Sunday, 24 November 2013

Boris, the super rich and pay inequality

Jenny Jones AM is leader of the Green Party on the London Assembly and Green Party Mayoral candidate for 2012

Nobody could be surprised by Boris Jonson's latest column defending bankers and the rest of London's super-rich elite.

He’s an expert in baiting the left on subjects like bankers’ pay, then switching his ground to promote the living wage. But he isn’t just a newspaper troll. He is also the Mayor of London, and he is using this position of considerable power and influence to help the elite reshape London, with real world consequences.

Did you know, for example, that the only time the Mayor has travelled to Brussels in person was to lobby for the hedge funds?

His advocacy of the wider financial services sector is incredibly one sided, without any consideration of their role in the wider London economy.

He has talked about their tax contributions, but not their tax avoidance and subsidies. He calls them the engine of our economy, but doesn’t seem too concerned that (so the New Economics Foundation tell me) only 6p of every pound deposited with RBS/Natwest goes into British businesses. He has lobbied against the bankers’ bonus cap, the Financial Transaction Tax and a number of other modest reforms of the banking industry.

His advisors, his research, the evidence he draws on are all aligned with the needs of the elite he defends.

Where does the Mayor imagine the 1 per cent make all of their money, and hold all of their wealth? What about the mis-selling scandals, the continued exploitation of workers in shakily built factories, the naked profiteering of the big six energy companies? He doesn’t want to look at the damage done by an unequal society to London’s economy and Londoner’s living standards.

The 1 per cent lobby against a mandatory living wage, saying it would mean job losses, while their pay rose 14 per cent in a year. Yes, some of that extra pay will go towards their sizeable tax returns. But one result of 700,000 Londoners earning less than a living wage is a £700 million annual subsidy from taxpayers to employers. Why not cut out the taxman and share the profits more fairly in the first place?

The Mayor champions a voluntary living wage, but in the same breath defends the right of employers to pay their employees poverty wages.

The 1 per cent are driving up property prices in the capital, exacerbating a housing crisis that has no end in sight. London is already the most unequal city in the developed world, with the wealthiest tenth of the population amassing 273 times the wealth owned by the bottom tenth. Most wealth at the top lies in pension funds, investments and property.

This is bolstered by taxpayer subsidies like Help to Buy and housing benefit, policies the Mayor supports that avoid the root causes of our housing crisis and instead help ordinary people scrape by to the benefit of the 1 per cent.

The Mayor is their champion, supporting the construction of incredibly expensive tower blocks that are often build on the site of demolished council housing.

What’s really infuriating is that the Mayor actually has a good news story on pay, but he doesn’t give it any attention.

I’ve tracked the difference in pay between the highest and lowest paid staff in the different bodies the Mayor oversees – City Hall (the GLA), Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service and the London Fire Brigade. Since he became Mayor, pay has actually become slightly more equal across all bodies except TfL. This is both because top pay has slightly dropped and bottom pay has risen.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say everything has been rosy in these organisations over the past five years. But I doubt the Mayor would say it has been a disaster. He just doesn’t want to look at whether he can replicate this move towards equality across London at large.

Why can’t he get on and make London more equal, a place where getting a job really does pay enough to build a life on, rather than a city where more and more of us feel like we are just sweated by a global elite?

First published at Left Foot Forward

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Extreme Weather Gives Poll Boost to the Greens

As is my routine, I was flicking through the freebie London newspaper the Evening Standard as I travelled on the underground home from work a few days back. Normally, there is not much of interest in this publication with its incessant fawning stories about the Royal Family and whatever press releases the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, has been spewing out, about what a marvellous Mayor he is. Oh and how much house prices have risen in London, is another perpetual news item.

I’ve usually got through the paper in about fifteen minutes. Then a small story in the corner of one of the pages caught my eye. It was the latest opinion poll from Ipsos MORI on voting intentions. The headline was about Labour stretching its lead a little over the Tories, but further down it also mentioned that the Green party had jumped 3 points to 7% in the national poll. This is a respectable showing for the Greens (only 1 point behind the Lib Dems and UKIP, both on 8%). I’ve seen us go up and down in polls before and know that the sampling can make a big difference in our poll numbers. If more people from the south east of England are polled for instance, we will show higher than normal.

But I also got to thinking if the extreme weather we have seen recently (hurricanes and cyclones in the Philippines, USA, Sardinia and England), has had some effect on people’s perceptions on climate change? Like it or not, despite our best efforts in recent years, the public still do view the Green party as a purely environmental party. I remembered a few years back, that the German Greens did particularly well in an election held just after severe flooding had hit Germany.

Being a bit of a psephological junkie, I get the Yougov emailing alerts for their daily polling reports, and yesterday, I received what looks to confirm my suspicions. This poll shows that 38% of those surveyed think that the extreme weather we have seen around the world is caused by man made climate change. Although 39% who have a view do not believe this, these are big numbers for the Green party. If almost half of people do take the issue seriously, and as these events become more common, we should benefit electorally. Whether we will have enough time to do something about it once it starts getting really serious, is another matter of course.

From what I have read the scientific evidence is not conclusive on the connection between stronger storms and warming oceans, but it does point in that direction. Atlantic hurricanes have increased both in power and frequency, coinciding with warming oceans that provide energy to these storms. In the Eastern Pacific, there have been fewer but stronger hurricanes recently. More research is needed to better understand the extent to which other factors, such as atmospheric stability and circulation, affect hurricane development.

Of course, to me it is pretty much commonsense that the warmer the water sucked up into these tornados, the stronger they are likely to be. It does look like this commonsense is taking hold amongst the public at large, which during an economic recession is pretty significant, I think.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Lib Dems - Yellow by Name, Yellow by Nature

Confirmation that the Lib Dems are the political equivalent of something you'd rather not get on your shoes came with their opposition to Labour's parliamentary motion against the Bedroom Tax earlier this week. Apart from Tim Farron and Andrew George, Lib Dem MPs swung behind the Tories and have thus condemned the hundreds of thousands impacted by this callous, cruel, and contemptuous Tory tax throughout the country to at least two more years of misery and despair up to the next general election in 2015.

The 31 Lib Dems who voted with the government were joined by a further 21 who avoided the issue by failing to vote. Making this latest betrayal even more staggering is that it came in defiance of their own party, which condemned the Bedroom Tax at their party conference in Glasgow in September.

What motivates a person to go into politics fuelled not by principle but rank opportunism? What is that gets such a person out of bed in the morning? Hopefully sometime in the future psychologists will explore the mindset of your average Lib Dem MP in an attempt to understand the minds of those who embrace betrayal as a virtue rather than, as with normal people, rejecting it as a vice.

Since joining with the Tories in a coalition government of the bad and mad, the Lib Dems have done politics a huge disservice, responsible for deepening people's cynicism and disdain for the political process. Russell Brand's recent interview with Jeremy Paxman, during which he articulated this disdain as the reason why he's never voted, spoke to the huge gulf that exists between a growing constituency of people and those meant to represent them.

Step forward the Liberal Democrats.

At least with the Tories you know you are dealing with a party of unreconstructed class warriors. At least they make little effort to conceal their feral hatred of the poor and working people. In contradistinction, however, the Lib Dems fought the last general election on a manifesto that was broadly progressive.

Recall for a moment the excitement surrounding Nick Clegg as the coming man of British politics, a breath of fresh air who in the televised debates against David Cameron and Gordon Brown emerged as a young leader with fresh ideas, 'integrity', 'honesty', and a strong sense of social justice. Indeed Clegg succeeded in inspiring thousands of people, especially young people, to campaign and vote for him. Remember his pledge on tuition fees?

Not long after the last election a Newsnight poll of Lib Dem voters recorded that 40% felt betrayed by Clegg. This translates to some 2.7 million voters. You would think it would have made uncomfortable reading for any party, yet three years on it is clear that the collective mindset of the Lib Dems is one of 'nobody likes us and we don't care'.

But this is not a game. The Bedroom Tax exemplifies the worst excesses of a government intent of using an economic recession caused by the greed of the rich as a pretext for effecting the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich by slashing public spending regardless of the human or social cost. The lives of the poor and economically vulnerable matter not a whit in this process. On the contrary they have been demonised, dehumanised, and slandered under the rubric of austerity, which translates to a mass experiment in human despair.

According to the National Housing Federation just over half of all social housing tenants had been pushed into rent arrears just weeks after the Bedroom Tax was rolled out in April. In September an investigation by UN special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnick, ended with her calling for the tax to axed on the basis that it "could be a violation of the human right to housing".

For her efforts she was dismissed and derided by the Tories as a crank.

The lack of affordable social housing in Britain has long been a badge of shame, reflective of the apathy of the entire political class when it comes to the needs of the poor. Here, as with too many issues, we see evidence of hardly a sliver of difference when it comes to the Tories, Lib Dems, and Labour. With thousands of families forced to rely on bed and breakfast accommodation, wherein they are crammed into one room, and with a private housing sector enjoying the fruits of exorbitant rents due to demand outstripping supply, the idea that those who happen to have an extra bedroom within the social housing sector should have their housing benefit cut or move into smaller accommodation is barbaric.

The size of the housing benefit bill is not the fault of tenants, it is the fault of greedy landlords charging extortionate rents. Rent control within the private rental sector in conjunction with a national housebuilding programme designed to meet the demand for social housing needs to be implemented as a matter of urgency. It is the only rational solution to the crisis. Sadly, the words rational and Tory do not belong in the same sentence. Putting it even more succinctly, men and women whose collective moral compass is stuck in the mid 19th century are about as rational as a box of frogs.

The Lib Dems were given the opportunity to go some way to salvaging some political credibility this week by voting for a Labour motion against one of the most vile policies ever visited on the poor and economically disadvantaged in many a year. They chose not to and hopefully now political oblivion awaits.

As the man said: "Treason doth never prosper".

Written by John Wight follow him on Twitter:      

First published at The Huffington Post

Saturday, 16 November 2013

I warned Boris that his policies would lead to more cycling deaths

Jenny Jones AM is leader of the Green Party on the London Assembly and Green Party Mayoral candidate for 2012

Four out of five cycling deaths in the last nine days are linked to either the Mayor's red buses or to his blue paint.

After almost six years of inaction on cycle safety, the rise in the number of killed and seriously injured have to be placed at the Mayor’s door. That is why this morning he started blaming the victims, rather than talking about real solutions.

It is the lowest form of politics to direct attention to the mistakes that people may or may not have made as they cycled to work, or rode home to their families, in order to draw attention away from yourself.

The whole point of being Mayor is that you take responsibility for creating safer roads, where individual mistakes by a cyclist, driver, motorcyclist or pedestrian do not get punished with death.

Boris Johnson has previous form on blaming the victims, and repeatedly refused to apologise for the wildly incorrect statistic he used to claim that the majority of deaths and injuries where down to cyclist infractions of the rules. Transport for London refused to back up his claim and the Mayor reluctantly agreed it wasn’t true, but it was a resentful, grudging conversation.

The Mayor even returned to his favourite theme that London’s roads were getting safer for cyclists and he wanted me to apologise for saying they were not. The reality is that they are safer than they were twelve years ago, but they have become more dangerous since he was elected.

My office have been trying to get TfL to make the post 2008 calculation on the ratio of cyclist death and serious injuries since July. We wanted them to do it so that we could avoid another spat between me and Boris over who had better statistics.

Instead TfL have told us that ‘they do not regularly publish’ such figures and directed us instead to the raw data. The calculation seems easy enough so here it is:
In 2008, on average a cyclists could make 401,910 trips before being killed or seriously injured.
In 2011, the average cyclist could make 364,361 trips before being killed or seriously injured.
The 2012 figures will show that this trend has accelerated; I have no idea what 2013 will finally bring, but I suspect it won’t be good news.
I have repeatedly warned Boris Johnson that his policies would lead to more death and injury. Whether it was slashing over £35m off the road safety budget, abandoning the road hierarchy which had previously made cyclist and pedestrian safety the top priority,  or stopping safety improvements at junctions because they might create a traffic jam.

The Mayor made mistakes and stayed firmly in denial about the consequences. He still is. For all the talk of a £900m cycle safety budget, he still believes in those comments about keeping ‘your wits about you’ and ‘there is no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people’s lives’.

The solutions are obvious and uncomplicated. Make 20mph the default speed limit across London. Give space for cycling by taking it away from cars and lorries. Ban HGVs during commuter hours. Get rid of the major gyratories and start from scratch with the redesign of places like Bow Roundabout and Old Street. Fast track all the safety measures on the top 100 most dangerous junctions.

While the Mayor is doing all of that, he could start to enforce the rules on our lawless roads, so we no longer have 62 hit and runs a week in London, or a situation where the majority of drivers with over 12 points on their licence are legally allowed to drive.

First published at Left Foot Forward

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Just how much media coverage does UKIP get?

With 25 appearances by Nigel Farage on Question Time and more than 23,000 press mentions, UKIP is attracting historically unprecedented levels of coverage for a minor party.

"Oh no, not Nigel again!" groaned some Question Time viewers last week as they sat down for the fourth time this year to hear the views of the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Nigel Farage has appeared on the show no less than 25 times, 15 of which have come since 2009, while in the past four years, a further six slots have gone to other Ukippers like Paul Nuttall, Diane James and Patrick O'Flynn. This means that since 2009, UKIP spokespersons have sat on the panel on 21 occasions, almost double the number for the Greens (11) and more than double the number for Respect (10).

Unsurprisingly, these figures have led some to argue that Farage receives a level of publicity that is not only disproportionate to his party’s actual strength, but also exceeds that given to other insurgents who have achieved what UKIP has not: a seat in Westminster. Some go further, suggesting that parts of the media have a vested interest in supplying UKIP with the 'oxygen of publicity' so as to pile pressure on David Cameron and trigger a rightward turn on issues like the EU, immigration and gay marriage. But of course this may all be far more straightforward: Farage is a skilled, media-trained populist who contrasts sharply to an otherwise bland and robot-like political elite. It's only natural that journalists flock to an outsider who gives them good copy.

But this does raise an intriguing question: exactly how prominent are Farage and UKIP in British media? As part of our forthcoming book in 2014, Revolt on the Right, we used a well-established database (Nexis) to track the number of times UKIP and Farage are mentioned in UK-based newspapers. This is only a small part of the book, which analyses over 100,000 voters and includes interviews with key insiders to explain UKIP’s support and what it tells us about British politics. But it is a useful, 'quick and dirty' way of measuring a party’s profile across all newspapers. It does not account for the nature of this coverage (i.e. positive or negative), and does not include radio, television or social media. But given that print media continues to set much of the agenda in British politics, it remains a valuable yardstick.

Figure 1

First, in Figure 1, we track the number of citations for UKIP and Farage from 2003, when UKIP was a largely unknown fringe party with only three MEPs, to November 2013, when it had become a serious force, tipped to win the 2014 European elections. This reveals how media interest in UKIP has surged, particularly since 2012. In 2003, the party was not even mentioned 600 times; ten years later it was flagged more than 23,000 times (and only until November). Similarly, in 2003, Farage was barely visible with only 36 mentions, but 10 years later this had rocketed to over 8,000.

Clearly much of this marks a response to UKIP’s growth in the polls. But whereas UKIP enjoyed record gains in 2004 and 2009, the media attention it won after these breakthroughs is dwarfed by the wave of coverage it has received in the past two years. In 2012, UKIP mentions reached a record high of over 10,000, but so far in 2013 this figure has already more than doubled again, and with two months of the year still left to run. Interest in Farage has risen even more steeply – his mentions more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, and have already quadrupled in 2013. It is likely this trend will continue into 2014, as Britain braces for European elections, and then into 2015 as journalists debate the possibility of a UKIP seat in Westminster and the possibility of a EU referendum.

Figure 2

Second, how does this picture compare to other insurgents? Figure 2 compares UKIP’s coverage to the Greens, Respect and British National Party. From 2005 until 2009, the picture was far less rosy for Nigel and his party: they attracted less attention than the Greens and were fighting in the 'media war' to move away from the BNP. But since 2011, the party has really come into its own, rapidly moving away from other minor competitors to achieve historically unprecedented levels of coverage.

Figure 3

It is a similar picture in Figure 3, which compares Farage‘s profile to that of Caroline Lucas, George Galloway and Nick Griffin. Until 2012, Farage was often eclipsed by Griffin and Galloway (though never Lucas). We can see how Galloway gains profile during the 2005 campaign and then after his by-election victory in Bradford in 2012, while Griffin peaks during his European breakthrough in 2009. Interestingly, Lucas does not attract an equivalent spike in coverage following her breakthrough into Westminster. In fact, in comparison she is nowhere to be seen. Yet since 2012, Farage has rocketed onto a new level, leaving behind other smaller party leaders who have managed to win representation in Westminster. Journalists clearly are not shaped by electoral reality.

We can also put this into a broader context. While his party is now regularly polling ahead of the Liberal Democrats, Farage, at least in terms of media profile, remains some way behind Nick Clegg, unsurprising given that the latter is in government and the Deputy Prime Minister. So far in 2013, Farage has been mentioned almost 9,000 times compared to almost 20,000 citations for Clegg. But he is closing the gap.

Figure 4

This brings us to our final point concerning the nature of UKIP’s coverage. As Figure 4 shows, UKIP is not only attracting historically unprecedented levels of interest, it is also now beginning to broaden out its 'media attack'. In previous years, the party was most often mentioned alongside the EU, which is unsurprising given its goals. But since 2011, the number of articles that mention UKIP alongside immigration has risen sharply, representing around 40% of its total coverage in 2013.

This is not coincidental but reflects UKIP’s change of strategy since 2011, which we detail in the book. It is the first piece of evidence that UKIP are entrenching themselves at the centre of Britain’s ongoing debate over immigration and its effects, which given the approaching debate over migration from Bulgaria and Romania, and the fact that public concerns over immigration remain high, also looks set to continue. UKIP’s plan to expand its eurosceptic origins by targeting immigration is yielding dividends, as is Farage’s more aggressive media strategy. In interviews with us, those close to Farage often voiced anxiety about the impact of a relentless schedule on their leader’s health. Some complained how he often gives his personal number to journalists, and refuses to 'switch off'. The strategy may well be wearing Farage down, but it is also producing results. Whether his party can sustain this interest, and ensure it is strictly for positive reasons, remains to be seen.

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. @GoodwinMJ

Robert Ford is a politics lecturer at the University of Manchester. @robfordmancs

First published at The New Statesman

Monday, 4 November 2013

Russell Brand Interview - We need a Revolution

There is some enjoyable sparring between Paxman, clearly channelling the sentiments of thousands of PSE teachers parrotting the vacuous suggestion that those who criticize the failings of our 'representative democracy' should stop and instead involve themselves in it, and Brand, who channels the sarcastic teenagers who know all the reasons why the teacher is wrong and are happy enough with that. But this isn't a serious political debate or any sign that revolution is on the agenda.

Brand talks generically about the way in which differences within the 'political class' are more ephemeral than they seem, and how this has made people dissillusioned with the political system. Strip out the occasional nods towards leftist terminology (like saying 'political class' instead of 'Westminster Politicians') and this is mainly the stuff of a million pub conversations about how 'they are all the bloody same'. Nigel Farage could probably agree with 80% of it.

To be scrupulously fair, he does talk about the failure of the banking system, about unequal distribution of wealth and income, and about cuts and austerity. That's a good thing, and something we don't hear discussed in these terms often on mainstream TV.

But as another famous beardie once wrote, the important thing is not to interpret the world but to change it. Here Brand was utterly helpless in the face of the Paxman steamroller. Paxman says that the only way to change the political system is to participate in it; Brand knows that this is wrong but is unable to articulate why. That would require too much engagement with detail and with structure and process. Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky can do this, but they don't get prime time with Jeremy Paxman, and not many people would watch if they did. Brand does get prime time, precisely because he can't spell out a detailed critique of how 'representative democracy' screws us all.

It's a bit unfair to blame Russell Brand for not having a detailed political program or strategy, a point that he makes rather well himself during the interview. But it is important to recognize that talking about a revolution without actually expressing any idea about what that might mean is, in some sense at least, one of the safety valves of the political system. We have seen this in other anti-politics movements led by comedians and celebrities, notably the Beppe Grillo movement in Italy, that captured the rage of an important section of the population and then led into a blind alley with a program that again, Nigel Farage would have quite liked.

Lots of people have shared the interview video, excited that someone famous was at least using the R word. That's got to be a good thing, and it would be an even better thing if our party and the movement of which it is part would be able to engage with this sentiment, which goes far beyond the usual waters in which the anti-capitalist left usually fishes. But that in turn requires a political strategy for change that goes beyond 'vote for us, we are different to the rest of them'. And a vision of a revolution that is neither a fairy tale of opting out of capitalism to create a parallel world alongside it nor a nineteenth century insurrectionist fantasy.

Written by Jeremy Green