Thursday, March 14, 2019

Voice From The Back: Imagine no countries (2015)

The  Voice From The Back column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Imagine no countries

‘Nigeria is an entirely artificial, colonial construct created by the British Empire (and bounded by the French Empire). Its boundaries bear no relation to internal national entities, and it is huge. The strange thing is that these totally artificial colonial constructs of states generate a genuine and fierce patriotism among their citizens…. (ICH. 14 March) Socialists can agree with former ‘British’ Ambassador Craig Murray here, adding that workers have no country. There will be none in a socialist world, nor barriers such the one described here: ‘Less than two decades after the painstaking removal of a massive border fence designed to keep people in, Bulgarian authorities are just as painstakingly building a new fence along the rugged Turkish border, this time to keep people out’ (New York Times, 5 April).

Nothing to kill or die for

‘Pope Francis has recently pushed the moral argument against nuclear weapons to a new level, not only against their use but also against their possession,’ Archbishop Bernedito Auza, the Holy See’s Ambassador to the U.N., says. ‘Today there is no more argument, not even the argument of deterrence used during the Cold War, that could ‘minimally morally justify’ the possession of nuclear weapons. The ‘peace of a sort’ that is supposed to justify nuclear deterrence is specious and illusory’ (Time, April 10). CND, better known to socialists as the Campaign for Conventional Warfare, has a new potential recruit! Peace will only have a genuine chance when the majority of us come to understand and desire socialism.

No religion too

Marx wrote ‘the tradition of all past generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living’. And it is only when capitalism is cast into the dustbin of pre-history, will countless abominations, such as the one described here, come to an end: ‘Known only by the name Gulnaz, the woman was just 16 years old when she fell pregnant with the child of her depraved attacker Asadullah – who is also married to her cousin. Rejected by her family and sentenced to 12 years in a Kabul prison for ‘adultery by force’, Gulnaz’s only hope of a reduced sentence was to marry Asadullah. Now she is pregnant with his third child but told CNN she only agreed to marry her rapist so that her first daughter – named Smile could live a shame-free life in the Afghan capital’s ‘traditional’ society’ (Daily Mail, 8 April).

King Zuma?

The Zulu monarchy is set to issue six new Mercedes Benz E-Class sedans, collectively worth nearly R5 million, to the King’s six wives, the Sunday Tribune reported. A seventh luxury German sedan has reportedly been purchased and will be kept as a ‘back-up’. King Goodwill Zwelithini’s household is supported by the provincial government, with an annual pay-in of nearly R60 million (news24, 5 April).  A storm is brewing over the acquisition of new VIP jets for President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet at a cost of R2 billion, just after Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene announced revised spending plans to reduce waste (news24, 5 April). The poor continue to exchange one master for another and they both conform to the stereotypes of capitalism. We own; you do not. We control; you do not. We live in luxury; you live in poverty. Nothing changes; everything stays the same.

Victorian values

Some children are experiencing ‘Victorian’ levels of poverty, often turning up to school sick because their parents cannot afford to take time off to care for them, teachers have claimed. School staff are also still seeing youngsters arriving for lessons hungry, tired and wearing inappropriate clothes due to a continuing squeeze on family finances, according to the NASUWT teaching union. It warned that the lives of many children and young people are being ‘blighted and degraded by poverty and homelessness’. In some cases, teachers reported being aware of pupils living in ‘Victorian conditions’, of youngsters coming to school with no socks or coat and of more families depending on food banks. A survey commissioned by NASUWT found that almost seven in 10 of teachers said they have seen pupils coming to school hungry, while eight in 10 have witnessed youngsters turning up in clothes that are inappropriate for the weather and similar proportions reported children arriving in unwashed or damaged and frayed clothing (Daily Mirror, 5 April). ‘The promise that all children globally would have primary education by 2015 – pledged by world leaders in the millennium year – has officially not been achieved. Unesco says there are 58 million children without access to primary school and 100 million who do not complete a primary education’ (BBC, 9 April). So many lies! But that is what you have to expect when riding the reformist misery-go-round!

DIY dentistry

People are said to be turning to dentistry kits, which can be bought in pound shops, due to the cost of NHS dental treatment, where the price of a filling in England can be more than £50 (Daily Mail, 4 April).

Hagiography (2015)

Book Review from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Leon Trotsky’, by Paul Le Blanc. Reaktion Books. 2015

Yet another hagiography but what’s the point? Only Trotskyists are interested in Trotsky these days and they know his life by heart.

Trotsky was a political failure and left a dubious political legacy. Apart from scores of squabbling Trotskyist sects, there’s the justification for reformist practice called ‘transitional demands’.  His History of the Russian Revolution is worth a read as written by somehow who played a prominent part in it. As is The Revolution Betrayed which, though mistakenly identifying Russia as a ‘degenerate workers state’ with an economy superior to capitalism because of its nationalisation and planning, at least initiated discussions on ‘the nature of the USSR’ which led to some of his followers realising that it was a class-ruled society and even state capitalism, even if he himself never did.

Le Blanc, a Trotskyist himself, is one of those who have been trying to paint Lenin as an orthodox left-wing Marxist operating in the specific conditions of Tsarist Russia rather than as the originator of a quite different theory and practice, Leninism. He claims the same for Trotsky but says virtually nothing in his book of Trotsky’s ideas and activities up to 1917 before he became a Bolshevik and which might have given some plausibility to this view.
Adam Buick

The Market Didn’t Always Exist (2015)

From the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Inca Empire lasted a couple of a hundred years and according to Terence D’Altroy of Columbia University, in a 2007 PBS interview, ‘In terms of square miles, we’re probably talking something like 300,000 square miles’ with a population as high as 12 million. They built elaborate cities and created terraced farms on the mountainsides, all connected by a road network equivalent to about three times the diameter of the Earth and far superior to what the Conquistadors were accustomed to back in Europe.  And all this was achieved without money or internal markets.

In ‘The Incas: New Perspectives’, Gordon Francis McEwan writes: ‘Each citizen of the empire was issued the necessities of life out of the state storehouses, including food, tools, raw materials, and clothing, and needed to purchase nothing. With no shops or markets, there was no need for a standard currency or money, and there was nowhere to spend money or purchase or trade for necessities.’

The Incas had a centrally-planned economy which lasted a lot longer than the Soviet Union’s command economy. Every Incan was required to provide labour-tribute to the state and in exchange for this labour levy, they were given the necessities of life. However the Inca Empire was not a classless society and not everybody had to perform this compulsory work. Nobles and their courts were exempt, as were other prominent members of Incan society.

The Inca Empire was optimised to prevent starvation rather than to foster commerce and the ayllu was the center of economic productivity. Each ayllu specialised in the production of certain products depending on its location. For some of them this would be agriculture as they would be closer to fertile lands. Agricultural ayllus produced crops that would be optimised for the type of soil. Their output would be given to the state which in turn would redistribute it to other locations where the product was not available. Surplus would be kept in collcas, storage houses along the roads and near population centres. Other ayllus would specialise in producing pottery, clothing and virtually anything necessary for everyday living which would be distributed by the state to other ayllus.

The use of the land was a right that individuals had as members of the ayllu. The curaca, as the representative of the ayllu, redistributed the land to each member according to the size of their families. The dimensions of the land varied according to its agricultural quality and it was measured in tupus, a local measurement unit. A married couple would get one and a half tupus, for each male child the couple received one tupu and for each female half a tupu. When the son or daughter started their own family each additional tupu was taken away and given to the new family. Each family worked their land but they did not own it, the Inca estate was the rightful owner. The land was used to provide subsistence food for the family.

There were three ways in which collective labour was organised:
  • The first one was the ayni to help a member of the community who was in need. Helping build a house or help a sick member of the community were examples of ayni.
  • The second was the minka or team work for the benefit of the whole community. Examples of minka were building agricultural terraces and cleaning the irrigation canals.
  • The third one was the mita or the tax paid to the Inca. Mita workers served as soldiers, farmers, messengers, road builders, or whatever needed to be done. It was a rotational and temporary service that each member of the ayllu was required to meet. They built temples and palaces, canals for irrigation, agricultural terraces, roads, bridges and tunnels. This system was a balanced system of give and take. In exchange the government would provide food, clothing and medication. This system allowed the empire to have all the necessary produce available for redistribution according to necessity.

Yet whenever members of the Socialist Party suggest that we wish to create a co-operative moneyless society without private property nor a wages system, we are smugly lectured that it is not a viable objective, that it is unrealisable and we are being utopian in our aspirations. Socialist writers have shown that we are products of our environment, particularly of the economic system in which we live. People living under feudalism thought it natural and fixed, just as people living under capitalism believe it too is natural and eternal. If people’s ideas and their societies changed in the past they certainly can change again in the future. That is why socialists are given to optimism when we read of non-market economic systems such as the Inca having once existed even though the one we envisage would be classless, non-coercive and democratic.

Obituary: Bernard Walker (2015)

Obituary from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to have to report that comrade Bernard Walker died on 15 March after a ten-year long, lingering illness. He joined the Party in 1948 after having been one of those seduced in their youth by the Communist Party and its support for the war. After the war he met an SPGB member and learned the reasons for the poverty he had seen and experienced on the one hand, and the immense riches of a handful of exploiters on the other. He grew up in Chorley, Lancashire, and moved to London when he joined the Party and there met his future wife, Joyce. They married in 1953 and in 1960 had a son, Anthony. A member of the old Ealing branch he moved to Bournemouth where he was active in the group there,

From his father Bernard inherited a passion for Percy Bysshe Shelley and working class history, which expanded following his introduction to the Party. He imparted to his own son a love of books and the importance of self-education and of not relying on the state for information. He was also skilful at sketching and at arithmetic, but his socialism was the core of his life and his hope for the future. At Twickenham Bernard became a founder member of the Grasshoppers rugby club, which still exists. He was modest and quiet in company and felt deeply about his convictions. He leaves behind and is loved by his son and his wife.

Housing: The Market Doesn’t Work (2015)

From the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The housing crisis is a messy combination of high demand for homes from people, a shortage of new houses being built, and an insufficient amount of affordable or social housing. This wide gap between what’s needed and what’s available shows that the housing market doesn’t work.

Houses are built to make money for developers and landowners, not because people need them. Developers aim to maximise their profits by building the kind of housing which is likely to bring in the best returns. This will tend to be houses for private sale. Social housing managed by councils and housing associations is a less attractive investment. As a result, the few homes which are being built will only be affordable to a few people. The housing shortage actually benefits the economy, in a weird way. Because demand for new houses is high, some people are prepared to pay a lot, so developers can get away with charging higher prices for new homes. Consequently, house prices have rocketed, and developers and mortgage lenders have raked in the profits.

Thousands of people locally on medium and lower incomes have been priced out of the market, and end up unable to move to better housing. Those with lower incomes, or who have debts, have to rely on the often unreliable end of the private sector or under-funded social housing. For homeless people, any type of long term housing might be hard to find. The housing market shows how the system doesn’t work in our interests.

Reforms have to fit in with how the system runs. Any changes to legislation or reallocation of public funds only last as long as they’re financially viable. Tinkering with the system hasn’t made it work in the interests of the vast majority. So, the economic and political system itself needs to be changed. We need to go from a society where land and resources are owned by a tiny minority to one where they are owned by everyone in common. Houses would be built, goods would be produced and services would be run directly because people need and want them. The financial market would no longer be there, rationing and restricting who gets what. Work would be co-operative and voluntary, without the stresses which come from struggling without enough resources or staff. The only way such a society could be organised is democratically, without leaders. And the only way that society could be reached is democratically, if the majority worldwide wanted it and worked for it.

What’s Wrong With Profit? (2015)

From the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Think of a company that produces goods or provides some service or sells things. The company needs to make a profit, and to do this it has to deliver what people want and what they can afford. If it does not provide what people want, it will simply not make a profit – or at least not make enough profit – and will go out of business. So it has to produce, provide or sell what people want. This implies keeping up with changes in taste and technical developments and what its competitors are up to, as the company’s sales will decline if others can provide better or cheaper goods and services. The owners of the company will be motivated to improve its products and innovate new products and methods of production, thus the profit system stimulates technological progress. So production for profit keeps everyone on their toes and ensures that companies deliver what their customers want.

That, in a nutshell, is the kind of argument that is used in defence of production for profit and so of the capitalist system as a whole. But Socialists reject such arguments, so let’s look at what production for the sake of profit really implies.

For starters, companies do not simply provide what customers want: they have to provide what customers can afford to buy and what will make the company a profit. There is no point in supplying goods that are of excellent quality if they are too expensive for most prospective customers. So companies will often be forced to cut corners in various ways such as using cheaper ingredients and cheaper machinery and speeding up the production process. This may result in lower prices or just higher profits. For instance, water can be injected into chicken to increase the weight of portions; and a well-known recent example of adulteration was the use of horsemeat rather than beef in ready meals. What is produced may be less safe than it could and should be, and the health and safety of workers may not be properly taken into account, all because this is the way to reduce costs and increase profits. In 2013–14, 133 workers were killed at work in the UK, and 629,000 workplace injuries occurred.

But at the same time as companies seek to provide what customers can afford, they also attempt to get them to buy more expensive items. This method, known as upselling, may involve such tactics as selling extended warranties, suggesting a slightly dearer version of some item or simply adding fries to a fast-food order. It all adds to the profit of the seller or provider.

Moreover, advertising is intended not just to inform customers of new products but to stimulate demand and persuade people to buy. Wants, then, are not natural things but are often artificial, created for the sake of profit. Demand for the latest gizmo may be on the basis, not of ‘this is what you wanted all along’, but of ‘this is what you need now, and you’re missing out if you don’t have one’. Peer pressure, particularly among children and teenagers, can be a powerful means of getting people to ‘want’ things and so of increasing the profits of the company that can ‘satisfy’ them.

Does profit-based production really lead to technological progress? It was recently revealed that drug companies are scaling back their efforts to develop a cure for dementia, on the grounds that they have already devoted considerable resources to this end. In some cases they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on searching for effective drugs, only to see potential treatments fail and so not produce any profits. In this and similar cases, then, the profit motive acts as a barrier to research and innovation. And this is not for the sake of some new Smartphone app or new line in fashion: this is the search for a cure for a dreadful disease which already affects 850,000 people in the UK alone, a number expected to increase. So the argument that the profit motive promotes innovative products is not always true, as it only does so as long as there is a reasonable expectation of profit in the short to medium term.

The aim of capitalist production, remember, is to make a profit, and making particular goods or providing a particular service is just a means to this end. Ford do not make cars, they make profits; Apple do not make phones and computers, they make profits; McDonalds do not make burgers, they make profits; Tesco do not sell food and so on, they make profits.

If companies really exist to make widgets or whatever, why do they ever make workers redundant or go on short-time working? Why do they not continually expand their operations in order to output more and more widgets, by taking on more staff or buying new equipment or extending their working hours? From a capitalist point of view, these are rather silly questions, as the answer is obvious. It’s because they are constrained by the need to make a profit. Producing more and more of some good or service is useless if there is little or no prospect of selling these, or selling them at a profit. Redundancies are made because business is not going well and costs need to be cut in order to restore profits. Anything else would be the path to commercial suicide, however useful what was produced might be.

The housing market is a particularly clear case in point. There are plenty of people living in poor-standard accommodation, living with their parents, stuck in homeless hostels and so on. At the same time there are many unemployed building workers and abandoned building sites. If house-building companies truly existed to build houses, workers currently unemployed would be working to build the houses that are so badly needed. But it doesn’t happen, simply because there is no profit in building houses and flats for those who cannot afford to buy them. Government schemes to make home loans easier and so help people onto the ‘housing ladder’ do not alter this essential point. In fact they represent an acknowledgement that there is a gross mismatch between what could be supplied and the effective demand for homes – effective demand, not just demand, since what matters is what people can afford, not what they badly need.

We have not mentioned the fact that profits are made by exploiting a company’s workers, who produce more in value than they receive in wages. This is yet another reason, in addition to those reviewed above, for getting rid of production for profit and replacing it with a system based on production for use, one designed to meet people’s needs and wants.
Paul Bennett

Material World: Water Scarcity is Becoming a Reality (2015)

The Material World Column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

California’s economy surpasses Russia’s. This year California has implemented mandatory water restrictions to reduce water usage by 25 percent. Governor Jerry Brown explained, ‘People should realise we’re in a new era. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day – that’s going to be a thing of the past… This historic drought demands unprecedented action… It’s a different world. We have to act differently.’ This comes as the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which is critical to the state’s water system, is providing less. Water that falls during the wet season is stored and released during the summer. 11 trilliongallons of water are needed for California to recover from the emergency.

Water has long been a precious resource in California and is central to the state’s economy. It is a symbol of how capitalism tries to tame nature. There are golf courses in the deserts of Palm Springs, lush gardens and lawns in Los Angeles. Swimming pools have been part of California’s lifestyle for decades. There are approximately 1.18 million residential swimming pools in California, according to a study. The typical residential pool requires from 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of water to fill.

But it is agriculture which is at the heart of California’s worsening water crisis, consuming 80 percent of California’s water. Agriculture thrives while everyone else is parched. California produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States—and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops—while also exporting vast amounts. Most crops and livestock are produced in the Central Valley, which is technically a desert. The soil is very fertile but crops there can thrive only if massive amounts of irrigation water are applied. Agriculture’s share of state water use is seldom mentioned. Instead, news concentrates on the drought’s implications for people in cities and suburbs. Last year, the legislature passed and Governor Brown signed a bill to regulate groundwater extraction. But agricultural interests lobbied hard against it resulting in a leisurely implementation timetable. Although communities must complete plans for sustainable water management by 2020, not until 2040 must sustainability actually be achieved. The Central Valley could be a dust bowl by then.

To plant increasing amounts of water-intensive crops in a desert would be questionable in the best of times. To continue doing so in the middle of a historic drought, even as scientists warn that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of future droughts, seems ludicrous. But pistachios generated an average net return of $3,519 per acre in 2014. Almonds, an even thirstier crop, averaged $1,431 per acre. ‘I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank’ said pistachio farmer John Dean. All across the world drought is increasingly prevalent, deserts are expanding and ground-water drying up.

In Arabia ground water levels are falling dangerously. The United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan admitted: ‘For us, water is [now] more important than oil.’ At their current rate, the UAE will deplete its natural freshwater resources in about fifty years.

In the Brazilian city of São Paulo, home to 20 million people, and once known as the City of Drizzle, the Alto Tietê reservoir network, which supplies three million people in greater Sao Paulo, has water levels at below 15 percent. The Cantareira reservoir system, which serves more than nine million people in the state, is only 5 percent full. Calculations indicate that given the current level of consumption versus the predicted raining patterns there is only enough water in the system to last four to six months. That means the water could run out before the next rainy season starts in November. State officials recently announced a potential rationing program of five days without water and two days with, in case the February and March rains do not refill the reservoirs.

Since the mid-1990s, south-east Australia has experienced a 15 percent drop in rainfall during late autumn and early winter, with a 25 percent slump in average rainfall in April and May. A drought has gripped western Queensland and northern New South Wales since 2012.

The total amount of fresh water on Earth comes to about 10.6m cubic km. Combined into a single droplet, this would produce a sphere with a diameter of about 272 km. However, 99 percent of that sphere would be made up of groundwater, much of which is not accessible. By contrast, the total volume from lakes and rivers, humanity’s main source of fresh water, produces a sphere that is a mere 56 km in diameter. That little droplet sustains most of the people on Earth.

Capitalism encourages over-consumption and wasteful production for ‘endless’ growth and greater profit. People have changed economic systems before when they no longer suited new conditions. Things are only impossible until they’re not. We can’t stay stuck in the past, unable to imagine a better future that holds us back from creating a better world.

Cake, Flowers, Pizza and Jesus (2015)

The Halo Halo! column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not often the Halo-Halo column takes an interest in the plight of the religiously bewildered in a legal argument, but a few recent court cases, one in Ireland and two in the US, show just how absurd things can get when religion, politics, the legal system and gay rights get tangled together.

In one case a couple of evangelical Christian bakery owners in Belfast were asked to bake a gay-themed cake last year in honour of Andrew Muir – Northern Ireland’s first openly gay mayor. The cake was to be decorated with Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, and to have the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’ highlighted in icing.

Asher’s Baking Company, however, which is apparently named after one of the 12 sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob, refused to bake the cake as the request was ‘at odds with what the bible teaches’, and they were backed in their refusal by the Democratic Unionist Party, including first minister Peter Robinson.

What the bible actually teaches about cake is unclear – there’s a well-known bit about loaves and fishes, but cake hardly gets a mention. However, as far as gays are concerned the message is obviously not ‘let them eat it’.

A complaint of discrimination regarding the bakers was then lodged with Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, and a case at Northern Ireland’s high court followed which at the time of writing, is still in progress. And Asher’s, the bakers, are now ‘a global cause for Evangelical Christians across the world’ according to the Guardian (30 March). Wouldn’t it have been easier just to find another bloody baker?

Meanwhile in the U.S. a Washington florist decided that providing flowers for the wedding of a same-sex couple also went against her Southern Baptist faith. In this case, too, the couple, and the Washington state Attorney General sued her, resulting in her being fined $1,000 and the couple seeking damages and legal fees. However, in this case, the florist has so far raked in over $85,000 from supporters in a crowd-funding campaign.

An Indiana pizza shop, too, Memories Pizza, which, it seems, was forced to close down after coming to the conclusion that pizza should not be served at gay weddings has also netted over $800,000 from supporters.

There must be a lesson there somewhere.

50 Years Ago: Housing in London (2015)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The root cause of the housing problem in big cities like London is the capitalist system under which housing accommodation is bought and sold. For many years now the housing market has been subject to various controls but neither these, nor council houses, nor subsidies, alter the basic characteristic of housing under capitalism.

Once a city is established as such, the economics of capitalism ensure that the growth of demand for workers assumes a momentum of its own, for the great concentration of people in a city provides a vast market for so-called consumer goods and services. Even in times of depression the drift to the cities continues. But it is in times of full employment that the housing problem becomes acute because in such conditions the rate of growth of employment usually exceeds the rate of growth of housing. Inevitably this creates problems. This basically is what is happening in London today. As the Milner Holland Report puts it:

‘If the growth of housing does not match the growth of employment there will be trouble of some kind.’ (…)

Overcrowding, high rents, homelessness intimidation and the other ills from which many workers suffer are a direct result of the fact that demand for accommodation exceeds the supply. In large cities like London this must happen and is likely to be permanent. The Report itself says as much: ‘the housing problems confronting great cities . . . are of a long term if not permanent character’. The Report also, very appropriately, draws attention to the fact that this problem is not new. They quote from a similar report made by Charles Booth in 1901. Of course since then some housing conditions have improved in many respects but as the Report points out the problem ‘remains fundamentally the same.’

(from article by A.L.B., Socialist Standard, May 1965)

Greasy Pole: Public Accounts Hodge Podge (2015)

The Greasy Pole column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

If anyone had any doubts about the purpose and activities of those luminous, towering buildings in what was once London Docklands they can refer to the most assertive of them, announcing itself in enormous letters on high, as HSBC. This is the successor to what was named the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, founded in 1865 to spread out until it achieved its place as the second biggest bank in the world, reminding us of the power of the class who own it and fashion all its operations. But now the bank is under pressure to justify its record in matters such as the failure to pay legal taxes, the rewards to its upper management and a pervading policy of corruption. All of which has attracted the attention of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) where they are assumed to be certain of their sources of information and of their intention to use what they know. Such as was ruthlessly imposed by its recent Chairman Margaret Hodge MP for Barking – who insists that she is not to be known as Chair.

HSBC was among the victims of the PAC, under suspicion of colluding in tax avoidance at their Swiss Branch, leading to the withdrawal of blocks of cash amassed through such activities as dealing in drugs, armaments and all that entailed. Shortly before grilling some of the bank’s top executives Hodge had set the scene by informing another witness who exasperated her with his evasions that ‘. , , honestly, I want to put a bomb under you guys’. So the prospects were not promising for HSBC’s Non-Executive Director Rona Fairhead, who assured the Committee that it did not follow from her salary of £513,000 a year that she would be expected to be aware of the tax offences, even though they were estimated to have reached some £135 million in the UK ‘. . . I can assure you we had no evidence of tax evasion’. But Hodge was unimpressed: ‘I think you knew. Either you colluded in tax evasion or you didn’t know. In that case you are either incredibly naïve or totally incompetent’. And then, in relation to one of Fairhead’s other lucrative responsibilities ‘. . . you should think about resigning and if not, I think the government should sack you’.

Who is this fearless, feisty champion of truth and probity in public office? Hodge is a multi-millionaire who was brought to England as a child when her family left Egypt to escape the anti-Semitism arising from the 1948 Egypt/Israeli War. Settled in London, they grew massively rich on the proceeds of their family-owned steel processing and trading company which now has a turnover reckoned in billions, and of which she is still a shareholder. After university Hodge worked in Market Research and in 1973 she was elected as a local councillor in the London Borough of Islington. She rose to Chair of the Housing Committee, something of a hot seat in a borough notorious for its housing problems. But she was well-connected; her Vice Chairman was Jack Straw and a neighbour was Tony Blair, whose wife Cherie was employed in the legal firm of Hodge’s husband. At that time the Social Democratic Party was growing, causing large scale desertions among Islington’s Labour Party – an opportunity for Hodge to take over as Leader of the Council. Islington was reputed to be a hot-bed of ‘loony lefties’ where they attempted to conceal attention from the chaos on the ground by flying a red flag from the roof of the Town Hall.

Hodge stepped down from the Council in October 1992. The more suspicious observers may have regarded this as an example of shrewd timing because it happened when a massive scandal about sexual abuse of children in Islington council care was about to be exposed. In 1985 Demetrious Panton had written to the council to complain about his treatment when he was in their care during the 1970s and the 1980s. The doubts and anxieties about this were aggravated by the council’s failure to reply to Panton until 1989, and then to inform him that while regretting his experience they did not admit to any fault on their part. But the matter did not die away because at that time Senior Social Worker Liz Davies and her manager were facing a succession of severely damaged youngsters who, apart from other problems such as homelessness and involvement in petty survival crime, were saying that they were regularly abused in private or council homes. ‘It was like a queue’ was how Davies described what she found at her office each morning; ‘There is a lot that I just can’t speak about’. Apparently, Hodge would not hear social workers’ pleas for additional resources: ‘She only cared about the budget’. Then some crucial publicity was threatened in October 1992 from the Evening Standard publishing the first of a series of reports on the abuse at the care homes, which Hodge chose to describe as ‘a sensationalist piece of gutter journalism’.

It was shortly after this that she left the council and, after a by-election in 1994, entered the House of Commons to support Tony Blair’s campaign for the Labour leadership. Her reward came in 2003 when she was appointed as Minister for Children. This was too much of a shock for even the most ardent of Blairites as it aroused the still festering anger about what had happened, and what had allegedly been suppressed, in Islington. For one thing an independent report by the Director of Oxford Social Services in 1995 had largely found that the original complaints had been valid and described the affairs of Islington council as ‘disastrous’. But Hodge fought back, writing to the chairman of the BBC in an attempt to stop a Radio Four programme about the abuses which she described as ‘deplorable sensationalism’ and to inform him that Panton was ‘an extremely disturbed person’. In all this she was going too far; she offered to apologise to Panton but he refused this as inadequate so that in the end she had to make a public apology in the High Court and to pay him £30,000. So it could be said that at least the Panton episode had reached some kind of conclusion 25 years after it had begun. And in June 2010 Hodge was made Chair of the PAC, in which job she has impressed a clutch of Members too easily blinded by her energetic concealment of cruel facts under her fog of self-promotion.

Puppets and Politics (2015)

The Proper Gander column from the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The run-up to a general election is as good a time as any to launch a puppet-based satirical sketch show. Featuring caricatures of  politicians, royalty and celebs, Newzoids (ITV) inevitably draws comparisons with Spitting Image, which set the template back in the ’80s. Some sketches are made only a day or so before broadcast, so the show reflects what’s in the news, hence its title.

Newzoids has inherited its predecessor’s puerile tastelessness, but sadly the puppets are less detailed and expressive, even with the addition of CGI mouths. Technology has moved on since Spitting Image’s day, so these puppets have been computer-designed and 3D-printed. Caricatures are more effective – and funnier – the more exaggerated they are, and Newzoids’ puppets don’t quite go far enough.

The same can be said for the programme’s sketches, which don’t always make the most of their set-ups. So, Newzoids might take a while to find its own voice and style; it took Spitting Image a few years to establish itself as one of those programmes which gets talked about the following morning. Memorable skits from the first episode include David Cameron being carried in a sedan chair to a drive-thru burger bar, and Ed Miliband as a dim-witted and goofy contestant on ‘I’m A Catastrophe, Get Me Out Of Here’. Nigel Farage is turned into a downmarket stand-up comic with a routine of ‘plain old patriotic foreigner-bashing’, while Clegg and Cameron become a dysfunctional couple picked apart by Jeremy Kyle. Lampooning our leaders – and wannabe leaders – should make us question why we expect them to represent us or have our best interests at heart. Sending something up is supposed to undermine confidence in it, so satire has a useful role in highlighting society’s shaky beliefs, such as faith in leaders.
Mike Foster