Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Democratic deficit demands move to Proportional Representation

One of the first moves made by a rampant Conservative government, following its election victory, was to announce more restrictions on the operations of trade unions.

New Business Secretary Sajid Javid wasted no time in announcing that the government would legislate to force unions representing members in essential public services to obtain 40% of those eligible to vote on a minimum 50% turn out of all the workers. The government is also to relax existing regulations, thereby permitting agency workers to replace striking workers.

The attack on trade unions is no doubt the latest move from a fundamentalist neo-liberal government set on seeking to remove any encumbrance remaining to the operation of the market.

The move is made all the more audacious given that the government itself was only elected by 24% of the 46 million people eligible to vote.

Indeed, the moves to outlaw strikes have focused attention on the undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the electoral system as it now operates. The last election saw smaller parties like UKIP (12.6%) and the Greens (3.8%) take a combined total of 5 million (16.1%) of the votes, yet receive just one seat each. The Conservatives took 36.9% of the total votes cast (11,334,576). The SNP took 56 seats but only stood in Scotland, thereby gaining a disproportionate say on the affairs of the whole UK.

The question of the overall democratic deficit is underlined by the fact that on a 66.6% turnout, one in three people did not vote at all. When the number of votes, effectively counting very little under the present first past the post system are taken into account, the existence of a democratic deficit becomes all the more obvious.

Since the election result there have been growing calls from across the spectrum for electoral reform. The need for change has been on the agenda for some years, the closest that the country ever came was when there was a referendum in 2011 on the possibility of replacing first past the post with the Alternative Vote (AV) – a form of proportional representation.

The AV system proposed required the winning candidate to have more than 50% of the vote. If on the initial count this was not the case then the second preference votes of the bottom candidate were allocated. This process continued until one candidate had 50% of the vote. The idea though was soundly rejected in the 2011 referendum, with 68% voting against compared to 32% in favour, on a 41% turnout (19.1 million).

The more radical version of proportional representation would see the number of votes a party receives nationally reflected in the number of seats it finishes up with in Parliament. Under a PR system, the results of the last election would have seen the Conservatives with 240 rather than 331 seats and Labour 198 instead of 232 seats. The smaller parties would have profited, with UKIP getting 81 seats for its 3.8 million votes rather than the present one. The Greens would have got 32 seats instead of the one they have now. The Liberal Democrats would have 51 seats instead of 8. The nationalist parties would have faired slightly worse, with the SNP taking 47 as opposed to 56 seats for its 1.45 million votes in Scotland.   

One of the concerns over the introduction of PR is that it would not provide the stable (if often unrepresentative) form of government that first past the post does. Coalitions would become more commonplace. Given that such coalitions would likely be made up of more than two parties, the basis for instability is obvious.

A little more crystal ball gazing in terms of the result from the last election – had it been on PR lines – certainly gives some food for thought. The Conservatives would have to combine with UKIP and one of the other smaller parties – probably the Liberal Democrats - to get the 326 seats required to form a government. Labour would likely have had to put together a coalition involving the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens.

One of the democratic failings of PR is that it can cut the relationship between constituents and their individual MP. Some PR elections are held in multiple member districts.

There are two main forms of PR – party list PR and the single transferable vote (STV).

Under the list system, the parties put forward candidates with the electorate voting by party. The number of representatives emerging is then allocated according to the percentage of the vote that each party attains. The weakness of this system is that it totally destroys the link between the MP and his or her constituents. It gives almost total power to the party machines to decide who the representatives are for a particular area. The opportunities for patronage and abuse are obvious.

The STV is a bit like AV, allowing the preferences of an eliminated candidate to be transferred to the others, until the winner or winners reach the threshold set to get elected.

Mixed member proportional representation (MMP), also known as the additional member system (AMS), is a hybrid allowing one winner on the largest take of the vote with the balance being made up via the list system. The voter has two votes, one for the individual and another for the party list. This system preserves to some degree the individual link between MP and constituents.

Some form of PR is used in 94 countries, the list system being the most popular format (85). MMP is used in seven countries while only Ireland and Malta use the STV. MMP was first used in Germany, post second world war and spread to Lesotho, Mexico, Bolivia and New Zealand. The AMS form has been used in the London, Welsh and Scottish assembly elections. 

The list system of PR is used in elections to the European Parliament, with parties putting forward candidates in order of preference. They are then elected according to the overall vote for the party in that regional area. It is perhaps a sobering thought to remember that in the European elections last year UKIP came out as the largest party with 24 seats, compared to 20 for Labour and 19 for the Conservatives.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has called for electoral reform. “My own sense is that this is an idea whose time has come. Our two-party system – with an occasional walk-on part for a Lib Dem protest vote – may have worked in the postwar decades, but is now irretrievably broken,” said Frances.” For those of us whose main commitment to civil society is not through party politics, the chance of a more serious national conversation can only be an opportunity for a more open and fair society.”

Something certainly has to change, with parties winning four million votes and only getting one seat in return, whilst one in every three people don’t vote at all. Recent elections have shown growing support for the smaller parties , so the first past the post system that favoured the two party system is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. The way forward would seem to dictate a need to move to a more proportional form of representation, though this will only make up part of what is required if the democratic deficit is to be filled in the UK.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Susan George highlights how austerity con has been used to transfer wealth from poor to rich

Susan George, author and member of Transnational Institute, has attacked the great con that has seen the promulgation of austerity as a means to increase the flow of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Addressing the General Federation of Trade Unions conference in Leicester, George pointed out that a crisis is something that happens and is over one way or the other – win or lose.”You don’t stay in a crisis from 2008 to 2015 – austerity has prolonged the crisis,” said George, who underlined how well those in the financial markets have been doing with the rise in foreign exchange contracts from 3.3 to 5.3 trillion between 2007 and 2013. Derivatives rose from 508 trillion in 2007 to 693 trillion in 2010.

She quoted the Tax Justice network figures suggesting there are between £21 and £32 trillion stuffed away in tax havens.”If we could tax some of this at a small rate it would clear up most of the problems in the world,” said George.

George criticised the transfer of wealth from labour to capital over the past 35 years, from the moment Margaret Thatcher came to power. The ratios have gone from 70% going to labour and 30% to capital in the 1970s to 60% versus 40% today.

George suggested that the concentration and interdependency of huge corporations at the centre of capitalism make another financial crisis of 2008 proportions more likely, indeed it will probably be worse.

The academic explained how the neo-liberal economic system made no sense in capitalist or socialist terms. The ideas have been sold as a result of an intellectual offensive by the apostles of the neo-liberal creed who have infiltrated media worldwide with the orthodoxy.

George called for unions to look outward to build broad coalitions with others involved in the anti-capital movement, whether grass root or non-governmental organisations like Friends of the Earth. “I dream of a European general strike,” said George. “We need a coalition of the willing. Unless what is left of the left get together it will be a sad future for all of us.”

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

GFTU moving forward with plan to create federation of small unions

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes led the call to form a federation of small unions.
Addressing the General Federation of Trade Unions Cortes called for the unions to reach out to those workers not in unions. “The politics of hope will triumph over fear,” said Cortes, who urged support for moves for unions to “pool resources” including the possibility of building a multi-union HQ and sharing office space.

Ben Marshall of Prospect supported the motion pointing out the sense of sharing facilities. “It is a federation of small unions being proposed, an alternative to the rush to merger. Sharing premises makes massive sense,” said Marshall.

The motion passed mandating a summit in November to take the proposal forward.

GFTU general secretary calls for labour movement's history to be put on school curriculums

General secretary of the GFTU Doug Nicholls has called on the trade union movement to prepare the leaders of tomorrow and force the history of the labour movement onto school curriculums.
Addressing the GFTU annual conference, Mr Nicholls called on “teachers to defy the official curriculum and teach every young person about unions.”
Mr Nicholls called for a focus on trade union education, declaring that the Tories teach “arrogance” via the private schools and Oxbridge education.
He called for a more serious approach being taken to teaching about trade unions.  
The GFTU has signed a partnership agreement with the University of Wolverhampton, as a first step on this route, working with progressive academics to spread the word. “We are well placed too over the next five years to focus on the remaining priority in the movement, the engagement of young leaders. I will challenge any trade unionist or affiliate that is not seriously developing the youth manifesto we have created and anyone who is blocking the rise of young members in our ranks. Quite simply we need to develop thousands of young workers this year to ensure that we never feel as bad as we did on the day after the election this year, said Mr Nicholls.
Motions passed calling for support of the White Ribbon campaign outlawing domestic violence worldwide, support for migrant workers and highlighting the housing crisis.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

General Federation of Trade Unions president warns of drift to Tory dictatorship

President of the GFTU John Fray has claimed that Britain is on the drift to a dictatorship under the present Conservative Government.

The GFTU president warned that the Tories wou"now be full of confidence, feeling free once again to target trade unions with deliberate intention to legally restrict our member's rights to take actions to protect and improve their terms and conditions."
He added that "the Tories also intend to weaken our human rights and gerrymander the constituencies to make sure even more seats fall to the Tories in 2020."
Fray outlined what had gone wrong for the Labour Party in the general election, with UKIP biting into the core vote. “We must get rid of the anti-trade union Tories,” said Fray, who called for trade unions to stop being marginalised and make their voices heard. “The GFTU must make sure we’re on the platform. Trade unions big or small have a right to a voice and a vision,” said Fray, who called for the trade unions to train up future leaders.

Adrian Weir, assistant national secretary of Unite, warned of the dangers represented by the proposed TTIP agreement.

Weir quoted Joseph Stiglitz, nobel laureate, claiming that negotiators “will almost surely push for the lowest standard, levelling downward rather than upward.”

He illustrated this point with concerns of the US trade unions that could see their rights downgraded to south east Asian levels under the same type of agreements as TTIP, rather than pushed up to European standards. European workers equally have the concern of their rights being reduced to US levels.

Weir hit an optimistic note, claiming that the battle can be won just as it had been back in the 1990s, when the corporate inspired Multilateral Agreement on Investment was defeated. Already, the agreement has hit troubles in the US Congress.
“There are 2 million signed up to a petition in opposition to TTIP – we can and must win,” said Weir.
Robert Mooney of Community gave an impassioned account of a trade union visit to Bhopal on the 30th anniversary of the Union Carbide accident.

Mooney recalled how 8,000 died at the time, with a further 25,000 dying since. “At best this was culpable homicide,” said Mooney, who recalled that children are still being forced to drink contaminated water.

Roberto Calzadilla, Bolivian ambassador to Britain, told how under the presidency of Eva Morales wages had increased fourfold and everyone over 60 has the right to a pension.
Calzadilla outlined President Eva Morales vision of living a life that was in balance with the community and planet. “We consider water a human right. The leader’s vision is to live well, in balance, sleep, eat well, care about your neighbour-it is about getting into balance,” said Calzadilla, who recalled how the role of the state in Bolivia is redistributing wealth

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady believes Labour Party remains best bet for working people

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady declared that the Labour Party remains the best bet for working people and now is no time to be talking about setting up a new party of the left.

Addressing the GFTU conference, O’Grady surveyed the ruins of the election campaign which saw a move to the SNP north of the border and the English nationalism of UKIP bite into Labour’s core vote in England.

“My view is that workers have more in common with each other across borders than they do with a London stock broker or Edinburgh banker,” said O’Grady, who did though concede that the Labour Party gave too much ground to the economics of austerity.

On the positive side, O’Grady believes that it will not be all plain sailing for David Cameron with potential problems coming from the SNP and his own backbenchers. “Some of those backbenchers are for hug a hoody, others make Norman Tebbit look like a bleeding heart liberal,” said O’Grady, who also saw potential problems of division coming for the Tories over EU referendum and their own internal leadership battle to succeed Cameron.

The TUC GS called for “unity and discipline” in opposing the attacks of the Tories on trade union rights.

“This is a crucial time for our movement and the people we represent,” said O’Grady, who declared that “the TUC will always stand on the side of the worker taking strike action.”

The TUC leader called for the movement to put more effort into organising, particularly in the private sector. “These are tough times for our movement, we must get out and organise, then together we will win.”

John Hendy, QC, told the conference that the Tory Government government is determined to destroy the trade unions as the next stage toward the fulfilment of the neo-liberal capitalist agenda.

Hendy highlighted how there were 80% of workers under collective bargaining agreements in 1979 but that this was now down to 20%.

He warned that after the government’s initial efforts to raise voting thresholds required to get a strike and making it possible for agency workers to be used as strike breakers, would be followed by efforts to remove check off, facility time and political funding.

Hendy called for the trade union movement to put collective bargaining at the top of their industrial and political agenda. “Collective bargaining is the only way workers voices can be heard at work. It is an argument for social justice,” said Hendy, who credited much of the growing inequality in society to the demise of collective bargaining.

The lawyer called for any future commitment to the Labour Party to be conditional on it supporting the restoration of collective bargaining and the right to strike. “Unless the Labour Party support those two points they do not deserve the support of the trade union movement,” said Hendy.
Other motions passed calling for the outlawing of zero hours contract and the implementation of a £10 minimum wage

Monday, 18 May 2015

Is Sam Allardyce off to Hawaii - after Everton defeat?

The big question dominating all events at West Ham these days is whether manager Sam Allardyce is going or staying.
There was little in this match to confirm the matter either way. Allardyce himself appears to remain in the dark, lamenting that “everyone in football has very short memories” only remembering things that happened a week or two ago, not three or four months previously.
The manager set out his philosophy as being to entertain and win, not as was the case in this match to entertain and lose.
The game was played at a good tempo throughout with some good passing movements from both sides. The first half saw Leon Osman force a smart save from Adrian away to his right, whilst Stewart Downing broke through for the Hammers to see his rasping shot similarly dealt with by Tim Howard.
The tempo increased in the second half, when West Ham took the lead, with Alex Song slipping a ball through for the advancing Stewart Downing to sweep home.
The home side only held on though for six minutes before Romelu Lukaku got away on the right to cross over for Osman to finish expertly turning to lash the ball home.
It looked as though spoils would be even, until the curse of West Ham’s season struck once again in the final minute of injury time. A cross game over, letting West Ham’s bogey man Lukaku get inbetween defenders to head home.
Both teams remain in contention for the Europa League under the fair play rules, though it was Roberto Martinez who was the happier of the two managers, confirming he was happier to have won 2-1, despite having four players booked. In turn Allardyce declared he would have preferred to have had four, instead of one player, booked and come away with the three points.
The fans remain in the dark, as to who will be manager next season, the only clue being an interview Allardyce in the match day programme, where to the question: “if there was one place on earth you could visit where would it be,” he replied Hawaii. Strange then that as the players came out for their lap of honour after the defeat the tune theme tune Hawaii Five O rang out – is the club trying to tell us something?