Friday, May 28, 2010

Layer 319 . . . John McDonnell MP, the Labour Leadership, the Socialist Alternative, and IDS

Let’s start this piece with a little quiz. Which politician said the following:

"The present benefits system is so complex and unfair that no one understands it. It leads at the bottom end to one of the most regressive tax and benefit withdrawal rates that it is possible to imagine. 

"We ask people to go to work for the first time and then tell them to pay back 70%, 80% and 90% back to the state. These are levels none of the wealthiest bankers are asked to pay – they are moaning at 50%.

"If you are unemployed, and you come from a family that is unemployed, all you can see when you think about work is risk. It is a real risk because for all the efforts you make the rewards are very minimal and in some cases none at all.

"Socially, everyone says: 'You are a bloody moron – why are you doing this? You don't have to do this.' So taking responsibility is a real risk for you."

Got it yet? Yes – it’s the former leader of the Tory Party, Iain Duncan Smith, who’s saying things that are completely bleeding obvious and yet no Labour party politician seems to have said them – ever. Certainly no member of the Labour government has said anything like this.

IDS and his Centre for Social Justice got stuck into this issue sometime last year, and this latest quote is from the front page of the Guardian yesterday, which had a heading, “Duncan Smith starts welfare revolution”. Basically, what he’s now proposing to do, as the new minister for work and pensions, is allow people who are on unemployment benefits to keep those benefits until they are well established in a new job and until they are earning a decent amount, after which there will be a gradual withdrawal of benefits. Sounds sensible? More below.


Another World Is Possible

In the meantime, this is part of an interview with John McDonnell, one of the declared candidates for the Labour leadership, by John Spence of

JS: It’s clear from the interview that McDonnell is one of those old fashioned things – a principled politician. His time in parliament has been characterised by the unwavering articulation of those principles in word and deed, which has seen him branded as one of the ‘awkward squad’ by members of his own party.

It’s also clear that McDonnell is a politician who has not forgotten who he represents and who put him into the position he holds. What struck me most was that in the interview he seldom referred to himself with the terms ‘I’ or ‘me’; it was almost always ‘we’ or ‘us’. I don’t think this is an accident. As the interview shows, McDonnell is a staunch socialist, and thinks of himself in terms of his place amongst a groups of people and workers, not distanced from them.

JM: The reason I didn't vote for Gordon Brown was political. It wasn’t personal.

I can’t support people who have voted for things like the Iraq War, for privatisation, for cuts in welfare and benefits, for the implementation of the renewal of Trident. I can’t support candidates like that because I think it undermines our credibility, and what we’ve got to do is keep a clear distance from those people who have brought about a Tory government (sic) because of their support for these policies.

JS: Turning now to the [general] election; what’s your assessment of the election result, firstly, in terms of the Labour Party?

JM: The Labour result was better than expected, because what we saw was an element of class solidarity where people went to the ballot boxes and decided they wanted to keep the Tories out.

So it was clear that there was a positive Labour vote on the basis of opposing the Tories, but it wasn’t by any means, certainly in my constituency, and based on discussions I’ve had with others across the country, it certainly wasn’t an endorsement of New Labour policies. It was one of solidarity against the Tories and, in places like Dagenham, against the fascists with… regret… about what New Labour has done to the Labour Party.

Now, if you look at what happened in the election itself, it was exactly what we predicted: the coalition of people that we put together, as we always do when Labour is elected, was systematically alienated by New Labour policies – public sector workers alienated by privatisation; trade unionists alienated by a lack of trade union rights and the failure to address the issues of their wages and conditions and the security of their work; students alienated by tuition fees; pensioners alienated by a failure to address pensioner poverty and a refusal to restore the link between pensions and earnings; peace campaigners alienated by the Iraq War and Afghanistan; people who came to us because they saw us as the party of honesty against Tory sleaze alienated by expenses.

So you can see how every element of our coalition was alienated in some form, and that’s what brought about the breakdown in trust, and people no longer recognised the Labour Party as the party they knew and had trusted over the years. New Labour destroyed that bond between working class people and the Party itself, and it was only anti-Toryism that got us those voters out at the end of the day.

The issue for us now is how we re-establish that trust, and I think what people were saying on the doorstep is they want Labour back. We’ve got to re-establish the ‘Labour Party’ because New Labour has destroyed trust in us.

JS: What is your assessment of the Coalition Government in its early days?

JM: I don’t think people should underestimate the ruthlessness of this government. They will seek to solve this crisis on the backs of working class people; they’ll cut services and be ruthless about it, they’ll come from pay cuts, they’ll come from pension cuts and they’ll come from people’s basic services. I think we’ll see a growth in inequality in the same way that we did in the 1980s, and we’ll also see a growth in poverty and deprivation amongst working people whilst others make themselves richer and more prosperous. The discussion we’ve got to have now is about how we organise the resistance against that.

There will be things done by this government, the part of the Lib Dem agenda, that the rest of us [on the Labour left] have been calling for anyway – the scrapping of ID cards, restoring elements of the right to protest, things like that, but that shouldn’t mask or cloud the class nature of this government. The class nature is about the restoration of the casino economy, restoring profitability to the City in particular on the backs of working people through cuts in public services, wages, pensions and the rest.

JS: Given the policy agenda articulated in the Labour manifesto ahead of the election, can the Labour Party in its current guise actually be an effective opposition to the new government?

JM: The problem at the moment is that New Labour is implicated in bringing about the economic crisis that we now face – the deregulation of the City, the continuation of the policies of Thatcherism from the 80s and 90s, into New Labour and through to 2010.

They’re completely implicated in it and, actually, have completely adopted the ideas and ideology of Thatcherism. They believe in ‘the market’, they believe in privatisation as the best option for the delivery of services, and as a result of that it’s very difficult to see how [the candidates closely attached to new Labour] could have some Damascene conversion to socialism or even weaker forms of social democracy, and I think that’s what is going to hobble them, particularly if we get a new leader like one of the Milibands, or Ed Balls or Andy Burnham. If they come from the New Labour stable then ideologically they’ve adapted themselves to neoliberal policies anyway.

The struggle will be, yes, within the Labour Party from the rank and file, but I think also the struggle will be from within the communities themselves, with trade unions and other social groups coming together to resist what this government seeks to do. Eventually, I think the PLP will catch up with what’s happening in wider society.

JS: Turning now to policy related areas, how will your 2010 campaign differ from the 2007 campaign?

JM: It has moved on. 2007 was pre-major credit crunch. I was arguing the case then in the book that we did ‘Another World Is Possible’ that we needed to come to terms with the world as it then was, which was facing the impact of globalisation, how it had created a new world, new forms of exploitation, the opening up of the welfare state in this country to privatisation and profiteering, how it had undermined old securities in terms of state provision of housing , trade union rights, and how it had allowed the plundering of our environment for profit.

So I was trying to explain, at that stage, what globalisation meant, and how we needed to understand the world before we could organise in a way to combat the impact of globalisation in this country and in others across the world.

That was the intellectual debate we were having in 2007. The credit crunch then hit almost as predicted, in terms of a classic crisis of capitalism. What we are now into doing is sharing that understanding of how the capitalist system has gone into crisis again, but more importantly there is a sense of urgency now about what the implications are of that for working people. I think now it’s about motivating people to recognise they’ve got to stand up and fight back, that there will be a movement of resistance and they’ve got to join it.

JS: What are the other key planks of your policy platform?

JM: What I’m trying to say is, let’s understand the world as it now is, let’s understand why this crisis came about, and let’s have a look at those policies, therefore, that we now need to put in place.

 The most important question that people face now is, “Who is going to pay for this economic crisis?” The government has quite clearly made its decision that working people are going to pay for it.

Our argument is, no, it doesn’t have to be like that, there is an alternative, and the alternative is basically that we start planning and controlling our economy. It means basically that instead of tackling the deficit by cutting services, you tackle it by introducing a fair taxation system where the corporate sector is paying its way, we tackle avoidance and evasion of taxes, we introduce a transition tax, it was called a Tobin tax, we now call it the Robin Hood Tax, and in that way we introduce a system whereby we tackle the deficit straight away, but we increasingly use mechanisms for regulation and public ownership that give us control of our economy in the long term.

At the same time, we do recognise that if people are going to have the opportunity to resist they need the tools to do that, so what we’re campaigning for basic civil liberties and the restoration of trade union rights that can arm people with the arguments with which they can control their lives in the long term.

It’s also about trying to explain to people that there are very simple solutions to our problems. We’re the fifth richest country in the world yet we have a housing crisis with homelessness doubling under New Labour. The question is “How do we tackle it?” and the way we tackle it is by building council houses again in the way we haven’t done in the last 13 years.

We pour money into public services, but see more and more of it laundered out for private profit. The simple solution is that we end privatisation.

We want our children to have the best education possible, but they’re deterred from that, because instead of having free education we’re now charging them for their education. How do you overcome that? You scrap tuition fees.

If you want to tackle pensioner poverty, with two million pensioners in poverty at the moment, you increase the state pension and you restore the link with earnings. It’s the same with child poverty, you simply increase child benefits to the level which cover the cost of rearing a child.

If you want to ensure that families can lift themselves out of poverty, you increase the Minimum Wage to a ‘Living Wage’.

All of these are simple solutions, and they’re all premised on the redistribution of wealth which in turn is based upon primary control of our economy.

JS: The main audience of ‘The Vibe’ will have grown up under the Thatcher government, like me, or the Major and New Labour governments. How would you go about rationalising your policy agenda to that age group, specifically?

JM: The whole point of every political discussion at the moment should be about breaking through the mystification of the economic crisis. We can control the future of our lives. We can control the future of our economy. We can control what happens within our workplaces and our local communities, and the solution is through democratic control of our lives and our economy.

What the Tories have done, and what New Labour have done also, is that… the Tories have told us there is no alternative, while New Labour have told us there is only one alternative, and that alternative is to allow the markets to run free and allow privatisation to happen with limited government intervention at best.

What we have got to reassert for this generation is that it doesn’t have to be like this! What we should be doing now is saying “We should control our lives, and to control our lives we have to control our economy.” To do that we have to band together and use the democratic mechanisms available to us, and if we do that we can control our future.

For three decades now there has been a defeatism inculcated in people. What we have to do is break through that and say, “We’re not putting up with this anymore! We don’t believe the lies. We don’t believe it’s complicated.” There are simple solutions, but they will only come about if we assert control.

JS: Your support for traditional labour elements such as trade unions and public sector workers has been unstinting in the face of wider political, media and private sector hostility. To put it bluntly, what do you think makes you right and them wrong?

JM: Let’s go back to the economic crisis. You can look at this from any part of the cycle you like, but let’s start at the beginning.

If you suppress trade union rights, that allows employers to suppress wages. If at the same time you stop building council houses and you rely solely upon the private market and you create a shortage of houses then that means house prices are going to go up.

If you’re a worker whose wages have been suppressed by privatisation, outsourcing or a lack of trade union rights the one thing you need is a roof over your head. If there is a shortage of housing because no council houses are being built and house prices are going up you have to borrow to buy a property. If at the same time the government deregulates the City and they can lend to you and charge you whatever they want, you’re forced to borrow at en extortionate rate, leading to the build up of a debt bubble which is unsustainable, and then a credit crunch occurs.

That is reality of what happened. It stems from the undermining of trade union rights and the balance of forces between labour and capital being deliberately skewed in the favour of capital. There is a clear analysis there of why the credit crunch occurred, and now we’re having to pay for it, and what we’re being told to do is replicate the same circumstances, – suppress trade union rights, cut wages and public services so the casino economy can spin again.

I think that when the process of how we’ve arrived at this point is explained to people, and people understand what is happening as it reflected in their real lives than I think people will get angry, and they want to vent that anger. Our job politically is to mobilise that anger and use it to make political change.

JS: Do you think you’ll get the space and airtime in the mainstream media to articulate those points?

JM: No. A few years ago someone described me as being like a cult movie – you’ve sort of heard about it, but you’ve never seen it. It’s because most of the mainstream media aren’t interested in any detailed political discussion; it’s all 24-hour, short, sharp, media hits.

Even newspapers like the Guardian, which are supposed to be more liberal and open-minded, are not interested in a proper discussion of radical policies or fundamental analyses of society, so they’re as glib as most of the others as well.

So what we’ve got to do is create our own media. Part of that is using whatever we can in terms of new technology, of course, but also going back to traditional mechanisms like word of mouth, talking at large meetings, small groups, demonstrations, picket lines, climate camps… using the mechanisms that social movements are using all the way across the world to provide an alternative media to enable people, not just to receive information because it’s not about talking down to people, but to get involved in the dialogue and the debate.

JS: Last question; If you were successful in the final ballot, what would be your first action as leader of the Labour Party?

JM: I’d go out to people and tell them we’re now going to produce our own Bill of Rights which would restore trade union freedom, which would restore local democracy, and which would give people social rights – the right to a decent home, the right to a decent health service, the right to a decent education all of which would be enforceable and also the right to have a say, not only in your local community but also when you go to work as well.

I think the whole basis of having a real Labour government is about establishing freedom and that Bill of Rights would establish people’s freedom to control their own lives.


Re David Cameron, this piece in the MailOnline is actually worth reading.


Iain Duncan Smith, again

These quotes are from his interview with the Guardian:

IDS: I will tackle root causes of poverty
Former Tory leader outlines plan to help the worst off

A dangerous political force has been let loose in Whitehall: a politician with no personal ambition whose only aim is to preside over the wholesale reform of his patch.

He [will] press ahead with his new task as work and pensions secretary. This is to reform what he regards as Britain's bloated and inefficient welfare system, which he believes discourages many of the 5 million people who rely on state support from working.

“I am here because I want this to be the most reforming government on benefits for a generation. I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity."

David Cameron brought Duncan Smith back into the frontline after he rehabilitated himself following his unhappy experience as leader by becoming one of the Tories' most influential thinkers in decades on social breakdown. As leader, the former Scots Guards officer was introduced to searing levels of poverty, and the cycle that is often impossible to escape, when he visited the Easterhouse estate on the eastern outskirts of Glasgow. His experience prompted Duncan Smith to establish the Centre for Social Justice, which produced a lengthy report on Breakdown Britain

These ideas will be informing his work as work and pensions secretary and also as chairman of the first cabinet committee dedicated to promoting social justice by tackling the root causes of poverty.

Thatcherite Tories, who believe the welfare budget is ripe for cuts, may be disappointed by Duncan Smith's language.

"The purpose of my life here is to improve the quality of life of the worst off in society." he says. "If somebody tells me I have to do something different then I won't be here any longer. Tattooed across my heart is that I didn't come here in any shape or form simply as a cheeseparer. What I have come to do is look root and branch at how we deliver welfare which is aimed at groups at the bottom end of society who need help and support, either because they can't work or because they can but they are unable to get back to work, or because they are disabled."

The CSJ report proposes the merger of eight benefits into just two, the withdrawal of benefits much more slowly for low earners, and the removal of rules that stop people claiming out-of-work benefits entirely if they do only a few hours' work a week.

Duncan Smith will chair a cabinet committee on social justice, saying it is ironic that it has taken the Conservative party to set up such a committee.

Ironic indeed.

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