Monday, 23 July 2012

Digging myself a hole

I made the trek up to Durham last week for Unite’s political school and the Miners Gala. Just a fortnight after Unite’s Policy Conference in Brighton, and with a cold hanging over me, I had considered whether I was really this committed. However in the intervening time I received a (completely unsolicited) letter from the Communist Party. So, figuring my hopes of a career at MI5 were already dashed, I set off for the North.

It was a great few days in a beautiful city with old friends and new. There was however one particular incident that I will remember, and that is getting into an argument with the redoubtable Ian Lavery MP, the ex-president of the NUM, about class.

Mr Lavery, along with Jim Sheridan MP, gave speeches to our little group and then fielded questions. Something set me off. Maybe it was his admission that he loved to argue. Perhaps it was the mention that as an NUFC supporter he clashed with Man Utd fans, at a time when I know my dad was in the Firm. Beyond that though, there seemed to be a disagreement about what it meant to be part of the labour movement.
A full and frank exchange of ideas ensued. We shook hands afterwards, and while he won the room I gave a decent account of myself for a cocky 24 year old. However my little run-in did get me thinking about how we all put people in boxes.
There has always been a tendency in the labour movement to create our own aristocracy, and in the mythology miners sit at the top. From Orwell’s vision of “iron hammered iron statues”, to Peter Clarke and his exhortations about 1926, to the Gotterdammerung of the 1980s, there has been a fascination with this profession above all by those on the Left, in some ways akin to what the Right feel for certain elements of the armed forces. This hasn’t often crystalised in the leadership, but then the Tory Party hasn’t elevated many guardsmen to the top jobs. Both parties seem to prefer Old Oxonians after all. Yet still that veneration is palpable, and perhaps nowhere more than on that day in Durham.

I do occasionally wonder how much of this yearning is for the reality or the fantasy. Bevan, who actually started in a colliery, seems to have gotten out of it as soon as dignity allowed. His subsequent diet, particularly the champagne, rarely gave the impression he wanted to go back to dying for eight hours a day. Dennis Skinner worked in the pits for twenty years, but he’s been a Parliamentarian for over forty. One struggles to believe he would have kept going at the coalface fifteen years after he could have retired, or that he would have been as useful to the causes he supports.

Part of this fascination is top down, the dialectic daydreams of Fabian intellectuals seeing themselves commanding hordes of broad-shouldered proletarians at the barricades. Somehow organising Britain’s million call-centre workers lacks the same romantic edge. The mental check being applied is how good you’ll be hitting a copper with a pick-handle. Yet this attitude isn’t revolutionary, but profoundly reactionary. The notion that you’re better than someone because of the way you speak, dress or earn your living is a Tory idea, regardless of which way round you apply it. Equality of respect for our fellow men and women, because we all have value, is at the heart of the labour movement.

Now I know how this will come across, as some posh lad objecting to his privilege coming to an end. I leave that for you to decide. I lived on a council estate. I went to private school. My mum was a single parent. I went to university. I have a Mancunian accent. I work in an office. I hate the ballet, classical music, and football. I love poetry, brutalist architecture and strong tea. I’m not entirely sure where that puts me, so answers on a postcard please.

I don’t think every Labour councillor and Parliamentarian should be judged by how closely they resemble Alexey Stakhanov. Old Hayleburian Clem Attlee didn’t, and neither did the former Viscount Stansgate. And nor will the next generation, particularly the women, BAEM or disabled candidates whose participation is essential for our movement to be representative of Britain as a whole.

Just as we viewed the American arguments about whether Barack Obama was ‘really black’ with incredulity, so would most people see our agonising over one’s working class credentials as distracting at best and cultish at worst. Now, to be perfectly clear, Parliament is far too narrow. There is a difference between knowing what the poverty and unemployment are intellectually, statistically, and having lived through it, and both views are needed. The great thing is that we don’t need to wrestle with exactly what ‘class’ is in Britain to fix the democratic structure, as long as we ensure a diversity of experiences. The problem is not that Parliament includes journalists, or lawyers, or even public school boys. It is that it contains a disproportionate amount of those groups compared to the wider population. It probably always will.

But moves towards a more diverse House of Commons should be welcomed and fought for. The way to do this is through better organisation and bringing more people into the movement, so candidates are less reliant upon their own resources of time and money to run. It is about making processes transparent so that selection processes aren’t restricted to those ‘in the know’. It is about giving opportunities to learn the skills of communication and public discussion, so those who didn’t get their practice in at the Bar or the Oxford Union aren’t excluded from the debate.

It is not, however, about deciding whether your clothes make you the enemy, like Labour were some coalition of Mods and Rockers. To paraphrase Billy Bragg, just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m not a socialist.

That is not dead, which can eternal lie...

Anthony Blair’s musing over a return to British political life has caused much consternation amongst the Labour movement. The two great criticisms of New Labour as a project, that it was too close to Big Finance and Big Media, are being thrown into sharp relief by Leveson and the events at Barclays.
Mr Blair has some extremely competent defenders, and my friend Stephen Bush over at Progress does a remarkably good attempt at defending ‘the legacy’. Yet the third great criticism of New Labour goes without mention in his article. That, of course, is Iraq.

It’s almost a decade since the marches, the arguments and the invasion. Many argue it’s been done to death. But actually, for much of the Labour movement, it’s not even about the blood and treasure squandered in the deserts of Mesopotamia. It’s about the will and double standards of New Labour.

For the length of the New Labour project, we socialists were told we were dreamers, with our notions of greater workers’ rights, economic rebalancing, public ownership and the rest. But we weren’t the only ones. The aspirations of the New Labour elite, from the Euro to ending boom and bust, seem like fantasies today. Yet Iraq is the defining moment where the Labour Government reversed the old maxim and declared “Not for Peace, but for War”.

The rulebook was thrown out the window. The Clintonian triangulation about focus groups and public opinion was ignored, the importance of party unity disregarded, the media threatened into submission. The biggest march in British history came to the streets of London, and the prime minister remained unmoved. While Tony Blair did, indeed, go on to win the 2005 election, he received fewer votes than Major got in 1997.

This demonstrated the power of ideology over pragmatism. The Labour government did have the power to enact a hugely expensive, hugely unpopular policy, and spend its entire political capital both domestically and internationally doing so. What had been lacking was the will. The fundamental legitimacy of the Labour movement was put on the line. This was not done for an issue of social justice, or economic success, but for the particular ideological convictions of its leader. And so the arguments against ‘Old Labour’ policies were exposed as bunkum. It was not that New Labour couldn’t bring about the reforms the movement had asked for, it was that they didn’t want to. The psychological shock of that betrayal – of knowing what could have been achieved after 6 years – still reverberates within the labour movement.

I do not degrade the important things done in office. As a man who likes other men I have a lot to be grateful for, though my student debt wears away at that gratitude a little every month. And yes, I still get a twinge when ‘Things can only get better’ comes on. But the man of 1997 is not the man of 2012.  You don’t have to keep defending the messianic tax-exile because you loved the nice young reformer.

At the last though, we don’t judge people in the balance, we judge them on the worst things they did. Nothing Ted Kennedy did made up for Chappaquiddick. Making decent chocolate bars doesn’t make up for Nestle pushing formula to African mothers. And there is no exchange rate that says you get excused so many dead civilians in a foreign land because you gave pensioners free bus passes.

But perhaps the best argument against Blair’s return is deeply Blairite. He’s no use. The fireworks and slick sheen are useless against a far more cynical electorate than we had in 1997. Substance is required, not spin.The challenges to the labour movement today are immense. And as someone once said, today is not a day for soundbites.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

War is what happens to other people

417. That is, at time of writing, the British death toll for the Afghan war. The latest victim was Pte Gregg Stone. He was 20. To put it another way, he was 9 when the planes hit the World Trade Centre.

After over a decade, the victories of the Western Alliance in Afghanistan are hard to spot. The Afghan opium trade is estimated at $4bn, a quarter of which accrues to the farmers. The entire Afghan economy is worth less than $18bn. Shariah is an embedded part of the country’s legal framework. The corrupt government of Hamid Kharzai barely extends to the suburbs of Kabul.

The right makes much of its veneration of the martial ideal, writing off those who ask whether this is a good thing as effete, liberal-socialist intellectuals who’d struggle to do a push-up. Personally, I resemble that remark. However beyond buying their Help-for-Heroes underpants, it’s curious how little of the aftermath conservative politicians and commentators like to deal with. The government is cutting mental health provision, even though soldiers are more likely to suffer mental health problems. It is restricting access to disability benefits, so those who have lost limbs in conflict will have to justify their benefits to those famously compassionate assessors from Atos.

Prime Minister’s Questions is perhaps the most stomach-churning display. From Tony Blair onwards, our leaders have invoked the names of the dead as an incantation of silence to stop the jeering from across the aisle. That stopping these deaths is entirely within the power of the Prime Minister is never mentioned. The subtle denial that there is a war going on can be heard when political correspondents discuss Britain’s deficit as “unprecedented in peacetime”. After all for them, and almost all of us, it is peacetime. It is interesting of course that our own crusader kings rarely impress the need to wear a tin hat for democracy on their own children. I have very little time for the House of Windsor, but its latest generation dutifully went off to fight the government’s fight. Euan Blair preferred Yale. Perhaps his fathers’ words about the importance of ‘boots on the ground’ were kept to the dispatch box not the dinner table.

Increasingly, Britain uses its armed forces to shore up a waning sense of national identity and importance, to make ourselves feel we are on the side of goodness and freedom. When the futility of our interventions becomes apparent, we bring out the bunting, hence the strange new event of ‘Armed Forces Day’ on the 30th of June. We vaunt the heroes collectively as symbols of national valour. We demand young people, disproportionately from the poorer areas of our islands, die, so we can feel good about our country. In many ways this is a reversion to the state of affairs that existed before the conscription of the World Wars and post-War national service. War is what happens to other people.

The recent hand-wringing over Syria brings this point home expertly. There is nothing stopping those who believe in Responsibility to Protect catching a plane to Lebanon, buying a gun and taking up the fight against the brutal Assad regime. It’s what the International Brigades did in Spain. Indeed, it’s what the Mujahedeen have been doing for decades. However with the exception of a handful of journalists, there seems a strange reluctance to follow this path. What liberal interventionists really want is NATO to kill Syrians until the Syrians stop killing Syrians. They want a vast military machine that comes at the cost of a social safety net for America’s poor, staffed disproportionately by America’s poor, to kill human beings they have never met. Civilian casualties, which are an inevitability, are acceptable.

I have no desire to die on the steppe or in the desert. Perhaps that makes me a coward. But I’m not asking anyone else to die there either. Going off the average monthly death toll for 2012, two more soldiers will be killed between when I write this and when we fly the flags on the 30th June. They will be in their twenties. They will be from the North of England or Wales. Their deaths will be pointless, and completely preventable. Can someone, please, tell me why they have to die?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The sound of the police

There have been a few stories on our boys in blue these last few weeks. The march by off-duty officers was received with a sort of curiosity by much of the union movement, as was their treatment of the Home Secretary. It’s like seeing the beagles start growling at the huntsmen.

The particular shock of the Police Federation is perhaps at the tactical incompetence of the government move as much as anything else. Having been ‘Thatcher’s praetorian guard’ during the 1980s, many must have assumed a government that has alienated doctors, teachers and the armed forces would have need of their particular services. Did the riots not drive home the point?

The sense that the police are somehow special seems to permeate the profession. The recent tendency to refer to the rest of us as ‘civilians’ is particularly grating, trickling in from American crime dramas. Unlike their American cousins, or the rest of Europe, the police are not a gendarmerie. In theory, a police officer has no power that you and I don’t have. They are not the state’s troops watching us, they are individual citizens who do full time the job we are all meant to be doing part time: upholding the law.

Of course I would like to blame all this on the Tories. However Dixon of Dock Green died when he was taken off the streets and put into a car by Roy Jenkins. The shift from neighbourhood policing to what we might call ‘fire brigade policing’ is the central issue, mirroring similar developments in the NHS. The police by and large are not patrolling and so helping to prevent crime, they are in cars speeding to where a crime has already occurred in order to deal with the after-effects.

One can understand why. ‘Beat’ policing is, by and large, a deeply boring job. It will mostly involve giving people directions, chatting to old ladies and walking the same streets for months on end. It’s social work rather than Starsky and Hutch. However it is precisely how one both re-assures a community, and gathers the intelligence which is necessary to intervene before a crime occurs.

The subsequent paramilitarisation; tasers, flak jackets, riot shields has furthered the distance between the police and the public. The open warfare between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the IRA in the 1970s was reflected in turn at Orgreave, Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s and in the Poll Tax riots in 1990. Working class communities saw them as traitors, ethnic minorities as an occupying army.

Disastrously, but perhaps understandably, the police response was to become ever more insular. Brother officers were to be defended to the last.  This seems to even apply to its canine cops. In 2009 two police dogs  died when accidentally left in a car on a hot day. Their handler was prosecuted, and convicted, of animal cruelty. There have to date been no prosecutions relating to the 17 people who died in police custody that same year.

The police service’s problem has been further exacerbated by political events. In the wake of September 11th, they were given broad new powers under counter-terrorism legislation. This had two effects. First, it made mistakes more likely, Jean Charles de Menezes being the most famous. However the more telling response came with the protests over the Iraq War, and subsequent student protests over tuition fees. The police came into conflict with middle class people, with camera phones and law degrees. These people had also been watching the American dramas, and believed they had the right to protest where they wanted without fear of being kettled. Hence when the police bungled the raid on Forest Gate, or an officer threw Ian Tomlinson to the ground, there were plenty of people with the skills and the motivation to make sure the IPCC put the boot in.

Perhaps the final straw came in 2008, with the raid on Parliament. There was a scandalous response to MPs that their bastion had been violated, and without a warrant! When it was pointed out that the police didn’t need one, the incredulity only increased. It is perhaps the first time many legislators realised what the laws they’d been passing all these years actually meant. Since then the hacking scandal and the revolving door at the top of the Metropolitan Police has left the service with very few friends.

The current compensation for police officers may, or may not be justified. It is however the direct result of a Faustian pact. The police themselves helped bring about the social conditions in which their jobs can be outsourced to Serco, or deskilled to PCSOs. If you fight as a profession, to protect your own right you lose eventually, as the miners proved. If we fight together, for the benefit of all, we win.  The union movement should forgive, even if it can’t forget, but a decision needs to be made. Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Lucky Red

Golden Dawn now sit in the Greek Parliament. The National Front achieved their highest ever vote share in France.

Yet in Britain the BNP vote collapsed last week, with all their councillors up for re-election going down to defeat, and the party coming last in the London mayorals. Baroness Warsi got into considerable trouble for suggesting that UKIP, which averaged 13% of the vote in seats it contested, had come to some kind of arrangement with Nick Griffin’s party.

The view seemed rather odd to me. My occasional forays into the darker areas of internet politics showed much of the BNP think UKIP is an MI6 plot to divert nationalist and anti-European support into an incompetent Dad’s Army. That both Norman Tebbit and Nigel Farage suspected this back in 2001 is all the proof they need.

For my own part I think UKIP and the BNP are quite fundamentally different. It is only the tortured simplicity of the ‘left/right’ spectrum that puts them near each other. UKIP are the Tory Party in exile, the boat children of Maastricht, clinging to the Thatcher Dolchstosslegend of 1990.

They exist as a study in what the Tory Party might have become had John Major been overthrown in the early nineties. Despite their Euro-obsessionism, there’s little in their manifesto you wouldn’t find in the archives of the Adam Smith Institute or Policy Exchange.

The British National Party are the most prominent incarnation of a political jumble including the National Front, New Nationalist Party, EDL and a host of splinter groups leading back to the League of Empire Loyalists and the BUF.  A group of people, angry and not entirely sure why, electorally successful in inverse proportion to the number of jackboots visible.

While they may occasionally be joined, and led, by a member of the upper classes (such as their current Cantabrian chairman), their support mainly comes from the losers of modern Britain. Feeling there’s an injustice, but lacking the political framework to express it, they’re easy prey for those who can provide a scapegoat.

Fascism is the failure of social democracy. It springs up when parties which claim to speak for the people stop doing so. It is a denial shouted in the face of the notion that there is, ‘no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment’. We are social creatures, we need other people. You can’t change that any more than you can change your need for oxygen. In the absence of a message of a socialism based on freedom and justice, some will turn to a nationalism based on blood and soil.

Britain’s original experience with fascism re-enforces this notion. While Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts after 1932 are well known, the Labour Party has tended to gloss over his road there. Right up until the Labour Party conference of 1930, when Mosley was on the NEC, he got the vote of 40% of the party against its own leadership. The cause was his memorandum, a document revolutionary at the time, recommending a massive program of public works.

Philip Snowden, still wedded to the notion that the Labour Party had to tolerate unemployment to be considered seriously, drove Mosley out of the party. After the disaster of the New Party, Mosley left the country to tour Europe. By the time he returned from Italy and Germany he saw democracy as a lost cause. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1945 Labour proved you didn’t need blood on the streets to effect change, that a transformation of British politics and society could be brought about by the democratic process, and by trusting the British public. That even the man known as the greatest Briton in history goes down to the will of the people.

The party, buoyed by its gains last week has a fine line to walk. It cannot ignore the electorate, but echoing economics which has failed and continues to fail because Very Serious People say so is the same road to nowhere. We are lucky that the Tories have Nigel Farage stirring up trouble and knocking a few points off them.

We are lucky the BNP are led by a distasteful holocaust denier, rather than a charismatic and organised young woman. We are lucky there is only one Alex Salmond, only one George Galloway and only one Boris Johnson. We need a plan for what happens when our luck runs out.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Brick Society

There are 2.65 million unemployed people in Britain. 1.7 million people are on the waiting list for social housing, while 2 million say they struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. I would not be the first person to point out that a mass programme of house-building would go some way to alleviate the unemployment problem. However, what if we made this a real ‘something for something’ project? What if people built their own homes?

Hear me out. The government sets up a public company to build a housing development. They provide the land, there’s plenty of it. If we run short we can always repeal a few of those Enclosure Acts as Peter Lazenby suggests. Then, you hire the usual medley of skilled labour; electricians, plumbers, carpenters etc. Finally, instead of searching round for the low-skilled labour which is part of any large scale construction project, you invite local people on JSA to apply. To be clear, these will be jobs paying at least the national minimum wage. The added draw is, you won’t just be lugging bricks around to build a home, you’ll be doing it to build your home. Every person who switches from JSA to working for the company, and stays in that job for the length of the build, is guaranteed a place in the completed development.

We can go even further, and nick an idea from Henry Ford. We could allow someone to contribute a portion of their gross income towards a shared ownership scheme for their property. They would not pay tax or national insurance upon this contribution, boosting it further. Since these people would essentially be deferring their wages, the up-front costs of employing them would be even lower.

Think about what this would create. At the end of the build, you would have dozens of people who had worked together now living in the same community. You would already have the social bonds that come from collective enterprise. In addition, no individual is going to tolerate vandalism to what they themselves built. You would have that sense of ownership, that sense of cohesion right from the beginning. When looking for new opportunities, people would have a proven track record of work and achievement, but they would also have those informal networks through which opportunities so often travel.

The old cry goes up, ‘where’s the money going to come from?’ The net salary for someone on the minimum wage working the standard 37.5hr week is £10,424. JSA annually is £3,692, so these are indeed significant increases. However, you could employ every one of those 2.65 million unemployed for two years for the projected cost of HS2. Further, the money spent would be offset by that saved over the longer term as the housing benefit bill fell and rents produced an income stream, to say nothing of previously jobless people going on to further employment. At the last, you have an asset: hundreds of thousands of new homes to house the people of Britain.

If you’re a conservative, love it because it rewards those who work. If you’re a socialist, love it because it is infrastructure investment by the interventionist state. And if you’re a woolly liberal, love it for those bonds of community it creates. Let’s have the Brick Society.

Monday, 23 April 2012

In defence of dragon slayers

Today our Anglo-Saxon protestant nation celebrates the accomplishments of a Middle-Eastern Catholic in slaying a monster from Germanic folklore.

Personally I‘m all for it, especially the recent campaign to get us another bank holiday. We have the fewest in Europe and any excuse is a good one. This subject however gets tied up endlessly with a certain brand of nationalism.

While most of the country has a sort of absent-minded affinity (much like how we feel about Christianity in general) there is the annual verbal punch-up between those saying they’re being denied their cultural heritage and those who say the whole thing is a dodgy medieval relic.  Self-righteousness abounds on all sides. The really interesting questions about St George usually get missed. Why him, why here, why now?

Winners don’t need to tell people they’re winners. The quirks of the English class system mean that conspicuous displays of advantage or prowess are frowned upon. This is a subset of the ultimate sin of, ‘trying too hard’.

The best English heroes are the gallant losers; Robert Scott, Tim Henman, Frank Spencer. There is a reason our history starts with our defeat by William the Bastard of Normandy, why our national spirit is named after a full scale retreat from the beaches of Dunkirk, why ever since Charlie Brooker got his happy ending we’ve gone right off him.

The singular greatness of Englishness did not rely upon individual achievements, it just was. In many ways not celebrating St George’s Day was the perfect expression of English superiority. We know we’re better than you, why would we need a parade?

The real issue over Englishness is about this status. It’s over a century since Cecil Rhodes said: ‘To be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life.’

Psychologically we still haven’t gotten past that, even as the triumph of the United States, the collapse of the Empire and the recent rise of the BRICs demonstrated that, at least financially, this might not be true.

Taking solace in our global language, place at the top table at the UN and key role in NATO, that easy assumption of superiority could continue. The fact that the French had fallen simultaneously made it even easier to keep up the pretence.

Eventually however, this imagined sense of superiority, this easy self-assurance, has started to fall away. As we travel further, meet more people and access ever more information, the doubts creep in.
The intellectual retreat from defining what it means to be English did not allow a new narrative to flourish, it just left us surrounded by the Victoriana that no longer made sense. Yet if we drop it, what else is there? Where do we find our national identity? The world offers two answers: revolution and victimhood.

Revolution is hard, messy, and requires a lot of effort. It’s also pot-luck. For every stumble to liberty and justice you have a hundred military juntas.

On the other hand anyone can be a victim. Victimhood is redemptive, it excuses your failings and protects you from future criticism. The American obsession with Irish identity, out of all scale with the actual genetic contribution to the nation’s make-up, is in part because it gives white Americans psychological access to the Famine. No one wants to be classed as the oppressor.

The historical and rhetorical gymnastics of the SNP are also part of this re-positioning. When MSP Sandra White called the Union flag a ‘butcher’s apron’ one felt tempted to point out the contribution of the Royal Highlanders to that apron.

I don’t think any living Briton is responsible for the terrible events of nineteenth century imperialism, but the idea that Scotland counts among its victims rather than its perpetrators is Braveheart-level mythology. The point however, is that myths have power.

So what do you do when reality doesn’t live up to Rhodes? What do you do when thirty years of stagnating wages, high unemployment and social exclusion mean that you, despite being a white Englishman, are not doing so well? And, crucially, when people in power tell you it’s all your own fault because we live in a meritocracy dontchya know?

People know when the game is rigged, even when they can’t say exactly how. The rise of aggressively nationalist groups always stems from the failure of social democrats to frame the intellectual debate properly.

Calling someone a bigot does not mean that you don’t have to deal with the problems that created that mindset, any more than saying, ‘they hate us for our freedom’ does. When there is no framework to express your identity as part of a positive social movement it is inevitable that other symbols of unity will come to the fore, whether they be faith or flag.

You can tell people their beliefs are stupid and antiquated, that their symbols are meaningless, or you can ask people to come with you. For those of us on the Left have a long road ahead, and a dragon-slayer or two may come in handy.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Love and Marriage

As the great man said, you can’t have one without the other. That’s the issue at the heart of the government’s reforms, and why calls for ‘traditional’ marriage are confused.

Traditionally marriage has little to do with romantic love, and only a passing dalliance with monogamy, at least as far as men are concerned. Marriage has historically been about blood and property, ensuring a father knows his children are his own and the inherited rights, privileges and titles he possessed were passed to the correct progeny. Indeed, this distinction is what led to the creation of the Anglican Church itself. Henry VIII could (and did) have as many bastard sons as he liked. No-one thought that was grounds for divorce, nor did they believe those children counted as a legitimate heir. This does not mean of course that no-one before the twentieth century loved their spouse. After all, social conventions to preserve property and noble blood only matter if you have either, and prior to The Marriage Act 1753 few cared what the poor did. But romance was not the point.

Slowly, and for a panoply of reasons, marriage has changed from a chattel contract to a union of equals in romantic love. Historians argue about the causes, but an interesting strain of thought is that it arises in that same post-enlightenment middle class that gives us the Protestant work ethic. Life is not a drudgery to be endured for the sins of Adam, but a gift to be celebrated. This was a lengthy process, trundling through the growth in the status of women, the decline of religiosity, contraception, and changes to divorce law. It was only in 1994 that the Law Lords put the matter of ‘conjugal rights’ to bed, saying a spouse could refuse their partner sex on demand. To stress this point, we now (rightly) send people to prison for an action which, until 18 years ago, marriage gave them every right to do. Straight people have repeatedly changed the definition of marriage as society itself has changed.

The understanding of family in which marriage plays a part has similarly shifted. The idea of the nuclear family itself is a nonsense, largely imported from the United States. It represents a curious moment in time when high wages and a still high birth-rate combined to allow some couples to have mum stay at home. Simultaneously, the spread of the motorcar allowed people to live far away from their places of work and previous small communities. Social security, in all its forms, alleviated the necessity for elderly parents or hard-up siblings to live under the same roof as their working relations. To reduce the definition of the family unit to two married parents and two kids, cut off from all else, is to do it a great disservice. It is hardly coincidental that the first generation in human history for whom this was common is the generation obsessed with trawling census records to find their ancestors.

Hence, defenders of ‘traditional’ marriage are defending a very recent institution on the basis that it is the foundation block for a very specific post-welfare state kind of family. The fact that many of these people simultaneously are the ones for cutting the very economic supports which allowed this (full employment, child benefit, state housing) makes the contradictions even more apparent. The biggest contradiction however lies with why these people are not campaigning for the abolition of divorce. After all, Mark 10:9, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Whatever damage can be to the institution of marriage, both sacred and secular, is surely done via the half of straight married couples who break their solemn contract. And just as religious institutions are under no obligation to recognise this legal division, they will be under no obligation to recognise the legal contract between two men or two women. However it is surely an affront to religious liberty to say that the Quakers, who have the legal right to perform marriages and make no distinction between opposite or same-sex unions, will be prevented by law from having same-sex weddings in their meeting houses. Some Christian sects believe the entire world, as God’s creation, to be a place of worship. Does that make the local registry office one? You know a law is bad when its enforcement requires a theological debate.

We as a society bestow a contract. You can pick one other person in all the world to have it with. It is a symbol that this is the person you have chosen , because of romantic love, to spend the rest of your life with, and that they have taken the same decision. This isn’t about sex, in either sense. It is about all of us recognising that love. Because we are social creatures and recognition is important to us. Because we are a society of laws and legal status matters. Because finding that other person and making it work is hard enough without us putting other obstacles in people’s way. That’s a sentiment you can’t disparage.

This article was originally posted on the excellent

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Taxes, and the impoverishment of the Left

Today George Osborne has expressed his incredulity that some of the richest people in our society pay the least tax. This once again brings to the fore the idea of avoidance and evasion, a difference which even the excellent Richard Murphy was not entirely clear about on the Moral Maze last month.

Let’s get a few of the more dogmatic points out of the way first. Taxation is not theft, it is a charge levied for services rendered. Some of these services are tangible, like schools, hospitals and police. Some are more abstract, like the benefit from living in a peaceful and relatively harmonious society. While the poorest might well be more dependent upon the more obvious state services, interestingly the richer you are the more you benefit from the abstract ideas. After all, property rights give the greatest benefit to those with the most property. Being able to run your business without having to bribe petty officials, sending your kids to school without armed bodyguards, knowing that contracts will be honoured, all these benefit the businessman as much as the benefit claimant. Further, there is no Iron Curtain around Britain. The government has only just started keeping a register of those emigrating. If you no longer wish to avail yourself of these services, you can leave. If you stay, you’ve agreed to the social contract, and dodging it is free-riding.

Which brings us to the age old question, what counts as dodging? We’ve all spent the last few weeks bombarded with adverts not to miss the ‘ISA deadline’ of May 5th, a move whose sole objective is to avoid tax on savings. Anyone with a spare £5,340 to hand can have a bit of extra help courtesy of the exchequer (as someone operating in a permanent overdraft I don’t have to deal with such annoyances). From tax relief on pensions, to capital gains to running your money through Guernsey there are a plethora of ways to lower what you pay to HMRC. And they are perfectly legitimate. Indeed, the problem isn’t that this isn’t done too much, it’s that it’s not done enough.

Before they come to take me away for counter-revolutionary activity let me explain. Few ordinary people are aware of the allowances, benefits and reliefs they are entitled to by law. Indeed, £16 billion goes unclaimed each year just in means tested benefits. By comparison benefit fraud is estimated at less than £1 billion per year. Most of the advantages of our complicated tax code are taken by those with the time and financial acumen to find them or, more often, the money to pay someone else to find them. Indeed, the government’s accounts seem predicated on the notion that most of us will not take full advantage of the amount we are entitled to. Working some of the longest hours in Europe, most of us lack the time to scour DirectGov and fill in the forms for the chance of a couple of extra quid. This mixture of ignorance and inertia, which the government is entirely complicit in, is effectively providing a subsidy to the rich and financially literate, who know how to game the system. Notice how those adverts reminding you to claim your tax credits have disappeared? Thank you Mr Maude. Legal tax avoidance is estimated to cost the UK economy over £25 billion a year. The additional cost of thousands of clever and talented people spending their efforts on elaborate Easter-egg hunts as opposed to making things remain uncalculated. The scandal isn’t that clever people dodge, it is that the law allows them to do so.

The usual response has been an appeal to morality, the ‘spirit’ of the law. “We have a lower capital gains rate to encourage investment, please don’t funnel your income through your company and pay it as a dividend,” or, “We don’t want to bankrupt family farms but please don’t graze a few sheep in your garden to dodge inheritance tax.” This is a total abdication of responsibility. After all, the whole reason we have taxation in the first place is because people by and large don’t cough up if they don’t have to. By making payments voluntary, you are in effect taxing duty. Those who follow the spirit of the law will pay more than those that follow the letter. The good will pay more than the bad. That would appear to be a flaw in the system. As I’ve said before, charity is bunkum because it allows bad people to get the benefits of society without the costs.

If everyone claimed everything they were entitled to budgetary pressure would compel the government to change this situation. Transparency is good, as is simplicity. If reliefs, grants and exemptions are necessary let them be in the spotlight, not buried where only the potholers of KPMG can find them. Long term moves towards simplification of the tax code are welcome. It is the same argument for energy tariffs, mortgages and all the other expenses and financial instruments that dominate our wallets while boggling our minds. In the meantime, there are a couple of things which could be done.

First, ensure everyone you know, particularly those in vulnerable positions, claim what they’re entitled to. It’s their money, they earnt it. Older people in particular in my experience often forgo assistance because they view it as charity, or too intimidating to claim. Fill in the forms for them, Big Society and all that. The big Trade Unions already do this for their members. This will force the government to sharpen the dividing line between avoision and evasion.

Second, the point is often made that no matter how clever the government and HMRC are, the big consultancies and tax law firms find ways around them. The current game is rigged, we need to change the odds. The answer is not to fight the vast financial and legal industry of Britain, but to get it to fight itself. I would propose that any person or company which submitted evidence leading to a successful prosecution for tax evasion be entitled to a percentage of the capital recovered. The bigger the scheme, the bigger the incentive will be for someone to just turn you in. When I mentioned my idea to a friend at Price Waterhouse Coopers she replied, “The partners would turn over the accounts and retire tomorrow”. Will Barclays trust the Deloitte junior exec on 30k to read through a murky £100 million scheme knowing he can send the files to HMRC and pocket a fortune?

It is not hypocritical for a socialist to use the tools of a capitalist society. Similarly, the sack-cloth and ashes routine is unnecessary. Erstwhile left-wingers are not ideologically compelled to be ‘better’ people. Robert Tressell answered this point over a century ago, pointing out it was not that employers, companies or wealthy individuals were bad, but that the system encouraged, and often obligated, them to do bad things. The point is to change the system. The notion that it is an individual’s duty to be a light in the darkness, to follow a fixed code of absolute goodness regardless of the social setting does not come from the Left, it comes from the carpenter whose death just gave you a long weekend. But even he didn’t tell you to give more to Caesar than required.

Monday, 13 February 2012

My NHS and me

I was born in the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and spent my childhood in the shadow of its massive chimney. My mum, nana and aunties all worked there, and long hours sitting in Main Reception with a bottle of Oasis or hiding under the ward clerks’ desks in ante-natal fill the memories of my childhood. When I got mud in my eye at school, when I split my head open at work, when I got jumped on Hathersage Road, it patched me up again and sent me on my way, grumbling but no worse.

When the people you most care about work in the same place, and when that’s the place that makes you better, it stays with you. It has also, perhaps, given me a bias towards the back-office staff, and a scepticism towards the holiness of doctors (too many stories about discarded latex in the tea-room). But at the heart of it is the basic tenet of the National Health Service. Whether you’re royalty, or a lad from Longsight, you come here and we make you better. My mum, nana, the desks, the computers, that massive chimney that dominated the skyline of my childhood, it was all there to make people, any people, better.

The time before that idea is swiftly becoming history, but people still have a feeling from parents, grand-parents, even great-grandparents. A time when help when you were hurting was not a right, but a privilege, to be doled out in return for money, or in little bits as charity. As a child I could never grasp that there was a time when you couldn’t just go and get better. As an adult, I can’t grasp why some people would want to take that away.

The 2010 Commonwealth survey shows I’m not alone. Despite ranking in the bottom two in both spending per capita and spending as a percentage of GDP, UK citizens are the most confident of any of the eleven nations surveyed that they will get the “most-effective treatment, including drugs and diagnostic tests”. They’re also the most confident they’ll be able to afford care, have the lowest out of pocket expenses, are the least likely to skip a prescription because of costs, and are the least likely group to judge care to be inefficient. To be blunt, the NHS spends the least, covers the people other healthcare systems scare away with up-front fees, and its users still have more confidence in it than any other country’s citizens do in their health system.

Now, perhaps we’re all suffering from a collective hallucination. Maybe Americans, Germans and Norwegians have higher standards, or are more cynical, or just more likely to complain. Yet the NHS bears the depression rates of Scandinavia, the alcohol consumption of central Europe and the obesity statistics of the United States with less money than any of them. It is a daily marvel that the entire thing keeps going, a testament to hundreds of thousands of people who go above and beyond the call of duty when no-one’s watching.

The NHS is the great testament to the underlying goodness of people of this country, and our precious inheritance. The elderly people on geriatric wards bequeath it to the babies in maternity. It is ours, not the government’s, and not Mr Lansley’s. He meddles at his peril.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

I get knocked down...

There’s a wingman trick for picking up girls. Your mate goes over and hits on the woman you like, preferably acting in the most drunken, clumsy and annoying way possible. At the critical moment, you ride to the rescue with cries of, “Is this man bothering you miss?”. If you’re really good, your mate can fake swing at you, allowing you to knock him down. Instant Prince Charming.

For over twenty years now, this has been the relationship between the Trade Union movement and the Labour Party. In order to woo that special class of swing voters in marginal seats, the Labour Party has orchestrated a series of fights with the Unions, as choreographed as the WWE. Whether this was on keeping Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, Clause 4 or privatisation, again and again the Union movement has allowed itself to be hit on the nudge-nudge, wink-wink understanding that it was necessary for our mate to get the girl. This week, we took another hit.

Ed is playing the same old game, hitting his friends because we have nowhere else to go. The message is the same one the Coalition gives to the working people of this country, “Sit down, shut up and pay the bills.” In both cases, those paying had nothing to do with racking up the debt.

From the Blairite squeals one wouldn’t think they’d wielded absolute power for 13 years. Still sulking about failing to get Lawrence Wainwright David Miliband elected they’ve spent much of the last year and a bit declaring it’s all over. That because the party for a moment doubts their leadership (which never got us as many votes as Major in 1992) we are delusional. Now many good things were done during Labour’s time in office, from the Human Rights Act, to Freedom of Information to equalities legislation which helped some of the most marginalised people in our society. But if the discussion is economics, then who got us into this state? I don’t recall ‘the brothers’ demanding we spend a decade in government with Nigel Lawson’s tax bands in place. I can’t remember general secretaries being consulted when Tony decided to pour out £20 billion in the deserts of Iraq and the steppes of Afghanistan. I’ve read my history, but I can’t recall any Trade Union charter declaring its “destiny” to save the global banking system. Odd how money can be found to save Fred Goodwin’s pension, but not that of a teacher. Indeed, when one is pressed to think of what policies New Labour adopted from this mythical Union playbook, they all seem to be strangely popular. Minimum wage, the 50p tax rate, Surestart, so secure the Tories find it politically impossible to get rid of them.  

If you don’t care about the working people of this country, at least beyond a patronising paternalism, there is a party for you. If you don’t want to actually help people, but want to pretend you do to ease your middle-class guilt, you have a party for that as well. Sam Adams put it better than I could.

"If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, depart from us in peace. We ask not your counsel nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. May your chains rest lightly upon you and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."

Now, I wouldn’t go quite that far. Labour has always been a broad church, and is stronger for it, and we should welcome ideas from all sides.

But if you are the masterful strategists who told us you had abolished boom and bust, that the banks could regulate themselves, that the Iraqis would treat us as liberators, that Afghanistan would be a functioning democracy, that ditching the 10p tax rate wouldn’t be noticed, that the Euro was our future and manufacturing was irrelevant... then a period of silence on your part would be welcome.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Turnaround is fair play

Anthony Wells, pollster king, has been defending the decision of YouGov to ask whether Ed Miliband was 'too ugly' to be PM. As the person who handles YouGov's polling for the Sunday Times, it will ultimately have been his decision to run the question. Indeed, he may even have come up with the idea.

Of course, he does have a point that how much we trust someone often is linked to physical attractiveness. And who do we need to have trust in more than pollsters?

Which begs the question, Anthony Wells, hot or not?

“If freedom is to be saved and enlarged, poverty must be ended. There is no other solution.”

Some would say quoting Bevan is a cliché. I prefer to think of it as kitsch. Either way, the man nailed the message Labour has forgotten. The welfare state, at its heart, is about freedom. Forget the perks of the barons in Magna Carta, forget the privileges of the London merchant class in the Bill of Rights, it is the creation of the welfare state that stands as the true testimony to British liberty.

Freedom is a concept the Labour Party has too often ceded, allowing a certain faction of the Conservative party to claim it. Not since Orwell called Socialism, “justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off” has it properly enunciated its claim to be a protector of the rights of the individual. Yet in handing over this ground Labour has gained nothing, and lost much. It is seen simultaneously as too strong and too weak. Over the New Labour era, the party seemed to take the view that, rather than counter the assertion it was too compassionate (or soft depending on your viewpoint) by arguing for the fundamentals of our social contract, it would do it by a series of bizarre acts of repression. Rendition, detention without trial, the DNA database, ID cards, ASBOs, a whole litany of laws designed to prove it could be harder than the Tories. It was as if any act of social justice had to be balanced in the books with some restriction, to prove the party weren’t a bunch of hippies.

This ‘triangulation’, pioneered by Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, served Labour well electorally, but it did them great damage ideologically. Trading the allegiance of the liberal-left for the fickle favour of The Sun was bound to become a problem at some point, but the greater issue was to accept the premise that the welfare state is an emotional indulgence. Forgive us the effeminacy of schools and hospitals, we promise to do proper manly stuff like build aircraft-carriers and abolish trial by jury. The problem is that if you allow the welfare state to be justified only as a luxury, justified by compassion, rather than a necessity, justified by freedom and justice, you open the space for its regression and, ultimately, its abolition. For if this is merely a state run charity, why not simply have charity entirely?

This assault upon state provision has been flattered as ‘The Big Society’. Yet it also masks a parallel battle. Recent government actions; Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, Nick Clegg’s talk of alarm-clock Britain, the notion of withdrawing benefits from those involved in anti-social behaviour, all of these have challenged the old notion of universalism. The language of the debate is not ‘all in this together’, but the notion of the deserving, and the undeserving, poor. It is not enough for Labour to label objectors to what remains of the post-war consensus as the rich and out of touch. If that were so it would be easy. The resentment comes much more from those at the bottom, those who feel they get no benefit from working hard.

As Ed Miliband and others have pointed out, the settlement we now rely upon is born of a wartime economy and the immediate aftermath, where the problem of long-term unemployment, it was believed, had been solved. Everyone would contribute, and so everyone had a right to assistance when they fell on hard times. National Insurance was just that, a state-run insurance policy upon which you claimed, not as a beggar asking for alms, but as an equal party in the contract.

Charity is the opposite of this, and reveals a fundamental, political discordance about who the state should help. If the welfare state is not to be universal, and Labour moved away from this with means-testing, tax credits and other reforms, then we must decide the target. Should the state be giving resources to those who need them, or those who deserve them? And, perhaps more importantly, who gets to make that decision?

Each according to his ability

The spirit of capitalism, we are always told, is risk and competition. One man on the stock-market floor betting his own money and wits against the crowd, the steely eyed industrialist willing a factory into life, strong, determined, and risking his own livelihood for reward. The justification for the massive rewards is the massive risk that you lose everything if you make the wrong judgement.

This has never been the case, but the events of the last four years have shown perhaps the most egregious contradiction between the alleged principles of Western capitalism and its practice. Traders and bankers did not risk their own money, but ours; our pension funds, our sovereign wealth, our savings accounts, and lost. And instead of throwing them into prison, we agreed not only to take the losses, but to keep them as filthy rich as they were accustomed. And now the poor need to pay, even if they don’t have the ability.

Beyond this, the crisis has shown just how bad debt is. To be in someone’s debt is to be in their power. Sovereign debt is giving away our democracy to the money markets. However, there is another way, a truly capitalist response. There are many people who have done very well out of the last thirty years. They have been perfectly happy to take the positive results in personal wealth. Let them take the negative in personal debt.

The idea is elegantly simple, especially through the happy coincidence that the UK’s debt of £900 billion is bang on 10% of what the Office of National Statistics valued its total wealth, £9 trillion. We will put aside for a moment the government’s ludicrous tendency of saying Britain is bankrupt when its assets are ten times its liabilities. Every UK citizen over the age of 18 would take responsibility for a proportion of the national debt according to their personal wealth. No-one under 18 caused this mess. The bottom 2% of households, with negative wealth, did not cause this mess. Indeed, the bottom 50% of this nation own only 9% of the total UK wealth of around 9 trillion. So, of our total debt of around 900 billion, we will claim responsibility for 9% of its debt, around £81 Billion. Take away the 6 million children, and we have an average personal debt of £3375 each. For those of us in the bottom 50%, that is a sizeable sum of money, but that would scale from nothing for those with no assets, to the middle household in the UK, with wealth of £204,000, taking on debt of around £20,000. Again, this is a large amount of money, but remember they don’t have to pay the lump sum up front, just the interest. At an interest rate of, say, 1.5%, that would be an annual payment of £300 a year, far less than Gideon Osborne’s VAT raise cost the average household. Similarly, those older people who have merely had their family home rise in value could spend the rest of their days there, and the amount would simply be deducted from their estate when they pass on.

So what of those at the top? To get into the top 5% of households in Britain means you have assets of £4million, so they pay £400,000 towards deficit reduction or, as I said, the interest of just £6,000 a year, a term’s school fees at St Paul’s. The Duke of Westminster would be on the hook for around 700 million, but considering he made £250 million last year I’m sure he won’t find that too onerous.

This would be a proper distribution of the losses. Those that crashed our economy would have to pay the bill. This might make them less inclined to crash it in the future. More than that however, the £49 billion currently spent on debt interest becomes free to plug the structural deficit. Free of the threats and whims of international financial markets, a truly radical economic reformation of this country could ensue.

It would not be easy. Innovation and hard graft will always be necessary to make the world better for the next generation. Labour creates wealth, and it will always be needed to do so. This paying off of the national debt would be the beginning of a process to use the vast wealth of this country for the benefit of all its people, and to preserve it for future generations. The dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.