progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Bring them home

The war in Afghanistan is Britain's fourth. It is unwinnable - there is no military solution..

The Dutch will probably be withdrawing their troops from August after their Labour Party opposed keeping the country's troops in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

Ian Traynor writes:
The Dutch Labour party's vehement opposition to remaining in Afghanistan is popular, bringing it instant opinion poll gains.
The same would happen in the UK if the government set a date for bringing the troops home. Most polls of public opinion on the war show that there is a strong majority for ending it as soon as possible.

Q&A with Harriet Harman in Middlesbrough

This morning I attended a Labour Party event at which the deputy leader, Harriet Harman, spoke and answered questions from an audience of seventy party members. Contrary to media reports, this event was entirely paid for by the Party, including the minister's transportation to the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, where the Q&A took place.

The minister was introduced by Bridget Philipson, Labour's parliamentary candidate for Houghton and Sunderland South, who chaired the event.

Harman explained that the decision to have cabinet meetings outside of London has allowed ministers to consider policies on the basis of regional needs. Before the cabinet meeting in Durham, ministers have been visiting places of relevance to their department to see how policies are implemented at the frontline of public services.

The concept of Labour as a team, often used by the deputy leader, was invoked - both at the cabinet level and at the grassroots of the party. The trade unions and party activists are an important part of the Labour family.

The deputy leader said that her view of the North-East region was of transformation and struggle.

Because of incumbency, it is easy for people to forget that things like SureStart, the minimum wage, and increased investment in health and education, are the result of a Labour government. These changes did not drop out of the sky, and is a point that has to be made to people when campaigning.

The economic crisis has left people feeling vulnerable and as a result there's not a great awareness of how much worse the recession could have been if the Tories had been in power. There have been fewer job losses, repossessions and business failures during this recession than the one under the Tories in the early nineties.

The fight-back has to be on both fronts, said Harman. The case for Labour is that the gains will be wiped away by the Tories who have no understanding of the region's needs and no interest in helping ordinary people. The hopes of recovery will be crushed by Tory plans to cut spending - plunging the economy back into recession.

There then followed questions from the audience, taken in groups of three. There were questions onn equal pay for men and women, on the importance of continued funding of universities because of their role in new creative and digital industries, and on the future of the steel industry.

The deputy leader said that there was a legacy of unfairness in pay which needed to be addressed; the growth in income inequality had been halted by government action, but more needed to be done to close the gap and she stressed that legislation to promote equalities should not be seen as a replacement for effective trade union representation. The Tories offer an Age of Austerity - for us, not for themselves and their wealthy friends - and Labour has to be careful not to have a jobless recovery and make sure that the need to make savings doesn't harm the growth of new industries.

On Corus, the deputy leader praised the efforts of the local MPs to stop the closure of TCP. A young comrade suggested that nationalisation should be the way to deal with the crisis, which got a strong round of applause.

Harman said that renationalisation of the steel industry would not be possible because of the state of the public finances. Following this, I got the opportunity to ask a question on ownership - if we now have an active state (particularly with the state rescuing the banking sector) then there should also be an active role for the workforce in having a stake in TCP as owners. I suggested that the Supporters Direct model, which has helped set up football supporters' trusts which buy stakes in their club to have influence, could be the form which common ownership takes. Even the Tories are making out that they support co-ops these days.

I don't think my question was expressed clearly, as a result the deputy leader didn't address the proposal. She did observe that the Tory plans for public sector "workers' co-ops" actually amount to the fragmentation of public services.

The deputy leader promised to convey to the cabinet the feeling of the audience that there needed to be fresh ideas about the future of TCP - which I took as meaning she would convey the message that people felt nationalisation could not be ruled out.

The strength of feeling on Corus was clear. If the Redcar plant closes there will be 1600 jobs lost and many more in businesses that rely on the spending power of those workers. For Labour, the message recieved by traditional supporters on Teesside will be that banks can be nationalised, but not an industry which is of strategic importance to the regional and national economy. Lord Mandelson has said that this should not be seen as a party political issue - but if a Labour heartland cannot depend on a Labour government to stop big corporations like Corus from destroying an industry and the livelihoods of thousands of people, who can blame them if they swear off ever voting for the party?

I am not suggesting that Labour's electoral woes would be ended if the party came out in favour of greater democratic control in the economy - there would be a lot more hostile media reportage from the capitalist press, for sure. What is certain is that co-ownership offers an alternative to both the private corporation and the Morrisonian public corporation.

There's been much talk of how Labour is to offer a model of "John Lewis" councils to rival the Tories scaled-back budget model, nicknamed "easyCouncil". If we are to have democratic ownership, let's have it where it matters - in the private sector, both in new industries and those condemned to "managed decline". At the moment, it matters at the Redcar plant - Corus workers deserve to have a crack of the whip.

mutually-assured destruction?

No wonder that over half of voters think Cameron is a "slick salesman".


It's bad enough he's trying to win the backing of public sector workers at the same time as the party is promising huge spending cuts, which will obviously include sacking public sector workers.


However, his side-kick's talk of "worker co-ops" in the public sector is the most ridiculous bit of spin to come out of Tory HQ, a blatant attempt to cover for the party's love of privatisation and public service cuts.
The Co-operative Party, Labour's sister party, branded Mr Osborne "clueless".
General secretary Michael Stephenson said: "George Osborne's comments show the Tories are completely clueless on co-operatives.
"Mutuality is about giving communities a say in how services are run - not just public sector workers.
"The Tories don't understand co-operative values. Just as Cameron's Conservative Co-operative movement turned out to be neither a co-operative, nor a movement, George Osborne's plan for employee-run public services fails to balance the needs of consumers, the public, with the interests of the public-sector workers themselves."

Cabinet Office Minister Tessa Jowell said: "While we are seeking to learn lessons from mutual companies like the Co-operative and John Lewis - owned, respectively, by their customers and their staff, Tory local authorities - which Cameron offers as a model for how the Tories would govern - have decided that their model of public service delivery is the budget airline.

"Under the Tories the principle this appears to encapsulate is that ability to pay should determine the level and quality of the service."
 More to the point, why all the focus on the public sector?


The demutualised building societies failed as private banks during the financial crisis having racked up huge debts. The banking crisis was a huge market failure to match that of climate change.


To develop a sustainable economy that benefits ordinary people, we need co-ownership to expand in the private sector. The Tories aren't going to deliver this - they are the natural party of the super-rich who would lose out if there were greater democracy in the economy. That's why one of the few firm commitments from Cameron is a tax cut for the richest estates in the country.


Labour might not have a coherent programme for increasing co-ownership, but with firm roots in both the trade union and co-operative movement, it is more likely to be the vehicle for empowering working people than a Tory government!

as long as you've got your health?

A report on health inequalities, Fair Society, Healthy Lives was published a few days ago; both its findings and its recommendations pose a challenge to public policy.

The Marmot Review's most headline-grabbing finding is that, on average, those living in the poorest parts of England die seven years younger than those in the wealthiest parts. Each year, health inequalities cost the UK economy £33bn in lost productivity.

Policy recommendations include:

* raising the minimum wage to allow a healthy standard of living

* increasing the support given to children in the early years of their lives

* more preventative health measures by the NHS

* and greater partnership working between agencies to tackle inequality.

A sad aspect of this report is that it is issued as the general election draws nearer, with the Tories expected to win office and within months introduce an austerity programme that would push more people into poverty. So when reading the recommendations, it's with the sadness that they are unlikely to be heeded if the Tories gain power, and the hope that such a disaster can be avoided.

The Executive Summary of the review seems to note this mistaken approach:
Simply restoring economic growth, trying to return to the status quo, while cutting public spending, should not be an option. Economic growth without reducing relative inequality will not reduce health inequalities. [p.12]
The Tories plan to end universality - to cut those benefits which are currently received by middle-income families - and instead focus on those in most need. As the saying goes however, "services for the poor are poor services" - especially as cutting benefits given to those on middle-incomes might increase the number of the least well-off. The review agrees with this, saying that
it is tempting to focus limited resources on those in most need. But we are all in need – all of us beneath the very best-off. If the focus were on the very bottom and social action were successful in improving the plight of the worst-off, what would happen to those just above the bottom, or at the median, who have worse health than those above them? All must be included in actions to create a fairer society. [p.11]
The review highlights the work of the London Living Wage Unit, set up by former Mayor Ken Livingstone, which found that the minimum wage would need to rise by 16% to guarantee that low-paid workers were not living in poverty.

It seems obvious that if the minimum wage is not a living wage, then someone is going to pay the cost. At present, it is both low-paid workers individually and society collectively through the increased public spending that results from inequality.

An increase in the minimum wage would be good, but this alone would not empower low-paid workers. In the name of "flexibility", Tory anti-union laws remain on the statute books and employers are able to stop workers from taking effective action to defend terms and conditions by going to the courts. These laws need to be abolished. (Labour has the majority to do it, giving all workers workers - whether temporary or directly-employed - the same rights as are enjoyed by workers in other European countries.)

Institutional change will be needed if wellbeing is to become "a more important societal goal than simply more economic growth" [p.12]. This will mean new ways of measuring success in the economy - cooperative and mutual enterprises are best able to do this because, although many are 'for-profit', they are not focused on profit-maximisation - there are usually social goals which count as a reason for doing business and a culture of social solidarity informing decision-making.

The review suggests that strengthening of democratic participation will make it easier to reduce inequality:
Effective local delivery requires effective participatory decision-making at local level. This can only happen by empowering individuals and local communities. [p.9]
Again, prioritising cooperative and mutual ownership and restoring workers' rights would help to increase participation at the grassroots. But this can only succeed if there is a realisation that some people have too much power, too much wealth - and that they will resist attempts to challenge their privilege.

fiscal fetishism


Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, has praised Labour's action during the banking crisis and is warning of the 'fiscal fetishism' that places a strong emphasis on deficit-reduction as a road to recovery.

He says of the financial markets:
"If there is a speculative attack against you it is not an issue of appeasement but a judgement about whether they can break your back."

He goes on, with the confidence of a man who, as World Bank chief economist about a decade ago, watched such assaults on countries in the same way you might watch a Saw movie: "You're dealing with a crazy man, you're asking what I can do to placate a crazy man: Having got what he wants he will still kill you." 

The professor appeals, instead to reason: "What I call 'fiscal fetishism' is really dangerous," he says. "Because cutting back means the economy goes into a downturn and the markets lose even more confidence, as it will trigger another recession or depression." If we do do that, he says, we will get the dreaded "double dip" recession. He urges ministers instead to tell the opposition and those short-sleeved, short-sighted, short-memoried traders in the City to consider the investment and returns that will come from all the public spending we are doing.
The response should not be to cave in, but to move in:
If the financial markets refused to buy British government bonds, or gilts, as Mr Cameron has suggested they soon might, the Bank of England could buy them instead, Mr Stiglitz said, as it did during its recently paused programme of quantitative easing, which mopped up about £200bn of gilts.

growing pains




Quantitative economy growth.


What a subject.


The above video has been produced for the release of the New Economics Foundation report, Growth isn't Possible, a follow-up to the 2006 report, Growth isn't Working, which showed that economic growth wasn't as beneficial for the poor as for the rich.


Since WW2 the main macro-economic goal has been quantitative economic growth - defined as increases in gross domestic product (GDP) which means increases in the financial value of all of the goods and services produced within the economy.


It's not hard to see why this was an important goal in the wake of a war, but now we have reached a stage in which quantitative economic growth no longer has a direct relationship with improvements in living standards, such as health and wellbeing, a sense of security and trust.


There's another problem. The environmental and social costs are not measured and deducted from GDP figures in the same way as the financial value of imports are deducted.
"Just as the laws of thermodynamics constrain the maximum efficiency of a heat engine, economic growth is constrained by the finite nature of our planet’s natural resources (biocapacity)."


[...]


"The most recent data on human use of biocapacity sends a number of unfortunate signals for believers in the possibility of unrestrained growth. Our global ecological footprint is growing, further overshooting what the biosphere can provide and absorb, and in the process, like two trains heading in opposite directions, we appear to be actually shrinking the available biocapacity on which we depend.


"Globally we are consuming nature’s services – using resources and creating carbon emissions – 44 per cent faster than nature can regenerate and reabsorb what we consume and the waste we produce. In other words, it takes the Earth almost 18 months to produce the ecological services that humanity uses in one year. The UK’s footprint has grown such that if the whole world wished to consume at the same rate it would require 3.4 planets like Earth." (Simms, Johnson, and Chowla, 2010, p. 5)
The goal of macro-economic policy therefore should be to have a "dynamic equilibrium" - to ensure that economic activity is sustainable in the long-term and serves the interests of people and planet.


The ecological economist Herman Daly has put it in nautical terms:
"When a boat is too full, rather obviously it is more likely to sink. The problem used to be that, without any clear warning that a safe maximum carrying capacity had been reached, there was always an economic incentive to err on the incautious side by overfilling. The Plimsoll line solved the problem with elegant simplicity: a mark painted on the outside of the hull that indicates a maximum load once level with the water." (Simms, Johnson, and Chowla, 2010, p. 119)


Of course, measuring the capacity is not enough. It also matters how resources are distributed and how efficently they are used.


The New Economics Foundation have developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI) which measures both biocapacity and wellbeing. You can take the HPI survey and find out your score here.

fair for all


Two very interesting commentary pieces, one from the Guardian by Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband, the other from Tribune by Ed Balls, which show how the next Labour manifesto will be shaped by a strong social-democratic perspective.

Balls writes:
"Everybody has a stake. That was one of the founding ideas behind our welfare state.


"Whether it's support for children or our national health service, universalism has always been a core principle. And I believe it's vital that those on modest and middle incomes - not just the poorest - are part of it."


[...]


"It’s only through this combination of universal support for all families and targeted support – what we call progressive universalism - that we have been able to lift half a million children and almost a million pensioners out of poverty.


"We could not have raised child benefit for all by as much as we raised child tax credit, but nor could we ensure that every family or every pensioner who needed support got it unless we continued to invest in universal benefits too."
The principle of universalism - not excluding people on socio-economic grounds - is under threat, Balls notes, from both the Liberals and the Tories.

Rather than recognise that as citizens, the more secure are entitled to the same universal services, they would limit the provision of government support to the poorest, which would increase rather than lessen unpopular forms of means-testing. And as we all know, services for the poor alone are poorer services because the least among us lack the means to fight for improvements to services, having to struggle to get by as it is.

Alexander and Miliband write:
"The need for collective action is clear: from climate change to reforming social care, from improving education standards to tackling unemployment. And it goes to the heart of why Conservatism is wrong for the next decade: the right kind of state action is not a drain on individual empowerment; it can enhance it. Osborne and the Conservatives are caught between the ideology that defines them and the real lessons from the financial crisis. In the face of massive market failure, they continue to assert that society's problems will be solved if we simply have a small state. The role and shape of the state will be central to the coming election campaign."
[...]
"Don't let anyone tell you there aren't big choices at this election. We will fight for our vision of society: enabling government, empowering people, a society where we grow together, not apart."
Yet again, I must make the correction that it is not ideology that blinds the Tories, but the interests they represent. Time and again opinion polls show that voters have a high level of awareness that the Tory party exists to protect the wealthy few rather than the struggling many - there's nothing wrong with making this connection explicitly, it doesn't alienate middle income voters, it's not about envy or a poverty of aspiration. It's a matter of fact.

And as Alexander and Miliband observe:
"The jobs of the new decade can only be created if we recognise the role of government, complementing the private sector in making it happen, nurturing industries from digital to low carbon."
This is true, whatever you make of the terminology. The language of each individual having a stake in collective action, is welcome. It is to be hoped that the next manifesto will have a strong emphasis on expanding co-operative and mutual enterprise in the private sector.

misc & manifesto

The positive economic news coming out is accompanied by interesting opinion poll on the Tories, whose position on the economy is hopelessly confused. From regional development agencies to deficit-reduction, the Tory line keeps changing.

Yesterday there was another report on the co-operative content of Labour's next manifesto, this time in the Observer. The PM has hosted the launch of a new co-op grouping at 10 Downing St. (See: a report on the Future Co-operative 2010 conferences, and also the new social networking site Co-operative Hive.) The government is backing a new law that will see bosses of transport and utility firms will be obliged to attend public meetings to answer for failings. And there are moves towards electoral reform to be announced.

Forty Labour MPs have backed a statement calling for a radical manifesto, which I agree with, though I'd add a further paragraph on the need to promote co-ownership:

In order to mobilise the maximum number of Labour voters in preparation for the next election, we believe that Labour should now focus its campaigning around the following key principles:


A. The recession should be tackled not with cuts in essential public spending, but by massive public investment in house-building, infrastructure and the de-carbonisation of the economy.

B. Banks should be split up with their casino investment arms hived off. Publicly-owned retail banks should be required to meet new social and community objectives and support manufacturing, with lending to businesses and homeowners restored to 2007 levels. Pay and bonuses should be tightly regulated.

C. A clean break must be made with market fundamentalism – deregulation and privatisation. Public provision should be expanded – in health care, education, housing, pensions, energy and transport. Royal Mail must remain wholly in the public sector.

D. In the face of huge and unacceptable growth of inequality, a big redistribution programme must swing resources away from the rich to provide sizeable increases in pensions, the minimum wage, the lowest benefit levels, and to fund job creation and improved public services. Union rights must be restored – it is in economic crisis that workers are most in need of that protection.

E. To achieve the 80% carbon emission reduction target by 2050, renewable sources of energy should be promoted on a far bigger scale, industry (including airlines) should be required to reduce its climate change emissions by at least 3% per year, household carbon allowances should be introduced, and the UK targets should be fully met by domestic action and not by carbon offsetting abroad.