Monday, 26 January 2015

Individual or Citizen?

What does it mean to be a citizen? To live among others in this country, certainly. To pay taxes which contribute to enabling the country to function, certainly [even the tax-hating Right love their war and security machines and Government jobs]. To have some say over how much tax we pay and on what it is spent? Surely. So how can we have that say if we eschew the very means which enable it - voting?

Some say there is no point in voting - nothing changes. Yet how else are politicians to be influenced to pass laws if not by voters? Mere opinion polls carry no power, like the real thing. Others say that all parties are the same - but clearly they are not, or political discourse would be at an end or at least less vicious and tribal. Some say that certain categories of society should not be allowed to vote - the under-18s; criminals; peers - yet surely those very categories have as much connection with what tax is spent on as any. Others would and do argue that just as taxes are inevitable, so why should voting not be mandatory too. Here lies a libertarian paradox - does freedom lie in paying or not paying tax?

Not voting - or even not registering to vote - can be seen as self-disenfranchisement; a distancing of the individual from the State and its interference in lives. This may be prevalent among those feeling excluded from society, those looking for new models for self-expression or those who feel let down by the current structures. Yet all those lives are lived among the shared culture, infrastructure, justice systems and public services managed by the very State so apparently disliked. People, it is clear, must feel that voting is important either because they feel a social duty from living in a community; or because there is a particular local or topical decision to be made to which they can relate or is seen as important. Nobody, surely, can be immune to the issues for which the State [including Local Government] acts on our behalf, be they economically deprived [in which case they are likely to be dependent] or affluent [in which case they may be concerned with how tax is applied].

Traditional politics, though, fails to make such arguments effectively to millions. Major parties are seen as tribal but cut from similar cloth and defensive of their accumulated influence. Smaller parties are seen as unable to grasp the levers of power with which to deliver their sometimes preferred agendas. Single issues and new media through which to espouse them may attract many but lead to neither votes nor laws. The lot of millions of workers without effective say on the conditions in their won workplaces may be an object lesson in the need for democracy to be shared and actively used by everybody. The challenge of democracy lies in how to make it attractive to and practised by all ages and categories of citizen. Labour of all political parties should be the champion of citizens and leave individualism to the others.

Monday, 19 January 2015

So what IS democracy?

You must have heard people say: "Oh, I could never vote for [Ed/Cameron/Farage etc]". Well, of course they cannot unless they live in the nominee's constituency. In a representative democracy we do not vote for a Party; for a Leader; for a set of ideas. We can only vote for a candidate in our own constituency. True, we may be motivated by any of the above to support that representative but our vote is for the person. S/he may prove a Party loyalist or a rebel; inspirational or disappointing. And the person we support may not even be elected, leaving our interests in the hands of someone with whose values we may be wildly at odds. This is our system.

The word "democracy" brings together "the people" and "power". This remote lottery of a representative system may seem rather estranged from the expectations we are encouraged to have about our empowerment. The legitimacy as an elected representative of someone for whom perhaps only 20,000 people have voted may seem questionable. It is no wonder that many people follow the dubious lead of demagogues who eschew the Party system; or engage in politics through single-issue campaigns and petitions, not least when the latter may attract tens or even hundreds of thousands of signatories. These may feel a sense of belonging, engagement and empowerment greater than that of belonging even to one of the large Parties, whose policies one may agree withy only in part. So these alternatives suit "the people"; but have little apparent power. The latter still lies in the hands of the Parties which win elections, for the foreseeable future.

For this reason, despite all of the criticisms one can justly make of the system we have, it still seems that the only way of making democracy work is to engage in its mechanisms, including finding the person who merits your vote. I shall be voting for my local Labour candidate, Solomon Curtis, in Wealden on May 7th. Join me.

Monday, 12 January 2015

This is why we should oppose privatisation

"I told you so" is always unpopular, especially when justified. Despite Labour's early experiments, progressives have long opposed selling off assets or contracts for public services. We are accused of being doctrinaire in doing so. Now that the evidence is coming to hand of how it has worked, let us examine whether we were correct in our opposition for other reasons.

This month has just provided one example: Hinchingbrooke Hospital. As long ago as the previous Government, this hospital was failing to meet targets and economically. Eventually, the incoming Coalition decided to privatise it, contracting a hedge-funded firm called Circle to turn it round. This process has been under way with some impact for several years but now, under the continuing austerity and inexorable rise in demand, Circle is unable to meet is shareholders' profit expectations and decided to withdraw. Who will pick up the burden is not yet clear but ultimately this will be the tax-payer. Yet again, the State is called on to rescue the private sector from the effects of markets. Familiar? I should think so. You doubt me - want examples? How about the banks?  Who rescued them from their gambling debts? How about public ICT and military procurement? How about Southern Cross care homes? Or East Coast Mainline? Or Olympic Park security (G4S)? Or A4E. Or Serco... the list goes on.

Has not the myth of the excellence in management of the private sector yet been laid to rest? Let us just see how privatisation is flawed:
  • it is about making profits for investors from taxes paid by the public;
  • it employs lower-skilled workers to replace skilled - and do a worse job, whilst leaving the State less-well prepared to step back in;
  • it picks the low-hanging fruit, leaving again the State to deal with the most complex and skill-demanding roles but without economies of scale;
  • it is far from infallible, as its proponents would seem to suggest;
  • it can [and does, frequently] walk away, leaving the State, which the Right so belittles, to pick up the pieces.
These are why privatisation of NHS is bad for us all. Labour must stop just banging on about privatisation without explaining why it is a bad thing, when the Right and its media buddies say otherwise. You were told.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Capitalism and Socialism: not such strange bedfellows

Atop the parapets of the Great Western Bridge in Glasgow are lanterns supported by cast iron figures of heroic workers, representing the women and men who made the wealth which made the city. Well-deserved, you may think, but what patronising cheek the architect of the Great Western Bridge had for the reality was and is again that those who toil are neglected, underpaid and ignored.

Surely nowhere in the world is there a finer monument to Victorian enterprise than Glasgow. Even today, when Thatcherism and new technologies have swept away the workplaces of thousands and the maritime heritage has been airbrushed from the sight of the visitor, throughout the city there remain monuments to the civic and business leaders of the Industrial revolution, in the form of fine streets, public buildings and even tombs. Indeed the latter, gathered into the huge Necropolis beside the lovely cathedral, perhaps sum up capitalism to perfection: ostentatious self-esteem in competition.

However, so effective has been the cleansing of the city of the real story of its wealth that one could stop and just admire it as the perfect product of capital. But who really made the ships, the steam engines, the buildings? It was not those buried in the Necropolis, surely, but those anonymously dumped in paupers' graves. The former certainly ordained that these things should be created but they surely did not wield the tools nor break sweat to implement them. No, this was the role of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children [yes, children] underpaid, living in overcrowded squalor in rotting tenements. The evidence for this description is maintained in records and displays at the Peoples Palace and elsewhere, though not so much is extant, for most has been removed. Is it any wonder that, living cheek-by-jowl with their employers' excesses, the workers should have been driven to a different political allegiance - to solidarity, mass action, to objection to the vast inequality of the great city, to socialism? Yet, then, as now, power lay not with the majority but with the wealth. Today, we once again have a growing economy in which inequality is demanded by a few at the expense of the rest. Glasgow of 150 years ago is with us once more and it is again socialism's time, driven by capitalism's divisive greed.