Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What’s Wrong With Labour?

Until the lumpenproles rise, Labour will struggle to mount a coherent strategy. 

Labour Loves Losing
As Luke Akehurst pointed out in his sensible ‘stay-calm-and-keep-canvassing’ article yesterday, the Labour Party is going through a silly season at the moment. Some of it is the Tory press, rejoicing at Labour’s discomfiture. But, to be fair, most of it is self-inflicted, as various Labour MPs try to use the press to float their personal peccadilloes.

Labour – the message comes out – is in a vacuum. The doom-mongers are having a field day. We are told that the Party’s lead at the polls has slumped and all-but disappeared. Its leadership (especially Ed Miliband), we are continually reminded, is effete, privileged, disconnected, vacillating and couldn’t punch a hole in a paper bag. Above all, it is claimed with some justification, nobody knows what Labour stands for and, when the national party does make a pronouncement, it is usually disastrously out-of-tune with its rank-and-file membership.

The image we are being sold is of a Party in crisis.

The Full Brunt of Tory Britain
What makes this all the more inexplicable is that all this is happening at the very time that Tory Britain is coming home to roost:

  • The economy is flatlining; rumours of growth are truly pathetic. 

Moreover, what growth there is has been achieved at an horrific cost. Big business, it appears, has deigned to continue … as long as it is given a much bigger share of the pot – this is a government which has sold out to corporate capitalism on a scale hitherto unthinkable:

  • We have bailed out the banks and you can just feel how the Tories can’t wait to hand them over at a discount (as they did Northern Rock) to their rich friends.
  • We are handing over huge £multi-billion chunks of the NHS and other government services to private contractors.
  • I know that the government has waxed lyrical about the moral wrong of tax-avoidance … but what have they actually done to end the culture of tax-avoidance and off-shore saving which is wrecking the economy? Very little.
  • Also, having allowed the privatised utilities (notably rail, water and electricity) to charge inflation-busting price rises to upkeep the infrastructure, we are now finding that they have instead been handing over the balance to their shareholders and – now it comes to updating the infrastructure – are holding out their hands saying that they can’t possibly afford to update the infrastructure and need government grants to do so. (And when they get those grants, we are finding that they are paying chunks of them back as donations to the Tory Party.)
  • The Tories’ solution to the housing shortage has been to build fewer houses than at any time since 1923, and instead to give people preferential loans to buy houses that are continuing (in every place but the north) to rise in price way beyond their value; they have, in effect, turned the UK housing market into a kind of Ponzi scheme, and – learning nothing from the 2008 crash – have chosen to build its ‘recovery’ on sub-prime borrowing. 

Meanwhile, the government has conducted a war against those on benefits which has reduced them simply to the point where they cannot afford to live. The disabled, the unemployed, social housing, council tax benefit recipients … all have been clobbered, some people by a number of cuts. Wonga have licked their lips and donated £593,000 to the Tory Party. At the same time, Councils have been hit to the point where many are wondering whether they will be able to provide even statutory services at all beyond 2018 – and the worst-hit areas have been the poorest areas.

Meanwhile also, the government have ruined the working poor. Working tax credits have been slashed. Real wages have fallen faster than anywhere in Europe apart from Greece and a couple of other places – despite the fact that our economy is nowhere near the crisis point of other European economies (remember the point I made above that business, it appears, has deigned to keep our economy limping along as long as we have given them everything they wanted?)
We are told that unemployment is falling, but the ‘jobs’ (that are replacing the real public-sector jobs that are being lost) are part-time, casual and ‘zero-hours’ jobs which threaten to reduce the employee to a rights-less wage slave.
Across the board, workers’ human rights are being eroded. Legal Aid has been curtailed and is being marketised, Health & Safety and Equality & Diversity rules abolished, Unfair Dismissal rights reduced. You can tell that the Tories are just desperate to leave the European Court of Human Rights, so that they can truly reduce Britain to a rights-free zone.

The Dearth of Opposition
What I find astonishing, given the breadth and depth of this bonfire of the poor, is the almost total lack of reaction or interest amongst the poor themselves.

I went on a bedroom tax demonstration a while ago; some 70 well-meaning middle class protesters were chanting in a jolly kind of way, but they could only find one person there prepared to speak who was actually affected by the bedroom tax. An NHS protest in Darlington garnered barely 60 protesters. Recently, the North-East People’s Assembly boasted that it got at its ‘demonstration’ … wait for it ... 230 people (hardly a mass-movement).
The world is falling out of the poor’s bottom and nobody, it appears, could give a shit.

To be fair, part of this is because of the success of Tory propaganda, which turns one section of the poor against the other.
There are many good, decent, working class people – both in and out of a job – who have bought in to the Tory work ethic, that decent people will take a job – any job, on any terms – to ‘work themselves out of poverty’ … even though it is quite clear that the number of jobs falls far short of the number of people needing them, and that many of the jobs on offer today are designed to keep you in poverty not lift you out of it. It has always been a Tory given that they keep the number of unemployed artificially high to keep the workforce subservient and in fear.

But, even so, where are the disenfranchised poor? Why are they not out on the streets, protesting, rioting and looting (e.g. as they were in the 1980s)? They are nowhere to be seen. Years of draconian cuts, and in County Durham the crime rate has gone down.

If we would believe the Daily Mail, these ‘scroungers’ are staying at home in luxury playing on their X-boxes and drinking themselves into insensibility. The truth – as far as one can ascertain – is that they have simply gone to ground. They are ‘getting by’ by any means they can, keeping their heads down, rolling with the punches, getting into debt, watching soaps and living on soup … and hoping it will all go away.

A HUGE Lumpenproletariat
Marx defined a group of people whom he called the ‘lumpenproletariat’ – those people at the bottom of society who were so poor and unaware that they were apolitical and beyond politicisation. He ignored them – they would be of no use in his revolution, which he entrusted instead to the ‘proletariat’ (the politicised working class).

What I would suggest today is that Britain has a HUGE lumpenproletariat, which stretches way beyond the benefits-classes, most-of-the-way through the working classes, and well into the substrate of the lower-middle classes. There are just millions upon millions of people who don’t know about politics, who don’t see it as being of any relevance to their lives and who, moreover, aggressively reject any attempt to persuade them otherwise. In the May elections, on the social-housing-estate in my ward most decimated by the Tory cuts, and despite an enthusiastic campaign to ‘get out the vote’, just 12 people out of 223 voters could be bothered to go to the polling station which was, literally, just across the road.

Before the 1980s, Labour’s (and the Unions’) pitch would have been easy. They would have pointed out the harm the Tories were doing to the working poor, and the working poor would have turned out to elect them by a landslide. In fact, Heath’s Tories would never have dared to enact any of the measures Cameron’s Tories are serving up for starters.

Perhaps Thatcher knocked the stuffing out of the Labour movement. Perhaps we have been convinced by a neoliberal media. Perhaps we have failed to develop a Socialism appropriate for the times.
Whatever, things are different today.

The Lumpenproletariat and Labour’s Problem
The Labour Party find itself trapped by the political inertia of this huge lumpenproletariat.

I don’t think that Byrne, Murphy and the other rightists in the Shadow Cabinet would for one moment want to mount a crusade against the government’s war-on-the-poor (they actually agree with much of the government’s principles, if not its programme). But, even if they did want to wage such a war, they are probably correct in judging that it would be politically suicide so to do.

Because – amongst Britain voters – amongst Britain’s politicised citizens – de facto mainly amongst the middle classes and the wealthy – the Tory programme is playing very well thank you.
Given the nature of the people-who-vote nowadays, if Labour were to come out with even a pale imitation of the 1983 manifesto, they would get slaughtered at the polls.

In fact, given that both Parties are moving away from their membership to their donors for funding (and that Miliband, by eschewing the Union levy, has tied the Labour Party to this as the only way to secure funding), the Labour leadership is probably correct in suspecting that they might not even get as far as the polls with such a manifesto; which rich donor is going to fund a campaign which promises to damage – even ever-so slightly – rich donors?

So the Labour Party leadership – apart from a few polemical statements about the welfare wreckage and falling living standards – continues in practice to move right in terms of its actual policies, as it chases the people who matter electorally … the people who actually VOTE.
And, hey, the membership might moan that they have nothing which makes the Party any different to the Tories but, in our brave apolitical world, members have to realise that they are a luxury the Party can actually do without. We do not fund the Party or elections to any significant degree. We upset voters with our controversially political statements. The leadership do not really need members to get elected, they need voters, and as long as we are voting Labour that’s all we are indispensible for.

So there we have it – Labour’s problem. And it is nothing to do with Ed Miliband’s ears, or weak leadership, or lack of policies, or any of the other things that have been floated in the press recently.

Labour's problem, therefore, is this:
Labour OUGHT to be opposing the Tory attack on the poor, and 
the government’s capitulation to corporate capitalism.

BUT – given that the people whom this would help don’t vote, but that it would hurt many of the people who do vote – such a policy will not win the next election.

This leaves the leadership scratting about trying to find policies which will play to the people who do vote, but which are sufficiently different to the Tories’ policies to make it worthwhile voting Labour … a virtually impossible task, given that most of those people blame Labour for the mess we are in anyway.

And the solution?
Ultimately, the solution is the repoliticisation of the lumpenproletariat. This, given an appropriate campaigning strategy and a second Tory term after 2015, might well be less impossible than you might think. Poverty, persecution and subjection, when all the quick-fix options have run out, will have an inevitable effect of concentrating the mind.

Beyond that, however, Labour members have little to look forward to apart from a long slog to try to persuade a PLP whose vested interests lie elsewhere to stand up for principles which have a whiff of ‘Labour’ about them, and of the need to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

But, as today figures on employment and wages deliver yet another body-blow to the North-East, one has to wonder whether people will ever wake up to what is happening.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The ‘Bedroom Tax’ – false dawns, and a loophole that works

Before we start, I hate the ‘Bedroom Tax’ … probably more than you. For me, its greatest evil is that it denies anybody on welfare benefits a ‘home’ – it means that all they can have is a temporary roof over their heads, until their circumstances change.
However, much as I hate it, I do have to caveat some of the daft suggestions people are making about the 'bedroom tax'.
And I do know a loophole which, to my amazement, people are making much less of than they might.

A couple of non-starters
Let’s start with an obvious statement: if the solution to the ‘Bedroom Tax’ were so easy, somebody cleverer than you and I would have found it already.
So when you read those internet blogs purporting to have found an easy answer which will undermine/overturn the ‘Bedroom Tax’, it’s probably a myth.

Let’s dismiss two of the least intelligent:

1. Why don’t the Councils refuse to collect it?
People who suggest that councils or Registered Providers (‘RPs’) could ‘refuse to implement’ the bedroom ‘tax’ misunderstand its nature. This is because it is not actually a ‘tax’ at all, and nobody ‘collects’ it. It is a reduction of housing benefit by the government to the tenant. The housing provider has no influence over it whatsoever.
It’s like me telling you to refuse to implement a parking fine I have incurred.

2. The Councils should refuse to evict tenants who fall into arrears
Refusing to evict tenants who fall into arrears as a result of the bedroom tax would be disastrous, not least financially to the Council/RPs.
But it would also be disastrous to the tenants. What would you propose to do with the arrears – just let them mount up (which would saddle these vulnerable people with a mountain of never-payable debt for the rest of their lives) ... or do you plan to write the arrears off (? – just for Council house tenants, or are you in effect suggesting that Councils should pay the bedroom tax of every social tenant by clearing the bedroom-tax-resultant arrears of everybody who rents from an RP – best of luck to the Council that suggests doing that out of the rates)?
This is a bonkers suggestion, utterly unworkable – the clue being that not a single council has done it.

Less unworkable suggestions which still need a caveat
Not all the ‘solutions’ out there are stupid as these (and some RPs are actually trying them) but – imho – they still have serious drawbacks.

3. Reclassification
Reclassification is less impossible, a couple of councils have tried it (Leeds and Nottingham) and there are rumours that some RPs intend to do so. Reclassification, however, also has its problems. Quite small numbers of houses are involved, and the houses which can be reclassified don't necessarily match the houses with 'bedroom tax' victims. 
Reclassification permanently devalues the value of the Council’s/PR’s housing stock. It also permanently reduces the rent take. One might have some sympathy if these were huge greedy tax-avoiding capitalist corporations, but they are not. RPs are usually relatively small non-profit organisations.
Reclassification *does* shift the damage of the ‘bedroom tax’ from the victims to the RPs, which is a noble and generous thing to do, but long-term it is not a wise move significantly to reduce the financial viability of our RPs – it will reduce their power to borrow and, thus, their power to provide new housing.

Also, the government has said it will penalise financially councils which have reclassified their social housing. It hasn’t done so yet, so we wait to see how damaging reclassification will turn out for these Councils, and the services they provide other than housing.

4. The ‘box room’ myth
Welwyn Hatfield Council, a Tory Council no less, has tried to get round the ‘bedroom tax’ by using an old law to reclassify some of its smaller bedrooms as box rooms. But it was established at the very start of the 'bedroom tax' saga that the law does not support the interpretation, so we wait to see whether that will work.

The problem with this particular idea (that a room under 50sq ft does not ‘count’ for bedroom tax) is that the law it cites simply does not say what it is claimed it says. You can read the actual law here:

You will see that this law simply does *not* define a bedroom - it defines overcrowding, and whether it is usable for the bedroom tax is moot. In fact, the DWP explicitly stated in its guidance (at that:

‘Bedroom size. We will not be defining what we mean by a bedroom in legislation and there is no definition of a minimum bedroom size set out in regulations.’
To be fair, this statement itself is challengeable at law, but it is all very uncertain – on some of the legal complexities regarding this, try here:

A loophole which works
All of which makes it surprising that people are making very little of an allowed loophole which *does* work.

Because, in March 2013, following a Supreme Court decision in (and therefore back-dated to) May 2012, the DWP announced that:
‘local authorities should allow an extra bedroom for children who are unable to share because of their severe disabilities.’
Under ‘bedroom tax’ rules, all children under 10, and two children of the same sex under 16, are expected to share a bedroom … UNLESS:
in the case of ‘a severely disabled child … they would seriously disrupt the sleep of another child at night if they were to share a bedroom’. 
Anyone, therefore, who has found themselves hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ because children who previously had their own bedrooms are now officially classified as ‘expected-to-be-sharing’ – and where one of those children is classified in any way as ‘special needs’ – should go to their doctor and school SENCO, getting from them a statement that the nature of that special need means that they will ‘seriously disrupt the sleep of another child at night if they were to share a bedroom’. Then take that to your RP and ask them to organise your exemption from the ‘bedroom tax’ on those grounds. 

As a former SENCO, it is my experience that most children at school have *some* kind of special need, and that many children who might be regarded as SN are not on the school register because the parents have not flagged up with the school the problems they are facing. Any child with ADHD, ADD, autism, Asperger’s, emotional fragility, violent outbursts, a history of abuse or a number of other relevant special needs (e.g. sleeplessness, sleepwalking, epilepsy etc.) should surely qualify, and most professionals will be prepared to comment on the severity of the problem after a little explanation and clarification by the parents. Moreover, it will be a brave (and heartless) RP which refuses to process such a case in the face of letters from the school and the doctor … in short, *it’s worth a try*.

Watch this space
Thus, apart from possibly some flexibility around the government-allowed exemption on the grounds of a child’s disability, there *is* no ‘easy fix’ to the bedroom tax, and I wish campaigners would stop attacking councils and councillors because they cannot wave a magic wand at it.

I am currently putting the finishing touches to my own ‘cunning plan’ to ameliorate the ‘bedroom tax’, which I hope to be able to put before Durham County Council in September … and I shall update this blog with the details if and when it happens.