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.

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Is Electoral Reform Really Dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: the Electoral Reform Society

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

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

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.

Farage: Pay Me More When I’m an MP

For a supposedly ‘anti-Establishment’ figure, UKIP leader Nigel Farage says and does a lot of things that exemplify Establishment life and opinion. He attended an elite private school; attained substantial wealth as a stockbroker; and was (until very recently) a proponent of a flat rate of income tax- a move that would see upper class high-earners like him save thousands of pounds at the expense of Minimum Wage earners. The latest proposal this self-styled ‘man of the people’ has bestowed on the world is that British MPs should be given a 50% pay rise if Britain withdraws from the EU.

At the same time, Mr Farage said that he would announce later this month which Kent constituency he will run for Parliament in next year’s General Election.

So at least he would be in Westminster just in time to receive his proposed £100,000 salary.

To be fair, there is some basis to Farage’s argument, even if it is transparently self-interested. He pointed out that headteachers and GPs often earn around the £100,000 mark, so MPs pay should match, given that they perform similarly important public services. On this matter, Farage is in rare agreement with the late firebrand trade unionist, Bob Crow, who said in an interview that working class youths would only aspire to a Parliamentary career if it paid as well as other ‘successful’ careers. I have some sympathy with this view, but it raises the problem of an even more privileged clique of MPs becoming further removed from the economic realities that face the 98.5% of their constituents who earn less than them.

As for Farage’s claim that MPs should be paid more upon Britain’s withdrawal from the EU because then Parliament would “actually [run] this country”: it’s nonsense. The workload and powers of MPs would hardly increase in practice. This is because all EU laws and directives have to be ratified, and corresponding legislation passed, by national parliaments anyway. Moreover, a Select Committee exists for the specific purpose of scrutinising EU law (meaning Parliament already scrutinises all EU law). Admittedly, that Committee is packed with ‘anti-Europe’ figures who provide minimal scrutiny, but the function nevertheless exists.

In short, MPs would do the same work: the only change they would notice is that the legislation they worked on all originated from domestic sources.

Farage’s future constituents in Kent wouldn’t want to give MPs a 50% pay rise for doing exactly the same work.

Tories Turn Away From a Green Future

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

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

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

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

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

UKIP Just Isn’t Racist

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

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

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

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

But is it racist?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umunna: Reform ‘Free Movement of People’ in EU

Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary turned the debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union on its head yesterday with the suggestion that Labour was working with its Continental counterparts to plan an overhaul of the “free movement of workers” clause of the European Union’s constitution. Combined with Labour’s proposed requirements on employers to utilise local workers, a treaty change ending the right of people to move between EU countries unless they have a job offer in their destination would have massive implications. The biggest issue (from most people’s perspectives) with EU membership would be eliminated, as the flow of cheap, lower skilled labour from poorer EU member nations would be stemmed, giving hope to the hundreds of thousands of the unskilled unemployed who’ve been squeezed out of the job market in the past decade.

If that one thing could be achieved, the European Union would drop down to its rightful place on the list of things voters moan about: number 12, below traffic jams and ‘ The Council’ (I’ve never met anybody outside a political party who hasn’t lapsed into permanent melancholy about the state of local government). The UKIP bubble would burst, and for the first time in 40 years the left would take the initiative on Britain’s place in Europe.

At present, the European Union is deeply flawed. Nobody but the most hardcore politicos understand properly how it works, but I can confidently state:

*It is run by a convoluted and inefficient and opaque kleptocracy of overpaid administrators
*Elected representatives, in the form of MEPs, have far too little influence over the European Union
*Lobbyists appear to be adept at pushing EU institutions towards neo-liberal, pro-business/anti-worker policies
*EU finances are a mess: its £100 billion a year budget has not been signed off by auditors at any point over the past 20 years

The European Union needs massive reform, and I think an exchange of powers should take place. For greater control over their own labour markets and welfare systems, nation states would devolve their entire international aid budgets to a democratised EU, which would loosely co-ordinate corporate tax rates and rules, consumer regulations, green measures and to some extent, defence. I’ve said before that if economic and climate change will operate beyond national boundaries, so must government and organised labour. This would be done by a legislature and executive directly accountable to the European public. The European Union is our best chance of achieving the former, and the fact that EU members have the toughest green commitments and strongest consumer protection regime in the world is a testament to the fact that international co-operation can achieve great things.

So we can throw ourselves into the work of improving the EU, or we can withdraw. My only concern is that withdrawal would be a huge waste of potential.

Of Plots, Schemes and Slates

LYL13

In the past 18 months, I have entered and become deeply involved in the two bewildering and complex worlds of journalism and political activism. As time wears on, I am coming to see the two as not being parallel, but as interlinked. And accordingly, I feel moved to write about my experience of the first London Young Labour conference I have ever been to. So please bear with me- I will explain this as clearly as I can to “outsiders”.

London Young Labour (LYL) is perhaps the most successful and independent youth political group in the UK: though only a fraction of its 7,000 members (ranging from 14 to 26 years old) are active in the group, it is a campaigning force to be reckoned with. Labour groups in marginal constituencies practically fight each other to host LYL canvassing sessions, in which dozens of fresh-faced activists charm hundreds of voters on the doorstep. An extensive programme of social events and discussion groups means LYL offers every member something. On top of that, the group is the first Young Labour region to introduce a truly democratic policymaking process at its Conference, and it is this that I had the pleasure of participating in yesterday.

The Conference is being hosted (it is a two day gathering, so it finishes this evening) in a vast lecture theatre in University College London, and it was opened with a 45 minute speech from Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, the mega trade union which encompasses almost a quarter of Britain’s 7,500,000 union members. No, that’s not strictly true. It opened with about 200 members filling into the Conference Hall to a dreadful soundtrack of One Direction music, courtesy of Benjamin Butterworth, who represents London on the national Young Labour Committee. How someone so charming and successful in Young Labour politics could have such dreadful taste in music is beyond me.

Anyway, the general thrust of Mr McCluskey’s speech was that us youngsters should be prepared to challenge the status quo and participate in change within and beyond the Labour Party. It was a great and inspiring speech, but Mr McCluskey did have an unfortunate habit of tailing off or slipping at certain points, with the resulting gaffe:

…Tony Blair led Labour to three election victories, and gave me some of the best nights of my life.

A peculiar image which attracted roars of laughter from the members and from Mr McCluskey himself. It was to be the first of many absurdities that day.

I was less than impressed to learn that the Conference Agenda was changed midway through the day, with the consequence that I would miss a significant caucus which I had hoped to attend that had been moved to the following day. If a Conference must be held over two days- and I’m not convinced that it must be- then LYL must understand that many attendees cannot take an entire weekend off for it, and must be able to plan their time around an Agenda that can be relied on not to change! We do have lives outside politics, and other commitments or the expense of travel to central London will prohibit many from attending on both days. To deprive us of the ability to plan our time properly is really poor practice.

However, I did not have long to dwell on this, for then came the matter of Resolutions and Amendments to the Constitution of LYL.  The outgoing Chair of LYL, Hazel Nolan, offered a useful demonstration of the process of debating and voting by presenting a frivilous motion in which LYL affirms its support for McVities Digestives as the ‘worker’s biscuit’. As it happens, I was swayed by the opposition speaker who asserted that Hobnobs were the true biscuit of the proletariat.

Things started off rather calmly. Major constitutional amendments were passed with little dissent.  Despite some grumbling that Felicity Slater’s resolution, which basically said that LYL should support its activists, was meaningless, there was little drama. But then came the following motion:

Campaigning against UKIP & Far Right Organisation

London Young Labour believes that diversity in London is one of the city’s greatest strengths.

London Young Labour notes the alarming rise of UKIP in the last set of council elections across London.

London Young Labour further notes that UKIP has won a council by-election seat over the summer, and that councillors in London have switched to the UKIP.

London Young Labour believes that UKIP is a divisive presence in our communities.

London Young Labour therefore mandates the London Young Labour Committee to work with progressive organisations such as HOPE not hate and other anti-racist organisations to campaign against a potential rise of UKIP & far-right organisation in the 2014 election and beyond.

Debate became rather heated, and of the two or three opposition speakers- all of whom were of BAME ethnicity- warned that the motion’s heavy implication that UKIP is a racist and far-right organisation was not only flawed but counter-productive, given that the white working class which was backing UKIP was doing so out of disillusionment, and should be engaged with, not condemned as racist. I was led to question the impartiality of the Chair when she asserted that “the motion does not describe UKIP as racist: that is a fact”. Well, no. Any reasonable person would infer that UKIP is a racist organisation if they read the motion. Alas, the motion was still passed with a comfortable majority.

Then came a motion on the campaign against the opposition of the University of London Union. It did not help that half the people there had no idea was was being discussed: why would they? It took a number of “Points of Clarification”- Labourspeak for “questions”- from the floor to work out what the fuss was about. When the Chair demanded that members did not use “Points of Clarification” to make “sneaky arguments”, she irked the member whose question she had just prefaced. The exchange went roughly  like this:

Member: If I could raise the following Point of Clarification, without any snobbery from the Chair…

Chair: That was unnecessary.

Member: Well, you’re the one who accused me of making “sneaky points”.

Chair: That wasn’t directed at you in particular.

Member: Well, I was the one you interrupted.

That’s just a taster of how angry people were getting. Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic towards the Chair had she not appeared exasperated with members for not knowing about the finer details of a dispute between the University of London and its students- a university the majority of us have no connection with. Furthermore, the Chair abandoned any claim to impartiality when she later flatly contradicted the proposer’s speech for a motion against the Bedroom Tax.

But this was not all the drama of the day. But I shall save the rest for a later occasion

Beating UKIP At Its Own Game

United Kingdom: stamp

Immigration has been a hot topic in Britain for many years, with public dissatisfaction on the major parties’ policies on the issue being so great as to trigger the emergence of UKIP as a major political force. Figures on both sides of the political spectrum have been shocked by the surge in support for a party that poses a real electoral threat to the status quo. However, this is not an article about UKIP- there have been plenty of those this year. This is about developments within the governing Coalition which have been condemned by UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, as being “nasty” to immigrants.

The British public have an expectation that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be “soft” on immigrants, the Conservatives will raise concerns about the impact of a growing population but fail to address them, and UKIP will be the ‘toughest’ party on the matter. That is why there is widespread surprise at the news that Farage has condemned a Government initiative to distribute literature urging illegal immigrants to accept voluntary deportation. Under the campaign, leaflets will be handed out in internet cafes, money transfer offices and other areas where immigrants are likely to frequent, in addition to placement of messages on billboards and lorries in migrant hotspots. In order to encourage responses, illegal immigrants are invited to text “HOME” to a number in order to receive free “assistance” to return home.

Advocates of the policy, which is currently being trialled in six Inner London boroughs say that it is much more cost effective and humane to conduct deportations “without leading people away in handcuffs” and that anything which can be done to prevent arrests should be welcomed. Opponents however note that the plastering of anti-immigrant messages in communities has a somewhat authoritarian and divisive feel. Nigel Farage has developed on this point:

“What the billboard should say is: Please don’t vote UKIP, we are doing something….I think the actual tone of the billboards, it really is Big Brother, nasty, it’s unpleasant. I don’t think using messaging like this makes any difference.”

It does indeed appear that the Coalition is running this controversial scheme to prove to a cynical electorate that it is not being inactive on the evasion of UK border enforcement. Running an advertising campaign may not work, but it is more visible to voters than increased staffing and training in the UK Border Force. Once more, the depressing reality is that politicians are more concerned about populist posturing than pragmatic, rational decision making. It isn’t just the politicians who are to blame, though: it should be a national embarrassment in Britain that their representatives feel the need to compete to be seen as the most effective persecutor of a disadvantaged, albeit law-breaking, group.

There have been repeated calls for a balanced, open discussion about what level and type of immigration Britain should accept. Such a debate is badly needed, and likely to result in the reasonable conclusion that the country should reduce its intake of unskilled labour that has been flooding its employment market. However, a constructive dialogue will not succeed unless serious prejudice and ill-feeling towards some groups is truly eliminated. Lip service towards inclusion and equality does not benefit anybody when initiatives such as ‘big brother billboards’ are deemed a tolerable and respectable use of public funds. Unfortunately, it appears that there is a formidable coalition of political and media interests in the UK which will whip up such anti-immigrant hysteria that prejudice will only harden in the coming years. And that is one of the greatest wasted opportunities in modern British history.

Profit Before Our Health

As written for the new youth blog The Up and Coming Writers. I strongly recommend that you have a look at it, as there is a wealth of writing talent to be found there!

Last week, the Coalition Government made a decision that will allow thousands of unnescacery deaths to take place. It made that decision after being leant on by a small group of multi-billion pound businesses which control the industry that provides the British public with one of the few legal recreational drugs- and one that is also the most deadly. This is just a taster of the blistering criticism that the Coalition has endured after delaying its decision on the introduction of standardised cigarette packaging. The move is seen as a U-turn by the Department for Health as it has been accompanied by a marked change in tone by ministers, from being cautious advocates of the policy to displaying clear scepticism.

It is alleged that companies like Japan Tobacco International, which ran a lavish anti-standardisation advertising campaign last year, have had a number of meetings with figures as senior as the Prime Minister on the issue. The influence of lobbyists is well known, but though it is feasible that a government buckled in the face of pressure from a business (something that all parties are guilty of), I think that there is another reason. It has four letters, and it has been covered endlessly in the media this year: UKIP. Put simply, anti-smoking policies are unpopular with the right wing which has been abandoning the Conservative Party in its droves.

I wouldn’t dispute that New Labour’s ‘nanny-statism’, so hated by the Daily Telegraph, was a flawed mentality. However, the idea that we should strive to ensure that each generation enjoys better health than the previous one is part of a basic human instinct. We should be working to discourage young people from smoking, overeating or ‘overdieting’. I’d go as far as to endorse proposals that Tasmania’s state legislature is considering: banning anybody born after 2000 from purchasing cigarettes at all. In that way we can phase out the tobacco industry and all its human costs without the impracticalities of forcing established smokers to break their habit.

Whether such a move is compatible with the move towards drug liberalisation that is taking place throughout the developed world is an open question. It could be argued that such a move would create a black market, but this is argued with every rise in tobacco duty, move towards standardised packaging or new sales regulation that comes into effect. All I would conclude is that a government of the people would dare to be bold. Unfortunately, we are being let down by this Coalition, which puts profit before people.