Friday, 30 August 2013

How to end the Bedroom Tax this week reveals the shocking consequences of the Bedroom Tax in North Ayrshire: in the same week that the local Council had 8 one-bedroom properties available for allocation, there were 1,765 tenants facing higher rent charges because the UK Government deems them to have at least one room more than they need in their home.

In other words, 1,765 tenants are now looking for a one-bedroom property to avoid having to pay increased rent that they can’t afford, but the Council has available just 8 such homes. These are the local victims of an iniquitous tax imposed from London by two political parties – Tories and Lib Dems – who were soundly rejected by the people of Scotland at the last UK Election.

Clearly, there is a massive gulf between demand and available supply, and that is before we include people already on the North Ayrshire Housing List looking for a one-bedroom property: there are currently 3,654 such applicants. That means, in total, there are 5,419 people in North Ayrshire who require a one-bedroom property and have applied to North Ayrshire Council for a house. Given that the Council has available just 8 such homes, there are 675 applicants for every one-bedroom property in the local area.

The 1,765 existing Council tenants who now find their Housing Benefit cut because they have more bedrooms than the UK Government says they need, have virtually no chance of ‘down-sizing’ into a one-bedroom property. Their benefit is automatically cut, so they have to find the difference to make up the shortfall in rent, but that is impossible on the very low fixed-income they receive from the state. This has led to rent arrears soaring across the country. North Ayrshire Council’s SNP administration has said there will be no evictions resulting from someone getting into arrears because of the Bedroom Tax, so long as tenants work with the local authority to address the arrears. A ‘no evictions’ policy is to be welcomed, but how are impoverished tenants supposed to address their arrears caused by the Bedroom Tax when they just can’t afford it.

On the other hand, North Ayrshire Council is, itself, a victim of the Bedroom Tax. Any notional saving for the UK Treasury arising from cutting the Housing Benefit of tenants in properties with a bedroom more than they ‘need’, results in a shortfall in income for Councils who also face increased expenditure in dealing with people plunged into arrears and in supplying social care and support services to stressed tenants forced to look for smaller homes that don’t exist.

The other option for people affected by the Bedroom Tax is to look for a one-bedroom property in the private sector. However, rents for private lets are much higher than those charged by local authorities, so that option means an increase in Housing Benefit to pay the rent charged by private landlords.

The Bedroom Tax is a disaster. It was clearly thought-up by some policy-wonk in London who has never experienced the real world. Just like the majority of senior UK politicians, the author of the Bedroom Tax probably went to Eton or another of the expensive, elite private schools in England, before ‘going-up’ to Oxford or Cambridge, an education that delivers little understanding of how women, men and children exist on meagre benefits when there aren’t enough jobs around.

The Bedroom Tax is ideological and is designed to punish so-called ‘workshy skivers’ on benefits, while driving more people to rent from the private sector, which increases profits for landlords who will, so the theory goes, show their gratitude by voting Tory at the next election. Benefit recipients can be punished because they don’t vote Tory anyway, so no damage to electoral prospects there.

In addition to the core unfairness of the Bedroom Tax, the legislation exposes the democratic deficit still faced by Scotland.

The majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster voted against the Bedroom Tax, but Scots have it imposed on us because we remain part of the British Union. We rejected the Tories and the Liberal Democrats at the last UK Election in 2010 – the parties finished third and fourth in Scotland – but we have them imposed on us as a government because we remain part of the British Union.

The Labour Party, which many Scots still put their faith in, has refused to scrap the Bedroom Tax if it were to be elected by the people of England at the next UK Election in 2015. Of course, opinion polls show a Labour victory in that election is looking increasingly unlikely.

Fortunately, Scots can end both the Bedroom Tax and the democratic deficit simply by retaking our political independence through voting ‘Yes’ in next year’s referendum.

With independence, Scots will always get the government for which we vote: never again will we have Tories imposed on us by the voters of England. A ‘Yes’ vote at next year’s Independence Referendum will lead to the people of Scotland electing our first independent parliament and government in May 2016: at that election we will decide which party governs us, based on the policies they present in their manifestos. Contrary to just one of the British unionist scare-stories, a vote for independence does not mean an SNP Government in an independent Scotland, unless we decide to vote SNP at the Scottish Parliament Election in 2016.

With independence, it will be for us to decide which party governs Scotland: and I would suggest that no party proposing anything like the Bedroom Tax would ever get elected in an independent Scotland.

Friday, 23 August 2013

We're re-living dark days of Victorian era

Next year will be significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Independence Referendum on September 18.

For the first-time ever, the people of Scotland will be asked our opinion on whether or not we should remain merely a region within the British Union or retake our political independence as a normal, independent nation.

Back in 1707, the vast majority of Scots had no say as the independent parliament of Scotland ceased to exist, with political and economic powers transferred to the English parliament in London. What was described as a union was actually England colonising its northern neighbour. What England had been unable to achieve by military power was finally secured through financial clout. As ordinary Scots rioted in opposition, the only people with a vote, the so-called Scots aristocracy, lined their pockets with English gold as they sold Scotland to England. Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, described the Scots traitors as “such a parcel ‘o rogues in a nation”.

Next year, those of us living in Scotland – aged 16 and over, and whose names appear on the Electoral Register – will be the first people in over three-centuries to have our say on our country’s constitutional future. No-one, from 1707 to 2014, has had this opportunity: we can be the independence generation, the people who right the wrong inflicted on Scotland 306 years ago by self-centred and greedy Lords, Earls and Barons.

Also in 2014 we will see the Commonwealth Games come to Glasgow, and we will mark 100 years since the outbreak of the catastrophic human carnage that was the First World War.

The year of 1914 also saw publication of a book that, 100 years later, is still unsurpassed in explaining the corrupt and exploitative nature of the capitalist economic system. Today, The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists by Robert Tressell (real name Robert Noonan) is as relevant as it ever was.

Tressell’s work described the poverty and deprivation endured by the working class at the turn of the last century. Workers had no rights and were at the beck and call of employers who paid poverty-level wages, while amassing huge wealth for themselves.

In the intervening century since publication of The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists, hard-fought social and political battles resulted in workers securing basic rights, such as a minimum wage, the right to refuse working excessive hours, sickness benefit, holiday entitlement and an end to the fear that unscrupulous bosses could sack you if one day they decided your face simply did not fit.

However, under the guise of tackling the economic crash caused by immoral capitalists chasing ever-greater profits, British political parties have introduced legislation and policies that have greatly undermined the basic rights won by the workers of previous generations. The value of wages has been eroded as pay has stagnated or been cut, while inflation – the cost of the things we all have to buy, such as food – has soared.

The big ‘austerity’ con has blamed the public sector when, in fact, it was privately-owned banks that brought the economy to its knees. Just last week it was revealed that almost half-a-million public sector workers have lost their jobs since the banking collapse of 2008, while bankers continue to pay themselves six-figure bonuses, in addition to already massive salaries. The con, perpetrated by British political parties – Tory, Labour and Lib Dem – and eagerly supported by a tame media, states that public sector job losses have been replaced by over one-million posts created in the private sector. What those bare figures do not reveal, though, is that the private sector jobs replacing full-time, well-paid posts in the public sector are primarily part-time, low-waged jobs with many workers on Zero-Hours Contracts.

These contracts basically take us back to the days so poignantly described by Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Once again we have workers entirely at the beck and call of employers. Women and men on Zero-Hour Contracts have no guaranteed hours, no basic pay, and no entitlement to work-related benefits, such as sick-pay, holidays or redundancy payments.

Until recently, the UK Office of National Statistics estimated that around 250,000 workers in the UK were ‘employed’ under these contracts, but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has since revised that figure upward to more than one-million. That means there are at least one-million women and men who are ‘contracted’ to a specific employer, but don’t know from day-to-day whether they will actually be given any work or pay. While ‘contracted’ to an employer, workers on a Zero-Hour Contract must be ‘on call’ and must make themselves available at any time, irrespective of issues such as childcare responsibilities or other family commitments.

Zero-Hour Contracts are not new, they have been around for years, which makes Labour’s objections to them sound very hollow – they formed the UK Government for 13 years and did nothing about them (nor, for that matter, did Labour do anything about the draconian anti-trade union laws introduced by the Thatcher Tory Government).

Within the British Union, the economy was trashed by unregulated banks and financial institutions. Within the British Union, Scottish workers have seen wage-levels and job-security significantly diminished. Within the British Union, ordinary women and men today have terms and conditions of employment not seen since the dark days of the Victorian era.

According to the British unionist partners in the Better Together campaign – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, UKIP – this is as good as it gets. Next year, in the Independence Referendum, if we vote ‘No’ we will be giving consent to Westminster UK Governments to impose more of the same.

Alternatively, we can make history as the independence generation: we can vote ‘Yes’ , retake our political independence and build a better, fairer country for all the people of Scotland.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Keir Hardie will be spinning in his grave

To call the organisation led by Ed Miliband the ‘Labour Party’ is a grotesque distortion of meaning and history.

It is many years since the Labour Party even attempted to represent the interests of those who make their living through selling their labour. Today’s Labour Party is indistinguishable from the Tories: both parties now champion free-market capitalism and put the generation of private wealth before the public interest.

Looking at the events that led to the creation of the Labour Party shows the extent of today’s betrayal of the organisation’s founding principles and the people who gave so much to build a political party to represent ordinary men and women.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, significant changes began to affect the working-class as suffrage (the right to vote) was extended. At elections in 1885 and 1886, the Highland Land League (HLL), essentially an organisation representing the interests of crofters, made a spectacular breakthrough by securing the election of 5 MPs committed to land reform. An office bearer of the HLL was an Ayrshire-based Miners’ organiser called James Keir Hardie.

Members of the working-class entitled to vote initially put their faith in the middle-class Liberal Party. However, growing frustration with this situation led to agitation for the fielding of candidates who truly represented those who were forced to sell their labour to make a living.

This led to Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) candidates fighting elections in seats where there was a large working-class population. In March 1888 a by-election in the constituency of Mid-Lanark was caused by the resignation of the sitting Liberal MP. James Keir Hardie, a member of the Liberal Party at the time and also the trade union organiser for Miners working in Lanarkshire pits, put himself forward as a Lib-Lab candidate for the seat. But, despite his local credentials and support from trade unions and workers, the Liberal Party declined Hardie’s offer and, instead, selected as its candidate John Philipps, an English solicitor.

Against this background, and without the support of a recognised political party, James Keir Hardie stood in the by-election as an independent representative of labour. In support of his campaign a broad grouping of individuals and organisations came together, including the Scottish Miners’ Federation, trade unions, socialist societies, Highland Land League MPs and the radical Liberal MP Robert Cunninghame Graham who represented the seat of North West Lanarkshire. Cunninghame Graham had been elected at the 1886 General Election, on a manifesto that included: the abolition of the House of Lords; universal suffrage; the nationalisation of land, mines and other industries; free school meals; disestablishment of the Church of England; the introduction of an eight-hour working day; and Scottish Home Rule.

Hardie finished third with a credible 8 per cent of the vote. Philipps retained the seat for the Liberal Party ahead of the second-placed Conservative, William Bousfield, another English solicitor. However, the Mid-Lanark by-election proved to be a crucial point in the development of working-class representation.

Following the Liberal Party’s decision to field a London-based lawyer instead of the local Miners’ organiser, Hardie and others reached the conclusion that for the interests of the working-class to be represented in parliament, there required to be a party of labour. After a series of meetings preparing the ground, the organisations and people who had supported Hardie’s candidacy in Mid-Lanark met in the summer of 1888 to formalise a new political body, which they called the Scottish Labour Party.

The first electoral test for the new party came at the General Election of 1892. Robert Cunninghame Graham had resigned from the Liberal Party and stood down from his North West Lanarkshire seat in order to contest the Glasgow Camlachie constituency for the Scottish Labour Party. In total, the SLP fielded five candidates at the 1892 election but none were elected.

However, James Keir Hardie had been invited to stand as an independent labour candidate in the working-class London constituency of West Ham. Although offering no support to Hardie, the Liberal Party did not stand, which meant a straight fight between the candidate of labour and a Conservative. Hardie polled 5,268 to the Tory candidate’s 4,036 and was elected with a majority of 1,232.

Hardie’s outspoken advocacy of the rights of the working-class, and his confrontational style of speaking in parliament made him a focal point for the Britain-wide labour movement.

At a Trades Union Congress meeting in September 1892, proposals were moved for the establishment of an independent labour organisation to represent the working class of Britain. It was agreed that a conference on the subject should be held in January 1893. A large delegation from the Scottish Labour Party attended the conference held in Bradford from January 14-16, where it was agreed to work on a cross-Britain basis to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP). James Keir Hardie was elected chairman of the new political body.

From its beginning the Independent Labour Party’s stated objective was to secure for the people “the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The party also advocated an eight-hour working day, free education and provision for the sick, disabled, widows and the elderly. In addition, the ILP also supported Home Rule for Scotland and Ireland.

In 1894 the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party took the decision to merge the body with the Independent Labour Party. There then followed 8 years of internal restructuring before, in 1906, a political organisation to represent the interests of the working-class across the British Isles was formed. It was called the Labour Party.

Today, that party sides with the Tories in attacking ordinary men and women as spongers and shirkers. Today, that party stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories in attempting to prevent Scots from completing the powers of ‘home rule’ and restoring our independence. Today, that party refuses to repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws. Today, that party says it would retain the Bedroom Tax, vicious legislation that punishes the poor and vulnerable. Today, that party has turned its back on the working-class and now endorses an economic system that allows the rich to get richer, while the poor get poorer.

Keir Hardie and the organisation’s founders will be spinning in their graves to see the Tory-clone that the Labour Party has become.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Days of Empire - a stain on our history

Around the mid-1800s, Scots were beginning to find their voice in radical and socialist organisations.  Living conditions for much of the population were appalling, with large families often crammed into one room of festering, unsanitary accommodation in Scotland’s expanding cities.

Fledgling bodies representing workers and local communities began to demand improvements, both in the workplace and from housing landlords.  Often, a cornerstone of such organisations was the recognition that ‘home rule’ for Scotland was a necessary requirement in the struggle to throw-off the yolk of remote governments in London, which were seen as being in the pockets of the rich, the very people whose interests were served by the conditions that trapped the working class in grinding poverty.

However, while the seeds of class consciousness and the importance of Scottish national self-determination were taking root at home, many Scots were actively conquering and suppressing the peoples of other nations in the name of the ever-expanding British Empire.

Throughout the 19th Century, Britain extended its military and economic power around the globe, with Scots playing significant roles in the building of an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’ – a reference to the fact that British colonial conquests spanned so much of the world that there was never a time during a 24-hour period when the sun was not shining on at least one part of it.

Nations and peoples were defeated by British military might, including massed ranks of Scottish regiments.  Once colonised, every ounce of wealth was extracted from the conquered nations, with Scots to the fore in providing clerks and administrators within ruling regimes, in addition to managers in plantations and other British commercial interests.  For example, in India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, the first three Governors-General were Scots.

Throughout this period – the mid-to-late 1800s – Scots at home were also seen to ‘benefit’ from Scotland’s membership of the British Union and as a ‘partner’ in Empire.  Colonial railways needed steam engines, which were built in the Glasgow district of Springburn: mills in Dundee prospered from the jute industry linked to trade with India.  Fabulous wealth was built by Glasgow merchants through their trade in tobacco and sugar harvested in the West Indies.  But, amidst these ‘success stories’, thousands-upon-thousands of ordinary men, women and children in Scotland continued to live in absolute poverty.

The British Empire was built on the pursuit of wealth through exploitation, the founding principle of modern capitalism.  Scots aristocrats and merchants who signed-up to the project were well rewarded, while those at the bottom rung of the colonial ladder saw little benefit, other than a misguided feeling of superiority gained from policing the so-called ‘lesser beings’ of conquered nations.

While it can be argued that ordinary soldiers and lowly clerks were products of their time and knew no better than to carry out the orders of their social and military ‘superiors’, the same argument cannot be made for Scots of supposedly ‘higher orders’ and positions. 

To this day, many Glaswegians remain unaware that the 19th Century wealth of the city was built on slavery.  Much of Glasgow’s stunning architecture and many of its mansions and town-houses were built by merchants who made their money from tobacco and sugar-cane cultivated in the West Indies and picked by slaves forcibly removed from their homelands in western Africa.  Not only did Glasgow merchants grow fabulously wealthy on the labour of slaves, but when slavery was abolished within the British Empire, the former slave-owners received financial compensation from the British Government.  Official papers show the British exchequer paid-out £400,000 to 100 Scottish claimants.  Most of the Scots who received compensation for the loss of their slaves were recorded as living in Glasgow: the amount they received would have a value today in the region of £2bn.

The time of British Empire is a period of shame, and the significant role played by Scots in the violent repression, subjugation and exploitation of the peoples of other nations is a permanent stain on our history.

There are very good reasons why, today, the British flag fluttering in the warm breeze of foreign lands still generates feelings of foreboding in local people.  The late Hamish Henderson, in his seminal work Freedom Come All Ye, written in 1960, described how the role of Scots as both cannon-fodder and colonial oppressors in the British army led to a situation where the sound of bagpipies instilled fear in lands across the globe.  However, Henderson went on to reflect that a wind of change blowing across Scotland – the strengthening of socialist beliefs and of Scottish national identity, as opposed to British – has the potential to sweep-away the British state-control under which Scots helped to exploit others in the name of imperialism.

In a vision of a fair, multi-racial and just society, Hamish Henderson referred to a Scotland (and a world) where we are “aw Jock Tamson’s bairns”, and where Scots, shorn of the negative baggage of British unionism and colonialism, are welcomed as friends in countries around the world.