might have discarded his opposition to PFI contracts (see below) and outsourcing, but he was only disappointing the few policy wonks who were paying attention.Today, Labour is stressing the importance of a publicly-owned NHS, and so this is where they will have to deliver.

Lastly, Andy Burnham is almost certain to retain the health brief for the duration of a Mililband government’s first term. Burnham is hugely popular with the party (and no threat to the leadership) and knows the health brief exceptionally well. His personal record is a sound one: as Health Secretary for the last year of the Brown government, he did not sign off a single PFI deal. He resisted further privatisation quite well for a relatively unknown figure in under a neo-liberal prime minister.

However, there are important limitations to what Labour is currently offering. They are merely proposing the restriction of outsourcing in the NHS, not its outright elimination. I don’t understand how the NHS can “put people before profit” when it is still infested with for-profit organisations running key services in a ridiculous ‘internal market’. This conflict of interests; of public good and commercial gain, is what leads to absurdities like Burger King franchises opening in NHS hospitals- which are struggling with a heart disease epidemic caused by excess consumption of junk food!

Furthermore, Labour is silent on the continued use of the awful Private Finance Initiative to fund almost all hospital construction projects. PFI deals see large corporations, not the Treasury, lending NHS trusts (or other public institutions) the money for project, in exchange for massively inflated and protracted repayments. Some hospitals pay 12 times the actual cost of a PFI construction project. A south London NHS Trust was recently bankrupted by its PFI deal, and many could follow in the next couple of decades. So why are politicians so in love with PFI?

PFI deals are kept off the Treasury books, so are not included in the National Debt. In this way, the £300 billion that Brits will pay for £55 billion worth of PFI projects is spirited away. We’ll still pay it, but at least we think the National Debt is 20% lower than it effectively is. Also, New Labour and the Tories were convinced that the private sector is more efficient than the public, even though we pay more than £5 for every £1 borrowed using PFI.

So in order to save the NHS, the government must spare it the drain on its resources that PFI repayments inflict. The government should enact a mass buyout of all PFI contracts at their face value; ban all new ones; and put in place a multibillion public works loans fund to replace PFI. This move would save the NHS over £40 billion over the next 25 years.

If the demise of the NHS were a horror film  (it feels like one!), Labour is offering to hit the ‘pause’ button. But Britain really needs somebody to reach a little further and ‘rewind’.

Why Britain’s Leading Fascist, Nick Griffin, Is Finished

Nick Griffin has been removed as leader of the declining British National Party (BNP) in what looks like a remarkable coup by the BNP executive.

Nick Griffin led the strongest revival of the far-right in Britain since the heyday of the National Front in the 1970s. Under Griffin’s leadership, the BNP peaked with a series of electoral successes in 2009 including the election of two MEPs and dozens of local councillors. There is no doubt that Griffin was key to those successes: he was virtually the only high-profile BNP figure during his 15 year leadership and his “moderate” platform made the BNP brand more palatable to the electorate.

N.B. By “moderate” I mean advocating voluntary repatriation of BAME Brits rather than exiling them; limiting Holocaust denials to private meetings rather than public ones; and proposing white-only housing waiting lists rather than white British-only.

Not surprisingly, Nick Griffin has offended a lot of people.

Yet, as UKIP’s recent rise into the electoral stratosphere has shown, being controversial can be a strong electoral and political asset. Thus other factors led to the BNP’s decline and, consequently, Griffin’s downfall.

Firstly, the party’s finances were destroyed by its defeat two lawsuits. The Equality and Human Rights Commission engaged in a long dispute with the party as to the legality of its constitution, which excluded black and Asian people becoming members. Quite why a black person would want to join a party aiming to remove them from Britain remains a mystery, but the BNP eventually conceded defeat and removed the offending rule. Shortly after this, the BNP used Marmite branding in one of its broadcasts without obtaining permission from its manufacturer, Unilever. The company proceeded to donate the resulting massive compensation payment to an anti-racsim charity.

As a result, the BNPs finances were devastated. The party was left without the basic resources needed to mount an effective election campaign- all the more problematic given the other factors working against it.

The BNP, in common with many extremist movements, rose with the discord caused by recession. When the economy recovered in early 2010, this discord did start to dissipate, with BNP support declining too.

What is easy to forget is that the 2010 general election was quite a depressing one, as far as activists were concerned anyway. Labour was on the defensive, its membership base eroded and demoralised by the declining rececptiveness and popularity of their party since circa 2003. The sole task of campaigners was to limit the depth of the party’s inevitable defeat. For the Tories, the chances of the landslide that Cameron had promised them were slipping away with every opinion poll.  Furthermore, all three parties saw the TV debates make a bigger impact than any leafleting campaign ever could. Consequently, the campaign on the ground looked a little subdued.

Or it would have done, had a lot of hot air surrounding the BNP’s prospects in certain constituencies not been carefully circuated. The result: a flood of young, energetic anti-racism activists into a few seats doing their level best to mobilise the anti-BNP (typically Labour) vote. While there was no serious risk of BNP victories, many have reason to be proud of their efforts, which restricted their target’s vote to just 1%.

With the BNP’s momentum stopped, and renewed competition for the anti-immigration vote from a surging UKIP, the party saw the hopelessness of the situation and turned in on itself. Splinter parties, leadership challenges and warring factions sapped its strength, meaning the BNP lost every single candidate up for re-election between June 2010 and June 2014. Its sole elected representatives are now just two lone councillors on borough councils.

In light of this, the bizarre personality cult surrounding Nick Griffin became increasingly hard to sustain. The BNP rank-and-file looked up from their copies of Voice of Freedom to the leader who had promised them a fascist Valhalla and now presented YouTube videos advising members how to cook budget meals and retelling the Nativity.

https://i2.wp.com/www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article9048577.ece/binary/original/nick-griffin-cookery.jpg

Image source: independent.co.uk

Griffin offered EU-funded shopping trips to BNP members. But most strangely of all, there came the absolutely serious claim that he had personally prevented British intervention in Syria. A fascist MEP wrote a letter to someone and singlehandedly stopped a war, apparently. The whole affair reminds me of the scratchy tape recordings of hysterical applause after cult leader Jim Jones ‘healed’ those with feigned injuries.

Maybe BNP high-ups didn’t believe their own spin.  Or maybe Griffin did actually grow tired. Whatever the cause, yesterday he was demoted to the figurehead role of ‘President’ of the BNP, replaced as leader by the unknown but probably similarly dimwitted Adam Walker. I doubt that the party can recover its fortunes under an unknown figure when its public image is so closely aligned with  Mr Griffin.

Many moderates will today be toasting the end of another episode of British fascism. Like a bad headache, the BNP seemed like a big issue at the time, but we’ll soon be unable to remember it. Now the task is to prevent the Nick Griffins of tomorrow inflicting their toxic ideology on the world.