Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Beginning Anew

It's a tragedy that the Left (for once I'm including Labour) was too weak to effectively challenge Thatcher's oft-repeated assertion that 'We have no alternative'. She was lying; there were well tested alternatives to austerity all the time, but, of course, it's going to be a lot harder to make the case now, after thirty years when austerity, under cover of debt and rising house prices, has been the norm. It's been shown that, once North Sea Oil is taken out of the equation, there was no recovery in the Thatcher years. I haven't seen similar figures for the 'New Labour' era, with debt and the housing bubble removed. I seriously wonder how much prosperity they'd show. Wages remained flat, and ever more people came to depend on benefits to top them up. It set us up for a rapacious Tory regime, fostered rack-renting, and created a climate where a monstrosity like the Bedroom Tax could easily be made to look reasonable, at least to those who don't have to pay it.

Part of the reason Thatcher was able to survive long enough to change the political climate for decades to come was sheer luck; the Falklands victory resulted from a combination of Argentine incompetence and chance. The one large ship they lost happened to be the only one they could lose and still retain a chance of victory. The Argentine air force put the wrong fuses on its bombs, ensuring that most of them failed to explode when they hit ships, and their defence of the islands was purely passive, fought by conscripts who fought like lions despite their leadership.

The other factor, which seems entirely lacking in the present regime, was political nous. The lady may have claimed she wasn't for turning, but in fact she turned often and early. She frequently proceeded by increments. The CP (Community Programme) Scheme created jobs for a year, without training, but with pay. It was followed by ET (Employment Training), which provided six months' work with token training, but on benefit plus a tenner, and you were still on a green Giro. The Work Programme is the logical next step in the series.It wasn't till the Poll Tax that she finally lost her marbles.

Back then, most politicians had spent time in the real world; despite marrying money, Thatcher didn't have an affluent background, and this probably contributed to her success. These days, politicians of all parties have often spent their lives cushioned by wealth, and the working lives in the Westminster bubble. The result is that the Tories seem to have no idea about the impact of policies which appear to be dictated entirely by ideology, and the other parties aren't much better. All of them sing from the same hymn sheet, and it offers nothing but decline and hopelessness to anyone but the rich.

The Tories lied their way into power, and are attempting to lie their way through to the next one. Whether they believe in their ability to survive it is anyone's guess; their policies look like a political suicide bombing designed to do maximum damage, with no thought of their chances at the next election. If this article is anything to go by, they're following a blueprint which was drawn up by Thatcher, which was found to be unworkable way back then. Or could they be gambling on Labour's unappealing cowardice to let them in? Their sheer ineptness may yet be our salvation as policies backfire.

They seem to have gambled that Labour and union weakness, public apathy and the vocal support of the right-wing press would see them through without a serious backlash. However, the sheer stupidity of cutting so fast and so deep has guaranteed one. The Bedroom Tax attempts to force people who are already claiming minimal benefits to pay part of their rent out of those benefits. It's an attack on peoples' right to a home, as in order to avoid the tax, without becoming overcrowded, a family would need to move every time the kids reached the right age, then move again each time one left home. Without a long-term settled home, the kids would be less likely to escape poverty themselves. Without being able to keep rooms for sons and daughters at college or absent elsewhere, it would be that bit more difficult to maintain family life after they began to move on. It's hard to escape the conclusion that this is a straightforward attack on  rights which are supposedly safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights.

For anyone on benefit, the payment makes up a significant part of their total income; for many people, it's completely unmanageable. Councils round the country have been reporting non-payment rates of between a third and a half, and many more only making part payments. Out of sheer necessity rather than any concerted attempt at resistance, the tax has created what amounts to the biggest rent strike in history. Hence the mounting evidence of panic that we're beginning to see, here, for instance.

 Rent strikes have a history of effectiveness; for instance, the strikes in Glasgow and elsewhere against rent rises during the First World War forced the government to legislate to control rents. The situation here is a difficult one since it's Councils and Housing Associations which are being hurt, and they only have limited influence, if any, on a rampaging Tory regime. Let's not forget that they only changed course on the Poll Tax after Thatcher's fall. Thirty-six Labour Councils asked the government to agree to abolish the Bedroom Tax, but so far even the Labour Party has been too spineless to commit itself to abolition.

With no way it can save money, nowhere to rehouse single tenants, and three-bedroom properties standing empty, the Bedroom Tax is so pointless and so destructive that the battle can surely be won. My biggest concern is the stress and suffering being imposed, for no good reason, on so many people who accepted tenancies on the understanding that, as long as they kept their side of the bargain, they would be theirs for life. In the longer term, the Tories have never been forgiven for the Poll Tax, they've been losing votes steadily for half a century, and this latest piece of lunacy may finally nail them permanently in their coffin with a stake through their hearts. They haven't won an election outright in over twenty years, and I seriously question their ability to bounce back.

In the long term, our problem probably isn't so much the Tories or UKIP. It's Labour, which is likely to be left as the (dubiously) acceptable alternative left standing after the election, despite being too cowardly to do its job in opposition and oppose the government's cuts. I'm not going to speculate about the long-term solution, whether it's to drive them back to the left - if that can be done at all - or to start a new party and replace them. One or the other has to happen as we currently have no Left party to speak of. The Greens do what they can, and deserve more credit for than they often get, but they don't currently have the strength to break through in Parliament. I live in the poorest part of Birmingham, in one of the safest Labour seats around. To all intents and purposes, we have no representation at all.

 History tells us that when a political system fails, as our current one has, it will be replaced. Our real task is to ensure that we build a Left alternative which is strong enough to move into some of political space being left by the decline of the traditional parties. UKIP is moving in on the right, and if we do nothing and remain within our traditional squabbling conventicles, we won't be able to stop them. Socialist Worker has summed it up well here. Fortunately, there are signs that things are beginning to change.

The traditional Left parties have shared the decline of the parliamentary parties, and while it's still far too small to have much impact, the Bedroom Tax campaign in Birmingham is already bigger than any of them. The Peoples' Assembly was even bigger, bringing together people from a wide spectrum, from the Trade Unions, the Labour left, and the Left parties, plus people like me who tend to cry down plagues on all their houses.

This is what we need; a broad coalition of the Left which can brainstorm together, with local meetings which can address local problems as well as the great national and supranational ones, and national gatherings for the latter. If we can maintain it, and build it up, then we have a chance to develop new Left structures which won't work on the old, discredited, top-down system, with everyone expected to toe some party line, and no room for those who don't. The strength of the old Labour Party was that it tried to be broader than that; its current failure is at least partly down to the way it effectively jettisoned the Left in its rush to the right under Blair.

We need something bigger, broader, and more democratic. Maybe we're taking the first steps towards building it, but it's early days yet. It's not enough any more to set ourselves up to 'represent' the people of areas like Ladywood, and aim to give them enough crumbs off the rich man's table to keep their votes in our pockets. We need to give them a real say in the political process.

This needs careful handling, since people with no political awareness are easily distracted. This has been a weakness of grassroots movements since the revolutions of 1848, and probably earlier. Revolutions are regularly hijacked. The overthrow of the puppet governments in eastern Europe at the end of the 1980's was probably needed, but it led too easily to rampant capitalism. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt appears to be derailed, though of course we've only seen the first act of what's likely to be a prolonged process.

We can't continue on the old model of the disciplined party where everyone's expected to adhere to a common strategy; it doesn't attract people to the Left any more than a similar policy brings people into the more sectarian churches. The more rigidly enforced the ideas, the harder the boundaries, the smaller the group becomes. We need a new, more open, model where issues can be debated freely, and which can raise political awareness in a broader group of people. Hopefully a Peoples' Assembly, if it can be made to work over a period, will provide part of the answer. A lot of people locally are aware of what's happening, but that needs to be channeled into a mass campaign, and only a new structure will be able to do that. I remain convinced that unions, including Unite Communities, which offers very cheap membership for the unwaged, must be an important part of any successful movement, but they're at a historical low at the moment, and have a long way to go to build themselves up again. Meanwhile, they offered serious backing for the London Peoples' Assembly, and it's very much to be hoped that this will continue.

We've got a long way to go, and the one thing we can be sure of is that the old ways no longer work. We've made a start, but that's all.

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