Making Brexit Our Own

People think this is the end for Britain. More than a week on from the surprise result of Britain’s referendum on its continued membership of the EU, those around me have barely calmed down. In all fairness, the black hole that now exists in Westminster, in place of leadership or a plan, certainly isn’t soothing any nerves. But more on this later.

We’ve had one week of sweary Facebook and Twitter tirades against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who have destroyed ‘our future and our children’s future’. Early polling analysis has only fueled this bitterness, with surveys showing a strong bias towards Brexit among those without degrees. Moreover, the results breakdown by district show provincial England and Wales dragging left-leaning (supposedly) Scotland and the younger, better educated cities out of the EU. Cue some absolutely breathtaking snobbery about ‘small minded people from small towns’.

uk-brexit-voting-results-map-e1466778229342

Source: 21stcenttech.com

The referendum reveals a divided Britain. The toxic rhetoric surrounding the result is dividing it further.

At some point, a large part of the country lost the sense it was valued and listened to. It would take a whole book to consider the nature and causes of this feeling properly. However, a few trends can be quickly seen, First, thirty years ago the solid jobs and industries that underpinned a strong working class were dismantled. But while devastating to the North and Wales, at least a strong welfare system and growing, meritocratic economy could ease the pain. A change of government in the nineties brought a few more sticking plasters: a minimum wage, ‘regeneration’ in poor areas, a shiny new school or hospital here and there. A personal credit frenzy even maintained the illusion that we all were getting more prosperous.

But the rot was setting in. EU expansion and a generous immigration policy brought a surge in immigration. I’m glad that as a nation we welcomed these hard workers and great people, but the ruling classes made a grave error in handling it. It seems reasonable now to acknowledge that rapid changes in the population of a local area can strain public services and unsettle established residents. But what the response to legitimate, if sometimes misdirected concerns about mass migration amounted to was the rich and powerful telling the poor and marginalised to stop being racist.

And that’s easy to say if isn’t your kid in a mobile classroom, or without a school place, because there aren’t enough to go round. It’s easy to say if higher housing demand just means a bigger rise in the value of your house, rather than paying exorbitant rents for an overcrowded flat because the social housing waiting list is six years long. It’s easy to say if it isn’t you who is unemployed because you can’t compete with the eastern European workers employers are willing to exploit.

Little wonder, then, that resentment at a wealthy elite was beginning to simmer. But once the economy crashed, services and infrastructure were undermined and the drastic undermining of social mobility became clear, this resentment became really widespread. A few genuine racists emerged in the form of the BNP, though fortunately the country gave them little support. Options to force change through the electoral system were limited, so despite the erosion of the two party system in favour of Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and populist UKIP, a growing number of people just don’t bother voting any more.

Should we really have been surprised that the country grew tired of being bullied by this distant elite? This elite which tried to blackmail the country with threats of job losses and further housing shortages unless the country opted to remain in Europe. Incidentally, this is the same Europe our politicians had blamed for nearly every problem they couldn’t fix! Whatever the Remain campaign might have been trying to do, it ended up looking like a bunch of privileged figures trying to secure a status quo that enriched them and impoverished the disadvantaged.

The vote for Brexit was an expression of anger and a rejection of the status quo. Those demanding Parliament unpicks Brexit by stealth, or simply ignore the referendum result, are playing with fire. If the people cannot be heard on this simple, fundamental issue, how can they ever trust their politicians to govern on their behalf?

Many of those upset at Brexit worry about Britain’s impending isolation. They also fear our being outside the European Union and the protections it offers its citizens. I urge these people to adopt a more sophisticated and realistic response than seeking to override the country’s democratic decision. Let’s fight for a Brexit on our terms.

Free movement of people across Europe was a key issue in the referendum and it is clear Britain does not want it. We must accept that, despite threats from EU leaders that this will cost us access to the Single Market. But note that Britain is not negotiating with Europe from a position of weakness and inflexibility. I think our large economy and market is essential to the EU. If we were to agree to a common regulatory regime with the EU (thus protecting us from a right wing deregulation-crazed government) with a fast-track visa system for EU-resident professionals, we would be in a prime position to protect our financial and industrial sectors in a far-reaching trade deal.

Right now, there are a large number of EU citizens resident here who worried about their rights. It would not take much political pressure to see through the passage of legislation guaranteeing right of residents for those living here.

And let’s be mindful of the benefits of the situation we now find ourselves in. Outside the EU, and free from the scary TTIP trade deal, restrictive directives enforcing privatisation and marketisation of public services need no longer be followed. In time and under the right government, Britain will be able to correct market failures such as in the railways with much fewer constrictions.

Depending on our exact post-Brexit relationship with the EU, we may also be able to play our part in correcting a flawed international trade system in which rich countries use pacts and deals to freeze poor countries out of domestic markets. Britain may well have a freer hand to aid the development of poorer countries through fairer trade deals.

It might not be exactly what we wanted, but now Brexit is the future, let’s make it fairer.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

This Is What Obamacare Is For

The controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) or ‘Obamacare’ has had most of its provisions in effect since the New Year, and the past months have seen a massive expansion in health insurance coverage across the American population. Although many Americans are suspicious of anything resembling ‘Big Government’ and the Republicans have made political capital out of the technical failures that affected the scheme, the benefits of Obamacare are beginning to be felt by the population. Soon, it will become politically impossible to return to the bad old days of the profiteering, shady and unregulated healthcare market.

Yes, the ACA is a pale reflection of the ‘ideal’ system (business should have no place at all in healthcare, for example) and its coverage is patchy, as individual states can vary the extent to which they implement it. However, one key provision is universal, namely the rule that health insurers can no longer charge higher premiums, or refuse coverage, to those with pre-existing medical conditions. The unjust situation in which those suffering from long-term illness were often financially crippled by bills they could not insure themselves against is pretty much a thing of the past. About time too. A rich society like the US which can afford to support the sick but chooses not to is not a healthy one as a whole.

In the news, we now hear heartwarming stories of low-paid and unemployed Americans being able to visit GPs (‘family doctors’) for the first time. Previously, the only occasion on which they ever saw a doctor would have followed life-threatening injury. As any medical professional or economist could tell you, there are enormous benefits to having diseases treated before they reach emergency stages, in terms of the patient’s wellbeing but also in that they can keep working and have less expensive treatment.

Moreover, I can’t imagine the relief that millions of newly insured Americans must feel now that they have a degree of security. When a person needs medical treatment, they should not have to worry about the cost. People were being scraped off of pavements by ambulances and worrying about the five-figure bill that would result, rather than than the painful injuries they had suffered. The fact that it only takes one accident to cost you, literally in many cases, everything you own isn’t something you can ever forget or ignore. It was just one more dimension to the emotional and mental drag that affects those living hand to mouth. That’s why Obamacare is one of the most progressive measures taken in the US for decades: it has lifted such a burden from so many people.

President Obama was open about his desire the ACA to be his defining act at the helm of the US government. For all its limitations, its a fine legacy to leave.

Should Businesses Join Political Parties?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenpeace Must Do Better

I’m very fond of Greenpeace.  Their distinctive brand of direct action (which requires some very bold activists!) has worked wonders for the broader environmental movement over the past few decades. However, recent problems threaten to undermine the organisation’s good record. I

An article in today’s Guardian reveals that, amid growing tensions between the group’s international and national divisions; a fall in donations; and poor labour relations, its finance unit has managed to lose £3 million. Greenpeace International (GPI) has apologised to supporters, pointing out that the loss was the result of an individual employee exceeding their authority on the group’s currency exchange contracts. Nevertheless, there is concern about the poor management that could have allowed such a catastrophic error to be made. It should be stressed that only GPI is said to be at fault- no national Greenpeace divisions are at fault.

Losing £3 million is, of course, a disaster in all cases. However, it’s particularly painful when staff are resisting being transferred from GPI HQ in the Netherlands, where they are paid Dutch level (i.e. high) wages to national offices on lower pay. Moreover, Greenpeace is financed almost entirely by small individual donations- a source of income it has tapped heavily to fund repairs to its Arctic Sunrise ship. The name should sound familiar, as the ship and its crew were at the centre of an international row when Russian authorities captured it following a protest several months ago. Not only have Greenpeace blown more than enough cash to cover the repairs, but their supporters have only found out about the loss through a leak. Incidentally, the leak also reveals that Greenpeace didn’t campaign to have the Arctic Sunrise released because it was considered a “wasted effort”. Well, thank goodness GPI was wrong.

Greenpeace is a massive organisation, at the centre of the global environmentalist movement. It has 2,000 employees and tens of thousands of activists. Yet it lacks the accountability and transparency of similarly massive NGOs. For example, the governing body of GPI is elected by the exectives of national branches: international officers are only very indirectly elected by members. Consequently the leadership of Greenpeace is subject to little oversight by the membership. Also, it is difficult to find any more than the legal minimum of information about GPI’s finances. How can it be right that Greenpeace’s backers are kept in the dark?

The next few months will see considerable soul-searching and debate about the structure and direction of Greenpeace. I think that, whilst it needs a strong international leadership, Greenpeace must embrace the democracy and transparency that it demands of others. Greenpeace has succumbed to the problem that so often afflicts successful pressure groups: it has acquired the resources and influence of a large group but retains many of the internal structures of the smaller organisation it was in the 1970s. If Greenpeace fails to adapt, it will begin to lose support: first the casual, ‘chequebook’ backers (who don’t like seeing their money wasted) then the activists as Greenpeace loses the capacity to support them.

Nobody wants to see that happen.

Except Exxon Mobil, Apple, most of the world’s governments, Big Oil, the larger banks, et cetera.

So let’s hope Greenpeace International cleans up its act. It is now more important than ever that environmentalists spend their energy changing the world around them rather than fighting and undermining themselves.

Quizzing Your MP? Why Not?

The Hansard Society, an organisation dedicated to promoting public understanding and participation in politics, has made some recommendations following the its publication of an annual survey. The Society says that confidence in the political system has stopped declining. Although, with just 14% of the survey’s respondents agreeing that they had “some influence” over national decision making, it’s hardly a resounding vote of confidence.

The Hansard Society has suggested that, although nothing short of a transformation of our political culture will reverse the tide of apathy and mistrust which threatens to drown our democracy, there are some practices we could introduce which would catalyse this change. One such idea is the hosting of biannual Peoples’ Question Times. Two days per year would be set aside in which all MPs would host events in their constituencies where voters could question them on their activities in Parliament, similar to Prime Ministers’ Questions but on a local level. These days would attract massive media coverage as all 650 MPs would be doing this simultaneously.

It’s true that constituents already have the ability to question their MP on any local or political matter, but People’s Question Times (PQTs) would be much more open and potentially influential than correspondence by email or letter. And yes, depending on how PQTs are administered, loons and political opponents will attempt to use this platform against their MP. Nevertheless, that will be offset by the thousands of people who will feel empowered by the experience of constructively discussing issues with their local MP in a public meeting.

Societies around the world have tried various combinations of methods to restore vivacity to their democratic systems. Electoral reform, compulsory voting, localism… We must always be improving the way representative democracy works, but that only pays off if what our representatives do on our behalf also improves. That’s why initiatives like PQTs must not be saturated with negativity or partisanship. The public are fed up of negative politics. They want to ask not what the other candidate won’t do for them, but what their MP can do for their country.