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’.

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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.

 

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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.

A Wealth Tax in the UK?

Today, income inequality is so extreme that the interest alone on the accumulated wealth of the richest few exceeds the growth of many economies in which they live. In other words, by owning so much already, the rich are now absorbing all of the growth generated by many of the world’s leading economies, and more. It’s not even a case of active exploitation any more: the only way a multimillionaire could avoid perpetuating her/his build up of wealth is to stick her/his millions under a mattress. Or deposit it in Barclays. This is why economies with apparently healthy GDP figures, like the UK and US, are delivering rising living standards only to a tiny minority.

The Simpson’s Mr Burns on wealth inequality

Logically speaking, the only way to end this spiral into virtual feudalism is to redistribute not only income (as inequality of wealth is now so great) but also wealth too. That was relatively easy from the 1940s to the 1970s. But in today’s globalised society, wealth redistribution through the tax system- when capital is highly mobile and capable of skipping between competing tax regimes- is easier said than done. It’s not even easily said when the majority of politicians (but fewer and fewer economists) are attempting to ignore the issue.

The Green Party has proposed that Britain follow France, Norway and the Netherlands, and introduce its first tax on accumulated wealth, rather than income. The “Wealth” or “Solidarity” Tax would apply to all British residents with assets (of any kind) worth £3 million or more. The rate would vary (it would presumably be banded) between 1% and 2% per year. Green Party policymakers estimate revenues of £21.5 billion and £43 billion- greater than the entire transport and defence budgets respectively.

I think the idea deserves consideration, even if a 2% wealth tax is quite steep for a medium-sized economy to pursue without international co-ordination. Although I don’t hold with the notion that tax rates must fall through the floor or the wealthy and talented will leave the country, there are limits to practicable tax rates. Without exchange controls or an internationally co-ordinated wealth tax rate, we’ll find that there would be little wealth left in the UK to be taxed at 2%.

Not that a wealth tax itself is an impossibility. The Netherlands, for example, has a marginal top rate of Income Tax of 52% and levies a wealth tax of 1.2% on all investments above €21,400. While this is quite heavy, the Netherlands is seen as one of the most “business friendly” (a phrase which is often code for “anti-worker” and “pro-inequality”) economies on Earth. Assuming that Britain could raise even £10 billion a year with a similar rate, one in eight pounds of planned spending cuts could be cancelled altogether.

Not that the policy has any significant prospect of fruition. The most influence the Greens could yield in the next parliament is as a band of two or three MPs negotiating with a minority Labour government. The list of policy concessions made by Labour would not be long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: independent.co.uk

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

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

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

Official: It’s “Perfectly Legitimate” to Discriminate Against Benefits Claimants

An individual private business will make commercial decisions. If they actually decide they don’t want to have somebody on housing benefit in the future, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do.

Kris Hopkins MP (Con)

Kris Hopkins, Minister for Housing, gave an interview to the BBC’s Panorama programme last night in which he defended the blanket bans on, and evictions of, tenants claiming Housing Benefit (HB) by private landlords. Under the Coalition’s cuts to the benefit, payments are capped and now go into tenants’ bank accounts rather than directly to the landlords.  Unsurprisingly, this has led to some tenants falling behind on their rent, which has led to the exclusion of all HB claimants from much of the private rented sector.

Who’d claim Housing Benefit these days? Between crude caps that exclude you from half of the country; heartless property barons arbitrarily making you homeless; and ministers endorsing your treatment as a second class citizen, you’d only ask for state help if you absolutely had to. (Err, wait a second…)

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It’s inevitable that landlords will only rent to people who can afford the property. That is “legitimate”, and it is up to government to expand the social housing sector to ensure that the poor are adequately housed. However, the exclusion of anybody who receives Housing Benefit from a property is not a valid business practice. Although those on HB are, by definition, poor, the majority are perfectly capable of setting aside the money for rent. Even when seriously hard-up, most tenants will prioritise rent above all other expenses up to food. That’s because keeping a roof over one’s head is much more important than keeping bailiffs from taking the sofa.

I must say, Coalition policy about HB reveals a lot about their attitude. The cuts to the benefit were not about hitting the “scroungers” to support “hardworking families”, whatever the Tory rhetoric was. The majority of HB claimants are in work. No, this is an old-fashioned campaign to attack the poor, regardless of their employment status.

Whilst it is not impossible for a family on HB to find a home to rent, it is becoming more difficult. Look online at a rentals website, or in the property section of a local paper (if you’ve still got one) and many adverts will say “Sorry no DHSS”. This is infuriating on two counts. Not only is there the social exclusion of benefits claimants, often the working poor, but there is the term. If the landlords were that “sorry” they wouldn’t impose that particular condition. Much the same principle applied when the “no Blacks, no Irish” caveats were ubiquitous before the 1960s. (Also, the DHSS, or Department for Health and Social Security, which used to pay out HB, hasn’t existed since 1988. I know it’s a petty complaint, but I think people should get their facts straight.)

Anyway, a number of those receiving HB are pensioners or disabled. Is the Minister for Housing seriously supporting discrimination against those who, for perfectly “legitimate” reasons, do not earn their own income?

I don’t like to think the worst of people, but there’s little to suggest Hopkins is concerned by the injustices he has helped to create. If he was, these “no DHSS” polices would be banned.

UKIP Just Isn’t Racist

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

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

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

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

But is it racist?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Support of (Some) Contributory Welfare

Last week, I wrote an article in which I expressed qualified support for Rachael Reeves’ proposals for reform to Britain’s social security system, including supplementing Job Seekers Allowance for those with long National Insurance contribution histories.

As I have come to expect from my readership, my opinion was rigorously challenged. The articulate blogger Chris Talman said:

May I ask why you are supportive of the contributory principle? Personally, I am opposed to it, as I believe that we should not institutionalise inequalities within the welfare state. The state should ensure that all people enjoy a dignified existence and a comfortable standard of living, regardless of employment status or previous tax contributions. Additionally, as you touched upon, people can contribute to society and culture in ways that are not immediately obvious, and as such, it is wrong to view waged employment as being the only venerable form of societal contribution.

And to an extent, I agree with Chris that the welfare state should help everybody who needs helping, not just those who have paid their way in the past. That’s why I think there is little mileage in basing disability benefits, for example on contributions. No, contribution based benefits could only ever extend to unemployment and possibly old age benefits, and even then they should only act as supplements to the basic rates. And as I said in my original article, National Insurance (or NI, which is equivalent to a social security tax) is in serious need of reform if we are to use it to gauge somebody’s contribution to society. I’d like to see much  NI credits granted or beefed up to stay-at-home parents, carers, those who volunteer on a regular basis, and have an allowance for young workers who haven’t had time to build up a long NI history.

But I maintain that a contributory element in particular benefits is desirable.

In particular, I support any move away from means testing, to whatever extent that is practical, and back to the combination of universal and contributory benefits envisaged by the great liberal thinker William Beveridge in his report planning a better society after World War Two. The starting point for any welfare system should always be the question: “who needs help?”. That’s why universal benefits should be expanded. In the Netherlands, for example, every person is entitled to domestic water supply as a human right, so everybody is given an allowance of free water. It still needs paying for, and it is through general taxation (and I see an argument for subsidising water and energy up to a certain level of usage, paid for by a surcharge on excess usage- but that’s a topic for another day) but there is no pretense that access to water is linked to ability to pay, as it simply isn’t in practice in a civilised society.

When Beveridge talked of Family Allowances and a National Health Service, he did not envisage them being eroded with means-testing and token charges. That undermines the philosophy of sharing and solidarity that is supposed to support the welfare system. I think that we need to return to that philosophy if we want to protect the political viability of it.

However, there are limitations to the universality model, which is why it cannot be used on its own. There has been a tren over the past 40 years to replaces that second principle, contributions, with means testing. The problem with the latter is that is arbitrarily divides rich and poor (which is an open invitation to divisive elements like the Coalition government to smash the system); it penalises people from getting higher incomes if their benefits are withdrawn too abruptly- and that’s the system’s fault, not the claimant’s– and it does leave gaps for a small but toxic minority to take advantage of the system.

For example, I don’t agree with immigrant bashing. Time and time again, I’ve made clear my straightforward opinion on the benefits that a balanced immigration policy brings to a country like Britain. However, I do think that there is an inconsistency in a system in which a French person could claim full JSA here, yet a Brit could not claim the full equivalent in France. By all means, let us pay a liveable benefit to all unemployed people looking for work. But why not recognize that someone who has worked hard, in one way or another, to benefit this country deserves extra support when they fall on hard times?

What Would A EuroArmy Mean?

Over the next 48 hours, European premiers will be meeting to conclude a two week conference on the role the European Union will play in co-ordinating the armed forces across its 28 member states. The British Prime Minister has annoyed his counterparts by essentially demanding that the measures agreed are watered.down.

The British are insisting that the importance of NATO is stressed in the defence agreement; the European Commission will not posses any direct military capacity; and that any reference to “EU battle groups” or similar is removed. Unfortunately for David Cameron, NATO seems keen for European defence to become more self-sufficient, which does mean some sort of Continental alliance.

I see nothing wrong with the establishment of a European Defence Alliance (EDA) built on similar principles to NATO: there could be very close collaboration between EDA and NATO, even a structural link, to ensure that the blocs work in harmony and that one is not superseded by the other. In today’s world, European interests are sufficiently ‘in sync’ to warrant structured co-ordination between our armies. After all, if a hostile power invaded Spain, or Golden Dawn established a fascist dictatorship in Greece, their people would rightly expect their European partners to intervene.

If we consider an act of hostility to one EU member state to be an act of hostility to all EU states, then it’s time for a pan-European defence organisation.

But that doesn’t mean a EuroArmy.

David Cameron is right to seek to block the European Commission controlling any soldiers or weaponry. Armies must be commanded by elected leaders who can be held to account by the people. The European Commission, a group of European heads of state, is not a directly elected institution, and so is not fit to command an army. A EuroArmy, if it is ever to exist, would be run by an executive accountable to a beefed up European Parliament and a directly elected President of the European Union.

I’ve no objection to that in principle, but the moment that such a structure exists, Europe stops being a bloc of sovereign nation states and becomes a federal superstate with over twenty official languages, a population greater than that of the United States, and the world’s third largest economy.

The people of Europe are not about to vote for that.