Thursday, December 3, 2015

Greasy Pole: Liz and Her Life and Loves (2015)

The Greasy Pole Column from the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

What Is This Thing Called Love? was Cole Porter’s epic contribution to musical morale in the slump of the 1930s. A more recent example of the misuse of the word was when Prime Minister David Cameron assured us that ‘I love the NHS’, provoking a rage of response from the doctors, nurses, technicians, carers about how and why this thing Cameron calls ‘love’ could actually mean government policies so designedly restrictive and damaging to their work and to the patients who rely on their skills and application. And then, from the opposite Benches, there was another politician who, looking to impress us, declared that that ‘Labour is the party I love’. This was Liz Kendall, as she announced that she was a candidate in the Labour Party’s recent leadership election. Mysteriously, she was at first presented as the favourite until reality in the form of the membership vote put her at the bottom, in fourth place. Which was when it was revealed that her ‘love’ for Labour was not so strong as to persuade her to accept that result as the democratic will of the party and to support Jeremy Corbyn as the party leader.

Kendall came of a political family; her father was a Labour councillor before joining the Lib Dems and then re-joining Labour. As a child she enjoyed an outing with the two parents on their local canvassing so that, if the time ran out, she might throw a childish tantrum when there were no more doors for her to knock on. After grammar (non-selective) school she went to Cambridge and, in shock after the result of the 1992 general election under the calamitous leadership of Neil Kinnock she decided to ‘join the party and help fight to make sure it never happens again’. Whatever she meant by ‘it’ did eventually happen again, with Tony Blair and his government’s predictable failure to maintain their support in the miserable swamp of capitalism. After achieving a double first and being captain of the university women’s football team Kendall held a succession of spin-doctor jobs including a period as Special Adviser to Harriet Harman, who in the chaos of Labour in 1998 was sacked from the government. Kendall was rejected as the Labour candidate in Tony Benn’s old seat at Chesterfield and worked for Patricia Hewitt who judged her to have ‘a core of steel’ which was just as well as in 2010 Hewitt herself was suspended after allegations of corruption over political lobbying for cash, which did not prevent her subsequent appointment to such rewarding posts as Special Consultant to the massive pharmacological combine Alliance Boots and to a private equity company with links to BUPA hospitals. This was not, from Kendall’s point of view, all disaster because it led to her being chosen as Hewitt’s successor as the Labour candidate for the rock-solid seat of Leicester West, which she won in 2010 with a majority of 4017 despite a decline of 7.6 percent in the Labour vote.

In her maiden speech in the Commons Kendall made a point of the stark problems in Leicester West particularly of the children there; more than a third of them growing up in what she called workless families, with life prospects wrecked by their poverty. In some parts of the city they are more likely to die before they are five, to do badly at school and then struggle to survive on low paid employment. Perhaps there were some Members there that day who assumed that she would be among the more restless and challenging wing of her party. But it did not happen like that; her core of steel operated in support of the measures calculated to intensify the poverty in her constituency. She supported the £23.00 benefits cap and the proposals to enforce a contributory system of benefits on the grounds that the present one had allowed too many people to exist without any pressure, such as lack of food and housing, to get paid employment. For the NHS she is in favour of what she called ‘patient choice’ which is actually a proposal to encourage more private investment with its prospects of massive profits for some dominant companies -- such as Alliance Boots and BUPA -which have what she describes as ‘a role for the private and voluntary sectors where they can add extra capacity to the NHS or challenges to the system’. Pertinent comments on Kendall’s attitude on this were from the Health and Social Care Information Centre that the number of admissions to hospitals from malnutrition rose during the past year, from 5469 to 6520; and there was the estimate from the European Nutrition for Health Alliance, that as many as 40 percent of hospital patients in the UK are malnourished on admission, causing many to be undiagnosed through inadequate screening. In fact the Tameside hospital in Greater Manchester now encourage the staff of their A and E department discreetly to offer food boxes to any patients who on discharge are malnourished. There are similar arrangements at hospitals in Birmingham and Newcastle.

A continuing review of Kendall’s record finds that she supports limiting immigration through a points-based system, and the abolition of the right for immigrants to claim tax credits and benefits. She stands for the continuation of the universally destructive nuclear Trident submarine programme (which she obediently calls a ‘deterrent’) with expenditure on it exempt from cuts such as those imposed on essential services. Among her many fundamental euphemisms is one which applies to the entire system of class ownership and production for profit when she announces that she is ‘firmly on the side of wealth creation’, ignoring the harsh reality that it is that very system which all too often reduces wealth production when it is not profitable enough. Some time ago Kendall was angry when she found that another Member had stolen a tuna sandwich which she had left in a fridge at Portcullis House, used by the MPs as their offices. She attached an angry note to the fridge door: ‘I do not appreciate this and warn other people…’ to which the reply, in another note, was: ‘I took it… and I’d do it again’ . In spite of all she had been through, Kendall seems to be unaware that stealing will come most readily where many are occupied with managing the entire system of theft.

Obituary: Stan Law (1991)

Obituary from the April 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Somewhat belatedly we regret to report the death of our Comrade Stan Law after a long period of illness.

Whilst serving in the RAF during the Second World War, Stan heard of the Socialist idea. Such was the strength of his conviction that, still in uniform, he rang our then General Secretary to say he was deserting. He was talked out of this extreme step, and advised to work his ticket. This he successfully did, the authorities pleased to rid themselves of what they called 'a bloody nuisance'. He was the British counterpart of the good soldier Schweik.

Stan was a member of St Pancras Branch for many years before ending up in Central Branch. A quiet unassuming chap (one of a very close group of young members) all of whom could inject their Socialist propaganda with humour and enjoyment. In the latter years of his life, illness prevented him from taking an active role. Although he was always glad to attend meetings of transport could be arranged.

Breakdown At The Hague Part 3 of 3 (2001)

From the March 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

In two previous articles we stated the basic reasons why the International Conference on world pollution, held at The Hague last November, broke down in failure and recrimination. The delegations represented rival capitalist states, each driven by the pressures of profit-making and national interests into the continued use of production methods which are destructive of the environment. At present, on balance, the problems resulting from pollution are getting worse. What is required is co-operation between all people and the freedom to set up a safe world energy system.

We also cited the fact that the capitalist system creates vast amounts of energy waste in the military and its socially useless jobs such as marketing, finance and banking which are part of its profit making machine. This waste would not happen in socialism which would be solely concerned to provide for real needs. So, socialism would bring great savings of energy but also increased demand in the work required to raise the living conditions of people throughout the world. However, once this has been achieved it could then be possible for society to settle down to a stable and sustainable way of life working within the natural systems of the planet without being destructive.

The idea of a zero growth, sustainable society is not new and in recent years has been put forward by the Green Movement. But whilst many of the declared aims of the Green Movement appear to be desirable these are contradicted by a fatal flaw in all green policies. They stand for the continuation of the market system. Instead of a society based on voluntary co-operation where all goods and services are produced directly for needs with free access, the Green Movement aims to retain the market system in which goods are produced for sale at a profit. This must mean the continuation of the capitalist system which is the cause of the problems of pollution in the first place. The Green Movement has never been able to answer the question which is how it can achieve a zero growth, sustainable society whilst retaining a market system which includes an irresistible, built in pressure to increase sales for profit and where if sales collapse, society tends to break down in recession, unemployment and financial crisis. The only way in which the aims of the Green Movement could be achieved is through socialism.

When we speak of a stable, sustainable society we do not mean a static society in which there is no development. On the contrary, when liberated from the profit motive of corporate research and the military machines of capitalist states, science will flourish and will serve the interests of all people. Nor do we suggest that new science will not result in new technology. The urgent need for care of the environment will be just one field where research and new technology would be given priority. However, we should also recognise that the abolition of all the economic constraints imposed by the market system on the use of labour will bring enormously increased powers of production. In socialism it will be possible to produce vast amounts of goods. It is in the light of this fact that people in socialism would have to ask if it makes sense to go on and on producing whilst using up the planet's resources or whether there should be voluntary limits to consumption and an eventual scaling down of productive activity.

There is an assumption in our society that increased ownership and consumption of goods leads to increased happiness and should therefore be a central drive in our lives. But whilst we all need to live to a decent standard of comfort and enjoyment the values of our acquisitive society arise from insecurity and competition. We substitute personal ownership for the better human relationships which would express our real needs as social individuals. Our happiness, or otherwise, arises from how we relate to people not from how we relate to material objects as owners.

So whilst we do not presume to lay down in advance what decisions will be made in socialism we can set out a possible way of achieving an eventual zero growth society operating in a stable and ecologically benign way. This could be achieved in three main phases. First, there would have to be emergency action to relieve the worst problems of food shortages, health care and housing which affect billions of people throughout the world. Secondly, longer term action to construct means of production and infrastructures such as transport systems for the supply of permanent housing and durable consumption goods. These could be designed in line with conservation principles, which means they would be made to last for a long time, using materials that where possible could be re-cycled and would require minimum maintenance. Thirdly, with these objectives achieved there could be an eventual fall in production, and society could move into a stable mode. This would achieve a rhythm of daily production in line with daily needs with no significant growth. On this basis, the world community could reconcile two great needs, the need to live in material well being whilst looking after the planet which is our shared home in space.

Although capitalist society appears to place great importance on its material wealth, it sometimes has no hesitation in destroying it in vast quantities and in ways which have no thought for the loss of human life involved. For example, the 20th. Century was one such story of continuous destruction. We have already mentioned the misuse and waste of energy in armaments production, but more energy has then been used to fuel the war machines of the world. These have gone on to destroy vast amounts of means of production and useful structures such as factories with all their machinery, roads, bridges, railways, vehicles, aircraft, and millions of tonnes of shipping. In Vietnam the American Government poisoned entire areas of the country with deadly Agent Orange. The names of Hiroshima, Stalingrad, Berlin, Dresden and Caen are just five of the hundreds of towns and cities that have been reduced to rubble. In the Balkans, even as the century closed we saw installations in Serbia being bombed whilst in Kosovo the homes of people were being shelled and incinerated, together with their occupants. In a sane society, all these means of production and useful structures would be produced and would then serve out their useful lives, which in some cases like houses and bridges could be for hundreds of years.

Some applications of labour have to be constant as, for example, in food production. With food, production and consumption are more or less simultaneous. But with housing, infrastructures and durable means of production, the products of one generation, with subsequent maintenance, can be used by many succeeding generations. In socialism this could mean that the initial work required to solve the problems of capitalism would not have to go on and on. Given that the work was in accordance with conservation principles, that population levels become close to stable, and that communities were content to place voluntary limits to consumption, then there could be an eventual fall in production with all the benefits this would bring to care of the environment.

Seen solely from a technical point of view there are no doubt many ways in which the damage caused by pollution could be reduced with different uses of labour. But before any of these can become real options on which communities can freely make democratic decisions, labour itself must first be liberated. Labour must enjoy its own freedom outside the present enclosed system of commodity exchange in which it is confined to its function of profit making and the accumulation of capital. Not even in the most optimistic dreams of defenders of the free market will the “accumulation of capital” ever be made to equal “care of the environment”.

In the meantime, the play-acting that passed for an International Conference on pollution at The Hague last November, is booked to continue at Bonn in May. But what presents itself as farce is really a tragedy in which we must cease to be a mere audience. How much more time wasting and failure must we see before it is accepted that capitalist politicians are incompetent to deal with the problem. The real powers of action are with the great majority of people. This will be when we decide to create a society in which we will be free to co-operate and to use all our great reserves of energy and ingenuity for our needs. Without doubt, this includes the urgent need to stop the despoliation of our planet.
Pieter Lawrence

The False Promise That is Jeremy Corbyn (2015)

From the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whilst John McDonnell might put 'generally fermenting the overthrow of capitalism' as his interest in his Who’s Who entry, sadly that isn’t enough to make a socialist of the man. It takes more than verbal flourishes to emancipate the working class. Rather than socialism, his talk is of working in partnership with enterprise and business to ensure economic growth, as in his Labour conference speech. Whilst we hear promises of nationalisation of the railways and possibly even some utilities, it seems this state ownership stops short of the real productive capacity of the country. But what is this state ownership anyway? Will rail travel be free once the crony capitalists are ousted and denied their bonuses? Hardly. The likelihood is that the railways will simply be a business run by agents of the government and probably on some form of commercial basis.

But what has Corbyn, the great herald of the new New (or Old?) Labour himself said? Well, at the conference he said he’d be the champion of the self-employed. But in fact he didn’t say much about the economy, rather gave a kind of framing speech to provide an overall sense of his position and counter some of the accusations in the media: he loved his country; believed in open discussion; wanted more for the many not the few, etc. Not much actual flesh on the bones of this advert. The idea was that John McDonnell would open that black box, as above.

What can we charitably infer? He’ll try to tax the rich a bit more, try to make corporations pay some more tax, build some more houses and control business (certainly the utilities) a bit more. Oh, and maybe reduce tuition fees. And, oh yes, there might be some quantitative easing – printing money, to you and me – to give the economy a bit of a push, as he thinks growth is a good thing.

Does any of this ring any bells with anyone? Haven’t we been here before? Or, is this the time when they really mean it: when they will really make a difference? This brings up two questions: what makes this brand of Labour significantly different to any of the others? And, will what is on offer have any chance of really making a lasting difference?

Previous Labour governments
There have been eleven previous Labour governments. We can choose from those led by Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair.

The first period, before World War Two, can be called cohabitation. The first Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald was a minority administration propped up by the Liberal Party lasting 11 months and so it's not really surprising they didn't achieve very much. In fact it was little more than what were called the Wheatley houses, which was a programme of cheap council housing. Nice but not exactly earth-shattering.

Ramsay McDonald was back in office in 1929 and this administration lasted until 1931 but again another minority government. This one vacillated about Keynesian-style measures of public works to address large-scale unemployment. However it fell apart and led to the National government which addressed the recession by means of the type of austerity that we currently see: cutting benefits and government spending to get out of recession. This man of promise called himself socialist and he ended up implementing these kinds of measures as part of that government, and was actually expelled from the Labour Party.

The Attlee period might be called 'the land fit for heroes'. This is probably regarded as the most radical and successful Labour government that was elected after World War Two. Their offer to the voters was to destroy the five ‘Giants’ of Want, Squalor, Disease, Ignorance, and Unemployment. This government was certainly committed to improving the lot of the working class. The creation of the welfare state, and rebalancing the economy to address poverty were priorities. They nationalised about 20 percent of the economy but abandoned plans to nationalise farming. However the senior staff in the nationalised industries remained in place. It was simply a case of new owners, or perhaps old wine in new bottles. There was no worker control on offer. Additionally industries nationalised were mostly those that were completely run into the ground from lack of investment and the War effort.

Trying to square the circle for this bankrupt economy with social aspirations was never going to work. Joining the Korean War did not help, and by 1950 health prescription charges appeared; so much for free cradle to grave healthcare. Then there was the formation of NATO and the nuclear weapons programme. It is worth noting that Attlee signed up to the terms of the Marshall Plan which required a large measure of the regulation for business to be removed, which is quite similar to the way in which the IMF operates today. American capitalism seldom comes without large strings attached. But give them their due, the Attlee government set up a variety of welfare structures that many of the baby boomers benefited from, and endured mostly intact until the so-called 'sweeping away of socialism' under Thatcher.

Harold Wilson's first administration was 'the acceptable face of capitalism'. Wilson was elected in 1964 with a minority government and a platform called New Britain. A second election in 1966 brought a majority administration which lasted through to 1970. Nobody really claims this regime was socialism although it did do major work on social reform: education, housing, social security and workers’ rights. But ultimately the economy faltered; which led to cuts including school milk in secondary schools (that wasn’t Thatcher), dental charges, increased National Insurance deductions, benefits not linked to average wages, prescription charges being scrapped but then reintroduced, tax allowances being cut, and a doomed programme of building cheap high-rise flats. Their attempt at playing the money markets went wrong with the devaluation crises from which the government never really recovered.

The first Wilson administration can certainly lay claim to a number of major pieces of social reform, for instance the repeal of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, changes in the law regarding divorce, abortion and race. However this is social tinkering. It is not changing the relationship of power in any meaningful way.

Harold Wilson's next regime, which led into James Callaghan's, can be termed 'the period of walking a tight rope'. The first was in a minority administration and re-election in 1974 saw a wafer thin majority of four. This meant the government was never in a particularly powerful position and effectively its five years in office were spent riding the storm of an economic recession brought about largely by the oil price hike and the bursting of the Barber boom. Again, the major impact was a series of social tinkerings: tenancy rights, improved benefits, Sex Discrimination Act, prices commission, and workers’ rights. However the government finally ground itself out in the so-called Winter of Discontent, after borrowing from the IMF (again) led to large cuts in government expenditure.

Which brings us to Tony Blair. New Labour had set out its stall as the party of capitalism when at conference Tony Blair called for the abolition of Clause Four, probably the last vestige of anything resembling socialist intent within the Labour Party structure. In 1997 there was a pledge card provided to voters which didn't offer much in terms of radical social change – which was pretty much the overall picture of the Blair administration. They promised to cut class sizes, fast track offenders, cut NHS waiting times, reduce under 25s unemployment and have tough rules for Government spending. What was on offer was a managerial approach to capitalism: we can run it better than the Tories.

So we got the minimum wage (at a very low level) and Sure Start but we also got PFIs, Iraq, the rich got richer, and corporations got much more powerful and they also paid less tax. We were told this was a new kind of economy where boom and bust was beaten for good – but this hubris crashed in the banking crisis of 2008.

Could Corbyn be any different?
Not much of a record for eleven election victories: not much socialism anywhere in the picture. Not much of a basis to think Corbyn will make a massive impact. Has he distanced himself from all that? Apart from apologies promised for Iraq (even Blair is working on that now), it sounds very much like he’s offering a Wilson Mark 2: bits of nationalisation, taxing the rich, government spending and more welfare. Even Denis Healy, a right winger, as Chancellor offered to tax the rich until their pips squeaked. Not much of that kind of talk here.

So, will it work anyway? What Labour is trying to effect is a benign and responsible capitalism: a system where they accept there is an unequal distribution of wealth and power but where the state is enabled to act as an arbitrator and redistributor thereby minimising the impact of this inequality within certain limits. This is all the while still remaining a member of all sorts of capitalist power blocks (e.g. WTO, EU) because they want to maintain global trade. So the theory must be that while the rest of the world carries on trying to lower costs and hence wages, Britain will manage to continue trading with them and somehow maintain decent wages and conditions. Presumably, this is predicated on the notion that they will somehow be able to redistribute the excessive profits of business and have lots of internationally desirable commodities and services for sale, cheaply enough to maintain Britain's position as the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world. One wonders at what point does this wonderful government start to dismantle the financial services industry which makes a huge contribution to the economy but contributes not one iota to production?

The point is if you want a bigger economy, the last thing you are going to do is start making life too difficult for big players. You have to find some way to coexist with these capitalist enterprises, which means you have to recognise their interests in one way or another. Sure, you’ll try to curtail the egregious excesses but in reality you’ll let them get on with it in some regulatory framework or another.

We have regulatory frameworks at the moment for all sorts of things: Ofwat, Ofgen, Ofcom, Ofsted, Ofrail. Accepting that these ones are charades and that Corbyn will introduce big tough ones, the problem is that governments only last five years at most. Someone else can come in later and water them down. What has been the trajectory of the NHS since inception? What was the trajectory of the nationalised industries? All have started with great aspirations and fallen under the millstone of government funding decisions. Just a little bit of prescription charging to start with and then where do we go?

Here’s the rub, then. Even if Corbyn did manage to tame the forces of capital enough to raise the economic condition of the bottom 50 percent and similarly reduce differentials in Britain, he would not really be addressing the distribution of power. Sooner or later that power would reassert itself, particularly if there was an economic downturn. What would stop the rich choosing to take their money elsewhere or to simply sit on it? To stop the investment and the trickle down supply and whatever else? Desperate not to have them do that, there would be all sorts of concessions. What would stop the large corporations, foreign and UK, simply moving their activity overseas? Unless this remains a country friendly enough to business, business will prefer to be somewhere else.

Remember the event during the Major government called Black Friday? International currency speculators bet against the pound staying in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (a precursor of the euro) and forced Britain out. Having a financial system which runs on credit and borrowing as Britain does, the government has to borrow money to make ends meet. We have seen the effects this circus can have on countries’ abilities to run themselves – Greece is a recent example. Unless your government is self-sufficient (as none is), sooner or later you’ll need to go to the money men and offer them a proposition that they like. Otherwise you will go without and their money will go to someone else.

Sad but true. The truth is that unless this whole approach is entirely rethought and scrapped for a better system, we’re onto a loser. How fortunate then that help is at hand: socialism. Abolishing money and the whole financial exchange mechanism means those who have large amounts of wealth and influence are suddenly deprived of all that power: they could make hats out of their bank notes for all the difference it would make. A system of production for use as determined democratically is the only way by which the working class can achieve emancipation. Jeremy Corbyn may look like a breath of fresh air but he’s as stale as the party he now leads.
Howard Pilott