Sunday, 2 July 2017

Thatcher's Children

Copious lines have been written and video footage aired of the utterly horrendous fire at Grenfell tower in west London. The sights and sounds of people in fear and in death, and the red raw grief of the survivors, their families and the local community are beyond adequate description.

Yet these personal and collective tragedies speak too to a wider truth, one which has been buried away for years by mainstream commentators and media (though covered here), but which is now finally being aired, not least thanks to the outcome of June's General Election and the willingness of the dramatically insurgent Jeremy Corbyn to speak about the things that dared not be mentioned by his neoliberal predecessors. For, more powerfully and tragically than any blog, inspection report or political speech, the Grenfell fire has horrendously illuminated the very human impact of the Great Inequality at the faltering heart of British society and in particular the effect it has on that most vital need of everyone alive – the need for a comfortable, secure and perhaps above all, a safe place to call Home.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, shelter is one of the most primal needs of home sapiens alongside food. That it is unavailable to so many in this, the fifth richest country on a materially prosperous world is beyond a scandal – rather it evidences that we live on a planet ruled by psychopathy, with an economic system founded on essentially psychopathic principles and an elite willing to sacrifice the lives of lessers to enjoy, in the case of Grenfell Tower, a better view.

For let’s be in no doubt – while few people would actively harm others, millions willingly embrace a system that does untold harm to tens and hundreds of millions. Incidents like Grenfell Tower are simply the most striking, the most urgent, most public of the toll taken on those who are on the wrong side of the economic divide. Nero was probably unfairly accused of deliberately setting fire to Rome to turn squalid slum housing into his personal park, but the holocaust of decent housing and safe housing standards across Britain and most acutely in London has been a modern day fiddle of epic proportions. And the Tories and their allies are at the very heart of it.

From small beginnings, and, as with all cons, selling citizens’ ruin as a virtue to their victims, the Thatcher Gang first alienated and then appropriated public housing before their grasping descendants effectively finished it off under Blair and Cameron. In this context, tearless Theresa, while an appalling, craven character in so many ways, is (perhaps unsurprisingly) unremarkable. Her pathological lack of empathy is no aberration but, if anything, the Ideal, representing the Homo Capitalissimus, the Children of Thatcher.
Consider the tack – first of all, selling off council houses to sitting tenants through the 1980s and 1990s, trumpeted in the same way as the sick joke of the “shareholder economy” when the state’s energy assets were being flogged off, was marketed as giving people a security they could not get from council housing. This was in spite of the fact that tenancy of council housing was normally assured and, by law, at a fair rent. Rent controls and assured tenancies also at that time existed in the private rented sector, affording some degree of protection for renters.

Next Thatcher and Major went about dismantling all these controls and protections, supposedly for the benefit of “choice and flexibility”. As tenants became homeowners unable to get a market price for their houses on council estates, many sold on to… private landlords, many of them Tory MPs or their relatives or business partners, mates or simply their elite class comrades. Around one in three homes sold to council tenants are now privately rented, without the levels of maintenance or security of tenure, nor low rents, that people once enjoyed.

Similarly, a slew of other regulations and arrangements were destroyed: for example, the state Property Services Agency with a fund of information and expertise on rent and building controls, including safety, was stripped down and privatised. Councils were barred from using the receipts from council house sales to invest in either new or even their remaining stock. And soon forced transfers to housing associations and the rip-off of “arms-length management organisations” (often the former council housing chiefs running their own “not for profit” company) meant that democratic control of housing was gone. State funding over the decades, under both Tories and Nu-Labour, then conspired to force what had been local or specialist charitable housing associations to merge and develop into ever bigger, remote beasts until now just a handful control the vast majority of “social housing”, as what was once council housing is now known.

Everywhere you look over the last thirty years in social housing, all you can see is a steady stripping away of protection, contracting out of maintenance services, downgrading of tenants voices and underfunding of any redevelopments. And of course, in boroughs like Kensington & Chelsea, Tory leaders have made a virtue of running down their public services, running a surplus and paying a dividend back to their rich residents – the borough is on average the very wealthiest in the UK, but also one of the most grossly unequal. The absence of council staff from the tower area in the days after the fire was probably as much down to the fact that there are so very few of them as to bad organisation.

So here we are now – in the fifth richest society on the planet, in real terms more than twice as prosperous as it was in the 1970s, more and more people sleep in the street; millions more than ever can’t afford to buy any housing; and London and elsewhere boast tens of thousands, if not more, empty properties purchased as “investments” to deliberately lie empty until their owners flog them on to the next property investor. Those who do have places to live may easily end up with insecure tenancies in properties whose landlords the current government decided last autumn to not make legally responsible for ensuring are fit for human habitation. Some may end up, as shown on the BBC by chance the evening after the Grenfell fire, crowded in rented properties three or four to a room, or living literally in a cupboard, or even in a garage with just a tarpaulin sheet for a door.

Or maybe they end up dying in a block of flats, with no fire escape, nor any sprinkler system, with flammable cladding primarily put in place to spare the eyes of the rich across the borough, offended by the site of an ugly tower block full of “little people” as one Tory MP patronisingly called the survivors. While tests show a 100% failure rate on cladding on tower blocks across the country now, it may yet be that they are compliant with fire safety standards - because they too have been compromised in the search for every more profit.

Much is being said about the need to learn from the fire. Corbyn has rightly and radically called for the requisitioning of the empty properties in the borough to house the survivors leading to shudders of outrage from many Tories and their collaborators. 

Mark Bridgen MP fulminated that this was a nonsensical idea when student accommodation could be used instead (the irony of the state of a lot of that being lost amidst his blind arrogance); alleged celebrity Anne Diamond appeared on TV to dismiss the idea on the grounds that many of the owners live abroad so couldn’t be contacted (email stops at Dover since Article 50 was invoked); but most breath-taking of all was the insistence of economist Andrew Lilico, Chairman of the Institute of Economic Affairs, on Radio 4 PM that it would be “immoral” to seize private property and if not doing so meant people were homeless “well, you don’t always get exactly what you want.” (49.30 mins in on - ). Even in a disaster of the magnitude of Grenfell tower, he feels that it is wrong to share property for the common need, never mind the common good.

Andrew Lilico
The lines are drawn. Grenfell is not an aberration. It is not an accident. And Theresa May’s Government by psychopathy should not be a surprise or a shock to us.

Because, ever since Thatcher declared there is no such thing as society, just individuals, this has been our destination. Capitalism is about exploitation – everything is in the end a commodity to be bought and sold and the smartest or fastest or best-protected racketeer gets to walk away with the prize. There is no empathy, no compassion. Self-interest and functioning without conscience or regard for others trumps all.

So, welcome to the future. To Thatcher’s Children and the planet of the psychopaths. This is our world now, but only for as long as we allow it. For, like all “libertarians”, what Mr Lilico sitting in the BBC studio yammering on about property rights forgets is that property rights only exist for as long as society - all of us - continue to recognise them.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Theresa May vs People

The British General Election has entered an unexpected phase for the Tories - weak and wobbly, as it has been oft-lampooned these last few days, rather than the strong and stable narrative originally envisaged and carefully packaged and promoted by the dark powers that are party strategist Lynton Crosbie. For even with the pause in campaigning following the Manchester bombing atrocity, the fall of Theresa May's always rather flickering star has continued relentlessly.

First there was the decision to call the election at all after her repeated insistence that there wouldn't be one. Then came a slew of disastrous policy announcements possibly intended to show her as decisive, but in fact radiating the hubris and arrogance at the heart of the Tory agenda: no assurance of no tax rises; dropping the triple lock on pensions; ending free school meals; and of course the utter confusion of new charges for homecare for older people and the inclusion of property in calculations for eligibility - May's attempts to row back (or clarify as she put it) simply served to illuminate her panic.

Given that the central premise of the Tory campaign, and indeed of the whole purpose of the election, was to supposedly cement this allegedly powerful, charismatic and "strong and stable" leader's authority to speak for The Nation ahead of the Brexit negotiations, due to start a few days after the 8 June vote, it is little surprise her ratings have tumbled, with her party sliding along behind, steadily if not as precipitously as its leader.

Corbyn is having a good campaign.
By contrast, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn has been having a good campaign. Polls show that while people's main memory of the Tory manifesto launch is the negativity of the social care plans, Labour's launch of policies such as nationalising the railways, taxing the rich and funding the NHS and abolishing university tuition fees have stuck in the collective mind in very positive ways. Similarly, to the confused surprise of many rightist commentators and the Blairite wing of his own party, Corbyn has often seemed far more calm under pressure than May. Faced with a slew of slanted and at times ill-informed questions by BBC attack-dog Andrew Neil, he parried well, unflustered and measured in his responses, as he also was with a speech linking the threat (not the culpability) of terrorism with adventurist foreign policy. May's coterie's screaming denunciation of the latter highlighted their own weaknesses rater than any of Corbyn's.

But perhaps the most interesting and most telling things about Theresa May these last week's haven't been the policy muddles and the campaign wobbles, but rather what we have learned about her as a person. And given the almost Erdogan-like elevation of her as the National Leader in the Tory campaign, the contrast between the Image and the Reality has rarely been as nakedly apparent as it now is.

Tory candidates around the country have clearly been instructed to subsume themselves to her: in Batley & Spen, a Tory prospect at the start of the campaign though somewhat unlikely now, their candidate at a hustings last week introduced herself not as the Conservative but as "Theresa May's candidate." Similarly, in the tight Labour-held marginal next door in Dewsbury, the Tory candidate's Freepost leaflet has no mention or photograph of the local candidate but simply pictures of the PM and the injunction to "Vote for Theresa May." These are not at all untypical examples of a strategy founded on the Prime Minister's personality; a strategy that is clearly now sited in an earthquake zone.

May - posturing at home; ignored abroad.
Repeatedly and ridiculously central to the Tory message has been an almost Trump-like claim that May would be a "good negotiator" for Britain in the Brexit talks. Yet quite aside from the fact that she will not be undertaking any of the actual negotiation discussions in any case, what evidence is there to support this assertion?

First of all, her actions on Brexit have been, frankly, counter-productive. There was the frankly bizarre threat to withdraw co-operation on counter-terrorist intelligence if she didn't get the trade terms she wants with the EU. Next she followed up with a fictitious and hysterical "crisis" over the sovereignty of Gibraltar where she clearly thought it a good idea to let some of her party grandees mutter loudly about going to war with Spain. No friends nor partners nor any influence were won in either debacle.

A rare occasion - confronted by a real person.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this allegedly smooth operator with her supposed abilities to influence and foster "win-win" situations is just how dreadfully awkward she seems to be with other people. Time and again, other than in carefully scripted, party-planned events which have minimised and even eliminated all human contact, she seems completely outside her comfort zone. Whether guffawing irritably in an extremely laboured manner when challenged in the Commons, or uncomfortably trying to eat chips in the street, or accidentally confronted about the impact of Tory policies on her life by a disabled woman who left her stammering and furious-faced, May gives the impression of a rabbit caught in headlights rather than a cunning fox in the hen coop.

Her refusal to meet any other party leaders in any of the TV debates - she is sending the ever-irritable Amber Rudd to represent her at the BBC one this week - simply adds to the impression of someone ill at ease with people whose views and lives don't accord with her own. In the difficult days ahead, as we negotiate our future arrangements with Europe, we need a Prime Minister with a rather more balanced mindset, someone who can relate to others and seek a lasting, beneficial deal that works for all sides. We need someone able to venture beyond their hermetically-sealed bubble to accept, deal with and embrace people with different views, needs and outlooks to their own. Both within our divided country and as we forge new relationships overseas, we need Government with a genuine human touch.

We do not need someone who fantasises about being Nelson or Churchill. Especially when she is neither.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Comrade Corbyn's Last Chance

Labour's losses in yesterday's local elections came as little surprise; and nor for anyone reflecting on how our first-past-the -post voting system works was the collapse of UKIP to just one councillor (from 145) a true shock. Even the Tory resurgence in Scotland was predictable given their showing in last year's Scottish Parliamentary elections (and nor was it that spectacular - one "incredible" result was on the basis of 629 votes on the tenth count to win the last seat in a 4-member ward; not the stuff of revolutions, or perhaps more appropriately reaction).

Unsurprising too was Jeremy Corbyn's vow to fight on and John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, explaining it all away as not as bad as expected. What politician doesn't try that - UKIP after all claim their losses were because they are victims of their own success, while the Lib Dems "Tiny" Tim Farron hailed their net loss of 42 councillors as a stunning success. Among opposition parties, only the Greens (up 6) and Plaid Cymru (up 33) actually had any concrete good news, but both were studiously written out of nearly all news stories.

What is surprising is Labour's attitude, both before but especially now after their bad local showing, to those smaller opposition parties given Corbyn's previous calls for political pluralism. In the face of all reality, they continue to talk as if it is still 1950 and the Tories and Labour stand to poll 97% of the vote between them.

The Greens have debated the idea of working with Labour and others in a "Progressive Alliance". The objectives of such a beast - was it to gain electoral reform or simply beat the Tories? - generated more greenhouse  heat than light at times, as did the vexed question of whether or not the Lib Dems might be welcomed to root among the progressive compost. But with Theresa May's snap election called three weeks ago, the overtures to Labour gained a real urgency given the Tories' commanding lead in the polls.

Green leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley both offered to talk with Jeremy Corbyn, while in almost every region of the country, local Green parties offered to consider local accommodations where Green voters are numerous enough to make a possible difference to the outcome. So far, a couple of agreements have been reached in Brighton Kemptown and in Ealing where the Greens will back the Labour candidate in return, among other things, for a commitment to support proportional representation. Greens have also stood down in Shipley, along with the local Lib Dems, to back the Women's Equality Party against the odious Tory incumbent Philip Davies, but so far Labour are adamant they will stand in spite of having little prospect of success. With a few honourable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, this is typical of their national stance: Labour are prepared to stand down absolutely nowhere at all, for any one else. Period.

On Radio 4 just yesterday, Labour's Lord Faulkener insisted the "minor parties" have been wiped aside and it is a straight contest between Tory and Labour ignoring the fact that these same parties had just won almost exactly the same number of council seats as Labour. A few days previously, speaking in Batley (where, ironically, all the major parties stood down in favour of Labour after Jo Cox's murder), Labour Front Bencher Emily Thornberry responded to a question asking if she felt only two parties - Labour and Tory - should be standing in the elections with a plain, "Yes."

So much for Corbyn's pluralism. And so much for any chances of stopping a Tory tidal wave.

We are where we are in good part because of our undemocratic voting system: first-past-the-post, with its winner-take-all outcomes, had repeatedly produced election results completely at odds with the wishes of voters. Time and time again, Government's have gained outright power with a minority of votes cast - only once since the war, in 1955, has the winning party achieved over half the vote.

Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, recognised this. He declared first-past-the-post as unfit for purpose, especially outside a two-party system, and the Labour Government of 1929-31 actually introduced a Bill for electoral reform which was held up by the House of Lords until the Government collapsed. With Labour's success in 1945, the party's commitment to a fairer voting system was quietly forgotten.

And so we are left with this impasse: Labour decry those on the Left who stand against them as stooges for the Tories because of how the voting system works. And yet they refuse to change that system for all sorts of spurious reasons, but at its core is the repeated mantra that we are a two-party country and the choice we face is purely binary.

These claims however are a denial of reality. While in 1951 97% did indeed vote Tory or Labour, in 2015 that figure was just 65%, with more people (35%) voting for "minor parties" compared to Labour's total of just 29%. Just look at Scotland, where the SNP virtually eliminated Labour and where the party continues to fall relentlessly and the claim that UK politics are binary is immediately swept away. And while UKIP is clearly on the wane in England, this is largely because the hard right Tories have adopted their agenda - there is no dividend for Labour. The Greens, meantime, while not at breakthrough, have continued to grow steadily in elected representatives and their current poll ratings show them at least likely to equal if not just yet better their record 2015 showing.

So what on earth possesses Labour, including Jeremy Corbyn, like some sort of Death Wish?

The announcement of a Progressive Alliance and real reciprocation between Labour, Greens, Plaid and the SNP up to the close of nominations on Thursday would produce a wave of support far beyond the current sum of its parts. The Tories have decried such an entity as a "Coalition of Chaos", but it is in fact the thing they fear most - because far more unites these parties than divides them. Faced off against the lacklustre Tory campaign, an alliance would catch the popular imagination and reinvigorate the political landscape.

And yet, although it is technically possible even now, there is little sign of it from the Labour ranks. Regrettably, and almost certainly in vain, Corbyn puts his party's tenuous and frankly impossible unity ahead of the needs of the country. For the sake of trying to conjure up the illusion of a two-party contest, Labour risk delivering Britain into the grim reality of a One Party state.