A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Dr Strangelove rides again

Following the emergency Budget the BBC Radio 4 Today programme for once put the ruling coalition's politics under pressure. Its presenter demanded that Nick Clegg explain why he was supporting a Budget that hit the poorest the hardest. The Lib Dem's blustering and vague accusations about "unfunded cuts" did not really deal with the issue at all. The philosophy and economic strategy behind the Budget aims to roll back the welfare state. This is not a new idea - the same thing's already happening at great speed in Greece and Spain. Both are being forced to swallow a toxic medicine of cuts and redundancies among valued public employees. What we are seeing in Europe today is strikingly similar to the economic policies prescribed to indebted poor countries by the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. They've long promoted cuts to public spending, privatisation of services and a reduced role for the state in all social matters. Internationally taxation policy has become a beggar-my-neighbour strategy where all are forced to compete in reducing corporate tax levels. And on Tuesday Chancellor George Osborne promised that Britain would see one of the lowest levels of corporation tax in the world. Gone is even any discussion of a "Robin Hood" transaction tax, better known as the Tobin tax, to enforce some taxation on the huge levels of capital flows around the world.

The Budget is the first of a long series of plans that the Con-Dems have in store. This week it was attacks on welfare benefits and housing benefit. Before that it was cuts to free school meals. In October the coalition will set out spending plans for the next three years which will wreak enormous damage to the welfare state. Despite Con-Dem claims about protecting health expenditure, it is clear that the NHS will suffer too as it struggles with the huge built-in costs of existing private finance initiative contracts and growing demand from an increasingly elderly population. On top of this our health service will have to deal with a wave of demand as poor housing, unemployment and poverty lead to greater sickness. A day before the Budget, Parliament had hosted a different debate on spending where talk of cuts, retrenchment or rolling back the state's role were off the agenda. MPs were discussing the Strategic Defence Review first announced by the outgoing Labour government, which made sure that our hugely expensive nuclear weapons and Trident programme were not included. Scottish Nationalists did try to get Trident into the review and managed to force a vote on its inclusion during a debate on the Queen's Speech. However the entire coalition voted against the SNP demand - a Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge - while the Labour front bench demanded that MPs abstain. This instruction was ignored by a large number of Labour MPs.

An air of unreality permeated last Monday's proceedings. Both front benches were agreed on Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons and essentially about interventions elsewhere. Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin delivered a speech that underlined the position of those who favour arms spending. "In today's world overpopulation," he declared, "competition for food and resources, the risk of environmental catastrophe, mass migration, accelerating technological change, nuclear proliferation, nationalism and extremism are all on the rise. That is quite a list, aggravated further by the global recession. Is this the moment to substitute hard power for soft power?" He talked in the language of Bush and Blair, declaring the "right" of the powerful to intervene where they think fit. Mercifully his allotted eight minutes were up before we could learn more of his apocalyptic worldview. The same day the House of Commons library published an analysis of the financial costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures. In total from 2004 to 2009 the British public have paid £11.8bn. In the last full year for which information was available, 2008-9, Iraq had cost £1.3bn and Afghanistan £2.6bn. The bill for the latter will be far higher in 2009-10. What's more the predicted cost of replacing the Trident missile-carrying submarines and their warheads stands at £76bn over a predicted 25-year life.

Those who support this strategy - including those who claim that Britain's nuclear arsenal are about deterrence - actually share Jenkin's swivel-eyed, Dr Strangelove worldview. If such a perspective were allowed to dominate, the 192 non-nuclear-weapons nations which do not wish to have WMD would do better to develop them as quickly as possible in preparation for a new era of resource wars. For the biggest corporations these kind of wars work. The bizarre auction of Iraq's oil reserves a year ago and Afghanistan's reported multibillion-pound mineral wealth show what is really behind such interventions. However they do nothing for ordinary people, the very people who are being asked to swallow huge cuts in social spending, lower tax for big corporations, an enormous defence budget and a new generation of nuclear weapons. As the cuts bite, the public focus will turn increasingly to issues of social need. It is time to promote an alternative view with social and economic justice at the forefront, at home and across the world.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The lowest assault

Well we knew that it was coming and we knew that it would be nasty, but it certainly didn't make Tuesday's Budget any more palatable. Truth has been turned on its head and the economy is being adjusted to deal with a fiction. That fiction is that swingeing cuts, the like of which we haven't seen in a generation, are necessary if the country isn't going to be thrust into chaos and bankruptcy; but they aren't necessary and the economy wouldn't have collapsed into entropic disaster without them. The truth is that the massive public-sector cuts and the vindictive attack on the benefits structure that Chancellor George Osborne has inflicted on us is a sop to the pressure from international bankers and speculators, to the grey men of the IMF, the European Union and the City. It's a capitulation to those who have said that, unless the government inflicts massive pain on the population, they will attack the currency and the country's credit rating with all the considerable weapons in their armoury, bringing about a crisis which would make the Greek disaster pale into insignificance. The poor are once again targeted disproportionately by this pack of coalition wolves, this collection of Tory class warriors and Lib-Dem turncoats.

There's £11 billion to be slashed from the benefits bill.That's a mind-boggling sum to rip off from those least able to defend themselves. And it's being done in the most dishonest way possible, by linking benefits to the CPI measure of inflation rather than RPI at a time when the RPI measure has gone up by 5.1 per cent in the past year , while the CPI has risen by 3.4 per cent. This will hurt households reliant on benefits significantly because of the way that spending in poorer households operates. And it will hurt even more when the 2.5 per cent VAT rise comes into effect on January 4, taking it to 20 per cent. Spending by government departments will, we are told, be cut by 25 per cent over the next four years - put like that, it doesn't seem to be that significant. But when you realise that government departments deal with everything in your life from schooling to health and safety at work, the impact becomes a little clearer. Public-sector wages frozen for two years will certainly not please civil and public servants. But this real-terms pay cut will hit the manufacturing and retail sectors as well, with the dramatic cut in the amount of spending power in the economy that it represents. And freezing child benefit for three years sounds like picking on families rather than saving the nation's credibility.

But perhaps abusing families is what it takes to win brownie points with the City? If we're all taking the hit equally, why is corporation tax going to be cut by 1 per cent every year for the next four? Doesn't sound all that equal to me at least. What this says is that we can forget about any recovery. The Tories and their Lib-Dem toadies are going for broke. They are front-loading a huge attack on working people early in their term of office and attempting to use phoney claims of a financial crisis to justify redrawing the economic map of Britain. Every service that is crippled will be accompanied with a transfer to the private sector justified by the specious claim of "attracting private capital," when what will happen in reality is that what will be attracted are profiteers and speculators. The leeches will have a field day and the profits will flow freely - as freely as the lifeblood of an economy that is being hijacked by those who see public service as an opportunity to milk the public purse and benefit recipients as mere parasites and scroungers, not people in need of help and support from their society. It's an attack of huge proportions and unlimited malevolence and we are going to have to tell this government that we are having none of it. It's an assault that will have to be resisted by every parliamentary and extra-parliamentary resource that we can summon. And it's a fight that must be won.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Winners & losers of the crisis?

Britain's super-rich have done amazingly well out of the crisis. According to the Sunday Times, the wealthiest 1,000 people have increased their assets in just one year by £77 billion. That's a gain of 30 per cent, bringing their total wealth up to £333 billion. This is an interesting figure. It's more than twice the size of the £156bn annual deficit which we are told has to be eliminated by all-round sacrifice and massive cuts in the welfare state. Is there a connection? Indirectly, yes. And it is vital that we understand it - because currently across Europe people are being subjected to a confidence trick so gigantic and dangerous that it would make even Bernie Madoff blush. The same financiers who precipitated the economic crisis are now demanding that working people pay the cost. They are doing so to ensure that the profits of the very rich are maintained even if the result is deeper crisis and recession. Governments in virtually every EU country have been bullied into announcing cuts in public expenditure that will reduce economic activity by between 1 and 2 per cent annually for the next four years. Japan has just announced it will do the same. The cumulative result can only be long-term economic depression. Governments are taking this action in the middle of the world's worst economic crisis since the 1930s at a time when those who control the capitalist world's assets are not investing but hoarding and speculating. So are those who advise governments mad? Well, no more so than the inventors of the dodgy "financial products" that precipitated the crisis in 2008 - which were also very profitable for some.

On this occasion, however, the proposals are designed to benefit the whole class of the very rich. The destruction of the welfare state will push a massive amount of provision back into the private sector. It will directly attack the main surviving bastion of trade union resistance which is now concentrated in the public sector. It will increase unemployment and reduce wages. And it will cut taxes. As they say, never waste a good crisis. If any apologists of the existing order are reading this article, they might now object, saying: "But you are all shareholders. Your pensions and savings are invested in the stock exchange. They depend on corporate profitability." True - but only up to a point. Has any wage or salary-earner seen their bank savings gain a 30 per cent rate of interest in the past year? There is a reason why they haven't. It's called finance capital. This is the result of the massive concentration of capital ownership in the course of the last century and the use of this capital to dominate and control the banking system. Last September former senior official in the Office for Fair Trading John Chapman, writing in the Financial Times, effectively exposed finance capital's present-day workings. He focused on what is called the "alternative investment" sector. It is made up of the investment banks, hedge funds and private equity companies that manage the wealth of the very rich. It currently manages about £1,000bn - as against the £5,000bn invested in pension funds across Europe, mainly workers' savings.

In the years running up to the 2008 crisis the alternative investment sector was marking up average returns of over 15 per cent. It did so mainly through "leverage" - borrowing from retail banks and pension savings of ordinary people who have to be satisfied with a much lower level of interest. As Chapman noted, the alternative investment sector is only open to the "very wealthy" - effectively those with investable wealth of well over £3m. In Britain this amounts to a minute fraction of the population, roughly 0.2 per cent, at most 50,000 adults. They have the privilege of being able to invest through institutions that are not regulated, generally not taxed and can borrow unlimited amounts from the retail banking sector. It was of course the speculative leveraged borrowings by some of these alternative investment banks that precipitated the 2008 crisis - precipitated, but not caused. For causes you have to go deeper - to the age-old contradictions of capitalism. Exploitation expands capital and impoverishes workers. Profits can't match the increase in capital and workers can't afford the expanded production. Temporarily bank lending was used to sustain demand - and lending to the poor is always very profitable until people cannot afford to pay it back. Then the retail banks were left without the minimal interest to cover workers' savings. As a result Northern Rock went bust, the mortgage banks did the same in the US and the crisis began. This is why the current actions of governments are so dangerous. Poverty was the immediate cause of the crisis. Poverty and unemployment will perpetuate it. The level of average household indebtedness in Britain remains 150 per cent of household income. So what is the government proposing? Sack another 300,000 people and cut benefits. It may not make sense to you. Yet, as we have seen, it may do for the very rich.

But it is based on a gigantic confidence trick. Public spending did not cause the deficit. Expenditure on public services is less today than it was in 2007. The deficit was caused by two things - the money used by the government to bail out the banks and the economic crisis triggered by the banks - which reduced the number of employed paying tax and increased the cost of benefits paid to the unemployed. In historical terms the deficit is not even very large. Even at its biggest, as forecast for next year, the total national debt will be less than that in the late 1940s when the welfare state was created or during the full employment of the 1960s. What is enormous is the aggregate private debt of the banks - that falling due in 2010 is equivalent to 23 per cent of national income in Britain compared with 7 per cent in the US (IMF figures). This is what really frightens the managers of finance capital and the bankers of the EU.  And this is why we need an alternative to this mad system. Remember, the richest 1,000 alone increased their wealth last year in Britain by £77bn. The deficit is £156bn. In 2009 the TUC backed the People's Charter and its demand for the government to take control of the banks, ban hedge funds, close down tax havens and use our savings for productive investment. Wouldn't that be a good start?  "We're all in this together," Prime Minister David Cameron announced on June 7. Public spending cuts, he declared loudly, would be carried out in a way that "protects the poorest and most vulnerable in our society." The next day Chancellor George Osborne scrapped plans to extend free school meals to children of the 500,000 lowest-paid workers in Britain.

Presumably this will hit all those bankers and business moguls earning below £307 a week, whose kids would have qualified for a buck-shee dinner every day. Still, at least all those big shareholders, company directors and non-doms on income support or jobseekers allowance will continue to enjoy that much-needed assistance, worth around £600 a year. Yes, we're all in this together. It also seems likely that the blue-yellow Tory coalition will scale down its plans to increase capital gains tax (CGT), whereby income is received in the form of shares, property and other assets. These can then be treated as a "capital gain" and taxed at 18 per cent, as can be subsequent profits from their sale. This 18 per cent compares with an income tax rate of 40 per cent on income above £37,401 - reduced to 32.5 per cent for income from dividends - and 50 per cent above £150,000, down to 42.5 per cent on dividend income. The first £10,100 in capital gains is exempt from CGT altogether. Osborne's Budget on June 22 will show us how the pain will be shared. Will he raise CGT from 18 per cent to 40 or 50 per cent? Will the rich continue to reap enormous tax benefits from receiving their income in the form of shares, property and other financial assets instead of paying income tax? We're all in this together, after all. Osborne has already revealed that some government departments will lose up to 20 per cent of their money over the next four years. Based on leaks to the press in April and September 2009 and corroborated by First Division Association general secretary Jonathan Baume, we warned that there would be two waves of massive public spending cuts in 2010, whatever the pro-capitalist parties might claim to the contrary. Osborne's emergency Budget will unleash the second wave.

Before then, government ministers must justify their spending plans to a "Star Chamber" comprising the Chancellor, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and his deputy Oliver Letwin, Foreign Secretary William Hague and Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander. Maude is a former managing director of investment bankers Morgan Stanley and chaired the last Tory government's deregulation tax force, reinforcing "big bang" freedom for the City of London, while Letwin is a former director of NM Rothschild Corporate Finance Ltd. Alexander is former head of communications for the European Movement and the Britain in Europe campaign. He can be trusted by the EU Commission and ECB to champion their drive to police and impose public spending cuts and privatisation across the continent. He succeeded David Laws as Treasury chief secretary, a multimillionaire who supplemented his fortune with a £40,000 rent subsidy from the taxpayer.  We're all in this together, remember. Laws, who may rise from the dead in record time, is a former vice-president of investment bankers JP Morgan and managing director at Barclays de Zoete Wedd, where he headed currency speculation in dollars and sterling. In his spare time, Osborne himself cavorts aboard billionaire yachts with Lord Rothschild, former EU Trade Commissioner Baron Mandelson and a Russian oligarch, in between flipping his homes for tax purposes. One of his first decisions as chancellor was to appoint Sir Alan Budd to head a new Office for Budget Responsibility. The OBR will take over economic and financial forecasting from the Treasury. This is an important function, not least because it sets the framework within which the government plans public finances and helps to shape public debate about economic and financial policy. Budd is very much an Establishment figure with many quango notches on his belt. Most importantly, at the time of his appointment he was a senior adviser to the Credit Suisse First Boston bank, having previously served as an adviser to Barclays Bank. Budd was also a founding member of the monetary policy committee when it was first set up by then chancellor Gordon Brown in 1997 and given powers from the Treasury to set interest rates. The MPC was later put on a statutory basis and attached to the Bank of England, which is the likely trajectory of the OBR as well.

Who better than Budd to continue the "privatisation" of economic and fiscal policy-making, transferring it from the democratically elected government and its Treasury to the friends and former employees of City banks and big business? And what further proof is needed that this Blue-Yellow Tory coalition is a government of the City, by the City for the City? It was cobbled together under pressure from "the markets" - the gamblers and speculators of the banks and other financial institutions - who wanted a regime that would cut and privatise public services sooner and more extensively than new Labour. These demands were dressed up as a plea for "fiscal responsibility," but behind them lay the threat of a spot of Greek treatment from the bond and foreign exchange markets in collusion with the European Commission and European Central Bank. That's why, just one week after taking office, Osborne announced a £6.2 billion cut in current spending this financial year, to add to the £10 billion cut in capital spending already contained in ex-Chancellor Darling's March budget. All in it together? Britain's monopoly capitalists won't be sharing any pain with the rest of the population. The class nature of this Tory coalition needs to be exposed, stripped of its "liberal" veneer. Certainly the trade unions, regional and national TUCs, the left and the Labour Party need to be all in together, building a united mass movement against the dreadful austerity programme. Trades councils can play an invaluable role in uniting trade union, community and other organisations to launch or support local campaigns. The impact of public spending cuts on jobs, wages and pensions in the private sector should also be emphasised, to counteract attempts to split the working class along public-private sector lines. But we should also be arguing that cuts in public services, pensions and benefits are not necessary. A people's alternative to the City's agenda would be to tax the super-rich and big business monopoly profits, cancel Trident replacement and withdraw the troops from Afghanistan. Such policies are reflected in the People's Charter, which could provide a powerful focus for the labour and progressive movements in the battles ahead.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Back in the old routine

It's been a bit of a rough start for our new coalition government as far as its personnel is concerned and it didn't look to be getting any better at the weekend. Firstly, Tory leader David Cameron was handed a personal kick in the teeth when Sir Anthony Bamford, the chairman of the JCB construction equipment firm and Mr Cameron's personal nomination for elevation to the House of Lords, was blocked from becoming a peer because of apparent concerns on his tax affairs. Sir Anthony had his nomination rejected by the House of Lords Appointments Commission when the tax authorities declined to support it, although neither they nor anyone else has made any suggestions of improper conduct. He had been a generous backer for the Tories, with his firm contributing to the tune of a cool £1.5 million and the knight himself coughing up £86,000. So no seat in the Lords for him, then. And it left the Tories even shorter in the upper house when Lord Laidlaw, another of the Tories' big backers, who has contributed more than £3 million to the party's coffers, forfeited his seat in the Lords because he was unwilling to lose his non-dom status and face the resulting tax bills. The noble tax exile apparently promised to become resident in Britain when he took the title in 2004, but has never honoured that pledge. Mind you, it's not surprising, because he's worth £700 million and would face a £50 million tax bill if he had. And, of course, we're still waiting with bated breath to see if Tory donor Lord Ashcroft follows suit or if he values his Lords seat enough to come back and cough up.

But it's not just the nobility or would-be nobility that is giving the coalition problems at the moment. The new austerity seems not to have sunk in with the new ministers in the Commons and that's left egg on a few faces. Defence Minister Andrew Robathan raised more than a few eyebrows when, instead of following the new ministerial guidelines about using public transport wherever possible, he took a chauffeur-driven government car across the Channel to attend the veterans' anniversary assembly in Dunkirk - a means of transport that he described as "appropriate and inexpensive." 'Nuff said. And now, as if all that wasn't sufficient, Treasury Chief Secretary David Laws has had to resign after it was revealed that he had paid £40,000 of public money claimed as expenses to his partner James Lundie for renting rooms in Mr Lundie's home, in clear breach of the Commons rules on expenses. The expressions of support for him have been effusive, from both Tory and Lib Dem sources, but he has admitted his guilt and is repaying the claimed cash. That won't give him many sleepless nights, of course, since he is, like so many others in this government, a millionaire in his own right. But it really can only be in this coalition that you can cheat the taxpayer out of £40,000 and be described by the Prime Minister as a "good and honourable man." Mr Cameron was joined by Business Secretary Vince Cable in his appraisal of Mr Laws, saying that "it is a big loss, but he has done the right thing." The right thing? Ripping off £40,000 of our money and only owning up to it when exposed by the press? And to cap it all, Iain Duncan Smith says that he "has the talent to come back." Words fail.

So, when you next hear that we're all in it together, that a new age of austerity has dawned and because of it your wages are cut or your job vanishes, bear in mind that the "all" who are in it together excludes Tory donors, tax-dodging multimillionaires, filthy rich "sex addicts," coalition ministers and all the rest of the rag-tag bunch of money-hungry parasites grouped around this disreputable coalition of profiteers and big business stooges. We're not all in it together. They are in power and in the money. We're in trouble and being squeezed until the pips squeak. It's a great world in Cameron's coalition. Once again, this government has announced new policies - and, once again, they have proven to be just old Tory policies dragged out of storage, dusted down and prepared for use yet again, a couple of decades later than their last airing. This time it's unemployment and the benefits system that comes under the coalition's scrutiny and, appropriately, it's a recycled Tory laying out the recycled policies. But, since Iain Duncan Smith, yet another unsuccessful Tory leader who has popped up in this Cabinet of all the failures, has spent the last few years developing policies to deal with worklessness and welfare benefits, you might have hoped that he would have come up with something new. No such luck, unfortunately, it's just the same old Tory whinges about benefit scroungers and the same old attacks on the least well off in our society. On he spouts about people becoming "parked" on incapacity benefit, whose 2.5 million recipients face a status review in the coming months designed to force them off benefits and back into work. Just what work he means isn't made clear. The 2.5 million people already fruitlessly searching for non-existent jobs are soon to be joined by as many others as the Tories can bully off incapacity benefits, presumably to take the millions of jobs that they have accidentally overlooked in the meantime.

And that's without counting the tens of thousands of civil servants and local authority staff who are destined to join them on the dole queues once the coalition gets into the swing of cutting the services that the unemployed and benefit recipients rely on for survival. It's all so old hat, really. It's the Tories falling back on the same mantra of beating up those least able to defend themselves that they have always employed.There is nothing new about it and nothing of real substance, either. And this supposed concern for those trapped on benefit it doesn't sit terribly well with the announcement in the recent Queen's Speech that the coalition is to scrap the regional development agencies. Not much help there in solving something that is a heavily regionalised problem and one, incidentally which dates back to the last time the Tories held office, when they decimated whole communities in their attacks on the coal and steel industries. Mr Duncan Smith makes great play of the fact that 1.4 million people in Britain have been on an out-of-work benefit for nine or more of the last 10 years and that income inequality in the UK is now at its highest level since comparable statistics began in 1961. But he gives little hope that any government in which he participates will do anything to improve matters. He highlights that people are better off claiming dole rather than in a job paying £15,000 a year or less.

But, unfortunately for all concerned, the problem is seen by Mr Duncan Smith and his Cabinet allies as benefits being too high and easily available, rather than wages being so bloody low that bare subsistence benefits can overtake them. "One of the biggest problems is that, for too many people, work simply does not pay," says the Tory gentleman. So make it pay, Mr Duncan Smith. Force your mates in the boardrooms to forgo a few billion out of their bonuses and jack up the minimum wage to a decent level. That will do a bit to solve income equality and it will give you clear blue water between wages and benefits. It will also inject some much-needed spending power into the economy and boost demand. But, for God's sake, don't fall back on battering the claimants again. Haven't you learned anything in 13 years out of power? Then again, you're a Tory, so perhaps you haven't. It is to be hoped, however, that your Lib Dems allies are getting a feel of just what they've allied with.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Labour caves in to racist bigotry

Most contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party think that a failure to take a tough line on immigration cost the party the general election. They blame Labour’s inability to engage with voters’ “legitimate concerns” over the issue. Even the editor of the left-leaning Prospect magazine last week urged Labour to become the “anti‑immigration party”. For some on the left, Labour’s capitulation to anti-immigrant sentiment is inexplicable. But Labour has a long history of bending to such ideas—and it does so because of the nature of the party. Governments’ approach to immigration is often shaped by the needs of the bosses—which they describe as the needs of “the economy” or “the national interest”. Labour accepts this idea of a “national interest” and sees its role as managing the capitalist state. In reality this means backing up the bosses—and working class interests get crushed. Labour has also swallowed the argument that workers have fixed racist views, and thinks it has to be too in order to keep votes. Looking at Labour’s history shows how this plays out in terms of immigration. The ruling class has a contradictory attitude to immigration, shaped by the economy and the racism that is inherent to their system. So, following the Second World War, the British economy was in dire need of more workers. Labour governments helped to recruit thousands of people from the Commonwealth to work in the “mother country”. But by the late 1950s British capitalism’s desire for labour was abating.

The Tories and right wing press demanded immigration controls. In 1962 the Conservative government passed a law that sought to block black migration into Britain.
By accepting that black people were a problem, the Act legitimised the views of every bigot. Initially, Labour leaders promised to repeal the legislation if they returned to office. But this opposition didn’t last. Some in the Labour Party began to argue that, if they joined the anti-immigrant clamour, it would block the right from being able to mobilise around it. They also accepted the idea that anti-immigrant feeling was widespread—and worried about losing votes. During the 1964 election twice as many Labour candidates mentioned immigration in their election addresses as the Tories. One Labour candidate even issued a leaflet warning, “Large-scale immigration has occurred only under this Tory government. The Tory Immigration Act has failed to control it—immigrants of all colours and races continue to arrive here.” This gave credibility to the idea that immigration controls were a way of maintaining the “national character”. After Labour’s capitulation, the clamour for ever-tighter controls grew. Following Labour’s re-election in 1964, the party rushed through ever more restrictions—which made racists bolder.

In 1968 Tory MP Enoch Powell made an infamous speech predicting that “rivers of blood” would flow in the streets unless immigrants were repatriated. Labour’s response was to rush through a new immigration bill to stop Kenyan Asians with British passports from entering Britain. This fed prejudice and undermined the basis of Labour’s support by boosting the right—the Nazi National Front increased its vote. When Labour was in office in 1976, immigration officers at Heathrow airport secretly forced Asian women to undergo virginity tests. Labour was against the Tories’ Nationality Act from the opposition benches in the 1980s. Yet it didn’t repeal the Act when it was re-elected. And in its 13 years in office, New Labour made life harder for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Its 2009 Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Act aimed to “strengthen border controls to ensure that newcomers earn the right to stay”. The Act ended the right of people to apply for citizenship after five years’ residence. Gordon Brown introduced the poisonous slogan of “British jobs for British workers” and used the points‑based immigration system to make it harder for non-EU migrant workers to come here. Immigration minister Liam Byrne in 2007 said that immigration had “deeply unsettled the country”. Many Labour Party members, and some Labour MPs, are rightly disgusted at the party for caving in to racist arguments. We will work with these people in campaigning for the rights of migrants. But Labour accepts the framework of capitalism—and that’s why it fails to stand up for migrants.

Youth job lambs to slaughter

The latest unemployment figures saw those looking for a job top 2.5 million, unemployment of 16-17 year olds rise by 4.4%, and the number of economically inactive reach its highest ever levels. But neither the Conservative nor the Lib Dem wing of the new government has proposed serious measures to provide jobs for workers and young people facing the brunt of this ongoing crisis. Instead the headlines are £6 billion cuts in public services to reassure the 'markets', code for multi-billionaires like George Soros and co. But why is it a priority to reassure the wealthy fat cats and not unemployed young people? During the election campaign, an unemployed young woman called Vicky Harrison committed suicide because of the hopeless situation she felt confronted by, after receiving over 200 job rejections. How many more young people feel in a similar situation? How much more are they in need of reassurance than wealthy hedge fund managers who only noticed the recession because their bonuses were five figures rather than six. We were abandoned by Labour during the onset of the recession, and the Tory/Liberal coalition is not going to change that situation.

The Conservatives during the general election talked about abolishing the Future Jobs Fund. Youth Fight for Jobs criticised this scheme because it did not offer permanent jobs, only six month placements, often on the minimum wage. Because of their temporary nature, they were likely to be low skilled, and more fundamentally did not ultimately change the employment outlook. The number of vacancies is dropping (now at 475,000) while the number of unemployed increases. This scheme has already created anger amongst young people forced onto it, many of whom will undoubtedly welcome its abolition. But signs are that the Conservatives will introduce schemes which are less useful than that. According to the Financial Times: "The Tories promise to create 400,000 apprenticeship or training places and give smaller companies a £2,000 bonus for every apprentice hired but have made no pledge to continue Labour's £1 billion in Future Jobs Fund."

During the 1980s, Thatcher's government reacted to mass unemployment with the Youth Training Scheme (YTS), but its inadequacy in providing a real way out for young people provoked mass opposition, including school student strikes involving 250,000. As Seumas Milne, commentator, says: "The prospect of ... Iain Duncan Smith dragooning the sick and jobless into privatised cheap labour schemes is a sobering measure of the new reality." This sort of scheme could provoke a reaction comparable to the protests in the mid-eighties. Benefits are widely expected to be "reformed" ie cut, and used to force people into schemes that will not benefit them. Big attacks are already expected to continue in further and higher education. Many young people have continued in education, or re-entered, to gain skills and avoid the thankless task of chasing non-existent jobs. But cuts in colleges and universities will still go ahead, while many young people are worried about attacks on grants for those in colleges (EMA for 16-19s, ALG for those above 19). Further down the line, the cap on university places remains in place and the threat of university fee increases. Many young people voted Liberal Democrat because they were seen as an alternative to the main political parties, especially because they promised eventually to scrap university fees.

However, the details of the coalition deal make it clear that the Liberal/Tory coalition will definitely not abolish fees, and most likely will preside over increases in charges for students, with Conservative and Labour MPs voting them through. The only thing that would stop them are cynical calculations in order to cling onto power in the face of organised mass opposition. This coalition will implement Conservative attacks on young people and the unemployed - the attacks that were found in the manifestos of Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. The new cabinet is two-thirds private school, two-thirds Oxford and Cambridge university educated, with multi-millionaires well represented within their ranks. Youth Fight for Jobs will continue to organise for a mass fightback, for a programme of job creation to solve the problems of unemployment, for free education to allow people to develop to the best of their abilities, and for a living wage that will allow those in work to live a decent life.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Reject the millionare government

Other than a Tory majority this Conservative-Liberal coalition is the worst possible outcome of the general election, since it is the most effective platform available for cuts, austerity and unemployment. Cameron and Clegg tell us that the coalition has been formed ‘in the national interest’. That’s the code phrase for their own class. The façade of equality within the coalition projected by making Clegg Deputy Prime Minister is a deception perpetrated by a Tory leadership which was determined to get their hands on the reins of power by any means necessary. It is an embrace of death which is already tearing the Lib Dems apart. In return for the trappings of office the Lib Dems have decided to underpin a reactionary coalition and sign up to the onslaught on jobs, pensions and services which the Tories have been preparing. The cuts agenda and deficit reduction are the cornerstones of this anti-working class coalition. Yet in the election campaign the Lib Dems supported Brown’s approach to the crisis, which was for a limited level of government stimulus (and quantative easing) in order to maintain demand in the economy for another year. This was inadequate, and did not avoid cuts, but it had temporally cushioned the crisis — though it was based in the illusion that the economy would recover next year and that the working class could then be made to pay the bill.

However this was an important difference which would have kept more people in work and created better conditions for a fight back. It has now been junked in favour of Tory proposals for an immediate £6 billion slashing of public expenditure with much more to come. This can only make the economic situation worse and a full-scale double-dip recession more likely. The backdrop of crisis across Europe throughout the election period should have served as warning on this. There was rioting in Athens and so-called ‘contagion’ was threatening Spain, Portugal, and Italy. To this mix was added fresh instability in the banking system and the markets and the threat by Sarkozy to pull France out of the Eurozone unless Merkel accepted the EU’s €750bn bailout fund for the single currency. The Lib Dems capitulated to the Tories knowing that there was alternative deal with Labour and the nationalist parties on offer — the so-called progressive alliance. This was not a project that we would have called for or supported but we are not neutral on whether the Lib Dems line up with the Tories or against them even though neither of these parties represents the interests of the working class. Caroline Lucas put it well, saying that neither side was progressive and that she would have supported any measures put forward on a case by case basis. For the Lib Dems this represented a spectacular betrayal of their own principles.

The Labour offer held out a real possibility of replacing Britain’s bizarre and corrupt electoral system, which has under-represented them for so long, with some form of Proportional Representation (PR). This is something which the Lib Dems have correctly called for over many years. It would completely change the scandalously anti-democratic “first past the post” system which deprives millions of voters of representation in parliamentary elections. It does not represent workers’ democracy, of course, but it is an extremely important working class democratic demand. A Labour-Liberal coalition would have been a less effective platform for cuts which is one of the reasons the Lib Dems gave for rejecting it. Such a government would have come under massive pressure from the media to implement a cuts agenda. It is true that the arithmetic was tight with the Labour option and that it would probably not have lasted 5 years. But it could have lasted long enough to ensure that the next election would not be under the “first past the post” system. What the Lib Dems have ended up with is a coalition in which all the cards and the key ministries are in the Tories’ hands. The Tories have offered them a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. It is not PR since it is not proportional and is arguably no better than first past the post since it would have no effect on the constituencies dominated by Tory or Labour inbuilt majorities which are the distorting factor in the first past the post system. One thing the Lib Dems extracted from the Tories was early legislation on fixed term Parliaments. This would mean that the next general election is scheduled to be on Thursday May 7th 2015.

This is a very important electoral reform measure in itself, although five years is too long for a government to hold office. Its purpose in these circumstances is a good illustration of the Lib Dems’ cynicism. They wanted to make sure that the Tories did not use them to get into power only to spit them out again when they thought they could win a full majority. The outrageous proposed change of parliamentary procedure to require 55% of the vote to pass a motion of no confidence in a government is another example of the Lib Dems’ desperation to be in office. Whether these safeguards can guarantee a stable government for five years of economic distress and attacks on the working class is another matter. There are some limited progressive measures in the deal between the parties: the abolition of identity cards; the postponement of the inheritance tax relief and a rise in capital gains tax. Most of the rest of the coalition agreement is Tory policy. Trident, the one issue on which the Lib Dems were out of step with establishment politics, is to stay. There is an unspecified commitment to raising the tax threshold, which is sure to be kicked into the long grass. It is also clear that a substantial rise in the regressive VAT is in the offing. On immigration the Lib Dem proposal for an amnesty after 10 years has been junked in favour of the reactionary Tory proposal for a cap on non-EU immigration.

One of the vile features of the election campaign was the repeated racist attacks by both the Tories and Labour equally over their amnesty proposal. Behind these attacks was the bankrupt attitude which rendered all three main parties unable to tackle the far right during the election campaign other than to compete with them on how many migrants they could stop coming in and how many they could throw out. This makes them directly responsible for the advances made by the BNP and UKIP in the campaign. The reason why both the BNP and UKIP won worrying scores at the national level was because the main parties insist on competing with them rather than opposing them. The war and the environment were marginal issues in the election campaign and nothing has changed with the coalition agreement. The Lib Dems have also collapsed on nuclear power. The Tory policy of a new generation of nuclear power stations is coalition policy with the Lib Dems having the right to abstain when it comes to a vote. The agreement is against a third runway at Heathrow and other London airports — but there is nothing about Boris Johnson’s proposal for a new airport in the Thames estuary. The most divisive issue facing this coalition government is that of the European Union (EU). It means the Euro-sceptic Foreign Secretary William Hague sitting in Cabinet alongside life-long EU enthusiast Lib Dem ministers. The agreement not to go into the Euro zone in the current Parliament and a referendum on any transfer of powers to the EU is unlikely to contain this issue even inside the Tory Party.

The coalition is hugely controversial in both of the parties involved. The right-wing of the Tory party regards it as a sell-out as do most of the rank and file of the Lib Dems. This means that the coalition will come under massive pressure once the decisions on cuts start to be taken particularly since neither party has a mandate from the electorate for the cuts they are intending to make. Labour is already indicating that it is unlikely to oppose the cuts in general but may object to some of the details. They say they want to be a ‘responsible opposition’. This would be a scandalous capitulation to the concept of “national interest” peddled by the Con/Lib Dem coalition and the media but it is in line with the way they have governed and fought the election in the interests of business. The performance of the left in the election was a disaster. It is true that the two great positive outcomes of the election were the defeat of Nick Griffin in Barking and the election of Caroline Lucas in Brighton. We congratulate those involved in both campaigns. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) result was weak. It made no impact on the election at national level and is unlikely to be the basis for anything after the election. Respect polled far better than any other part of the left but lost its MP and most of councillors. It will need to regroup and revisit its strategic approach. The need for an effective party to the left of Labour remains a crucial element of the fight back. One lesson this the 2010 election is that the left should redouble its effort to create a united and pluralist party of the left.

This makes the response of the trade unions to the situation of first class importance. Most unions have so far remained largely passive in the face of cutbacks. This has to change as a matter of urgency. The unions must demand that gaps in the budget created by the banking crisis are tackled through the cancellation of Trident; ending the war in Afghanistan; withdrawal from Iraq and energetic collection of taxes from big business, the banks and the rich. As a minimum corporation tax should be raised back to at least the levels levied under Thatcher and the key demand for a million green jobs supported. We must seek to build a mass campaign in the trade unions and Labour Movement to press for the rapid implementation of progressive electoral reform based on PR. The Labour movement must also rally against the dangerous slide towards racist, anti-immigrant policies. Years of the unions trailing meekly behind Blair and Brown have brought us to the very brink of a Tory government. Only the movement of the working class and the creation of an effective coalition against the cuts can save the working class from fresh, massive and damaging attacks.

Bitter bite of Tory cuts

We are now getting an early taste of just what Tory Britain will be like and it's a bitter taste indeed. For all of those who argued that there was no point in a Labour vote at the recent general election, it should be a sharp lesson. There is no doubt that new Labour was far too close to the Tories and Lib Dems in its policies and there's certainly no doubt that we were never about to see a social revolution brought about by Vladimir Illyich Brown. But the butchery that we are seeing brought into existence now is far more extreme, far more drastic and far quicker and less thought out than anything projected by Labour, so much so that that tens of thousands of people are facing harm to their lives that could have been avoided or at least postponed and more vulnerable to trade union pressure had there been a Labour government. In a matterof days, Tory Chancellor George Osborne and his Lib Dem henchman David Laws have dreamed up £6 billion of cuts to land on us all within a few weeks in an emergency Budget that shows all the signs of being more like a butchers bill than a logical programme. Lofty talk about not cutting front-line services begs the question of whether such front-line services can function without the administrative and technical backup that allows them to get on with the job and, of course, they can't.

The Lib Dems appear to have undergone a Damascene conversion to cuts that, not a fortnight ago, they were damning as over the top and irresponsible. Evidence of things to come is seen most clearly in the NHS, which has been instructed by the Department of Health to set aside a £2 billion pot to pay for one-off costs such as redundancies. A DoH spokeswoman said that "2010-11 will be the last year of significant growth for the NHS. "The NHS will need to plan now so it can continue to deliver service and quality improvements in the future. But with £2 billion worth of redundancies facing the service, that will be a damned sight more difficult to do than to talk about. Rather than "service and quality improvements," we can expect to see jobs go in the thousands and, when jobs go in a labour-intensive NHS, service standards will inevitably go with them. And that's not even counting the jobs that will have to go to pay for the £2 billion that is to be spent on the cutbacks. It's a downward spiral which will be difficult to halt, because the effects won't only be felt within the service. Taking up to 36,000 staff out of the service and onto the dole queues will remove a huge chunk from the spending power that manufacturing, wholesale and retail trades rely on. Shunting tens of thousands onto benefits will have an equally calamitous effect on public expenditure, which will then result in this cuts-mad and callous government attempting to slash the bill by restricting the amount of and access to benefits. With the same thing happening across the public sector, all the signs then point to the much forecast and much dreaded double-dip recession.

This brutal hacking back of the economy is so potentially damaging that it's impossible to forecast where such a downward spiral would end. The coalition of the ungodly clearly believes that the private sector will somehow recover and plug the gap created by the public-sector massacre, with new jobs appearing out of thin air, created by a market revived and fertilised by government largesse to the rich and the entrepreneurial. But faced with a manufacturing sector that is dying by inches and a consumer market crippled by job losses, how this would happen is beyond the understanding of mortal man. Not, apparently, by the Bullingdon butchers aided by their Lib Dem chums. It's just that no-one has yet explained how the conjuring trick is going to work. While the nation was swept up in the furore of the general election, the local elections sneaked by without a bat of an eyelid. Although some might argue that ultimate power lies at No 10, this doesn't mean local councils are mute when it comes to how to spend their government-allocated money. Just as there's a national budget, each local authority has its own mini-budget too. And many councils make their most progressive changes when coming head to head with an opposition government. So for Labour voters there's hope yet. Not only did left Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott increase their majority in the general election, Labour fared remarkably well in the locals.

Let's go through some of the statistics. Labour has gained 415 seats on councils since the last election, increasing its number of councillors to 2,945 - its best performance since the party's landslide victory in 1997. Labour has also gained control of 17 councils across the country, 10 of which are in London, bringing the total number of local authorities under its control to 40. Out of the 23 councils that Labour retained control of, it gained seats in 20, made no change in the two local authorities of Manchester and Preston and only lost seats in Stevenage, losing just three councillors. It is also the only party to have complete control of any council in the country, with the two London authorities of Newham and Barking & Dagenham, where it fought off the BNP threat. By contrast, the Tories lost a number of councils, most notably those to Labour in the London boroughs of Ealing, Harrow and Enfield. The latter has long been seen as a young, up-and-coming Conservative stronghold compared with its neighbour Barnet - a traditional stuffy Tory borough that won't be going red for some time. Not only was Barnet Margaret Thatcher's old stomping ground during her time as MP for Finchley & Golders Green, its current mayor and Assembly Member for Barnet & Camden Brian Coleman once described Haringey as a place "where respectable folk have to lock their car doors as they drive through it." And let's not forget the well-publicised comments of Barnet's Mill Hill Councillor John Hart, who said of Marxists that they "were the laziest bastards on Earth."

Former Barnet Council leader and newly elected MP for Finchley & Golders Green Mike Freer defended Hart's comments by saying Hart had formed his opinions "when he used to work with Marxists at his university's student union." The local polls also saw Labour gain control of 13 local authorities which previously had no overall control, including Camden and Islington in London and Coventry and Doncaster elsewhere. What's interesting this time around is, aside from it being far from a landslide Tory victory in the general election, Labour has done extraordinarily well in the local elections, particularly in London," said Keith Flett, socialist historian and chairman of the TUC in Haringey. In 1997 the Tories were practically wiped off local authorities but this time around, at a time when Labour has had a lot of bad press, the party has actually become the ruling party on many councils. I see this as being a key battleground over the next year. Working people have voted Labour because they don't want Tory cuts." In Haringey Council in north London there were just a few seats separating the Liberal Democrats and Labour, which has run the council for over 40 years. In the wake of bad press following the child protection failings that led to the death of Baby P, everyone thought the Lib Dems might just clinch the public vote and rule the council. But Labour support in the poorer east of the borough was unwavering and, instead of the Lib Dems winning three seats to gain control of the council, they lost three. Flett added: "You ask any Afro-Caribbean living in Tottenham how they voted and they will reply: 'We vote Labour' - and that's all there is to it. "People's intelligence goes beyond the expectations of the sensationalist tabloid media to the extent that voters realise that the death of Baby P has very little to do with party politics." The tabloids might think they can bend public opinion at will, but you can bet The Sun was left nursing a bruised ego following the Tories' underwhelming performance.

Despite getting the full backing of the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain, despite the Iraq war inquiry and despite Gordon Brown's howling gaffe of calling a pensioner a "bigot," the Conservatives still could not muster enough support to win an overall majority of the vote. In fact they did appallingly considering the circumstances - showing that local people were not fooled by the tabloids' ranting. Deputy leader of Haringey Council and Tottenham Hale Councillor Lorna Reith believes the local electorate did not buy into the press reports surrounding Baby P. "The issue of children's safeguarding and baby Peter didn't come up on the doorstep," said Reith. I think those residents who were particularly concerned had probably followed the stories in the press and were aware that our Ofsted report in January showed we were making good progress. In 2006 borough turnout for the local elections was just under 36 per cent and this time it was 60.3 per cent. A higher turnout is usually beneficial to us." Even the Lib Dem leader in Haringey Robert Gorrie had to confess he was not surprised that Labour won again. "Disappointing, yes. Surprising, no," he said. "The Greens and Conservatives again won no seats and, as such, the Lib Dems remain the only alternative to Labour in Haringey." Perhaps turnout was a key factor here. Local elections are not normally held on the same day as general elections, which means that in some areas double the number of people voted at the locals compared with 2006. Could this be a sign that the majority of people in the country who choose not to vote would vote Labour if it came to it?

Robin Wales was re-elected as Newham Council's mayor with a staggering 64,748 votes - a majority of nearly 50,000 over the second-placed Tory candidate. The borough is led by the mayor and cabinet and got the largest swing to Labour in the country. "Across London the results show that the Labour vote held up well," he said. "Although the national result was disappointing, winning back London councils is a real achievement. Clearly the general election turnout was beneficial because it made it more likely that our voters would turn out to cast their vote. And London voters have had first-hand experience of a Tory administration through the Mayor Boris Johnson - the results indicate they don't like what they've seen. In Newham we got the largest swing to Labour in the country and this suggests that we benefited from more than just increased turnout. For example, we've got the biggest range of free events in London, we give all primary school children free school meals and last year we made £12 million available for locally directed projects." A Labour Party spokesman added: "We are very proud of the hard work and dedication from our Labour teams across the country, which meant we took back control of a number of councils. Once people see the reality of Conservative or Lib Dem councils, they are keen to return to the progressive policies of the Labour Party." Britain will certainly be seeing the reality of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition all too soon, as the parties of the right formulate their slash-and-burn policies. Lessons will have to be learnt - but the tragedy is that we'll be learning the hard way.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Fall from grace of yellow Tories

How far the Lib Dems have sunk is debatable. Some say that they were pretty low on the food chain even before their distasteful deal with the Tories for a seat or two at the big boys' table. But the distance of their fall is measured in the fact that the yellow-blue coalition held its first Cabinet meeting yesterday, but Deputy Prime Minister and groveller-in-chief Nick Clegg is only going to his members to seek approval of the deal on Sunday. Tough luck if you happen to be a member whose last possible ambition was to climb into bed with the Tories, but that's the way it goes with these most undemocratic of democrats. Chairman of the party's federal conference committee Duncan Brack even had the brass neck to claim that, "in holding this special conference, we are demonstrating again that we are a democratic party which listens to and trusts its members." Stable doors and horses, Mr Brack. No harm in getting used to the doublethink that the Lib Dems have to keep working on if they are to keep even a vestige of self-respect, one supposes, but Mr Brack really ought not to be wasting the two-faced flannel on his own members. They can see as easily as him which way the wind's blowing. It remains to be seen if they have any more spine than their parliamentary colleagues demonstrated. And the wind's blowing in a very chilly direction as far as anyone who thought that the Lib Dems had any trace of progressive credentials is concerned.

Gone is the opposition to any "like-for-like" Trident replacement. In its stead is a commitment to the continuation of Britain's nuclear weapons status, with just the sop that Trident replacement will be judged on value for money. No matter how much the posh chaps at the top wriggle and writhe, that certainly wasn't the rank-and-file Lib Dem understanding of the position.  As far as civil liberties are concerned, ID cards are certainly going and good riddance to them, but new blue-yellow Home Secretary Theresa May's first utterance was "more police on the street and less paperwork for them to fill in." Suggestions of the old "sus" laws spring immediately to mind, with all that implies for black youth in the inner cities. In the new Cabinet, the cracks have started appearing even before the first week has ended. New Business Secretary and Lib Dem economics guru Vince Cable has taken a public slapping down by George Osborne. No sooner had rumours started circulating in the City that Mr Cable was to take responsibility for the reform of Britain's banks than the phone calls were made and Mr Osborne leaped in to quash the rumours. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills had said that Mr Cable would jointly chair a Cabinet committee which is to determine the shape of the UK banking industry.

But Mr Osborne put an end to all that nonsense, briskly stating that the Treasury was going to remain in charge of banking policy and the financial services sector and that he would be chairing that key committee. That was a short old rise to glory, wasn't it Vince? To cap it all came the coalition's so-called accord on National Insurance. The deal worked out put paid to any pretensions that the Lib Dems might have had to positive policies. Under it, the bosses won't face Labour's proposed rise in National Insurance contributions, but the workers will. Progressive, it ain't. And it's all put into perspective by the suggestion that the coalition will legislate to raise the threshold for a successful no-confidence vote in Parliament from the traditional 50 per cent-plus-one level to a new 55 per cent mark. Not a lot of trust there between the so-called happy partners, it would appear. It's not difficult to discredit this lot. In fact it's rather like shooting fish in a barrel. But it remains to be seen if Labour can ditch its new Labour losers and reform itself into a fighting progressive force to oppose a new generation of warmongering, cutback-obsessed profiteers, this time outside their own ranks. We live in hope. So it would appear that the people have spoken and the Tories and Lib Dems have not listened to a single word they said - as is usual. For it is a completely and absolutely reactionary government that now holds the reins of power. The Lib Dems, who made such a play of being neither Tory nor Labour, but something completely different, have shed their protective coloration and come out in the open for what they are, at least in their national leadership, just plain old closet Tories.

The tens of thousands of people who voted Lib Dem in this, and indeed in many previous elections, just to keep the Tories out, have been discarded and their views ignored by a Lib Dem leadership which, sniffing at a couple of seats at the top table, jettisoned everything that they claimed to believe in to get a taste of it. And in country constituencies, many of which have seen resounding battles between Liberals and Tories and in which the Labour Party regularly comes a poor third, what choice now faces the Lib Dem voter? The answer is, precious little. They can now vote for the yellow Tory or the blue Tory and that isn't going to please them in the slightest. And what of the thousands who voted Lib Dem because that party's policy on Trident was better than anything else on offer? That particular policy hasn't been exactly prominent in the posh chaps coalition's utterances so far and merely including it in a spending review will convince no-one. Then there's Europe. Granted that Tory scepticism on Europe wasn't for the best of motives, how will William Hague sit with the Europhiles in the Lib Dem fold? Again the answer is brief. Not very well. All in all, it would seem that the Lib Dems have just committed a very public act of hara-kiri in the pursuit of a few seats in the second rank of a Tory government. Not that that need concern us very much.

They were always the acceptable face of Toryism anyway, and their pronounced anti-trade unionism will probably be a good fit with the Tories as they nestle into their new blue-yellow brotherhood. And brotherhood it most definitely is. The lack of little except white men in suits - with the exception of Theresa May, whose policies seem to be more anti-women than pro - is the most evident thing about the Cabinet line-up so far. So what does this mean for Labour? Well what it should mean is that the battle for the centre ground, which was always new Labour's flagship strategy, has failed dismally and that should mean the unmourned end of the dismal new Labour project. It should mean a return to policies to benefit working people and an end to the nonsense about being the "natural party of business" and all the class-collaborationist drivel that was spouted during the Blair-Brown era. But the new Labour clique don't give up that easily and there are already signs that they are regrouping and preparing to put up yet another set of candidates for the vacant leadership slot who will dance to the City's tune whenever the bell rings. This quite simply cannot be allowed to happen. With the new unity of declared and previously undeclared Tories that this improbable coalition represents, it would be unthinkable to to try to approach Parliament with anything other than a progressive platform of policies clearly differentiating Labour from the Libservatives.

New Labour has failed, even in its own limited terms, and it is time for the trade unions and the other organisations of the working class to flex their underused muscles and warn that only a radical and progressive opposition will succeed in toppling this government. It's time for Labour to remember its roots, to rebuild its relationship with the labour movement and to abandon the pale impersonation of a government for suburbia that it has adopted for so long. There is a huge fight on cuts and jobs coming and it has to be won. And if Labour hasn't the belly for that fight, it will be fought without, or in spite of, them.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Moral crisis in the Catholic church?

"A scandal crying out to heaven." This is how dissident theologian Hans Küng described the widespread revelations of the physical and sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests, nuns and brothers in the US, Germany, Ireland and other countries. That someone who remains a Catholic, despite repeated clashes with the authorities, can portray the situation facing the church like this gives an idea of the scale of the issue. Many of us might have preferred him to use the more alliterative and accurate "crime", but the tenor of his criticism is clear. As a result of the revelations, and the role of leading church institutions in attempting to cover up the abuse, Catholicism is going through one of the greatest crises in its 2,000-year history. Trust in the church's leadership, already shaky in many of these countries, has effectively collapsed as a result of the failure of bishops and cardinals to deal with the abusers. And now the scandal has prompted an unprecedented leadership crisis, with the pope himself under scrutiny. For the current pope, Benedict XVI, used to be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who between 1982 and 2005 was prefect of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Formerly known as the Inquisition, this organisation is supposed to discipline priests who violate the church's moral or theological doctrines.

But far from disciplining those accused of abusing children, Ratzinger appears to have been at the forefront of a concerted effort to conceal his priests' crimes. In an open letter to the Catholic bishops, Küng accuses the pope, in his previous role as head of the Inquisition, of presiding over a universal cover-up of clerical abuse. Küng writes, "There is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger." He continues, "During the reign of Pope John Paul II, that Congregation had already taken charge of all such cases under oath of strictest silence. Ratzinger himself, on 18 May 2001, sent a solemn document to all the bishops dealing with severe crimes, in which cases of abuse were sealed under the secretum pontificium, the violation of which could entail grave ecclesiastical penalties." Prior to his elevation to cardinal, Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. Numerous claims of clerical abuse in Bavaria date from this period, but although Ratzinger was responsible for disciplining his priests, he never reported the claims to the civil authorities. He wasn't alone. Ratzinger was one of many bishops, archbishops and cardinals across the Catholic world who acted to prevent allegations of maltreatment by priests from being aired in public.

In Ireland the leader of the Catholic church, Cardinal Sean Brady, has admitted that in 1975 he forced two boys, aged 14 and 15, to swear an oath of secrecy and not reveal what a paedophile priest had done to them. Most legal systems acknowledge that children cannot be taken into custody and intimidated into making statements or swearing oaths. But apparently not the Catholic church. The 2009 Murphy report outlines the role of the Irish church in covering up child abuse. It summarised the church's motives as follows: "The maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities." This could be pretty well applied to Ratzinger, who as pope now sits on untold wealth in the Vatican. But what were the cases with which Ratzinger and his fellow bishops and cardinals were linked? They included that of Monsignor Bernard Prince, who was sentenced in 2008 by a court in Ontario to four years in jail for abusing 13 boys between 1964 and 1984. In 1991, although allegations had been brought to the attention of his bishop, he was appointed to a post in Rome. This happened on Ratzinger's watch.

The year 1985 saw the case of Californian priest Stephen Kiesle, a self-confessed child abuser. The bishop of Oakland wrote to Ratzinger for approval to defrock him. Ratzinger replied that although the reasons for the bishop's actions were clearly of "great importance", the bishop also needed to consider the welfare of the priest and the church. Two years later he was indeed "reduced to lay status", but in the intervening two years he worked as a volunteer on a project in the Bay Area where he was once again accused of abuse.

But the church didn't simply cover up the abuse. It failed to protect the victims in the first place. And its frequent response to allegations was simply to move the perpetrator to another job. This often had the effect of facilitating further abuse, since the priest in question could simply take up where he left off, safe in the knowledge that his punishment wouldn't amount to much more than this. In countries like Ireland, where the church and state were closely intertwined, to describe this simply as a "scandal" is to let all those involved off the hook. A criminal conspiracy might be a better description of what took place. Because it wasn't just ordained priests who carried out the abuse. Religious "congregations" like the Christian Brothers were deeply implicated in claims of physical and sexual maltreatment, especially in Ireland where some 18 of these congregations were either in charge of children in education or in residential care (the Brothers of Charity and the Sisters of Charity). In Ireland, the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (known as the Ryan Commission after its chair) found that 80 percent of males whose claims of abuse were investigated were in the care of the Christian Brothers, in primary and secondary schools and in the infamous "industrial schools", which the order was paid by the state to run. The Ryan Commission report is worth reading, if you have the stomach for it.

This commission was established in 1999 to hear evidence of abuse from people who allege they suffered abuse in institutions. These included the industrial schools of Artane and Letterfrack, in which the children were little better than slave labour; boarding schools and orphanages run by congregations like the misnamed "Sisters of Mercy"; and of course the infamous "Magdalene laundries", where women who'd had the temerity to become pregnant outside of marriage were forced to live out their days in drudgery. For a small country (with a population of 4 million) the statistics contained in the report are shocking. Between 1914 and 1991 some 170,000 Irish children passed through some 261 institutions run by religious congregations like the Christian Brothers. Of these children, some 35,000 alleged maltreatment, with 1,700 giving evidence of abuse. Over half of these involved sexual abuse. Some 800 religious figures were directly implicated. But, aided and abetted by right wing politicians, the congregations have mostly managed to evade compensation claims from the victims, and so far have only paid out a fraction of their liabilities. Why was the sexual abuse of children by clerics and others so widespread in both church institutions and in its so-called "pastoral" work? Certainly, the church's role in education and social welfare, especially in Ireland, but in other countries as well, placed its priests in day-to-day contact with children. But this doesn't explain why their crimes were so prevalent.

The explanation is complex but involves a historical examination of the relationship of the hierarchy to ordinary Catholics - a relationship which increasingly demanded obedience and subservience - and the changing views of the church on human and sexual relations. All of these combined to produce a toxic cocktail that is finally being challenged. Catholicism might have started out as the religion of the poor, but by the Middle Ages the church had accumulated enormous wealth. To preserve this wealth, the Catholic church introduced rules of celibacy. This had nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. The rationale was that if priests could not marry and have children, the wealth would remain concentrated in the church's hands. The growing distance of the church's leaders from their followers, and its changing material circumstances, had an effect on its ideas. Increasingly, humanity was viewed as inherently sinful and in need of "spiritual guidance". The most positive qualities of human beings - the power to create and the ability to love - were transferred to god. And the more powerful god grew, the more humanity itself was demeaned as sinful and base. In what became a neat justification for the rule of celibacy, human sexuality was decried. The reality of two adults enjoying each other's bodies was seen as subverting god's power, on the basis that passion and conjugal love detracted from the humility required to "devote oneself to Christ".

As a result, the clergy made a virtue of their own celibacy and spiritually elevated themselves over the rest of humanity - simply because they claimed not to have sex. This was always a lie, of course, but it was the product of a set of ideas in which sexuality was seen as sinful and demeaning. The distortion and repression inherent in this ideology had a terrible impact on the most vulnerable people in the church's care - children. The notion that sex was "an occasion for sin" contributed to an atmosphere of repression within the church. The furtive secrecy this engendered meant that abusing priests tended to target those who were most vulnerable. Young people were particularly at risk because they could be silenced. And moreover, even though only a minority of priests raped children, those who did knew that they would be protected by vows of secrecy designed to protect both reputations and assets. All of this means that the hierarchy's silence on clerical child abuse was not because of a few "rotten apples". It was a conspiracy by an institution that has consolidated its power through the ages by demeaning real human feelings, while at the same time accumulating wealth by the most hypocritical means. As a result, we know that clerical child abuse has a long history. But in the modern age the alliance of the church and state in many countries resulted in a burgeoning of the power of the church which added to the impulse to dominate and abuse, physically if not sexually.

The role of the church as an agent of social control meant that maltreatment of the people in its care became a weapon, a means of exerting power. Nowhere was this more true than in Ireland, where the church already played a central role in education. This pre-dated independence, going back to the 19th century and the divide and rule policies of the British. But once the Irish state was established, the church's power and prestige were further enhanced. The nationalist movement which ousted the British was steeped in Catholicism. The policy of the party which came to dominate the new state, Fianna Fáil, was that there should be a "Catholic state for a Catholic people".  In part this reflected the class position of both the leaders of Fianna Fáil and the Catholic hierarchy - they shared an interest in ensuring the working class of the new state was obedient, both before the pulpit and before the institutions of the new state. It's also reflected the fact that anti-Catholic prejudices and practices were a central aspect of colonial policy in Ireland, so to an extent the ending of British rule represented the beginning of a new freedom for Catholicism, and the hierarchy took advantage of this. But the boost to the power of the church represented by its domination of education and health in Ireland was also owed to the fact of the relative underdevelopment of the country and the refusal of its elite to fund decent welfare services.

As a result, what should have been a voluntary organisation was transformed into an arm of the state. The extent of shared confessional values at the top of society hastened this process and provided a key role for the church in acting as an arm of the state to control and police the poor. And this was crucial. For the state, the church played a vital role in ensuring the obedience of children, both in "normal" education and in the industrial schools. And for most of Ireland's history, the bulk of the children in both these categories were poor. A child could end up being placed in an industrial school simply for playing truant. The Christian Brothers who ran these institutions despised their charges. "What are they but illegitimates and pure dirt?" one Christian Brother remembered being told by his superior. The children were constantly told that their families were "scum", "tramps" and "from the gutter". These were the circumstances in which abuse was effectively legitimised. The strength of the links between church and state in Ireland is testified to by the fact that as late as 1996 church control over primary schools was guaranteed by the Dáil (parliament) in a bill brought, ironically enough, by a Labour minister for education, Niamh Bhreathnach. And this was at a time when extensive revelations about clerical child abuse had already begun to emerge. In other words, the church's role in education was seen as such a given that even the social democratic left didn't dare challenge it.

But the erosion of the church's authority, from the 1980s onwards, allowed revelations of abuse to accumulate and eventually come to the surface. Ironically, this erosion of authority was in part a result of the resurgence of the Catholic right in Ireland in the 1980s. They won a key referendum, on abortion, and successive plebiscites on the introduction of a limited form of divorce resulted in defeats for the liberals and the left. But these victories for reaction prompted a backlash that at first was subterranean. It was also muted by the extent of emigration during these years, as many left, prompted mainly by economic considerations, but also by disgust at the outcome of the various referenda. It's difficult to be certain, but the campaigns around abortion, contraception and divorce - especially since they centred on matters related to sexuality and human freedom - probably encouraged survivors to feel they could begin to come forward. Greater awareness of individual rights may also have helped. And the decline in vocations to the priesthood also weakened the church. But whatever the initial reasons, the church was soon faced with a crisis in one of the countries where its position had seemed unassailable. It's not that Irish people never knew anything about what went on in the schools, orphanages and laundries. They did, and they talked to one another about it. Every family has its own stories. I heard a story about someone, who shall remain anonymous, schooled by the Christian Brothers, and on more than one occasion watched as they lost control of themselves and lashed out at a fellow pupil for some minor misdemeanour.

This person's mother went to the now infamous Goldenbridge Convent, run by the Sisters of Mercy. When this person was a child, she used to terrify them with stories about the nuns' treatment of the girls, and especially the orphans, who of course were entirely within these women's power. The main theme of these stories was cruelty and, while much of it was petty, there was often a sexual element as well. The worst aspects weren't mentioned, merely hinted at. In part at least, this person's mother was trying to make the point that however badly they thought they were treated at school (this was the 1970s), her experiences in the 1950s were far worse. Of course, for much of Ireland's history people's attachment to the Catholic church and its rituals wasn't simply based on fear. The poverty of the country, and the hardships faced by large numbers of working class people, meant that for many the church provided comfort and solace. In addition, the influence of the church over so many different spheres of life ensured there was little practical opposition to the often-expressed credo that "outside the Catholic church there is no redemption". And this was the problem. Most people thought there was nothing you could do, and no one thought of telling anyone that might be able to do something about it, because they didn't believe they could, or would. That's not necessarily the situation today. But the church and its allies are fighting back.

In a throwback to the era before widespread revelations emerged, they have attempted to dismiss the allegations (and thereby the evidence) of abuse as "gossip". Unbelievably, they have also tried to equate the sexual abuse of children with homosexuality, claiming that the abuse was restricted to a small number of gay priests. Their strategy has involved a number of other themes as well. One of these is to invoke charges of anti-Catholicism and try and portray themselves as the victims. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, an aide to the pope, set the tone, telling reporters, "This is a pretext for attacking the church... There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim." The church's other strategy is to identify liberalism and secularism as the problem, rather than the criminal practices of abusive priests and those who have protected them. According to this view, the priests involved may be guilty of sin, but liberals and secularists are guilty for encouraging freedom and discussion about sexuality, which confused these poor celibates and led to the unfortunate incidences of abuse. This stance conveniently ignores the fact that sexual abuse by clerics predates the post-Vatican II era, though conveniently enough for the church relatively few of these cases will come to light. All of this means that the outcome of the debate is not a foregone conclusion. But bitterness at the abuse runs deep. Catholics were led to believe that they could trust their priests and religious figures, and the abuse of that trust - in every sense - has seriously undermined the church. The problem for them is that every new set of revelations about the failure of the hierarchy to act, and the involvement of the Vatican, stokes the bitterness. Survivors' protests have been a potent symbol of this, with many holding aloft children's shoes as poignant symbols of the vulnerability of the victims they and others like them once were. These protests are a constant reminder of the church's iniquity and a threat to its power.

But there have been more significant repercussions as well. In Ireland the teaching unions have been polling their members on church control of schools. One such poll, conducted by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, showed that over 80 percent of primary teachers believe the Catholic church should relinquish control of some or all of its schools. The poll came as the department of education drafted an initial list of ten to 12 urban areas where it believes the Catholic church could divest itself of some schools. This list will be sent to the Catholic bishops next month. A move to end ecclesiastical control over education would be a serious blow to the church in Ireland, and one that every socialist would welcome. The pope himself is unlikely to get off lightly. He has attempted to head off allegations of abuse in Malta by visiting the island, whose population is one of the most devoutly Catholic in the world. From his point of view at least, the visit seems to have been a success. But it is unlikely that his reception in Britain when he arrives here in September will be anything like as warm. There have even been calls for his arrest. Whatever happens, his reception is certainly not going to be anything like that afforded the previous pope, who visited Britain in 1982, well before the current crisis began to break. For the former Cardinal Ratzinger, that must feel like a long, long time ago. The Pope has stated that homosexual activity is an evil threatens the future of the human race. I would have thought that all the kids put off sex for life by the most efficient paedophile organisation in the world which doubles as a religion would have had a much more devastating effect.

Democracy is dying

So that’s what “democracy” means. Every five years or so we vote – and that’s the end of it until the next election. Of course, having a vote is certainly better than not having one. But the hung parliament has led to backroom discussions – and we are all as excluded as the thousands of people who couldn’t get into polling stations after 10pm on election day. The truth is that what we voted for bears little resemblance to what we got. The Tories have far more seats than can be justified by the number of votes they got. In this situation, many, including myself, are calling for a change to the voting system, in the shape of proportional representation. The first-past-the-post electoral system, which allowed Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win election landslides with just two fifths of the vote, is indeed unfair. The last time there was momentum for PR on the left was when the Tory election victories in the 1980s and 1990s looked like they would never end. Then it was out of desperation – a belief that only by changing the voting system could the Tories be beaten. Now it is out of frustration that all the parties are so similar. After the Second World War, the Labour and Tory parties completely dominated British politics, sharing around 96 percent of the popular vote between them. Last week they got just 65 percent between them. Yet parliament is still dominated by the two biggest parties.

That’s why socialists support electoral reform although we need proper debate about what form takes. The strongest argument is that it would help break the dominance of two increasingly unrepresentative big parties, opening up a space for the left – and this is true. Voting systems like multi-seat constituencies or alternative votes and a list system are more democratic than what we’ve got. But the left should not obsess over PR and get trapped in a debate about constitutional reform that in many ways serves the interests of the big parties. For example, Southern Ireland has a “fairer” electoral system – yet politics is dominated by right wing parties and corruption. The Northern Ireland Assembly was structured after enormous care and effort to provide proportionality and parity of esteem, yet it has copper-fastened sectarian division and put the bigots of the DUP in charge. Greece has PR – but this has not prevented the government trying to impose swingeing cuts. In Britain, the radical left is fragmented and electorally very weak. The collapse of the existing party system could even make things worse if the only alternatives come from the far right – racist parties like UKIP and the BNP.

The problem with today’s democracy, and with the dominant view of democracy in our society, is that it is far too limited. To address that we need to go far beyond which type of voting system we want. To make democracy truly relevant to the majority of working people, what is needed is not just political democracy but also economic and social democracy. The capitalist class can live with political democracy alone – the election of parliaments and governments – because the decisive levers of power are not in parliament. Control over society really lies first in the boardrooms of industry and the banks, and second in the permanent institutions of the state, above all the armed forces. The capitalists own and control the former directly, and the latter is bound to it by a thousand economic, social and ideological ties. By these means they can turn parliament into a talking shop and bend governments to their will. We got an insight into the real base of power when the media with demands to reassure “the markets” that the new government would be formed quickly. Marxists call what we have now “bourgeois democracy” – democracy that is based on and enshrines the rule of the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie.

To move beyond this to a system based on real power for the masses, it is necessary to extend democracy to production and work, and then other areas of social life. This means democracy in every factory, call centre, supermarket, school, university, hospital and post office. It means workers’ democracy. That cannot be achieved without overturning capitalist property ownership, law and the state – with a workers’ revolution that will enable the working class to run society. In the full glare of publicity the three main parties jostle and manoeuvre over power. But, in the background, there is a much more fundamental assertion of power.This is, of course, by the famous “markets” that hover threateningly over the politicians as they negotiate. The process began even before the general election took place. At the beginning of last week the Financial Times reported that the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange was planning to open at 1am that Friday morning, three hours after voting ended. This was to allow traders in gilts—British government bonds—to start buying or selling them as soon as the result of the election began to become clear. It was clear that there was only one outcome that was really acceptable to the bond markets—a majority Tory government that would immediately implement unprecedented cuts in public spending.This announcement amounted to hanging a sword of Damocles over the heads of the British electorate.

When the voters failed to deliver the result the markets had demanded, the latter’s spokespeople were absolutely furious. Sir Martin Sorell, chief executive of the advertising empire WPP, spluttered on Radio Four’s World at One on Friday last week that a hung parliament was the “worst possible” result. Alan Clarke of Paribas pontificated to the Financial Times that “the UK could lose its top triple A credit status because of its failure to deliver a majority government with the authority to tackle the country’s public finances immediately”. Arnaud Mares of Moody’s, one of the three agencies that rate the credit status of states and firms, said he assumed that “the incoming economic team could muster convincing parliamentary support for a fiscal adjustment that was no looser or slower than outlined by all three political parties during their respective election campaigns.” All this reminds us that Jimmy Carville, one of Bill Clinton’s advisers, said in 1993 that, “if there was reincarnation... I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.” Let’s remind ourselves of what’s really going on here. Less than three years ago, the banks, hedge funds, and the like precipitated the biggest financial crash and the worst economic slump since 1929. The ratings agencies were condemned only last week by the French and German governments for their contribution to this disaster by giving triple-A ratings to various financial instruments that are now mostly worthless.

To prevent a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s, states increased their spending. They found that money largely by borrowing. This was a good thing because it helped to maintain demand for goods and services. But, as a result, budget deficits have risen. Now all the banks and other financial institutions that were saved thanks to this spending and borrowing are denouncing the rise in deficits as an economic scandal that can only be expunged by the most savage cuts in public services. To get an intimation of the kind of suffering that this will cause, look at Greece. The austerity programme extracted as the price of the country’s “rescue” by the International Monetary Fund and the eurozone will slash wages, pensions, and services. As a result the Greek economy is projected to shrink by 4 percent this year and by 2.6 percent in 2011. In other words, slashing the deficit is economic nonsense. Its only justification is to increase the profits and bolster the power of the very forces that unleashed the crisis in the first place. But, at the same time as demanding austerity, these same forces are scurrying back to the state to rescue them again. Last Sunday’s New York Times anxiously reported: “The fear that began in Athens, raced through Europe and finally shook the stock market in the United States is now affecting the broader global economy.” The European Union emergency package agreed at the weekend is designed particularly to bolster the bond markets. The sacred “markets” that sit in judgement of mere voters and elected politicians are themselves deeply fragile, riven with deep fractures.

Reclaiming the modernity mantle

To talk of "modernisation" is to speak the language of neoliberalism. To be radical and revolutionary, to transform this, reform that - to anyone under 40, these terms evoke the rhetoric of what Peter Mandelson called "the Blair revolution" of 1997 as much as the Russian revolution of 1917. While it couches itself as the very thrusting edge of modernity, neoliberalism harks back to an earlier, allegedly better time, that of neoclassical economics, the system of the workhouse and "self-help." Nonetheless, the actual effects of neoliberal capitalism - the destruction of working-class communities, of entire countries' economies, of the very notion of "society" - are extreme in their effects. Bertolt Brecht once claimed that "communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical." Capitalism is the system that makes all that is solid melt into air, the furnace of all traditions - while communism, at least as he imagined it, tries to slam on the brakes and to take control of a relentlessly accelerating, unmanned vehicle. Today, where the remains of the welfare state that have survived the last 30 years are facing even more extreme attacks in order to repay a "deficit" created by the bank bail-outs, the right is again posing as fearless, unsentimental and radical. How should we respond?

For historian Tony Judt, the left must assume its mantle as the new conservatism. He claims that social democracy, as a counter-movement both to laissez-faire capitalism and communism, was a movement against insecurity. As generations got further and further from the Depression and the war, the security of the new social infrastructure was carelessly, thoughtlessly discarded. Politicians like Gordon Brown bizarrely argued that their speculative boom meant "an end to boom and bust." Judt argues that such arguments only seemed credible because, by the 1980s, "few in the West are old enough to know just what it means to watch our world collapse." Yet he implies that we will do, sooner rather than later. Judt says that the welfare state and social democracy are still viable, more so than the seamless fantasies of neoliberalism. But his argument goes further than this. "The 20th century narrative of the progressive state," he writes, "rested precariously upon the conceit that 'we' - reformers, socialists, radicals - had history on our side ... if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past ... the left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project."

We can leave aside Judt's occasionally glib anti-communism and the conventional amnesia over social democracy's record of grim political conformism. From the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in 1919, to collaboration with colonialism and imperialist wars, to standing idle in the face of Hitler, social democrats have a far less impeccable a moral record than they think they do. His central point is intriguingly counterintuitive - the left should appeal to the memory of the recent past rather than the imagined future. Frankly, it sounds preferable to smashing in the windows of McDonald's. But what does this mean for those who have no memory of social democracy? What use are memories of Nye Bevan to those who can't remember Thatcher? Curiously enough, the main outlet for this yearning for the recent past is not in party politics, which - with some Marxist-inflected exceptions which Judt no doubt disdains, such as Die Linke, France's Nouveau Partie Anticapitaliste or the "pink tide" in Latin America - remains overwhelmingly neoliberal. It can be found instead in much contemporary art and music. Here, over the last few years something often described as a "nostalgia for the future" has obsessed over the lost gains of the post-war settlement, to often brilliant effect. The Ghost Box record label, for instance, shows an obsession with the public modernism of an earlier era - the egalitarian spaces of comprehensive schools and council estates, the unearthly sounds of the BBC's avant-garde Radiophonic Workshop or the minimalist design of cheap Pelican paperbacks.

This isn't at all a phenomenon localised to the "democratic" side of the ex-iron curtain - east European artists have spent much of the last two decades playing with the futuristic dreamworld of "actually existing socialism" as if to reimagine its collective spaces without its petty brutalities. This nostalgia is not for the recent past itself - it is a yearning for the future that it promised. Such artists hold up yesterday's examples of social democratic modernist design as a quiet protest against the crassness and barbarism of postmodern capitalism. But it is also as a reminder that it failed to bring about a new society. The social democratic welfare state was, for many, not so much a settlement as a step on the way to something else - socialism. Yet it seems unlikely that socialism can be rekindled by appealing to past hopes and dreams that few can remember. Nostalgia for lost dreams of the future only has value if it can actually help create a viable path forwards - otherwise, it's English Heritage with spacesuits. The left would do well to remind people that poorer societies than ours spent more on health and welfare than we do and that they considered education a right, not a product. But such lessons from history must be combined with a new modernism of the left. To hand the mantle of "modernity" to the right is to give it a powerful weapon against which halcyon memories, real or imagined, are powerless.