Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A message for Cathy (1990)

From the September 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Somewhere in the middle of the Byline broadcast 'Cathy Where Are You Now?' (BBC1, 9 July), which was promoted as a sequel to the twenty-year-old documentary drama 'Cathy Come Home', viewers may have heard a familiar lament to the effect that we all "have a right" to a roof over our heads. Let us state at the outset that if there is one essential need among many others that under the capitalist system we have absolutely no right to it is a home. Were it otherwise none of us would be without one. Cardboard City could exist only as a sick joke in a tuppenny historical satire. That exploiter of human need, the landlord, would have gone the way of the slave-trader and the witch-burner.

What failed to emerge from the broadcast in any other than an incidental sense is that housing, far from constituting an inalienable right, carries no higher status than that of an entitlement conditional upon the would-be purchaser's having enough money to pay for it. Since most of us are dependent on a wage or salary, what we finally own is not a home, which is the property of the money-lender, but a mortgage. Moreover, as with any other commercially-negotiated loan, it has to be paid for—"serviced", as the euphemism has it—and expensively at that. Mrs Thatcher's "property-owning democracy" is, for most of us, a shadow of a thing, productive of nothing more substantial than nagging worry if not illness and, for a desperate minority, even suicide. That this judgement applies as absolutely to those of us who are buying "our" council houses as to any other house-buyers is axiomatic (Mrs Thatcher’s "gift" of a qualified ownership has already been paid for in rent over the years). Erstwhile council tenants can be—and indeed are being—evicted where they default on their new mortgages.

And what, exactly, have these council tenants been offered? A quick trip round the average council estate should disabuse even the most hostile among the self-styled "middle classes" that its occupants, where they are able or willing to buy, are "getting something for nothing". Built on the cheap, many of these mean ghettos have degenerated into underserviced and infested slums, veritable universities of disaffection and crime, where the policeman enjoys a higher profile than the social worker or the health visitor. The sorry truth is that thousands of council tenants, far from being able to buy their all too basic accommodation, stand in arrears of rent and are in no position to clear their debt.

For many—nowadays a majority—who are obliged to resort to the private market, theirs is in many respects an equally depressing plight. While government ministers juggle cynically with their recurrent financial crises (an endemic feature of the capitalist system they so enthusiastically espouse) house-buyers are finding their mortgage repayments increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet. Let borrowers introduce the term “rights" when they next meet their building society manager in yet another effort to renegotiate their loans. Their reward must be, if not the uncomprehending stare, then the patronising smile of the worldly-wise money merchant whose primary purpose is to safeguard the building society's assets, not to provide shelter for the "impecunious".

Skid Row and Cardboard City
In the case of that increasingly large number of erstwhile "proud home-owners" who are forced onto the street, there remain the hotel room and the shared kitchen and lavatory already discovered by so many single parents—usually abandoned young mothers—and their children. A few statistics provided by the Byline programme help to illustrate this growing scandal. In 1966, homeless families in emergency accommodation numbered 4.400; in 1989, that figure had risen to 38,000. In what was described as an average hotel of thirty-six rooms the occupants shared one kitchen bookable in advance, forcing many to resort to the junk food market or to shift for themselves late at night— too late for the children, who had to make do with a stop-gap meal earlier in the evening.

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that so many homeless people are prepared to risk police and local authority harassment by taking to the road in converted vehicles, or living in tented dwellings. Squatting continues to provide some homeless with a roof but relentless official pressure backed by changes in the law have made this option much more difficult. Such makeshift arrangements as vehicle conversion, fixed of mobile, do at least afford a measure of independence, tenuous though that may prove to be. The long-tolerated experiences of traditional travelling people such as the gypsies, for whom harassment of one kind or another has always been a hazard, are visited upon these more recent and, in many cases, involuntary nomads. Authority in its various manifestations has always and everywhere found it difficult, both socially and politically, to come to terms with those who demonstrate a readiness to break free from its magisterial control. Police harassment. often prejudiced in itself, is in reality a response to any uninformed public resentment which may contain more than a hint of jealousy.

The final depth for all too many, however, has to be the cardboard boxes of Skid Row. During a recent Nick Ross phone-in the Housing Minister, Michael Spicer, was heard earnestly reminding us that Cardboard City is populated by the single homeless male—as if, even were it entirely accurate, this dismal fact constituted an extenuating circumstance for government to cling to as it peddles its miserable excuses. We are now informed that the government will commit fifteen million pounds to the task of clearing city pavements of their down-and-outs. That this is cosmetic—mere political opportunism—is searingly obvious. What an advertisement for "popular capitalism" in Britain, one of the world's richest countries (but rich for whom, one wonders?) that visitors to London should have to run the gauntlet of the cardboard squats of the moneyless and jobless as they negotiate the precincts of the concert halls, bridges and underpasses of the capital city. Why. even poor old Mother Theresa confessed to shock. So they'll find a barracks for them and then amend the law to prevent them from returning to be stumbled over. Out of sight, out of mind. Charles Dickens would have relished such material: Spicer's ugly cant would have made his mouth water. So what is to be done?

Providing homes no problem
At this point the 'Cathy' follow-up collapsed into bathetic nonsense of the “nobody should have more than one home” variety. "People who are prepared to work hard should be allowed a loan. Security? Why, the house they promise to build, of course”. ‘‘Bricks and mortar should be released for all who want them". ("Released"? There's a euphemism for "sold", if you please!). Nowhere in the broadcast was it even hinted that, were we all to enjoy, as of right, adequate housing the capitalists, who control the building industry would be bankrupted. Abundance in any commodity spells ruin for the profiteers. Prices would plummet and production cease.

Paradoxically, the planet itself is made of building materials. And in this country alone the necessary skills abound. Thousands of building workers are unemployed. The accumulated experience of centuries could be brought to bear on matters—heating and ventilation, for example—that even the Romans could approach with confidence. It could all happen but for one baleful impediment: under capitalism capitalists must capitalise—or perish. This inescapable requirement applies as surely to state capitalist Russia and China as to the mixed economies of Japan and the USA. The money system serves to facilitate what amounts to a form of rationing in the means of life itself. And the misery this entails is allowed to continue in order that a small minority class of parasitical manipulators should be maintained in the life-style to which it is accustomed.

So the only answer to housing deprivation, as to all other such “problems” under the capitalist system, remains unfettered production to meet need (as opposed to profit). Which means the end of capitalism. All of which leads to one unavoidable conclusion: whereas the world's capitalists understand this perfectly clearly, which is why they make—and have always made— such monstrous and unprincipled efforts to conceal the truth from the rest of us, we, the working class, who produce everything, have hardly begun to. Until we do, the Cathys of this world must remain homeless.
Richard Cooper

Caught in the act: Who's afraid of Labour? (1990)

The Caught In The Act Column from the June 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are few more repulsive sights than local Tory activists exulting in an election victory, especially when this happens in the small hours of the morning when everyone else wants to go home to bed. Thus it was in Ealing, a local election result which the Labour Party could not explain in any way other than their own unpopularity. It seems that, in spite of everything that has happened since to give the Labour council confidence that they would be re-elected, the voters in Ealing had not forgotten the steep increases in rates which Labour imposed. Their misguided outrage at this was titillated by bloodcurdling stories about lavish council expenditure on bizarre lame-duck minorities and the creation of a lot of lucrative non-jobs for the boys and girls in the party. Nevertheless the Labour Party did not expect to lose Ealing; as Bryan Gould said in the stunned aftermath of the Tory victory, they thought they did not deserve to lose there.

If that means anything it is that in Ealing the Labour council had industriously applied itself to shedding the loony-left tag which it acquired in 1986 and had become a model of Kinnockist moderation—appropriately enough since it is the borough where the Labour leader lives in surprisingly modest style for someone who sees himself as a future prime minister. Labour's transformation did not please everyone and there were some well-publicised rows over the economies which the council imposed just before the election, involving councillors who were under the delusion that Labour administrations should act differently from those run by Tories. If the Labour Party did not "deserve" to lose Ealing it could only have been because they had done such a good job of disguising themselves as Tories. After all that effort to obliterate the differences between the two parties how could the voters be so ungrateful as to choose between them?

Lunching in the City
The Ealing result was ominous for the Labour Party because the council there had done what the party nationally is doing. Ever since their defeat in 1987 Labour has been trying to make itself as similar to the Tories as it reasonably can. At its conferences Kinnock still addresses the delegates as "comrades" but his preoccupation is to persuade the voters that Labour is a party whose claim to their support is based on their promise to run capitalism more efficiently than the Tories have managed to.

In the forefront of this tendency is the man who hopes to be Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer and who, to prepare himself for this, has been industriously lunching his way around the City of London. John Smith is a very caricature of sober restraint; even his voice, with its austere Scottish rasp, promises a hard-headed prudence. He gives no hope to the most naive of Labour supporters that his visits to the City are to give notice, over the claret, to the bankers and stockbrokers that with a Labour government and its policies of common ownership their days are numbered. What he is actually doing is reassuring them that when he is installed at the Treasury their interests will be his first concern; “The first and overriding priority of a Labour government will be to put the economy right, so we may have to ask for patience from people" was how he put it on TV recently.

The "people" he had in mind were not the investors who infest the City but those on a rather lower income, who misguidedly think that a Labour government's priority will be to spend money on their welfare. They have no excuse for this, for Smith has held consistently to his line. Last October he warned that as Chancellor he may need . . . to postpone some of our social ambitions ." In April in New York he was soothing Wall Street with the assurance that “. . .  there will be no dash for growth under the next Labour government" and last month he was repeating the same doleful message given out by every Labour Chancellor, that if the unions press for "excessive" wage rises they will be causing unemployment.

And how does the City react to the presence in their midst of this dangerous radical from across the border, eating their food, drinking their wine and talking their language that profits come first? Well, they are by no means alarmed or even uncomfortable. The Economist reported that City analysts are widely reassured that a Labour government would be no worse (for them, that is) than the Tories. The Investors Chronicle, which does not exist to promote the cause of social revolution, concluded that Labour's economic policy ". . . contains nothing to which the City objects violently on principle .

Undeserved reputation
In fact it is difficult to understand the belief that a Labour government will always include a reckless and incompetent Chancellor, especially when we remember that recent Conservative holders of that office have included Anthony Barber. Derek Heathcoat Amory, Selwyn Lloyd, Reginald Maudling and Nigel Lawson. When we compare these with Labour Chancellors like Stafford Cripps, Hugh Gaitskell, James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey and consider how their anti-working class policies protected the interests of the capitalists we can only wonder why the City does not immediately and unreservedly welcome a Labour government. Can it be that the Square Mile is populated by people so exceedingly ungrateful that they would not recognise a profit-protective Chancellor if one was served up on—well, on their lunch plates?

Consider too what has happened in the past—the efforts of Labour ministers to convince the British capitalist class that they had nothing to fear from a Labour government and how this message was received. In 1965 George Brown said in the Director, the magazine of the Institute of Directors, that "businessmen have more hope of making progress and money under a Labour government than they had before” In 1969 Frank Kearton. who was then chairman of Courtaulds. told the Institute of Public Relations that "some of the (Labour] government s measures will stand industry in good stead in the seventies'. More recently, in 1987 Lord Donaghue. head of research at stockbrokers Kleinwort Benson, had this to say about the result of the general election which was expected that year: " . . . the
reality is that all parties in this country support a mixed economy and none has policies so radical as to be damaging to long-term investment prospects". The noble lord's research had obviously not unearthed the presence of the Socialist Party and its policies, but let that pass.

New faces
So there is nothing new in Labour s present reshaping of its policies and its image, trying to smooth out those inconvenient doctrinaire lumps of nationalisation and "soak the rich" hysteria which were meaningless but which upset the City when all the Labour leaders wanted was to have friendly lunches with them while they got down to the serious business of organising the maximum exploitation of the working class. What is new is the faces; a new generation of Labour leaders has risen since Thatcher first marched triumphantly into Number Ten and they are letting it be known on which side of the class barricade they stand. On those terms John Smith is a comforting figure and workers who are nervous about how rich, how competitive and how secure are the class who exploit them may vote for him to compose the budget of British capitalism while he tells the workers how their greed and indolence are ruining the profitability of the British economy.

Smith now promises to do the kind of balancing act which former Labour Chancellors found impossible, in spite of their promises before they got into power. He says he will energise British industry into prosperity, encouraging steady expansion while controlling any tendency to a boom in which pay claims may become too powerful. At the same time he will prudently invest in education, health care, social services and our general welfare. He makes it sound very easy and reassuring, except to those who remember what happened to the same promises made by other Labour Chancellors.

History gives no support to John Smith nor to those who are dazzled into supporting him. It is not a matter of incompetence; many of the abject, discredited failures competently tried to do the impossible—to make capitalism behave as if it were a benign and controllable social system. John Smith will not be pondering these facts as he chews his way through his lunches, for they would not stimulate the appetite of an office-hungry politician.