Sunday, 26 September 2010

Ed Miliband Elected Leader of the Labour Party

So, Ed Miliband just managed to edge past his brother David and win the contest to become the leader of the Labour party.

The media are already focussing on the fact that it was the votes of trade union members that finally proved crucial in Ed getting over the 50% line, in the complicated electoral college voting system used for electing Labour leaders. The Sun newspaper, Murdoch owned, has been running stories during the election referring to ‘Red Ed’ and I think we can expect more of this from the right wing press, which amounts to most of the UK papers. Ed Miliband, despite being raised in a communist household, is probably not even a socialist, but we can confidently expect this kind of line from the forces of reaction in the coming years.

My feeling is, that Labour party members (and affiliates) wanted to draw a line under the new Labour period, and with David Miliband being seen as the continuity candidate, firmed up by support from the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandleson, suffered from this desire for change. Ed, on the other hand, skilfully positioned himself in the role of change candidate, talking a more social democratic language than we have had from a leading figure in the Labour party since John Smith died.

Of course, candidates often talk to the left in progressive party elections, only to swing rightwards once elected, so we will have to wait and see how Ed Miliband positions himself on a variety of policy issues, not least the question of budget reduction. I expect him to follow a pretty soft left pathway, but even so, this is still preferable to the Blair/Brown years of relentless right wing policy initiatives. Incidentally, Caroline Lucas since becoming Green party leader, has to her credit, remained true to her principles, to the extent that some say, she has moved further to the left.

And what does this all mean for the Green party and wider politics in Britain? Well, I argued in a previous post, that I thought a David Miliband victory would be in the best interests of the Green party electorally, as he represented the new Labour brand. It could be, that Ed Miliband will garner votes from people who have in recent times voted Green in protest at the worst excesses of new Labour. But in terms of potential cooperation between the Labour and Green parties it certainly has possibilities. We may be in for a period where coalition government at national and local level is more of a reality, and I for one would be happier cooperating with an Ed Miliband led Labour party, than what Labour became over the last two decades.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Lib Dems are not a Party of the Left

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is reported in The Observer newspaper as saying that his party is not a party to the left of Labour and shouldn’t expect those voters to back them in the future. Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, it was to some extent the case, that disaffected Labour voters backed the party. The Iraq war, Trident renewal, and attitudes to taxation of the wealthy, were central planks in the advance of the Lib Dems over recent elections, but Clegg appears to have a different strategy in mind.

It is true that the Lib Dems have never really been a party of the left, their free trade ethos, hostility to trade unions and a desire to privatise public services, such as Royal Mail, have also been at the forefront of their policy ideas recently. Labour left an open goal for civil liberties to be exploited, so much so, that even the Tories managed to appear more progressive than them, but the Lib Dems also benefited from appearing as less authoritarian the Blair/Brown governments.

Now, you could say, with plenty of justification, that it hasn’t been difficult to be to the left of Labour in recent times, but electoral results do indicate that this stance has been successful for the Lib Dems. Watching Clegg’s speech to his party’s conference yesterday, I was minded of Tony Blair’s speeches to Labour party conferences, lecturing the party that if they wanted power, this is the way that it had to be. Admittedly, Clegg is not in Blair’s class as a conference speaker, or election winner, but the message was all too familiar.

The Labour party swallowed this line, those whose stomach allowed them to remain as members, for the power and privilege that it delivered, and for the short term, I expect the Lib Dems to do the same.

But longer term, elections can be lost, members can be lost and morale can generally sag, all of which happened to new Labour. I know some Lib Dem members and they are not the type of people to be comfortable with cutting welfare benefits and the like, and many of their voters in Haringey will feel the same way. Clegg was only really stating the obvious, when he said that left voters will have to go elsewhere in the future.

The Green party is the natural home for these members and voters. We are democratic and socially liberal, and we are on the rise politically. Caroline Lucas has made the breakthrough into Westminster as an MP, and we are gaining ground generally at local authority councillor level. If you care more about principle than power for its own sake, come and join a truly progressive party.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Haringey Councillors Urged to Fight Cuts in Services

Union members joined together last night to issue a ultimatum to Labour councillors in Haringey – reject government cuts or stand aside.

A demonstration was held outside Haringey Civic Centre calling for an end to cuts in the borough, and demanding councillors stand up against financial pressures from central government.

Jenny Sutton, a University and Colleges Union rep from the College of North East London was one of the leaders of the demonstration.

She told the Haringey Independent: “This is a Labour council and we are demanding they don’t impose Tory cuts – refuse to implement the cuts or stand aside and let people get elected who are going to fight.

“They cannot co-operate with these cuts because they have been elected to represent the people, not to do what the government tells them to do.
“What is being proposed is really savage and we have got to fight it where ever we can.”
The protest, ahead of the first cabinet meeting after the summer break, brought together a host of union representatives and activist from across the borough under the banner of Haringey Alliance for Public Services (HAPS).

The movement has been growing throughout the summer and organisers are hoping it will attract support from residents and councillors from across the political divide.
Richard Willmsen, a leading voice in HAPS, called on Lynne Featherstone, Lib Dem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, to break ranks from the coalition government and impose the austerity agenda being pursued.

He said: “Lynne Featherstone was not elected to take the kind of decisions she is being asked to take.

“She is supposed to be the Equalities Minister but the disproportionate impact of cuts on women is something she needs to look at.

“This borough has a proud history of resisting Tory cuts, and the Labour council needs to remember that and start acting for the people that elected them.”

Pamela Harling, the Green party campaigns coordinator for Haringey who attended the protest, said afterwards, “The coalition government’s plans for cutting public services will devastate service provision in this area and across the country. The Green party put forward a fully costed alternative proposal at the General election to reduce the deficit sensibly and at the same time to invest in green jobs, which would strengthen the fragile economic recovery. The government’s plans threaten to throw us back into recession and to make those least able to, foot the bill. The Green party fully supports this campaign in resisting these damaging cuts”.

Bulk of the report and picture by Tristan Kirk from the Haringey Independent

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Is AV Much of an Alternative?

Green party autumn conference, which is being held in Birmingham over the next few days, will debate whether or not to back the Alternative Vote referendum in a session on Monday 13 September. In the Green party, conference actually makes policy, unlike the main parties where conferences are little more than cheer-leading events for the leadership, where votes can be disregarded. Anyway, side swipe delivered, back to AV. Under an AV voting system, voters get to rank candidates 1,2,3 etc, and a winner needs 50% of first preference, or first and second preference votes to be elected.

I think the prevailing mood will be to back AV, recognising that this system is not proportional in any way, which is the kind of electoral system that we would like to see introduced, but on the basis that it will be a small step in the right direction, and will help the Green party elect more MP’s. Indeed, I am expecting one of my local party colleagues to make the case for AV on this blog at some later point.

I have to say though, that this is not my personal view. I can see that it will probably benefit Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion, with Labour voters likely to second preference the Green party, but I can’t see it doing us any good electorally anywhere else. To take the example of the London mayoral election in 2008, which is an AV type election, as guide to what might happen is instructive. The Green party candidate polled 23% of second preference votes, but these were useless as she only achieved 3.7% of first preference votes. In effect, the second preferences were wasted votes. Only the top two candidates in first preference votes, gain from second preferences.

The danger is, I think, that with the coalition government we have at present, the tendency of first preference Conservative and Lib Dem voters will be to second preference their coalition partner’s party at the ballot box. Labour voters will probably, by and large, second preference the Green party, but because we don’t get enough first preference votes in most constituencies, these will be wasted votes again. The AV system, coupled with boundary changes, could keep the ConDem government in power forever, which is why the Lib Dem leadership in particular, are so keen to move to this system. In my view, this is a highly undesirable outcome, saddling us with a reactionary, free trade neo liberalism, at a time when Labour is talking a more social democratic language in its leadership contest, than it has for a generation.

So although AV on the face of it seems a more democratic electoral system, it has the potential to build in a permanent government coalition of the right, with even less chance than under the present First Past The Post system, of getting the kind of radical changes that are needed to deliver the social and ecological justice that I would like to see.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Strange Case of Popular Austerity

A recent poll commissioned by the BBC showed that 60% of British voters are in favour of severe cuts to public spending now, to reduce the country’s budget deficit.

It does amaze me that the ConDem government, has managed so easily to focus public attention away from the causes of the budget deficit and onto public spending and general belt tightening. The Labour government did contribute to unnecessary public spending such as, PFI’s and PPP’s, but this was pioneered by John Major’s last Conservative government in the 1990’s. And, the huge sums spent on military adventures and retaining an out of proportion nuclear arms capability, were both supported by the Conservatives. The main reason that the public finances are so in the red though, is because the banks were, well bankrupt, and this debt fell onto the taxpayer. The Conservatives were advocating even greater liberalisation of the financial services industry than the then Labour government, so I can’t see how a Tory government would have avoided this recession, and the resultant loss of tax revenues that this caused. Nevertheless, the tactic of putting all of the blame on Labour seems to have worked so far.

But there you go, they appear to have convinced the public that this recession was all the fault of too much government, when in reality it was caused by too little government intervention in the private sector, which is now envisaged as rising phoenix like from the ashes to save the nation in its time of need. A strange kind of logic indeed.

Interestingly, the same opinion poll registers public hostility to cuts in public services, particularly health, education and defence, at the same time as approving of sharp reductions in spending. This hostility will surely grow as the actual cuts are made, because 25% spending reductions in services cannot be made by cutting ‘waste’. Frontline services will suffer severe cut backs, and when people feel these, in their day to day lives, I think the mood will change.

These cuts will be extremely damaging to our public services and to service users, but perhaps even more importantly, spending cuts at the pace advocated by the coalition government, endanger the fragile recovery in the economy. It has come to something, when the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has questioned the fairness of these cuts, with the heaviest burden for budget deficit reduction falling on those least able to shoulder it, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggesting that spending reductions should not be implemented too quickly, as they might throw us back into recession. These organisations are hardly bastions of left wing thinking, and I read today that even Boris Johnson, Tory mayor of London, is quoted as saying the government should be careful not to make spending cuts at the speed the coalition is demanding.

I expect this return to the Thatcherism of the 1980’s will lead to exactly the same outcome. That is, underfunded and extremely poor public services, which in turn will lead to wide scale social unrest. At least Thatcher had the foresight to increase police numbers and pay, in readiness for the unrest, but this government wants to cut the police force too. Turbulent times ahead, I think.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The War on Benefit Claimants

Benefits & Work Publishing Ltd report that the policy of hiring private sector 'bounty hunters' to catch 'benefit cheats' from the private sector was actually implemented by New Labour before this year's General Election.[1] The idea of extending the use of Experian services to catch Incapacity Benefit fraudsters came not from the ConDems but from Experian.

It struck me when Parliament went into recess and the war against ‘benefit cheats’ was ratcheted up by way of the bounty hunters to catch bogus Incapacity Benefit claimants story, that the ‘silly season’ was perhaps the most apt time for ratcheting up smear campaigns — not only poetically, but also in terms of media barons’ deployment of staff.

Actually though, my experience as a successful ESA tribunal appellant has told me that ‘bounty hunters’ already existed, although they themselves should — in my view — be charged with benefit fraud. I’m talking about the ATOS Healthcare ‘Approved Healthcare Practitioners’ who conduct Work Capability Assessments on behalf of the DWP.[2]

None of the physical tests recorded on the report by Dr Ratnam Ramayana [sic] of my Work Capability Assessment took place.

Further, in the ‘Occupational History’ section of his report on my Work Capability Assessment, he failed to include reference to my more than two decades of jobseeker benefit claimant status before my last waged work. Further, he failed to record that that last waged employment had only been so part-time that I still claimed JSA while doing it. I had also told him that I only stuck it out for 11 months because I learned through experience in it that I was more likely to go destitute in doing six hours cover duties per week at £7.81 per hour — and only £5 per week ‘earnings disregard’ — than get adequate in-service training to get more than 16 hours per week as a regular worker with own allocation of service users.[3]

Thus the omissions in the 'Work Capability Assessment' report on me conspired to make it look as if I was one of those people whose citing of mental health issues as reason for claiming Employment & Support Allowance was questionable. I had actually been looking for waged work as a lifelong disabled person, while government was pretending that Incapacity Benefit claimants were the only disabled people 'of working age' on 'out of work' benefits.

Like I say, in 2005-2006 I was only allowed to pocket the first £5 of my weekly earnings of £7.81 per hour. (That was except for the one Christmas week when covering for colleagues on Christmas hols netted me over 16 hours work.) Five pounds per week is less even than the hourly national minimum wage. Due to DWP understaffing and the ridiculous and demeaning admin burden of such measly ‘earnings disregard’ for JSA claimants, though I had conscientiously completed and submitted part-time earnings forms, the DWP had erroneously reported to my local council that I was not eligible for JSA. So the council wrote me saying that I would have to re-apply for Housing Benefit & Council Tax Benefit. (I wish the Government would ease up on giving me so much work to do!) Only when I gave up that paid work did I get time to get through to DWP to sort it out.

Government's failure to protect benefit claimants from hardship does not make tabloid headlines

Yet I was not the only one to suffer from DWP admin meltdown. In 2004-2005, JobCentre Plus failed to answer 21 million incoming calls to its helplines. Claimants affected sometimes experienced destitution as a result, reports Community Care magazine. (‘JobCentre Plus: Poor service continues’.[4]) That is 44% of all incoming calls. Meanwhile, only 5% of calls to the DLA/Incapacity Benefit helpline were answered.

Napoleon said: “Attack is the best form of defence.” Similarly, the moral of my tale is that criminally negligent government with a mass media that is constantly vigilant against the wrong targets finds that smear stories against those it has let down the most are its greatest self-defence.

But social workers and social care workers who defraud their service users face the risk of criminal prosecution. ATOS, while, gets more work at taxpayers’ — and especially vulnerable people’s — expense. (Even benefit claimants pay VAT, so we are all taxpayers.)

Alan Wheatley
Green Party Disability Spokesperson
And member of Camden Green Party

[1] Benefits & Work Publishing Ltd 6 Sepetember Newsletter

[2] See 'New benefit system labelled unfit', Community Care magazine search for 'ATOS', and you will see that my own experience of a quack service was not uncommon.

[3] The £5 per week 'earnings disregard' for JSA claimants aged 25+ has remained so low since 1988. See
'Why people work informally while claiming benefits'.

[4] Published 16 November 2006. Search find link at website currently not fully operational.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Are the Lib Dems Finished?

The latest YouGov opinion poll shows support for the Liberal Democrats at only 11% of the British public. This is the lowest level of support for the party since Menzies Campbell was bundled out as leader in October 2007.

This blog has forecast a slump in support for the Lib Dems ever since party leader Nick Clegg and his Orange Book acolytes decided to prop up David Cameron’s minority Tory government in May this year. I’ve spoken to many voters who backed the Lib Dems at the general election in May, and almost uniformly they say that they won’t be making that mistake again.

In between elections the usual excuse for poor opinion poll ratings for the Lib Dems is that they don’t get the same level of media coverage as Labour and Conservative, except at general election time, when some sections of the media at least, give them something approaching equal air time. The Lib Dems can’t use that excuse anymore though, as their party has been at the forefront of media attention, now that they are part of the government.

The problem runs much deeper than relative publicity, it is a problem of voter perception. They were viewed by the public as not Tory, and also a nicer type of Labour party, centre left politically. All of this is now out of the window, and the perception from their left leaning voters, probably more than half of their support, is of betrayal. Whilst those more on the right who supported them, are thinking they may as well vote Tory, and stop messing about with the Lib Dems.

Make no mistake about it, this spells trouble for Lib Dems and particularly Nick Clegg the leader who brokered the coalition government agreement. As stated above, the last time they were polling so poorly the then leader’s head was demanded by MP’s and party activists alike. I wonder what the odds are on Clegg being Lib Dem leader this time next year? Pretty long I image.

One theory is that if the Alternative Vote referendum is won, Clegg can claim he has secured a historic victory, and particularly if they manage to rig the constituency boundaries in the coalition’s favour, the Lib Dems will be part of government for a long time to come.

I’m not sure the public will back AV though, and opinion polls show a slight majority against a change to this electoral system, which I think, will harden as Labour and Conservatives will, in the main, campaign against AV in the run up to the vote.

When the massive cuts in public services and the hike in VAT start to bite, the Lib Dems may be down to single figure vote shares, and heading for electoral oblivion. Then perhaps members of this most opportunist of political parties, will finally see the writing on the wall. By this time though, it could well be too late, and all the electoral progress that they have made since the 1960’s will be reversed, and Nick Clegg can go off and join the Tories, rather David Trimble like.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Iraq – A Byword for Failure

The Western military occupation of Iraq has officially ended, with the withdrawal of tens of thousands of US combat troops from the country, after nearly seven and a half years of bloody conflict. Fifty thousand US soldiers will remain until next year at the earliest, but the majority national security role has now passed to the Iraqi army, with US military forces staying only as long as the Iraqi government requests them to stay.

This arrangement immediately becomes problematic, as Iraq doesn’t actually have a government, and hasn’t for several months, as rival factions in the parliament have been unable to agree to form one. Corruption is rife amongst the new ruling elite in Baghdad’s protected Green Zone, as hundreds of Iraqi civilians are murdered every month in sectarian attacks. Hardly a success story, but financial, as much as political, considerations in America have driven the rush to exit the country, as claims of victory have become more muted.

In fact, the failure of the mission is staggering, when even a cursory examination the outcome is considered.

For example:

The US alone has spent $750bn on the war and its aftermath.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead and millions injured and displaced.

Over 4500 Western troops dead, and over 50,000 wounded. Thousands more suffering combat related mental illnesses, with a high proportion of suicides.

Iraqi oil production is still below what it was under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Homes in Iraq enjoy fewer hours of electricity supply than under Saddam.

Trade unions in some sectors are banned in Iraq, and activists are harassed or worse.

The freedom of Iraqi women is much reduced compared to before the invasion.

Al-Qaida, which was non existent in Iraq under Saddam, is now thriving in the country.

Iran is now the regional power, and flexing its muscles in Gulf, much to the consternation of the supporters of this war.

Turkey has been unsettled by the autonomous area of Iraqi Kurdistan, which promises to be another running sore in the region for years to come.

We all know about the lies that were used to justify this war in the first place, but even in the post WMD no show shifting reasons, like we had to free the people, free the women, make them rich, brutal regime etc, the whole Iraq war and its subsequent fiasco, has been an unmitigated disaster.

The real reason for the war was to increase western, particularly US, corporate interests, by exploiting Iraq’s natural resources and opening up a new market for Western products, at the same time as making Israel feel more secure. It is a measure of the failure of this operation that even these more cynical goals have at best, been only partially realised, despite all the military might of the US.