Sunday, 28 October 2012

Today's neo-liberal Tory Party would rather risk devastation in the countryside than regulate the free market

The news that ash dieback fungus, which has wiped out 90% of ash trees in Denmark, has been detected in up to 20 new sites across the UK (on top of the two confirmed infected areas), has resulted in a last-minute dash by the government to ban imported ash trees.

Too little, too late. The government had the opportunity to ban imports, but chose not to. It's easy to see why. A ban on businesses doing whatever they want is, in the eyes of the neo-liberal right, 'red tape' and a burden'. Better to risk a disease that will wipe out 30% of all trees in Britain than legislate or regulate. Increasingly the UK Tories are resembling their counterparts in the US, with all that entails for the environment, the countryside and peoples' health.

Often this reticence to regulation, even where the downsides of not doing so are clear to see, is cloaked in ideas of 'liberty' and 'freedom'. Of course, in reality, the neo-liberal right will extend this notion only to the rich and powerful. And where scientific evidence encroaches upon this mission to protect large corporations from regulation - witness climate change - the modern right will simply deny the facts... occasionally with amusing consequences.

The case of ash dieback - or "Cameron's Contagion" as George Monbiot put it - perfectly illustrates why the Tory Party can no longer claim to be the party of the countryside. And neither, as the same commentator argued, can it claim to be the party of ordinary people:

"In March, the government published its kill list of environmental regulations. Among those being downgraded are the rules controlling hazardous waste, air pollution, contaminated land, noise, light and the use of lead shot. Ministers describe this as the shrinking of the state. In reality it's the shrinking of democracy. Regulation is the means by which civilised societies resolve their conflicts. It prevents the selfish and the powerful from spoiling the lives of others".

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

"Ed Miliband now rules the House of Commons"

An earlier post covered the quite remarkable coverage Ed Miliband received after his speech to the Labour Party Conference - remarkable not only for the fact that praise came from across the (media's) political spectrum, but also as he had until recently endured endlessly negative media coverage.

It appears this change in narrative has now filtered through the way in which he is reported on a more regular basis. Witness these range of headlines - from many right-wing papers - after today's Prime Minister's Questions:

PMQs verdict: Miliband wipes the floor with Cameron (

Ed Miliband now rules the House of Commons (Telegraph)

I’ve rarely seen the Labour leader more confident on his feet at PMQs (Spectator)

PMQs: Ed Miliband is starting to believe he can beat David Cameron (Telegraph)

PMQs review: Miliband's most confident performance yet (New Statesman)

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Republican Party's war on science will damage people's health

The excellent New Left Media, who recently produced a film to highlight the frankly jaw-dropping attacks by the Republican Party on womens' healthcare, have released a new video expose attempts by the GOP to reverse basic environmental protections that many in the US had assumed were here to stay.

It's clear that the modern US right, due to a combination of corporate lobbying and influence from religious evangelists, is now a bastion for hugely anti-scientific views. This is combined with a political outlook - shared by their staunch media allies - that will seek to blindly ignore evidence-based studies into climate change, or similar events, where their world view is challenged as a result (something, incidentally, shared by some of their counterparts here in the UK).

The result is toxic (in potentially more ways than one) for people in the USA - with the EPA, the decades-long guardian of clean air and water - under threat from a Republican Party so blindly ideologically committed to hacking away at government, regardless of the consequences, that they can't even remember what they are meant to be cutting.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Using the Saville affair to further their political ends shows how low many on the political right have sunk

It is instructive that the Tory press, and in particular the Murdoch press, has suddenly found a deep concern for the victims of sex offenders. This, of course, has nothing - absolutely nothing - to do with the BBC and (in the case of the Murdoch press) their own commercial interests and everything to do with their newly discovered moral compasses.

Yes: News International, the same firm that sat back silently as its reporters hacked the voicemails of dead soldiers, murder victims and countless others is now a paradigm of virtue.

And MPs from the Tory Party, the same party whose Mayor described said phone hacking as 'codswallop' are now launching crusades into the probity of the BBC, whilst, in the case of the latter, appear shamefully to be trying to downplay the wrongdoings of the Murdoch corporation.

The truth is the Saville affair was a product of a general culture in the country that existed prior to the 1990s in which child welfare was sorely lacking. There are very likely to be many organisations - public and private - that will undoubtedly in time be shown to be at fault. And there will be many very famous people that in the past used their authority to abuse with impunity or, in other cases, crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable today in 2012.

It is only right that as a society we atone for the crimes of the past and that we acknowledge where we were deficient, so that we do not repeat past mistakes. But it is - as with the Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sacks affair - very clear that a number on the political right are hiding behind the cloak of morality to further their political aims, namely attacking one of the few remaining non-profit making parts of British society.

Finally, as one commentator put it well recently, there is a difference between Auntie and many of its commercial competitors. The BBC constantly reviews, criticises and accordingly amends its own news coverage, in the full glare of the public. How many private corporations - News International included - can say the same?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Better incremental victories than the havoc the US Republicans will unleash

An excellent recent post in the Guardian by Clancy Sigal in which he defends 'Obamacare' helps illustrate the dramatic choice US voters are faced with in the forthcoming election. In simple terms, the gains made by the health care legislation Obama passed will be sabotaged and ultimately destroyed by Mitt Romney and the mad and bad members of the Republican Party, with the support of their equally loopy media allies.

It is true that victory for Obama will lead to more incremental victories, as another commentator put it, rather than major advances, but in part this is less a result of the current President's character than a product of the US electoral system. Put plainly, the USA has a constitutional and political system built to avoid strong federal government - it is designed to make the kind of social democratic advances made in Europe immensely difficult to secure.

One example of this is the frequency of elections in the US: every two years in the case of the House of Representatives. This alone provides a difficult hurdle for centre-left governments; it takes many years more than that to train a doctor or to complete a major construction project. Therefore, raising taxes on voters to pay for these things becomes very tough - come the midterm elections, many of those same voters will expect to see evidence of a return on their investment.

Conversely, things are made easier for those on the political right. It takes next to no time at all to cut taxes, very little time for voters to see the cut in their pay packets and an awful lot longer for the impact on public services to be felt.

With this in mind, it is worth reflecting on the scope that Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan et al have to decimate the US social security system, to attack womens' health care rights and to set back action to tackle global warming. And, of course, to reverse the small victories that are tempering some of the worst aspects of the US health care system - a hugely expensive bureaucracy in which the ill and very ill are left to haggle with their doctors and mighty insurance companies, over what in Europe most would consider a basic human right.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Victory for the US Republican Party will set womens' rights back decades

The (very underrated) New Left Media produced the following video this summer, which is worth sharing in light of the staggering litany of attacks on women's health care rights in the USA, led by an increasingly insane (and no other word can now describe them) Republican Party. 

These have included attempts to restrict access to basic contraception and to prevent access to abortion even where there is a clear risk to the life of the mother. In this regard, campaigning videos like this one are increasingly essential. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

"We were told to close the shutters. That was it"

Fittingly, on the day that the historian Eric Hobsbawm died, this story was run on the BBC website, about the closure of sportswear chain JJB Sports.

The short quote from a staff member at a Scottish branch of the chain summed up one of the more depressing aspects of modern capitalism - a feature that the great man would have probably recognised:

"Fraser Harrower worked as a sales adviser at the Dunfermline branch of JJB, which was closed down this morning. He told the BBC that two administrators walked in unannounced:

"At around 11:30 this morning we had two administrators walk in and they were there for all of maybe 90 seconds and my assistant manager came out and we were told to close the shutters and the business was closed. 

That was it.""

Monday, 8 October 2012

LOL! Boris Johnson tried to hide meetings with News International

After many months fighting its release, Boris Johnson has had his diary published. And it reveals that the man who has ultimate responsibility for the police in London failed to declare a range of meetings and phone calls with News International executives at the height of the Met investigation into phone hacking (or 'codswallop' as he once put it).

These include a phone call with Rebekah Brooks in April 2011 and, a month later, a telephone conversation with James Murdoch and a meeting with NI lobbyist Frederick Michel.

Bear in mind Boris heads the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime - formerly the Metropolitan Police Authority - and so has ultimate responsibility for policing. You would have thought, therefore, that he would want to avoid any impression of impropriety. 

Well, Johnson clearly doesn't see himself as a man that needs to show such restraint:
  • In May 2012, it was revealed that News International had offered the Mayor millions of pounds of sponsorship towards pet projects - something that he got very angry about in a subsequent interview with the BBC.
  • In June 2012, Boris was forced to admit he had failed to declare in his official diary a dinner with Rupert Murdoch just two days before the launch of the Metropolitan Police investigation into phone hacking. 
  • In August 2012, the Mayor invited Rupert Murdoch to be his guest at the Olympic swimming finals, despite the clear evidence of wrongdoing in key parts of the media mogul's organisation.  
All of this paints a picture of a politician less interested in demonstrating an independence from the Murdoch empire than he is trying to court its support.

In the wake of the contemptible episode that was phone hacking - an episode that showed a hugely unhealthy relationship between the police, politicians and Murdoch's companies - Boris Johnson's actions are shameful.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

What a difference a week makes

In an era in which party conferences are supposedly of diminishing importance, Ed Milband's speech was perhaps the exception that proves the rule. This morning's YouGov poll has Labour maintaining a post-conference 14 point lead over the Conservatives, with a 45% vote share. This is small but significant shift compared to immediately before the Labour conference. Most notably, Ed Miliband's personal ratings are well up, and now approaching positive territory after many months in the doldrums.

This is mirrored in a poll by Survation, which found the number of people seeing Miliband as 'statesmanlike' almost doubling since last week (albeit from a low base). At the same time, Opinium has shown Labour maintaining (or possibly slightly increasing) its double-digit lead over the Tory Party.

Although much of the increase in Miliband's personal ratings are from Labour-supporting respondents, this isn't a bad thing at all for the opposition leader. Until recently, one of his underlying weaknesses has been the fact that many Labour supporters expressed unease about his leadership. Rallying these voters around him means that he may well have strengthened the Labour vote itself, avoiding a potential melting away of the vote as the election nears.

One of the most striking things about the speech, though, was the effect on the commentariat - and notably the fact that it won plaudits from everyone from the trade unions to the Spectator. Below are some of the many post-speech pieces that have all but ensured that Ed is now the safest of the three party leaders.

Ed Miliband’s speech verdict: a resounding success (Spectator)

Ed Miliband has just pulled off something that few politicians achieve (Daily Mail)

Ed Miliband takes a lesson in belief from Tony Blair (Telegraph)

Ed Miliband's breathtaking bravura and a One Nation stroke of genius (Guardian)

Today he gave an outstanding speech, without notes or text, a performance that was assured and confident, engaging and near-faultlessly delivered (BBC)

The most confident and fluent speech of his leadership (Daily Mail)

Ed Miliband's One Nation claim is cheeky, but David Cameron has a fight on his hands (Telegraph)

Five thoughts on Ed Miliband's speech of his life (Liberal Conspiracy)

Ed’s speech owes as much to Danny Boyle as it does to Disraeli (Political Betting)

Ed Miliband stole the Tories’ One Nation mantle today in a barnstorming speech without notes (Standard)

A triumph for Ed: the best leader’s speech ever? (Left Futures)

So much for the Tories’ 'secret weapon’ (Telegraph)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The West Coast franchise debacle will increase pressure for renationalisation of the rail system

The rail franchise debacle, which the Government (in a piece of news management that seems right out of the pre-internet era) admitted to at around midnight last night, has brought the whole issue of rail privatisation - and public-private procurement - back into the spotlight.

This poses a large problem for David Cameron for three reasons:

  • Firstly, it sheds light on the serious problems that government procurement contracts with the private sector can create, at the same time as the Government is rolling on with an NHS reform programme that will dramatically increase this kind of activity in the health service.
  • Secondly,it appears to be a huge example of incompetence less than 24 hours after Ed Miliband referred to the Cameron's administration as an 'incompetent, hopeless shower'. 
  • Finally, it provides another example to the public of the key problems that come with our fragmented and privatised rail system, merely months after more huge price increases for commuters were announced. 
The Government will now have to choose either to bring the franchise under direct public control, or to hand huge amounts of money to Virgin (on top of their compensation) for extending the contract. Although it's pretty likely this particularly neo-liberal administration is likely to go for the latter option on ideological grounds (despite its costs) it has to face the fact that the majority of people favour rail renationalisation - including self-declared Conservative voters

This is another interesting example of where Tory-leaning voters show support for public policy choices usually associated with the political left.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Krugman on the failure of austerity economics

After almost two and a half years of the Osborne-led austerity experiment in the UK, all evidence points to the fact that those warning about the folly of austerity have been proven right.

One of the leading voices against austerity has been Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. Here, for those that missed it earlier on this year, is him engaging in a debate with two right-wingers. And in a few minutes, Krugman puts the case for Keynesian economics very well indeed. To the evident discomfort of his right-leaning guests.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Under Boris and Cameron, London is becoming divided

What marks London out as a capital is the proximity in which the rich, the middle classes and the poor live. Unlike many of global capitals, London's rich and poor are distributed in a way that makes the city resemble a patchwork quilt.

So, for example, barely minutes' walk from the white-stucco terraces of Little Venice in Maida Vale is the more down-at-heel Harrow Road. Equally, although the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has the highest proportion of people on more than £60,000 per year, it also has above average levels of deprivation.

Any supporter of progressive policies understands that without this proximity - without those who control the bulk of wealth being able to see and interact with the poorest - the likelihood is that support by them for progressive public spending will decline.

However, it is within Kensington and Chelsea where polarisation of the rich and poor has started to take accelerate, with half of its benefit recipients living in one quarter of its neighbourhoods. The policies of the Government and the Mayor (or lack of them) mean this is likely to take place on a larger scale, with polarisation not just within London boroughs, but across the capital.

A divided city

The fact that London is not yet as divided geographically as many US cities, for example, certainly doesn't mean it isn't divided economically. In fact, as the excellent London Poverty Profile, points out, it is far more divided than other regions of the UK. So for example:
  • the top 10% of households by property wealth account for 45% of that wealth. The bottom 40% have no or almost no household wealth at all;
  • the richest 10% by financial wealth (savings and non-property assets) account for two-thirds of the financial wealth in London. The financial wealth of the bottom half is effectively 0%.

A key driver of inequality has been the impact of the recession - namely that a crisis created by reckless financial speculation by some of the richest individuals in the country has impacted them the least. So, as most people suffer from more wage freezes, increasing shortages of full-time employment and rising household costs, the rich just get richer. And the rich choose to live in London.

The number of "prime residential" schemes at planning or build stage is up 70% year-on-year, at a time at which there is an acute shortage of affordable housing. Prime London property prices - those of desirable houses or flats in richer areas - saw rises of 10% between September 2011 and September 2012 alone and are now 15% above their pre-financial crisis peak of March 2008. So-called super-prime properties, valued at over £10 million each, saw growth in prices of 8% in 2010 alone.

Meanwhile, a report from Future of London warns that 'overseas buyers seeking out homes for investment purposes risk pushing prices up and reducing the availability of homes to buy for local people'. It goes on to say that, rather like the financial markets, 'the London private housing market serves the interests of few people and fails to serve the needs of the majority'.

In 2011 this was epitomised by the opening of One Hyde Park, a development one columnist described as "a 21st-century monument to the ever-growing gap between rich and poor... that reached its triumphant moment of fulfilment on the very day that the government announced a youth unemployment rate of more than 20%".

Worsening trends

The trend for wealthy UK and overseas buyers to hoover-up and then horde large swathes of 'desirable' properties can only continue, as the number of people worldwide with assets of over $100 million (which has risen by almost 30% since 2006) is forecast to rise even further. This is coupled with an acute shortage in affordable property in London. An excellent report by Shelter illustrated the impact of this shortage of housing stock. In some of the most startling findings, they found that:
  • In 5 London boroughs, average monthly rent for a 2-bed property is now 75% or more of local median take-home pay;
  • The majority of London boroughs have median rents that cost more than 50% of median local full-time earnings.
Meanwhile, in August 2012, the average price of renting a home reached its highest ever level, jumping 4.8% in a single year to hit £1,272 a month. And for those hoping to get on the property ladder, the mountain gets ever larger: the average home in the capital now costing £397,000 – 70 per cent more than the UK average –  with the average price of a two-bedroom property at £483,000.

Leading Conservatives sit back and watch

The problems that these costs will cause for large numbers of Londoners has been compounded by the Mayor of London's utter indifference to the issue of affordability... although perhaps expecting a Tory Mayor in a modern right-wing Conservative Party to address these issues is probably too much to ask. Thus, Boris Johnson currently presides over a city that has almost 200,000 homes with planning permission already granted that are currently in stalled developments. He also leads an administration elected on a ticket to water down requirements for property development schemes to have a minimum proportion of affordable housing.

Unlike his defeated opponent, Ken Livingstone, who was going to introduce a New York-style cap on private rents and a 'London Living Rent', on housing Boris offers - as one expert put it - nothing but the status quo. Similarly, while his opponent had planned the creation of an energy co-operative to drive down gas and electricity bills, Boris offered not to do anything of note.

With ever rising rents, transport and energy costs, the victory of the current Mayor in this year's election at the same time as a Tory Party is at Number 10 means that - in the words of blogger Dave Hill - 'Conservatism now has the run of the city'. And, with the exception of a few woeful token schemes, that means sitting back and doing nothing.

Unfortunately, where Conservatism does offer a solution, it is to target the poorest rather than address systematic problems. This is best illustrated by the Government's policy of tacking the housing benefit bill by capping benefits (rather than tackling high rent), leading to some London boroughs proposing to exile families from the capital.

These trends might be self-perpetuating 

What all of this will do to the economic map of London is obvious: the city will become geographically divided, with the poorest driven to the outer edges of the capital - or perhaps outside it altogether. London will become more unequal and, eventually, mostly unaffordable for those from middle and lower-income groups.

In narrow political terms all of this could be beneficial to Tory Party in the capital, as these demographic changes may mean that one day the city that has consistently been the most left-leaning region in the south-east might become a Tory stronghold.  However, it could equally be disastrous for them, as rising poverty leads to rising crime and other social problems and a disaffected population, increasingly priced out by the asset-rich, turns on its government.

However, an issue for any progressive government that wants to implement policies to address these issues will be that the longer these trends continue, the harder it will be to convince its beneficiaries to vote for schemes to mitigate them. Convincing people to care about those less fortunate than them is easier if they are located in close proximity - it's easier to persuade a rich man to care for his neighbour than for someone many miles away.

Sadly, as one commentator asked, the rich are increasingly living in a manner that means this may prove very difficult anyway:

"Do they ever look out of their limousine windows and step on to pavements? Do they experience what we experience? Do they share the same concerns about a divided society, rising unemployment and beleaguered public services? Or do they exist in a separate space, behind their gated drives, ring-fenced from the rest of us and convince themselves that everything is fine?"