Friday, 29 March 2013

A Government Which Threatens All Our Futures

This article is a reply to a nasty letter about me in the local free newspaper, but the points I make are relevant to all Labour supporters throughout the country.


The real ‘real world’
An unpleasant letter in this week’s Newton News told me, very rudely, that I should ‘get into the real world’.  The same night that letter was published, ITV ran a heartbreaking programme on poverty in Britain; half the people highlighted were in a job. 


On Monday, the government will introduce what Polly Toynbee in the Guardian has described as ‘an earthquake of social destruction’ – including conversion of disability living allowance, abolition of the social fund, reduction of housing benefit where the recipient has a spare bedroom, contraction of legal aid.   In many parts of the country this includes also a part-withdrawal of council tax welfare benefit (though Durham County Council has at least managed this year to protect its residents from that).   Letters leaked this week show that Job Centres have been competing with each other to see which could knock the most claimants off benefits.

Hardship is the real world facing increasing numbers of people today. 


And do not imagine that this is the end.  The disabled and the unemployed have been easy hate-targets, and many people have approved the ‘avalanche of benefit cuts’ (Toynbee again) which has swept up the vulnerable with the cheats. 

But did you notice that the letter let slip the Tories’ next targets – minimum wage and working tax credits?   Having hammered those on benefits, the Tories are coming after the working poor.  The other day Home Secretary Theresa May announced the government’s intention to pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights – presumably in the hope that we will be so pleased to lose the ‘Europe’ part that we won’t mind losing our ‘human rights’ as well.


Don’t be fooled
Like this week’s correspondent, the Tories – and their LibDem and ‘Independent’ supporters – tell us that this is all Labour’s fault.  Labour over-spending, they assert, caused an international financial crisis which means that the nation now has no choice but to impoverish its poor and lower-paid.  Parallel to this runs a ‘wealth-creator’ narrative which says that we must not stop the rich getting ever-richer, receiving tax-cuts, moving their money out into tax-havens to avoid tax, awarding themselves obscene bonuses.

Don’t be fooled by any of this claptrap – it is merely a smoke-screen to allow the Tories to introduce their ideologically-motivated agenda of cuts and privatisation. 


Unnoticed by many, this government (like the ones before it) has erected a ‘Stock Clearance’ sign over Britain, and is selling off our public assets, at knock-down price, to companies which then charge us for the services we used to provide to ourselves.  Recent victims include the Search and Rescue Services and the profitable parts of the NHS; the Fire Brigade is next on the list.  The aim is to reduce our government from a vibrant democracy to a procurement office.


Our only protection is a Labour vote
Is there anything people like you and I can do as the government pulls the rug from under us? 


We can campaign and complain.   We can elect in May a Labour County Council which will at least drag its feet and move as slowly as possible into this brave new Tory world of cuts and marketisation. 

And in 2015 we can elect a Labour government which hopefully, by then, will be committed to balancing the budget in a way which does not consign huge numbers of deserving people to hopeless lives of poverty and social exclusion

(Legally-required attribution: published and promoted by John D Clare on behalf of John D Clare.)

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A Plea for Unity

Yesterday, the columnist Rachel Sylvester warned Times’ readers that ‘old Labour rears its rebellious head again’.  
She called the troublemakers ‘digital Bennites’ – an indeterminate label which had every Leftlinks blogger wondering whether they were a ‘digital Bennite’.


So what is a ‘digital Bennite’?
Even the author who picked up the term and ran with it in an online Progress article – Avoiding the lure of ‘Digital Bennites’ – was unable to help, offering merely:

Digital Bennites – I am sure you know who I’m talking about – are the bane of moderate (and, dare I say it, modern) Labour activists. They take a position of ‘in principle’ opposition to everything the government says or does because, it seems to me, it is a ‘government of millionaires’.
The fact that he can be no more specific than 'you know who (sic) I'm talking about', does not prevent the author then further stigmatising these nameless people as ‘deeply sad’ and wedded to ‘the politics of envy’ – a shallow and divisive stereotyping.

There is no need to read the article – it is the usual Labour-right plea that to regain the confidence of the electorate we must apologise for our past failures and agree with Tory principles:

A responsible opposition and a responsible Labour party must acknowledge that this government have not got everything wrong and, in some instances, have resonated with the general public.
Thus, with the bedroom tax:
We should, for example, be saying that the spare room subsidy is not necessarily wrong in principle... [etc.].
Hmm.  For all his assertion that he knows how to get us elected next time, the author seems unable to appreciate that the way to address a mass demonstration of people chanting ‘axe the tax’ is NOT to start off with the words: ‘the spare room subsidy is not necessarily wrong in principle’! 

He seems oblivious to the fact that – apart from places like the north-east, where we appreciate the importance of unity – Labour politicians got a rough ride at some of the ‘bedroom tax’ protests, where they were seen by some of the protesters as the enemy, not as the leaders, of the movement to get rid of the government.

And that is what we are meant to be doing, is it not – getting rid of the government?


Opposition on principle
At this point, the author tells us:

The ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’ … starts from a position of whether a policy is right or wrong.
Here, actually, I totally agree. My question is why, then, if the ordinary voter votes on whether a policy is right or wrong, the Labour Party hasn’t been coming out much more strongly on a whole range of Tory policies which are perceived by people as ‘wrong’ in principle:
  • Thus the Poundland decision was wrong - the courts plainly said so.
  • And the 'bedroom tax' is wrong on a whole range of levels.
  • In fact, this Tory government has been since 2010 introducing many wrong policies – I have listed the 40 worst on this blog at: http://bit.ly/ListofShame
What is perplexing the left - and most of the rank-and-file of the party, and indeed many men on omnibuses as well - is why, therefore, the Labour leadership refuses to come out and condemn them.

  • The decision to abstain on Poundland was, for many people, not just inexplicable, but the last nail in the coffin of their hope that a Labour government would ever 'stand up for the workers'. Whether this is fair or not, it is now a general and widely-held view.
  • Weak Labour positioning on DLA and benefits had already lost the support of many.
  • And, even with demonstrations all over the country and the support national newspapers, getting any kind of commitment to abolish the 'bedroom tax' when we come to power has been like drawing teeth. 
People want and expect an opposition to oppose, not to desperately 'seek the good' in the government's proposals. It does not need much sense to see that such a line will never get us elected.


The Tory Trick
The Tories have got the Labour leadership's measure with the simplest of tactics. They notice a general feeling in the country. They heighten and promote that feeling with a propaganda campaign. They then use that feeling as the excuse to introduce a piece of ideologically-driven right-wing legislation. Where the general feeling is things like hatred of the bankers, tax cheats etc., the Tory legislation is all smoke and mirrors, full of noble statements but really protecting their friends' position. Where the general feeling is against benefit cheats, the welfare state etc., the Tory legislation is directed and devastating, wreaking disproportionate and overwhelmingly unjust damage on poor and vulnerable people.

This strategy is so obvious and so unsophisticated that I find it astonishing that the Labour leadership has not got it sussed. All Labour needs to say is: 'this bit of legislation is not fit for purpose – it is broken beyond repair; when we come to power we will abolish it without compensation and replace it with appropriate legislation.

Such a strategy would not only win any argument (the Tory laws ARE broken beyond repair), but it reassure the Left and those who are suffering under the Tory attacks; and the words 'without compensation' would knock back those businessmen who are looking to take advantage of their puppet-government's new regulations.

Instead, our leadership, apparently terrified of upsetting some mythical constituency which agrees blindly with Tory principles, continually seems to feel the need to support the Tory proposals, or aspects of them.


Labour is in danger of Losing the Left
Surely the Labour leadership are aware that they are in danger of losing the Left? Not only have they failed to recruit those on the Left who abandoned the Party under Blair and Brown, they are continuing to haemorrhage people whose left-wing views are in fact quite moderate - but who have come to see the Labour leadership merely as 'wet' Tories-in-waiting. Surely they have noticed that - this very week – TWO new movements have been launched to try to provide a home for such people?

I have in my town a man, proudly left-wing in his views, who realises that the only hope lies in a Labour government, and desperately wants to join Labour and fight to get rid of the Tories. But he cannot find a single thing in any of the pronouncements or actions of the Labour leadership to hang his hat on.

The reaction of the Labour-right, however, is - not to seek accommodation, or to negotiate a stance on which all people of the centre and left can agree, to build a centre-left alliance under the auspices of the Labour Party which will remove this wicked government from power - no, instead they choose to stigmatise the Left with the label 'digital Bennites' as an abuse term, and to describe them as ‘the bane of Labour activists’.

They need to remember who the real enemy is.


The Left is in danger of Labour Losing
At the same time, you cannot be but horrified at stupidity of those on the Left.

One thing that struck me very forcefully when the Labour MPs abstained on the Poundland vote was that they came under far more vitriolic attack from the left-wing blogosphere than did the Tories who were enacting the bill!

The anarchists turned up and booed and berated the Labour MPs and Councillors who were out demonstrating against the ‘bedroom tax’ in Liverpool, but I scan their blogs in vain for a similar anti-Tory fury. It’s just so much easier to have a go at compromised and uneasy Labour MPs who turn up to be shouted at.

And the hugest irony of the week was a blog called LeftUnity supporting the formation of yet one more small, shouting-at-the-moon party of the Left, oblivious to the fact that this marks more fragmentation, not unity.


Movement needed on both sides
I am desperate for Labour to give the Left something to cling to. The argument that they will always vote Labour because at least we’re better than the Tories will no longer wash. Labour is in danger of losing the Left, and it needs to reach out to them and include some of their vision-for-the-future in the Labour offer. 


Labour needs to realise that the enemy is not the Left, but the Tories, and focus their attacks on them.

Equally, the Left need to see a bit of sense. All their attacks and fractiousness are doing is losing us the next election. The Left needs to support if not to join the Party, accepting the inevitable limitations of a ‘broad church’ organisation, and helping us win the next election for a Britain that has a chance of including some of their vision-for-the-future. 


The Left needs to realise that the enemy is not the Labour-Right, but the Tories, and focus their attacks on them.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Cause For Concern? Gove's Paranoia Has Taken Control

Mr Gove is either a cynical, bullying demagogue, or he is a frightening, extremist ideologue … or he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
He showed it, today, in his article in the MailOnline.


There is an iconic moment in the film Anne of the Thousand Days when Geneviève Bujold – hearing Henry’s list of her alleged lovers – exclaims: ‘Oh God help me, the King is mad’!  The phrase, of course, is terminally anachronistic, but the impact is devastating; the audience, with Anne, loses any hope of appeal to reason, of justice … of success.

I felt similarly – it was the first phrase that came into my mind – when I read Michael Gove’s piece in the MailOnline today: I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools.

I cannot remember reading anything like it in a newspaper before – it represents a tirade of hysterical hyperbole unparalleled even in The Mail.


An Inappropriate Citation
Gove starts by referencing a 1938 book by Cyril Connolly, The Enemies of Promise. Actually, for Connolly, the ‘enemies of promise’ were journalism, politics and success – a list which surely, you think, might have made Gove think twice before he started writing.  Much of Connolly’s book is spent describing his time at Eton – an education which, he writes, left him ‘dirty, inky, miserable, untidy, a bad fag, a coward at games, lazy at work, unpopular with my masters and superiors, anxious to curry favour and yet to bully whom I dared’.   It is an unlikely opening for Mr Gove’s defence of the kind of education he wants to introduce.

Gove ignores this and warms to his task.  ‘The new Enemies of Promise,’ he tells us, ‘are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need’.

Too many schools are failing their children, claims Gove, and he trots out a couple of schoolboy howlers, and suggests that children can pass GCSE Science nowadays merely by knowing whether grilled fish is healthier than battered sausages.

‘The greatest tragedy,’ he intones, ‘is that poor educational performance is concentrated in our most disadvantaged communities – places like … East Durham’.

It is at this moment that he crosses the line of sanity.  Up till this point his argument has been trite and anecdotal. Suddenly, he tips over into the disturbed.


A Sulky Slur
'Disturbed
?', you might query.

Yes indeed.  The reference to East Durham was not fortuitous.  Earlier this month, Mr Gove cited East Durham as a place where he could ‘smell the sense of defeatism’ in certain schools.  There was an outcry – actually, East Durham schools have been doing very well recently.  Gove was cornered by local MPs in the House of Commons, and forced to admit that he had never been to East Durham, and that his slur was based on a recollection of Lord Adonis from ten years ago of a teacher who had complained that there was no point in getting an education when there was no job at the end of it.  Gove was humiliated.  The reprimand obviously rankled.

So his mention of East Durham as a place of poor educational performance is not just a mis-statement – it is retribution.   It is the petty revenge of someone who is 'miserable, a coward, and anxious to bully whom he dares'.  
Mr Gove seems to have learned well Cyril Connolly's lessons.  

I think we can all agree that it is not merely despicable for a minister of the government to use a national newspaper as a vehicle to pursue a personal vendetta against the children of a community which bested him … it is disturbed.


Paranoia Unleashed
Having thus tipped over into paranoia, Gove loses control: ‘Who is responsible for this failure!’ he screams.

Apparently, the people responsible for ruining our children’s education are – wait for it – a hundred academics who recently put a letter into The Times, criticising Mr Gove’s proposed National Curriculum.

Really?

Yes really.  There follows a rant which you have to read to believe.  These people – the modern ‘Enemies of Promise’ – get it both barrels.  They want your children to be unable to spell or do fractions.  They are Marxists and intellectuals.  They are ‘the Blob’ (I do not exaggerate), a network of ideologically-driven education gurus dedicated to misleading teachers.

Read this for a fully-fledged conspiracy-paranoia:

In the past The Blob tended to operate by stealth, using its influence to control the quangos and committees which shaped policy.  But The Blob has broken cover … because this Government is taking it on.  We have abolished the quangos they controlled.  We have given a majority of secondary schools academy status so they are free from the influence of The Blob’s allies in local government … but The Blob, in thrall to Sixties ideologies, wants to continue the devaluation of the exam system [and] teachers who see themselves as part of The Blob have enlisted as Enemies Of Promise.  They are the ultra-militants in the unions who are threatening strikes…

It is an astonishing way to describe a group of academics who have done no more than put a letter in a newspaper disagreeing with you.

It is almost as astonishing as going on to describe Labour’s utterly wet, politically right-oriented, yes-man of an education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, as somebody who ‘chose to side with the Marxists’.

This is not sane talk.   It is deeply disturbing.  Mr Gove needs help.   I do not say this in anger or mockery; I say it with genuine concern.   Mr Gove sounds like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  This is content delivered in a manner utterly inappropriate to our conformist, politically-lethargic society.  I am unaware of such an exploitation of conspiracy-paranoia since the McCarthy witch hunts.


Sieg oder Bolschewismus
There was recently a bit of a spat between History teachers and an Exam Board over a GCSE question which featured this poster: 





It is a Nazi propaganda poster from the Second World War, and the slogan means: ‘Victory or Bolshevism’ – before you sign up to Mr Gove’s spectre of an education system encouraging failure and low standards, you might care to ask yourself if you would have been able to write anything about this poster, being asked in a GCSE exam to comment on its context, provenance, validity and historical utility.

Anyway, actually, the History teachers thought it was a little too hard; they thought it was unfair to ask pupils about Bolshevism when the unit the students had studied was actually about Nazi Germany.  They moaned a bit; the Board disagreed, the question stood, and the row subsided.

What strikes me, however, is how similar are Mr Gove’s article and the visual content of this Nazi poster.

I realise that it is incongruous to be playing the Nazi card, having just castigated Mr Gove for playing the Marxist card.

But read his article.  Notice the techniques – the appeal to popular hostility towards ‘intellectuals’; the parading of the dangers of Communism; the characterisation of one’s opponents as a faceless, quasi-alien force which is pervasive, sinister and stealthy; the repeated metaphors of the political debate as a ‘battle’, ‘fight’ and ‘struggle’ against ‘enemies’ (there are 8 references in the last 11 lines); the screaming hyperbole which ignores reason and argument, but appeals instead to deep-seated, guttural fears within the general psyche?   These are techniques of propaganda taken straight from the Nazi manual.

Gove is not the first Education Minister to declare that ‘today we stand in a bitter struggle for existence against Bolshevism.’  Bernhard Rust, Nazi Education Minister, did so in the German newspaper Volkischer Beobachter, in February 1933.


A man on the edge
Nobody is saying that Mr Gove is a Nazi; I always advise people to stop reading as soon as they meet the 'Nazi' allegation.  So I am not suggesting that the Tories want to introduce an education system which will inculcate racism, fascism or militarism.   All that is wrong with Mr Gove’s proposals is that they are old-fashioned and unfit for purpose; any opportunity for open debate will see them easily discredited.

But – as Anne Boleyn in the film – I lost with Mr Gove’s article any hope of ever getting that opportunity to appeal to reason, to justice … of success.


Mr Gove is a man on the edge; somebody needs to tell him to take a holiday. 


What I found alarming was the evident mental state of the man charged to implement our new curriculum, whose reaction to challenge and disagreement was the hysterical, illogical, paranoid outburst we read in the MailOnline today.

God help us, Mr Gove is mad.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Tory Assault On The Poor - The List Of Shame

I am currently running an online facebook diary of my election campaign (you can follow it if you wish at bit.ly/JDClare, but it really is mostly for Aycliffe people).

Anyway, one of the threads I started on it was a list of ways this government has harmed the poor; it got to 40 suggestions within an hour. 

 It is an horrific catalogue of injustices – every one of them directly crafted to damage the income or the rights of the less well-off members of society.

It is a calculated and systematic attack upon the poor, by their own government.


Extensive, deep and rapid
If you believe like me that these local elections will be as much about the record of the government as about local issues, you might be interested in the list we came up with.

Reading the list, you will probably be amazed at how extensively, how deeply, and how quickly the Tories have moved to attack the poor; it perhaps explains why there has not been an outcry – events have simply moved too quickly for ordinary people to keep tabs on the changes, and to take them in.

Writing the list, I decided that we need to become angrier, and nastier; we have simply been too calm and polite in the face of this assault on the poor and the vulnerable.

Note that this list of Tory shame does not include any of the horrors the government have perpetrated upon education or the NHS – it is simply a list of their attacks on the poor. 


What an evil government they are. 


The list of shame
Anyway, here is the list:
  1. ATOS
  2. 'Bedroom tax'
  3. Benefit cap
  4. Changing the link for rises in public sector pensions from RPI to CPI
  5. Civil and public service redundancies; 600,000 jobs lost – more than 80% of workers losing their job in the NHS are women
  6. Closure of all HMRC face-to-face offices
  7. Council tax welfare benefit cut by 10%
  8. Cutting public services 
  9. DWP coercion/ benefit sanctions
  10. EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) for 6th-formers abolished
  11. Equality Impacts Assessments abolished
  12. ESA (Employment and Support Allowance)
  13. Failure to regulate payday loan companies
  14. Freezing of child tax credits and winter fuel payments
  15. Freezing of public sector pay
  16. Full time jobs have been replaced by part time jobs and zero hours contracts
  17. Increases in fuel prices; gas prices up 30%
  18. Increase in youth unemployment
  19. Independent living fund abolished
  20. Legal aid cut
  21. Legislation going through to abolish the right of employees of the proposed National Crime Agency (NSA) to take industrial action
  22. Measures to make it easier for employers to dismiss 'underperforming' workers, including a cap on unfair dismissal payouts
  23. Non-dependent deductions increased
  24. PiP (Personal Independence Payments)
  25. Rail fare increase 20%
  26. Reducing public sector pensions but upping contributions
  27. Reducing the consultation period for redundancies from 90 to 45 days
  28. Reducing Trade Union facility time in the civil service
  29. Removal of 'severe disability premium' on income support
  30. Remploy shut
  31. Scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board
  32. Social Fund abolished – no more crisis loans
  33. State pension age rise
  34. Student fees raised
  35. Tax credits reduced 
  36. The Work Programme has just a 2% success rate
  37. Universal credit
  38. VAT rise
  39. Welfare Benefits Uprating bill caps benefit increases at 1%
  40. Workfare abuses – 250,000 Disabled People have been forced onto Unpaid Workfare
Please add any I have missed in the Comments section below.

Let's Sanction Ministers!

What's sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander.


Thoughts about sanctions
It started off by musing on sanctions. DWP sanctions targets are in the news and I was wondering whether – rather than abolish sanctions for those on JSA – we might instead extend sanctions to MPs.

At the present, we seem to have a Chancellor who’s wrecking the economy, a Health Secretary who’s dismantling the NHS, a Welfare Minister who’s actively harming the poor and vulnerable etc. Why do ordinary people have a whole set of targets and consequences, but our Chancellor can lose the country’s AAA credit rating and bowl into work the next day as though nothing had happened.

Beyond Parliament, there are even worse examples. RBS heads can lose £bns and still get huge bonuses. The Head of the NHS can preside over a hospital that actively kills its patients, and get promoted!


A terrifying prospect?
Socialists do not oppose sanctions – anybody who’s heard of Soviet 'War Communism' knows that – and there’s little wrong with sanctions as long as the tasks set and the consequences attached are reasonable. What’s wrong with the DWP sanctions is not that there are sanctions – it’s the fact that the Job Centres are sending Special Needs adults home with a ten-page document to complete, and requiring people with no IT skills to function online, and then – effectively – trying to starve them to death when they fail.

A policy of appropriate sanctions applied across the piste would terrify the Tories. What sanction, for example, would you apply for driving some poor soul to suicide by a poorly-conceived bedroom tax? What sanction is appropriate for throwing millions out of a full-time job?

We have targets for everything nowadays. Some of them are utterly uncompromising. A teacher has to get certain percentages of his pupils through their exams, whatever their intelligence, whatever their background, whatever their personalities. A favourite government trick at the moment is to up the targets whilst reducing the funding – that really raises workers’ stress levels.


So why no targets for ministers?
I don’t even see that this is such a far-out idea.

We could start with some basic, easy ones:

  • Chancellor: do not wreck the economy
  • Health: do not give away the NHS
  • And it would be nice to have a DWP Minister who was a human being.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Why Liam Byrne Has To Go

At the last shadow cabinet reshuffle Liam Byrne was downgraded; at the next he has to go.


Liam Byrne's epiphany
At the last election, with Labour failing across the country, Liam Byrne had an epiphany when he went doorstepping and found that 'ordinary' people (both working and on benefits) are wise to, and angry about, the benefit-cheating going on around them.  Tapping into this general public anger about benefit scroungers, he came to believe that - to align itself with the mass of voters - the Labour Party needed to adopt a benefit-cuts, anti-scrounger narrative.  This brought him, to all intents and purposes, into line with the Tory narrative on welfare.

Liam Byrne is not a traitor - he believes that he is securing the Labour Party with the electorate.  In this he is, however, a man trapped by his conviction that Labour must do nothing that allows the Tories to accuse Labour of financial- and benefit-profligacy.  He reads the polls, and the polls tell him that the public still accepts the need to balance the budget, and that there is still out there a huge and general anti-welfare, anti-unions prejudice which – Byrne holds - the Labour Party must not alienate if it ever wants to get elected.

To the Left, of course, Liam Byrne is nothing better than a wolf in wolf’s clothing.


Byrne’s Big Boo-boo
Some of Byrne's calls have been spectacularly inept – particularly, recently, the decision to abstain and allow the government to rescue its Poundland decision on workfare, which surely has to be one of the most incomprehensible tactical calls in history.  The court’s ruling on Poundland not only overturned the government’s workfare policy, it removed the Department of Work and Pension’s right to impose sanctions on people who fail to meet DWP requirements.  This not only removed a cornerstone of Tory treatment of the unwaged, it made the government liable to £150million damages in back-claims from people who had been sanctioned.   The Tory bill, therefore, rushed through the Commons, simply retrospectively overturned the court’s ruling and ruled that the now-illegal sanctions were now legal after all.

If Byrne had insisted that the government recognise the judgement of the Courts – let’s face it, hardly a radical position to take – Labour could have made the DWP’s employment policies unworkable.   The Tories would have been in chaos.  The so-called Party of cuts would have been seen to have wasted £150m.  The Labour Party could have sat back and watched the Tories struggling for the next two years to run their welfare policies without the right to sanction.   IDS would have had to resign.  That £150m, moreover, would have gone back to the people the DWP stole it from, been spent immediately, and helped to stimulate local economies!   It would have been an absolute humiliation and disaster for the Tories.


A disastrous decision
Instead, however, Bryne chose to rescue IDS.  Labour abstained and allowed the Tories to rush through its corrective legislation.

In doing so, Byrne legitimised DWP coercion, overturned a Court decision, and worst of all helped introduce the principle of retrospective legislation – a very dangerous principle to condone.  He subjected benefit-claimants to years more of the injustice (which we all know has been going on) of being set impossible tasks to do, and then punished by removal of benefits when that task is not achieved.

At the same time, Byrne alienated the non-Labour Left … perhaps permanently – many will never vote Labour again.  At present, there is nowhere valid for them to go … but if a realistic alternative to Labour turns up, you can bet that they will vote against Labour at the next election.


Why did Byrne do it?
So why, oh why, did Labour abstain?  I speculate, of course, but I believe it is possible to trace Byrne’s decision back to his 2010 epiphany, and his underlying belief that it is ultimately a vote-loser to appear to support benefit claimants.

His ‘official’ explanation was that, stupid as the Tories had been, Labour could never be seen to sign up to a strategy which removed the DWP’s right to coerce … that it would have been governmentally irresponsible so to do.

Reading between the lines, however, I would guess that he so feared Labour being thereby labelled the ‘scrounger’s friend’ that this outweighed in his mind ALL the human rights, personal justice and political benefits opposing the government might have delivered.


So what’s my point?
The Left would be insane to deny Byrne’s basic premise – that there is a general public hostility to benefit scroungers.   In one respect, Byrne is spot-on correct: if the Labour Party goes into the next election tainted with being the Party which will borrow to pay benefits, then it will not get elected.

But that does not mean that Byrne has got it right.

Both he and IDS, trapped in the Westminster bubble, think that the public – especially the poor public – support their ideological attack on benefits.  They do not.   The public support an attack on benefit cheats, but that does not automatically mean that they support a general attack on benefits.

Everybody who lives in a ‘normal’ area knows that benefit cheating goes on.   IDS is correct when he says that the Welfare State has spawned benefit-liars.  We all know the man with gammy knees, or a bad back, who hobbles painfully round on a stick … until he has had a few beers, whereupon he is up and disco-dancing with the rest.  We all know the woman with a blue badge who goes on walking holidays in the Lake District.  We all know the problem families who are a local crime-wave, but who appear to have access to unlimited funds on ‘the social’.

IDS and Byrne have interpreted this as a licence to toughen up welfare, to coerce and to cut.  They have completely misunderstood their mandate.  Their top-down, ideologically-imposed cuts have not stopped the benefit-cheats and the welfare-liars – they are still lying and cheating and bullying their way to benefits.   No.   Instead, the cuts are hurting the vulnerable and the needy.  The people most hit by DWP coercion have been the Special Needs claimants, given a 10-page document to fill in overnight.  The bedroom tax has hit loving grandmas, providing a room overnight for the grandchildren when their father gets drunk.  The withdrawal of EMA has hit decent youngsters, clever enough to realise that going to 6th form will throw their family into poverty.  The Council Tax benefit changes have hit working families.  And so on.


The Mood WILL change
I tell you this, the poor have not yet got their head around what is happening. It may strike you as impossible to believe, given the news and the publicity, but many of them have not yet clicked what is going to happen to them.   Many others have a head-in-the-sands hope that they will be able to ‘roll’ with the changes and survive.

That WILL change as the changes are implemented and begin to bite.  Over the next two years people, used to the state as a safety-net, are going to redefine their views.   For many good and decent – even working – people, the state is about to become the organisation which drives them into destitution and despair.

And when that happens, people are going to change their opinions on welfare.  The ‘scrounger’ narrative will recede.  The poor will become angry as they see themselves, their loved ones and their neighbours hit.  The middle-class will start to demand welfare-justice, as they see the vulnerable suffer.

By the time that happens, Labour MUST have developed a different welfare strategy.  The Party needs to realise that it is right to stop welfare-scrounging and cheating, but that the way to do this is to catch welfare-scroungers and welfare-cheats ... not to introduce universal draconian measures which catch only the decent and the needy.

It is not beyond the voters’ intelligence to understand such a policy.   ‘Tough on the Cheats, There for the Needy’ is not a policy too-sophisticated for the electorate to comprehend.


Why Liam Byrne has to go
And, by that time, Byrne must have gone.  He is not the man to introduce the new emphases which will be needed for 2015.

He is tainted as a Tory stooge.   He has misread the public.  He has made too many mistakes.  And he has alienated the Left beyond redemption.

To win the next election, Labour MUST appeal to the centre ground; the Left is mad if it thinks otherwise.

But, to win the next election, Labour must also reach out to the alienated left.  These people will never see Labour as the Party to implement their wishes, but they need to see Labour as worth a vote to keep the other lot out.
To do that, Labour needs to shed its image as would-be Tories in matters of welfare and worker’s rights.
To do that, Labour needs to remodel its policies on welfare and worker’s rights.

And it has to lose Liam Byrne.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Bedroom Tax - the ideology behind the rhetoric

The contradictions in the bedroom tax reveal its real intention.


What's in a name?
Apparently, recently, a missive went out, to Tory MPs who are calling the ‘bedroom tax’ a ‘bedroom tax’, that it is not a ‘bedroom tax’ at all; it is ‘the Under-occupation of Social Housing: Housing Benefit Entitlement’.  


They are not doing that because they have a penchant for pedantic nomenclature. The Tories assert that the 'bedroom tax' is not a tax at all, but a measure designed to reduce surplus accommodation in the social housing sector.  They do so because, they realise, there is a great deal of support for such a measure

Waiting lists for social housing are impossibly long and lengthening. And, if you are a young person with a family unable to get into social housing, I think we can all appreciate how you might well be exasperated by single persons occupying – at social housing rents – 3- and 4-bedroom houses. If it were you, you might well be calling for some kind of mechanism to get those people out and you in!

The Tories know this, and it is to that audience they are playing.


My assertion is that the Tory standpoint is irreconcilably self-contradictory.


Contradiction 1: this is clearly NOT designed to reduce under-occupancy
The lie to the Tory lie is clear, firstly, in their decision to omit people aged over 65 from the bedroom tax.

Surely, if the Tories had genuinely intended the measure to reduce under-occupancy, the first people they would have targeted would have been the over-65s. How many people must there be in social housing who took their house when they had a family, and have since seen their children leave and their partner die … and yet, regarding their ‘council house’ as their family ‘home’, have stayed on in their rented property?  Nonetheless – for reasons it is not hard to guess – the Tories have exempted these over-65 accommodation-guzzlers from the bedroom tax.

Further to that, if the Tories had really intended to reduce under-occupancy, why did they not make people in social housing who are NOT on benefits also liable to the charge? There must be many people in work and not on benefits in social housing who have a-bedroom-too-many. Why not charge them £14 a week as well?

Come to think of it, why restrict the measure to social housing? My wife and I rattle around in a 4-bedroom house which we bought when we had three children. It has three toilets – even if we get caught like the queen, we don’t need more than two! So why did the Tories not extend the bedroom tax to private properties? Could it not just as logically be argued that my wife and I are hogging unused accommodation which is needed by young people unable to find or afford a house large enough for their families? There are maybe 6 million under-occupied privately-owned homes in the UK; even if the average were only under-occupied by one bedroom, that would still yield £4.5bn a year. It would also unleash a flood of houses onto the market, and house-prices would fall to affordable levels.

And most of all, as my wife points out, the state-supported pensioner with most unoccupied bedrooms is the Queen. One wouldn’t want to scare her in her current poorly state, but why haven’t the Tories asked her for bedroom tax?

If they REALLY wanted to address under-occupancy, wouldn’t the Tories have done these things? Instead, however, they have opted for a measure which will affect only a tiny corner of the problem and will yield – relatively – peanuts.


Contradiction 2: this is clearly NOT a money-raising measure
When they ‘sell’ their bedroom tax to the public, the other thing the Tories always stress is that it is a ‘money-saving’ measure. A scan of the internet has failed to tell me reliably how much, but I have seen figures between £700m and £1bn (if you’re reading this and you know, tell me and I will give the correct figure).

Practically, of course, it is not working like that. Many people are finding that – moving from social housing with excess capacity to private rentals without – their rents are in fact going up, and the removal of surplus bedrooms is costing MORE for the welfare bill ... but that is not my point.

My point, as my MP points out, is that it is an absolute con-trick. The bedroom tax CANNOT reduce surplus capacity AND raise money. In fact, the more-successfully it reduces under-occupancy, the less money it will yield – if the bedroom tax were to have 100% success in reducing empty-bedrooms, it would yield NOTHING!

The Tories are selling the bedroom tax as a measure which will reduce under-occupancy and raise money. It is a lie. At most, it might be presented as a measure which will reduce under-occupancy OR raise money. At worst – as my MP asserts – it is beginning to look simply like a cynical ploy to take money from vulnerable people who are unable to move to a smaller house.


Class cleansing
Which brings me to my point.

We have here a measure which is useless and ineffectual at reducing under-capacity … which does not even begin to address the problem. At the same time, it is useless and ineffectual at raising money and has the terminal flaw that, the more successful it is, the less it will raise.

So why, you ask, is the government proceeding with this ineffectual, flawed measure?

I think the answer lies in considering who are the victims.  Because the bedroom tax is not a universal tax, it is a directed tax.  It is directed solely at people on benefits.

The bedroom tax is so useless as a measure for either housing or taxing that its REAL function becomes obvious: it is a measure purely and simply to hurt those on benefits. It is ideologically-motivated; we have in power a government which so hates those on benefits – which so hates the idea of giving money to people who have not been slaving away for it within a capitalist workplace – that it is a case of any stick to hit a dog. And their reaction and strategy is simply to harm and damage the benefits class until they disappear. The Tories are loving ‘teaching them a lesson about life’ by making their lives miserable and difficult. They are motivated by a disdainful loathing which does not see real individuals, but only a stereotyped sub-group whom they would ‘cleanse’ from society.


(And, yes, the allusion to ethnic cleansing was intentional.)

It is not just the Bedroom Tax which is an offence to a civilised society, but the people who are implementing it. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Eastleigh Reveals The Bankruptcy Of Labour's Strategy

Eastleigh was a disaster for Labour – much worse than Galloway’s victory in West Bradford.


The Eastleigh failure
Last night was one of those nights that I ended up screaming at the TV.
Labour were DREADFUL in every way.

After everything the Tories have done, the Labour vote in Eastleigh flatlined.
9.6% in 2010; 9.8% in 2013 – and that, mind you, with a celebrity as our candidate.

There was a HUGE protest vote, but none of it went to Labour. It all went to UKIP. As Andrew Sparrow comments in the Guardian: ‘They have established themselves as the protest party of choice’.

If Labour had secured that protest vote – the UKIP vote went up from 1,933 votes in 2010 to 11,571 in 2013 – John O’Farrell would have won the election by 384 votes.

The UKIP woman was quite open about why Labour failed to secure that protest vote. On the doorstep, she told us, Labour people had been frustrated because the Labour Party had no policies.

If you are active in Labour Party campaigning, you will know that she was bang on correct. Time after time I am meeting people who are genuinely left-wing in their views, and furious with the government, but who cannot find in the statements of the shadow cabinet a single reason
to vote Labour, which simply refuses to commit itself to anything that they want. 


A set of parrots
The result was disappointing enough, but it was it the statements of the Labour Party leaders that reduced me to total despair .

The ‘story’ about Labour’s failure to secure a single additional vote in Eastleigh (the Labour vote actually fell by about a thousand) – and it was repeated ad nauseam – was that this was Labour’s 258th seat-to-win, and we never expected to win, so the result was nothing to worry about.
This was quite clearly the Party line on the matter.

I suppose it is inevitable that Party spokesmen are briefed on how they must respond to expected questions but PLEASE, if you are going to do so, practice different and personal versions of the Party line, instead of simply and lazily reciting the learned script. Why not develop a ‘well personally I think… but for the moment the Party response has to be....’ approach?
And wouldn’t it be refreshing if, every now and again, a Labour shadow minister actually answered the question?

No chance in our lifetime, of course. When asked to comment on immigration numbers, both John Denham and Chukka Umunna parroted the same line. The people of Eastleigh were not really worried by immigration per se, opined Denham – they were worried about the economic effects of immigration (the loss of jobs, the undercutting of wages etc.). What was needed was not to cut numbers, but properly 
to enforce these issues … that was where the government was failing. 

Chukka Umunna, of course, thus found himself confronted by the obvious question: would the Labour Party reduce the numbers of EU immigrants? Now everybody knows the answer to this – we cannot refuse EU entrants unless we leave the EU. But it was painful watching Umunna trying not to say so. The people of Eastleigh, he offered at least twice, were not really worried by immigration etc. per se – they were worried about the economic effects of immigration (the loss of jobs, the undercutting of wages etc.). What was needed was not to cut numbers, but properly 
to enforce these issues. Only when he was completely backed into a corner did Andrew Neil eventually force the undeniable truth out of him. 

Earlier, on Question Time, Angela Eagle – who was DREADFUL throughout, by the way – got herself caught in a similar kind of knot. The question was a simple yes-or-no: does Labour support the EU cap on banking. Her answer – for better or worse – was quite clearly no we don’t. But would she say so – not a chance. At least three times she explained laboriously that the real problem was the failure of the government to deal with ‘the bonus culture’ and ‘casino’ banking. And she was promptly slaughtered by the Tory woman who pointed out – absolutely truthfully and to applause – that the Labour government had presided over the loosest regime of banking regulation ever, with the 2008 crash as its consequence.

What was crazy about the whole debacle was that – if Ms Eagle had actually answered the question either way, Labour would have gained. If she had said no, she didn’t support the cap, which would damage the British financial services, she would have secured the agreement of everybody who opposes the EU, and all those who argue for financial pragmatism. If she had said yes, she did support the cap, she would have gained the support of thousands of people who want the bankers bashing.

But as it was, she just looked evasive and irresolute… which of course she was.


A hopeless leadership with a spineless strategy
Our leaders are absolutely hopeless. They seem in thrall to the polls, which they take to mean they are winning, just as long as they don’t upset anybody or take a moral stand on anything. They seem to believe that, to get elected, all they need to be is a Tory government in Labour’s clothing, and that they can triangulate the opposition to death.

The utter disaster with this policy is that it just doesn’t cut it with the electors, who see right through it for the cynical sham that it is. Lost left-wing voters won’t wear it because they can’t see any point in voting for a government which will merely continue Tory policies. And the Lib-Dems and Tories can’t see any point in going back to what they regard as a discredited New Labour administration … no matter how many spineless apologies the shadow cabinet offer them.

And the proof for this? EASTLEIGH! Where a generally right-of-centre electorate – that southern electorate whom we are told time and again we have to win over if we are to win the next election – utterly failed to cast a single extra vote for Labour. Angry as they were with the government, those right-of-centre protest voters did NOT come over to Labour … and yet it is on such people, and winning them over, that the shadow cabinet is pinning its whole election strategy.


A much worse disaster than West Bradford
Disaster. A much worse disaster than West Bradford. The voters of West Bradford, it could be argued, had actually moved left, and had just been fooled by a charlatan whose statements about Iraq appealed to a chunk of the Labour turnout. Subsequent by-elections have proved that Respect could not sustain that initial success.

Eastleigh is different, and much worse. Eastleigh proved that the shadow cabinet’s policy – of ignoring and resisting at all costs calls from its rank-and-file to protest the cuts, and instead seeking by a policy of continuous hedging to court the right-of-centre southerners – has comprehensively failed. There WAS a protest vote but it went (surprise, surprise) to the Party which has been protesting. The terrifying truth was that that protest vote moved right, not left, to express its anger, and that has to be a worry in absolute terms, never mind for the Labour Party.

It seems to be the general comment, today, that it is the Tory Party who are in ‘crisis’ after the election. I don’t see it. The only Party which has a realistic chance of unseating the Tories in a general election is Labour. And the Eastleigh by-election demonstrated that, down south, no matter how angry people are with the government, the current Labour Party strategy is failing completely to win ANYBODY over.
Today, it is the Labour Party who come out of the Eastleigh by-election in ‘crisis’.

So what is your answer, Mr Miliband … more of the same?