Thursday, 20 December 2012

2012: How the NHS Became Privatised

2012 will go down as a cataclysmic date in the history of the English health service. It was the year when the virus of privatisation finally gained control of the cell nucleus of the NHS and began its destruction in earnest.

If you listen to the politicians you wouldn’t know it. According to David Cameron, “we will not be selling off the NHS.” If you believe Nick Clegg, “there will be no privatisation.” They have been able to get away with this deception because the transformation they unleashed is messy. It is happening everywhere, but not uniformly. It is hidden by its very scale and spread.

But take a step back and the patterns are unmistakable. The controversial Health and Social Care Act passed in March 2012 ended the English National Health Service in all but name by abolishing the 60-year duty on the government to provide comprehensive healthcare for all. In its place is not so much a new structure as a process with its own dynamic-that of a snowball tumbling down a hillside.

All across the country treatments that patients used to receive are no longer available to them. Hip and knee replacements, tonsillectomies and cataract operations are among the procedures being restricted, forcing patients to wait longer, suffer in pain, or go private. Surgeries, wards, units and community services have been closed and clinical staff shed as the NHS desperately seeks to make “savings” of £20 billion.

Private GP surgeries near you

With perfect symmetry, the private sector expects to win £20 billion of business from the NHS, according to the corporate finance adviser Catalyst. Huge slices of the health service are being awarded to the highest bidder. With remarkable speed a few gluttonous companies: Virgin Care, Serco, Care UK – have secured dominant positions in the market, gobbling up services from Cornwall to Cumbria. The defenders of the reforms talk about competition driving improvements, but already it is consolidation, not competition, that we are seeing.

There may be a GP surgery near you that is now run by Virgin. Until March 2012 Virgin Care did not exist, although it had been operating under another name since 2010. It now runs at least 358 GP practices. Behind the friendly PR fa├žade of the bearded entrepreneur, patients see a different face, cold and sinister. Take the Kings Heath Practice in Northampton. Since Virgin took it over from the NHS, patients have had to wait up to three weeks for an appointment instead of three days, three GPs have been reduced to one, and three nurses cut to one part-time nurse. And while the company boasts about the surgery’s opening hours, often there are no clinicians present, just an open empty building. Locals complain that Virgin has “brought Third World medical standards to Kings Heath.

Consolidation is also happening in out-of-hours GP cover. In November Care UK took over out-of-hours services for up to fifteen million people across England by simply buying Harmoni, a company that started as a GP co-operative. The only competition patients see is between their health needs and the profit margin. People in Cornwall know which wins out: an official report in July found the Serco-run out-of-hours service in the county was under-staffed and falsified data to meet targets.

The biggest privatisations are taking place in community health services. The government’s “any qualified provider” policy means whole services must be subject to competition, leading to the demise of NHS-run options. Local NHS bodies have already been instructed to outsource 39 types of service. Dubbed the “39 steps to privatisation,” this covers everything from autism care to wheelchair provision. Even publicly provided vasectomies are for the chop.

The ‘logic’ of privatisation

The logic of privatisation favours a few big winners over the co-ops, charities and social enterprises that act as window dressing for the policy. A prime example came on April Fools’ Day, 2012, when Virgin Care took over a £500 million contract to deliver community services in parts of Surrey. The joke was on Central Surrey Health, a “social enterprise” formed by former NHS staff that was praised by David Cameron and hailed as a model for the Big Society. Central Surrey Health scored the most points in the bidding process, but the contract was given to Virgin because of its financial backing.

Not even hospitals offer shelter from the destructive gale blowing through the NHS. Many Hospital Trusts are being pushed to the financial brink by the disastrous legacy of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), under which new hospital building was financed by a deal that is akin to paying by credit card, leaving Trusts with crippling debts to the banks.

This has led to some Trusts literally going bankrupt, such as the South London Healthcare Trust which serves over a million people in three hospitals. Its PFI debts, like a black hole, have sucked in surrounding hospitals and units, like Lewisham’s A&E department which is now facing closure. Patients are left high and dry. As for the Trust, it is to be carved up and offered piece by piece for privatisation, with the familiar vultures-Virgin, Serco, Care UK and Circle-picking at the remains.

In a first for the private sector, in February 2012 Circle took over an entire general hospital at Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire. The hospital has since fallen 19 places in the patient satisfaction rankings and its finances have worsened, forcing Circle to ask for a bailout after just six months.

Private income at NHS Hospitals

Combine this with another controversial aspect of the Health and Social Care Act-the ability for NHS hospitals to earn half their income from private patients-and the implications are scary. A chilling investigation by ITV’s Exposure program secretly filmed doctors assuring a private patient that her money would buy priority over NHS patients within the same hospital. It revealed a tragic case where a consultant left half way through a dangerous birth to carry out a private caesarean section. The baby later died. A two-tier health system is not on the way; it is already here.

The drive for profit is insatiable, not least because many of the dominant players in the new market are owned by ruthless private equity firms. Similar funding models to that which led to the collapse of the Southern Cross care-home company are now in the NHS. For example, Hospital Corporation of America, which is entering into joint ventures with NHS hospitals, is majority owned by three private equity firms including Mitt Romney’s notorious Bain Capital.

All of this comes before the most high-profile part of the Health and Social Care Act has even been fully implemented-the replacement of PCTs with Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). Sold to the public as “giving power to GPs,” this transfers responsibility for spending £60 billion of public money to largely unaccountable new groups, who will in turn outsource the work to privatised “commissioning support units”-allowing the private sector to decide how taxpayers’ money is spent. If that sounds complicated, it is. David Nicholson, the head of the health service, fears it could end in “misery and failure.

The Labour party, after its record in government of opening the way for privatisation, has changed tack in opposition, repeatedly pledging to repeal the Act and scrap the market if elected. These are important commitments that it must be held to.

But the quantity of contracts currently being signed may take the NHS over a tipping point, where the “facts on the ground” cannot be reversed. That is why it is crucial to monitor, expose, slow and disrupt the destruction of the NHS now, while there may still be time to save it.

Alex Nunns is an NHS campaigner, writer and editor whose blog about a job offer from Care UK went viral in July 2011. This article was sponsored by the NHS Support Federation

This post was first published at Liberal Conspiracy

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Haringey at the end of the welfare state

You may have seen the Guardian’s two-pager on poverty and homelessness on 19 Nov. The New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) report ; Everyday Austerity; life at the end of the welfare state looks at the impact of the ConDems’ myriad benefit cuts in Haringey – and Birmingham. It details the local effects of cuts in tax credits, housing benefits, benefits for disabled people – and the horrendous prospect of more to come, with £28 billion to be stripped out of the national welfare budget by 2017. Haringey Citizen’sAdvice Bureau has estimated that the ‘benefits cap’ of £500 per week being introduced by the ConDems in April 2013 will hit around 1100 families in the borough, with 600 of them losing over £100 a week.

There are now at least four food banks in Haringey, serving those hit by cuts and increasingly by the new sanctions regime which, since October, allows job centres to deny people benefits for up to three years if they offend against the very rigid jobseeker rules.

The NEF report reveals:-
      Drastic effects of the limits on housing benefit/local housing allowance which were introduced in January this year, placing 6900 Haringey homes that were affordable for people claiming these benefits now out of their reach. Up to 1100 families are expected to become homeless as a result –plus over 800 single people who are ineligible for local authority rehousing and are already cramming into church-run night shelters.
      A mounting personal debt crisis, with three and a half times as many applications for ‘crisis loans’ in 2009/10 compared to 2005/6. (The Social Fund which provided “crisis loans” will close and the responsibility for making them devolved to local councils in April 2013 – it’s not yet clear what Haringey will do about this).
      A huge overload for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which now sees queues from dawn onwards of people needing debt advice, help with appeals against benefit cuts and withdrawal of benefits due to sanctions and the much-criticised ATOS medical tests. (These tests have re-classified many disabled people – often inappropriately- as ‘fit for work’ in the worst job market for decades).

All this comes as Paul Nicholson, of Taxpayers against Poverty (TAP), has begun a campaign against cuts in Council Tax Benefit (see earlier post on this blog and the Haringey Independent). From April 2013, central government money for this benefit will be reduced, and councils will have to either source more of its cost themselves, or devise their own local schemes at lower rates. Haringey’s consultation about this ended on November 19th, with TAP and many others arguing that it is both unjust and unrealistic to expect people already facing benefit cuts, to pay 20% of their council tax when previously all of it had been paid for them.  Whilst rich councils like Westminster can afford to fill the gap and maintain CTB levels, Haringey cannot. Its main solution must be to lobby central government against the change with other similarly affected councils.

Likewise London-wide is needed to secure more affordable housing and challenge Tory policies. Mayor Johnson recently announced that he would no longer fund any new social-rented housing. He said the 50,000 target for new ‘affordable’ homes over the next four years would mean rents at between 60 and 80% of the market rate – well above the levels that housing benefit will now pay.  Unless Haringey acts with other councils to demand the reinstatement and increase of genuine ‘affordable homes’ targets, and to demand the reintroduction of rent control, low waged and disabled people will basically be driven out of London.

The failure of other boroughs to provide sufficient low cost housing also impacts on Haringey. Families hit by the housing benefits cuts are moving to Haringey to escape high rents closer to the centre. Other boroughs are also renting private landlords' here for 'their' homeless - between June and September 2012, 258 homeless households were housed by other boroughs in Haringey, amongst them 27 'vulnerable' needing social work support, whilst Haringey council had to place 105 of its own homeless applicants out of the borough. With other London boroughs, by last month it was looking for homeless accommodation outside of London.     

But on affordable homes, Haringey’s own policies need a re-think.  The new “Plan for Tottenham” with its promise to increase the proportion of owner-occupied housing in Tottenham and restrict conversion of existing buildings to bedsits (“HMOs” or “houses in multiple occupation”) makes one wonder where more badly needed low-cost housing is going to come from.

We need some Green Councillors to stand up for the low-paid, disabled and unemployed people of Tottenham, to secure adequate housing for them, more jobs and a London living wage level.

Written by Anne Gray

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Is co-operative energy the solution to climate change?

With climate change increasingly having a disastrous global impact, growing numbers of local communities are responding by launching their own renewable energy co-operatives in an effort to slash the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact green energy co-ops are now one of the fastest growing parts of the UK co-operative sector having grown by 24% in the past four years.

"The first co-operatively-owned wind farm opened in Cumbria in 1997," explains Rebecca Willis, co-author of a report into co-operative renewable energy published earlier this year.

"Since then, over 7,000 individual investors have ploughed over £16 million into community-owned wind turbines and other renewable technologies resulting in that there are now over 40 co-operatively-run renewable energy projects across the UK."

Typical of the motivation that lies behind this behind this surge in the numbers of renewable energy co-ops is that demonstrated by Mark Wells, a director of the newly-launched Sheffield Renewables co-op: "When we bring future generations to mind, ignoring the problem of climate change is not an option. So even though climate change is a very big problem, we want to do our bit, and so we chose to work as a community to build a renewable energy scheme."

The co-op aims to build a hydro-electric generator on the river Don which will be the largest community-owned hydro scheme in England providing enough electricity to power 80 homes.
The project is being funded by a share offer which aims to raise £200k and which will pay individual investors up to 3% interest.

"Investing in Sheffield Renewables is about much more than the financial return," cautions Wells. "It's about working together to bring carbon-free local energy to the city with profits going back into more green initiatives. Plus once people become involved with the project they're more likely to think about climate change and start to reduce their own carbon footprint."

Simon Gilhooly who helped launch the Green Energy Nayland project in Suffolk last year agrees that renewable energy projects are a great way to get the issue of climate change onto the agenda: "We've installed a photo-voltaic system onto the roof of local primary school and this has really helped raise awareness of climate change within the school and the wider community."
In the first year of their operation Gilhooly estimates that the school's solar panels has saved around £1,000 in energy bills. The scheme has also generated an income of over £4,000 through the government's feed in tariff resulting in that members who bought shares in the scheme are being paid a healthy level of interest on their investment.

All of the UK's renewable energy co-ops have been funded through share issues that target individual ethically-minded investors.

To help match up would-be investors with renewable energy projects a new website Microgenius has been launched as its founder Emily Mackay explains: "Microgenius is designed to simplify the process for both new renewable energy projects and investors. It has been specially developed to manage the administration of fundraising and to make it possible to reach a much wider range of people with the share offer."

Another source of financial support for new co-ops is from the Co-operative Group. "We have earmarked £1 million to support the establishment of new renewable energy co-operatives through our Co-operative Enterprise Hub," says Paul Monaghan, head of social goals and sustainability at the Co-operative Group. "This provides free business support for new and existing co-operatives."

So what are the key benefits of launching a renewable energy project as a co-op?

"One of the main advantages of co-operative structures is the strong message that the project is done by and for the community and is not imposed from the outside," answers Willis.

This is exactly what the Valley Wind co-op in West Yorkshire has found whilst planning its wind farm in the Colne Valley.

"So far we've had a pretty positive response from the community to our plans," says Chayley Collis, spokesperson for Valley Wind.

"A big part of this is because we're a co-operative and so people feel that the wind farm is going to benefit the community and that it is something that they will be able to invest in."
With opposition to wind farms growing around the country, the local paper in nearby Huddersfield ran a poll about the planned windfarm.

"Over 70% of respondents were in favour which is a fantastic vote for co-operative windfarms," says Collis.

However despite the passion and dedication of the renewable energy co-op community, the sector contributes only a minute amount of energy to the National Grid and scaling up their numbers remains an uphill task.

"If the government put the right policies in place then renewable energy co-op schemes could generate electricity equivalent to three conventional power stations," says Willis.

"Currently though with its jungle of red-tape the market is designed to favour the established large-scale developments which have specialist teams to tackle the mountain of bureaucracy involved in bringing a scheme to market."

One way that co-ops have been able to bypass this bureaucratic-nightmare is to team up with existing windfarm developers.

In Scotland four community co-ops have been launched which now have a small stake in major windfarms that have been built by Falk Renewables, one of Europe's leading renewable energy companies.

"Community groups receive a pro rata per centage of energy production from the windfarm," explains Paul Phare from Energy4All which works to develop renewable energy co-ops.

"It's an opportunity to engage everyone within the community, whether it be through a new playground paid for by the windfarm developer or as individuals who can personally benefit from investing in the wind farm scheme."

One energy co-op which is aiming for the big time is Co-operative Energy, part of the Co-op Group which launched in 2010.

"We aspire to being as big in energy as we are in banking," says Ben Reid from Co-op Energy.
"Most people feel completely disengaged about energy and mistrust their energy supplier. We aim to treat our customers fairly which is the hallmark of the co-operative brand and as with all co-operatives, members would be offered a share of profits," says Reid.

"If the original Rochdale Pioneers were starting up in business in 2011," Reid adds, "then I'm convinced that it's the energy market they would choose."

Written by Simon Birch first published at The Guardian

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Haringey Council Tax Benefit Reductions to Cause Increase in Poverty

A local activist writes an open letter to Haringey council opposing their proposed reductions to Council Tax Benefit:

I am a resident of Tottenham, living at 93 Campbell Road, N17 0BF; I pay the full rate of Council Tax (CT) for this property. I am responding to the Haringey Council's consultation about the abolition of the national council tax benefit (CTB), and about Haringey’s proposals to replace it with their local scheme.

I write to oppose your proposals on the grounds that the 25,560 households, who now pay no council tax will have to pay 20%, or around £300pa, from April 2013.

It is irrational on three grounds;

•benefits are paid by the Department of Work and Pensions to our poorest fellow citizens to provide the necessities of life; they are already inadequate in work and out of work and the benefit claimants' health and well being will put at risk, as will their children's education, by taxing those benefit incomes. 

 •there are so many cuts to benefits being made by the Department of Work and Pensions to the already inadequate benefit incomes that the risks of ill-health mentioned in (1) are multiplied.

•the stress of enforcement in families who cannot pay places expensive demands on the mental and physical health services and the schools

 •no account has been taken of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income standards which underline the inadequacy of the benefits before they are taxed.

•the increasing number of calls on the three food banks in the Borough are further evidence that benefit claimants will not be able to pay the council tax

Haringey is also abolishing the CTB for an unspecified number of people whose level of savings is currently over £10,000 by cutting the level of entitlement from £16,000. The council has not provided enough information to enable anyone to make a decision about whether this policy is rational or not; this is not a valid consultation.

The council says it is consulting all residents; how is the council ensuring that commitment is being kept?

In 1989 the Thatcher government added an amount to unemployment benefit to help them pay the poll tax; there is no sign of that in Haringey today.

Haringey has not carried out an assessment of the cumulative impact of the measures taken by the DWP to cut the benefits of 25,560 Haringey residents they now propose to tax; the measures impacting on the income of benefit claimants are;

1. The rate of increase of already inadequate benefits has been reduced by the move of uprating from RPI to CPI in April 2011, while prices of food and fuel escalate,

2. Housing benefit caps,

3. Bedroom tax,

4. £500 cap on all benefits.

5. Nationally sanctions now stop or reduce benefit payments for between 2 weeks and six months. 508,000 benefit sanctions were handed out in 2011, a rise from the 139,000 imposed in 2009. Many sanctions have been applied in the borough of Haringey.

6. The social fund has been abolished.

The local authorities will charge inevitable defaulters around £70 for a liability order from the magistrate’s courts, on top of the CT arrears, they and the advice sector, already overwhelmed will be swamped. The bailiffs charge defaulters up to £400 more.

Written by Rev Paul Nicolson, a local non party political aligned Haringey activist.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Green Party at 8% in National Opinion Poll

The national monthly (September) political tracker voting intention opinion poll by Ipsos Mori, put the Green party on an astonishing 8%. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I recently highlighted the strong showing of late of the ‘Others’ in voting intention polls. UKIP have generally been getting the largest share of the ‘others’ vote, regularly out polling the Lib Dems, with the Greens doubling our share, but still usually only half that of the UKIP share.

In the Ipsos Mori poll for September though, this situation was reversed with UKIP polling 4% against the Greens 8%. Unfortunately, the Green party is back to 3% in the October poll with UKIP on 10%, but you would expect some volatility in the polling figures for small parties, where the sample surveyed is usually around only a thousand respondents, and so smaller party support is harder to detect and predict than that for the main parties.

Another polling company,Survation, who very accurately predicted the Green party vote share in this year’s London Assembly election, have an interesting piece on another, methodological reason why some polling organisations understate the strength of small party support in their polls. Basically, companies like Yougov, prompt respondents when asking which party they intend to vote for, (Con, Lab, Lib Dem or Other), so people need to first select Other, then select the particular party from a secondary prompt, (UKIP, Green, BNP etc).

Also, Yougov list the party options in the order Con, Lab, Lib Dem, Other, whereas Ipsos Mori change this order randomly, except in the case of Other, which is always last. According to the Survation piece, this explains why the Conservatives always poll higher in Yougov polls, and therefore logic would indicate that these polls will understate the Other vote, for the converse reason. Survation themselves, do randomly prompt on the main parties, and now UKIP too, and UKIP polls higher on their surveys than any of the other polling companies.

One thing that seems to be fairly certain is that this trend of UKIP and the Greens polling well is set to continue, with the next UK wide elections being the 2014 European Parliament elections in which both UKIP and the Greens do best at. Expect some gains for both parties in the Euro elections and probably the local authority council elections that will be held on the same day. Unless something dramatic happens, the Lib Dems will be down to their ‘core’ vote of 8 or 9%, and so will not affect the outcome of elections as much as they have done in recent years.

More importantly, if this trend continues all the way to the next general election which is expected in 2015, and if between UKIP and the Greens they can take approaching 15% of the national vote, with UKIP taking their votes mainly off the Conservatives and the Greens taking them mainly off Labour, this could have a significant impact on which of the two main parties wins the election.

What’s more, Labour and Conservatives will know this is the case, as they study these opinion polls very closely, which makes them more likely to steal policies off UKIP and the Greens in an effort to minimise the votes lost to their smaller rivals. This is potentially a strong position for us Greens, where we can perhaps influence Labour policy leftwards, and for UKIP to drag the Tories rightwards (I know, it’s hard to imagine the Tories being even more right wing, but there you go).

The days of the Lib Dems maintaining ‘equidistance’ between Labour and Conservative, and so peeling votes off their right and left wings respectively, looks to be well and truly over. A new dynamic will shape the next general election, and the Green party will be right in the thick of it.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Haringey Residents Fight NHS sell-off and Barnet-style ‘Easy-Council’

Two bits of news this week highlight the Green Party as the ONLY English party with solid opposition to privatisation that so far has a foothold in Parliament. At a packed meeting on Oct 9 called by Defend Haringey Health Services to protest NHS privatisation and cuts, Green party policies were recognised as such.

For example, we will fight for a fair deal for those needing health care by opposing cuts, closures and privatisation and by demanding a full programme of locally accessible services. In particular, we will maintain the principle of a free NHS by implementing in England and Wales the scheme that provides free social care to the elderly in Scotland.

We further believe in keeping the health service free – we would abolish prescription charges, re-introduce free eye tests and ensure NHS chiropody is widely available. We will also fight to restore free dental care and provide everyone with the choice of an NHS dentist.

The ConDem government just turned up the heat on the NHS with a raft of privatisation tenders planned within days of Jeremy Hunt’s appointment as Health Secretary. It seems the Lib Dems are not sticking on this and it’s easy to see that privatisation is rooted in former Labour policies. As noted at Tuesday’s meeting, the ‘clinical commissioning groups’ (CCGs) that are now to run the health service at local level are now to be grouped into regional clusters which will be subject to government diktat, probably an attempt to forestall stances like that taken by the Hackney CCG which recently adopted a policy of trying NOT to buy from private providers of hospital services.

In the Haringey CCG area, the Whittington hospital faces cuts of £13 million by 2014 and £1.8 million this year which means the loss of over 120 jobs. Stroke and heart care services have been cut, audiology and diabetes care moved elsewhere. Unipart, a firm which used to make car parts, are being paid £500,000 a year to 'find savings'.

The North Middlesex is heavily in debt to PFI and was named as one of the 'failing' hospital trusts in a recent government report. Will it one day be placed into administration like the South London Hospital Trust was in July?   And eventually sold off to the private sector, like Hinchinbrooke near Cambridge?

St Ann's, the only hospital site actually IN Haringey, will be scaled down to one third of its site, with the remaining land sold for housing. This will lose an opportunity to bring much needed services of many kinds, including urgent care, close to the Tottenham population which has so many health problems and relatively low life expectancy. Will the new buildings be PFI'd ? You betcha.

And Haringey has seen several G.P.s recently close their out of hours service, leading to more pressure on A and E services.

On a second front, local press and blogs have raised the alarm that Nick Walkley has just resigned from being CE of Barnet Council to move to Haringey. Why on earth a Labour-led council has appointed a leading architect of the Tories’ plans to privatise just about everything beggars belief. The anarchists, to their credit (Haringey Solidarity Group) have called a demo outside the Civic Centre next Tuesday 16 Oct at 5.45, to protest against this crazy appointment. But when it comes to the next local election, they will no doubt call on people not to vote!

The hidden agenda of Nick Walkley’s appointment is still a mystery. However, The Guardian newspaper has uncovered a possible clue to his taking a pay cut in the fact that Walkley wanted to hide from a journalist something about Barnet’s (in effect his) handling of the policy in Barnet. If there’s anything in this, it deepens the mystery about why Haringey wants him. What are they planning to sell off and why?

Written by Anne Gray and Mike Shaughnessy

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Opinion Polls – Under the Radar

When polling organisations conduct political party voting intention opinion polls, usually commissioned by a newspaper, the story is always of how the three main (perhaps that should be two now) parties are faring, and which leader has the best approval ratings.

The polls have been pretty consistent over recent months, showing Labour with a double digit lead over the Conservatives, and the poor old Lib Dems flat lining at around 10%, sometimes as low as 8%. But if you look more closely, the ‘others’ are doing surprisingly well. The ‘story’ will only mention this in passing, but if you look at the full results, as political anoraks like me do, there is something happening, which is much more of a ‘story’ than that put out by the commissioning media outfits.

What you see is an impressive (around 10%) showing for UKIP, sometimes beating the Lib Dems into fourth place, and an improvement in the Green party share, which is around 3 or 4%. An example is this recent Opinium poll commission by The Observer newspaper

Now, that may not sound all that notable, but from my observations over the years, the Green party normally polls about 1 to 2% in national polls, except when there is an election (proportional) coming up like the European Parliament elections, when I’ve seen us poll as high as 6 or 7%.

This is a trend which I reported on this blog here back in May, and recent opinion polls do seem to confirm this view. But why is this happening?

I think the reasons are varied to some extent. Labour, Tory and Lib Dems all offer very similar policies these days, for one thing. The MP’s expenses scandal still resonates amongst the public too, and it is the main parties MP’s that were involved in this fraudulent raid on the public purse.  But I think the main reason is a desire amongst the voters to ‘protest’ vote, “sod the lot of you” type of thing.

What has changed on the party political landscape in recent years is that the Lib Dems are no longer the beneficiaries of this desire to stick it up the political establishment. They are of course in government now, though you would hardly know it with the Tories dominating the coalition government’s policies.

Another opinion poll from Opinum sheds some light on this particular theory. Take a look at this graphic (right hand side). Of those who voted Lib Dem in the 2010 general election, only a third are intending to vote Lib Dem again, with Labour gaining the most (39%) of those who have changed their allegiance but 8% have switched to UKIP and 10% to the Green party. I find the idea that voters can switch from the most pro-European of the British political parties (Lib Dems) to UKIP whose whole raison d’etre is being anti-Europe, somewhat bemusing, but there you go.

The 10% planning to vote Green is what has doubled our opinion poll score, which is a significant advance for us Greens, if not signalling some kind of major breakthrough. But it also means that we have much work to do, if we are to translate this into seats at Westminster and elsewhere. These voters are on the left politically, and so are our natural supporters.

Put simply, we have to get more of those 39% of former Lib Dem voters that are intending to vote Labour next time, to vote Green. Which is why we need to go on the attack, and expose Labour for what it is, a ‘Tory light’ party, sometimes not even so light.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Labour Party – Are You Tories in Disguise?

We might have expected it, with Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor, stating in a pre-conference announcement he will stick to the Tory public sector pay freeze beyond the next general election, should Labour win. But this year’s Labour party conference has gone even further though, with the leader of the party stealing the ‘One Nation’ mantle from the Conservative party.

Ed Miliband isn’t the first Labour leader to snaffle this particular slogan of the pre Margaret Thatcher Conservative party. Tony Blair described New Labour as a ‘One Nation’ party in his (successful) bid to win over voters from the ‘middle ground’ in British politics. Of course, the ‘middle ground’ had shifted so far to the right in elite political discourse at that time, that it was probably not an exaggeration for him to claim it as a left wing position, as being akin to the Edward Heath led Conservative party of the 1970’s is indeed to the left all three main parties these days.

David Cameron depicted himself as a ‘One Nation’ Tory when he was attempting to detoxify the Conservative party brand, and so appeal to ‘middle ground’ voters, who are generally the most fickle anyway, and it worked, in a fashion for him too. I don’t think Cameron can play that card anymore though, with pressure from within the right of his party so strong now. So, in terms of positioning in the consciousness of the public, Labour and Miliband may well be onto something. Political ‘cross dressing’ doesn’t really surprise anyone these days, and it may be purely a presentational tactic.

But on top of the other portents that have been revealed at the Labour party conference this week, about the direction of Labour and the likely approach they would take to governing the country if they win the general election in 2015 (if the ConDem government lasts that long), this may well be more significant. Because make no mistake about it, the Labour party has staked its flag firmly on the already overcrowded centre right political compost heap, in Manchester this past few days.

The huffing and puffing of the unions has been ignored yet again, and it makes you think what on earth do the unions get out of funding a party that pursues policies that are so bad for their members? Hope of some crumbs here and there, I dare say, but is that really enough for the millions of pounds they put into Labour? Union members should ‘vote with their feet’ and support parties that represent their interests, and I think the Green party comes into this category, whatever union  leaders say about reclaiming the Labour party for working people. This is just a fantasy.

Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow welfare secretary, is on record as saying that welfare benefits are likely to be slashed further under a future Labour administration, in line with Ed Balls taking a ‘zero-based’ review of public spending. Byrne claims that more benefits will be means tested, rather than universally available, such as free bus passes for the elderly, which is bad enough in itself, but does anyone really believe that Labour will restore Disability Living Allowance and Employment Support Allowance to those who have cruelly had it withdrawn from them under the ConDem government?

The leader of Scottish Labour, Johann Lamont went even further, claiming that we need to end the "something for nothing" culture, as applied to benefits in Scotland, and blaming the Scottish National Party led government north of the border for issuing ‘election bribes’ to voters. 

With no visible sign of irony, Andy Burnham the shadow health secretary, called for the reversal of the ‘rapid privatisation’ of the NHS, when the last Labour government opened the door to NHS privatisation with exorbitant Private Finance Initiative deals to build new hospitals whilst hiving off the most profitable parts of health service provision to private companies.  

And Ed Balls has ruled out taking the part nationalised RBS and Lloyds banks into full public ownership and using them as investment motors to get the economy moving again. He also refuses to confirm that a future Labour government would raise the top rate of income tax to 50%, let alone the 75% that the socialist government in France is introducing, or to raise corporation tax from the scandalously low rate it is, by even one penny in the pound.

The generous side of me thinks Ed Miliband would like to inch Labour slightly to the left, but it is clear that powerful voices within the party will not stand for it, and they get listened to carefully, unlike the unions.

So there you have it. The right wing press falls over each other in its praise of Ed Miliband’ speech and performance, and well they might. Nothing to fear here, on the contrary, business as usual for the establishment, as the rest of us continue to get shafted.

So much for the self-styled, ‘People’s Party’.   

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Tory tax on the poor – coming to a council near you

Once upon a time, there were 20 people living in King Tory‘s Mansion, 10 of whom were assessed as ‘unable’ to pay for their Council Tax for various reasons ranging from old age, disabilities, mental illness or lowly paid. The total amount of Council Tax for all 20 people was £2,000, or £100 per a person. The 10 that could pay, did directly and the 10 that could not had their Council Tax paid for by King Tory, totalling £1,000.

One day King Tory says to the 10 who can’t pay: “We are only going to pay £900 towards your Council Tax”, or a 10% cut. The 10 would need to find £10 each to top up the amount needed for Council Tax.

King Tory has a condition: he will give £900 but the pensioners will be protected 100% from paying any Council Tax. As 5 of the 10 are pensioners, £500 of the £900 is spent on them. This means the remaining 5 only have £400 between them, and now need to find £20 each. So the cut for them is 20% even though the pot is only 10% smaller.

The central government is imposing an ideology many of us would remember as the ‘Poll Tax’ where everyone must pay something. What they have done is fired a shot, and handed the gun to Local Councils to take the rap. We must not be fooled by this, even though some Councils appear to be taking the blame for the shot fired.

Who gets shot next is up to us, it’s called ‘Localism’, through the ‘consultations’.

Central Government have asked Local Councils to undertake, we decide who pays and who does not, whether everyone outside the protected pensioners pay 20% or whether we also protect low income families with Children, thus increasing the percentage for the rest.

We are being forced to choose one vulnerable group over another, groups that probably will already be facing cuts in Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, Disability Allowance and anything else from the ‘Overall Benefit Cap (OBC) etc.

This also creates a ‘postcode lottery’ as People with Disabilities could win the X-Factor style choice in one borough but in a neighbouring borough People with Disabilities have not won the popularity contest to be chosen. Therefore, many Local Councils are proposing a blanket ‘they all pay the same percentage regardless of circumstances’ roll out.

In Haringey where I live the shortfall is £5.7m this year and it is not 10 people affected, it is 36,000 in our borough alone. Some families are looking at a loss of a variety of benefits, including Council Tax to equate a weekly shortfall of up to £246.33.

Haringey is one of the cheapest places in London to live, so if families are unable to live here then social cleansing from more affluent areas is most definitely going to be taking place, if not already.

There are options, the Local Authority could use money from another budget to pay for this shortfall, but in Haringey that budget is already being cut by £86m just like many boroughs in England. Even if the Local Council decided to sell an ‘Old Peoples Home’ this year, what are they selling next year or the year after?

Whilst communities up and down the country figure out how this can all be paid for, ‘King Tory’ and his friends are enjoying their Income Tax Cut and some are not even paying any taxes.

Written by Seema Chandwani and first published at Liberal Conspiracy

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Big Bad Corn

This graphic was sent to us by a kindred spirit organisation in the US ( I think it demonstrates very well the problems caused by bio fuels. Ironically, big business pushes bio fuels as a 'green' alternative to oil based fuels, and a cure for climate change.

Here is the presentation.................

If you’ve ever creeped your way through a corn maze at Halloween, you know how it can grab ahold of your imagination, turning benign stalks into monsters and discarded cobs into severed limbs. It’s just a trick of the light–but take a look at the ways that the U.S. uses corn, and you’ll see that a holiday thrill isn’t the scariest thing about this product. It was first subsidized in the late ‘70s as a fossil fuel alternative, but it’s turned out to be inefficient source of fuel. Not only that, ethanol from corn actually increases the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a higher rate than gasoline. Yet, the U.S. pays $10 to $30 billion dollars each years in farm subsidies to raise even more of it, with no clear benefit to consumers. So every time you eat a pound of corn products–which statistics say you will do 37 times over this year alone–remember this graphic, which was created so you can learn stuff about the effects of corn, America’s biggest agricultural product.

Big Bad Corn

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Healthwatch Haringey - Have Your Say

On you will find a publicity brochure about a new organisation, Healthwatch Haringey, which is supposed to be 'your local health and social care watchdog'. On behalf of the Defend Haringey Health Services Coalition, I am writing to organisations who may be concerned about the following facts:-

1) Haringey Healthwatch will apparently replace 'Link', which has recently been the patients' representation body. It's being set up at a time when new laws and structures are changing the health service drastically. In particular, the new Commissioning Boards (to 'buy' hospital, etc  services on behalf of local doctors) and orders from central government to put many parts of the NHS out to tender to 'any willing provider'

2) The brochure contains a 'have your say' questionnaire and an invitation to any reader to 'get involved' presumably so that the Council and the NHS can choose who will be members of the new body and continue to represent patients. No elections, just volunteers - and they choose who to have.

3) This is apparently being distributed through Morrison’s supermarket (and some libraries); it has just been noticed in the last few days and we don't know where else it can be obtained except the website given above.

4) The brochure says 'our consultation so far has been with the following voluntary and community sector groups', then mentions a list of 22 local organisations. There are some MAJOR omissions in this list:-

NO consultation with residents' association or their Haringey Federation
NO consultation with trade unions
Two Christian groups mentioned, but no other faith groups
NO reference to Age UK or the Haringey Older People's Forum
Patchy and limited coverage of ethnic minority groups - have a look at the list

5) 'Decisions about what Healthwatch Haringey will look like will be made in consultation with local people, stakeholders and Haringey residents'. One might ask, how ?  and which residents ?
Please circulate this message and encourage the un-consulted people and organisations to come forward!

You may also wish to write to any of the Councillors who are cabinet members for relevant policy areas, to ask them how Healthwatch members are going to be chosen and how the population are supposed to find out they can put themselves forward:- 

Cabinet Member for Health and Adult Services – Cllr Dilek Dogus
Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion (and Economic Development, but it's inclusion that's relevant here) – Cllr Alan Strickland
Cabinet Member for Communities – Cllr Bernice Vanier

Councillor Reg Rice(Chair) , 225 High Road, Wood Green, London, , N22 8HQ, ,
Councillor David Winskill,(Vice Chair) River Park House, 225 High Road, Wood Green, London, N22 8HQ, 020 8374 5650,

Written by Anne Gray, Haringey Green Party

Monday, 20 August 2012

Patriotism and the Left

My post on the London 2012 Olympics started a debate within Haringey Greens about patriotism in Britain and whether this is positive thing, or rather a reactionary, undesirable, and even dangerous concept. So, I’m expanding my thoughts here, and hope that my colleagues will post their opinions, either in a separate post, or via the comments section for this post.

I must say at the outset, that I’m not one for waving the Union Jack and like most people on the Left, patriotic behaviour makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I think this stems from patriotism’s association with Britain’s imperialist history and the propensity of the Right (especially the far Right) to wrap themselves in the flag and the xenophobic and racist outlook that inexorably seems to flow from this position.

The other troubling kind of patriotism, perhaps more accurately described as jingoism, is when it is related to war. I can still remember my horror during the Falklands war against Argentina in the early 1980’s when a kind of collective madness swept the country, and every young man it seemed, became an armchair general and weapons expert, egged on by the ‘red top’ press and the BBC. The term ‘Argie’ was coined to describe the Argentinians and I learnt never to trust the BBC’s reporting when the country’s armed forces are in action.

I have always separated sport from this kind of patriotism though, and tended to support Britons in sporting contests. Even then, although I have always loved football, it was mainly of the club variety, and my club, Manchester United in particular. United have always had something of the ‘Celtic fringe’ about them, and even before globalisation, were an internationalist club. At one time, I supported Scotland in the football against England, because there were quite a few United players in the Scotland team, and none in the England team.

Gradually, over the years, I have changed my mind on the England football team. With large screens in pubs these days to watch international football, I like the community feel of these events (always a disappointing sporting result), and the ensuing camaraderie of watching the game in communal surroundings such as this affords.

I’ve been lucky enough to be working in the Olympic park over the course of the London Games, and anyone who has been there cannot fail to have noticed the great atmosphere, with the flags of many nations displayed. There was a joyous, excited spirit amongst the volunteers and spectators and not even a hint of aggression, but instead a friendly and respectful ambience that was tremendous to experience. Coupled with the multi-cultural make-up of the British team, I think this was a positive type of patriotism.

The Observer newspaper published an opinion poll this week that finds that 75% of respondents believe that the Olympics showed Britain to be ‘a confident multi-ethnic country’. The same proportion of people said they supported all Team GB athletes equally regardless of where they were born. The same newspaper has a piece by Tim Soutphommasane, The Australian is a political philosopher and author of the book, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multi-cultural Society, who is advising the Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, on such matters. It is well worth a read.

Drawing on experience mainly from Australia, he says multi-culturalism has been about securing civic equality. A demand for inclusion and respect, not separation and privileged treatment, which has been undermined to some extent, by the emphasis on a ‘community of communities’. As though there could be no common ground, but only difference. He concludes that after the success of the London Olympics, many countries are looking to Britain as an example of a dynamic multi-cultural society united by a generous patriotism.

The political Left cannot afford to leave the monopoly of the concept of patriotism to the political Right, because it is a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon, and we should have the confidence not to cede this ground to their ugly, separatist type of patriotism. The London Olympics have showed us the way to celebrate our positive patriotism, multi-cultural, inclusive and respectful of our country and of other countries cultures and people. We can use this positive force to grab the flag back from those who would use it to divide us, at home and internationally.          

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Ethical Case for People Power

Politics is far too important to be left to politicians. They are often the last people to get the message on social justice and human rights. Much of the time, pressure for social reform is first initiated outside of parliament by campaign groups like Greenpeace and Animal Aid, using challenging, even provocative, methods of protest. These extra-parliamentary activists are frequently the true sparks and catalysts of political change.

What do Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King have in common? They all used direct action protest as a way of winning human rights and social justice.

Pleading with politicians was not their style. They tried conventional lobbying but found that writing letters to MPs and having tea with government ministers did not work.

Faced with an unresponsive political establishment, they staged street demonstrations, organised hunger strikes and sit-ins, refused to pay taxes and ambushed political leaders. By these means, India won its independence, women got the vote and racial segregation was ended in the USA.

Two decades ago, direct action secured one the biggest ever political climb-downs in modern British history. Margaret Thatcher’s much-hated Poll Tax was defeated when millions refused to pay and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets. Opposition MPs had proven powerless to stop the Poll Tax. But when people took power into their own hands, Thatcher’s flagship policy collapsed.

The defeat of the Poll Tax illustrates a very important principle: ordinary people have great power, if they choose to use it. Moreover, democracy is about more than voting once every five years. Having your say in a general election is fine, but not enough.

Something as important as running the country should never be left to politicians. Look at the mess they have created: their loosening of financial regulation paved the way for cowboy capitalism and the current economic meltdown. They have allowed criminal bankers to escape prosecution for the mass frauds they committed. The consequences? Mass unemployment and the decimation of people’s savings and pensions; plus savage cuts in public services, to the point where, to save money, some patients are being refused treatment by the NHS. It’s a scandal of monumental proportions. No wonder so many people are disillusioned with traditional politics. Hundreds of thousands are deserting the ballot box and turning to direct action protest instead. The student protests and “occupy” movements are giving voice to the anger of millions. 

Sometimes, it is pointless looking to politicians for help. They are often the cause of the problem. The vast majority of people are against genetically modified food, but the government insists that unsafe crop trials must continue. Three quarters of the public want an elected House of Lords but rebel MPs have succeeded in scuppering every attempt at democratisation. There was mass opposition to the war in Iraq but Tony Blair and a majority of MPs rode roughshod over the people’s will.

When politicians ignore the wishes of the people and break their promises, direct action is the only option left. Who can blame Greenpeace for wrecking GM crops and hunt saboteurs for saving foxes from being torn to shreds by dogs? Their methods got results when lobbying the government had failed.

The arguments for and against direct action revolve around two fundamentally different styles of politics. Representative democracy is the system where MPs are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf. This tends to encourage elitism and paternalism in politicians, and disempowerment and passivity among the electorate.

Participatory democracy is, in contrast, about people being involved in the political process in an on-going way, rather than only at election time. They take power for themselves, instead of handing over responsibility to professional politicians. This ensures better checks and balances against the abuse of power and against the way MPs so often neglect public opinion.

Direct action is the highest form of participatory democracy. People take power and represent themselves. They get involved in political decision-making, and through their own efforts bring about social change.

Having taken part in more than 3,000 direct action protests over the last 45 years, the beneficial effects are self-evident to me.

Take, for example, the issue of police victimisation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. By 1989, the number LGBT people arrested for consenting, victimless behaviour was greater than in 1966, the year before the so-called decriminalisation of homosexuality. Respectable gay organisations like Stonewall lobbied the police, but were ignored. Then, in 1990, the queer rights group OutRage! began a high-profile direct action campaign to challenge harassment.

We invaded police stations, busted entrapment operations, photographed undercover officers and hounded the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

These were controversial tactics, but within three months the police were pleading with us to join them at the negotiating table. Soon afterwards they began their first serious dialogue with the LGBT community. Before a year had passed, they had agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of men convicted of ‘gross indecency’ (consensual same-sex behaviour) fell by two-thirds - the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded. Our campaign helped save thousands of LGBTs from arrest, prosecution and criminal records.

My conclusion? Direct action can be a highly effective way to change things for the better – and sometimes the only way. When well planned, it works.

An imaginative protest can be a very dramatic, headline-grabbing way to draw public attention to injustices that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked. If you can get a protest in the news, it helps raise awareness of the issue and puts people in power under pressure to address your concerns.

Many of my direct action protests have involved civil disobedience - deliberate law-breaking modelled on the sit-ins of the US black civil rights campaigners in the 1960s. Indeed, in the early 1970s, I was involved in sit-ins at pubs in London that, in those days, refused to serve “queers”.

Breaking the law can be ethically justified in three circumstances: when politicians ignore the wishes of the majority, break their election promises or violate human rights.

Sometimes, of course, the majority will may conflict with the protection of human rights. This happened in Nazi Germany, where most people, either explicitly or tacitly, colluded with the persecution of Jews. In such cases, the protection of human rights should always trump majority opinion. No majority has the right to victimise minorities.

Direct action can be a vital mechanism for the defence of democracy and liberty, against the abuse of state power or mob tyranny, as exemplified by the suffragettes and the Anti-Nazi League.

Far from threatening the democratic process, protest from outside the parliamentary system protects and enhances democracy - acting as a much-needed counter-balance to the frequent arrogance, self-interest and elitism of political parties and politicians. Power to the people!

Written by Peter Tatchell

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