Monday, 18 November 2013

To vote or not to vote

In the aftermath of Russell Brand’s appearance on Newsnight and many responses to it - some in the public eye and some just on twitter - I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of turning up to vote on polling day.

I’ve also been thinking about the pros and cons of people in the public eye having their say and as far as Russell Brand goes, I can see mostly positives. His popularity brings this sort of political discussion - and the idea that we don’t have to just put up and shut up - to people who might feel that they’re usually excluded. And the coverage his appearance on Newsnight (following his article in The New Statesman) received has opened up debate about our voting choices amongst some our most established political commentators.

Brand advised people not to vote, although he would expect individuals to be able to decide for themselves. And there’s a distinction to be made between ‘voting’ and ‘turning up’: it would be good to have a ‘none of the above’ option but whilst there isn’t one, many people might not know that they can spoil their ballot paper. 

Robert Webb, amongst others, hit back strongly suggesting that people fought for the vote and we shouldn’t waive our opportunity to have our say. But right now, many people feel that none of the main parties speak for them and what’s more, none of them can be trusted. A few people decide that they would like to vote for one of the smaller parties but many decide, understandably, that in order to keep the party they like least out, they must vote for the party that has the best chance of keeping them out.

I have always voted. But recently, I’ve struggled to decide who to vote for (although if we had a proportional representation system, or even AV, it would be much easier: with the current options it would be Greens followed by Labour followed by Lib Dems followed by anyone else standing against the right). In 2010, I was very seriously considering voting for the Liberal Democrats but a couple of their policies just didn’t seem convincing (for example taking the income tax threshold up to £10k p.a. - I think introducing a living wage is a better idea - seemed to have flawed Maths at the root of its supposed funding) and I eventually voted Labour. I wasn’t at all happy with Tony Blair’s time in power; it seemed that New Labour were far too much like the Tories. They took us to an illegal war in the middle east. They were keen on expanding on the flawed PFI projects started under John Major. They were clearly very comfortably in the pockets of the City and Gordon Brown made the Tories very happy when he removed yet more financial regulation; phase 2 of Thatcher’s Tories’ big bang plan if you like. Such were the meagre choices, they were the best hope I had. I now know more about Brown's time as chancellor and prime minister (selling off our gold reserves for example; intentionally causing market fluctuations which might have made the city happy but which ultimately left those of us propping up the economy even more burdened) which makes me even more disappointed. But I would still have voted for them because our first-past-the-post system almost forces you to vote for one of the main two parties. Of course, when Tory lies and the right wing media convinced the public that the recession was Labour's fault (which, despite Brown's actions, it wasn't), they lost.

The problem with not voting of course, is that it is assumed people can’t be bothered or don’t think it affects their lives. I suppose that sort of apathy might be indicative of people feeling that their lives are fairly ok. But it's probably more likely at the moment that people feel it doesn’t make any difference who they vote for because none of the main parties will actually run the country in the interests of the majority of the people they represent. And on recent evidence, they're right.

The Labour party shifted right in the 90s because keeping to the left - albeit not too far left - hadn’t worked for them. After losing the election, their rhetoric was that of a party accepting the idea that the recession was their fault and and trying to convince the public that they can be trusted. The result: slightly diluted Tory policies. Now they seem to be moving back to the left but if they don’t promise to reverse the cuts, the NHS reforms and changes to welfare, it’s hard to know for certain if they’re really beginning to return to their original, socialist ways. It’s understandable in a way because the dominant right-wing media’s Labour-bashing is deafening. 

The Liberal Democrats are likely to have now lost much of their support, having assisted the Tories with what seems to me like an even more right-wing government than Thatcher’s: her party didn’t try to sell off the NHS or the Royal Mail. Most of the prominent Lib Dems also repeat the party mantra in interviews and nod approvingly in parliament when they could say “I don’t agree with this decision personally but we are the minority party in this government and have pledged to support this particular policy.” If the Tories had been forced to form a minority government, they wouldn’t have had the parliamentary majority needed to carry out many of the cuts, sell-offs and reforms that have hit the public hard (although many have been snuck in through snide policy-writing under the noses of parliament or whilst other more pressing matters were at hand). So the Lib Dems are absolutely complicit. Nick Clegg’s repeated assertions that they had no choice but to form the coalition is just plain wrong and the Lib Dems might struggle to shake off this period "in power".

The soundbites all parties utter; the inability to answer straight questions and the lies just flow like Russell Brand’s flowery language. How on earth can we decide who we trust if we can't tell what politicians really think?

It’s interesting though, to go back over the argument many people have used about why we should vote: “because people fought for your right to have your say.” Is it not time, then, to fight again, this time to bring about a fundamental reform of our political system? 

The difficulty of course is that what we all want isn’t exactly the same. You can’t just want ‘change’; there has to be some sort of direction and I think there are lot of small groups offering their own brand (no pun intended) of new politics - although I’ve yet to see any projected visions. I think it’s likely though, that they will all share a few common beliefs:

1) The government should serve the people not private business interests.2) The environment can and should one of our top priorities.3) The NHS, rail and energy services should be nationalised. And possibly RBS too.4) Members of Parliament should not have second jobs or any other links with private companies.

Any such movement is going to very very tough, despite having public opinion mostly on side. The most conservative (those wanting to keep the status quo) are the wealthiest, most powerful and the best served by the media and their message will out. Perhaps we will see a collaboration of disparate groups before the next election, coming together to give people something else to vote for, even if that is simply advising anyone who feels disillusioned to add their own tick box to their ballot paper and vote for ‘none of the above’.

Vote-winning tactics: tell people what matters

Political parties should listen to the what the public wants and if appropriate/possible/viable, act accordingly. But they don't. They already have their agendas, and simply set their media minions out to feed the public with stories.

As I've discussed before, the right-wing is far better represented in the media than the left. The left have The Guardian/Observer, Channel 4 News and The Mirror. The right have The Sun, The Telegraph, The Times, The Mail, The Express and Sky News. This gives the right-wing parties a distinct advantage. In these austere and Tory-led times, tales of immigrants on welfare, healthcare tourism, benefits claimants in mansions and bloated, wasteful and even dangerous public sector organisations pad out the pages (often the front pages) of the right wing papers and the minutes on Sky news.

Before long, the public have soaked this up and get angry and feel ripped off. As interest in these matters grow, the themes seep into BBC radio and tv shows and the right-wing angle permeates as many of the other stories as possible. Meanwhile there's real corruption in the private sector, with big business lobbyists and donors paying the government millions and in return, getting billions of pounds of public money to provide services, or policies bent in their favour. And yet most people don't have a clue.

Job done. The Tories can now justify their nasty policies by arguing that this is what the public wants and hardly anyone is aware of the real scandals blossoming over expensive dinners and rounds of golf.

This is how politicians get things done: via close links and shared interests with the press. But let's not have press regulation because of course, that would lead to the press and politicians getting too close...


Watch or listen to any of the political programmes on the BBC (Today, Question Time, Sunday Politics, Andrew Marr etc - and no doubt on ITV and Sky too although I don't watch those channels) and you will hear a lot about Union bullies and corruption, all with Labour's handling of it as the main political issue at stake.

The Tories and the right-wing media are getting desperate. Labour are ahead in the polls - although the right-wing media's constant dirt-throwing continues to soil Ed Milliband's opinion poll ratings and inexplicably, Cameron seems to be more popular. The right haven't got much to bash Labour with any more now that the public seem to have grown tired of the 'it's all Labour's fault' rhetoric. After all, it's three and a half years now since they lost the election. So the right are returning to the old Tory favourite theme that served Thatcher so well and are bashing the Unions.

Large sections of the public seem more than happy to accept that all Unions do is bully employers and hold them to ransom with threats of strike action, causing problems for people requiring public services. Whilst what went on in Falkirk was a disgrace and shouldn't be allowed to happen, the idea that Union bosses are power-mad bullies is out of order. If it wasn't for the Unions, women and indeed all working class people wouldn't be allowed to vote. We'd all be working - children included - long hours in appalling conditions for very low pay. We live in a time when workers are under immense financial strain, meanwhile employers are finding new ways of controlling their workforces such as forcing them to become self-employed (which removes their obligations on paid leave, sickness leave, expenses etc) and using 0-hour contracts. Many employers are also using numerous part-time staff instead of fewer full-time staff to avoid having to pay employer's NI contributions. They simply do anything they can to increase the bottom line. With workers at the mercy of such penny-pinching and controlling employers, it's clear our Unions are still valid and are relied on by many hard-working people to try to reign in some of this behaviour.

Often companies, and even governments refuse to engage in talks with Unions, despite being obliged to do so. They make decisions that affect workers or the general public without consultation and often will hide away from attempts by Unions to negotiate. When a rich CEO or Director has made such a decision and then chooses to hide away at home so that he doesn't have to face the workers, is it so wrong of the workers to go to their house and confront them there? And is it such a huge crime to dress as a rat? It's not like they threw dead rats at their windows or shoved them through their letterbox. If they won't discuss matters with Union reps in a boardroom, what are workers expected to do? Just accept shoddy treatment and shut up? These bosses must be able to sleep comfortably despite treating their workers with contempt; I don't think memories of a man dressed as a rat outside their vast house will keep them awake at night.

Trotting out the old stories about Union bullies is a good way of deflecting attention from the corrupt lobbying and massive Tory donor windfalls that are happening all the time. These stories creep into our subconscious, introducing the idea that workers rights are not important and that powerful company bosses should not have to answer for their actions.

This is what this government wants: control the workers; show them their place.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Moveable workforces are a thing of the past.

In the now distant past, when employment in one area declined or ceased altogether, workers could often move to another area where opportunities were in the rise. I’m sure it was far from easy but it was possible. Housing demand back then would produce housing; sometimes this would be cheap, often inadequate - in line with the standard of workers’ housing at the time - but that doesn't happen anymore.

The idea, as vaguely suggested by Ed Davey (most things he says are vague) on Question Time, that up to 1,000 workers from Portsmouth’s ship yards could move to another area for work is ludicrous.

These days, housing demand is not being met. School places in many areas are limited. Selling your home in an area in decline will be difficult and buying or renting in an area with more work opportunities could be harder still when house and rent prices can vary massively. Most couples are both in work; would the moving workers’ partners be able to move to another job too?

It’s just not possible in the 21st century to have large numbers of workers relocating. And what happens to the area they leave? If there’s no other work taking the place of that which is lost, we see certain decline and once an area has lost its way, it can stay lost for a long time.

Yet again, the coalition's responses put all of the problems on the public rather than consider consequences and areas that require intervention and act. They do not consider the feasibility of their 'ideas'.

The UK has been losing industries to cheaper foreign alternatives for decades. But with a fraction of the sort of investment governments are willing to put into the financial sector or other large privately-dominated sectors (be it through bail-outs, tax breaks or subsidies), industries could be saved and even helped to grow.

It's easy to accept that labour is cheaper abroad but look at our wealthy European cometition: the car manufacturing industry in Germany, for example, continues to thrive. Why can't we do it here? The government could invest in our shipyards and help them to produce not just miltary vessels, but cruise liners, container vessels and all of the other smaller boats needed when using large ships. If German manufacturing can be competitive then so can ours.

But the government would rather see docklands turned into fancy flats for overseas investors to snap up and rent out. Although where they think the rent money will come from in these declining areas, I don't know.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Conservatives* who oppose small-scale wealth redistribution are wrong

*That's conservative in the true sense, although this does apply to the vast majority of Tories.

When the majority of the population find that inflation is pushing up the cost of everything while their pay remains much the same, their disposable income will be reduced. That means they'll have to reduce their spending on luxury items and even on the essentials - and that affects private profits. If, at the same time, more and more people are receiving in-work or out-of-work benefits (due to high unemployment, underemployment and low pay), not only does the country's welfare bill increase, tax income also falls - a double hit to government coffers. This has been the case in the UK for some time now and has been getting much worse since the recession began.

If companies weren't so focused on reducing their costs, they would see that the more disposable income people have, the more they will spend. And that will increase their profits. Plus, workers will be happier because they're earning more and that can only benefit them too. People are distracted at work when they're worried about paying their bills and they're more likely to be late if they're trying to get to work in a car that desperately needs replacing.

But try and tell any right-wing capitalist this and they'll either laugh at you or go berserk and tell you you're communist scum with a few other nasty expressions thrown in for good measure.

They're idiots.