Archive 2010

19th December 2010

The Localism Illusion

This week the UK government made great play of the new Localism Bill which, it is said, will mean a shift of power from central government to localities.  That will not be local democratically elected representatives in localities, that will be local people who have a desire to run a local service, manage a local facility or create a local business from an existing public service.

The pronouncement, by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, did speak the language of democratic control and accountability,

“The Localism Bill will herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.” he said.  “It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre – and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.”

However the reality of the intention behind the the bill is made clear in the DCLG press release which outlines the issues that the Bill will address.  Core to the proposals are the following  intentions,

“Local people and communities’ will have real power and a bigger say over their area through a new right to challenge to take over services; a new right to bid to buy local assets such as libraries, pubs and shops; a new right to veto excessive council tax rises through a referendum.”  (for the full text go to http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/housing/1794971)

There is a basic misconception that ‘control from the centre’, to quote Pickles, is an inherently bad thing. However, without ‘control from the centre’ the UK would never have established an NHS; the nationalisation of major industries after WW2, which laid the basis for addressing fundamental issues of health and safety in mining and the railways, would not have occurred; strategic decisions around economic development and investment in infrastructure are inevitably driven from the centre.  Planning, utilised correctly, is a tool to overcome parochialism and, by exercising ‘control from the centre’, address the greater public good by seeing the bigger picture.

This sudden outburst of democracy is somewhat undermined by the fact that on the same day as the Localism Bill the government announced the financial settlement for local government.  The DCLG press release on this one could have been titled simply ‘it’s grim up North’ and it would have conveyed accurately the government’s message i.e there are no votes for us up there so, sod off.  A summary of the winners and losers should suffice to illustrate,

“Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Manchester, Rochdale, Knowsley, Liverpool, St.Helens, Doncaster and South Tyneside are among the 36 local authorities which will take the maximum cut of 8.9%.  Meanwhile Dorset gets a 0.25% increase in funding and Windsor and Maidenhead, Poole, West Sussex, Wokingham, Richmond upon Thames and Buckinghamshire all get cuts of 1% or below.”  (The Guardian 14th Dec)

This (broadly) North/South divide in allocation is not even subtle.  One can only surmise that, in the great Big Society scheme of things, the government are hoping that local government workers, put on the dole because Councils cannot afford to run their services, will bid back under the Localism Bill to run them voluntarily!  As a means to cut wages, terms and conditions this is a long route but it seems to be the direction in which the government is travelling.  The intention behind the Bill and its likely impact should not be underestimated.

There is of course much talk of transparency in the Localism Bill which should be welcome news to Julian Assange, a great advocate of transparency, yet struggling to maintain his freedom as a consequence.  As coincidences go, the sexual assault charges for which Sweden are seeking the extradition of Assange, are remarkable.  Just as the greatest expose in decades of the West’s dirty dealings and underhand tactics hits the international media the attention is diverted to Assange’s personal life. What a stroke of luck!  You would almost think they had planned it!

Finally, with only five shopping days left till Xmas it is good to see the UK Uncut campaign, focusing upon tax dodging companies and Chief Executives, grabbing some headlines.  UK Uncut quite rightly point out that closing down the tax dodgers could save public service jobs and help reduce the deficit.  Vodafone have been particular targets along with Topshop, owned by the usually vociferous Sir Philip Green, who is very quiet at the moment.  Topshop is owned by Arcadia, which is controlled by a Jersey based company which in turn is owned by Sir Philip’s wife, Cristina, a Monaco resident.  Not much revenue going to the UK Treasury there then!

Experts suggest that in the region of £120bn is lost annually to the UK economy by various company tax dodges.  The response of company accountants has been very much along the lines of, if the loopholes are there use them, wouldn’t you?  Well maybe but the same logic is not applied to benefit ‘cheats’, ‘scroungers’, asylum seekers etc. when state handouts are required.  Could it really be that there is one rule for the rich and another for the poor?

As we plunge headlong in to the festive season spare a thought for those in even less fortunate parts of the world where headlines could surface over the next couple of weeks, for example,

Greece – as the economy totters and could yet be forced into collapse

Ireland – ditto

Palestine – where Israeli firepower can be directed at any time

Iran – where the struggle for democracy against theocratic dictatorship continues

More blogging in the New Year – season’s greetings!

Avantipopulo!

5th December  2010

Egypt, WikiLeaks and the World Cup

Egypt may seem like a strange place to start a political blog in a week dominated by the WikiLeaks revelations, if indeed revelations they are.  However, it is sometimes what is happening just below the surface of the headlines that give us the clues as to where the major flashpoints in world politics may be emerging.

In Parliamentary elections last week the ruling National Democratic party in Egypt won 96% of the vote.  The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, who previously had 88 seats in Parliament, will be reduced to zero.  President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic party have been in power for the past thirty years.  The presidential elections scheduled for 2011 may see the 82 year old Mubarak stand down, with his son Gamal Mubarak favourite to replace him.

In spite of a history of human rights abuses and state repression Egypt has long been an ally of the West and is of major strategic importance in the Middle East.  The failure of the Mubarak regime to establish a popular base has left the doors open to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had a presence in Egyptian politics for over half a century, to extend its grass roots influence.  If, as seems likely, the presidential elections are marred by the same level of state intimidation and violence as the parliamentary vote, the possibility of growing extra-parliamentary activity will increase.  The Muslim Brotherhood have already been quoted as saying,  “These elections were rigged and invalid.  They are destroying any hope of the people for change by peaceful means.” (The Guardian, 1st December 2010)

Egypt is the self styled leader of the Arab world and borders Israel.  The West will be keen to see a regime which remains friendly to its interests sustained.  It may be however, that the pressure for change is too great and a more militant form of Islam could be pressing on Israeli borders in the not too distant future.

To WikiLeaks then and the revelations that world leaders are a bunch of self important extroverts jostling for the front page or dangerous demagogues looking to spark the next international incident.  That the Arabs hate the Persians is not news, that one has been going on for 700 years,  but the fact that the Saudi dictatorship should be so open in calling for an armed strike upon Iran may raise a few eyebrows.

The alliance of the oil rich Arab dictatorships, with the US and Israel, against Iran is not new but the fear that Iran may be developing a nuclear capability has heightened the issue, with Iran being described as an “existential threat”.  The fact that the evidence suggests that Iran is a long way from being able to develop a nuclear weapon (unlike Israel) does not mean it will not be a reason for military intervention.  The consequences of such action however would make the invasion of Iraq look like a walk in the park.

While the leaks themselves are of interest the response to them is, in some respects, event more enlightening.  The US especially has responded with vehemence.  Hillary Clinton branded the leaks as “an attack on the international community“; Sarah Palin called for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be hunted down as an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands”; and there have been calls for the file leakers to be executed for treason in some quarters.  To suggest that such calls are an attempt to divert attention from the content of the leaks is perhaps stating the obvious but it does seem that, for some in the US, the concept of freedom of information only extends to information you wanted to make available in the first place.

During the course of the week the WikiLeaks site has been forced to move to different host servers as corporate America colludes to put the squeeze on the right to free speech and the exposure of US anti-democratic practices.  There is little enough scrutiny of the dealings of the world’s only superpower.  Let us hope WikiLeaks survives to keep the little scrutiny we have alive.

In the UK the main contender for the front pages has been the failed World Cup bid. In spite of hurling three millionaires (lions!) at FIFA in the last three days England managed to capture only one vote other than its own.  The brouhaha which inevitably followed seemed to miss the fact that as commercial markets go Russia and Qatar (read ‘the Arab world’) are much more under exploited than the premier league dominated and football saturated England.  Given the infrastructure at its disposal England could probably host a world cup next week but could it give FIFA the new commercial opportunities of Russia and Qatar? How could our boys be so naïve!

Finally, even the tragedy of World Cup defeat to the Russian ’mafia’ will not spare the shame of the LibDems in the vote on tuition fees scheduled for the House of Commons on Thursday.   Nick Clegg in particular has proven the old maxim that ‘the higher they climb, the harder they fall’ as the particular target for student vitriol.  The whole farrago has served to expose the opportunistic nature of the LibDems who are clearly finding so called coalition an uncomfortable ride as the Tories trash their key election promises.  It only requires the Labour leadership to come out of hiding and take advantage for us to have the prospect of a concerted popular opposition to the current government.  Until then lets all get behind the students, at least they are up off their settees and making a noise!

14th November 2010

Student protests wake up the nation

To say that student radicalism has been largely supine over much of the past twenty five years would be something of an understatement.  Stitched into a culture where a degree might just qualify you for a job in McDonald’s, building barricades, let alone setting them ablaze, has not been top of the undergraduate agenda.

There has been, and always will be, flashes of activism and protest.  The NUS no doubt thought that last Wednesday’s demonstration would tap into that feeling and register a note of dissent with the Coalition government.  Quite apart from the inevitable media histrionics about the window smashing at Tory HQ, the NUS leadership are somewhat overwhelmed by the turnout and strength of opposition to the proposed hike in tuition fees.  They find themselves, rather unexpectedly, in the vanguard of opposition to the government’s proposals to ‘roll back the State’, which the wider public are in danger of sleepwalking into accepting.

To be fair, the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review or the impact of Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms are probably not giving much pause for thought down the pub yet, if only because most of us are still trying to figure out what they mean.  The sight of David Cameron, side parting out of place, phoning in his ritual condemnation of the ‘mindless violence’ against Tory HQ, from South Korea, may just have raised a few eyebrows however.

Interestingly, there are two issues at work here.  A life of debt is one thing, with the ability to pay back student loans and tuition fees before retirement only likely to be within the capability of an elite few.  A university education will be further beyond the reach of the working classes and may even be a struggle for those middle classes who, up until now, have seen it as a privilege their children should enjoy as of right.

Secondly, there is also the issue of broken promises, in the form of the anger directed at the LibDems in general, and their leaders in particular, for reneging on election promises not to raise tuition fees.  The LibDems have prided themselves as a party fashioned upon fairness and made a great pitch in the election campaign to go for the soft underbelly of the middle class vote by appealing to students.  Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency was one such target area.

How many actual LibDem seats the student vote delivered may well be a moot point, given their wide dispersal.  The courting of students by the LibDems however clearly contributed to a mood amongst certain sections of the student population that this was a party for them, indeed a party pledged to defend their interests.  The strength of feeling on Wednesday can, at least in part, be attributed to the sense of betrayal many students have felt since the LibDems chose to cosy up in the Coalition.

The NUS ‘decapitation’ strategy, aimed at ousting leading LibDems from Parliament, will help to fuel the continuing sense of outrage.  The mass walkout of staff and students planned for the 24th November will undoubtedly add to the pressure.

There are further signs that opposition to the Coalition is beginning to stir.  UK Uncut is opposed to the government spending cuts and wants to force big business to pay higher taxes in order to finance public services.  The organisation succeeded in closing down over 20 Vodafone stores recently in protest at the company’s £6bn tax avoidance measures.  The group has designated Saturday, 4th December as a day of mass action against tax avoiders.  The group has emerged as a virtual network through web and twitter links so its actual base is hard to determine but it could certainly have irritant value in the short term.

The TUC have called a national demonstration against the cuts in Hyde Park, London for the 26th March 2011, which will be a measure of how the popular mood is developing as the reality of the cuts bite.  Local authorities across the country will have issued redundancy notices to thousands or staff, which will kick in five days later, and the public should by then have some idea of the real loss of services due to the cuts.  Mass demonstration is not usually the TUC’s forte, so given the stance they have taken it is vital that the protests are seen to have a massive response.

Giving Ireland back to the Irish?

As bad as things are in the UK at the moment it is worth sparing a thought for the Irish as their banking system heads for meltdown.  The Observer today (14th Nov) pointed out that “…for the next six to seven years, every cent of income tax paid by Irish citizens will got to cover the banks’ losses.”  Discussions are currently underway to negotiate an EU bailout, 60bn euros has been mentioned, but this would inevitably come with further austerity measures.  Civil service pay has already been cut by 5%-15% and pension rights are under threat.

In addition, the likelihood of mass emigration threatens to undermine any potential for recovery in the longer term as young people leave to seek prosperity elsewhere.  The government is planning for the emigration of at least 100,000 people in the next four years.  The danger of a downward spiral is clear.  With the European Central Bank already keeping the Irish banking system afloat, in order to stave off the collapse of the eurozone, the ability of the EU to cope with financial crisis will be tested to the limits.  One crack and the floodgates may well open.

7th November 2010

The fuss about the French

Big news this week has been the Anglo-French defence agreement involving co-ordinated use of aircraft, aircraft carriers and joint operations.  The main elements of the deal are:-

  • Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, capable of involvement in anything up to ”high intensity” operations.  It will not be a standing force but will be available ”at notice for bilateral, Nato, European Union, United Nations or other” operations. Combined land and air exercises will begin in 2011 with ”progress towards full capability in subsequent years”.
  • Aircraft Carriers – The UK will fit ”cat and trap” to its future aircraft carrier so that both countries fighter jets can fly from each other’s naval vessels. By the early 2020s that should allow the creation of a ”UK-French integrated carrier strike group”.
  • Defence industry and research – Aim to cut 30% of the cost of complex weapons systems through 10-year strategic plan including a single European prime contractor. This will act as a test for co-operation in other industrial sectors. A combined 100 million euro (£87.5 million) minimum annual research and technology budget looking at critical future areas such as electronic warfare.
  • Cyber security framework, joint working on specifications to tackle marine mines and the possibility of France using ”spare capacity” in the UK future air-to-air refuelling fleet ”provided it is financially acceptable to both nations”.

Sections of the British press have reflected the scepticism of sections of the British ruling class.  The Daily Telegraph (2nd Nov), noting that President Sarkozy had welcomed the deal by suggesting that the strategic interests of the UK and France were unlikely to differ, was quick to point out that “…it is all too easy to imagine precisely these circumstances, as they have occurred at least twice in the past 30 years: the Falklands war was not in France’s national interest, and the country refused to send forces to Iraq.”

The agreement is remarkable in many respects, it is true.  The British ruling class are never keen to join clubs or coalitions unless they are running them.  Having ‘ruled the waves’ for so many years in the nineteenth century, the final ceding of the leading imperialist role to the USA after World War 2 was bad enough.

That did not stop the British continuing to have imperial pretensions however.  Part of the post-war consensus was the expectation that British foreign policy was predicated on the right to intervene in former colonies and continues to exert economic control through the transformation of the Empire into the ‘commonwealth’.  The Queen remains not only Head of State in the UK, anachronism enough, but also that of Canada and Australia, hard to believe in the twenty-first century.

David Cameron sought to quell the sceptics in his own ranks by asserting that, “Britain and France will be sovereign nations able to deploy our forces independently and in our national interest when we choose to do so. The two biggest defence budgets in Europe are recognising that if we come together and work together we increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity so that we can do more things alone as well as together.”

The bigger picture however is more to do with the complex of strategic alliances within the EU.  The UK and France between them account for 50% of military spending of the EU countries.  The military and nuclear pretensions of both countries have been a drain on their economies for decades.  The current deal, in the face of the world economic crisis, is an attempt to mitigate some of the costs of retaining this socially unnecessary but politically desirable (for NATO) capability.  It is interesting that The Guardian’s take on the deal (2nd Nov) noted that, “The agreement required intensive explanation to Washington, but has won Pentagon agreement on the basis that Britain would remain dependent on US nuclear technology.”

For the UK the strain is doubled by the desire to continue to maintain the financial services sector in the City of London as the main player in the European markets.  The emphasis upon supporting this sector, over and above manufacturing or design research and development, has left the UK economy over exposed to the vagaries of the world financial markets.  Without making significant inroads into the financial services sector or military budgets the only area left to cut is social programmes, hence the high degree of emphasis upon tackling ‘welfare’ in the current comprehensive spending review proposals.

These contradictions have not, of course, been part of the considerations of the mainstream media.  That the UK should consider de-commissioning the militarily obsolete Trident ‘deterrent’; reduce military capability to reflect actual defence requirements rather that an international intervention capability; or prioritise social spending over the military, has not made the leader columns.

There is time yet.  With public sector spending being driven down the viability of renewing Trident, which in any case is opposed by many of the military top brass, will be severely tested.  Should there be a serious challenge to Trident it will not be co-operation with the French which will be at issue, but how much independence in military matters the UK has from the USA, if any.

23rd October 2010

Managing the cuts message

The UK government’s comprehensive spending review was finally revealed this week (20th Oct) but the spectrum of responses to the widely trailed package of cuts, the deepest in the public sector for 90 years, was not as predictable as the cuts package itself.

Much had of course been done to manage the message.  Industry leaders were wheeled out in support of deep cuts to the public sector, thirty five signing a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Monday (18th Oct) endorsing the approach of the Coalition.  The BBC, and news media in general, cravenly reported this endorsement as evidence of the clear necessity of the government’s approach.  After all, who could argue with such luminaries of industry?  In reality this endorsement was no more objective than the TUC endorsing the economic policy of a progressive Labour government, that is, exactly what you would expect from people articulating the interests of those they represent.

Of much more interest, and one would assume of more concern to the Government, are the views of Nobel prizewinning economist, Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times on Thursday (21st Oct).  Krugman’s article, titled pointedly British Fashion Victims, suggests that fiscal austerity is an economic fad whose time has passed “as evidence has accumulated that the lessons of the past remain relevant, that trying to balance budgets in the face of high unemployment and falling inflation is still a really bad idea.”

Krugman, although a liberal in economic terms, could hardly be described as a friend of the people.  He argues that the axe needs to be wielded, but not until a solid economic recovery is underway.  So why the £81bn cuts package right here, right now as outlined by Chancellor Osborne?  In Krugman’s words,

“Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state. But the official rationale is that there is no alternative.”

The opposition of Seamus Milne (The Bullingdon boys want to finish what Thatcher began – The  Guardian 21st Oct) may be more predictable but it is no less incisive for that.  Milne reminds us that neither of the Coalition parties has a mandate for the cuts package, based on their election manifestos, pointing out that “the abolition of universal child benefit to the privatising top down transformation of the NHS…is what most people at the May general election in fact voted against.”

Milne highlights the ongoing sleight of hand by the Coalition which continues to blame the crisis upon the profligacy of the last Labour government.  As he points out however “the ballooning of Britain’s budget deficit mirrors the average deficit rise across the 33 most developed countries, from 1% of GDP in 2007 to 9% in 2009..”

It is unlikely that David Cameron will lose much sleep over the views of Seamus Milne, although Nick Clegg may have regarded himself as appealing to The Guardian’s demographic until recently.  The comments of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) could not be so easily swatted aside however.

The IFS was categorical in characterising the government’s package as one which would hit the poor harder than the rich; see spending for most secondary school pupils cut; and cut more deeply into the budgets of Whitehall departments than Labour had planned.  The IFS challenge to the “fairness” of the review, a central smokescreen in buying Liberal support for the cuts package, forced Clegg onto the defensive by denouncing the IFS analysis as “distorted nonsense”.

In a turbulent week two other moments of message management from leading cheerleaders for public sector cuts are worth noting.  Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, speaking on the eve of the cuts announcements, warned of a ‘sober’ decade, extending the metaphor by suggesting that, “The next decade will not be nice. History suggests that after a financial crisis the hangover lasts for a while.”  We only hope that Mr. King’s city pals will be reminded of this when the champagne corks pop to celebrate bonuses.

Finally, Rupert Murdoch was wheeled out to give the inaugural Margaret Thatcher Memorial Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies on Thursday (21st Oct).  Murdoch was predictably trenchant in his defence of Thatcher and her legacy, citing her “ability to change the world by an act of will” as a characteristic he shares.  We are not denying the significant role of individuals in history but Thatcher’s ability to wield the axe was because of the backing of a wide ranging rightwing coalition, not least of which was the media empire of Murdoch himself.