Sunday, 13 January 2013

Convinced it will lose the election, the Government is privatising as much as it can before 2015

The three most popular posts on this blog have concerned the NHS.

The first collated some of the advice that lifestyle magazines in the US provide to patients on how to haggle with doctors when navigating their fragmented, grossly unfair health system.

The second summarised the range of reports and reviews that have demonstrated that the NHS - at least the NHS as it was in 2011 - is fairer and, crucially, more efficient than many other health systems in the developed world, as well as seeing record levels of public satisfaction.

The third post highlighted the huge body of opposition from experts and professionals in the British health system against the Government's NHS & Social Care Bill.

Despite this evidence that the NHS was doing broadly well, despite the weight of opposition from the UK's leading experts, despite the countless examples of where the fragmented US system fails its people and despite the continuing public support for the service, the Government, aided shamefully by the Liberal Democrats, passed the reform bill which effectively started the wholesale privatisation of the institution. In time, it is likely that people will acknowledge this was the bill that ended the National Health Service as most of us know it.

The NHS, however, is just one area in which the government is rolling back the state. In the education sector, the Government has introduced Free Schools and weakened the role of Local Authorities, without pausing to see if evidence supports their lavish costs. It has slashed state funding for universities and indicated it is ready to go further an accept for-profit providers to take over schools

In criminal justice, the Government is privatising swathes of the police service, to add to extended privatisations of prisons and, most recently, has announced it is to outsource the bulk of the probation service - without a pilot. Companies such as G4S, which performed so abysmally during the Olympics, stand to gain handsomely.

In welfare, as well as slashing benefits to the poorest, it is ensuring that what payments remain are controlled and distributed by private companies - even those like A4E that make large profits while bending the rules in their favour. All the time these corporations are protected from the public scrutiny by exemptions from Freedom of Information requests, so the public has little idea of their costs or profit margins.

If the Government were being genuinely pragmatic - echoing Blair's mantra of "what matters is what works" - then where the private sector and privatisation fails it would seek alternatives, rather than pursuing a one-way street that identifies 'failures' in the state sector but ignores those made by profit-making companies. It would, for example, recognise the scandalous state of our railway system, with its rocketing fares, rather than nodding through whitewash reports

If the Coalition were interested in evidence-based policy, in welfare or criminal justice it would at least pause to consider whether companies like A4E or G4S are capable of running key public services effectively. After all, these aren't the kind of service people can opt out of - they are crucial to society. 

Instead, the only conclusion people can draw is that major companies can screw up completely and still get to gain from further outsourced contracts. Meanwhile, the government will shout loudly about scandal in the state sector, even where botched part-privatisations are arguably responsible, but refuse (as is the case with the probation service) to even pilot these further privatisations to assess their effectiveness.

The modern Tory Party, like their cousins across the Atlantic, increasingly tread a deeply ideological path: the state should be shrunk at all costs and the profit-motive is king. Everything else is secondary. In this version of reality, the financial crisis of 2008 wasn't caused by deregulated free market capitalism but by too many nurses, police officers and probation staff working in a 'bloated' state sector.

The truth is that this current Government has little interest in 'what works', in evidence-based analysis, in independent experts or professional views. What matters to this Government is that it knows that it is likely to lose the 2015 General Election, and that between now and then it will seek to privatise as many of the public services as possible. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Homes for London campaign

Further to the last post on the disgraceful costs of renting or buying a home in London, Shelter's campaign  - Homes for London - is worth highlighting.

Aside from their valuable research into the astronomical costs of living in the capital, they are doing an excellent job at lobbying the Mayor and the Government.

Although it is unlikely that a Tory-dominated parliament or a Conservative Mayor would have much incentive to remedy a situation that is likely to make London are more Tory-dominated city, it is the work of charities like Shelter that keeps the issue in the media and on peoples' mind.

An earlier post on this blog collated some other shocking statistics about the woeful state London now finds itself in on this issue.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Rent and property prices in the capital are obscene - and its turning London into a city for the rich

Some statistics are so unbelievable that you have to read them again to check you've not misunderstood.

Take this one on private rent in London: The charity Shelter has 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 and in the majority of London boroughs median rents cost more than 50% of median local full-time earnings.

Meanwhile, in August 2012, the average price of privately renting a home reached its highest ever level, jumping 4.8% in a single year to hit £1,272 a month. In central boroughs the cost is even higher. And rents keep rising, driven by the equally unbelievable prices for London property. The average home in the capital now costs £397,000 – 70 per cent more than the UK average –  with the average price of a two-bedroom property at £483,000.

And yet this doesn't need to be the case. There are a number of factors that drive these costs that can, with political bravery, be tackled. Take two of the most toxic causes of property and rental price increases, the number of second - or third - homes in the capital and the influence of buy-to let landlords.

Second homes

Walk around a high-end part of a central London borough - near the King's Road in Chelsea for example, or Belgravia - on a weekend and you'll never cease to be surprised at how empty it can seem. This isn't necessarily your imagination. Camden Council found that 1 in 16 homes are left empty by their owners in their borough, as these aren't a 'home', but rather part of a larger property portfolio.

According to estate agent Savills, almost 60% of buyers in central London areas such as Kensington, Chelsea and Marylebone were from overseas and for 37% of these their London property is not their primary residence.

That the Government and the Mayor have nothing to say on this, other than commending multiple home owners for 'investing' in the capital isn't surprising: Conservatives have never, and will never, find much wrong with protecting the interests of the very wealthy. That it was a Labour government that allowed second home owners to have a tax break should be a source of shame for those in the Blair and Brown administrations.

A government could help make owning a second home in the capital less attractive and thus free up vital homes for those that need it. Denmark, like other continental European countries, has for many years taken the impact of multiple home owners on communities and the countryside very seriously indeed.

Buy-to-let landlords 

The effect of buy-to-let landlords is even more pernicious. The idea, supposedly, is that buy-to-let landlords lubricate the market, driving house building. And yet, despite last year seeing a staggering 15% rise in buy-to-let mortgage approvals, house building growth is moribund.

In other words, buy-to-let landlords are swallowing up vital housing stock that would otherwise be available for those looking to buy a home. And while first-time-buyers are saving for an average of eight years for their first home, not least to pay the huge deposits now required by mortgage lenders, those with large property portfolios can trade on record rental incomes to access these properties far faster.

A do-nothing Mayor

Despite a crisis of affordability, 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. His only contribution to the situation is to push up the costs of public transport in London.

Where new properties are being built, they are frequently "prime residential" schemes aimed at the super-rich. These numbers of these kinds of property at planning or build stage rose 70% between 2011 and 2012.

As this blog has pointed out before, whereas his defeated opponent proposed 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

The situation is a disgrace. Whereas ordinary people who seek merely a home of their own to live in have to suffer seemingly ever-rising energy and transport costs while they save for a house, those with wealth and power can use the situation to enrich themselves, at the direct cost of everyone else.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Leaving the EU isn't about standing up for Britain. It is about pushing Britain to the right

Here's a thought experiment:

Imagine if the centre of gravity of continental European politics wasn't situated to the left of ours? Instead of moderate centre-right parties (such as the Christian Democratic Union in Germany) competing with social democratic parties on the left for power, there would be right-wing free-market parties like the UK Tory Party dominating the landscape.

In this situation there would be fundamental difference with the policies of the European Union. Instead of a body producing a range of centrist and in some cases centre-left regulations - particularly around the environment  worker's rights and social protections - mixed with some centre-right policies, the EU would instead be a relentless deregulator and privatiser. It would seek to slash taxes, to remove social and environmental protections and thus remove the 'barries to wealth' that the right so often characterises these vital features of a civilised society.

In that situation, would Tory backbenchers and wealthy newspaper owners complain so bitterly about the EU? Would they campaign ad nauseum on the matter, even when every opinion poll says that the EU isn't anywhere near at the top of ordinary people's lists of concerns - not even for UKIP voters?

Of course not.


The problem those on the left have - and not just pro-Europeans - is that the right have been so successful at framing their arguments as being patriotic, particularly when it comes to Europe.

The has two profound benefits for the Conservatives. First, it allows them to harness at least some of the power of those voters that will mark a ballot for the party that they see as patriotic - in some cases voters that may be tempted to vote for more radical nationalist parties. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows right-wing parties to frame their opposition to policies created by the EU that they oppose on ideological grounds (improving parental leave rights, regulating food or medicine manufacturers, protecting natural habitats) as 'standing up for Britain'. They therefore manage to frame attacks on workers protections or social protections as being in the interests of the nation.

And it's a successful strategy, in part because polls have demonstrated that although the EU isn't an important issue to most British people, a policy that may be popular when named in isolation is seen in less favourable terms when associated with the EU. By framing opposition to these matters in patriotic terms allows the Tories to avoid admitting that their opposition is to the policies themselves.

There is a linguistic element here - that could be addressed in a completely different post- that demonstrates further the success of the right in framing their arguments. Ask someone, for example, if they think that 'red tape' is a good thing, and they'll invariably say no. However, explain that 'red tape' could be the law that stops their local factory pouring toxic chemicals into their drinking water, or the rules that prevent other people parking their cars right in front of their driveway, and they'll most likely express a different opinion.


The most depressing aspect of the success the Tories and their allies in the media have had in taking this line is that, on the whole, the modern neo-liberal right actually care little for British sovereignty, or British traditions. Witness their silence as iconic UK companies are taken over by foreign corporations. The Conservative Party of the mid-twentieth century arguably had an ideological tendency to preserve and protect, however misguidedly, their traditional view of Britain. However the takeover of the right from the 1980s onwards by the neo-liberals has created a different kind of Tory politics: one, like its more radical cousin in America, that seeks to gut the state at all costs and regardless of consequences for those that suffer as a result.

On both sides of the Atlantic, this ideology is increasingly quasi-religious in its ruthless opposition to anything that is seen as standing in opposition to an unfettered free market. Nothing, not universally accessible healthcare or national culture - takes precedence over the aim to deregulate.

Take the BBC. It is loathed by many on the right with an antipathy that is baffling to many. Not least the British public, which, despite recent troubles for the organisation, still sees it as by far the most trusted source of news. This is reflected in market research showing it is the most used news source on the internet by UK users. In terms of its cultural impact, it is huge, spending by far the highest proportion of money on original British content than any other broadcaster, whether on radio or TV.

Globally its importance to the UK is equally significant. It is the world's largest international broadcaster, with 44 foreign news bureaux. Its Global News division, including the World Service and BBC News, has a regular audience of over 230 million, making waves in even the smallest US towns. Services such BBC Monitoring are used by foreign news broadcasters across the world to support their output. Global polls show it is seen as the most trusted and objective news source.

Beyond news, its cultural impact is significant, with BBC comedies and dramas exported across Europe;  its documentaries, not least its world-renowned natural history unit, are known the world over. Its reach is extended through both BBC channels overseas and export deals to foreign broadcasters. From David Brent and Alan Partridge to David Attenborough and Brian Cox, its characters and presenters are recognised across the world.

In other words, the British Broadcasting Corporation does a huge job in increasing the soft power of the UK. It is popular and trusted across the globe. It does a better job at projecting British culture overseas than the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Any political movement concerned with British sovereignty or culture would therefore seek to promote and protect such a unique organisation. But as the BBC commits the sin of being publicly-funded, the modern 'patriotic' right seeks to do the opposite - to destroy it. Better for them a US-dominated global news landscape and a dearth of UK-made programmes at home than the continued existence of an organisation that challenges their fundamentalist free-market worldview.

The simple fact is that when it comes down to a choice between protecting British culture and promoting the image of Britain overseas, or adhering to their economic ideology, the latter will always come out on top in today's Conservative Party.

Leaving the EU, then, isn't about standing up for Britain. It is about pushing Britain to the right. It is about removing the protections and regulations that, for millions, make their lives better, but for a minority at the very top, are seen as an inconvenience - a barrier to increasing their wealth yet further. To allow the Tory Party - and UKIP - to frame this debate in any other terms lets them pull of one of the greatest con tricks in modern politics.