Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

The May polls – the first major test

In Editorial on June 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm

 The local council elections, held at the beginning of May, were the first big test of public opinion not only for the two coalition parties but also for Labour. This year there was also an extra dimension – a vote on whether to change our electoral system and introduce the “Alternative Vote”. Not only that, but on the other side of the Wye the electorate was choosing itself a new Welsh Assembly.
 
Of course, local elections aren’t necessarily a complete guide to how voters are thinking. For a start, there’s the “parish pump” factor. Many folk are influenced by local issues, or the popularity of local candidates. And significantly  the number of votes cast is usually considerably lower than in Parliamentary elections.
 
But as a rough guide, it’s probably as good we’re likely to get. And once the dust had settled, the verdict must be that we still have some way to go. Nationally, the Labour Party made gains – but not as many as had been predicted. The Tory vote held up better than it should have done, under the circumstances – but the main losers were the Liberal Democrats. On the basis of this poll, their MPs could well go down like ninepins if a general election was called.
 
In the Forest of Dean, the Tories lost seats, as did the Independents, and the Lib Dems only managed to cling on to one solitary seat. Labour made encouraging gains, but just failed to achieve a majority of seats. Which means that until the next time, the Forest district council will be under the control of a Tory-Independent coalition. Incidentally, the Green Party increased its vote, but failed to win any seats locally. It missed out in Awre by just five votes.
 
If we return to the national picture, the Labour Party will be encouraged by its gains in Wales, which gives it an overall majority in the Assembly for the first time. But in the elections for the Scottish Parliament they lost out to the SNP. The results gave the Scottish Nationalists their first overall majority, with both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats losing heavily.
 
It may be that the impact of the Government-imposed cuts have still to be felt as far as many who voted are concerned. Or it may be that Labour has failed to be as effective in opposition as it should be. So far its message has been mixed, to say the least. For those who care (or, indeed, believe that the cutbacks are being imposed deliberately to cut the role of the public sector and diminish the Welfare State), it means that we have to turn to pressure group activity to campaign effectively against Tory policies that affect us all.
 
Such campaigns worked well when it came to defending the Forest from being sold off. HOOF, of course, remains in being – but for now the front line is the fight against the cuts, and the campaign to save the National Health Service from effective privatisation. The NHS campaign has been stimulated by tactics such as online petitioning, through such bodies as 38 Degrees, which has spread the message and created a groundswell of support.
 
As for the cuts, opposition has been mobilised by groups such as Forest Against the Cuts, and “Save Our Services” in Monmouth. These bodies are still finding their feet, and of course find themselves having to campaign on a number of different fronts – both local and national. But they need our input, if the campaign is to grow and be effective.

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Why the Cuts just aren’t necessary

In T. Chinnick on June 30, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Although the case against the Government-imposed cuts has already been made, the perniciousness and ubiquity of the myths underpinning and justifying the cuts’ agenda are so great that it becomes necessary to refute them yet again.
 
Myth One: The debt is historically unprecedented.
 
I doubt if the Government has claimed this directly, but the frighteningly effective propaganda campaign they’ve waged since the election has had the effect of instilling this utterly false notion in the minds of the general public.
 
The truth is that our national debt was greater in the post-war years, when we managed to build the NHS and the welfare state. It was bigger during the war when we were fighting the Nazis. It was bigger at the height of the Empire – and it was bigger during the industrial revolution. In fact Britain’s debt, as a proportion of GDP, is lower now than it has been for 200 of the past 250 years.
 
Myth Two: Labour’s public spending got us into this mess.
 
Again, not true. Our debt before the crash was actually the second lowest of all the “G7” nations. It remained below 50 per cent throughout Labour’s time in office – only breaking this limit (imposed by Gordon Brown in 1997) when we were forced to bail out the banks. It is also worth noting what the Tories were saying at this time. George Osborne pledged to match Labour public spending right up until the crash. He even said as late as 2007 that we should follow the example of Ireland by de-regulating banks and financial markets even further! Knowing this makes one thing crystal clear. If the Tories had been in office the crisis would have been even worse.
 
Myth Three: Only cutting the debt will produce growth.
 
Quite the opposite in fact. Herbert Hoover, president of the US at the time of the Wall Street Crash, took basically the same route as that now being taken by Cameron – ie, cutting spending to pay off the debt. Then called laissez-faire, and now called the “free market”, his hands-off approach helped to plunge America headlong into the great depression. It was only massive spending by the federal government after president Roosevelt’s election that saw the USA start to recover, and only the even more massive public spending of World War Two finally ended one of the darkest chapters of capitalist history for good.
 
WRONG ROAD:
Still not convinced? Then look at the world today. Ireland was hard hit by the crisis because it followed the Tory/George Osborne path of de-regulation. The remedy according to those same economists and financial “experts” who helped to create the crisis? Austerity! After a tough austerity package Ireland went bankrupt. Compare this to the case in America where Obama rejected the debt hawks and took the Keynesian road, instigating two unprecedented stimulus packages. The US economy is now growing – sluggishly yes, but it is growing.
 
Now let’s look at our situation. Gordon Brown, for all his faults, did the right thing by co-ordinating a global fightback to the crisis and, like Obama, instigating a stimulus package. Not only that but he began to bring forward capital spending projects planned for the future and cut VAT. This had the effect of stimulating the economy enough , so that we had begun to see growth towards the end of the last Labour Government and the early days of the coalition. After less than a year of Osborne and his cuts’ agenda, growth in the economy has ground to a halt. 
 
Myth Four: The only way to reduce the debt is by making savage cuts to public spending.
 
Wrong. If we do want to tackle the debt there are a number of ways of doing it. We could, for example, make the banks pay back all the money we lent them (350-£120 billion). We could introduce what has been dubbed a “Robin Hood tax” on financial transactions. This would only apply to transactions that didn’t involve the public, like bonds, derivatives, currency speculation, etc., and if introduced at just five per cent is predicted to raise more than £100 billion (and possibly more than double that). Or tackle tax avoidance which would generate somewhere in the region of £25 billion. these are just a fraction of the alternatives available.
 
DEPRESSING RESPONSE:
What is so depressing about the national debate is that the Labour Party is mounting such a feeble defence. Its basic response so far has been the equivalent of saying, “sorry Mr Cameron, sir, I mean couldn’t we just cut a bit slower, sir?” Like Oliver Twist fearfully asking for a second portion in the workhouse.
 
The consequence is that opinion amongst the general public , and even among a worrying number of progressives, is that there is no alternative to the cuts. This approach is ultimately self-defeating for them, because it tacitly admits that the Tories’ premise is correct – and therefore it follows that it was Labour’s public spending that got us into this mess. The logical next step is to believe that public spending has to be cut. That prevents Ed Miliband and his team from mounting a proper defence both of their record in office and of the public sector. It makes it impossible for the Labour front bench to reveal the cuts agenda for what they are – a vicious, unnecessary and ideologically driven attack on the public sector. The Tories have quite cynically and shamelessly harnessed a crisis of the private sector to launch an attack on the public sector.
 
PROMOTING AN ALTERNATIVE AGENDA:
This leaves us on the left with the unenviable task of defending the public sector and promoting an alternative agenda. So when we go against not only the Government but the Opposition too (not to mention a complicit and unquestioning media) by saying that the Government should be spending not cutting, it makes us sound like we’re simply burying our heads in the sand.
 
We’re not, of course. The true effects of the cuts have yet to be properly felt. People still feel that although the medicine is hard to swallow it’s necessary and will work. If I’m right, and the cuts fail to revitalise the economy, people will start to wonder what on earth all the pain and hardship is for, and question whether the Government knows what it is doing. Only then will our agenda start to gain purchase with a public beaten down by depressed wages, higher inflation, higher VAT, unemployment and vandalised public services.
 
It would benefit the Labour Party enormously if it adopted a position comparable to the one I’ve outlined above. The sooner they adopt such a position the easier it will be for us to win the argument and, crucially, the more credible they will seem at the next election.
 
SOURCES:
1: GQ Magazine 2011-04/11; Johann Hari, UK debt-deficit statistics.
2 Telegraph: Tories vow to match Labour spending
3: Osborne calls Ireland a “shining example”- the Times.
4: http://robinhoodtax.org/whos-behind-it

The widening Gap: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer

In R.Richardson on June 30, 2011 at 1:38 pm

The Clarion has on a number of occasions reported on the work of Michael Moore, the American film maker and author – and a continual thorn in the flesh of the US establishment.
 
In March, Moore delivered a hard-hitting speech to a massive protest in Madison, Wisconsin, days before measures were taken by the Republican administration to severely curtail bargaining rights for public sector workers.
 
NOT BROKE:
Moore declared that America is not broke. The country is awash with wealth and cash. Only that wealth is in the hands of the uber-rich. The staggering statistic that Moore quotes is that 400 Americans have as much in assets as 155 million Americans combined – half the population.
 
How, asks Moore, have we managed to let a small group “abscond with and hoard the bulk of the wealth that runs our economy”? The wealthy, contends Moore, have done two smart things. First they control the media, which promotes the idea of the “American Dream”. “You, too, might be rich one day, so be sure to vote for the party that protects the rich man you might one day be.”
 
Second, the wealthy have created a “poison pill you will never want to take.” In 2008 as the economy threatened to collapse, Wall Street demanded trillions of dollars to avert the crash. The consequences of refusing to bail out the banks would have been too awful to contemplate: “Goodbye savings accounts, goodbye pensions, goodbye jobs and homes and future.”But within a few months bankers and board room executives were paying themselves huge bonuses.
 
Moore ends his speech on an upbeat note. We have one person, one vote, and there are more of us than there are of them, he declared.
 
The protest in Wisconsin where Moore’s speech was delivered was supported by hundreds of thousands, but sadly was not successful. Legislation banning public sector workers from trade unions was passed. A message on Moore’s website suggests that Wisconsin was selected as an object lesson.
 
PARALLELS IN BRITAIN:
Certainly there are parallels in the UK to the situation in the USA. Last month, the Sunday Times Rich List (into the thousand wealthiest UK multi-millionaires) was published. Philip Beresford wrote: “Britain’s super-rich… achieved an 18 per cent rise in their collective wealth over the past year.”
 
The Independent on Sunday quoted from a High Pay Commission report. In the ten years up to 2008 income at the top grew by 64 per cent, whilst that of the average earner increased by only seven per cent. Differentials are expected to increase further. CEOs earn about 145 times the average wage. By 2020 they will be paid 214 times the average.
 
SEPARATING MYTHS FROM FACTS:
The Independent debunked several myths that are commonly advanced in defence of these huge salaries and bonuses. Here are just three:
 
Myth: “Big money is needed to get the best CEOs.”
Fact: That assumes that most are brought in. But 59 per cent of CEOs in the FTSE 100 were already in the company for five or more years.
 
Myth: “Our high pay is in line with other leading countries.”
Fact: It is significantly higher than the rest of Europe. It is less than in the US, but 170 per cent higher than the rest of the world. 
 
Myth: “Top earnings have always risen faster than average wages.”
Fact: Until thirty years ago the gap had been decreasing. From 1949 to 1979 the proportion earned by the top 0.1 per cent decreased from 3.5 to 1.3 per cent.
 
When ordinary people here and in the USA are being called upon to make sacrifices as jobs disappear and prices rise, disquiet turns to anger as they read of bankers’ and CEOs’ obscene salaries and bonuses. David Cameron’s cry of “We’re all in this together” has a distinctly hollow ring.

http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/america-is-not-broke

East Germany & the Fall of Communism

In C.Spiby on June 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Reflecting on the failure of the socialist dream people like his own communist parents had subscribed to, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in a 1994 poem [1] that ‘Research has shown Socialism to be a universal failure wherever practiced by secret police’.

This, to me, is at the nub of the problem with 20th Century socialism.

Now, however, at the juncture of the greatest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression, is it time for communism to rehabilitate itself?

The best example for us in the West of the dream gone sour is that of the former GDR (DDR or East Germany) – the Soviet satellite that found itself the frontier of the Cold War, both on its border (with West Germany) and in its capital, Berlin – divided geographically and ideologically.

In the last decade there have been a number of examples that have shown us an East Germany shaped only by the Stasi. Works like ‘The Death of Lenin’ or ‘The Lives of Others’, both brilliant movies, but both pedalling only a single thread of the wider story that was day-to-day life in the GDR. Then there have been journalistic forays into a state held captive in both Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ and even the BBC’s own ‘Lost World of Communism’. All these rightfully question the role of the state and the individual, and offer many cases of terrible injustice and oppression. But I feel the idea of an ideology in crisis is not explored. The examples merely qualify the statement I cited earlier from Ginsberg. Those works don’t widen the debate.

Other publications, like ‘Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic – What Can We Learn from It?’ and the Stasi Museum’s own ‘GDR Guide’, give fuller examples of everyday life for quiet conformists. They offer a narrative that living in a police state was not actually the main experience of life for the overwhelming majority, even if the culture it bred created its framework. This is not to revise, forgive or ignore those state crimes but we must be mindful that we witness the GDR from a purely Western perspective.

I am also mindful, however, of Rowan Williams’ Easter address this April where he picked up on the point that life can be richer than material wealth. A clear admission, perhaps, that the basis of socialism is still a natural human desire for many people, though they’d never call it that.

And Rowan Williams isn’t the first man of faith to recognise our principles…

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation.

…says the Dalai Lama [2]. It might be a bit strange for a Marxist to cite religious leaders, but what I am doing here is trying to highlight the universality of the basis of socialism.

I am not for a second suggesting that everyday life in a police state is better than today’s relative affluence. But following the most recent banking crisis and with public services sliding away from us only to build more profit for the powerful few, the desire for something more humane is widespread. So, I contest we might to do better than to gloat at the dubious humanity of capitalism’s triumph over the Soviet Union, asking of ourselves instead whether can socialism mean more than totalitarianism?

Of course it can.

Show me where the great British socialists William Morris, Engels or Marx even suggest the formation of a police state or the summary arrest of ordinary citizens. You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The basic premise of socialism is our most precious principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. But even that can only be built on solid ground. The opening remarks of many a revolutionary tract is the need for freedom from our oppressors. Not the freedom to oppress others.

I share the analysis of philosopher (and incumbent International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London), Slavoj Žižek, that the time for the rehabilitation of communism is now. In my opinion, the most important means to achieve this is to publicly denounce the legacy of totalitarianism and divorce it from our own modern British programmes. We have nothing in common with the dictatorships of China or North Korea, though we have everything in common with its people. That seems a good place to start.

Two fundamental aspects of Marx I find lacking in the conduct of socialism are the most important checks that have never been served well by its executors. Firstly, that Marx clearly makes a case for analysing reality in its current context – that things move in struggle and it is only in our understanding of that struggle in its current place in time that we can hope to address it; that means we cannot use early 20th Century revolutionary means to overthrow the capitalist state of today. But that does not mean the goal has moved but rather that we actively revise Marxist thinking for our own age.

Secondly, and to complement the first point is the issue of self-criticism within the current context. If only Mao had read Orwell’s 1984, then I’d rather think the Cultural Revolution would be one less shame laid erroneously at our door.

Žižek picks up on Lenin’s point [3] that sometimes it is ok to start-over. The road to revolution is not always best achieved from starting from where we left off the last time we had to abandon that road – this leads us only to misinterpret the failure and, ignoring history, repeat the mistakes for generation after generation. If we re-boot from the ground up then we build a new solution from outset in today’s context based on today’s analysis. That might sound like the road to Pol Pot’s year zero but hear me out – I cannot think of any philosopher or scientist worth listening to today who doesn’t see the education of our children as the best way to change the world for the better.

In post-war East Germany, the Soviet’s built up a youth movement to create great patriots of the Soviet. The terrible reality, however, was that, apart from the colour of their neck-ties, its members looked exactly like the Hitler Youth. It seems to me that the issue here is fear: fear of losing popular support. The need to force an ideology on citizens shows a fear that, perhaps, the ideology is not really up to the job of human civility.

I don’t think this is true. I think that if we truly believe in the power of socialism – and in particular our fundamental basis of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – then its greatest asset is in its freedom to stand proud against the immoral basis of capitalism, and to stand up to scrutiny from our own, let alone our enemies.

A socialist state built by popular support is the true expression of this project we call ‘civilisation’.

The task now is to find a home from which we can build a movement. The ‘British Road to Socialism’ – the programme of the Communist Party of Britain – unlike its less mature SP and SWP programmes, seeks this home in the Labour Party and Trade Union movement. It is under no illusion of power, but it is a compelling reminder that – if we’re honest with ourselves – for the left and true Marxists who can see the job at hand, in its current context, there is only one true place for British socialists.

[1] from ‘Cosmopolitan Greetings’ by Allen Ginsberg (Penguin, 1994)

[2] http://hhdl.dharmakara.net/hhdlquotes1.html#marxism

[3] In his ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ (Verso, 2009)

Canada: THE LEFT COMES IN FROM THE COLD?

In A.Graham on June 30, 2011 at 1:26 pm

In May, Canadians went to the polls in a snap election which saw the Tories win an overall majority. But the real shock to the electoral status quo was the disintegration of the Liberal vote, the virtual elimination of the separatist Bloc Quebequois -and the rise of the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), to become Canada’s official opposition party.
 
When the votes were counted, the Conservatives emerged with 167 seats, and the NDP with 102. The once mighty Liberal Party lost 43 of its seats, ending up with a mere 34 MPs. One of those who lost his seat was the party’s leader, Michael Ignatieff. The Bloc Quebequois slumped to just four MPs – whilst Elizabeth May gained a seat for the Green Party in British Columbia.
 
For the New Democrats, it was an astonishing rise in their party’s fortunes. But achieved with mixed emotions. One NDP supporters was quoted as saying, “it’s amazing…. it’s bittersweet because even though we won, the Conservatives got a majority. To me that’s the scariest thing.”

THE LONG MARCH:

The NDP has certainly come a long way since the party was founded back in 1933, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. These were the depression years, with 30 per cent of the Canadian workforce unemployed. It was particularly grim in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. On top of the depression there was drought – and farmers and farmhands faced starvation.
 
It was against this background that Socialists from all over Canada came together to found a new party – the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The principles of the CCF were laid down in the “Regina Declaration”, which ended with a call for the eradication of capitalism.
 
Amongst those joining the new party was a young immigrant from Scotland, Tommy Douglas. Douglas had become a Baptist minister, but faced with the appalling poverty and desparation he saw about him every day, he soon became a convert to Socialism.
 
He went on to become premier of the province, when the CCF formed the first avowedly Socialist government in North America, in 1944. He was to remain premier for 17 years. 

CHANGE OF NAME:

In 1961, the CCF changed its name to the less cumbersome one of New Democratic Party – and Tommy Douglas became its leader. One of his major achievements, as far as Canadians are concerned, was the introduction of Medicare – Canada’s version of our National Health Service. This was first introduced in Saskatchewan, despite bitter opposition from doctors in the province. Later, in 1966, it was rolled out across Canada.
 
Tommy Douglas died in February 1986. The party he and others had helped to found in the Canadian prairies had come a long way – but despite being the instigators of Canada’s health system, it had failed to break through the two party stranglehold on Canadian politics. Governments came and went – but at federal level they were always either Liberal or Conservative.
 
Is the pattern about to change? And has the once mighty Canadian Liberal Party, the party of Pierre Troudeau, now been eclipsed?
 
The success of the NDP in May’s election undoubtedly owes much to the leadership of Jack Layton, an experienced political operator with a folksy image. But he is no Tommy Douglas. Indeed his family background makes him a strange choice for leader of a left-wing party. Layton’s grandfather was a member of the right-wing Union Nationale government that ruled in Quebec for many years, whilst his father was a prominent Conservative politician.


 
As leader of the opposition, he will have to be able to mount an effective attack on the redneck Tory policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Future generations of voters will judge him and the NDP on his success.
 
ALISTAIR GRAHAM

MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on June 30, 2011 at 1:17 pm

“Beautiful Game?” or just a cash trough?

I can’t say I take a great deal of interest in football – and have no interest whatsoever in the antics of prima donna football stars or the multi-millionaire owners of Premier Division clubs. Any fleeting attention I pay to the game is in the lower ranks of the league. For example, I’ve long kept abreast of the precarious progress of Bristol Rovers – don’t ask, it’s something that dates back to when I was a young dinosaur – and keep an eye on clubs as diverse as Forest Green Rovers and, because I have a soft spot for the underdog, Accrington Stanley (I like the name, and the fact that the club fought back from bankruptcy to gain re-admittance to the league a few seasons ago).
 
And, of course, we should all applaud those who formed FC United – the former fans of Manchester United who broke away in protest against the autocratic rule of the American Glazier Brothers, to form their own club. Supporters have a vision – it’s run as a co-operative and is making steady progress through the non-league divisions of the game.
 
So all the allegations of bribery and corruption at FIFA came as no surprise to me. At this kind of level, football, the so-called “beautiful game”, is about two things: money and prestige. And the same seems to apply throughout much of the Premier Division.

The NHS – as seen through “Casualty”

Mrs Thatcher never liked the NHS. But her strategy for cutting it down to size was somewhat different from that of the present Government. It was based on encouraging the private health care sector whilst starving the NHS of funds, with the long term aim of reducing it to a second rate”safety net” service for those who couldn’t afford to go private.
 
Recently I’ve been spending some time glued to the box, watching DVDs of early instalments of the BBC hospital drama, Casualty. This popular series first saw the light of day in 1986, at the height of the Thatcherite attack on the NHS. And it pulled no punches.
 
What was portrayed was the night shift at the tightly stretched casualty department, fighting for funds and equipment against a management only concerned with reducing budgets. Dramas are set against the crumbling infrastructure of the city descending into nightly chaos – leaving the night staff at Holby City Hospital to try to mop up the casualties.
 
The St. Pauls’ riots are anonymously re-captured in one dramatic episode, when police swoop and seal off an entire black community in “drugs bust” which becomes a grotesque piece of over-kill. And when the night shift at the casualty department is threatened with closure, the campaign to save it is dramatically portrayed.
 
Thatcher’s attack on the NHS was, of course, fairly blatant. She knew what she was doing, and so did everyone else. The NHS survived – but at a cost. The attack now being mounted by Cameron and his cohort Andrew Lansley has been rather more subtle – but it’s just as dangerous for those of us who care, and don’t want to see our health service in the hands of money-grabbing, privateering health companies (many of them based in the USA).

Buying in private education:

Another nasty sign of the times came my way, courtesy of a piece in the Guardian. It seems that many schools have been sending letters to parents, inviting them to buy in private tuition for their children.
 
This tuition is provided by a course of DVDs supplied by a private company called the Student Support Centre. Parents who go along with the scheme, under the illusion that their children’s school is recommending it, may find themselves paying out thousands of pounds for a scheme that turns out to have little or no value. One such letter from a school told parents that the Student Support Centre’s programme “may be of interest to you and of benefit to your children”.
 
The scheme, it seems, costs parents £65.50 a month – and those who commit themselves to the entire programme could find themselves paying out over three thousand pounds. And other private companies are also getting in on the act. – aided and abetted by letters from head teachers written on school headed notepaper! And to soften them up, those schools that get involved receive donations on the basis of the number of parents who sign up for the scheme.