Archive for May, 2013

Different but equal: the problem society doesn’t want to talk about


30 May

Time to balance the scales

This blog won’t be a bundle of laughs, but not talking isn’t an option.

It doesn’t matter if men talking about gender and feminism can stand accused of gesture politics, insincerity, ignorance or grandstanding – it matters more that you’re doing something to change things for the better.

Tricky subjects need to be confronted and, bluntly, the last year has left me stunned at some of the horror stories about violence towards women, sometimes treated by mainstream media as if they were just aural or visual wallpaper.

The vicious rape and attempted murder of a young Delhi student was an exception in terms of media coverage although the act was breathtakingly, casually evil and the upsurge of popular anger and desire for change were unexpectedly positive outcomes.

Sexual violence is also a ‘fact of life’ in war and conflict: most recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Mali and in Syria deliberately used as a weapon of war. But violence against women doesn’t just take place in times of war and in developing countries.

The World Health Organisation indicates that approximately 20% of women (and 5–10% of men) report being victims of sexual violence as children across the globe.

I’m not underplaying the abuse of boys and young males, particularly alarming being the seemingly institutional abuse perpetrated by members of the Roman Catholic priesthood across Europe, Latin America and the USA, but the scale and scope of domestic abuse, genital mutilation, rape as a weapon of war and casual misogyny means violence against women is systemic and, I’d argue, endemic.

Let’s not mince words: violence against women is a gross global violation of the human rights of half the people on the planet; and crosses every social and economic class, every religion, race and ethnicity.

In the UK we don’t have far to look for evidence. The abuse of girls and very young women in care in Oxford, Rochdale, the epidemic of child abuse unearthed after the Jimmy Savile case, a seemingly endless list of famous people arrested, charged and convicted of the most heinous acts against, predominantly, girls.

To say nothing of the two women who are killed by violent partners or family members in the UK every single week.  

This week, Facebook finally got round to banning content from their site which incites or glorifies rape, violence and misogyny.

I’ll repeat that for those of you, like me, who can’t get your head round the fact it has taken years to achieve this: Facebook has only now decided to ban content which glorifies rape and other crimes of violence against women.

That it took sustained campaigning to force the company’s hand shames us all.

It also says more about the twisted morality of all involved  than it does about supposed right to free speech  – or any other pseudo-intellectual cloak of convenience being used – allowing the type of hatred and poison which simply wouldn’t be allowed to exists if gender roles were swapped.

This weekend I’ll be at the Derby in Epsom.

What has that to do with the subject in hand?

It is exactly 100 years since Emily Wilding Davison was killed on the Epsom racecourse by the King’s horse, as she protested in favour of the revolutionary concept that women should be allowed to vote in elections.

A century on and a cursory look round the boardrooms of the country, our workplaces, our Parliament or the accident and emergency units of the nation’s hospitals tells us all we need to know about where we are on real-life gender equality.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Even if you do nothing more, sign this petition here to ask the UK government to instigate a public enquiry into how the police and public authorities deal with violence against women.

Economics: ‘a set of theories in search of a reality’


24 May

 

Professor Robert Reich at Congress House

Despite opening with a summary of economics as ‘dismal science’, Professor Robert Reich was in fine form on Wednesday evening addressing an audience of trade unionists, academics, MPs and third sector organisations at Congress House in central London.

Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at University of California Berkeley and was President Clinton’s Labour Secretary and has added his voice to left-leaning US Keynesians like Joseph Siglitz who are doing a fantastic job of exposing austerity economics as a global fraud being perpetrated on some of the western world’s largest economies.

A senior American politician is an unlikely source for advocating significant government intervention, borrowing and spending, but Professor Reich was authoritative and convincing in his critique of the current crisis. He coherently argued an alternative to the received wisdom on free markets providing solutions to anything, other than making rich people even wealthier.

 The roots of the post 2008 problem lie in a combination of unemployment and falling/stagnant wages reducing the taxation take and sucking any consumer demand out of the economy. Raising consumer demand, rather than the one-eyed neoliberal ‘supply side’ mantra, was key to economic growth and the way to do this is, drum roll….increasing wages and borrowing where the return is greater than the cost (my emphasis).

The British Labour Party leadership is currently bobbing and weaving trying to avoid being portrayed as borrowers and spenders, but as Prof Reich showed the great reforming governments of the 20th Century did just that: Franklin D Roosevelt (in office for 12 years!) and the post–war Labour Government were cited and rather than obscure theorising, Reich argued that ‘the purpose of an economy was to sustain or improve people’s living standards’.

Hardly revolutionary Marxism, but a succinct and sharp skewering of the default setting of Republican, Troika and Coalition economics.

Describing globalization as a term which had gone from obscurity to meaninglessness without stopping, Reich pointed out that the median wage in the USA was 8% lower than it had been in 2000. The problem wasn’t wealth creation, it was the distribution of wealth in such a way that working and middle class people didn’t have disposable income with which to drive consumer-led growth.

 As he wryly pointed out, we had socialism for the super-wealthy – in the shape of intervention, nationalising banks and financial support – while the rest of us had free market barbarism – fend for yourselves, expenditure cuts, joblessness and homelessness rising – stuffed down our throats.

He put the rise of Syriza, Tea Party, UKIP and other protest movements of both left and right down to the failure of conventional politics to provide answers to an economic system which didn’t operate in the interest of a majority of citizens and didn’t spare the corruption of American politics by Wall Street.

In concluding, Reich opined that with the failure of trickle-down economics rich people would be better off with a smaller share of a rapidly-growing economy than the huge share of a flat-lining economy, but whoever said that capitalism was either logical or coherent.

He spoke about corporate tax avoidance, Wall Street and in a Q&A run by Faisal Islam of Channel 4 gave trenchant views on German growth, the Euro, Henry Ford and, perhaps best of all said that economics was ‘a set of theories in search of a reality’.

 Quite.  

‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.’


20 May
Holed beneath the water-line

Not waving, drowning

It was Napoleon Bonaparte who said never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake –  and with that in mind I’m eating popcorn with my feet up, watching the Conservative Party commit certain suicide.

 It is quite incredible that what was once the Western world’s most successful political  organisation hasn’t won an election for 21 years – yet still seems intent on cutting its own throat.

Don’t let me stop you, lads and lasses……

A large chunk of ‘why?’ can be found amongst the remnants of David Cameron’s leadership authority and political credibility, both shredded beyond repair.

After disastrous opposition spells under William Hague, Michael Howard and Ian Duncan-Smith, each one more right -wing and Eurosceptic than the next, David Cameron was elected as a fresh-faced metropolitan moderniser who’d lead the Tories towards compassionate Conservatism.  Nowadays he’s being held hostage by a party eating itself alive.

He has failed to staunch the relentless, obscure bloodletting over the UK’s relationships with Europe; failed to convince his Neanderthals on equality for same sex marriages, failed to tame his Party; and above all fails to convince the general public his Coalition is competent – and without the air of competence, everything else just slides off the wagon.

Opinion polls still show surprisingly good numbers for Cameron, even in the midst of the Tory electoral tailspin. He is more popular than Messrs Miliband and Clegg, more popular than the Coalition and, crucially, more popular than his own party.

 But that matters not to his Europhobic Right (please let’s stop calling them sceptics) and the knuckle-draggers who can’t forgive him failing to win a majority following a hugely unpopular government in power for 13 years.

To them – and only them – he didn’t win because he wasn’t right-wing enough.

No, really.

That’s what they think.

His promise of a Referendum on the European Union, designed to show him as strong and decisive, made him look weak and feeble in the teeth of UKIP’s surge and the Tory media’s relentless, moronic anti-foreigner rhetoric.  

Poor Lord Snooty: he’ll never be right-wing enough for Westminster bubble fantasists who think British public opinion and the leader columns of the Daily Mail are one and the same. 

And comparisons with John Major’s pointless, flaccid 1992-1997 administration have effectively called ‘last orders’ on Cameron’s tenure.

Now all we have to look forward to are internecine Tory warfare, anti-foreigner rants fuelling racism even further and desperate PR stunts in a futile, flailing grab to retain political power.

It is the last thing the UK needs, with the economy battered and bleeding.

But it helps explain why the Tories have gone from the natural party of governance to the natural home for cranks, bigots and losers: the modern Conservative Party puts its own interests before everything else, including the prosperity, cohesion and health of the nation.

Quel domage, as the little corporal from Corsica would have it.

‘Where there is despair, may we bring hope…’


10 May

 

Everyone?

Bonus points for anyone recognising Francis of Assisi’s quote as used by Thatcher, but following Wednesday’s look at UKIP let’s consider the available alternatives for Labour.

Ed Miliband ran into difficulty recently in not admitting a Labour government will borrow more. With demand deliberately sucked out of the economy by cuts, some shock treatment is necessary so yes, Labour will borrow more: but spend it on building social housing, schools, improving infrastructure and helping small and medium sized businesses create sustainable jobs by lending to them and having a business tax structure which encourages and stimulates growth.

Can the UK afford this?

In four years since the 2008 crash, the 1,000 richest Britons (defined as having personal wealth exceeding £80 million) comprised just 0.003 per cent of the adult population. Yet this thousand people increased their wealth by £190 billion.

That’s £190,000,000,000.

Increased by.

The UK’s problem isn’t lack of wealth, it’s the grossly uneven distribution of that wealth and the concentration of obscene amounts of it, and the power, resources, influence and capital which goes with it, in the hands of a few people. 

If the £190bn increase had been subject to capital gains tax, it would have yielded £53bn for the Exchequer. To say nothing of the money legally avoided by skilful use of the UK’s labyrinthine tax code by the super rich.

In November 2011 the Tax Justice Network revealed that £69.9 billion is lost by tax evasion on a yearly basis. ‘Never in the field of human taxation has so much been owed by so few to so many’?  That figure, they point out, “represents 56% of the nation’s total healthcare spend.”

The Right’s hypocrisy on this was (accidentally) summed up by Toby Young in The Telegraph in February 2011 when he said “Tax avoidance isn’t morally wrong. It’s perfectly sensible behaviour.”  Put simply, if we halted tax avoidance and its cousin tax evasion, we would clear the entire national deficit.

Labour also needs to explicitly state that we will re-distribute wealth. Let’s not duck the issue by pretending a circle can be squared: it is necessary and just to do so. We should actively go after the corrupt bankers who brought the economy to its knees and seek redress

And even if we ignore the root of our economic problem, take just one idea that Labour could and should make the running on: a reform of housing benefit to stop the obscenity of taxpayers funding already wealthy private sector landlords and incentivising them to raise rents. This move would free up a huge portion of over £23bn per annum to invest in, say, urban regeneration or green technology.

If the rancorous debate over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy taught the Left anything, it was surely that abandoning industrial policy in favour of a deregulated City of London ultimately led to the Crash of 2008. This is the imbalance which is really crippling the economy, over-reliance on the financial sector. 

Labour urgently needs to set out an industrial and manufacturing policy geared to shift the balance away from the failing finance sector towards engineering, innovation, manufacturing, transport, green energy and other initiatives to develop productive, well remunerated jobs which inject and stimulate demand back into the economy.

We should also stop sitting on a non-existent fence and make the case for nationalizing the utilities again, taking power away from the Big 6 cartel currently holding the nation to ransom. And end the national joke which is the privately run railway sector as well as stating clearly that we will reverse the idiocy of selling off the Royal Mail.

There are compelling arguments for breaking up the banks by using the 82 per cent of RBS and 39 per cent of Lloyds’s already owned to set up a National Investment Bank.

George Osborne is desperate to re-privatise both RBS and Lloyds and prevent Labour sectioning them up then reconstructing them to drive a national economic recovery – neoliberal ideology trumps everything else, including common sense. It goes against their core dogma to compel banks (even those which taxpayers own!) to prioritise lending to industry, kick-start the economy and get growth going. Because they favour a fully marketised State and letting ‘markets’ decide everything, Cameron, Osbourne and Co are prisoners of their own political ideology.

John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw has argued that in defining the anti-austerity alternative, Labour should reverse the bedroom tax, replace workfare with a “compulsory jobs guarantee,” offer a VAT cut or temporary “holiday,” implement the High Pay Commission report in its entirety, scrap Ofgem, and bring in meaningful energy price regulation.

Labour should also offer a 33-40 per cent cut in university tuition fees, limit rail fare increases to at or below inflation, re-impose the 50p income tax rate for the super rich, impose a mansion tax on the very wealthiest and repeat the Bankers’ bonus tax.

Taken together, it is a package for economic growth, fairness and social cohesion.

Ed Miliband can offer the public optimism rooted in a realistic appraisal of where the world and national economies stand. If he breaks free of New Labour’s outdated obsession with centrism, he can more easily expose the Tory-led Coalition as ideological, amoral economic vandals – but he can’t do this by promising to travel essentially the same path or be a bit less harsh.

 I spoke to a senior councillor in Waltham Forest and a comrade who used to be a councillor in Lambeth yesterday and the biggest point of agreement reached was that offering a positive alternative and the politics of hope was essential if we’re to make this Coalition a one term government.

 Setting out a genuinely radical Labour alternative says to those flirting with UKIP – and everyone else – that there really is an alternative to closing the door and pulling a duvet over our heads, one which tries to shape the world we live in and not run away from it. 

 That won’t be an easy task, but it is surely a prize worth fighing for.

We need to talk about UKIP


08 May
‘we’ve created a monster!’

I’ve previously argued that the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is an unprecedented opportunity for the Labour Party because it splits the right wing vote.

Labour is the only possible Parliamentary alternative to the failed neo-liberal ideology of both Right (Conservative) and Centre Right (Liberal Democrats) and still contains a significant bloc of socialists and progressives capable of pushing policy in a radical direction.

However, the residue of New Labour’s ‘triangulation’ strategy – in short, disregard core voters and concentrate on attracting right-leaning voters in the south East of England by, er, not being radical – still permeates the thinking of Labour’s leadership. This idea died on it’s feet as the Labour vote declined in three successive elections but the whole school of thought creaks alarmingly with the emergence of a right wing populist party positioning itself as a ‘none of the above’.

But first of all, some much-needed perspective on Nigel Farage’s UKIP. Both David Cameron and Ken Clark were spot on; UKIP provides a safe home for racists, homophobes and xenophobes, cranks who believe the Tories aren’t right wing enough and want to turn the clock back to the 1950s. UKIP wants you to pull the curtains and lock the doors in case your grandchildren are kidnapped and sold into slavery by a passing Frenchman.

And the media’s kid glove treatment of Nigel Farage has been nauseating in extremis.

Rather than some anti-Establishment crusader, Nigel Farage is the son of a stockbroker from Surrey; he is a former Conservative MP educated at public school,; he worked in the City; he’s paid (irony alert 1) in Euros and is married to (irony alert 2) a German banker.

The voice of common sense, the ‘plain speaking man in the pub’?

Do me a favour.

He and UKIP got a quarter of a low turnout in the English shire counties, the heartlands of Tory support and exactly the sort of locations where reactionary opinion and insular behaviour are the norm.

This support (26% of 31%) translates as about 7% of the UK voting population: hardly the seismic shift portrayed by an already viciously right wing media and their commentariat.

To return to the theme of this blog, it is the source of the vote which provides comfort to progressives: these votes came from the core Tory vote, the knuckle draggers and cap-doffers who always vote Conservative.

This is what is sending shivers down the spines of Tory MPs in seats with majorities of less than about twelve thousand votes.

And rather than nod our heads sagely saying UKIP has a point about welfare, immigration and Europe, Labour should use these cranks as the yardstick defining where we stand.

Immigration isn’t the cause of poor public services, this is down to a government using the global financial crisis to privatise, run down and roll back the State.

Unemployment isn’t caused either by Europe or by immigration: it is a pool of workless people deliberately created in order to supress wages, keep unions quiet and make working people grateful for crumbs.

When twelve people are chasing every job even in affluent parts of the UK, the ‘army of workshy scroungers’ propaganda from IDS and Co. looks as threadbare and shabby as the morality of the multi-millionaires pontificating on it.

Two years before an election is the perfect time for Labour to distil the core message, one capable of penetrating the right wing media filter.

We need to offer lost voters an alternative to continuing neoliberal austerity and a retreat into xenophobia and the bizarre belief that Britain can thrive as a buccaneering hub of free trade which doesn’t let Johnny Foreigner over the doorstep.

Friday’s blog will set out some ideas for this alternative.

Feel free to comment on them; they’re just the ideas of one Labour Party member who thinks both the Party and the country can do much, much better.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts


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