Saturday, 28 January 2012

Reality behind a cap on benefits

You can always rely on the Sun newspaper to play the role of Tory mouthpiece.

Last week, as the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government launched its latest attack on the poor, the Sun branded benefits claimants as “scroungers”, and ran stories where ‘ordinary working people’ told how their sponging, scrounging, benefits-claiming neighbours lived the high life with 52” flat-screen plasma televisions, expensive cars and foreign holidays.  Not to forget the thousands of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who apparently live in multi-million-pound Mayfair mansions, with the rent paid thanks to Housing Benefit funded by hard-working, honest-to-goodness, salt-of-the-earth ordinary taxpayers.

The Sun’s vilification of people who claim benefits was part of a campaign run by right-wing English newspapers in support of Tory-Lib Dem plans to cap annual benefit claims at £26,000.  The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and other papers that, frankly, should know better, echoed Government claims of public support for the cap: ‘Why should benefits scroungers get more money than someone who goes out to work for the average wage,’ screamed headlines.  It was a well-worn and typical tactic of the ‘divide and rule’ strategy.  Get the ‘ordinary working people’ to believe benefits claimants were getting something they are not; get the ‘ordinary working people’ to believe their taxes are funding a lavish lifestyle for the work-shy; get the ‘ordinary working people’ to believe payments of £26,000 are going into the pockets of benefits claimants, thereby stoking a sense of grievance and turning ‘ordinary working people’ against the already marginalised poor.

Let’s bring a few facts to the debate: if a family receives annual benefits payments of £26,000, it is because that is the amount deemed necessary to meet their basic needs.  Across the entire UK, there are 67,000 households receiving this sum, more than half of whom live in London.

Prior to the election of the Thatcher Tory Government in 1979, local councils built social housing and charged affordable rents.  Thatcher introduced ‘Right to Buy’ legislation, which saw a massive reduction in affordable local authority housing, and led to councils ending their involvement in house building.  Right to Buy meant councils were forced to sell properties with significant discounts despite the fact homes had been built using Public Loans Board funding spread over 60 years, which meant houses were sold cheaply while councils were still servicing the debt used to build them.

The Thatcher Government also removed rent controls in the private sector housing market.  Inevitably, this led to substantial rent increases for private accommodation.

So, as a result of decisions taken by Tory politicians, we then had a situation where there was, and remains, substantially-reduced availability of public sector housing and soaring rents in the private sector.  While families requiring housing have to wait on Council lists, sometimes for years, they are forced to rent privately.  If the adults in such families are out of work, they qualify for Housing Benefit to meet the inflated rent charged by private landlords, and that money is, more often than not, paid directly to the landlord.  The benefit claimant never sees it, yet it is classed as income by Tory and Lib Dem Ministers – and right-wing newspapers – and included in the calculation that leads to lurid headlines about ‘scroungers’ receiving £26,000 in benefit payments.

The real ‘scroungers’ living off ‘handouts’ from public finances are the private landlords who inflate rents for often sub-standard housing.  Of course, the Tories have other names for the landlords: they call them businessmen, entrepreneurs and Tory supporters.

It is also the case that Tory-Lib Dem Ministers, and right-wing newspapers, are not comparing like-for-like when they shriek outrage at £26,000 benefit payments.  That level of benefit would only be paid to a family, while any working couple with children, jointly earning £35,000 – taking home £26,000 after tax – would also qualify for state-funded assistance, such as Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit and possibly Working Tax Credit.  They would qualify for benefits because wages in this country are so low.  The reality is that the state – that’s the ‘ordinary working people’ – end up subsidising private sector employers who pay poverty wages, such as the big four supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s – who all post multi-million-pound profits.

What is happening with the Tory-Lib Dem proposal to cap benefits – a plan ‘not opposed’ by the Labour Party – is nothing more than an attack on the poorest members of our society.  This is what Tories always do.  It is designed to reduce public spending in order to redirect funds to cover the costs of bailing-out failed private banks, and to refloat the corrupt capitalist system.

If anyone thinks it is fair to place a cap on benefits, irrespective of a person’s identified need, consider how this might work if applied to other areas funded from the public purse.  What if a cap was applied to a person’s access to the health service?  Look at all those ‘health scroungers’ who receive dozens, maybe even hundreds of appointments for ailments.  Then there are those who use public resources having operations to cure illness and disease.  What about the ‘ordinary working people’ who fund the health service and have to watch as their benefit-claiming sick neighbours avail themselves of medical care?  Bloody scroungers!

The Tories and Liberal Democrats, supported by Labour, are attacking the most vulnerable people in society.  They are attempting to divide and rule the working class by using misinformation and lies to engender a culture of grievance and envy.  We must not let them.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

What independence means

With the Scottish Independence Referendum being thrust into the UK media spotlight over the past week or so, the question of what an independent Scotland would look like has been posed by many people, including some London-based news outlets who appeared totally confused over what constitutional change would actually mean.

The bottom line is that, for Scotland, independence would mean the restoration of normality.  Prior to 1707 Scotland operated as an independent nation.  Back then, though, the Scots Parliament was far from a democratic body, comprised as it was of unelected aristocracy.  History tells us that ordinary Scots had no say in the running of their country, even to the extent of whether or not Scotland should join in union with England.

From the Scots side, the decision to unite the parliaments of Scotland and England was taken solely by those unelected and unrepresentative Lords and Earls.  Contemporary documents record ordinary Scots rioted in the streets in opposition to the union.  It is also a matter of record that members of the Scots Parliament received payment from the English in order to sell Scotland into a British Union.  Robert Burns famously referred to them as “such a parcel o’ rogues in a nation”.

Today, unionists on both sides of the border tell us Scotland and the Scots have benefitted from membership of the British Union, and that we should not destroy 300 years of history.  However, when we take a closer look at how Scots have benefitted from being British, it is not something of which we can be proud.  For much of our membership of the British Union, Scots have played the part of foot-soldiers invading and conquering other lands in the name of the British Empire.  Once in control of those foreign lands, Britain proceeded to exploit their natural assets, with Scots again playing significant roles as administrators and clerks.

More recently, Britain has looked to young Scots whenever wars needed to be fought: in almost every conflict of the 20th Century, the number of Scots killed in action far outstripped our percentage share of the British population.  When we consider our role in the British military, the phrase ‘cannon-fodder’ comes most readily to mind. 

That said, there remains a generation of Scots for whom fighting, shoulder-to-shoulder, with contemporaries from other parts of the British Isles and beyond, is rightly something of which they can be proud - defeating fascism in the second World War. 

The 1707 Union of Parliaments was supposed to be a union of two equals, Scotland and England.  However, the reality, from that day to this, has been very different.  In just one sentence last week, a Sky News reporter managed to show both his historical ignorance and the actual English perception of the union between Scotland and England: he said, “In 1707 England annexed Scotland, which even the Romans had not been able to do.”

The British/English establishment has always looked on Scotland as an English possession, the Empire’s last colony.  For the second half of the 20th Century even basic democracy was denied to Scots within the British Union.  Scotland has not voted for a Conservative & Unionist Government since 1955, but for much of the time since then we have had Tory Governments imposed on us by the electorate of England.  Throughout the 1980s, as England voted for Margaret Thatcher, Scotland soundly rejected her and the right-wing policies she advocated, but she was still able to destroy our manufacturing industries and the communities that relied on them.  At the last UK Election, in 2010, the Tories were returned to office, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, and are again able to impose their right-wing ideology on Scotland, despite the fact there are now more giant pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs.

The 1999 restoration of a Scottish Parliament was supposed to address the democratic deficit that saw Scotland receive governments for which we had not voted, but we now have an SNP administration in Edinburgh – with an overall majority provided by the Scottish electorate – being told what to do by a Tory-Lib Dem Coalition that was hammered at the polls in Scotland.

So long as Scotland remains merely a devolved region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the London-based government elected by the people of England will claim supremacy over a Scottish Government and over Scotland.  Even increasing Holyrood’s powers to ‘devo-max’ will not change that position. 

Independence is the normal state of affairs in virtually every nation around the world – ask yourself, how many countries celebrate ‘Devolution Day’?  With independence, the full powers necessary to govern ourselves at home and represent ourselves around the globe will be returned to Scotland, for the first time since 1707: and today the ordinary people of Scotland elect the Scottish Parliament.  Only independence fully removes the democratic deficit that sees political parties we reject at the ballot box still being able to form a government and impose their will on us.  Only independence guarantees the Tories will never again be in a position to wreak havoc on Scotland.

The government of an independent Scotland would have the power to remove nuclear weapons of mass destruction from Scottish soil and waters.  At present, and under ‘devo-max’, the decision to house such weapons in Scotland remains with the London government, irrespective of the wishes of the Scottish people.

The government of an independent Scotland would decide if young Scots in our defence force should be sent into conflict zones.  At present, and under ‘devo-max’, such decisions are taken by the London-based government for which we did not vote.

Presently, and under ‘devo-max’, the Westminster government sets the level of pension received by senior citizens in Scotland – it’s currently one of the lowest in Europe.  London is also responsible for setting rates of benefits that see pensioners die needlessly in Scottish winters.  In addition, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer sets the level of taxation applied to Scotland, which allows some of the wealthiest people in the country to contribute a pittance compared with the less well-off.  Presently, and under ‘devo-max’, some of the most draconian anti-trade union laws in the world are applied to Scottish workers, by virtue of UK-wide legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher and retained by the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and of course the current Tory-Lib Dem Coalition.

Independence for Scotland means the end of political union between our country and England – a union that, in reality, has been very uneven, with Scotland playing a subservient role.  The ending of England’s political control of Scotland does not mean other links between the two countries would also terminate.  The social union between Scots and English would continue and would flourish, as would business and commercial links.

Don’t believe the British Unionist scare stories, and you’ll hear plenty of them as we head towards our Independence Referendum in autumn 2014.  There will be no border posts at Gretna, you will not be prevented from visiting your relations in England, and you will still be able to watch Coronation Street.  If you don’t believe me, ask our cousins across the water in the independent Republic of Ireland.

Independence simply means Scotland re-taking the status of a normal nation.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A busy week in politics

Last week saw two significant political developments.  Firstly, the intervention by the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government into the issue of a referendum on Scottish independence showed the British establishment still look on Scotland as the Empire’s last colony.  Secondly, the Labour Party completed its journey to becoming a clone of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Almost completely unnoticed due to wall-to-wall media coverage of Alex Salmond running rings round David Cameron and his Westminster colleagues, Ed Miliband addressed a Labour event in London and confirmed the party originally set up to give a parliamentary voice to the working class was now committed to “building a better, more responsible capitalism.”

The Labour Party ceased to be a socialist organisation a very long time ago.  It’s more than 30 years since the party, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, expelled socialist members for actually attempting to protect public services and defend communities from devastating cuts being imposed by the Tory Government of Margaret Thatcher.  Around the same time, Labour also refused to back striking Miners as they fought pit closures and pitched battles with ranks of police officers sent by Thatcher to crush what was then the UK’s biggest trade union.

John Smith followed Kinnock as Labour leader and continued the party’s movement away from its working class, socialist roots.  It was under Smith that Labour also ditched its long-held opposition to nuclear weapons.

Then, on Smith’s death, along came Tony Blair, and the Labour Party’s movement to the right of the political spectrum became a mad dash.  Blair couldn’t wait to ditch any remaining socialist ‘baggage’, like Clause 4 of the party’s constitution – the core principle of the Labour movement that enshrined a worker’s right to receive in payment the full worth of their labour; the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange; and the best obtainable system of administration and control of each industry and service.

What the Labour Party scrapped along with Clause 4 was its commitment to end the capitalist system that allows a tiny minority to accrue fabulous wealth by exploiting the majority.  The political movement that once prided itself on being the People’s Party turned its back on ‘the people’, courted the capitalist bosses, and confirmed its transformation into the Tory Party MKII when Peter Mandelson stated ‘New’ Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Between them Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pandered to the capitalist ‘Masters of the Universe’ in the City of London, infamously introducing the light-touch regulation of banks and financial institutions that ultimately led to reckless gambling, toxic deals and privately-owned banks being bailed-out using public money...our money.

Ed Miliband’s statement of last week simply confirmed Labour had dropped even the pretence of being a party of the Left.  The Labour Party of old, the one that did actually care about the working class, is not stunned, nor is pining for the fjords: the Labour Party for which so many people in Scotland have voted in the past is no more, it has ceased to be, it is bereft of life, it rests in peace.

On the same day that Miliband confirmed Labour was now committed to the capitalist system that actively works to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer – UK Government Ministers were telling Scots we are so insignificant, in their eyes, that we can’t be allowed to run a referendum on the constitutional future of our own country.

Liberal Democrat MP Michael Moore, the Colonial Governor General of Scotland (oh, okay then, Secretary of State at the Scotland Office), was on his feet in the Imperial Parliament in London, telling the Jocks not to get ideas above their station.  The Right Honourable Mr Moore said the democratically-elected Scottish Government did not have the right or the power to hold a referendum on whether or not Scotland should assume the status of a normal, independent nation.

While Moore was on his feet, doing the Tories’ dirty work for them, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, sauntered in front of a BBC camera and simply said, “We’ll hold the referendum in autumn 2014.”

British Unionist parties – Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour – say the Scotland Act 1998 places a legal bar on the Scottish Government holding a referendum on ‘the constitution’, which is an area of legislation retained by Westminster.  It was British Unionist lawyers that wrote the Scotland Act, so they know there is a clause barring the SNP Government from holding such a referendum – just as there are clauses allowing the Westminster Parliament to overrule any decision taken by Holyrood, and even allowing the UK Parliament in London to abolish the Scottish Parliament, if it sees fit.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond is confident there is nothing, in international law, to prevent the democratically-elected Scottish Government from consulting the people of Scotland on their preferred option for the constitutional future of their own country.

So, who is right?  If only there was an independent and globally-acknowledged expert on such things.  Actually, there is.  Step forward Dr Matt Qvortrup of Cranfield University, author of ‘A Comparative Study of Referendums’.

Dr Qvortrup says, “The basic principle in international law is that the seceding country (in this case Scotland) decides whether it wants to become independent.

“To use but two examples, Montenegro did not have to ask Serbia to secede in 2006, nor did Estonia seek the Soviet Union’s permission to become independent in 1990.

“The fundamental rule is that countries become independent when they are recognised by the international community.  According to the so-called Estrada Doctrine, if Scotland votes for independence (and if the government is in control of the territory) then the international community will in all likelihood recognise the new state.  Just like the case of the former Soviet states in the 1990s.

“Of course, it is possible that only a narrow majority votes for independence.  But this need not be fatal.  When Malta voted for independence in 1965, only a little more than 50 percent voted to sever the ties with Britain, yet Westminster still accepted the outcome.”

Only by re-taking the full sovereign powers of independence can we begin to put first the interests of the Scottish people.

Autumn 2014 – when we will finally be given the opportunity to get off our knees and become a normal, independent matter what the Imperial British Parliament in London thinks.