Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Tony Benn: A man of morals, modesty and common sense.

In Guest Feature, M. Davies on November 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm

By Mat Davies

‘’The health service was the most socialist and popular thing we did’’

On the 17th of September I had the chance to meet the activist, republican, and Labour legend Tony Benn. It was a pleasure to hear him speak with passion and to state his position on (New) Labour, socialism and inequality. As an MP he clocked up 50 years in the House of Commons either on the backbenches or as a Cabinet Minister. His views matter.

With the Labour Party conference on the horizon, and austerity inflicting old fashioned class warfare on the many, it is time to revisit some of Benn’s ideas.  He is currently touring the country arguing that politics should be wedded to morality. And tries to encourage people to say what they mean, and mean what they say by standing up for what they believe in.

He continues to be highly critical of the power of finance capital, which he believes prevented Labours economic ambitions during Harold Wilson’s governments. Having seen first-hand the damage wrought to domestic public-policies when loans were granted by the International Monetary Fund to Britain in 1976.

It is no surprise that by the late 70s his experiences harvested a left-wing tendency in the Labour Party. Consequently, his critique of the New Labour government and its (Thatcherite) economic and security policies is no secret. He suggested that with the emergence of Blair came the project of New Labour which led to a ‘’new political party’’.

However, he seems more positive about the current shadow cabinet led by Ed Miliband. Benn knew Ed’s father well. Ralph Miliband was a renowned Marxist political economist who published several influential texts, noticeably ‘parliamentary socialism’. Ed worked in Benn’s office in the early nineties; during that time Benn got to know him well.

He believes ‘’ they [us] will have a good leader in [Ed] Miliband’’ however, he quickly pointed out that ‘’ I am a socialist in the Labour Party, there are few of us there’’.

This point highlights the considerable challenge for those on the left who argue for progressive taxation and banking reform. The term ‘socialism’ continues to be avoided, labelled old fashioned, like the hangers on to clause 4. I am proudly one of them. 

Nevertheless, Benn’s point is relevant due to the dilution of ‘socialism’ as a word to express a movement for the commons, against inequality or more recently for fairness. Beyond Britain, other Labour Parties (noticeably in Poland and Malta) in Europe use the term more confidently, and address the supremacy of Capital over Labour in the process.

However, they tend to exist in societies which understand the difference between socialism and communism. Additionally, they have been spared the violent monetary and soul shifting policies wielded by the Conservative Party in the eighties. The aftermath of which is disturbingly clear.

Benn points out that today we must address the problem of the ‘scrapheap generation’ and nuclear weapons. This is a relief, as both are often side-lined or ignored in most leading media outlets. Following this, he emphasised that policies aimed at progressive taxation require more attention on the doorstep in order to counter cynicism.

He asserted that ‘’the real problem is the status quo; people are very shrewd in their assessment of what they hear. Being cynical would encourage you to do nothing at all. Anything that spreads cynicism is destructive’’

Towards the end of the evening he was pressed on what type of prime minister he would have made. Mr Benn’s response confirmed that he remains a man of modesty, morals and common sense.

He said ‘‘If someone wrote on my tombstone, Tony Benn, he encouraged us, I would be happy’’.

If there was one lesson to be taken away from an evening with Tony Benn, it would be that if more politicians were like him then policy-making would be a moral pursuit. Politics, with a capital P, could once more become a space for economic and social emancipation, rather than individual greed and short-term gains on behalf of Capital.

Tony Benn’s most recent publication is ‘letters To My Grandchildren’’.

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FRIENDS AND IMMIGRATION

In C.Spiby on November 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm

THE LEFT INSIDE COLUMN by C. Spiby

So, we have a re-shuffle in the ConDem government.

What does this mean to us locally?

On the face of it not much. In reality numerous mainstream media pundits see the changes as a move further to the right.

That means a consolidation of the awful Tory policies of cuts, cuts and cuts. Oh, and increasing private influence and profit on everything from schools to hospitals.

For his part Mark Harper MP has been promoted to the Ministry of State at the Home Office, taking over from Damian Green as minister for Immigration. Surely what that means for us, in the Dean, is even less representation in the House, as his Parliamentary career portfolio increases in importance and workload.

To start with an aside, it is my personal belief that the when a minister wins a portfolio, then either the second-place local candidate at the last election is assigned as constituency representative, or – even better – each Party also stand a reserve during the General Election: one to act as Parliamentary MP for the constituency in the House of Commons, the other to get on with the business of Government should they be selected. This latter idea might even help the media to focus on Party policy, not personality. But these are whims of fancy of my own.

Back to Harper. Our beloved Minister used to be listed as a member of the right-wing Freedom Association but matching his ascendency in Government is the removal of his name as a cited supporter of the pressure group’s website. Their 7 principles don’t directly target immigration, but they put all the other traditional Tory policies right at their heart. We might perhaps characterise those policies as rampant self-preservation.

But, the Tories yell, net migration is down [1]. Hurrah! Cry Daily Mail readers and the EDL. And I guess at least the Government is consistent on one thing: its attack on the poorest. By removing and reducing benefit to even those previously denied their role in society on medical grounds, the only jobs left in a recession will be exactly those low-paid, temporary jobs that previously could only be filled by workers from Eastern Europe. If those workers are denied access, then, great! The workforce the government feel is ripe to pick up the shortfall in labour will be those very same poor devils they’ve got the media to class universally as ‘benefit scroungers’. They will be forced to work in what pretty much amounts to near-slave-labour rates in the kind of poor working conditions we thought we got rid of in the Edwardian era, thanks to the Trade Union and labour movements.

Of course it will only be ‘benefit cheats’ and the ‘hoodies’ Cameron previously urged us to hug who will be doing that low paid work, not the tax cheats like investment bankers who brokered this worldwide economic downturn.

However, even immigration – which has to be the golden chalice of the right – is bungled by this lot. There’s been a 30% drop in student visas [2] to June this year, and even cases of forcing foreign students back from where they came before their courses have finished. In a climate of highest-ever fees for students yet reduced government funding for education, this Government is struggling to handle even its most prized policy. Perhaps Harper’s ability to dress up saving us from the selling-off of our Forests as something he did in the corridors of power has proven the skills necessary to navigate the morally tricky world of immigration control.

And what of Labour? Well, Chris Bryant MP who holds the shadow post of Harper states clearly: “Rather than preventing legitimate students our economy needs, the Government should focus on the worsening illegal immigration situation. We need to reverse the fall in deportation of those who break the rules, and the rise in people absconding through immigration controls.” [3]

But, despite his new role to protect this island from the invading hordes of scroungers, Mark cares a lot about our foreign friends. Well, he does if they come from Israel.

Harper is a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a position he shares with some 80% of fellow Tory MP’s [4]. CFI is one of the most dynamic lobby groups in Parliament. While the Arab world is in revolutionary turmoil, where neighbouring countries take the brunt of conflicts such as that in Syria, housing hundreds of thousands of families fleeing brutal murder, Mark and his friends are primarily concerned with keeping low paid jobs for low-paid British workers. The CFI lobby for their part is primarily concerned about business deals with friends like Israel, especially in the arms trade. For example, Israel and the UK have been working on a joint drone project for a number of years. Some of these were used on the 2008/09 drone attacks on Gaza.

Carl Spiby

[1] http://www.conservatives.com/News/News_stories/2012/08/Damian_Green_welcomes_figures_that_demonstrate_a_fall_in_net_migration.aspx

[2] ibid.

[3] http://www.labour.org.uk/worsening-illegal-immigration

[4] Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, Channel 4, Monday 16 November 2009

“WEST COUNTRY REBELS”, by Nigel Costley

In John Wilmot, Reviews on November 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm

TURBULENT TIMES IN THE WEST:

“WEST COUNTRY REBELS”, by Nigel Costley (foreword by Tony Benn), published by Breviary Stuff Publications. ISBN 978-0-95700005-4-4

In this handsomely illustrated work, Nigel Costley has produced a kind of compendium of unrest, revolt and law- breaking activity throughout the West, from the days of King Alfred, through the conflict of the 1600s, the industrial revolution, up to the present day.

In its pages readers will find accounts of resistance to the enclosures, the “Captain Swing” revolts, the Chartists and the fight for trade union rights. But also in its pages are mention of pirates and smugglers whose activities were once notorious in parts of the west country.

His canvas is fairly broad, ranging from Cornwall up to the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean. It does much to counter a popular image that the West is a peaceful picturesque sort of place, where tourists can come to enjoy a sense of tranquillity. Indeed, over centuries the West often seemed like a cauldron of seething discontent. And we still commemorate highlights, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs – and remember our own Warren James. Perhaps tourists heading for the west country should take a copy of this book with them, to give them a fresh perspective!

BROAD STROKES:

With such a broad range to it, the book perhaps lacks detail. It’s more concerned with broad brush strokes, but I still found plenty of references to characters and events that nudged my memory or aroused a sense of curiosity. The early days of the Co-operative movement, for example. And the Foot family dynasty, who represented the radical face of Devon (a county not often noted for its radicalism!). Or the “Red Peer” – the Honourable Wogan Phillips who was a member of the Communist Party and fought the Cirencester and Tewkesbury seat in the 1950 election, before becoming the only Communist peer in the Lords..

For those who prefer their history a bit more local, there are plenty of references to the Forest of Dean, including its part in the “Western Rising” between 1626 and 1632, and a look at “Forest Radicals” such as Charles Dilke, radical MP for the Dean, David Organ, tireless miners’ leader in the hungry 1920s, and Morgan Philips Price, Labour MP for the Forest for 24 years.

UP TO THE PRESENT:

We move on through the General Strike, volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Labour’s victory in 1945, right up to the Thatcherite years, typified by the ban on trade unions at GCHQ, the “right to work” marches and the anti-poll tax riots.

This is a book that’s easy to dip into, or for those who want a more consecutive sense of our history, to start at the beginning and work your way from there. And though it’s not cheap, it’s handy both as a reference, or just an easy read.

http://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/nigel-costley-west-country-rebels/

JOHN WILMOT

THE TWO FACES OF ATOS:

In A.Graham on November 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm

For a week or so in August, the name of ATOS had been shunted into the headlines. Through a stroke of sheer perversity, the company had become a major sponsor of the Paralympic Games – an opportunity, perhaps, to promote their concern for the disabled.

Yet Atos has another face. The company had been chosen by the Government to vet those on disability allowance and to decide which claimants were genuine.

Many suspect that their role is really to prune drastically the numbers claiming the allowance, and to pronounce them “fit to work”. Many claim that the company operates a quota system (with a percentage of claimants to be struck off ), though Atos themselves deny this. Suffice to say, they have earned the ire of groups campaigning for a better deal for the disabled.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT:

Earlier in the summer, the company was the subject of two critical TV documentaries – one on the BBC and the other on Channel 4. Indeed, Channel 4 sent an undercover reporter in to investigate how it all works. Many of the medical staff working for Atos admitted that they were under pressure to “fail” claimants and have them removed from the disabled register – despite the fact that many of them are incapable of any sustained employment.

WHO ARE ATOS?

It’s fair to say that the company has managed to make itself highly unpopular with those who’re concerned with the welfare of disabled people. But who are Atos?

It’s fair to say that the company has managed to make itself highly unpopular with those concerned with the welfare of disabled people. But who are Atos?

They are a French-based company, originally centred on IT. But now they are also one of those companies picked by a Government intent on “outsourcing” roles and activities that should be the concern of the civil service (in this case, the Department of Work and Pensions). Atos seems to pander to the perception that a high percentage of those claiming benefits are “on the fiddle” (untrue, as official statistics show).

The head offices of Atos are in Bezons, in France. The company was formed in 1997, with the merger of two French-based IT companies. Since then it has grown with further acquisitions and is now number two in the European IT market.

The division of this now global company responsible for managing the Work Capability Assessment project is Atos Healthcare, which employs over 3,000 people, over half of whom are “medical professionals”.

COMPLAINTS:

A major complaint made against Atos Healthcare in assessing those on disability allowance is the reliance by the assessors on computerised scripts which rely on simple “yes/no” answers. It rules out any doctor-patient interaction, and is, of course, totally insufficient when it comes to dealing with the complexity and range of disability.

One doctor, who attended an Atos recruitment centre wrote in the British Medical Journal that she felt it wasn’t possible for a doctor to work as an Atos assessor and, at the same time, adhere to the professional responsibility to place the needs of the patient first at all times.

There have of course been other major complaints – and a significant number of appeals against the decisions made by Atos assessors have been successful – though it’s worth noting here that many disabled people can’t afford the cost of an appeal, and any legal aid available to them will cease next year. An article in the newspaper “i” on August 29 reported that more than 40 doctors and nurses working for Atos have been reported to medical regulators for alleged misconduct.

Meanwhile, demonstrations against Atos by disability groups and supporters have continued – particularly during the Paralympics. These have included protests outside Atos offices in London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast.

It is, of course, easy to say that Atos Healthcare is “not fit for purpose” – but that depends on what the purpose is meant to be. If the company really does have a brief to slash the numbers claiming disability allowance, then the buck stops with the Government that appointed this company in the first place. But however we look at it, Atos has managed to bring into focus the Government’s real attitude towards the disabled.

MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on November 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Re-shuffling the pack:

Well, no doubt after much thought and due deliberation, David Cameron has taken a long hard look at his Cabinet and re-shuffled the pack.

Okay – but however he stacked the cards, it’s still the same pack. The Lib Dems hang on to their token positions, the “Bullingdon Club” boys remain where they were whilst others have been shifted rather than removed. As for Andrew Lansley (plucked from his position as Health Minister), his crime wasn’t to do with the iniquitous policies he pursued, but his inability to sell them to the public. The Tory Health and Social Care Act remains, but now it will be administered by the equally unsavoury Jeremy Hunt. No doubt his support for Murdoch in the attempted buy-out of Sky TV has been put down to “bad timing”.

We’ve been told by the media pundits that the re-shuffle marks a “shift to the right”. All I can say is how far right can they go without falling off the edge?

Incidentally, just out of curiosity, I did take a peek at the Lib Dems’ website, to see if they had anything to say about the Cabinet re-shuffle. But no. Not a mention.

Couldn’t have put it better…

Talking of the Lib Dems, I can’t resist quoting from Ian Aitken’s column in Tribune. On 7th September, he wrote:

“The antics of the Liberal Democrats over their party leadership during the past few years have been despicable. First, they got rid of a genuinely charismatic leader – Charles Kennedy – largely because the sanctimonious buggers thought he drank too much. Then they replaced him with a sound, reliable and honourable man – Ming Campbell – only to dump him too when they feared that his soundness and reliability might be too dull for the voters. And finally they chose a right-wing nonentity – Nick Clegg – whose views were so far to the right that he was able to slide painlessly into the deputy premiership of a very right-wing Tory Government controlled by a free-market freak called George Osborne.”

Ian Aitken continues, cogently outlining why we should have no truck with the Lib Dems. Thanks, Ian – I couldn’t have put it better myself.

How’s YOUR Pension doing?

A question to those of our readers who’ve reached that age when they can retire and relax. How’s your pension doing? Are you managing on it, or struggling a bit?

Well give a thought to those company directors who have no such problems. According to new research produced by the TUC, directors of the country’s top companies have built up pension pots worth an average of £4.3 million each.

351 directors were involved in the research. The average value of their pension increased by £400,000 over the past year.

But then, in the words of the old music hall song, “it’s the rich wot gets the pleasure, and the poor wot gets the blame”.

Don’t call us: we’ll call you

A pernicious new wheeze has been dreamt up by employers in this age of job insecurity and uncertainty.

It’s called a “zero hours contract”. An employee can be hired, on condition that he/she is available for work as and when required. No actual hours are either specified or guaranteed. Neither does it guarantee a level of salary. But the employee is expected to be available for work at any time.

I’m told that this kind of arrangement is most common in service and retail sector jobs, where “part-time” work has always been part of the pattern. But now, it seems, it’s being used increasingly within the NHS.

And it’s not just the low-paid manual staff. Now clinical staff are being employed on “zero hours” contracts as well.

All this raises a lot of questions. Presumably it means that those covered by such contracts are no longer officially unemployed, even if the work they do is minimal. And of course they offer no job security whatsoever.

And what about those jobs that require training and expertise? Who’s going to train for, say, a clinical position in the health service if all they get is an “as and when” job at the end of it?

And whilst we’re about it, what about the concept of a national minimum wage? Surely it makes such legislation a mockery!

Dinosaur

EDITORIAL: The Tories’ mask discarded

In Editorial on November 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm

How many readers remember those pre-election promises of a new “compassionate Conservatism”?

 

Or claims that the Tories would give us the “greenest government ever”?

 

Of course we didn’t believe them at the time. We always thought they were just a cynical exercise in gaining votes under false pretences. Even those who may have been gullible enough to give credence to these claims must have been swiftly disillusioned when Cameron became Prime Minister (despite failing to win an overall majority). Massive cuts, the decimation of the public sector, callous attacks on the poorer sections of society – and the nauseating sight of the rich getting even richer – all followed swiftly.

 

Cameron’s recent re-shuffle of his Cabinet wasn’t so much a “shift to the right” (as it’s been interpreted in the media) – it was more a confirmation that the former claims that we had a new compassionate caring Toryism were now well and truly dead and buried. We now have blatant neo-Thatcherism, buttressed by a pack of tame Liberal Democrats who seem oblivious of the fact that they are heading for oblivion.

 

HEALTH AND EDUCATION:

Actions, of course, have always spoken louder than words. And probably the two policy areas that have really revealed the true face of Toryism today have been in health and education. And that’s why the Clarion has devoted so many column inches to these two topics – and no doubt will continue to do so. Neither the undermining of the NHS or the privatisation of our children’s education were mentioned in the Conservative election manifesto. Yet in terms of their impact on us all, they are surely the most significant. Nearly all of us, at least at some point in our lives, rely on the healthcare provision given by the NHS. And most of us have (or will have) children – and care about the quality of their education as they make the journey towards adulthood and all the uncertainties that this brings.

 

Michael Gove remains in charge of education and continues to press forward with his aim of turning all schools into “academies”. The word “academy” sounds impressive – a seat of learning where our children’s faces will be turned towards the light of knowledge and understanding. Of course the reality is very different. In effect, it’s a drive to hand the education of our children over to private companies (or “sponsors”) who lack accountability and are basically driven by the profit motive.

 

And what are we to make of the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Health Minister? A man who believes that the NHS should be reduced to a supervisory role, whilst health provision itself should be in the hands of the private sector? A man who helped to ensure that hospital provision in his constituency was handed over to Virgin Health Care?

 

And what kind of government allows such policies to be implemented, in the face of continued outrage and opposition? Equally important, what kind of future society will we be handing on to the next generation if we don’t challenge – and continue to challenge – these policies.