Friday, August 28, 2009

An Appeal from Jock McTrousers

Our friend and much-valued regular commenter Jock McTrousers writes:

NEIL - OFF TOPIC BUT IMPORTANT - well, somebody mentioned a disabilities act earlier.


I'd like to draw your attention to this; I suspect you may not know about it, as scarcely anyone else seems to - I only just found out by accident, and I'm one of the people who would be effected (catastrophically) by the removal of DLA. I've suspected it was coming, but it seems to have started, in a typically sneaky New Labour way.

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE draw the attention of your readers and all political and labour movement contacts to this. The following is an excerpt from an article on the ' Benefits and Work guides you can trust' website (there is a petition too):

" A government green paper has revealed plans to stop paying disability benefits and hand the cash over to social services instead. The consultation period for the green paper ends on 13 November. If there has been no significant outcry against the plans by then, it seems very likely that whichever party is in power after the next election will seize this opportunity to cut public spending by over a billion pounds a year. Although the actual changes may take years to be brought in, it is what happens between now and November 13th that is likely to seal the fate of disability benefits.

The Shaping the Future of Care Green Paper published by the DWP and the Department of Health on 14th July sets out government plans to get rid of attendance allowance and, depending on public reaction, also leaves the way clear to end the care component of disability living allowance. "

Full article and petition here.

Disgusting isn’t it? We’re told that public spending needs to be cut. But no talk from either of our two main parties about bringing British armed forces back from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Or, in reintroducing proper rates of income tax on the very wealthy. Or of introducing a new Wealth Tax. Instead, let’s find some savings by attacking the most vulnerable in our society.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy: The Hollow Champion

While Teddy Kennedy's disasters were vivid, his legislative triumphs, draped in this week's obituaries with respectful homage, were far less colourful. And they were actually devastating for the very constituencies – working people, organised labour –whose champion he claimed to be.

Though the obituarists have glowingly related Kennedy's 46-year stint in the US Senate and, as 'the last liberal', his mastery of the legislative process, they miss the fact that it was out of Kennedy's Senate office that came two momentous bits of legislation that signalled the onset of the neo-liberal era: deregulation of trucking and aviation. They were a disaster for organised labour and the working conditions and pay of people in those industries.

(Kennedy).. helped push through NAFTA, the "free trade" pact that was another body blow to American labour.
....because his mishaps were so dramatic, no one remembers quite how noxious his political triumphs were for those who now mourn him as their lost leader.

You can read the rest of Alexander Cockburn's brilliant piece on the late Teddy Kennedy- and why he was no champion of the working man- here.

UPDATE: Today's Morning Star editorial discusses Kennedy's mixed record on foreign policy issues:

A knee-jerk cold warrior, he initially backed the Vietnam war, supported the 2001 Afghanistan invasion and talked up the threat from Iran in 2002. Of his stance on Israel, we need only quote thuggish far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called him "a great friend to Israel" who "stood by Israel's side in its most trying times."
But he recanted on Vietnam to become a fierce critic of the war, opposed the Iraq invasion and was honoured by Chile last year as one of the few prominent US politicians who stood firm against Reagan's murderous interventions in Latin America.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Privateers take older bus users for a ride

This article of mine, on Britain's rip-off private bus companies, appears in the Morning Star. It's also crossed-posted on the Campaign For Public Ownership website.

They already have to try to make ends meet on the lowest state pension in the whole of the European Union. They have to live with the fear of having to sell their home if forced to go into care.

Now Britain's long-suffering pensioners face the prospect of a new humiliation - having their free bus travel means-tested.

A recent consultants' report commissioned by the Local Government Association criticised the current scheme for being "targeted too widely" and while both local authorities and the government insisted that they had no plans to introduce means testing in the near future, the economic climate means that free bus travel is likely to be under increasing pressure, especially - if as predicted - the Tories return to power next spring.

But there is one way that local authorities could save money on the scheme and free bus travel for Britain's elderly can be maintained. It's called public ownership.

The reason why the current scheme costs so much money - it cost local authorities £1 billion last year - is that bus travel in Britain is operated not by the local authorities themselves or by a state-owned national bus company but by profiteering private firms.

These companies will use every trick in the book to extract as much money as possible from the public purse.

A report in the Daily Mail quoted the words of one local authority official, who said of the private bus companies: "They are creaming us."
The Mail's Steve Doughty reported: "Many older people tell stories of using their bus passes for short journeys, but find that drivers log them as tickets to the end of the route."

My own next-door neighbour, who is a pensioner, told me he nearly always gets a ticket to the end of the route, even if he has only asked the driver for a stop less than a mile down the road.

Imagine this scam taking place every day up and down Britain and the huge cost of the scheme is no longer such a surprise.

Overall, Britain's private bus companies received a staggering £2.5 billion from the public purse last year. And the chief executive of one of them, Go Ahead's Keith Ludeman - who received a salary of £910,000 last year - has the nerve to say, in relation to the free bus scheme that "pensioners cannot be given a blank cheque."

It really doesn't have to be like this.

Bringing all bus travel back into public ownership would mean that the free bus scheme for Britain's old folk could be administered much more efficiently and at much less cost to taxpayers.

Having just one provider of bus services in a region would bring huge benefits.

At present, local authorities have to pay different bus companies each time a passenger changes buses. So authorities in towns like Preston, which is the main transport nexus in northern Lancashire, are adversely affected by the scheme.

And, as Morning Star reader Graham Hall pointed out in his letter on Tuesday, if the bus companies were municipally owned, the revenue would come back to the local authorities and not go to the pockets of private shareholders.

We don't have to look too far for an example of how things should be done.

Just across the North Sea in Belgium, public transport remains in public ownership. The advantages of having an integrated, state-owned system are immediately apparent to anyone travelling in the country.

Fares, which are calculated by distance and not by "market pricing" are reasonable, trains and buses run on time and the ticketing system is easy to understand.
And pensioners get a cracking deal too. Seniors over 65 - including visitors - pay only €4 (£3.45) for a return second-class trip anywhere in the country, except on weekends from mid-May to mid-September.

But even outside of this period, fares for the elderly are heavily discounted - costing less than a third of the standard fare.

On buses and trams, all transport is free for over-65s, while those aged from 60 to 65 are able to buy a special yearly pass, costing €182 in Flanders - that's €0.50 a day.

And of top of all this, Belgian pensioners receive a state pension that is around 60 per cent of the country's average earnings - compared to their counterparts in Britain whose pension is only 15 per cent.

If Belgium can run an integrated, publicly owned public transport system - and do the right thing by its old folk - why can't we?

Learning from our European neighbours

It's official. While Britain's "dynamic" and "flexible" privatised economy shrank by 0.8 per cent in the three months to June, the economy of those two European countries Thatcherite ideologues like to regard as "unreformed" dinosaurs - France and Germany - grew by 0.3 per cent.

The reason why France and Germany are officially out of recession while Britain still languishes in it is the sort of economy the countries run.

As The Guardian's Larry Elliot says, France and Germany "are less dependent on financial services, tend to have lower levels of consumer debt and have established long-term relationships between banks and companies which guarantee that credit lines are not pulled at the first sign of trouble."

France and Germany, while flirting with neoliberalism in recent years, have never embraced it as wholeheartedly as Britain's political elite.

The result is that both countries still maintain a manufacturing base and both still have vital services such as transport in public ownership.

Yet incredibly, despite the disastrous consequences "free-market" ideology has had for the British economy, neoliberals in the EU are still trying to impose their dogma on the rest of the continent, by trying to force European countries which haven't adopted Thatcherism to follow the flawed British path.

The fact is that it's Britain which should be learning from the rest of Europe - and not the other way round.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Iraq: The Forgotten War

With all the attention on events in Afghanistan, the media has tended to ignore the continuing devastation that the 2003 illegal US-led attack on Iraq has caused.

Today, 95 people lost their lives in bomb blasts in Baghdad- and more than 500 people were injured. It's no good supporters of the war trying to evade responsibility for the carnage- the fact is that attacks like the ones we saw today are a direct consequence of the decision to invade and topple Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. Al-Qa'eda and other such groups may be operating in Iraq today- but they certainly weren't operating in Iraq prior to March 2003. And for that we have the neocons to thank.

Apologists for the war urge those of us who opposed it to 'move on'. But I for one will not be 'moving on' until those who planned the invasion- one which has cost the lives of up to 1m people- are properly held to account for their crimes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The 'Left-Wing' Rogues Gallery

This article of mine, on 'left-wing' wolves in disguise, appears in the Morning Star.

It's a sad truth that some of the biggest enemies of progressive socialist causes have not been those on the right but those who claim to be on the left.

All over the world, some of the most reactionary anti-working-class policies have been carried out by governments which go under a "socialist" or "social democratic" label.
In eastern Europe for instance, nominally leftist governments have presided over mass privatisation and cutbacks in health and welfare provision since the fall of communism 20 years ago.

And in Britain, new Labour has sided with global capital against the interests of ordinary working people as well as supporting illegal imperialist wars of aggression in the Balkans and the Middle East.

New Labour claims to be a left-of-centre party but, as Labour veteran Tony Benn recently stated, in fact it is to the right of the positions taken by old-style "one-nation" Tory figures such as Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan.

They accepted the progressive mixed economy/welfare state consensus of the post-war period and did not believe that market forces should be allowed to rule every aspect of our lives.

So here is a "rogues gallery" of 10 political figures who, while campaigning under a left or progressive banner ended up siding with capitalism and betraying the very people - and the causes - their parties were supposed to represent.

Tony Blair

At the 1995 Labour Party conference, the new Labour leader promised a "publicly accountable, publicly owned railway" if his party returned to power.
It was the first of many promises he was to break.
In fact, Blair extended the Tory policy of privatisation into new areas such as air traffic control. An enthusiastic globalist, Blair showed where his loyalties were when he told the bankers of Goldman Sachs that he supported British companies "letting some jobs migrate" to India and China.
In foreign policy, Blair ditched Labour's traditional scepticism of foreign adventures and respect for the United Nations and enthusiastically supported illegal attacks on Iraq and socialist Yugoslavia.
The man who in his maiden speech in Parliament declared that he was a socialist because "socialism corresponds most closely to an existence that is both rational and moral," currently earns around £2 million a year from US bank JP Morgan Chase and receives up to $250,000 (£147,600) for a 45-minute speech on the US lecture circuit.

Ferenc Gyurcsany

A former Hungarian Communist youth leader, Gyurcsany made his fortune from privatisation deals in the early 1990s.
On becoming "socialist" prime minister in 2004, he presided over a large-scale privatisation programme and cutbacks in Hungary's health and welfare programmes which led to a sharp rise in poverty.
In 2006 he provoked riots when a tape in which he admitted lying "morning, noon and night" to the electorate was leaked to the media.
But while he is hate figure for most Hungarians, others hold a more positive view. "Gyurcsany is our kind of socialist," was the verdict of a US junk bond trader.

Ramsay Macdonald

The first ever Labour prime minister sided with the bankers in the economic crisis of 1931, betraying his party and Britain's working class by forming a Tory-dominated "national government" which introduced swingeing cuts in unemployment pay and the pay of public-sector employees. Macdonald's treachery led to riots in Glasgow and Manchester.

David Lange

Lange's New Zealand Labour government of the 1980s was a forerunner of Britain's new Labour.
Lange's finance minister Roger Douglas carried out a programme of privatisation and deregulation which was lauded by free-market economists and big business but alienated the party's traditional supporters and led to a sharp rise in unemployment and inequality.

Jose Manuel Barroso

A former leader of an underground Maoist grouping, the leader of Portugal's Social Democratic Party and prime minister from 2002-4, Barroso hosted the infamous meeting at which he, George Bush, Blair and Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar made the final plans for the illegal invasion of Iraq.
In office, Barroso pursued neoliberal policies, which he has continued as head of the European Commission.

Aleksander Kwasniewski

The former Communist minister morphed into a hawkish pro-NATO Polish president, supporting the US-led bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq four years later. A strong globalist, he is a board member of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

Gyula Horn

In 1994, after four years of economic hardship, the Hungarian Socialist Party won a convincing election victory on a programme of retaining the best features of the popular "goulash communist" system of the Janos Kadar years.
Western elites were horrified, but when faced with the choice of defending the interests of ordinary Hungarians who had voted for him or siding with the international money men, Horn chose the latter.
He sacked genuinely socialist ministers and appointed wealthy banker Lajos Bokros to introduce a swingeing programme of cuts in public spending and welfare provision.

Philip Snowden

The "Iron Chancellor" in Ramsay Macdonald's 1929 Labour government, Snowden blocked plans for a socialist reflation of the economy and joined Macdonald in defecting to a Tory-dominated national government formed in August 1931.
In the election campaign later that year he turned on his former comrades, calling Labour's pro-working-class policies "Bolshevism run mad."
He ended up as "the first viscount Snowden" - not bad for a weaver's son from West Yorkshire.

Viktor Klima

Austrian Socialist Party politician who, under the pretext of "modernisation" moved his party away from the unequivocally socialist positions it took under the leadership of the popular Bruno Kreisky to adopt a more pro-capitalist stance.
During his period as Austrian chancellor from 1997-2000, Klima privatised publicly owned assets and cut back on welfare provision. His policies undoubtedly aided the rise of far-right politicians such as the late Joerg Haider.

Ivica Dacic

Leader of the Serbian Socialist Party who last year took his party into a coalition with the Democratic Party of Serbia, whose former leader Zoran Djindic had been responsible for founder of the Serbian Socialist Party Slobodan Milosevic being kidnapped and sent to The Hague.
Dacic's decision to enter a neoliberal, pro-privatisation coalition with his party's most bitter enemies was condemned by the party's traditional supporters who saw it as a betrayal of everything it had claimed to stand for.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why can't Britain be more like Belgium?

This article of mine appears in The First Post.

Question: which European country has a right-wing Prime Minister whose sister is a communist politician? Answer: Belgium. Who else?

Belgium is easily the quirkiest country in western Europe, if not the entire continent. For long periods in the past two years it has been without a government. It is plagued with linguistic divisions and has often appeared to be on the verge of breaking-up. And for decades it has been the butt of jokes, such as the hoary old challenge to 'name ten famous Belgians'.

Yet, for all of that, Belgium works - far better than Britain. This is ironic, given that Britain has strong historical ties to Belgium and came to the country's rescue when it was invaded by Germany in 1914.

Belgium has much in common with Britain: it's a densely-populated former imperial power with long-standing internal divisions and could easily provide a model for Britain if our political elite were not so insular, or ideologically blinkered, in their outlook.

The first step in making Britain more like Belgium would be to change the electoral system. In Britain, too much store is placed on political stability. In Belgium, where a form of proportional representation operates, governments come and go with far greater frequency than in Britain. But does the country actually suffer from this greater political instability? There is no evidence to suggest that it does. On the contrary, proportional representation means that more parties have a chance of winning seats - 11 different parties won seats in Belgium's 2007 general election - helping to increase public interest in politics.

Then there's foreign policy. Belgium, like Britain, is a founder member of Nato. But unlike Britain, it knows when to say no to Washington's military adventures - as it did at the time of the Iraq war in 2003.

Belgium's constructive attitude towards European co-operation also puts Britain to shame. While the British Thatcherite right sees the continent - and its more socially-orientated form of Rhineland mixed-economy capitalism - as the source of all evil, Belgium's conservatives take a more rounded, balanced outlook.

As for domestic policy decision-making, Belgium's approach has been more pragmatic and less ideological than Britain's. Public transport is a case in point. While Britain, in thrall to free market dogma, privatised its buses and trains in the 1980s and 90s, Belgium has maintained a publicly owned, fully co-ordinated and ultra-efficient public transport system. Travelling around the country is a constant delight and devoid of the stresses which afflict British commuters.

While Britain prides itself on its historical commitment to the freedom of the individual, in fact it's Belgium which feels a much freer and immeasurably more relaxed place. Smoking is still allowed in bars and cafes. Public places are refreshingly free of our incessant tannoy announcements, warning us that this is a no-smoking station or airport and that any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.

Belgium's success owes much to the delicate balancing of political and social forces. The country has never embraced neo-liberal economic dogma as enthusiastically as Britain, with the result that market forces do not rule every aspect of people's lives. Also, the strength of the Catholic Church has meant that traditional family values are still promoted. But the strength of liberal groups means that Belgium fully respects the rights of gay people - it was the second country in the world to legalise same-sex marriages.

All of which makes Belgians happy. An OECD study published earlier this year revealed Belgium to be the ninth happiest developed country in the world, with 76.3 per cent of the population expressing satisfaction with their lives. Britain could only manage fifteenth place. The same survey showed that only Turkey topped Belgium when it came to rising levels of life satisfaction in the period 2000-06; Britain came eleventh.

Belgium is an example of how a modern country can combine economic efficiency with social justice and how high living standards can go hand in hand with high levels of social cohesion.

It's time we stopped making smart jokes about famous Belgians and started to learn from our more efficient, less stressed-out and much happier European neighbour

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Queen Mum: Anti-Thatcher and Pro-Miner

I've never been a fanatical royalist, but I always had a soft spot for the late Queen Mother.

1. She was a very sweet old dear.
2. She loved horse racing- and in particular National Hunt racing.
3. Her favourite television programme was Dad's Army.

And there's a fourth good reason to admire the Queen Mum: she was anti-Thatcher and supported the miners.

In the Sunday Express Camilla Tominey quotes Kenneth Rose, who says of his long-standing friend:

“There was no rapport with Thatcher. She would have thought that Thatcher’s economic measures were quite harsh. The Queen Mother’s Bowes-Lyon family had firm associations with County Durham so she knew quite a lot about the miners and didn’t like the miners to be criticised. I remember being at an event with the Queen Mother in the Eighties when a woman tried to curry favour with her saying something along the lines of ‘Aren’t these miners terrible’, but the Queen Mother bristled at the comment, and said she thought the miners were right. She said ‘We in Durham’ – she pronounced it Durr-um – ‘think they are rather patriotic’.”

Rose expresses the hope that the Queen Mother's support for the miners is included in the forthcoming official biography which is released next month. But seeing that the biography has been written by the hard-line neo-con William Shawcross, we shouldn't hold our breath.

The Queen Mum's backing for the miners certainly puts those so-called 'leftists' who did not support the 1984 strike to shame.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Twisted Morality of Simon Heffer and Iain Duncan-Smith

At last, the British government has shown some compassion and released the dying former train robber Ronnie Biggs.

But some people aren't happy.

I remember watching Question Time a few weeks back and seeing the politician Iain Duncan-Smith oppose the release of Biggs. Biggs was a serious criminal, the law should be obeyed, people should always serve their sentence etc, etc, he went on. I wonder if this was the same 'IDS' who was an enthusiastic supporter of the illegal Iraq war- which has been responsible for the deaths of up to 1m people? The Nuremburg judgement held that "to initiate a war of not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime" - but it was a crime that IDS supported.

So too Simon Heffer.

In today’s DT Heffer expresses indignation that Biggs has been released.

His release ‘exemplifies the moral destitution of our society’

The best comments under his obnoxious piece come from
'Christine M'
I think its heartless to complain about a dying man being given freedom. The right thing has happened. What does it show about our country if we cannot show compassion? we should be proud of the fact.

And 'Noodles':
How sad and twisted Simon Heffer is. For years he has bleated on from an elevated, privileged position and always with an indignant, self righteous tone
Heffer …continues to be a part of the establishment whose arrogance knows no bounds and has little or no time for compassion,instead preferring to take these so called ' higher moral ground ' and completely missing the humanitarian aspects of the case.

The morality of 'IDS' and Heffer is simple. A man who takes part in a robbery is more of a criminal than someone who launches an illegal war against a sovereign state which causes enormous loss of life.

The fact that people who hold such views are still prominent in our public life ‘exemplifies the moral destitution of our society’, far more than the release of an 80-year old man dying from pneumonia.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Guns of August 1914- and what the pundits were saying

Exactly 95 years ago this week, World War One broke out.

I’ve been busy trawling old newspaper archives and the internet to see what the commentariat/blogsphere/and various public figures were saying in what was arguably the most momentous week of the 20th century.

Here's a selection of what I've found.

If I find out that the stories of Huns raping nuns and bayoneting babies are not true, I will never believe another thing that I am told by our government. Well, at least not for another 89 years.
Sir David Aaronovitch, The London Times.

Let’s be under no illusions as to whose fault this war is. The Serbs. And in particular, one man: Slobodan Milosevic. Of course, leftwing apologists for Milosevic and Serbian aggression will point out that Milosevic will not be born until 1941 and so couldn‘t possibly be held responsible for World War One. What nonsense. It was Milosevic’s plans for a ‘Greater Serbia’, which inspired Gavrilo Princip to shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Slobo was to blame (he was to blame for World War Two and the Spanish Inquisition too), and I‘m going to draw up his indictment right now.
Professor Mark O’Attila (Not the Hun) Hoare, European Director of the Andrew Jackson Society.

Let us be under no illusion as to what is at stake in this war. If the forces of civilisation do not prevail then the whole continent of Europe will be taken over by the fanatical Islamists who are hiding beneath the Kaiser’s cloak. A victory for Germany would be a victory for Islam. And then there’s those Turkish weapons of mass destruction….
Dame Melanie Phillips, The London Spectator.

What joy to be alive at this magnificent hour. Thousands of people going off to die for freedom and democracy. I would love to enlist for the front, but sadly I am in a reserved occupation (I’m a V.I.B. a Very Important Blogger)- so instead of fighting the Hun like those plebs and public school types, I’ll be blogging 24/7 on developments.
Mike Blogger.

I cannot believe that war does anything else but debase and demoralise mankind.
George Lansbury, anti-war politician and editor, The Daily Herald.

Once again sections of the so-called left, such as George Lansbury, have shown their depravity by opposing the war and becoming apologists for German fascism and totalitarianism. This is a war all those who claim to be on the left should support. It's hard to think of a more progressive cause.
Sir Nicholas Cohen, political pundit.

I’m supporting the war because my statistical analysis reveals that it will be over in a few weeks- with a quick victory being as probable as a Woolwich Arsenal victory over Clapton Orient. And if I’m wrong, it’s not my fault because you can’t judge the quality of a decision by its outcome.
Sir Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer, The London Times.

The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary.

What an awful bore.
Noel Coward.