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Eagle off the rails

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Maria Eagle on Labour’s High Speed Rail policy, 6th February 2011:

Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.

Maria Eagle on Labour’s High Speed Rail policy, 28th February 2011:

[High speed rail] has the potential to bring our major cities closer together, boosting investment and economic growth in the north of England.The Tory-led government is only planning to take powers to construct the line as far as Birmingham which casts real doubt on their long-term commitment to delivering HSR in the north. They should think again and ensure the whole route is included in the forthcoming legislation.”

I’m sorry, I’m confused.  Did the root and branch review take place while I wasn’t looking?

 

 

Categories: General Politics

Should David Cameron sack William Hague?

February 28, 2011 2 comments

In March last year the question on everybody’s lips was: Did Hague know about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status? He said not. Then later he admitted he did, and we waited for the statement of his sacking. Nothing. Overlooked by Cameron whose compassionate conservativism begins and ends in his own cabinet.

Michael Spencer was appointed by Cameron as Tory treasurer to incentivise more small donations of £50,000, and shed the party of Ashcroft’s influence. It didn’t help. It was revealed, unsurprisingly that 50% of the Tory’s funds came from the city; £4m from David “Spotty” Rowland, £1.9m from Stanley Fink, £485,000 from George Magan. So much for small donations.

But Hague could sleep at night, Ashcroft had gone.

But now he is in the doghouse yet again.

First he made the government look foolish by repeating the unsubstantiable claim that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela.

Then amid all the media attention on Cameron’s trip to the Middle East with arms dealers, and the Mirror story that the wife of an ex-Middle East arms dealer, old chum of Jonathan Aitken, had donated £300,000 to the Tories, David Cameron has to get up and apologise for the delays to the Government’s efforts to rescue British nationals stranded in Libya.

James Forsyth for the Mail has today said the “Government has resembled little more than a budget airline”.

Perhaps EasyJet?

WalesOnline wondered recently:

… whether [Hague's] unlucky or whether there is some flaw in that superbly functioning mental apparatus of his when it has to connect with the real world?

And that’s the clincher. When people are angry, you can cover your head for a while until everyone stops noticing. But when people feel sorry for you, that’s when you’re in trouble.

William Hague should be sacked.

 

The Uprising in Libya and the Left

February 26, 2011 15 comments

Gaddafi has always been something of a challenge for socialists. While it was his charisma and strong rhetoric that suited those keenly supportive of Pan-Arabism and socialism in the seventies, later it would be his malleability and weakness that allowed the West to turn a blind eye to him, or even conduct deals with him in the supposed interest of both parties.

A British source once said of Gaddafi: “We thought he was a bit left-wing, but not too bad, and that we could deal with him.”

In 1950s Libya, King Idriss failed to tip his hat to the winds of change sweeping the Arab world. While the sound of Pan-Arabism played out, Libya was still at the behest of the US and UK, that was until 1 September 1969, when Idriss was receiving medical treatment in Turkey, that a successful coup plot installed into office a group Libyan army officers led by Gaddafi, overthrowing the Monarchy and pre-empting Idris’ abdication.

42 years later and Gaddafi is still leader of the country, and is himself now irresponsive to the winds of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, like the leader before him. But moreover, Gaddafi’s defensive is set to be far more heavy-handed than most of the regions, to the extent that he may face a war criminal indictment over the way in which he has responded to protests.

He has been explicit: “when I [order use of force] everything will burn […] I’ll die here as a martyr”.

Gaddafi’s socialist supporters

His authoritarian dictatorship of the last forty years should spell out everything the left needs to know that support for him is misguided, but in spite of the fact he has incited a major civil war against protesters left wing leaders in Latin America have been positively supportive.

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez enjoys good relations with Gaddafi, awarding the dictator the Orden del Libertador Simón Bolívar – something usually reserved for people offering outstanding services to the country. Recently he sent a tweet from his official twitter account saying: “Long live Libya and its independence! Kadhafi faces a civil war!”

Fidel Castro, too, has stated publicly that: “NATO is planning to take over Libya and its oil”, while President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua said he has phoned Libyan Gaddafi to express his solidarity.

Is Gaddafi socialist or a lackey of imperialism?

Chavez’ uncritical support for Gaddafi has once again caused embarrassment for the Venezuelan leader’s UK supporters. The closest tie is between Chavez and the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), who in 2009 made efforts to distance themselves from the support he gave to Ahmadinejad during the latter’s reelection. Alan Woods, one of the leading members of the Tendency, has written a piece for the IMT website condemning the use of force by Gaddafi, while explaining that rather than being a socialist he is actually responsible for “privatizations [which] encouraged foreign companies to open up shops in Benghazi and Tripoli”. He goes on to say: “As recently as last November The Economist published a glowing report about Libya, which it compared with Dubai.”

Andy Newman at Socialist Unity has noted that events taking place in the Middle East in 2003 made it wholly undesirable for regimes to present themselves as avowedly anti-American and Gaddafi’s Libya was one case in point. Gadaffi has always described himself as anti-imperialist, however he has never posed too much of a threat to the US (that is until the Lockerbie bombing – context and debates of which are too long to discuss in any detail here).

Even in spite of the well-documented meetings between Gadaffi, Berlusconi, Blair and others, the former should not be looked at primarily as a lackey of imperialism. However nor can he be viewed as a socialist. His ideology is not based upon the concerns of the people (which explains the large contingent rising up against him in Benghazi and other places) but upon a Nationalism that seeks to safeguard a ruling elite through whatever means possible. It’s durability is questionable; when Benghazi was lost Gaddafi ordered naval ships to attack it, however reports suggest there was major deliberation by the crew on what to do. As Woods, mentioned above, suggests, this shows early signs of a military in doubt over their leader.

The violent force planning to be used by Gaddafi is proof – if any more were needed – that he is in trouble. His regime is weakening, marred by resignations; he is flogging a dead horse. But if his last ditch attempt to flatten dissent works, some serious discussion needs to take place over what the rest of the world watching those scenes can do about it.

Conclusion

Unlike the South American leftist leaders, I don’t think Washington as a whole will be rubbing their hands together hoping for another war. If anything, Gadaffi himself by waging civil war and threatening to blow up oil terminals is rubbing the US up the wrong way. There is no doubt of his seriousness when he evokes crimes to humanity. Many hard right Neo-conservatives and left-leaning Liberals in the US senate have agreed that sanctions are the appropriate use of power for now, but they are not a long-term solution, and can often have undesirable effects to the people they are meant to help.

A no fly zone is only an option if there’s a foreign military presence in the country anyway, and an all-out military intervention like the one in Iraq ought to be avoided at all costs. This leaves options slim on the ground for the UN, whose only other option is to do nothing.

Debates on arms sales are tricky; of course small countries have the right to be armed against neighbouring oppressive nations, but the sort of monitoring which David Cameron spoke of recently on countries like Libya arming themselves against dissenters is pure fantasy, nor is it in the profit-driven interests of arms dealers anyway.

The Libyan situation poses many difficult questions, but let’s be clear: Gadaffi’s anti-imperialism doesn’t necessarily make him a friend of the left (this is what confuses Chavez et al); his desire to kill people on a large scale will force us all to think long and hard about the possible use of interventions – which may include forces and nations dubbed imperialist.

Activists have said: “We don’t need foreign forces to oust Gaddafi“. Let’s hope they’re correct.

HSR: another selfless act from our business leaders

February 24, 2011 5 comments

I have written a good deal about my concerns over the Tories’ (and until recently Labour’s) commitment to press ahead with high speed rail, irrespective of the risks of increasing regional and intra-regional inequalities.

However, I must be wrong, because 68 business leaders have written to the FT saying high speed rail is a really good thing.

Amongst these selfless  business leaders, who  absolutely have the best interests of this country at heart and are in no way acting out of narrow self-interest, is Hugh Jones, Chief Executive of Steer Davies Gleave.

You know, that Steer Davies Gleave -  the international transport consultancy which makes a lot of its income from advising government on big transport infrastructure projects.

That Steer Davies Gleave that’s currently offering US VIPs a 5 day high speed rail ‘experience’.

Oh no, hold on…..

Private Eye Mishap: Just Fancy That!

February 24, 2011 2 comments

Anybody who reads Private Eye will know why this is funny:

Speaking from Jerusalem in his capacity as Middle East do-gooder, [Tony Blair] warned against rushing to oust President Hosni Mubarak and argued that it would be better to move to “a situation where the Egyptian government evolves and you have full, fair and free elections at a certain point in time”.

Private Eye, Edition number 1282 (18 February – 3 March 2011) [p. 5]

250,000: Estimated number of protesters gathering in Cairo resulting in ousting of Hosni Mubarak, which Tony Blair welcomed as a “huge opportunity for change”.

Private Eye, Edition number 1282 (18 February – 3 March 2011) [p. 5]

10 reasons the Left should support Labour Council Cuts (Reasons 6-10)

February 22, 2011 7 comments

Before I had time to draw breath from part 1, Sunny had posted on Liberal Conspiracy a synopsis of the first part of this two parter on Labour Councils and cuts..

The part 1 synopsis  has drawn a hostile response, and that’s predictable enough.

Just briefly for the record, I don’t think I can be legitimately called a Labour careerist interested only in my ‘job’.  I’ve only been a councillor for four years, and I won’t be seeking election again in May, not least because I think I’m better positioned to help resist the current government from a position outside elected local government, while understanding what it is like to be on the inside.

But that’s a story for another time…..I don’t really mind the vitriol, as it merely reflects the current level of acrimony and lack of mutual understanding; people think I’m a careerist coward, while I’m just trying to set out the position as I see it, and to clear the decks for what I hope will be a better received part 2.

For all is not, as I hope to set out, doom and gloom.

The first five reasons I set out were really focused on what the Left needs to hear; I didn’t enjoy saying it much, but I’m only trying to establish properly where we find ourselves. In this part, I want to move on to five more reasons why we should support Labour councils making cuts, but in a way which I hope provides some strategic insight as to how we can resist more effectively in the future.

Working with the reality at it stands, I now contend, will bring us more medium and even short term benefits than fighting a losing battle over the next two weeks and falling out with ourselves in the process.

6  Reserves are finite, but not set in stone?

This links back to Reason 1, the simple fact that if Labour Councils decide to try and set an illegal budget, then section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act comes into play, and the budget ends up getting set by officers, overseen by Pickles.

But there’s another side to this councillor- Chief Finance Officer relationship.

If councillors don’t play ball with the Chief Finance Officer, then the Chief Finance Officer can’t play ball with the councillor. If councillors do play ball with the Chief Finance Officer, then there’s some room for manoeuvre around use of reserves.

If you’re not told any different, then it’s easy to imagine the reserves held by a Council as one big pot waiting in the bank to be used. This is not actually the case.  Reserves are broken up into lots of little pots, mostly earmarked for specific purposes.

This is a list of the current reserve allocations and balances held by own Council, for example: usable capital receipts; major repairs reserve; housing earmarked reserves; local tax balances; investment centre reserves; community safety reserves; developer reserves; environmental health officer reserves; insurance fund reserves (against potential liabilities); and general reserves and balances.

Some of these reserves are allocated voluntarily, some are ring-fenced to specific expenditures (e.g. as part of developer agreements, one reserve can only support social enterprise) and some are matters of statute (e.g. local tax reserves can not legally support general revenue expenditure).

Thus Cameron is wrong simply to state that Liverpool City Council is hoarding reserves;  such a statement displays either great ignorance or great political cynicism.

Equally, though, these reserves are not set in stone. Last year, for example, as a result of Labour’s pressure on my own (Tory) council, we were able to force as review of the insurance fund needs, and squeeze an extra million out into the general reserve, a pretty important step in a small borough council.

But you can only do this kind of thing if you’re acting in good faith with the Chief Finance Officer. With good faith, what were figures set conservatively and sensibly back in 2006 or so become matters for judgment, and the CIPfA guidelines he has to apply to his judgment become guidelines, not rules.

And the results of this good faith may be considerable in terms of hard cash. If for example, you can work with the Finance Department at a large County Council to squeeze reserves down from an overall 6 months to 5 months salary costs, somewhat below where the Finance Dept might want it but at a point they can still live with, you might be talking somewhere in the order of £50m in revenue to maintain services. Look at that in the context of the cuts proposed in County Councils, and it suddenly looks like an interesting proposition – interesting enough, I suggest, to get the Left engaged in its pursuit.

This is precisely what Jon Rogers, a leading Labour Representation Committee member and leftwing unionist, understands so well in this piece – hostile to my overall view – on how unions should engage with Councils:

Regular readers of this blog will be used to posts on these issues and will know that I can also bore for England on the related subject of local Council’s reserves .

Whilst I agree that Labour Councillors ought to be resisting, rather than implementing Tory cuts (even at the cost of handing control of their budget to their Chief Finance Officer) – there is, as far as I am aware, no ruling Labour Group in the country which is anywhere near this position……

Therefore, in the here and now, as well as advancing and defending the (correct) principled position that Labour Councillors ought not to make Tory cuts, we need also to make lesser demands which may help defend some jobs and services and/or encourage the movement of opposition to our main enemies – the Tory-led Coalition Government.

The debate about Council reserves is part of this work (however much it may be seized upon hypocritically by opposition Councillors in Labour authorities).’

In the end, the question arises of whether Labour councils stick with the political ‘principle’ of setting budgets illegally, or work to squeeze cash out in their residents ‘here and now’ interests.  I’ll come back to this in Reason 10, but I know what I’d rather do.

And in turn, the question arises over whether the Left is operating in the best interests of its working class constituency by attacking Labour councillors for their cowardice, when they might be challenging and scrutinizing, as Jon recommends, those same Labour councillors on the details of how to keep services going.

7  There’s legal budgets and there’s legal budgets

This argument for ‘playing ball’ with the Chief Finance Officer and working to set legal, but creative budgets, has the same principles as Reason 6; get the finance department on side, and what exactly a legal budget is becomes a slightly (and usefully) blurred issue itself.

For obvious tactical reasons, I can’t name any of the Councils involved, but look hard enough around the place and you’ll find situation in which Labour councils are preparing, or have just set, legal budgets, but where the logic behind that legality is, let us say, open to interpretation. One example of this might be where, through tacit agreement with the unions, projections for staffing costs remain dependent on negotiations around terms and conditions of service, but where the unions may remain fairly confident that the position not stated in the budget may win out in the course of the year.

A willing and engaged Chief Finance Officer, not troubled by the idea of having to ‘go all section 114’ on her/his elected members, is much more likely to concur with such budgeting assumptions than one who is being forced into a corner s/he would rather not be in.

S/he will know, in any event, that - in a local government so used to Gershon savings that underspending on budget allocation is almost automatic - there are other areas of the budget likely to compensate, and will be comfortable enough to sign off a budget which some might see as risking overspend. That’s the way finance in local government works.

And those engaged unions and activists are much more likely to find common ground, in a way which squeezes the last drops out of the budget, than are those unions and activists who are less keen on engagement than they are on professing that their councillors are all careerists whose abiding wish is to betray the workers.

8  Borrowing with a difference

At Reason 4, I set out why borrowing for revenue is simply not an option at the moment.

Borrowing for other purposes, however, is an option, and it is this that activists and party members should be working with Council groups to pursue.

What is allowed under the Local Government Act 2003, and is likely to be better facilitated by the forthcoming Powers of General Competence legislation, is borrowing for capital expenditure which then creates revenue streams.

Typically, this has tended to be around outlay on kit and building which allow for economies of scale and savings (and in many case staffing reductions) and there may be some mileage in that route, but we also need to think more creatively about how we can use borrowing powers.

Take, for example, the idea of borrowing in order to buy out local firms which are essentially profitable, but which are under threat of closure through short-term cashflow difficulties (as a result of restricted bank lending) or for other reasons – perhaps as simple as a private firm owner retiring and her/his children not wanting to continue the business (this is a much commoner reason for business closure than generally recognized).

In such circumstances, and given due diligence, why shouldn’t a local authority borrow money to a) keep jobs going; b) draw revenue for services into the local authority from the firm’s underlying profit, especially if they are acting on concert with unions keen to expand their membership?

Could Forgemasters in Sheffield, for example, have been saved through a Sheffield City Council re-activating its 1980s commitments to local employment initiatives, but in a manner adjusted the economic realities of the 21st century (poor access to cash, but growth potential in some sectors of the economy)?

I don’t know all the ins and outs of this; that needs dedicated officer time and links to wider expertise through, say, the new Local Enterprise Partnerships, but surely if leftwing Labour councils like Sheffield and Manchester engaged usefully (if not always entirely successfully) in this stuff in the 1980s, then surely it’s not beyond us now.

Of course, such initiatives remain dependent on staying legal, and that may be unpalatable for the Left in the short-term, but more of that in Reason 10.

9  Protest, but protest elsewhere too

But all this ignores the fact that people are angry, and they want to protest.  Most people to protest against are local Labour councillors, because they are the ones doing the cutting.

As I’ve said, I understand and respect that urge, but as I’ve also said – there are other points, equally or potentially as valid/effective, at which to protest.

What about, for example, the Primary Care Trusts, where unelected quangos are quietly pushing cuts of similar scale through, while the Left gets angry with itself?

More pertinent in terms of local government, though, are those local government suppliers who are continuing to take cash out of the system, and are even bullish about increasing their revenues.

Again, I’ll give an example from my own council. The Tory council gives Serco £1 million per year in subsidy to manage five leisure centres, under a 15 year contract. Serco then profits from the deal where it can. Would it not seem reasonable, in the current circumstances, for Serco to receive a reduced subsidy, brought down say to £850,000 in line with the formula grant cut imposed on the Council?

The idea of a voluntary reduction was taken to Serco at its meeting in October, at my insistence and in the context of both Francis Maude’s letter on this, and of Serco’s letter to its own suppliers seeking savings. At the October meeting, no decision was made. At the next board meeting of the Leisure Trust overseeing the contract, in January, a decision was deferred until a convenient point beyond the council’s own budget setting, in the hope that the request (contractually, that’s all it can be) might go away.

Will that request go away? I don’t think so. Is there a case for a big demo outside the next Serco meeting, demanding that Serco shareholders take some of the pain.  Oh yes, I think so.

And so with Labour councils who have outsourced services over the years. It is, I suggest, perfectly legitimate to protest not just against a Council forced to make cuts, but against firms who should be taking a hit in their profits, while maintaining the services they agreed under contract.

I’ve written more on this in a ‘sites of resistance’ post.

10.  What are councillors for again?

And that’s more or less it. 

Of course it’s not an exhaustive list of areas where councillors and activists might come together to forge a more effective resistance in aftermath of the next couple of weeks of budget setting mayhem.  There will be plenty of other options for creative resistance, and I’m perhaps a bit too focused here on narrow Council mechanisms. 

The main point, however, is that such creative resistance can only really take place in a spirit of cooperation, and that this will happen less easily if the Left throws the councillor babies out with the budget-setting bathwater.

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to engage with councillors on this does seem to come down to what you think councillors are for.  I touched on this at Reason 3.

Richard Seymour has an interesting post setting out why he thinks councillors should resist cuts in a very different way to the way I suggest they do (and I hope I’ve shown that I back effective resistance).

Richard sets out his reasoning from a SWP standpoint, according to which elected councillors are functionaries of the state, according to which Labour councillors are little different from other parties’ councillors.

The SWP does not engage in elected party politics, so that’s a valid enough standpoint for Richard to take.

I was in the SWP for a while in the 1980s. I was also a union steward and secretary to my hospital branch. I left the SWP when I was criticized for engaging too much in casework at the expense of a wider struggle.

It seems to me that the choice I have made in this argument has similar roots.  I’m not a revolutionary socialist. I believe revolution may come about when the ruling class does not concede to our legitimate demands, but that it is more likely to be spontaneous rather than planned (though its will need leadership to see it through).

In the meantime, my job in my remaining two months as councillor is to do the best for the people who elected me. I think that’s what makes most Labour councillors tick. To ask them to set this sense of duty aside in the interests of what will most likely be a losing, if dramatic, cause, – rather than focus on making the best of it for now and creating further sites of realistic resistance – is a strategic mistake.

There are bigger battles for the Left to win than the ones they will lose in the next couple of weeks. 

And I’m sorry if I’ve offended you all.

Categories: General Politics

Why people who think the No2AV campaign is full of crap should vote No to AV, especially if they’re Labour

February 22, 2011 22 comments

This is a guest post by Tim Flatman.

Now is probably too late to make a stunning intervention in the AV debate.

The Yes to Fairer Votes and No2AV campaigns seem determined to act as a metaphor for parliamentary politics by giving us a straight-up choice between the politics of increasingly aggressive personal attacks made from an ivory tower by patronising middle-class liberals who think they have a monopoly on nebulous terms like “fairness”, and the cynical politics of misdirection, contradictory lines of attack and the occasional flat-out lie.

Even political geeks have stopped listening and certain victory for #meh2av seems to have been denied only by its absence on the ballot paper.

It’s in this context I’m going to try and set out a case against AV that ignores all the No campaign’s talking points. The basic thrust of my argument, strangely enough for someone who is on the left of the Labour Party, is a conservative argument – conservative with a small “c”.

It’s that the limited advantages that AV offers are not worth the risks that change brings.

I know, it doesn’t challenge the impression the Yes campaign are trying their hardest to create, that all of us who oppose AV are unreconstructed dinosaurs and the Yes campaign are shining progressive knights of the 21st century round table ready to slay us so the people can be freed from our unfair tyranny.

I’m not going to argue the acceptable progressive anti-AV case that a yes vote on AV will stop us getting a vote on a more proportional system.

It might. It might not. If we got a vote on a more proportional system I’d probably vote against that, too. I fail to see what is so democratic about a proportional system. But that’s another post. Here I’ll go flat out for ultimate Dinosaur status and try to support my preference for First Past the Post over the Alternative Vote, i.e. the choice we’ve got in May.

Here goes.

AV makes us think about politics in the wrong way.

When we think about a voting system, we shouldn’t just think about the mathematics of how many people voted for whom, how the votes are counted and whether it’s fair, but also about what we’re asking people to do and whether it encourages a view of politics that is healthy for democracy.

Preferential voting encourages people to think about politics in terms of sending a message, rather than making a choice about who they want in government. AV supporters argue preferential voting means people get to vote for their true first choice first, knowing that their vote will still “count” if it turns out other voters think their first choice are a few bathplugs short of an expense claim, and that in turn means voting is more honest. I’m not convinced.

Aside from the fact that by this logic, only the votes for the winning party end up “counting”, what the shiny progressive knights fail to recognise is that people weigh up scores in competing metrics when they consider their vote. They don’t vote solely on what values each party has, they also weigh up how competent, or trustworthy, or otherwise each party seems to them and sometimes competency outweighs policy, or policy outweighs trustworthiness, or some other metric outweighs some other metric.

In other words, if you vote Small Socialist Organisation Whose Collective Membership Is Made Up Of Two Extended Families 1 and Labour 2 because you like SSOWCMIMUO2EF’s policies better, it might still not be an “honest” vote.

You might want a Labour government, but still preference another party first. Tribal Labourites and die-hard Tories will end up giving their first preference to fringe parties not necessarily because they want those parties to form a government but in order to send a message. AV will reduce voting to gestures.

If you doubt this will happen, consider the last Labour leadership election.

I gave Ed Balls my first preference. But everyone knew one of the Miliband brothers would win. I didn’t want David Miliband to win. So did I give Ed Miliband my second preference?

No. I gave Diane Abbott my second preference, so it was clear that the eventual transfer to Ed Miliband came from the left. I hated voting in this way, but the system incentivised me to send a message, rather than make a straight choice about who of the available candidates was the best leader.

Tory voters on the right will use AV to try and push Tory candidates further to the right by giving their first preferences to UKIP, and Labour voters on the left will use AV to try and push Labour candidates to the left by voting for SSOWCMIMUO2EF or the Greens. But it doesn’t mean they’d actually prefer those candidates.

Is this worse than First Past the Post’s own perverse incentives, encouraging people to choose between the two parties who did the best at the previous election?

After all, that incentivises people to vote for parties they may not wish to see elected, too. Actually I think it is worse. First Past The Post rewards solid organisation over a period of time.

There is nothing wrong with a system that encourages voters to make a realistic choice between parties that are the best at mobilising support. With patient mobilisation, different parties can work their way into second place and then first place within two or three elections. That has happened in a few seats where the Liberal Democrats have replaced the Tories or Labour and gone on to win the seat. So too, if a traditional party jettisons its support base, or a new section of society with new interests emerges, it may be possible for another party to build itself patiently.

I am not convinced that a system which, by encouraging voters to “send a message”, may reward the sudden emergence of parties based on zeitgeist issues, is better than one which requires parties to develop a solid support base and which therefore reflects the fundamental cleavages in our society.

Ultimately I disagree with a philosophy of electoral politics that is about each individual deriving the maximum value possible from their vote. In fact, electoral politics makes very little sense at all if you consider it from the viewpoint of an individual, whose vote is unlikely to make any difference in determining the outcome.

Elections should be about communities coming together to make a collective decision about who will represent them, anointing someone to act as their champion in parliament. They should be events, not opinion aggregators.

AV would reinforce a view of voting which is about what I get out of it, about me getting across my opinion. It would strengthen gesture politics. Perversely, in making electoral politics more about sending a message and less about consciously choosing who governs us, it would increase the distance between the public and politicians. Suddenly it doesn’t matter who gets in, it matters what message we send them. Having our say becomes more important than making a decision.

AV could reduce the power of the least-represented.

Maybe you don’t think I’m a dinosaur.  Maybe you just think I’m wrong. You’re a liberal. You believe that communities are simply collections of individuals, nothing more. We should encourage a market-based view of politics that is about individuals competing with each other to get their opinions across, there’s no more authentic form of democracy than a market.

Sorry, but I refuse to accept that I’m merely wrong. Here’s where I go flat out for unreconstructed dinosaur status, by raising the spectre of class.

We don’t know what the long-term effects of changing our voting system will be. But there has to be a chance that it will increase the numbers of people giving their first preferences to fringe parties, and that over time that will enable fringe parties to come to power.

If more people start voting for SSOWCMIMUO2EF, they will start getting taken more seriously, more people will join them, encourage others to vote for them, people who vote for the people they see as the “main” parties will consider voting for them and eventually a plethora of parties will get representation in parliament.

The more parties are represented in parliament, the higher the chance of perpetual coalition government and the less chance there is of the working class seizing power and making bold, radical reforms. As someone on the left of the Labour Party, that is what I want to see, and it seems less likely if we have a plethora of parties represented in parliament, some based on ideologies, some based on representing interest groups which span across classes (a Pensioners’ Party, perhaps?), some based on single issues.

AV may not lead to that outcome, but it may do, and I’m not prepared to take that risk for a system that delivers little in the way of improvement to our current FPTP system.

I said earlier that the current system reflects fundamental cleavages in our society. I was talking about class.

At the last election, a (literally, not metaphorically) toothless retiree told me the Tories were for the rich, Labour were for the working class and the Liberals were for those in the middle. It might be crude, I might want to refine his analysis slightly, but when it comes to the crunch I’m with Gums.

I’m glad we have an electoral system that reflects what I see as the most important cleavage in society. I’d like it if the Labour Party was a bit more radical, I’d like it if the British working class as a whole were a bit more radical, but changing the voting system isn’t going to fix that.

The immediate instrumental effects of AV could be bad for the working class, too. It is widely recognised that underprivileged groups are less likely to vote. Under FPTP, parties are incentivised to identify their potential vote and motivate them to turn out. The short campaign is structured around GOTV – Get Out The Vote, for any readers who aren’t political hacks. For Labour, that means especially motivating voters in deprived areas to get out and vote. Y

es, in most marginal constituencies that is not enough on its own, and we also have to persuade swing voters to vote Labour. But motivating voters who sometimes vote and who, when they do, always vote Labour, is a big part of our campaigns. And those people are usually amongst the poorest. They’re the people who Labour is there to represent, and who other mainstream parties couldn’t care less about.

Sometimes it seems like Labour governments couldn’t care less about them, either, but then the Tories get back in and we remember that compromised Labour governments are always better for the working class, and especially the worst-off, than governments of any other colour.

AV could change all that. It may turn out to be easier to get the second preference of someone who will definitely vote than it is to persuade someone who rarely votes that this is the election that really matters.

Suddenly we stop chasing the first preferences of the least-privileged and start chasing the second preferences of the already-privileged. We spend less time campaigning in our “core” areas. We spend less time listening to the most under-represented working class voters. We develop policies that are designed to win the second preferences of UKIP voters, Green voters, English Democrat or Liberal Democrat voters, rather than motivating the least-motivated to vote. We stop being the Labour Party and become something else. A pale imitation of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps.

So I think Labour supporters should vote No to AV.

Not because FPTP is better for Labour than AV. Labour supporters of AV argue it would keep the Tories out for a generation, those who oppose it say with the new alignments brought about by Nick Clegg’s election and personal coalition preferences, it could be Labour that would be kept out for a generation. I don’t think any of us can be sure about which of those is true. Probably it’s neither.

Labour supporters should oppose AV not because it could be bad for our party but because it could be bad for the people our party was set up to represent.

Labour supporters should oppose AV because it encourages a liberal individualist view of politics, rather than a collectivist view that better reflects our values. And while we’re at it, let’s reclaim the language that’s being used to demonise us.

I’m an Unreconstructed Dinosaur and proud of it.

Categories: General Politics

10 reasons the Left should support Labour Council Cuts (Reasons 1-5)

February 21, 2011 17 comments

Background

We are in the midst of a three week period many when many Labour councils are setting their budgets. All of them will make cuts.  Labour councillors up and down the country will receive abuse for what many on the left will see as their betrayal and cowardice.

This is a two part, unashamedly detailed, article about why such abuse is both unjustified and counterproductive, and about how Labour councils and the broad left should be coming together to bash out a better way forward than the Tory-pleasing acrimony currently developing.

First, a word about where I’m coming from on this…

I am an individual member of the Labour Representation Committee, the leftist campaign and organizing body within the Labour party. At its January AGM, which I attended, the following resolution was passed by a large majority:

Labour councillors should:

1.  Explain to local communities why they are not willing to become accomplices of the ConDem government, spelling out how the cuts will devastate services and jobs if implemented.

2. Where they are in control of the council, refuse to draw up or endorse budgets for 2011-12 that implement the draconian cuts demanded by the government; where Labour councillors are in opposition, refuse to vote for a single cut.

3. Work with representatives of community groups, local authority workers and trade unions, trades councils, Labour Party members and other political activists, to block council officers or government commissioners from seizing control and implementing the cuts.

(Most relevant section of a long resolution quoted)

I voted AGAINST this resolution, which was put by Ted Knight, ex-Labour leader of Lambeth Council well known its resistance to Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s.

I also had my had raised for much of the debate but was not called to speak, either because I couldn’t be seen on the balcony of Conway Hall I stress this point because there have been accusations that only one councillor, Charlynne Pullen, defended the ‘voting for cuts’ position, and this fits with the unfortunate emerging narrative of modern councillors as cowards.

I am also the leader of a Labour Group of Councillors on a Borough Council. 

Currently Labour is in opposition, so I am not in the position to make a decision on what cuts to put forward. Were I the leader of the Council, however, I would have no hesitation in taking to next week’s Council meeting a budget commensurate with my legal duty to set a legal budget.  If that needed to include cuts to jobs and services, that is what I would propose (in fact in my Council this is not needed, but that is beside the point). 

I would most likely be proud of what the cuts package I was proposing, because I would be proposing a cuts package from a socialist position.

This is not a popular position on the broad Labour left, to say the least.

This is at least in part because leading Labour councillors have not explained their position as fully as they might, preferring to dismiss the Labour left’s arguments ether as deliberately divisive and self-serving. For example, while Luke Akehurst’s argument for setting legal budgets  is pretty good, the hostility with which he puts it across is hardly likely to win over those he should be trying to win over.

Similarly, and more seriously in terms of overall effect, calling legitimate protestors ‘fucking idiots’ rather than going about trying to convince them that he is actually doing the right thing, was hardly a masterstroke of communication by Lewisham Labour leader Steve Bullock.

Labour councillors need to make cuts, for the reasons I set out below, but they also need to explain why they need to more clearly than they have done to date. It is no good blaming protests for their lack of understanding when the relevant information has not been put their way.

My job in this article, then, is to set out the case for Labour cuts as clearly as I can, but to do so with the same level of understanding and respect that I would like the Left to show towards councillors taking difficult but necessary decisions on cuts.

Ten reasons for the Left to support Labour Council Cuts

1.  Pickles will cut if we don’t

This is the most obvious starting defence for Labour councillors charged with making cuts. It is also happens to be correct.

I have set out the legal position previously.  Here it is again, with the quote from a relevant Council paper:

[S]ection 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 ….requires the chief finance officer in England and Wales to report to all the authority’s councillors if there is or is likely to be unlawful expenditure or an unbalanced budget. This would include situations where reserves have become seriously depleted and it is forecast that the authority will not have the resources to meet its expenditure in a particular financial year. The issue of a section 114 notice cannot be taken lightly and has serious operational implications. Indeed, the authority’s full council must meet within 21 days to consider the section 114 notice and during that period the authority is prohibited from entering into new agreements involving the incurring of expenditure.

We can’t wish away this reality. Although no-one knows precisely how the endgame would be played out if a Council did vote to set an illegal budget (and it’s not going to happen in 2011 at least), the reality is that the Chief Finance Officer (Section 151 Officer) of such a local authority would be legally bound to take the steps above. Continued refusal to set a legal budget will mean that it is indeed set by officers, who are the ones, in the end, who have practical control over expenditure (bank account mandates etc.).

That’s precisely the reasoning behind section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988.

As importantly, you can bet your bottom dollar that Pickles would be leaning over the shoulder of that same Chief Finance Officer tasked with setting a legal budget, ensuring that this process is as punitive as possible, and extracting every last column inch as to why the Labour Council is hurting its residents.

I’ll return to this theme of why it’s important exactly WHO sets the legal budget at 5 and 6 below, but first we need to provide a (respectful) corrective to the other three related arguments (Reasons 2-4) put by those arguing against all cuts.

2.  The removal of surcharging and the threat of prison does NOT make it easier to resist the cuts

A central argument used by Ted Knight at the LRC AGM, and widely repeated elsewhere, is that it is much easier now for councillors to resist the government’s cuts because there is no personal risk of surcharge or prison.

This is, frankly, an odd argument.

We are effectively asked to believe that the Thatcher government decided, in the form of the Local Government Act 1988, to make it easier for Labour councillors to resist cuts, as a reward for Labour councillors in Lambeth and Liverpool showing such personal bravery.

What the 1986 Act actually did was to remove the possibility of Labour councillors becoming martyrs to the anti-cuts cause, while at the same time ensuring that the mechanics of local government finance were tightened up to make it physically impossible to spend, by enshrining in law the  Section 151 officer’s duty to stop further expenditure.

To suggest otherwise does, sadly, contain an element of hubris on the part of Ted Knight and his 1980s comrades.

This isn’t to say that their 1980s actions weren’t brave (indeed that’s what I said previously), but this is not the 1980s, and they are wrong to suggest that the councillors of 2011 are less brave and committed to socialism than they were. 

Such insinuations are as unhelpful as the (odd) untrue assertion I’ve seen from Labour councillors, who should know better, that surcharging is still a danger.  It isn’t, but that doesn’t make resisting cuts easier.

3. Resigning as a councillor means you don’t get to be a councillor any more

A further common position taken by the Left, and linked to that above,is that Labour councillors who are not brave enough to resist cuts by voting against them should resign, and allow braver Labour candidates to stand instead.

This position fundamentally misunderstands what the 21st century councillor is, and is again an inappropriate hark back to the 1980s, when precisely such steps were taken in Lambeth (in the context of the threat of personal surcharge).

Ask any half-decent councillor who’s been on the scene for a long time, and they will tell you that the job of a councillor has changed hugely since the early/mid 1980s.

Back then, being a backbench councillor involved an awful lot of committee work, making decisions on service details which are now largely delegated to officers.  Nowadays, being a backbench councillor is about casework, problem solving and community campaigns. 

Back then, being a local councillor was about both local politics and local decision making. Now it’s about being a cheap social worker, benefits advisor and amateur road engineer, amongst other things.

Whether or not this change (enshrined in the Local Government Act 2000 but not wholly brought about by the Act) is desirable is open to question, but the fact remains that modern local councillors are different from those of last generation.  That is why there is occasional conflict in local parties when local ‘stalwart’ councillors are deselected by assessment panels (rather than by ward members) on the basis that they do not have the expected attributes;  often they have not changed, but the job description has.

As such, most local councillors’ primary function has little to do with the cuts of 10-30%; they are concerned with ensuring that their local constituents get proper and equitable access to the 70-90% of resources that will remain, whether that be through ensuring that the potholes on an estate do get filled in, or helping someone argue their ‘borderline’ case over revised social care eligibility.

This is important stuff, and not something we should be abrogating for the sake of fifteen minutes of fame and defiance. 

If I resigned today, I would be leaving behind at least a dozen local initiatives, whether that be work on road safety schemes or work to set up a Tenants’ Association for Sheltered Accommodation tenants as preparation against future Tory assaults on their tenancies. None of this stuff will ever be headline news, but they are important to my local constituents all. That’s true for many councillors, and it’s important that leftwing activists recognize that this is the kind of stuff that motivates many modern councillors.

4. Prudential borrowing is not a viable option

Some on the left have also put forward the argument that Labour Councils can avoid cuts if they use the prudential borrowing facilities available to them.

If only it were so.

If it were the case that Councils could borrow prudentially to provide for ongoing revenue, you’d expect to see at least a few going down that line, working either on the basis that a future Labour government will provide settlements decent enough to cover debt interest and steady repayment, or even that the debt might be picked up in its entirety by central government.

Sadly, it’s not the case. The Local Government Act 2003 regulations on borrowing  and the subsequent Prudential Code are clear enough about the duty on Councils to provide evidence of the ‘affordabilty’ of their borrowing, and of the powers of the Secretary of State to limit borrowing.

Such legislation brings us back to the issues set out above (Reason 2) with respect to Section 151 officers.  As with illegal budget setting, it falls to these Chief Finance Officers to take a view at local authority level on whether borrowing schemes are ‘affordable’ in repayment terms, and the reality is that borrowing for straight revenue is not going to be approved on that score.

That’s why no Councils have gone down this route to date.

That is not to say that Council’s can’t make more creative use of borrowing, and I’ll set out what might be done at Reason 8 in part of this article, but for the present prudential borrowing is simply not a way to avoid cuts.

5. Labour cuts should be different from Coalition Cuts

Luke Akehurst puts the legality argument (reason 1) and the ‘political priority’ argument for Labour cuts in one handy paragraph:

You can’t even get as far as setting an illegal budget and being surcharged. All that happens is that the council officers set a balanced budget for you, with no reference to your political priorities.

Mark Ferguson does the same:

A council that failed to pass a legal budget now would lose control over the finances of the local authority. Decision making would pass to unelected bureaucrats – or worse Eric Pickles – who wouldn’t be bound by the priorities and manifesto pledges of those who had been democratically elected. If you believe that cuts delivered by Eric Pickles would be less damaging – or equiavalent – to those which Labour councillors are forced to deal out, then you have clearly exited the realm of reality.

Both are right about political ‘priorities’, but on both occasions their argument is drowned in so much anti-Left vitriol that it’s unlikely anyone on the Left will be convinced.

More importantly, just saying that Labour Councils have different political priorities doesn’t prove they have.  Luke and Mark may be laudably concise in their argument, but what they gain in brevity they lose through lack of evidence.

Evidence that Labour really do, or at least should make cuts that reflect political priorities will of course differ from area to area, but there is evidence.

Take the difference between Liverpool Labour and Tory Lancashire, for example.

In Liverpool, for example. Labour have put together a budget which reduces spending by £91m in 2011-12 but has been able to issue a press briefing which states that:

We have protected, as far as possible, services to children and vulnerable adults. Children’s care services have been protected and will experience a reduction of just 1%.

Meanwhile, says the briefing:

Spending on road maintenance, street cleansing, parks and open spaces will be reduced by £5.8m

Compare this with what’s happening 30 miles up the road in Preston, HQ to Lancashire’s Tories, the opposite is happening

There are cuts of £71.6m to be made in Lancashire 2011-12, but the Tories have responded by putting an additional £2.038m into highways maintenance while savaging services to the most vulnerable, through cuts to both adult and children’s care services.

The Tory strategy is clear enough ; reduce services to the most vulnerable as much as is needed, because they have a relatively small number of votes anyway, while maintaining ‘popular’ services which are less costly per user, and therefore act as better vote winners in the future.

There isn’t scope here to provide many details of how Tory cuts really are different from Labour cuts.  The point is that when Ted Knight stood yup in the LRC AGM and talked with withering sarcasm about how people would experience Labour cuts and tory cuts differently, he was wrong; the most vulnerable will, in general suffer less under Labour cuts than they would under Tory administrations (or Pickles-driven budget setting).

This isn’t to say that Labour councils are getting it right everywhere. Such an assertion would be just a bit too much blind faith in Labour values at the heart of every Labour council.  But what is needed in these circumstances is proper engagement with Labour councils over what cuts are being proposed and why, rather than a blanket refusal to engage with any cuts at all (similar to engagement over reserve levels, which I’ll cover in Reason 6).

Coming up at Reasons 6-10…….

6  Reserves are finite, sort of….

7. There’s legal budget and there’s legal budgets……

8. Labour councillors are NOT doing the Tories’ dirty work

9. United we stand, divided we’re shite

10. What are councillors for again?

The Politics of Difficult Things Part 1: Necrophilia

February 21, 2011 4 comments

Warning: this blog post deals with a subject that some may find disturbing

The US State of Wisconsin is a much talked about place at the moment, given the controversial budget proposals by the new Republican governor, which has been met with protests and walk-outs by concerned Democrat state senators. But in 2008 the State caught US headlines for very different reasons, sparking heated debates in both political and academic circles. The topic is something so contentious it is more often ignored, and due to its sensitive nature left aside in a trinket labelled “not to be handled even with a bargepole”. That subject is necrophilia.

Two things make Wisconsin stand out on this issue: firstly a case was brought against three boys from the state who in 2008 were accused of digging up a corpse so that one of the boys could engage in sexual intercourse with it. Secondly, it was felt by some that in Wisconsin law the notion of whether necrophilia was considered illegal was absent – leading to a lot of legal bickering. Sex without consent was illegal, and the majority of the justices involved in the case agreed that sex with a corpse falls under this bracket. Since the corpse did not give its consent, what the boy was trying to do (which he ultimately failed to do, being scared off last minute by a car entering the cemetery) could be considered illegal. Two dissenting justices insisted, however, that lawmakers drawing up the law under which the Wisconsin necrophiliac was prosecuted did not mean to ban necrophilia, but allow assault charges when someone was raped and then killed.

Wisconsin from that point on was brought into line with more than 20 other states that prohibit necrophilia or the abuse of a corpse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However what interests people today is whether this be a matter concerning consent. After all, does this not leave open the possibility of consensual necrophilia. In his 2006 book The Parallax View, Slavoj Zizek alludes to a discussion taking place in:

some radical circles in the USA, a proposal to “rethink” the rights of necrophiliacs has recently started to circulate […] So the idea was formulated that, just as people sign a form giving permission for their organs to be used for medical purposes in the event of sudden death, one should also allow them to sign a form for their bodies to be given to necrophiliacs to play with”. (Zizek, (2006) The Parallax View, Cambridge: MIT Press, P. 309)

Some people would support consensual prostitution for example, without being obliged to approve of its act. Many more would have no problem with placing themselves on the organ donor list; the thought experiment Zizek is trying to raise here is whether necrophilia can ever be seen as a matter for two consenting adults alone?

The counter-argument to this reflects on how the state conducts itself vis-a-vis the notion of human dignity. In an interesting politics forum discussion on immorality and necrophilia, one person notes that: “How a culture treats its dead partly reflects how it views and values human life and human dignity.” In India, for example, the act of pursuing indignity to a human corpse has been conflated in law with “wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person” by trespassing, or doing ill acts, on burial places (see Section 297 of Indian Penal Code (IPC)). Necrophilia can be convicted under this section of the IPC.

And this point is probably where most governments stand today. The criminalisation of sexual violation where there is no consent is vital, but government will be less inclined to tolerate the consensual harvesting of a corpse for the sexual purposes of a necrophiliac. The real issue lies in how a state law system would choose to prosecute against those who, say, did meet the strict criteria for seeking consensus around this.

I, like many people, would not personally approve of such acts, and express deep concerns for those who did engage in them. But if no rights have been violated, how could the law possibly legislate against consensual necrophilia?

Those Blair/Gaddafi handshake pictures

February 21, 2011 2 comments

Gaddafi tonight is obviously on the edge; his son has recently made an address warning protesters that if ill-feeling toward his Father continues the bloodshed in Libya would be worse than that of Iraq.

But while the counterrevolution is being drawn up by Gaddafi and his stooges, we ought not to forget what the Mail tonight are calling “Blair’s sordid Faustian pact?

Here are the pictures that symoblised that event:

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