Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Cuts, protests – and riots: welcome to our world in 20ll

In Editorial on December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm

The traditional end-of-year round-up from the Clarion Editorial committee

It’s been a rough ride for most of us over the past year. For some, of course it’s been rougher than others – and the Government’s claim that “we’re all in this together” has been exposed as a load of spin and nonsense. It certainly hasn’t included the bonus hungry executives in and around the City.

SAVING THE FOREST:

For those of us in the Dean, the year started with the campaign to stop the Forest being privatised. – and the first warnings that the NHS was under threat. In the fight to save the Forest, the campaign was spearheaded by HOOF (Hands Off Our Forest). Over 3,000 turned out for a rally on New Years’ Day at Speech House, despite appalling weather.

The HOOF campaign steadily gained momentum – until abruptly, on February 16th, the Government announced that it was withdrawing its plans. Instead, a panel was to be set up to consider the future of our woodlands. Campaigners celebrated victory – but HOOF warned that we weren’t out of the woods yet. The emasculation of the Forestry Commission and the piecemeal sale of our woodlands could still provide a threat to the forest as we know it.

FIGHTING THE CUTS:

On March 26th, coachloads of demonstrators headed up from the Dean and the Wye Valley to London, to join the TUC sponsored march against the cuts – and to present their alternative. It was the biggest demonstration seen in the capital since the march against the Iraq war in 2003. It was only natural that the public sector unions were in the vanguard of the protest. Their jobs and living standards were directly threatened by Government plans to decimate the public services.

CAMPAIGNING FOR THE NHS:

By the summer of 2011, we were facing the reality of the Government’s threat to the National Health Service Their destructive Health and Social Care Bill was a recipe for the privatisation and fragmentation of our NHS. The door would be opened to Private health care companies, “competition” encouraged – and the concept of collaboration or co-operation between the different providers of health services was left nowhere.

Doctors, nurses, and even the Liberal Democrats in conference voiced their opposition. And those who really cared about our system of health care were outraged. Meanwhile, whilst the Bill was still passing through Parliament, it became clear that changes were taking place in health service provision whether we liked it or not. Too late in the day to protest, it seemed, the public learned that health care throughout the county was being outsourced to a new social enterprise trust, Gloucestershire Care Services (GCS).  GCS was due to take over the running of health care services on October 1st – until a last minute legal challenge from campaigners in Stroud halted it in its tracks.

THE COLLAPSE OF THE MURDOCH EMPIRE:

Meanwhile, like a dam bursting, came the collapse of Murdoch’s media empire in the UK. A flood of allegations of telephone tapping and other dirty tricks reached right to the top of the organisation. Politicians who had long courted the Murdoch press now moved swiftly to distance themselves from it all. David Cameron suddenly decided that his carefully nurtured friendship with the Murdoch family was no longer sustainable.

One casualty was the venerable News of  the World. It was now labelled a “toxic brand”, and abruptly it was closed down.

TAKING TO THE STREETS:

At the beginning of August, rioting spread from the streets of Tottenham to other areas in London and elsewhere. The riots lasted five days, before they burned themselves out. During the troubles, buildings were set aflame and shops looted in an orgy of destruction not seen since the dark days of Thatcher. As one commentator remarked, “one thing you can say about the Tories – they do know how to provoke a riot.”

For the Government, the response was swift and punitive. Harsh penalties were dished out to those who’d been identified as taking part. Families of those who were involved were threatened with the loss of their benefits or even their homes. But nothing was done to try to look at the underlying causes of this outbreak of street violence – let alone do anything about them.

WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?

By the end of summer it had become quite clear that the Government’s economic policies just weren’t working. Savage cuts, aggravated by problems within the Euro zone, had resulted in our economy flat lining. Unemployment was rising (particularly amongst young people) and any signs of economic growth had disappeared.

Within the Euro zone, attempts were being made to prevent collapsing economies such as those of Greece and Italy infecting other European countries. The governments of both Greece and Italy have been replaced by administrations headed by “technocrats” – in other words, non-elected leaders drawn from the world of banking. Democracy, it seems, is one of the first casualties of economic collapse.

As we enter the new year, the storm clouds continue to gather. There is no sign of any “economic recovery”. Unemployment is likely to keep on rising – whilst the Liberal Democrats seem intent on maintaining their support for a government that’s proving to be as right wing as those of Thatcher and Major.

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MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on December 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm

That borders bust-up

I presume that we’ve all been paying attention to that recent bust-up between Home Secretary Teresa May and her former head of the “border force”, Brodie Clarke.

Personally I’m not really bothered about who did what to whom, and who gave the orders. And I doubt that our security was really jeopardised one jot by it all.

But as a reasonably law abiding Dinosaur, born in primeval Britain with a UK passport tucked away somewhere, I’ve long objected to the hoops we have to go through to leave or re-enter this country. Personally I neither have the predilection or the ability to commit “terrorist acts”. But whoever we are, we all have to put up with the nightmare of what’s known as UK “airport controls” – tediously lengthy check-in times, searches and scans, and invariably hostile looking officials who seem to assume that potentially we’re all up to no good.

Getting back into the UK is almost as bad. It usually involves long shuffling queues that snake around a bleak entry hall the size of an aircraft hanger. And that’s just trying to get back into one’s own country!

Incidentally, for those who come in to Britain by car or coach, have you noticed that Britain’s border controls are now actually just outside Calais? It’s here that you’re expected to rummage for your passports and face the steely-eyed “border force”.

Of course the experience varies. Arriving in Canada, for example, is usually quite welcoming. But my worst encounter to date was on a flight to New Zealand involving a stop for refuelling in Los Angeles, USA. We were all taken off the plane, made to wait in a  corridor for an hour, before being herded into a “transit lounge”: an interior room with no natural light and with armed guards posted around the walls. We had our passports examined and stamped, were subjected to an “iris test”, and made to sit until we were allowed to re-board our Air New Zealand plane.

I wouldn’t imagine that Teresa May, or any member of her Government, has to go through that kind of ordeal. They’re probably given the red carpet treatment.

Come fly with me?

Darting off at a tangent slightly, I’ve recently been to see the film, The Age of Stupid, a production with a powerful green message, looking at how our own stupidity and greed led to global warming, and (in the film) the final destruction of human civilisation.

One of the many points hammered home in the film is the environmental damage caused by the increasing number of aeroplanes in our skies. The implicit message is “don’t fly” – Airlines are bad for us all.

I don’t have any argument against the message. But the only problem is that if we want or need to visit those faraway places across the Atlantic or Pacific, how do we do it without taking to the air? The era of ocean liners is now over, and no genius has yet come up with an environmentally friendly alternative for global travel. So, do we merely stay put in our own land-locked continents, never having any physical contact with those across the seas?

Or could we merely accept the “virtual reality” offered via the computer and the world wide web? Or those travelogues on the telly showing us life in faraway places? Or do we just wait for the oil that powers the aircraft to run out?

For this particular Dinosaur it’s a dilemma. If anyone has the answer, let’s have it!

The Olympic ideal…

Whatever happened to the Olympic ideal? That ideal of friendly sporting competition between the nations has long since been sullied by interests that believe that winning at all costs is what counts. That of course all began at the Berlin games mounted as a showcase for Aryan supremacy back in the 1930s.

Now on top of that, we’re told that the London Olympics will take place in an atmosphere of tight security. Demonstrations will be banned anywhere near the site, homes may be searched at will and any political material confiscated – and there’s even been talk of missiles being alerted in case of “terrorist attacks”.

Is all this worth all the money, the dislocation and the razzmatazz?  Let’s scroll back to the first post-war Olympics held in London. That was a cut-price affair held in a bomb-damaged city. We didn’t win much on that occasion – but didn’t we all enjoy it! And that’s what it should be all about.

Why our Campaign to Keep Community NHS Services within the NHS Failed

In C.Spiby on December 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm

by C. Spiby

{this is a revised edition of the article, which has some significant differences to the edition that went to print – please consider this version definitive}

Most if not all the campaigns and struggles that I have been involved with have failed. But as any seasoned fellow traveller will tell you, that alone is not a reason enough to give up the fight. It only begs that we fight harder.

One way to do this is to learn from our campaigns. Forest of Dean Against the Cuts spearheaded the local SOS Again campaign, seeking to keep local community health services within the NHS. It opposed the formation of Gloucestershire Care Services (GCS) as a non-NHS, non-public sector provider of local health services.

But it was the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Morning Star group which kicked off local opposition against the savage cuts in public spending with UNISON’s Peter Short taking some of the lead. After a couple ofmonths we connected with a fledgling Forest of Dean group. Both sent coaches to the March 2011 march for Public Services in London, which was still seeing activists arrive at Hyde Park as the speeches came to a close at about 4pm that afternoon.

The Forest side of the Morning Star group joined what had now become Forest of Dean Against the Cuts. But the national movement faltered. For sure, UK-Uncut was doing good work with their bail-in’s against legal tax loop-holers like Vodafone, but it was Pete Stanway of the Forest group who brought to the local agenda the issue of community hospitals and health services that were under direct threat through the creation of GCS.

GCS had all the right acronyms: it was to be a CIC(Community Interest Company) created in the guidelines of the SET (Social Enterprise Trust). But, as we warned, GCS was not a charity, and it was not part of the NHS. And it was not in the public sector even, irrespective of how it classified its surplus, not for profit or otherwise.

FoD Against the Cuts bailed-in into Lydney Tesco to highlight the price of public sector cuts, which would, of course, affect the health budget. Meanwhile Tesco was named amongst the biggest legal tax avoiders. There was an almost weekly rant by the group’s activists in the letters pages of the local press, and gradually the profile of our opposition was steadily raised. We were aware, however, that we couldn’t fight a battle on two fronts. The national NHS reform bill and public sector cuts were an entirely different issue to the formation of GCS. What was happening locally was, instead, a warning of what would happen nationally under the reform bill. Either way, the GCS takeover would happen irrespective of whichever way Parliament would vote on the national issue.

So, the takeover of formerly NHS-run local community health services by GCS became the sole preoccupation of the group, which was guided by the 1st October 2011 go-live of the new company.

We believed that few people knew of this out-sourcing, and ever fewer had had the opportunity to voice their opposition to the most fundamental change to our local community NHS health services.

Out of this anxiety and tight deadline arose our first strategic error. In a rush to oppose the formation of GCS we were sloppy with our wording of the petition. It referred to the ‘privatisation of community services’ with specific reference to Lydney and the Dilke hospitals. In my opinion the word ‘privatised’ is publicly loaded with ‘profit’, and this is exactly as Harper read it, and rejected it. Thus when we presented the 2,000 or so signatures to Mark Harper MP, he discounted the claim out of hand and would not countenance any public debate precisely because of the petitions’ wording.

Granted, a Tory MP is unlikely to rebel against his own government on the national issue (of the NHS reform bill), but on the local issue of GCS we at least had Harper on the fact that he had come out in favour of the SOS campaign first time around, when he was in opposition. What should have been awkward and embarrassing for him was brushed aside because of his rejection of our petitions’ claim. No wonder he was happy to write and explain this personally to all 2,000 who had opposed the take-over.

We argued that the spirit of the petition revealed that there was a real fear among the public, that the overwhelming majority of those asked to sign did so gladly and had heard nothing of GCS and the changes –highlighting the lack of proper consultation. But while this enabled us to dissect his position, it still didn’t change the fact of the petition’s wording which is how he was obliged to accept it. Incidentally, when pushed on why he wouldn’t hold a public meeting and/or debate on the topic he simply declined saying ‘He didn’t have to,’ and ‘Didn’t want to.

Our meeting with Harper wasn’t helped by a number of us seeking to oppose both the local issue and the national NHS reform bill at the same time. This presented a mish-mash of opposition based on ideology alone, not solid argument. He clearly thought we opposed what was happening by default and took none of our claims seriously. These two separate issues was used by Harper to belittle our concerns for attempting to mix them. Despite assurances that we knew they were separate we failed to present a coherent opposition at that meeting and had no solid demands of our MP. He was good enough to entertain our views for 45 minutes or so, but that was the extent of it. Otherwise we had handed him a useless petition which he would rebuff in his own letters to signatories, and without a voice for our argument.

Bruised but undeterred we sought to organise our own public meeting. We arranged good speakers from both the Royal College of Nursing and UNISON NHS.

But here again, we failed to present an entirely coherent front sending mixed messages over whether or not people should challenge GCS execs at a forthcoming presentation to the Dean Health Forum, for example.

We did, at least, have a letter prepared on the national issue and Diana Gash personally delivered the letters to Harper’s Westminster office on the day of the Bill’s next reading in Parliament. But Harper was undeterred and supported the Bill’s onward progress.

Someone in the audience that night raised what seemed like an odd question at the time, asking why hadn’t we done something before? October by that point was barely weeks away. This seemed obtuse – we are all voluntary activists trying to do what we can with what we have – but, on hindsight, it was a point well made, even if the questioner didn’t realise how pertinent their enquiry actually was.

In fact, the issue only came to light after we had repeatedly been fed by GCS and its allies that the decision to outsource the services was not made by GCS, but by the board of the Gloucestershire Primary Care Trust (PCT) and that we had to direct our questions and opposition to them.

In what I see as the last days of the local campaign, we finally got to the nub of the problem and it all began with New Labour. In reality we had missed the policy created by the former government which gave rise to GCS, and the legislation which sought to split commissioning of services with provision. The stark reality is that we had missed the point at which our opposition should have started.

The original SOS campaign had halted closures of our community hospitals, but in its wake the New Labour government had created the NHS Operating Framework (in2010). This sought to split PCT commissioning so that they couldn’t be providers and commissioners of their services at the same (you will recall the new NHS reform bill seeks to achieve this with GP commissioning and ‘any willing provider’). This has left the door wide open for what many see as creeping privatisation in the NHS.

All of this should have been uncovered at the start of our campaign. We had passion and anger in spades, but I feel we failed to take responsibility for our claims and for the detail. Of course, as a member of the group I too hold that responsibility and had failed.

We missed the boat and should have opposed the original policy and legislation first came into being. Perhaps it was – but I am unaware of any such local attempt to oppose it, and therefore any such attempt failed.

It was all too little too late. We had some victories, though. Ironically, the local Labour Party executive issued a statement against the formation of GCS, pushed by our lobbying of it.

As the countdown to the 1st October transfer finally came a last minute legal challenge seems to have postponed GCS at the last breath. This seeks to oppose the transfer based on irregularities of the tendering process. But in a letter issued to GCS staff on the back of the challenge, the PCT said: “If taken to its logical conclusion the challenge would mean that community services would be competitively tendered with the result that bodies both within and outside the NHS sector could respond.

Well, YES, that was kind of OUR point, which is why we were worried. We don’t want private companies wading in. But you can be sure the PCT will hide behind the policy instruments. Even if we won that contest, we’d actually be bringing forward our worst fears. It is a risky strategy.

Perhaps a groundswell will enable us to oppose the national policy now – now that we can see the consequences of it. But I rather doubt we will get the Tories to reverse it when their national NHS reform bill seeks to put the GCS project example into legislation at best, ‘any willing provider’ at worst.

The lesson learned is that we came to the argument too late. For sure, we asked GCS some embarrassing questions in public meetings and got about 100 people to our own meeting at the Miner’s Welfare Hall. But the question really was spot on when it was asked ‘Why haven’t we done anything before?’

This is more philosophical than it first appears.

How is it possible for activists let alone concerned citizens to be aware of all policies, legislation and boardroom decisions and their ramifications all of the time? Whose duty is it to impart this information? How accessible is this information, both physically and intellectually? How can we hold governments and local public bodies to account, particularly when policies go across the floor from Parliament to Parliament even with a change of government?

Perhaps it is this powerlessness which is truly the best example of what it really means to be living in a ‘Broken Britain’.

Perhaps it is from this powerlessness that the ‘occupy’ movement is drawn. The anti-war march of 2003 proved that marching alone probably isn’t enough anymore.

This is a personal view and does NOT represent the views of Forest of Dean Against the Cuts, The Clarion or the SOS Again campaign. On the national NHS reform Bill, please ensure you write to as many Lords as you can to ensure they don’t allow the Bill to proceed.

Murdoch, and the road to Wapping

In A.Graham, Reviews on December 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm

“Bad News: The Wapping Dispute”. by John Lang and Graham Dodkins. Published by Spokesman Books, £15.

This is a timely book. In the light of recent revelations it’s fitting that we should know something about how Rupert Murdoch built his media empire in Britain, culminating in the bitter dispute at his Wapping plant.

In January 1986, some 5,500 workers at the Sun, News of the World, the Times and Sunday Times were sacked. The bitter dispute that followed lasted over a year.

Those who were sacked were all members of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT). Not all of them were printers – those who were fired on Murdoch’s orders included secretaries, librarians, copy typists and messengers. Indeed, the two authors of this book had been librarians at the Times and Sunday Times. They went on to become active participants in the strike. And they have been able to give us a blow by blow account of the long drawn-out dispute, and how it finally ended in bitter defeat for those who had been effectively locked out.

It was to leave deep scars – and there were many of us who supported the sacked workers, either actively or at least in spirit, who vowed never again to buy a Murdoch newspaper.

MURDOCH MOVES IN:

Rupert Murdoch inherited his first newspaper from his father, back in Australia. He swiftly built on this, launching the country’s first national newspaper and acquiring a television station. But he had ambitions elsewhere – and in 1968 he managed to acquire a stake in the News of the World, then owned by the Carr family. Within a few weeks, by a process of chicanery, he had become a majority shareholder and chairman of the board.

By November 1969 he had added the Sun to his growing tally of trophies. The Sun was the successor to the Daily Herald, which had been bought by the Mirror group in 1961 and re-branded with a new title in 1964. His acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times followed in 1981.

MOVING TO WAPPING:

Supporters of Murdoch and his tactics (who included Margaret Thatcher) claim that events at Wapping were necessary, to force a new technology on to a stubborn, recalcitrant trade union opposition who were no better than Luddites. This book, however, tells a very different story.

True, Murdoch wanted to instal new printing techniques that could be operated by a de-skilled workforce. Other newspapers were already in negotiation with the unions over the introduction of the new technology. But Murdoch’s main aim was to smash the unions, break union agreements and carry out mass redundancies. What better way to do it than by provoking a strike?

At first SOGAT (the major union involved) was prepared to negotiate, even though Murdoch had presented a list of demands that must have stuck in the throat of trade unions. These included the withdrawal of recognition of the unions and the introduction of complete flexibility of working. And the company would have exclusive rights to manage as it saw fit.

Meanwhile, a scab labour force (recruited by the Electricians’ Union) was being secretly trained to take over the print workers’ jobs.

On January 21, 1986, a ballot of SOGAT members gave overwhelming support to a call for strike action. All those involved were promptly sacked by Murdoch. The strike was on, and it was to last for over a year.

Of course, Murdoch had his allies. He was supported by Thatcher, and was now able to make use of the now-politicised Metropolitan Police. And the role played by the Electricians union, led by Eric Hammond, was roundly condemned within the trade union movement.

POWER OF THE STATE:

In an introduction to the book, Tony Benn writes: “The Thatcher Government took up the case for Murdoch and huge demonstrations were held at Wapping in which the full power of the state was mobilised against the printers with the Metropolitan Police being called in to destroy these demonstrations.”

Coming so soon after the bitter miners’ strike, it was a chilling reminder of how far the Thatcherites were prepared to go, to destroy union militancy. A review of this sort, of course, can’t really do justice to the detailed account (including eye-witness accounts) given in this book – I recommend that those who who want to be reminded of what went on in Wapping – and why – should read it for themselves. And draw their own conclusions.

“HOME SWEET HOME”?

In R.Richardson on December 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm

In a capitalist society, “markets” decide what kind of homes (if any) are available to us. Surely there must be a fairer way? RUTH RICHARDSON looks at the options.

We usually associate vast areas of tents with short-term solutions to natural disasters. But in the USA, where more than five million homes have been repossessed in the last five years, tent cities have sprung up around conurbations which house millions of homeless people.

An article in a recent issue of Red Pepper magazine by Stuart Hodkinson argues that in Britain “all the elements of a perfect storm are gathering in the wider housing system”. In the five years to 2009 repossessions in the UK had increased eight-fold, to 48,000. For many people, repossession of their home means a worsening credit rating, so that getting back on to the housing ladder is difficult. The Government’s homeowner support scheme (giving support for up to two years to those facing a loss of income) was closed down in April.

SLUMP IN NEW HOMES: Since 2006 house building completions have slumped to their lowest level in 90 years. Although house prices have fallen by 25 per cent in the last three years, for most first-time buyers on an average income, owning their own home remains an impossible

dream. The days of 100 per cent mortgages are well and truly over. The average house price (currently £226,648) would need a £60,000 deposit and a salary of £56,000 plus.

What about renting? The local authority waiting lists have doubled since 1997 to around five million. And increased demand for private rented accomodation has caused rents to rise considerably.

Stuart Hodkinson’s article gives a historical perspective to the current situation. Engels, 140 years ago, wrote that sub-standard housing for many with, periodically, a wider crisis is endemic to capitalism. Council house provision gained ground from the beginning of the last century. A mixed economy of public and private home-building (with priority given to council housing in the years immediately after the war) helped to mitigate the boom-bust cycles since the early 1970s . But the reluctant withdrawal of local authorities from house building has increased the instability of the housing market.

BURSTING THE BUBBLE: Thatcher’s policy of “popular capitalism” encouraged us all to aspire to home ownership. The combination of extravagant lending, speculation and most significantly the financial commodification of housing drove the market higher and higher. All this was sustainable only so long as house prises continued to rise. But finally the bubble has burst.

New Labour followed the privatisation agenda. At present, under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party is conducting a “housing policy review”, but this will most likely continue to promote home ownership and a market-dominated approach to the provision of affordable housing.

There is an urgent need for resistance to the coalition’s current housing policy. A number of pressure groups such as “Defend Council Housing” and “London Coalition Against Poverty” have been set up, but mobilising mass resistance is very difficult. An additional source of affordable housing might be co-operative housing schemes, particularly the establishment of community land trusts (CLTs). The CLT would own the freehold, and thus stop speculative and inflationary forces driving up property prices and rents. It’s doubtful though whether CLTs can make more than a marginal difference to the current situation.

RADICAL RE-THINK: Stuart Hodkinson calls for a radical re-think in our housing policy, including a moratorium on all repossessions, compulsory purchases and benefit cuts, stronger rent controls and the refurbishment of existing council house stock. Homeowners could be encouraged to sell their homes to a new housing co-op, swapping their mortgages for rents that build up an equity stake within the housing co-op.

Two core attributes might assure the success of such a movement, he suggests. Firstly, the movement would bring together public and private tenants, homeowners and the homeless, around a shared agenda – the provision of decent quality affordable housing for all. And people would gain a degree of security against eviction and repossession.

Significantly, Hodkinson sees these proposals as a step towards ending capitalism completely in our country. Some may think that a claim too far. It also seems to side-step the urgent (and perhaps immediate) need for a new generation of local authority homes providing security of tenure for tenants.

But events in the worlds of housing, finance and employment over recent years indicate the need for effective controls over the capitalist forces that dominate our lives.

MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on December 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm

So, who’s in charge of the NHS?

…and will he turn the lights off when he leaves the room, please?

I must confess that I blinked – twice – when I heard that Andrew Lansley had claimed that he never had a legal duty to provide a comprehensive Health Service – merely to promote it.

Oh, really? So what does that mean? We’re talking about a man who’s the Health Minister in this government for goodness sake. So why has he decided to shift himself on to the sidelines?

Does he see his new role merely as telling us: “I say, chaps, I think we should all go and see a doctor from time to time. I’m sure you’ll find details in Yellow Pages. And I’m told that hospitals are a damned good thing to have around. I believe that there’s plenty of private companies running them if you want to try one for yourself. I really do recommend regular health care. If you want more details, I’m sure we can let you have a leaflet.”

As far as I know, no other Health Minister has made this mind-boggling claim – and we’ve had quite a few since the halcyon days of Nye Bevan. Some have been good, others not so good – and some downright abominable. But they all knew that they were meant to be in charge when it came to providing for our health care.

There’s a pawnshop on the corner…

One sure sign of the slump years in the 1930s was the proliferation of pawnshops. They sprang up like mushrooms in depression-hit towns across Britain, as desperate families pawned their belongings just to make ends meet.

This was Love on the Dole Britain. But in the years after the war, many pawnshops closed their doors. There was no longer any need for them in a welfare state with full employment. But more recently they’ve been making a comeback.

They don’t call them pawnshops any more, of course. And they don’t display the three golden balls outside their premises, to remind folk of the poverty and degradation of past times. Now they’ve been re-branded as “cash converters” – but they became quite popular amongst consumer-driven folk who’d extended their credit and wanted to download their impulse buys. But now, in Cameron’s Britain, they may be reverting to their original role.

I see one has even opened its doors in Lydney. On the sign over the shop it urges folk to “recycle your jewellery and goods for cash.” The message is clear. If you need the money, that’s the place to hock your family jewels, your telly or even the kids’ play station. These are hard times for many folk.

A boundary too far:

Proposals for re-drawing our constituency boundaries have brought some raising of eyebrows.

In particular plans for the Forest of Dean. It seems that our constituency could end up joined to the Westgate ward of Gloucester. We’d find ourselves sharing an MP with those good people living in the shadow of Gloucester cathedral, the city’s docks – and of course the Guildhall.

To say that this notion of constituency representation has led to controversy would be an understatement. The Tory MP for Gloucester is livid. Foresters are highly indignant at losing their electoral identity, and folk in the affected areas of Gloucester have made it quite clear that they want to keep the Forest at arm’s length, thanks very much.

Now, I’m told that the general idea behind the proposals is to reduce the number of MPs by fifty, whilst trying to make all constituencies roughly equal in terms of their electorate.

The only trouble is that you end up undermining the one saving grace of our present electoral system – that of representation.. How can an MP be seen to represent a large sprawling area whose voters have been unwillingly yoked together and have no sense of common interest?

So, guess who’s the Government Minister responsible for the Boundary Commission’s proposals? Why, it’s our own Mark Harper of course. Oh, dear. He’s not going to win any popularity contest at this rate, is he?

Dinosaur

Cameron: riding the rapids

In Editorial on December 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm

It’s been a rough ride for David Cameron over the past couple of months – one that should have made him realise that slick presentation and a background in public relations simply aren’t enough.

Opposition to his NHS “reforms” continues unabated. Unemployment keeps on growing whilst the economy continues to sink deeper into recession. On top of that, street rioting in August rapidly replaced his fanciful notion of a “big society” with that of a “broken society”.

As far as the continuing campaign against the break-up of the National Health Service is concerned, it should be noted that the Bill on the NHS passed through the House of Commons last month, largely thanks to the support of most of the Lib Dem MPs. Despite the opposition expressed by the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference last year, only a handful had the courage, or principles, to vote against it. As for the rest (including Clegg and co), it seems that it’s now a done deal.

A SINKING ECONOMY: But on the economic front, it seems that Cameron, Osborne and the Cabinet are facing problems that put their entire strategy in question. Our economy is on the slide. Unemployment is rising, people are spending less, and any talk of a “recovery” has been exposed as all smoke and mirrors. In other words, merely an illusion.

There’s even worse news for Osborne. It seems that public sector borrowing actually rose in August and may well continue to rise. His “Plan A” strategy, it seems, results in a certain boomerang effect – cut jobs, and consequently depress spending, and there’s less revenue available for the exchequer. Not only that, but more money needs to be spent on benefits for those made unemployed (however much the Government may try to massage the figures).

Of course it’s not only our economy that needs fixing. The whole of the Euro zone, plus the USA, is facing the brink. And, on September 22, we faced a “Black Thursday”, when £64 billion was wiped off the value of Britain’s leading shares. On that particular day of trading, every share in the FTSE 100 index fell. Such was the market’s lack of confidence in the state of the economy.

George Osborne has declared repeatedly that he’s not for turning. There is no “Plan B” he keeps saying. Now we’re not in a position to forecast what may happen in the weeks, or months, ahead. But already countries like the USA and Canada have been coming to the conclusion that making cuts alone is not enough. Money must be available to stimulate employment. Of course in America Obama is hampered by the Tea Party tendency, who seem intent on letting their country go to hell in a handcart. Now, even the IMF has warned that stimulating growth and employment must be part of any deal to tackle our economic woes – a point that one would have thought should be obvious.

So it’s possible we may get a “Plan A (slightly revised)” from Osborne – preferably before Christmas. Meanwhile, in the Labour Party it seems that the works of John Maynard Keynes may be coming back in to fashion. Keynes had very different ideas from the neo-liberals who currenty rule the roost, about how an ailing economy should be tackled. He believed that a “slash and burn” approach could only make matters worse. Public intervention, not suppression, should be a key to pulling the economy round.

At least it would be a step in the right direction.

RIOTING IN THE STREETS: On August 6, Tottenham in north London experienced some of the worst riots since the street protests of the Thatcher years.

Over five days, the rioting spread across England. It even hit the Barton Street area of Gloucester. Since then there have been acres of print, vivid film and photography and countless attempts at analysis.

We’re not in a position to say whether it was “planned” (as some commentators claimed), or point to a single reason that would explain it all. No doubt those who took part in the riots had many different motives for their action. In some cases it’s likely that it was just “mindless” behaviour from street savvy kids who simply wanted a bit of action. But that begs the question – why?

An alienated under-class has grown up since the days of Thatcher. They have been marginalised, shunted into ghetto-like sink estates, and no longer share the moral certainties of wider society.

For many who watched the images on TV, there was a feeling of stark disbelief. But, in retrospect, it may be that this was a tragic episode waiting to happen.

What is equally depressing is the reaction by the Government after the riots ran their course. David Cameron has long since forgotten his famous “hug a hoodie” speech, made when he was in opposition. Now the response was to clamp down on those who took part in the riots with harsh penal penalties (which has resulted in the prison population rising to record levels) in an orgy of summary “justice”. And the PM went further. Families of those who were involved in the riots have been threatened with the loss of their benefits or homes. He even invited an American police chief over to tell us how to tackle such disorder !

The Government and its supporters may have been over zealous in tackling the effects of the riots. But nothing has been done to tackle, or even recognise, the causes. Surely that’s something that requires urgent consideration?

WHERE NEXT FOR LABOUR?

In T. Chinnick on December 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm

asks TYLER CHINNICK

Over the past year, the Labour Party has been inviting people, members and non-members alike, to give their ideas for the future direction of the Party.

New Labour always held that any move to the left would make the party “less electable”. But there are many policies to the left of current orthodoxy that I think would make the Party more, not less, electable. Here are some of them.

MPs should receive the national average  wage.

Failing this, their earnings should be linked to the minimum wage. Politicians, when they are elected, lose touch with the hardships of life as most people live it. Earning a national average wage would make MPs much more aware of life as we live it, and thus more able to represent our interests.

Re-nationalise the railways.

A “yougov” poll conducted in 2009 showed 70 per cent support for re-nationalisation. It would not only be popular, it would also save us money. We’ve spent nearly four times the amount subsidising private industries than we ever gave to the industry when it was in public hands.

Bring NHS cleaning services back under public control.

There is a clear correlation between those hospitals where the cleaning staff are contracted out and high rates of MRSA. And end the ludicrous charade of PFI/PPP. As far as I’m aware, the only other political leader to try the “buy now pay much later” approach was Mussolini. I don’t think we should be following his example!

Introduce a “Robin Hood” tax.  

Charged at a measly quarter of a per cent on those financial transactions that do not involve the public, this would raise an estimated £100 to £200 billion. This is fair, practical and popular, and is supported by many mainstream figures.

Scrap Trident.

It’s a “deterrent” designed for the Cold War and has no relevance today. We’re told that the main threat we face to our national security is from global terrorism, against which Trident is useless.

Crack down on tax avoidance and evasion.

It’s not impossible, as the Tories claim – and it has overwhelming public support. Tax havens should face a cooling of political, diplomatic and trade relations. It they continue to act as they do, they should receive the same kind of treatment as other rogue states, such as sanctions or freezing of assets.

Keep the Royal Mail public.

Privatisation will inevitably lead to a massive deterioration in the service and won’t save us money.

A referendum on the EU.

The European Union is undemocratic and enforces the same neo-liberal market orthodoxy that has ruined so many western countries in recent years. In the early days of the EEC, it was Labour who were most vocal in opposition. Now the only criticism we hear comes from the Right and is usually accompanied by scarcely concealed xenophobia.

Build more Council Houses.

The building sector was hard hit by the recession and there is a massive need for affordable housing. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Before the last election there were even some Tories talking about the need for more social housing. And when the Tories say we need more council houses, then you know we need more council houses!

Scrap university tuition fees and reinstate the EMA.

Or, at the very least, reduce them. Education is a right, not a privilege. Labour should become a party for young people once again.

Electoral reform.

The fact that in the 21st century, half our government is unelected is outrageous. The House of Lords needs to be democratically elected (preferably by PR) – or abolished altogether.

A new Green deal.

Ed Balls in an interview with the CWU paper Voice said that the road to recovery was through Keynesian economics. What better way to resurrect the economy than by embarking on a massive building project to create the energy of tomorrow? This could be partly funded by ending subsidies to the arms industry. It’s the most heavily subsidised industry in Britain costing taxpayers £851.91 million a year. It’s obscene that so much is spent on creating devices of torture and death when it could be spent on green energy.

Make public services more democratic.

Why shouldn’t workers in the public sector who know their industries have a say in who runs the service and how? Nurses, teachers and many other public sector workers have a huge wealth of knowledge that currently goes untapped.

An ethical foreign policy.

Which would involve: withdrawing support from regimes such as Saudi Arabia (whilst possibly ending our dependency on oil). Ending complicity in torture, and not invading countries which do not threaten us.

Reforming the media.

The media have made it perfectly clear over recent years that they are unable to regulate themselves. The Press Complaints Commission therefore needs to be independent of the industry, and made much stronger – with real sanctions, particularly fines, which they are unafraid to use. A law such as “one man, one newspaper”, or a ban on foreign ownership of British media should be introduced. The kind of monopolies that exist in the media world today not only endanger free speech and democracy, but also inevitably lead to heinous abuse.

Just a few of these policies would be enough to secure a Labour victory at the next election, and they would all, without exception, have an enormously positive effect.