Thursday, 28 April 2016

Jeremy Corbyn attacks austerity agenda, whilst backing doctors, nurses, teachers, postal and telecom workers

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attacked the government for making “a political choice” in pursuing its austerity agenda.

“The austerity agenda is “a political choice, not an economic necessity,” declared Jeremy, adding that “you can’t cut your way to prosperity, you have to invest for prosperity”

Addressing the Communication Workers Union conference in Bournemouth, Jeremy called for investment in new rail links and housing. He also called for a zero emission based environmental strategy.

He  called for trade union to work across continents in order to confront capital. “It is the power of global corporations to play ducks and drakes with worker’s rights. We must organise ourselves internationally, said Jeremy, who called for the unions to work together with the Labour Party to oppose what the government is doing to working people.

Jeremy acknowledged that the last Labour government did not do enough to repeal the trade union legislation.

He committed to not only defend the Universal Service Obligation in the mail service but seek to extend that mantra to the telecommunications industry. “I have got real trepidation about the dangers posed by the possibility of a break up of BT,” said Jeremy.

Jeremy reiterated the ongoing opposition to the TU Bill with a number of victories secured against the legislation in the House of Lords. He further committed a future Labour government to repeal the Lobbying Act that came in before the last election, with its restrictions on the political activities of trade unions and charities. “Hedge funds and business can have a voice but not ordinary people. We’ll change that,” pledged Jeremy.

He slammed the Tory government for giving tax breaks to the richest 5%, whilst cutting welfare for the disabled. “We’re with the disabled,” said Jeremy.

Jeremy expressed his determination that the next Labour government will bring the rail industry back into public ownership.

He also reasserted his belief in life long education, whilst rallying opposition to the government’s declared intention to academies all state schools. “I value education as a right not something to be bought and sold, said Jeremy.
The Labour leader also backed the NHS, voicing suspicions of a government agenda of privatisation by stealth. He also pledged the Labour Party’s support for the junior doctors. “Back off, we’re supporting the junior doctors,” said Jeremy

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The appalling way that Secured Energy Bond investors have been treated by government and regulators thus far offers a sign of things to come when other risky investments start to fail

The treatment of the 973 investors in the now defunct Secured Energy Bonds (SEB) by the government and regulators opens up questions that go far beyond this one mini-bond product.

The failure to act to protect these investors offers a glimpse of how future unfortunate savers will be treated when other “unregulated” products like peer to peer lenders and others go bust. And what is more the government should bare more than a little of the responsibility, given that it has been the ongoing bailing out of the banks that has forced savers toward ever more risky products - in search of some sort of return on their income.

The SEB investors, lest we forget, put their money into what on the face of it was a good investment. The funds raised were to be used to buy solar panels to fit on 22 schools across the UK. The return 6.5% over three years.

Not an outrageously risky investment on the face of it. Had SEB then done what the promotional material said they were going to do, all would have been well. But instead, the Australian parent company CBD Energy decided to siphon off around £4.2 million for other purposes.

Now the investors want their money back. After encouraging noises from both the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Treasury minister Harriet Baldwin, directing investors toward the Financial Ombudsman for restitution, the wind suddenly changed. Baldwin sheltered in behind the FCA, which was now qualifying its statements to the effect that the FO may not be able to do what investors wanted.

The FO has behaved in the most contrary way, first producing an adjudication to the effect that they could look at investors complaints, then another adjudication saying almost the mirror opposite - that they couldn’t. So what is going on?

For the SEB investors it is now a case of seeing whether an ombudsman will actually look at their claims and find in their favour.

However, there is a much wider policy issue here concerning compensation for investors who have put their hard earnt money into more risky investments. A qualifier should be added here, regarding Secured Energy Bonds, to the effect that had the investors funds been used for the advertised purpose this was not a risky investment.

And it is here that the government and regulators have to step forward and take responsibility. The present approach of pass the parcel, at present being deployed against SEB investors simply will not do.

There was a time not that long ago, when banks were still offering an acceptable fixed rate return on investments. Then along came the government with its latest reward to the banking industry for its reckless behaviour in causing the financial crash of 2008. This reward was the Funding for Lending Scheme which provided tax payers money to the banks to get lending going again in the economy. The banks took the money. However, what the latest piece of largesse from the tax payer did do was remove the need to provide any sort of reasonable rate to investors looking to deposit their money.

The result, savers had to look elsewhere to find any sort of return. The inevitable consequence has been documented with investors turning to more risky products like mini-bonds, crowdfunders and peer to peer lending.

The government has done much to promote the, for the most part, admirable peer to peer lending sector - seeing this as another avenue by which it can get money lent out in order to get the economy going. (Something lest we forget that the banks, having crashed the whole economy in the first place, have singularly failed to do – no matter how big the inducement).

Now, what the plight of the SEB investors exposes is the tip of what could be a very nasty iceberg. When other schemes, whether they be peer to peer, mini-bonds or whatever, go belly up in the way SEB has, what will the government and regulator response be? Certainly, the simple nothing to do with us mate or a rereading of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) will not do.

Savers have been hung out to dry time and time again since the financial crisis of 2008. The low rates on offer to savers are a reflection of a system skewed totally to propping up the banks.  The losers are those who have simply tried to manage their money carefully and invest prudently to get some sort of income.

It is high time the government stepped forward to instruct the regulator to provide restitution for the SEB investors and put in place cast iron guarantees and regulations, so that similar abuses don't occur in the future. The time is well overdue for the government to start looking after investors rather than simply shovelling more and more money toward negligent banks, which continue to profit on the backs of us all.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Time to look again at nationalisation

The threat posed to the British steel industry when Tata Steel announced it was pulling out of the UK has led to calls for re-nationalisation of the industry.
The Tata situation certainly put the issue of nationalisation back in the spotlight, with steel not the only sector that growing numbers would like to see taken back into public ownership.

The post war Labour government carried out the most comprehensive of nationalisation programmes, taking the Bank of England, the coal mines, railways, gas and electricity, iron and steel into public ownership.

Steel was later re-privatised by the Conservative government, before Harold Wilson’s Labour government re-nationalised it in 1967.Steel was re-privatised again in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s government, eventually becoming Corus.

Steel was just one part of the mixed economy terrain that had existed during the post war years. The mixed economy had seen government effectively holding the ring, via the public ownership of infrastructure areas like energy, transport, steel, water, post, telecommunications and airways. Private companies formed the other part of the mix.

Just as the Attlee government had created the rubric of nationalisation and a mixed economy, so in 1979, the Thatcher government oversaw the dismantling of this structure and a return to a total market economy. Thatcher began the process that has continued right up to the present day, with Royal Mail being one of the most recent victims of the dash to privatise.

In the RM case, the government was prepared to take over pensions and anything that could be considered a cost to potential private investors, in order to prepare the way. But what RM, and most recently the steel debacle, illustrate is the total lack of any industrial strategy on the part of government.

The privatisation virus has taken such a hold that the Cameron government now seeks to finish the job begun in 1979, selling off as it were to paraphrase former Conservative PM Harold Macmillan the last few remaining bits of the family silver.

In the case of steel, the interests of the 15,000 people who stand to lose their jobs seems to count for little. It has emerged since the crisis broke that the government stood in the way of the EU efforts to block Chinese dumping of steel on the market, thereby undermining European steel industries. The government has also refused to bring in any protective measures that would give the British industry a chance of surviving in world markets.

The steel crisis saw calls for temporary nationalisation voiced, however the voices are growing ever louder calling for more permanent re-nationalisation of a number of former publically owned industries.

Foremost, among the candidates has been the railways - with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently declaring that a future Labour Government would look to renationalise.

The case for renationalisation of the railways is strong, with commuters paying astronomical fares for an at times unreliable service. The RMT has argued that since privatisation, more than £11 billion has been misspent. The union claims that fares could be substantially reduced if rail was taken back into public ownership.

There has even been a trial run of what a publically owned railway could look like, when the East Coast Mainline operated under public control between 2010 and 2015. The service increased turnover and profits, with customer satisfaction also up. Indeed, many believed the government was so keen to return the line to the private sector last year because it was proving just how much better a publically owned railway can operate.

Gas, electricity and water are other areas where there have been calls for public ownership to be re-established.

In all these areas, the logic of re-nationalisation is difficult to deny. The common feature of private ownership has been cut backs in staff, increased cost to the consumer and orbiting dividend payments to shareholders. If the money being paid out to shareholders was instead being reinvested in the industry, how can the system not work better?

The better pay, terms and conditions for workers can also only be for the common good of all.

It is also not as though governments, when pushed, will not nationalise failing industry – remember the banks. The reckless behaviour of the banking industry brought the whole world financial system to the brink of collapse in 2008.

In this country, it was only the swift action of the then Labour Government in taking a number of banks into public ownership that managed to save the day. There were no qualms about cost, with £1.2 trillion of government support provided to the financial sector.

The desire to return the banks to the private sector has been paramount with government since nationalisation. But think how much better things could have been if the banks taken into public ownership had been used to create a national bank which could have become a major part of creating a new industrial architecture. A bank that would lend readily and responsibly to those seeking to build businesses and create jobs. The potential was vast but unfortunately spurned.

So the story of the banks plays an important role in the whole rehabilitisation of the idea of nationalisation as a concept. They prove that nationalisation can take place but there needs to be a long term strategy, a strategy that goes beyond that of a holding process before the industry or service in question can be given back to the private sector - often at a discount.

The time for re-nationalisation of a whole swathe of sectors in society, including Royal Mail, energy utilities, steel and railways, has surely come. Moving forward, nationalisation can be put at the heart of a new industrial strategy that seeks to reward workers and citizens alike. It is certainly something that Jeremy Corbyn’s team must be looking at.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

West Ham supporters wondering how high the bubbles with rise before the Boleyn ground closes its doors for the final time

These are exciting days for West Ham United, as the club prepares to bid farewell to its home for the past 100 years, the Boleyn ground.

A place in the top four of the Premiership and the FA Cup final beckon - and if it were not for the meteoric rise of Leicester City, surely West Ham would have got even more plaudits for their performances this season.

It has certainly been a season to remember. New manager Slaven Bilic has brought in great players and a brand of football much more in keeping with the traditions of the club than his predecessor Sam Allardyce.

The pick of the bunch has no doubt been the diminutive French international midfielder Dimitri Payet, who has already been granted iconic status by the fans.  

Payet has certainly grabbed the headlines, not least with his amazing free kicks. West Ham may have been denied penalties all season (just one, last August) by a series of below average referees but the presence of Payet in the team, means that every time a free kick is given around the penalty area, there is an excellent chance of the team scoring.

Payet though has not been the sole star, with Argentinian Manuel Lanzini just as inventive on his day as the Frenchman. Then on the home front there has been the amazing progress of Michel Antonio. Signed in the summer from Nottingham Forest for £7 million, Antonio took some time to break into the team. However, when his chance came in November he seized it with both hands. Antonio has since scored seven goals in all competitions (six in the Premiership) in 20 games. The feat is all the more amazing, given that for a good number of recent games Antonio has been playing at right back, still managing to cover huge areas of the pitch and get those vital goals. Much of his play is reminiscent of former Spurs and England player Andros Townsend at his best and it is difficult not to think that if Antonio was at one of the big clubs - favoured by England manager Roy Hodgson - he would have been in the international squad by now.

There have been many heroes for West Ham this season, not least Aaron Creswell at left back and the driving force that is the midfielder and captain Mark Noble (both incidentally also ignored by Hodgson.)

The players have performed brilliantly this season but lets not forget the amazing contribution of manager Slaven Bilic, whose infectious enthusiasm and attention to detail has contributed so much to this successful season.

The selections have been spot on, the use of substitutes exemplary and the manager’s passion for the club unyielding. Few will forget Bilic’s euphoria on the night that West Ham defeated Liverpool 2-1 in extra time to progress into the fifth round of the FA Cup. The manager’s declared desire to win the FA Cup above all else has done much to restore the status of that competition.

Bilic has managed to get more than 100 per cent out of his players for the entire season. He has also looked to bring  on young players like Reece Oxford.

So all is looking good for the Hammers as the season enters its final straight with the Olympic stadium beckoning beyond. West Ham are still in the hunt for a top four Premiership place that would bring Champions League football in the first season at the Olympic stadium. A goal that many fans believe would be a lot closer but for some recent dubious refereeing decisions. The club are also still in the FA Cup, hoping to overcome Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter final replay next Wednesday to advance to the semi-final at Wembley.

Many veterans of the Boleyn ground believe this is the best West Ham side since the boys of 86, who so nearly carried off the First Division title in those days. If Bilic’s boys keep going, his side could certainly match if not surpass the glories of that season. It all remains in their hands.

So all is looking good as the old Boleyn ground prepares to close its doors for the final time, the only question for fans is how high those bubbles will go come the end of the season.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Michael Portillo's documentary "Easter 1916: the Enemy Files" fails to draw parallels with what happened later in the North of Ireland or identify the British tendency toward historical amnesia

Michael Portillo's documentary Easter 1916: the Enemy Files looked at the rebellion in Ireland from the British point of view. The programme was comprehensive but could have been so much better had it not demonstrated that great British quality of historical amnesia.

So Portillo could dwell on the successive execution of the rebel leaders but failed to draw a parallel with how his former boss Margaret Thatcher would repeat the mistakes with the republican hunger strikers in the early 1980s.

Similarly, there was what became known as the “North King Street massacre” when soldiers following the orders of Brigadier-General William Lowe burst into houses on the street shooting and bayoneting 15 civilians. A military court of inquiry was set up following the killings, which found that the soliders had orders to “not take any prisoners” but took it to mean they were to shoot any suspected rebel. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith was advised not to publish the findings for fear they might be used for hostile propaganda.

Roll forward 55 years, then British soldiers shot down innocent civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry (1972), the whitewash inquiry was then conducted by Lord Widgery.

Finally, Portillo did highlight how the way the rebellion had been handled took the momentum away from those seeking home rule and in favour of the physical force republican tradition. Again, come forward half a century, which saw the way the British behaved on Bloody Sunday and the deployment of internment take the momentum away from the civil rights protesters and toward the physical force approach of the IRA.
The real point that Portillo did not make in an interesting programme was the failure of the British to learn the lessons of history, going on to repeat the same mistakes again and again

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

"Archers" domestic violence plot shows unique power of soaps to communicate social problems

The dramatic domestic abuse plotline in the weekly BBC Radio 4 soap the Archers has been recently hitting the headlines. The story, involving characters Helen Archer (Louiza Patikas) and her husband Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson), has been played out over a couple of years, only now reaching a crescendo with the first physical abuse, following on months of mental torment.

Only when the abuse turned physical did the programme start giving out the domestic abuse helpline. The number of people turning to organisations that help the victims of abuse has increased by 20% as a result of the storyline. More than £70,000 has also been given via Just Giving to the charity, Refuge. So once again, the soap formula has demonstrated its power to communicate important social issues.

Not all listeners though have been pleased with the story line, accusing the producers of turning the Archers into Eastenders. Some, it seems, view the programme as more of a comfort blanket for life, somewhere to escape to rather than as a reflector of what is going on in society.

The power of soaps to communicate important public service messages was first witnessed when Eastenders developed the aids plot line around the character Mark Fowler. Again, this was done over several years, giving the story real dramatic credibility.

It was found that the storyline had far more impact in getting over the warning messages of the dangers of the disease, than any number of government health warning adverts or campaigns. Ever since the aids storyline, it seems anyone with a social message has been queuing up to get it into a soap storyline.

The swing in favour of such stories has been such that, at times, it seems the scripts are just made up of a number of public service messages all pulled together into one. Some are no doubt done better than others: aids on Eastenders, assisted dying on Coronation Street and now domestic violence in the Archers are among the successes.

The power of the soap, seems to be in how so many people can link the characters to their own life experiences. The whole fictional soap scene though ofcourse is for the most part preposterous. I would defy anyone to find a community like that depicted in Eastenders in the east end of London, a Coronation Street scenario in Manchester or indeed farmers living an Ambridge style existence in the Midlands. The soap genre by its very nature packs so much drama into what are supposed to be “ordinary lives” – most “real people” live far less exciting lives. However, it is the unique combination of the wallpaper type quality of soaps combined with gripping drama that attracts the mass audiences.

The power to communicate important social issues has been seen in the present Archers script. The actors taking the parts have worked with writers and charitable groups to make the story work so well.

The strong independent character, Helen Archer, with her emotional weaknesses, evidenced in the past by anorexia and break down after the suicide of her previous husband. Rob Titchener, a socio-path, who manages to be all things to all people from the moment he comes into the village. He effectively focuses in on Helen’s perceived weaknesses; becoming  increasingly possessive, while working away at destroying her self-confidence. The way in which he is able to isolate Helen is testimony to his power of persuasion in the wider community – taking in most people, including Helen’s mother Pat.

Some have argued this is testing the dramatic content, given that Pat was Rob's implacable enemy, when he first came into the village, as the manager of the new dairy plant. Pat has been a strong organics advocate and was a strong campaigner against the plant. However, the Pat transformation as far as Rob is concerned is believable, as it demonstrates a certain chamellion type quality in her own sometimes shallow character. She quickly switches from being an implacable enemy of Rob to becoming his biggest fan.

The two intriguing characters who have the biggest doubts about Rob are Tom (Helen’s brother) and Kirsty (her friend and jilted fiancée of Tom). Kirsty has already helped, having seen through Rob from the start. Tom has more macho objections, doubting Rob’s judgement as manager of the shop – with a downer on his sausages.

Indeed, it is a weaker element in the the plot that the Rob character has been able to so seamlessly move from dairy to shop manager, with few questioning his qualifications for the latter role.

It will be interesting to see where the domestic abuse plotline goes now. The public service information, as opposed to dramatic purpose seems to have now taken the upper hand. Helen has quickly moved from telling Kirsty she has been hit to contacting the helpline (that Kirsty contacted for her) – admitting being hit but also rape.

Dramatically, it would have been interesting to see how far the story could go – whether Rob could line up Pat as well as his warder like mother, Ursula, to get Helen sectioned or some other restraint. What now seems more likely is a plot that sees just how the new coercive behaviour law, passed at the end of last year, can be used.

It is a dramatic weakness of the soaps and testimony to their power, that it is the safe, good for law and order type outcome that is practically guaranteed come the end of any story . So if there has been a murder, with the body put under the patio, viewers/listeners know that one day the truth will come out. Though, the soap canvass has widened in this area, to take in the likes of miscarriages of justice etc. Now a miscarriage of justice can be played out over months if not years, yet I remember in the 1990s being in campaigns that dreamt of getting the case mentioned by a soap character, let alone having the whole concept of innocent people being convicted and incarcerated form a plotline on its own.

The one area I can recall where the long hand of the law has not, so to speak, triumphed has been on the issue of assisted dying. So when the Coronation Street character Hayley Cropper killed herself, many must have expected husband Roy to be hauled before the courts for assisting. Strangely, though, this never happened, maybe reflecting changing societal ground on the subject or indeed the soap playing an active role in altering that terrain. But on the whole order and justice have to come out triumphant in most soap plots.

All will no doubt be revealed shortly in the present Archers plotline. The Rob/Helen story has provided gripping if uncomfortable listening for millions of people. It has been the ability to reach these millions that makes the Archers together with other soaps such powerful tools in communicating social problems. Whilst some among the millions who tune in every week will regret the demise of their comfort blanket, there will be many more who recognise much in the storyline that applies to their own lives – there will even be those who fall into both categories. What is for sure is the Archers and particularly its editor Sean O’Connor deserve much credit for producing this domestic abuse storyline. The editor though, sadly, won’t be overseeing Ambridge life for much longer .. he’s off to Eastenders. Cup of tea anyone?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Adoption of the living wage by a Conservative government should be viewed as a victory for the labour movement

The increase in the minimum wage to £7.20 an hour from the start of next month is a welcome move from the government. The increase of 50p per hour has been heralded as part of the rate escalation process that will help bring the minimum up to living wage level. The rate will be around £9 an hour by 2020.

Campaigners point out, though, that the present level recommended by the Living Wage Foundation is £8.25 an hour and £9.40 an hour in London, so the government levels are still someway short of the prescribed level to ensure people live above the poverty line.

The Conservative Government have rather captured the language of the living wage campaigners - made up of community organising groups, faith denominations, trade unions and progressive employers.

The intent on the part of Chancellor George Osborne is to get more money into the economy in order to keep the wheels of the market turning. He has realised that continually pushing riches toward the already rich, results in such individuals storing it away offshore or elsewhere. What they don’t do, necessarily, is spend it in the economy. People have to buy things to keep capitalism going. Individual debt levels cannot continually be pushed up to sustain demand amid a landscape of flat lining pay.

There is also ofcourse the other slight of hand which is whilst upping minimum wage levels, the Chancellor cuts away at welfare. The net gains to individuals coming from the “living wage” do not make up for the cuts being made in benefits.

All this said, it is important for living wage campaigners to celebrate just how far they have progressed. The position now is that of a Conservative Government telling employers they must pay employees a minimum living wage.

Think back to 1997, the beginning of the Labour government’s time in office, when the minimum wage was first proposed. The howls of opposition from the Conservative Party and employer organisations about the damage it would do to business, the loss of jobs etc. None of the claims proved true, with many of the doubters now converted to advocacy.

The story of the living wage campaign in the UK is remarkable. It began in 2001 with community organisers London Citizens. They took soundings amongst their community groups, many being faith organisations. What came back was the difficulties being caused for community and family life by poverty wages. Respondents told how they were having to do two or three low paid jobs in a week just to keep their heads above water. Sectors like cleaning, catering and security were particular offenders.

London Citizens together with the support of a number of trade unions began the living wage campaign. Research undertaken came up with a living wage level of £6.30 an hour on which it was considered people could live above the poverty line. Employers were then asked to sign up to pay the rate.

Many encounters then followed. The community organisers tried polite letters, requesting meetings to put points to business managers. Some of these requests succeeded, others failed. Failure resulted in direct actions, such as church parishioners and nuns turning up in Oxford Street to bank thousands of small coins that had been collected. There were demos outside.

The institutions did not like this bad publicity and usually came to the negotiating table. I remember one particular meeting in a drafty church hall in the east end, with then Chair of HSBC, Sir John Bond. Sir John was faced with a number of priests, a bishop, trade unionists and community leaders arguing that the bank should pay its cleaners a living wage. The meeting did not bring immediate success but further down the line HSBC became a living wage employer.

Then London Mayor Ken Livingstone took up the idea, establishing a living wage unit at City Hall. The unit set a living wage level each year. The living wage was implemented with those parts of London government that the Mayor controlled. The Mayorality also insisted that any contractors it dealt with pay their employees the living wage.

The living wage theme was  enthusiastically continued by Conservative Boris Johnson when he became mayor in 2008.

Trade unions came to take on a much more central role in pushing the living wage concept nationwide. There had been concerns about regional variations in pay being encouraged by the idea.

Initially, trade union branches had been members of London Citizens. The community organisation was able via its faith connections to make contact with workers in insecure environments in Canary Wharf, where previously the unions had struggled to get a foothold.

Then, as momentum built, the unions came to the forefront, many like the Communication Workers Union, Unite and Unison becoming living wage employers themselves.

The campaign has grown and grown, gaining public and mainstream political support. Employers recognised the value of paying a living wage, seeing it resulted in less turnover and better morale. There was also much corporate social responsibility PR value in being associated with the living wage.

A snapshot of the benefits resulting from the living wage, can be seen in London, where it was estimated that £182 million had been added to wages of 19,000 employees between 2005 and 2013. On the down side, it was estimated that 22% of workers (5.28 million) still earned under the living wage as of 2014 across UK.

Government has increasingly seen the value of the living wage for the reasons outlined earlier. It also increases the tax take as more people will be paying more tax.

So at a time when no doubt many of those campaigners who have fought for the living wage down the years may feel a little aggrieved to see the government seizing the concept for its own, this should be viewed as a victory. There are caveats such as the minimum wage level increases being implemented by the government, still do not bring wage levels up to the living level as stipulated by campaigners. Also, the cover being provided for benefit cuts. But overall the fact that a Conservative Government has accepted and now implements the living wage concept forcing all employers to pay a minimum living wage should not be underestimated. It is a major achievement for progressive politics and those across the labour movement and faith communities who have struggled for this basic right for so long.