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.

Socialist Government Dissolved Following Calls For Socialism

The whole world is begging us to put an end to these absurd austerity policies which are burying the Eurozone deeper and deeper in recession and which will soon end up with deflation. We must have the intellectual and political courage to acknowledge that austerity policies are making deficits worse instead of narrowing them.

Former French economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg

French President Francois Hollande has accepted his Prime Minister’s invitation to dissolve the Parti Socialiste government. The French government, led by arch-centrist Manuel Valls, was thrown into crisis after its Economy minister gave an explosive interview to Le Monde in which he attacked the leadership’s commitment to the Eurozone-wide austerity policy. Thus far, the government’s attempt to reduce its budget deficit to the Eurozone target level of 3% of GDP has only succeeded in suppressing economic growth and propelling the unemployment rate to 11%. In these harsh conditions, it is little wonder that the far-right National Front and the Left Front (signature policy: 100% top rate of Income Tax) are going from strength to strength whilst the President’s approval ratings have sunk to a jaw-dropping low of 17%.

Within a matter of hours, the Education and Culture ministers expressed their support for Montebourg, prompting Valls to offer the government’s resignation- a move aimed at settling the crisis before it forced a dissolution of the entire parliament. Hollande has said he will use the opportunity to exclude all left-wingers from the new cabinet  appoint a government “consistent with the direction set for the country”.

This marks the completion of Hollande’s selling out.

Back in the 2012 presidential election campaign, Hollande promised the French people an alternative to the austerity and the dictatorship of financiers that the previous government had tolerated. France was asked to elect a man with clear radical leanings. The Socialist candidate promised progressive taxation, increased education spending, and professed his dislike of “the rich”. Hollande even said:

My real adversary will never be a candidate, even though it governs. It is the world of finance.

It took just a few months in government for the new President to betray his people and surrender to demands for premature spending cuts and tax rises. As the economy reeled from these blows, the President’s political self-confidence visibly evaporated. He revised his ideology, stating that he was now a ‘social liberal’ (the French equivalent of a neoliberal or New Democrat). He backed a €30,000,000,000 tax cut for corporations whilst raising the tax burden on ordinary workers. Of course, Hollande follows in a fine Parti Socialiste tradition in promising radical change in opposition and then moving sharply rightwards in power (ahem- Mitterrand!) Unfortunately, this time such backtracking has failed to revive the French economy, with the consequence that the President is now distrusted by the Left and the Establishment that he has embraced.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for the French President. His premiership has been marred by adverse economic conditions that he inherited and can only partly control. His poor decisions following his ascent to the Presidency were made with good intentions, even if they are the wrong way to achieve economic growth. It is also true that he has invested so much political capital in enacting the Eurozone’s fiscal pact that he cannot retreat on the policy now.

Yet it is also clear that France must adopt a fiscal stimulus package- consisting primarily of tax cuts aimed at increasing consumer spending- as the Socialist left have been calling for. If France’s national interest is at odds with Hollande’s remaining in authority, it is obvious which must give. It is also a false choice, given that Hollande will be forced out of office if he cannot halt France’s economic stagnation. There appears to be no realistic scenario in which the President’s political career survives beyond the 2017 election.

Hollande is free to lock out the left from his new cabinet, knowing that the same group will not dare to vote against a right-dominated ‘Socialist’ executive in parliament for fear of provoking an election in which the party will be routed. However, clinging even more firmly to invalid monetarist economics will not get to the root of the political problem.

 

Momentum Gathers Behind Citizen’s Income Policy

When Governments across the world are broke, and public hatred of the unemployed remains high, it seems like an odd time to float the idea of a Citizen’s Income. Yet the policy of the state paying a basic income to every citizen has become more popular than ever. Switzerland will hold a referendum on the policy this year; a citizens’ initiative is being held to force the EU to consider it; and the resurgent Green Party of England and Wales has adopted the idea as its flagship manifesto offering. The latter is particularly exciting, as the Greens are poised to eclipse the Liberal Democrats as the fourth most popular party in Britain.

But isn’t “paying for people just for being alive” (as critics brand the policy) an economic impossibility? How could the state afford to dish out £3,600 per year, the current level of Income Support benefit, to every citizen? Is a citizen’s income just a far-left daydream?

In Switzerland, economists and politicians agree that that a Citizen’s Income is viable. They only argue as to whether it is desirable, often on the grounds that people should not ‘get something for nothing’. I think that drawing profits from speculation in property, currency and shares might also be described as getting something for nothing, but that doesn’t seem to concern these people. And in any case, a Citizen’s Income is also useful in that it can drastically reduce the size of the welfare state: unemployment benefit, child benefit, the basic state pension, child benefit, student loans, and income support can all be reduced or abolished altogether, something many right-wingers have been dreaming about since the welfare state came into existence. Overall, a Citizen’s Income would render £171 billion worth of benefits and administration unnecessary, reducing the welfare state to as little as 30% of its current size.

In order to calculate the costs of a Citizen’s Income, its UK supporters have proposed the following rates:

  • £56.25 per week for under 18s. This would be paid to parents instead of Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit.
  • £56.25 per week for 18-24 year olds. This is equivalent to the ‘youth rates’ of key benefits like JSA.
  • £71.00 per week for 25-65 year olds, equivalent to standard rates of JSA and Income Support.
  • £142.00 per week for the over 65s, identical to the flat rate state pension that is being introduced anyway.

Together with £3 billion a year for running costs and administration, the total costs would be £261 billion- a net cost of just £90 billion per year.

OK, there’s no ‘just’ about £90 billion, but it is a surprisingly low figure given how ambitious the scheme is. That money could then be found with surprising ease: by abolishing the Personal Allowance and 0% National Insurance bands altogether, meaning that workers would pay normal tax rates from the very first pound they earned. Ordinarily, that would be a hugely regressive move: the Personal Allowance exists to mitigate the benefits trap. As means-tested benefits are withdrawn quite sharply as one’s earnings increase, it has been known for some people to be better off on benefits than working with a low income and benefits ‘top up’. By removing taxes on very low wages, and now with the ‘Universal Credit’ policymakers have aimed to make it worthwhile to work on very low wages. They have had very limited success.

https://i2.wp.com/static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/7/3/1372850773508/unicreditgraph1.jpg

Source: the Guardian

However, Citizen’s Income would immediately solve the benefits trap by ensuring that every extra pound earned through work would translate into 68p (after Income Tax and NI) in a worker’s pocket, as Citizen’s Income is not means tested. This also means that part-time work becomes a viable option for those who want it. Thus the Citizen’s Income empowers people to shape their careers around their needs, not those of a complex and often self-contradictory benefits system.

It has been argued that this financial freedom could be abused. Why would people work if they could live off the Citizen’s Income, which won’t be withdrawn for failure to find work? Won’t it be a magnet for immigrants? To the first, I would answer that it would be tough to survive on £71 per week in the long-run, as any JSA claimant could testify. True, there would be some who decide not to work, but they would not have a comfortable existence. And as previously explained, it would always be worthwhile to work: in a region of rural India where a Citizen’s Income was trialed: the employment rate actually rose. Also, a top-up unemployment benefit could be introduced to reward the unemployed who are seeking work. To the second, it should be noted that those supposed ‘benefits tourists’ with the determination to milk the system can do so already. All these tabloid reports of benefits tourists aren’t describing migrants sleeping on the street and being denied access to existing benefits! In any case, payment of the Citizen’s Income could, as the name suggests, be made conditional on British citizenship.

The Citizen’s Income is a revenue-neutral idea that could provide a substantial boost to low earners and sure up support for a welfare system based on solidarity and universality. The only barriers to its introduction are political, and not necessarily from right-wing opposition. Alaska, hardly a beacon of socialism, already operates a limited Citizen’s Dividend of around $1,000 per person per year from its sovereign wealth fund. All that would actually be needed to make the policy a reality is the opening of people’s minds.

For further reading, please see the Citizen’s Income Trust 2013 report. American readers may be interested in the Basic Income Guarantee Network.

‘Socialist Worker’ Should Apologise for Mocking Schoolboy’s Death

Everybody knows that the Socialist Worker, the weekly ‘newspaper’ published by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), is extremist. The supposedly communist ideology that the paper espouses seems largely harmless, however. Few would be offended by the publication’s call for the abolition of all immigration controls- it’s just amusingly naive. Unfortunately, the paper has offended the public with an article making light of a schoolboy being killed by a starving polar bear on Svalbard. The full article is available here.

The schoolboy, Horatio Chappie, was a pupil at the elite private school, Eton College. He had been taking an adventure holiday when he was dragged out of his tent and fatally injured by the bear. The Socialist Worker writer joked “now we have another reason to save the polar bears”.

Eton College epitomises the extreme privilege that a tiny elite enjoys in this country: the all-boys boarding school, whose fees exceed the average worker’s annual salary, The school boasts over 30 cricket pitches; 24 football fields; its own boating lake; 3 theatres and palatial buildings. 19 of its alumni have become British prime ministers (including the current one); whilst more of the school’s 1300 pupils go on to attend Oxford and Cambridge universities than of all 550,000 pupils receiving free school meals. An Etonian is more than 400 times more likely to attend ‘Oxbridge’ than his poorer counterparts. So yes, Eton lends its students an arguably unfair advantage over other pupils.

Does that make Horatio Chappie a bad person?

No.

Is his death any less of a tragedy because of his parents’ decisions about his education?

No.

Is it appropriate to joke about his death because of some sort of twisted ‘class warfare’ instinct?

Of course not.

The Socialist Worker is not worthy of its title if this is the counterproductive bile it insists on bothering the world with. Workers don’t laugh at boys being slaughtered by starving animals. Socialists don’t judge people on their background: that applies to the rich just as much as it does the poor.

Not that we should be too surprised. We’re talking about the journal of a political party which almost collapsed last year after its leadership responded to allegations of sexual assault (said to be committed by a senior party official) with a series of cover-ups and insinuations about the drinking habits of the alleged victim drinking habits. It seems that SWP leaders have a radically different idea to normal people about what is acceptable and what is not.

That disparity cannot continue if the SWP wants to survive. Until recently, it was perhaps the only far-left organisation with a shred of influence. Its newspaper; thousands of members; strength within organisations like the National Union of Students and Stop the War; and plethora of prominent intellectual members made it the ‘centre of gravity’ on the far-left. It lost much of that following last year’s events. The SWP cannot withstand another scandal, which is another reason, other than basic decency, it should instruct the editors of its paper to apologise to the Chappie family for insulting their dead son.

If the SWP fails to do this, it will only drive away yet more potential support. That would be no tragedy.

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.

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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.

TTIP: The EU-US Pact That Threatens Democracy

Politicians know that one of the best ways to avoid public scrutiny is to make things sound as boring as possible. That’s why the economic pact being negotiated (in secret) by the European Commission and the US government has been given the mundane title of the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ (TTIP).

The stated aim of the TTIP is to create an open market spanning a bloc stretching from Anchorage to Athens, encompassing more than half of the world’s economy.  Goods and services would be freely exchanged between 29 of the world’s richest nations, perhaps providing some respite from the relentless industrial competition from the likes of China.

So far, so reasonable.

However, the negotiations have been conducted in secret, leaving the general public learning about their economic futures through a series of leaks. The European and American governments would not have told the people that they can’t agree on common food safety standards (after all, consumer regulations would have to be standardised). Funnily enough, the EU is reluctant to dilute its regulations to American levels, which were virtually written by Monsanto lobbyists.  We would also have not been told about the inclusion of the dull sounding Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the agreement.

ISDS means the establishment of a ‘supercourt’, which can impose crippling fines on governments which do anything to limit the profits of a corporation of industry. Even the risk of being sued will prevent governments imposing inconvenient regulations, even environmental protections. Nationalisation will become virtually impossible, as will protecting strategic industries from foreign ownership. I  wish that I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. It is widely accepted, for example, that NHS semi-privatisation would be not only permanently entrenched by TTIP, but American healthcare giants would be able to take over most privatised services.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the principle of ‘mutual recognition’ would be imposed. Business would effectively be allowed to choose which country’s regulatory regime it abides by. Surely, nobody is seriously suggesting that this won’t lead to ‘lowest common denominator’ regulation! We’ve been warned that US banks would opt for lax European controls, for example.

The will of the people’s democratically elected leaders would become secondary to multinationals. The corporatocracy is here.

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

The structure of TTIP is being hammered out in secretive negotiations between the American government and the European Commission, an unelected body. However, the resulting treaty will have to be ratified by the US Congress, the European Parliament and the national parliaments of every EU member state. Although there will be a democratic process for approving TTIP, it will be presented as a fait accompli. All or nothing, Given the make-up of the new European Parliament, the right-wing majority is likely to approve it. If there are only one or two dissenting national parliaments, they will come under intense pressure to surrender to the TTIP. The EU has a habit of ‘asking’ member states the same question again and again until the right answer is given.

The TTIP must be either revised beyond recognition or rejected, if elected governments are to retain sovereignty over corporations. With determined campaigning, either of these aims can be achieved. For example, it is difficult to see France- which is so economically protectionist that it recently blocked a foreign takeover of the Danone yoghurt company citing “national security”- really surrendering control of its business affairs. American industry will reject out of hand the toughening of law to meet more exacting European requirements.

The European Green movement is unequivocal in its opposition to TTIP. Many of the populist movements in Europe share that position. Then there are many movements like Labour which are divided. These parties could perhaps be persuaded that TTIP must be ratified by a referendum, given that is in essence a transfer of sovereignty and thus a constitutional reform.  It is only right that the people themselves have the final say on how their lives and their economy is governed.

The “Benefits Cap” Shames Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Benn: a Great British Socialist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will miss Tony Benn.

In Memory of Bob Crow

On Monday night, the outspoken General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union, Bob Crow, died at the age of 52. It is believed that he died of a heart attack.

The self-styled “socialist communist” led the RMT for 12 years, during which the union grew threefold; went on several strikes (particularly by drivers and staff on the London underground); disaffiliated from the Labour Party and established the No2EU: Yes to Democracy coalition for the European elections. Crow would have been top on the London list of No2EU in this year’s elections.

But Crow was so much more than the union man who shut the Tube for a few days every couple of years and tinkered about with on the fringes of the Left. He was a working class Londoner who worked tirelessly for the 80,000 workers who elected him. He absorbed much of the public anger the RMT’s strikes caused, with the media more keen to work against him and portray him as a dinosaur than to offer an objective account of his actions. Balding loudmouthed men with east London accents are not supposed to shake the Establishment, so it responded by making him into a hate figure. It has yet to be explained to me, for example, why Crow was a champagne socialist for having annual pay of £90,000. That figure is about twice that of the pay his train driver members receive, and on a par with an upper-level manager. That’s about the level a successful general secretary of a medium-sized union should receive.

Crow could not have been as effective as he was without being strong. He had- and needed- thicker skin than any MP. He was attacked as belonging to a bygone era of heavy-handed militant unions dominated by dictatorial leaders. But that could not have been further from the truth: Crow was acutely aware that strikes had a cost to them, and any industrial action taken by the RMT had overwhelming support from his members. If Crow did not live in the modern age, how come he could get what his members wanted when negotiating with employers? Why is the RMT thriving when, even as workers face the biggest threats to our livelihoods in generations, other unions have to work hard to grow? Bob was a great trade unionist and he knew it.

Bob Crow might have had healthy self-esteem. Anybody so frequently criticised would have needed that. Yet he always struck me as a polite, respectful man. Passionate about his cause, but fair to his opponents. Society has lost a powerful working class voice, a socialist and a man of the people.