Sunday, 29 June 2014

Understanding Our Economy and How To Change It, by Andrew Fisher

"Those who do not learn from history, and doomed to repeat it."

That seems to be the fate about to befall us, whoever wins the 2015 general election.

The causes of the economic crash are presented by the Westminster politicians in glib terms for short-term political gain.

On the one hand, George Osborne tells us our economic problems are all the fault of the last Labour government for over-spending, as if excess nurses' pay or teachers' pensions caused banks around the world to collapse.

This fatuous nonsense deserves no time, but the retort from Ed Balls, that the last Labour Government can't be blamed for the collapse of Lehman Brothers, deserves little more.

The US bank crashed in 2008, but here in the UK Northern Rock had collapsed in 2007.

Our economy was not an innocent bystander in the crash, buffeted by the fall-out of the US sub-prime crisis.

We have to accept responsibility. And that means looking beyond glib banker-bashing, too.

The crash wasn't caused by a few rotten apples in a few dodgy barrels. The crash was the inevitable consequence of the structural weaknesses in our economy.

Those structural weaknesses were as a result of deliberate policies by successive governments to reshape the UK economy: rolling back the state by  privatising, deregulating, and handing over large swathes of industry and economic power to an unaccountable cabal of corporations and oligarchs.

This left our society more unequal, reducing people's incomes and depressing consumer demand.

Consumer credit and asset bubbles were there to fill in the gaps. But transferring housing into a speculative commodity only caused greater crises, social and economic.

Deregulating finance and undermining other sectors left our economy unbalanced, fragile and unstable.

And what is astonishing, after the deepest and longest depression since the 1870s, is that this economic orthodoxy remains intact, the banks remain lightly regulated, and there is little discussion in (and even less concrete action from) the hallowed halls of Westminster to fundamentally change our economy.

What I find most encouraging though, is that despite no political parties or organisations campaigning vigorously for it, the British public remains in favour of significant changes

Two-thirds majorities want the railways, energy companies and Royal Mail brought into public ownership, and by an even larger margin people want higher taxes on the highest earners.

So why is the Westminster consensus so out of step?

Actually, the economic crisis is and always was a political crisis, a crisis of democracy.

Not just because no party is properly representing people's economic views, but also because too much economic power now resides outside the democratic realm.

By privatising publicly funded assets, we handed over control of our water, electricity, gas, telecoms, and later railways and postal service, to privateers.

In return they charged us more, asset stripped, and failed to invest. Leaving our infrastructure well behind that of other major economies.

By reducing taxation on capital, high incomes and corporations, more wealth has now been accumulated by that infamous one per cent.

We instead now tax the incomes of the poorest at a higher rate than those of the richest.

By asset stripping our economy and allowing only the richest to share the proceeds, our country is scarred by a grotesque inequality in which we cap benefits going to the poorest, but not the rents charged by the richest.

This is the morality of an economy rigged to benefit only those at the top.

If we want not only a moral economy, but also a stable one, then we have to redistribute wealth and power.

That means, as Tony Benn put it, "shifting power from the wallet to the ballot."

In practice putting those parts of our economy that are too important to fail, including the banks, in democratic public ownership and giving people economic rights: to not live in poverty, to decent housing, and in the workplace.

We need an economy that works for us.

That means taking on some very powerful vested interests, just as it did when the Chartists, trade unionists and Suffragettes fought to get rights, too.

If we are to learn anything from our history, it is that social movements change history, and that while the one per cent have the billions, the 99 per cent have the numbers.

We have to get organised.

Andrew Fisher is the author of The Failed Experiment - and how to build an economy that works.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Modi Operandi, by Matthew Cooper

Narendra Modi is someone to be watched with great care.

Not only Pakistan, not only China, and not only Southeast Asia, have good reason to be wary of him.

The Western world as well should take great care, and not welcome him with the enthusiasm of a warm ally , as, for example, David Cameron and Barack Obama seem to have done already.

In the Anglosphere, I feel there may be a certain kind of patronising and infantilising Orientalism at play, of the same sort which makes Buddhism so popular amongst a certain segment of white suburban liberals.

That surrounds Hinduism as well in the mystique of its fuzzy, deracinated, ‘spiritual’, New Age permutations while refusing to take a good, hard look at the elements which might not be so palatable.

The extremist ideology of Hindutva encapsulates and magnifies too many of these unpalatable elements, even though the inspiration for the ideology is, in its entirety, Western.

Hindutva is essentially a deliberately militarised middle-class striving after a ‘pure’ Hindu national and cultural essence, informed by an inflated sense of past colonial grievances and of disdain for any form of cultural expression considered ‘non-Hindu’, including Christianity and Islam.

The forefather of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, exhorted his followers to ‘Hinduise all politics and militarise Hindudom, and resurrection of our Hindu Nation is bound to follow’.

Other leaders in its first generation, in particular Bal Thackeray, praised, admired and deliberately sought to emulate Mussolini and Hitler.

The organised rapes, beatings and killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, in which Modi’s personal complicity as the leader of the provincial government is still a matter of dispute, and of Christians in Orissa in and after 2008, are prime examples of the nature of this virulent and violent form of far-right political Hinduism.

The three civil bodies of the Hindutva movement: Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – of which Modi was a member) and Bajrang Dal, all took part in the violence in each case.

To this day, Gujarat, in spite of its vaunted economic achievements, still shamefully retains also the highest rate of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim communal violence.

Modi himself, in the position of India’s Prime Minister, may not be able to do as much damage or as much good as either his most strident detractors or his most fervent fans tend to think.

No one is well-served by turning India into a pariah state over his election.

But his rise does signal a sea-change in Indian politics which has been in motion since at least 2002, channelling the country’s continuing economic frustrations into old but nevertheless virulent forms of identity politics.

This heightened belligerence will also, of course, siphon over into foreign relations with his immediate neighbours such as China, and into India’s internal relations, particularly those based on caste and class.

But for all their vaunted nationalism, Modi and his party seem to fail the realisation that the independence of the Indian nation is guaranteed only by the one facet of that nationalism which they do not adopt: that in the economic realm.

The independence of India’s small farmers from foreign agricultural multinationals seeking to make fortunes on their backs is not an independence valued by the BJP or by the RSS, willing though they are to exploit said farmers’ frustrations and pin them on the Muslims and the Christians.

Yes, great care should be taken now with India, particularly if and when the geopolitical fractures with her northeastern neighbour begin to emerge.

Speaking of which, the RSS and the VHP both continue to receive the enthusiastic support of one Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Famous though he is for troubles he does not and cannot make for the government in the country of his birth, and which enjoy broad support only amongst Tibetan White émigrés, unfortunately he has a great deal of clout in the West.

And, indeed, in India, where he stands to do great damage to the civil society.

Strange Bedfellows, by Matthew Cooper

In what other universe but the funhouse mirror of Europolitics could Hungary’s Viktor Orbán make common cause with David Cameron?

The one being a populist Hungarian patriot in every sense of the word – including the economic sense – and the other being … well, David Cameron, who certainly talks the talk of national sovereignty but somehow manages to keep peddling slow-boil privatisation?

But in this case they both seem to have a clear and relatively well-founded sense that electing Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency of the European Commission would be a big step away from subsidiarity and from democracy within the EU.

Juncker clearly has not shown that great a respect for Greece’s national sovereignty, having done his level best first to oversee the auctioning off of all of Greece’s state assets and then to discredit Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras as ‘unfit’ to lead the nation of which he is a part.

Cameron and Orbán do, in this case, share a good and healthy instinct about the nature of his leadership. Tsipras’s own support of Juncker simply shows the extent to which he is an ideologically-consistent procedural democrat – including at the European federal level.

However, it is clear in this case Juncker did and does not feel the same way about Greek elections as Tsipras does now about European ones.

But the alliance between Cameron and Orbán bespeaks the direness of the choice that now faces Europe.

Britain has long been cautious with regard to what it sees as its national integrity, and that from a long history of balancing itself between involvement with and detachment from Europe, arguably going all the way back to Saxon times.

Think of the massive swing towards Continental involvement that was accomplished at Saxon expense, cultural and economic, beginning with the Bastard’s reign in 1066, which underwent a reversal only with Edward III’s reforms and protections aimed at preserving and promoting the commons and the English language nearly three hundred years later.

Orbán is at times criticised in the Western press, such as the Financial Times, for hypocrisy in adopting policies of nationalisation in despite of his centre-right and anti-communist past.

But these criticisms are wholly misdirected. Industrial nationalisation is not the sole intellectual property of Marxism-Leninism, and Orbán understandably does not wish to see his nation placed again as firmly under the thumb of what he sees as an unaccountable supranational power as it was under the Soviet Union.

This being the consideration, it is understandable but nonetheless quite strange how Poland and the Baltic nations can be so cavalier about joining and participating in Euro-Atlanticist institutions, given their histories. 

Srue, they may feel that NATO and the EU can help to protect them from their neighbour to the east. But do they actually believe that a commitment to the ideology of European liberalism (however contested that commitment may be in Poland, where the Catholic Church is still a powerful presence) is any true guarantor of their respective national sovereignties?

It is not only because I tend to sympathise more with the Eurasianist geopolitical perspective that I feel Orbán’s scepticism on this point is far more intellectually defensible. One need only examine the recent track record of that ideology in such places as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Romania.

Britain likewise deserves the chance to express her independent foreign policy. But this chance will only come for her, as it will only come for any other European nation, when the deep links between the patriotism attaching to national integrity and sovereignty, and economic patriotism (including in the forms of national water, mail and rail), are explicated clearly.

Otherwise, national sovereignty will remain little more than an empty slogan, as it remains subverted by the private interests controlling the nation’s wealth, to which, pace Ricardo, the appeal to patriotism has never been sufficiently strong to keep expensive capital from haemorrhaging out of the nation’s borders, or cheap labour from flooding in.

This is not merely a British problem, of course. Every nation in the world seems subject to the dilemmas of such distorted politics.

Make no mistake – I find it very heartening to see Cameron leaning this way. But in the end, I am convinced that Orbán will be shown right.

Only a party evincing the ideals and priorities of old-fashioned Labour politics can rightly avail itself of all the necessary intellectual and moral tools necessary to safeguard the traditions and ancient honour of the British people and nation.

Veiled Democracy in Bahrain, by Sally Saar

In 2003, a Bahraini politician, Ahmed Juma, wrote a book called Using Democracy to Stage a Coup. He was clear in stating that some of the opposition societies’ core belief was not democracy.

Juma believed that some societies involved in the political process would use democracy to stage a coup. No one paid attention.

In June 2014, many in Bahrain, including high ranking government officials and media, were surprised at the Iran and USA interference in the GCC, due to the “revelation” of the MEPI report which is, in fact, an archived public document that was signed by the Ministry of Trade in 2003.

The US abused the agreement by requesting names of only shi’a students whom they would train in various fields – their agenda was crystal clear.

Now, suddenly in disarray, government officials are frantically scrambling to correct past lapses and continue on the same path of erroneous commotion with reactive actions.

Proactive planning is still lacking. Ministries send contradictory messages - making it obvious that there is no coherent policy in place.

The decision making process is rampant with bureaucratic delays and pointless exercises that achieve very little. Ministers have not risen to the challenge of the crisis nor do they appear to be motivated by the unrest in the region – sadly, just business as usual.

The PM has endorsed empowerment, insisted on internal unity and fast tracking of issues – but this simple instruction has still not been adopted. Heads of State meeting leaders of countries is a necessity for the sake of diplomacy.

However, who from the Bahrain government sector or NGOs are visible at international forums or meetings with people at ground level at the EU, NATO, UN or Congress?

Instead of a stream of entertaining photographs on social media during visits abroad, would it not be more beneficial to Bahrain to see the people’s mandate?

Apparently, the Foreign Office in Israel has five ambassadors and over forty diplomats in their research departments. They remain ready and ahead of the game. Have any of the regional Ministries invested in analysts?

This raises the question; how much importance does Bahrain or the Arab world give to research and strategic planning?

Bahrain and the Arab world should never again be in a position where policy makers are stunned with scenarios that are glaringly obvious. It may be high time to evaluate the simple advice from the head of Bahrain’s Government who has been persistent with moving forward to a GCC Union.

Since 2011, universities have not produced a report about the effects of the unrest in Bahrain. Thousands of students at the University of Bahrain were affected – why have they not prepared reports or organized seminars and synopsis about the situation in Bahrain?

What type of outreach programmes are the other universities planning? Academics ultimately are free to raise issues and must take the time and initiative to address scenarios and publish papers or reports for the sake of their country.

Despite all the attacks and sectarian clashes, why has the Ministry of Education not published a comprehensive report to share with the world?

Obama believes the security of the American people is paramount, this being his justification for killing innocent people in Pakistan and Yemen.

In 2011, Cameron said “this continued violence is simply not acceptable and it will be stopped” – the roads were cleared of peaceful, unarmed protestors within days.

Yet, the Bahrain leadership has faced callous criticism for implementing safety and security procedures against deadly terrorism.

On Saturday 25th June 2014, tens of thousands of British nationals participated in the “No Austerity” protest to complain” about living standards forcing millions into poverty and demanded that the UK end the cost of war in blood; no military interventions”. They were demanding a fair, sustainable and secure future.

It took the BBC over 24 hours to report this protest – and yet, the BBC continues denouncing Bahrain at any given opportunity.

The Bahrain Prime Minister has repeatedly said that violence must stop and foreign interference eliminated – neither has happened in over 3 years.

Bahrain and the Arab world should probably be contemplating:

  • What is the political stance with the EU?
  • Why did the EU tow the US line in Bahrain but not during the Ukraine crisis?
  • Since the failure of the “Greater Middle East Plan”, what will the West do now?
  • What are the likely new “Greater Middle East Plans” and scenarios?
  • Why are we engaged with a political party whose core belief is not democracy at any level?
  • What is the role and what are the activities of Ambassadors?
  • Since Saykes Pcot is declared dead after what happened in Iraq and the region – do the powers-to be have grander plans for the region?
  • What is the role of the UN office in Bahrain and what reports have they generated for the international arena?
  • While running campaigns in selected areas through carefully chosen sources – why has the Bahrain UN office not submitted truthful reports to their head office?

There has been no positive statement reflecting social or economic developments from the UN office and Navi Pillai and Ban Ki Moon have been harsh and unfair – but surely their opinion is based on briefs coming directly from their local office?

Are we to presume that the UN office is not being completely honest in its reporting about Bahrain? Why are they not reporting accurately in the international arena? Why is no-one in the government questioning the role of the UN office in Bahrain?

Did we forget that on Sunday, 4th August 2013, US Embassies in Dhaka, Doha, Kabul, Khartoum, Kuwait and Bahrain remained closed due to a “threat” made in Yemen by “Al Qaeda”?

Bahrain, being safer than New York and London, did no-one suspect why the embassy was mysteriously shut?

Masters at propaganda, America attracted attention to the Middle East, by suggesting the CIA created Al Qaeda is a threat, thus deflecting international media attention from the real menace – Hezbollah Bahrain, who operate under the veil of the “democratic” Al Wefaq political party. Why are they given so much visibility?

Did we forget that on 24th September 2013, during the 68th annual session of the UN General Assembly, Obama said “efforts to resolve sectarian tensions that continue to surface in places like Iraq, Bahrain and Syria” thus proving that he had chosen to ignore the reality in Bahrain and substantiate his role in the “Greater Middle East” agenda?

Why did none of Bahrain’s government officials condemn the President of the US for his ignorant statement?

Backtracking will not resolve anything but policy makers must look forward and analyse future plans that America, Iran and even the UK may have for Bahrain and the rest of the GCC.

Did we forget what happened in Bahrain in 2011? For almost four years, Al Wefaq armed militia used “peaceful” methods of shooting sharpened metal rods through rocket launchers, molotovs and bombs to murder police and civilians – yet, they continue to cry innocence.

Al Wefaq’s leaders continue to deliberately sacrifice their own youth and despite recruiting young children to train to commit brutal violence, the world sadly sits in sympathetic ignorant silence.

Almost every citizen and resident in Bahrain has spoken, written and been vociferous against American, UK and Iranian interference in Bahrain – and yet, parliament focused on more ‘important’ issues such as banning expatriates from driving!

The premier has reiterated “those who targeted the Arab nation, using democracy as a pretext to interfere in internal Arab affairs, have tended to depict them as individuals who are deprived of their basic human rights, and tackled disturbances as symptoms of a spring and chaos as demands.”

For decades, the PM has urged internal strength against outside interference and the effects of disguised “democracy”.

Bahrain is in a cycle of continued violence, the region is in turmoil with sectarian atrocities in Iraq and utter horror in Syria.

Will we lament in years to come? After all, they say history repeats itself.

The Prime Minister of Bahrain continues to speak openly and transparently; in fact, he predicted the current situation years ago and he has been proven right

Will Bahrain listen now?

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Silver Tassie, by Sean O’Casey, National Theatre; reviewed by Ian Oakley

This play is one of O’Casey’s lesser known works, but it is a timely revival, as the subject matter is the First World War.
The play opens in a Dublin tenement, a group of soldiers are about to return to the front. As the action unfolds we see them interacting with their families, wives and girlfriends.
What gives the play an edge in this year where there is so much commemoration, is its unique perspective.
The First World War was the last war in which a United Ireland was part of the British Empire and fought as such.
When the Easter Rising occurred in 1916, many more Irishmen were being killed in the trenches than died in the Rising.
The play reveals that the primary motive for many Irish working class men in signing up was the money, the pay and payments supported their families at home.
In Act Two, the action moves to the frontline and we move to a more fantastical presentational presentation of the war, though none the less horrific for that.
There is a running joke where a journalist visits the soldiers and dives for cover every time he thinks they are being shelled.
This character reminded me of Blair and Cameron visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and boring the poor soldiers with their awful speeches.
The play then moves to a Dublin hospital and we see the consequences of the fighting in disable and blinded soldiers.
Finally, it ends with a grizzly party, where there is nothing to celebrate.
There is much dark humour in the play, but leaving the theatre my abiding memory is the horror of war, especially for these Irish veterans, as not only have they suffered the fighting they have returned to a Southern Ireland which will ignore them and their sacrifice, obsessed with the heroes of Irish independence.
When the play was first performed in the late 1920s, it was not a commercial success, but this may have been as it followed shortly after the premier of Journey’s End, another great play about the First World War.
Journey’s End gives the perspective of the junior officers in the trenches, an interesting contrast to the ordinary soldiers’ experience on display here.
With the anniversary of the First World War we have already had the neocon Michael Gove pronouncing how the War was quite a good thing.
That this journalist fool is running England’s school is bad enough, but for him to be pronouncing on history is embarrassing.
Still, let him go and see The Silver Tassie, and if he still thinks war is so wonderful, let’s drop him with an AK-47 in the middle of Iraq and see how he gets on.

A Liberal Critique of the EU, by Steve Radford

The Liberal Party opposes the European Union as currently constituted.

In particular, we oppose the concept of a Single European Currency, harmonisation of taxes, and any move towards a Single European Army.

It is without doubt untenable to have a single currency without the discipline of a single economic government.

Europe has always been diverse in terms of politics, religion, economics and social structures - imposing uniformity is fundamentally illiberal.

The arrogance of the current EU polite elite is actually aggravating the very social and political extremes that the EU is supposedly here to prevent.

The claim that the EU has brought peace is an insulting nonsense.

I do not wake every morning worrying that the Norwegian Navy is to invade up the Thames as they do not belong to the EU.

The reality is NATO has acted to ensure peace Western and Central Europe more than the EU, whatever reservations we have about USA predominance in NATO.

It is beyond doubt that NATO tackled the Kosovo crisis whilst the EU was impotent.

I fear the current crisis in the Ukraine has been aggravated by the EU seeking to expand east with a dangerous contempt of legitimate Russian interests and an ignorance of history.

As Liberals, we believe in social and economic diversity we support the concept of a Commonwealth of Europe in which communities are free to operate their own economies, use their own currencies and levy their own taxes, while making common cause on matters of regional concern such as peace and the environment.

The Liberal Party seeks to reform the European Union from within, working with the growing number of political movements seeking reform.

We recognises that the enlargement of the EU will have a substantial impact in stimulating trade and prosperity, will protect democracy and human rights, and has already made a significant contribution to political stability and international security in Eastern Europe.

However, those countries should be able to develop their own economic structures at a pace and direction of their choice whilst ensuring common democratic standards.

It is worrying that the single currency, and imposed financial structures on countries such as Cyprus and Greece, are leading to a dangerous alienation of the populations, and are undermining democracy itself.

There is no reason why a multi-track Europe would not be more stable, with France, Germany and there Benelux countries having a single currency.

There are pragmatic reasons why the Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece should control their own economies, rather than expect the EU to take responsibility and in effect bail them out.

A more diverse Europe would also be in a more flexible position to build bridges with Turkey.

Marx, Hitchens ... Clegg?, by Ben Myring

When your esteemed editor requested an article from me on the subject of 'being a Christopher Hitchens Marxist in the Liberal Democrats', I wasn't sure whether to chortle or bridle. Clearly I was being set up for a fall.
Still, it does no harm to have to set out one's first principles and intellectual roots occasionally, and while 'a Christopher Hitchens Marxist in the Lib Dems' is a terribly reductive description of my political position, it's hardly an inaccurate one.

And how does a historical materialist find himself marching behind the tattered banners of Comrade Clegg, fighting (and losing) local government elections in the tribalist borderlands of North London? Good question.

I have always been a man of the Left, steeped in and supportive of its egalitarian traditions. Not uncommonly, the appeal of Marxism made itself felt when I was still in my teens.

And, like so many who feel that pull, I had my period of hammer-and-sickle-waving zeal. In truth - and tellingly - my hammer and cycle was wrought from gold, suspended on a fine gold chain.

Yet I was never a dogmatic communist.

For me, the explosive and truly revolutionary aspect of Marx's thought was not in his narrow predictive abilities or even his political programme, but in his exposing of the link between technological and societal change.

Along with contemporaries like Freud, Marx demolished the narrative of an organic society that had been so central to all previous ideologies.

Which is not to say that this demolition has had the profound consciousness-raising affect on human society that it ought to have done.

I am often reminded of a killer question posed by my bearded and twinkle-eyed Sociology teacher.

He had instilled in us the well-evidenced understanding that nurture is more important than nature in determining social outcomes, an understanding accepted as fact by almost all social scientists.

But which two groups, he asked, hold on to the organicist illusion?

His answer has never left me (and may have influenced my occasional tendency towards intellectual elitism): a) the media, and b) the public. False consciousness has deep roots.

Thus for me the attraction of Marxism was always more intellectual and academic than, shall we say, 'party political'.

I considered myself an extension of the old joke about there being three Trotskyist parties for every two Trotskyists - I wanted no party at all.

By temperament I remained sceptical of the call to submit myself to the rigours of 'democratic centralism' or partake in interminable debates about the futility of parliamentary democracy.

And anyway, I was and remain really rather fond of parliamentary democracy, despite its cracks and flaws and farcicalities.

The warnings of Orwell cut deep, too. Whatever our egalitarian sympathies, however obvious the need for radical or revolutionary change (and however pressing the need for one to have that unfettered and unrestricted power in one's own hands, in the interest of the public of course, along with the right violently to purge one's foolish enemies at will), the seductions and temptations of authoritarianism and totalitarianism must always be fiercely resisted.

Indeed, in truth I was as enamoured with the tradition of Locke, Mill, Bentham, and Kant as I was that of Marx and his fellow critical theorists.

For what are equality and fraternity without liberty?

And not just liberty from the undue encroachment of the state (though the importance of that cannot be overstated), but the freedom from the insidious oppression of society itself: the poison of patriarchy and machismo, the straitjackets of gender and sexual norms, the crippling parochialism of nationalism and xenophobia, and the intellectual bankruptcy of anti-intellectualism, of organicism, and the wearying, mind-numbing crassness of so-called 'common sense'.

And so onto the late, great Christopher Hitchens, a man utterly alien to such restrictions.

Though I only discovered his work in the last decade or so of his life - when he noisily joined Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in their public roles as the 'Four Horseman of the Counter-Apocalypse' - his fierce writing and furious public personae had a profound influence on me.

I saw him speak in person but once, but I will never forget his fearsome oratory.

He was a titan of the humanist, anti-totalitarian left. It was as though the man could articulate my own thoughts before I had even thought them.

A Marxist who favoured Trotsky over Lenin, and Luxemburg over both. A devotee of the enlightenment, who confessed to a "sort of Whiggish" belief in human progress, but retained a profound scepticism concerning the promises of demagogues and authoritarians.

Not merely a secularist or atheist, but an anti-theist, who out-Orwelled Orwell in his understanding that religion was the seed of totalitarianism.

I was profoundly influenced by his loss, and it is rare for a day to go by without my wishing I could hear his articulate rage at the latest gross injustice.

Like The Hitch, I remain a historical materialist with a penchant for the dialectic.

Hitchens said of himself that he was "a Marxist who was no longer a socialist" - I'm fond of the term Marxish - and like him I find myself part of that long line of people and parties who struggle to balance and reconcile the egalitarian principles of the Left with the critical safeguards of the Liberal tradition.

Marx believed that capitalism would not be replaced until it had exhausted its ability to adapt and renew itself. In retrospect it is easy to see that he somewhat underestimated capitalism's ability to do just that.

Hitchens recognised that capitalism, especially in its latest hyper-globalist phase, was "innovative and internationalist", and rather convincingly noted that those parts of the world that are the most oppressive and authoritarian are those where the bourgeois revolution has stalled.

And, to stick with historical materialism for a moment: among the most important lessons of the 20th century is that in a world of boundary-dissolving globalisation you cannot build 'socialism' in one country. Poor Trotsky was proved to be right about that in the end.

The global movement of capital, of people, of culture and ideas, are rapidly dissolving the socioeconomic foundations of the seventeenth-century sovereign state model and its bastard eighteenth-century offspring, the nation state.

We can learn the lessons of the past to look ahead - in my view a globalised world requires more than feeble and anarchic global governance, it needs global government.

It needs transnational, cosmopolitan, democratised institutions in which we can rebuild, safeguard, and underpin the social democracy that we see being eroded at the level of nation state.

This idea, with its routes in Aristotle, Dante and Kant, has been renewed of late in the work of democratic cosmopolitan writers as diverse as Danile Archibugi, David Held, and George Monbiot. There is much more to be done.

This is not a trivial matter – technological progress and the gradual dissolving of the old social order mean that we are just as likely to end up in the authoritarian and impersonal grimness of Mega City One than the post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek.

We must not abandon Marx's exhortation to think ahead, and think radically. To shed old narratives and intellectual shackles.

Nationalism is just as much an opiate of the people as religion was (and in some places still is). Like Hitchens, I like to recall the neglected follow up to Marx's famous opium dig:

"...the criticism of religion … has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower."

And yet it's nice to have people to cull flowers with, and to plant them, too. Am I a socialist libertarian? A social liberal? A social democrat? Labels matter less than ideas, less than practice (or, to utilise the delightful Marxist term, praxis).

Marx said that we should seek not just to understand the world, but to change it.

In my own small way I have being trying to contribute to my community as best I can - a little volunteering here, a campaign or two there.

Nor am I still immune to the pull of party politics and the grubby realities of elections. But what party could accommodate an eccentric like me?

It would have to be pluralist rather than majoritarian. Anti-nationalist, cosmopolitanism and transnationalist rather than merely internationalist.

Committed to egalitarianism - and showing an understanding of the societal harm that inequality causes - but hesitant to be over-reliant on statism to achieve its goals.

Deeply sceptical of social conservatism of any kind.

It would need to abhor the shambles of our outdated constitutional arrangements, and see the folly of entrenched perma-failure policies such as the 'war on drugs'.

It would need to be a contemplative and rationalist party, rejecting tribalism, indifferent to emotional reasoning, and cognisant of the dangers of identity politics.

This, dear comrades, is how I find myself in the Liberal Democrats.

Not always an easy place to be, especially in these interesting times. But, for all their flaws, they are a thoughtful and indefatigable bunch.

And I tend to think, in my Marxish way, that they are on the right side of history.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Is This Labour’s Best Chance for Disability Reform?, by Simon Stevens

A few weeks ago I was proud to launch a discussion report entitled Achieve Support, which is a detailed proposal for a new single assistance and support assessment and allocation system and process for disabled and older people.

Its central aim of the proposal is to replace all the current disability benefits as well as adult social care funding streams into one new system, managed nationally by a new body, Support England, and delivered locally by new support bodies that are independent from local government.

More importantly the funding provided would be outcome based, determined on what individuals specifically need, not on labels and artificial lines of ‘fitness’.

I wrote the report myself, with some input from various colleagues in the disability and social care sectors, and it was intended for the consumption of Labour, after a meeting I had with Liz Kendall as shadow minister for care services.

The report is not perfect and I regard it as a starting point in what will be a long journey to its realisation.

But as the basics of the idea is something I have had for years, I am more than hopeful that eventually my idea will be a reality in some form, because it makes sense.

I kept an open mind when the coalition came to power and made an effort to reach my own conclusions to their policies, as oppose to simply jumping on the anti-cuts bandwagon without having my own thoughts. 

And I have now reached my own conclusion that the welfare reform is in a mess for enormous reasons that most readers will be very aware of. ESA and WCA is too toxic to continue, bedroom tax hit the wrong people, PIP is in chaos and Universal Tax Credits is nowhere to be seen.

In preparing my report, I looked carefully at what has not been working and why, such as the fact that WCA and the interaction with ATOS ignores the emotional journey to ‘getting better’ and being ready to return to work.

I want to build a system that works with disabled and older people, not against them, but at the same time it has to be fair and I did not want to fall into the trap of making it a list of demands of what disabled and older people wanted without any consideration for the economic realities of delivering assistance and support.

It is clear sanctions are not working and while I want a system that starts with big juicy carrots, in the background, there does need to be a clear and transparent stick to fairly manage those who refuse to properly engage with the system, as citizenship is about rights and responsibilities.

I would argue society would be more accepting of the inclusion of disabled people if a rights and responsibilities framework to assistance and support was provided.

As the next election quickly approaches I must ask if my idea is Labour’s best chance of getting it right for a generation?

The Care Act is nothing more than moving deckchairs on the Titanic, whose implementation will be far more disastrous than the welfare reforms. DWP is in melt down and please do not get me started about the state of HMRC.

The country is crying out for real major reform and a government that is prepared to be brave enough to deliver it.

It is important to understand Disabled and older people are a few steps away from claiming their inclusion as fully contributing members of society if the right policies were put in place.

I think my biggest fear, other than my idea being ignored (if I would allow that happen), is that my proposal is knocked into something out off all recognition to what was intended after all the interests groups have their say, who could twist the objectives to suit their agendas, and so like many policies in social care, it will become meaningless and no different to the mess we have now.

This is why I have being upfront that I would like to be the first Chair of Support England, because this proposal will need strong leadership if it is going to be as successful as I know it can be.

Labour has the opportunity to reinvent assistance and support for disabled and older people, and my proposal is the starting point they need, only time will tell if they have to courage to deliver.

I am a leading independent disability issues consultant, researcher, trainer, controversial inclusion activist, campaigner, and social change agent, based in Coventry (UK) with vast experience and expertise in a wide range of fields including disability equality, independent living, health policy, social care, lifestyle advocacy, employing personal assistants and Secondlife.

I have worked with many organisations of all types since 1992 nationally and internationally and I am also founder and owner of Wheelies, the world's first disability themed virtual nightclub, and star of Channel 4's disability prank show I'm Spazticus, as well as being a blogger for the Huffington Post.

I also have cerebral palsy that affects my speech, balance, hand control and sense of humour (in a positive way). 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The North East Economy, by Grahame Morris MP

Resources are being diverted from the North to the South.

Councils in the North East are losing £665 per person an average, compared to £305 in the South East.

Durham County Council is losing £242m by 2017, nearly 2000 council staff made redundant, affecting frontline service, education (home to school transport), libraries (reduced hours), and transport (withdrawal of bus services).

According the Institute of Public Policy Research, transport spending for the North East is £5 per head, whereas in the London it is £2,731.

The Government has failed to “make work pay”.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron told us that “the best route out of poverty is work.” But this is empty rhetoric.

Two thirds of children in poverty live in working households.

There are over five million low paid workers in the United Kingdom, earning less than the living wage. That figure up from 3.4m in 2009.

The number of people in work claiming housing benefit is up 59% since 2010, costing an extra £5 billion. Wages have fallen on average by £1600 a year under Cameron.

An Oxfam Report details that Food Banks and Food Aid charities gave more than 20 million meals last year to people in UK who could not afford to feed themselves.

Locally, Durham Food Bank, established in 2011, saw a 264% increase in demand in first two years.

In 2011, 3209 people were fed by it. In 2013, the figure was 11,684. It is regularly feeding 1,300 people each month.

The main reasons for food bank usage are benefit delays (36%), benefit changes (21%) and low income (17%).

The Bedroom Tax has affected 1,300 families in East Durham. It costs low income families £850,000 in East Durham, money that would otherwise be spent in the local economy, supporting jobs and services.

County Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland are among the top 10 hardest-hit areas in the UK.

The North East has lost economic support and representation in Government.

One North East has been abolished; it had invested £2.7bn into regional economy, attracted and created 19,000 new businesses, and created and safeguarded 160,000 jobs.

The Coalition has scrapped the Regional Minister, reducing the voice of the North East in Government.

The local and European elections should have served as a wake-up call to all political parties.

The public expressed its discontent with politics.

They believe that those who run the country fail to understand their problems, and that political parties are more concerned with the Westminster bubble than tackling the real issues affecting their lives.

Unfortunately, there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to persuade the public any differently.

For ordinary people, things are getting harder, not easier, under this Government. Hardworking people are £1,600 a year worse off.

Families are paying £300 more on their energy bills. And at a time when people are working longer and harder for less, raising a family has become more difficult as childcare costs have risen by almost a third.

The nation needed a Queens’s Speech that would rise to these challenges, but instead we were presented with more of the same by a coalition more concerned with its own internal politics than with the issues facing the general public.

One out of three children in the North East is now living in poverty, and two thirds of young people in poverty live in a working household.

My Honourable Friend the Member for Wansbeck, Ian Lavery MP, raised this point at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. But David Cameron had nothing to say on the matter.

The Government keeps telling us that employment is the route out of poverty, but for many parents hard work is not even enough to provide an acceptable standard of living for their children.

In the North East, full-time workers are now £36 a week less well-off than they were a year ago. The link between economic growth and living standards is broken.

It is ordinary people that were made to pay for this Government’s policy of austerity.

After enduring three years of cuts and a flat-lining economy, it cannot be right that now the economy is recovering, ordinary people are not the ones benefitting.

When an economy grows, wages should grow, too.

That is why I am proud that Labour has pledged to raise the value of the minimum wage over the next Parliament, to move towards a living wage for businesses that can afford to pay it, and to introduce a lower 10p starting rate of tax.

You can only call an economic recovery successful if it is being felt throughout society, not just in a few clusters of privilege.

This is something that the Coalition patently fails to understand.

In the North East, 6,860 people aged 16 to 18, or 7.6%, are not in education, employment or training, the highest proportion of any region.

Long term youth unemployment has jumped by 60% under this Government. The cost of long-term youth unemployment is £350m a year and £3.2bn over the lifetime of the young unemployed.

And in my constituency the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than two years is on the rise.

Clearly, this is not an economy that is benefiting people equally.

The North East, and especially young people in the North East, remain out of sight and out of mind for this Tory-led Government.

We urgently need action to get local people into work.

I am proud that Labour is calling for a compulsory jobs guarantee, which will get any adult out of work for more than two years, or young person out of work for a year, into a job.

But my constituents should not be made to wait another year for a Government to take action to improve their lives.

Real action, not empty rhetoric, is what is required.

Families struggling to make ends meet need relief from overburdening energy bills in the form of Labour’s Consumers Bill to freeze energy prices until 2017 and reform the energy market.

Parents struggling to cope with balancing the demands of work and childcare will be better off with Labour, with 25 hours of free childcare.

And the 1.4m workers who are on zero hours contracts but working regular hours, need a Government to step in to provide them with a proper, regular contract that brings the security that a full-time job should deliver.

The Queen’s Speech missed an important opportunity to tackle the deep-seated causes of poverty and inequality in this country.

What the public require is an economy that delivers for the many, not just the few, and a Government prepared to deal with the real issues affecting their lives.

The Coalition’s last stand has shown they are unable to deliver the change we need.

We need a real alternative.

However, for that, we shall have to wait until 7th May 2015.

Grahame Morris is the Member of Parliament for Easington.

Father's Day, by David Lindsay

Only a generation ago, a single manual wage provided the wage-earner, his wife and their several children with a quality of life unimaginable even on two professional salaries today.

This impoverishment has been so rapid and so extreme that most people, including almost all politicians and commentators, simply refuse to acknowledge that it has happened.

But it has indeed happened. And it is still going on.

If fathers matter, then they must face up to their responsibilities, with every assistance, including censure where necessary, from the wider society, including when it acts politically as the State.

A legal presumption of equal parenting. Restoration of the tax allowance for fathers for so long as Child Benefit is being paid to mothers.

Restoration of the requirement that providers of fertility treatment take account of the child’s need for a father.

Repeal of the ludicrous provision for two women to be listed as a child’s parents on a birth certificate, although even that is excelled by the provision for two men to be so listed.

And for paternity leave to be made available at any time until the child was 18 or left school, thereby reasserting paternal authority, and thus requiring paternal responsibility, at key points in childhood and adolescence.

Of course a new baby needs her mother. But a 15-year-old might very well need her father, and that bit of paternity leave that he has been owed these last 15 years.

That authority and responsibility require an economic basis such as only the State can ever guarantee, and such as only the State can very often deliver.

That basis is high-wage, high-skilled, high-status employment. All aspects of public policy must take account of this urgent social and cultural need.

Not least, that includes energy policy: the energy sources to be preferred by the State are those providing the high-wage, high-skilled, high-status jobs that secure the economic basis of paternal authority in the family and in the wider community.

So, nuclear power. And coal, not dole.

Moreover, paternal authority cannot be affirmed while fathers are torn away from their children and harvested in wars.

Especially, though not exclusively, since those sent to war tend to come from working-class backgrounds, where starting to have children often still happens earlier than has lately become the norm.

Think of those very young men whom we see going off or coming home, hugging and kissing their tiny children.

You can believe in fatherhood, or you can support wars under certainly most and possibly all circumstances, the latter especially in practice today even if not necessarily in the past or in principle.

You cannot do both.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

China After Twenty-Five Years, by David Lindsay

There has been surprisingly little comment on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Dare we hope that someone might finally have looked into exactly who those demonstrators were? I for one would love to know.

Statue of Liberty or no Statue of Liberty, they sang The Internationale in Tiananmen Square.

After all, one certainly does not need to be an advocate of liberal democracy to be an opponent of the regime in China. And various other types of such opponent are decidedly more numerous and long-established in China even today, never mind 25 years ago.

There is the Kuomintang. There are the Xinjiang Islamists, and the people who want to restore life expectancy in Tibet to half its current level by bringing back theocratic feudalism, and a number of equally unpleasant separatist tendencies elsewhere.

There are the Trotskyists, and those Stalinists who are not Maoists. There are now, and up to a point there were even in 1989, those who hold to the old, old Maoist faith against China’s transformation into the giant standing contradiction of the theory that capitalism and freedom go hand in hand. And many more besides.

It is impossible to overstate the absolute imperative to remain out of these things, which is no small part of the absolute imperative to have no part in any pretence that that thing holed up on Taiwan is the Government of China, or that Taiwan is a country (those two are in any case mutually exclusive propositions), any more than something holed up on the Isle of Wight at the end of a British Civil War would be the Government of Britain, or would make the Isle of Wight a country, likewise mutually exclusive propositions.

The self-styled Republic of China has had extremely few Western partisans since Nixon and the UN faced up to reality, but it had friends among the Crazies around Bush the Younger, and it would have them in and around any Administration headed by Hillary Clinton. Michael Gove and Liam Fox are probably fans.

It has no aspiration to Taiwanese independence, which is an absurd idea. Nor does it claim jurisdiction only over China as she now exists. Rejecting the authority of the present Chinese Government to resolve territorial disputes, it lays claim to all of Mongolia, as well as to parts of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Burma.

We must have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with it.

In addition to backing China in her territorial dispute with Japan, a dispute in which no other country ought to take any part, David Cameron is seeking a “Free Trade” Agreement between China and the European Union, so as to do to European workers what Most Favored Nation Status for China has done for American workers.

Labour has already made as clear as need be that it intends to vote against the “Free Trade” Agreement between the US and the EU, so this is just another one to add.

In both cases, there might have to be um-ing and ah-ing about how some other Agreement would have been acceptable, but regrettably not the only one on offer. So what, though? The effect would be exactly the same.

We are told that the only alternative to this approach, an approach which old hippies actively prefer, is sucking up to the Dalai Lama. Rubbish. The present Dalai Lama was born hundreds of miles outside Tibet. The Tibetans themselves migrated to what is now Tibet from further east in China, but huge numbers of them never did and never have done. The Dalai Lama comes from one such family.

Before 1959, Tibet was not an independent state ruled benignly by the Dalai Lama and given over almost entirely to the pursuit of spirituality. Tibet was certainly ruled by the Dalai Lama, by the lamas generally, and by the feudal landlord class from which the lamas were drawn. “Dalai” is a family name; only a member of the House of Dalai can become the Dalai Lama.

Well over 90 per cent of the population was made up of serfs, the background from which the present rulers of Tibet are drawn. That system was unique in China, and existed only because successive Emperors of China had granted the Tibetan ruling clique exactly the “autonomy” for which it still campaigns from “exile”. Life expectancy in Tibet was half what it is today.

There has never been an independent state of Tibet. Likewise, the presence of large numbers of Han (ethnic Chinese in the ordinary sense) and other Chinese ethnic groups in Tibet is nothing remotely new. The one-child policy does not apply in Tibet, so the Han majority there is the ethnic Tibetans’ own fault, if they even see it as a problem.

It is totally false to describe the Dalai Lama baldly as “their spiritual leader”. Relatively few would view him as such. In particular, Google “Dorje Shugden” for, to put at its mildest, some balance to the media portrayal of the present Dalai Lama. We never hear from Dorje Shugden practitioners, just as we never hear from the loyally Chinese Hui Muslims.

Moreover, the Dalai Lama has never condemned either the invasion of Afghanistan or the invasion of Iraq. For more on Buddhism as no more a religion of peace than Islam is, see Sri Lanka, Burma, Mongolia, Japan, Thailand, and beyond.

In fact, an examination of the relevant texts shows that violence in general and war in particular are fundamental to Buddhism. Tibet is particularly striking for this.

Not for nothing is it Christianity that is fashionable among the Bangkok hipsters who are among the victims of the ongoing military coup in Thailand. Something similar was no small part of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, and then, through the court influence of Anglo-Saxon kings’ Frankish brides, to that of what was thus turned into England.

Just as pre-Communist Russia always remained the country’s true character, so very pre-Communist China remains the country’s true character.

That character reveres tradition and ritual, upholds government by moral rather than physical force, affirms the Golden Rule, is Agrarian and Distributist, is now thoroughly Classical and Patristic in taking Africa seriously, and has barely started an external war since China became China five thousand years ago. It is especially open to completion by, in, through and as classical, historic, mainstream Christianity.

China has already moved from Maoism to the equal repressiveness of unbridled capitalism.

While economic, or any other, dependence on a foreign power remains totally unacceptable, a further shift, the reassertion of her own culture, is to be encouraged by every means of the “soft” power that, in reality, is truly hard power.