Ben Stevenson leaves, the Branch goes on…

The meeting of the Croydon Branch of the Communist Party on Thursday was more a social meeting than a business meeting as its primary purpose was to thank Ben Stevenson for the eleven years he dedicated to working for the Party as National Organiser and National Secretary and to wish him well on his departure to take up a senior position in the trade union movement.  In addition to branch members, the meeting was attended by the Party Chair, Liz Payne, the International Secretary, John Foster, and two honoured guests from Ruskin House.  After speeches and wishes of goodwill, Ben was presented with a pair of hand-made glass vases, one from the Party and one from his friends and comrades.

While there was little opportunity on this occasion to discuss branch business, the Branch Secretary said he would be contacting members shortly to seek their views on future meetings and events. One possibility he had been discussing with the secretaries of the other South London branches, South East London and South West London, and on which he would be seeking members’ views, was occasional joint meetings of all three branches in Brixton.

 

The Housing Crisis and How to Solve It

Gavin Barwell, Croydon Central MP and grandly titled Minister for Planning and Housing is not expected to solve the housing crisis with the government’s White Paper due later this week. In all probability, he will follow the pattern of neglect and naked electioneering set by successive New Labour, Coalition and Tory governments and just make things worse. The crisis is, nevertheless, extreme. Social housing is disappearing into government coffers and buying is unaffordable except for a privileged few – house prices in 122 local authorities are now ten times local median earnings (Source: ONS figures quoted in the Guardian) while the briefest of tests on the money advice service affordability calculator will confirm that lenders won’t lend much above three times earnings. This leaves most young people facing the prospect of never leaving home, a lifetime renting on short-term contacts in the unregulated private sector, a job in the armed forces or a life on the streets. This is a somewhat restricted set of choices from a government that says it believes in choice.

The housing crisis can, of course, be solved, but not in ways that would be agreeable to Mr Barwell and his paymasters. Instead of nibbling away at the green belt and further inducements to speculative builders, we need

  • an immediate extension of council tax banding upwards as a prelude to introducing a comprehensive Land Value Tax.
  • appropriate taxation of second homes, holiday homes and empty commercial property
  • Councils to be empowered to borrow to finance such social (council) housing and compulsory purchase of existing properties as are needed to meet all their local needs.
  • an end to the bedroom tax.
  • mortgagors to be entitled to convert mortgages into affordable rents rather than face eviction
  • recognition that housing has a central role to play in the environment and the fight against global warming
  • proper regulation of the private rented sector, with an end to short-term tenancies, rent control where appropriate and certification of “good” tenants by landlords and “good” landlords by tenants, this certification being required for continued participation in the sector. I have been told that this approach is successfully applied in Germany, but if anyone knows more about it, please let us all know.

These are not revolutionary demands. They are the minimum reforms needed to alleviate the current crisis. If they are beyond the capacity or imagination of our ruling class to implement, the sooner we overturn them the better.

AGM and discussion on LVT

Croydon Communist Party held its AGM on Thursday, 19 January. Routine business was swiftly despatched, including the confirmation of Martin Graham as Branch Secretary, leaving the rest of the meeting for the political report and discussion, including a discussion of Land Value Tax (LVT) and the response earlier that week by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to the report A Land Value Tax for London? published by the London Assembly Planning Committee.

The London Assembly Planning Committee report, published in February last year, appears largely to be the work of Tom Copley, a Labour Assembly Member with some progressive ideas – he is, for example a republican – but who has been opposing and undermining Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party to the extent even of accusing him of lying. It was therefore unsurprising that the report adopted a timid and unimaginative approach to LVT, seeing it as little more than a device to bring forward land for development in London. Mayor Khan’s response was equally limited: he welcomed the report but cautioned that he lacked powers even to undertake a pilot scheme. He would “hold talks with the Treasury”. but as the last thing the  Tories want to do is tax the people who bankroll them, don’t hold your breath!

LVT has significantly greater potential than simply a means of accelerating property development in London. As the Economics Commission of the Communist Party argued in the pamphlet From Each According to their Means, it has a part to play in creating a truly progressive national tax regime. You can read this report here or order a printed copy for £2.50 postage paid from the Communist Party here.

Saving capitalism

While the Tories would like to see the NHS destroyed and replaced by a US-style insurance-based system (all those lovely profits just waiting to be extracted) and, aided by the Lib Dems, they have done everything they can to facilitate this (GP commissioning, sub-contracting and partial privatisations), the current crisis in the NHS has a single cause: the 2006 financial crisis. In order to save capitalism, the government had to save the banks, or, more precisely, the speculative capital invested in banks, and to do this they:

  • froze the level of funding for the NHS (ignoring increasing demand);
  • froze the pay of NHS staff and worsened the terms of employment of junior doctors (ignoring the need to recruit and retain staff); and
  • slashed funding for local government social services for frail and elderly patients (ignoring the need for such services if patients are to be discharged from hospital).

The current crisis in the NHS is the consequence. But it is not the only one. The bank bailout and the way it was financed depressed economic growth for at least a decade, increased inequality by underwriting the earnings of the financial elite and destroyed social services beyond those supporting patients discharged from hospital. Furthermore, it yielded no return on the government’s investment in the banks – like Lloyds Bank, they are returning to 100% private ownership and yielding not even a notional profit to the government.

Despite the cost of this bailout, the government has failed to ensure that the banks won’t ask to be bailed out again. Yet the risk of losing our money transmission services and that individual depositors could call on the government guarantee could again allow banks to blackmail governments into bailing them out when their speculative activities collapse. The report by John Vickers in 2013 looked at the “too big to fail” argument but failed to call for a complete separation of simple banking activities – money transmission services and lending against deposits – and the banks’ speculative activity. Vickers, a neo-classical economist with, as his track record as a former Director General of the Office of Fair Trading demonstrated, a misplaced faith in more competition as the remedy for every economic problem, accepted that (his words) “some risk of failure” had to be tolerated and opted for ring fencing and a capital reserves regime. Notwithstanding monitoring by the Financial Conduct Authority, this “risk of failure” is real and will materialise when the banks’ speculative activity next comes off the rails, as it surely will.

But at least we will know what to do next time. Saving capitalism won’t be the priority. We will insist that the government truly nationalises the banks without compensation, not give them what were, in effect, interest free loans until their share prices recover. They must then remain in the public sector to be run in the interests of working people on whose labour their existence depends. These interests will include not pauperising the NHS; they don’t include saving capitalism.

Reasons to be cheerful

At the end of 2016 it would be fair to say that the future looks bleak. We confront four years of a climate denying US President. We face a similar period of Tory rule in this country, propped up by a mass media owned by sympathetic oligarchs or, in the case of the BBC, cowed into grovelling submission. Both are intent on persuading the public that Labour under Corbyn is “unelectable”. The prospect of a Tory negotiated Brexit threatens an outcome that could be even more dire than the slow strangulation by neo-liberal policies we experience as a member of the EU. Pessimism is not, however, a trait associated with communists. Hey, we overcame the failure and eventual collapse of the first serious attempt to build socialism anywhere in the world, the USSR. We remain determined to build our own Road to Socialism in Britain and then across the world and we won’t be deterred by a few, short-term obstacles such as these.

Reasons to be cheerful? Here are a few.

On the international stage, while our mass media speaks of the rise of populism and gives as examples the rise of Le Penn in France and the break-up of Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition in Germany, they ignore the improved prospects for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, backed by the French Communist Party, and for Die Linke, the successor to PDS, the East German communist party.

Looking to the USA, we can take comfort from the relative success of Bernie Saunders, achieved in the teeth of a mass media who told the electorate that, like Corbyn, he was simply “unelectable”. What we learned was that the mass media has been weakened by the growth of social media and that an electorate offered the ‘same old, same old’ centre-right options will look for something else. This will apply just as much to the Tories and their ex-coalition partners, the Lib-Dems, as it did to Hilary Clinton. Even under first-past-the-post elections, standing as the least worst candidate may no longer be the ticket to success.

We also learned from Greece that half-way measures don’t work. Syriza won the election and thought it could stay in the Euro and use its democratic mandate to negotiate with the European Commission. As if! Had the electorate had the nerve to vote in the Greek Communist Party, with its uncompromising attitude to the EU, the country would at least have stood a chance.

Peace in Syria? Stability in Iraq and Libya?   Not yet and not soon enough. But at least we have learned that military intervention and bankrolling the opposition with a view to “regime change” doesn’t benefit the inhabitants of these countries or those adjacent to it.

And what of Brexit? Although the immediate prospects are daunting, leaving the EU was an essential first step on the road to socialism. We have to resist the attempts that will be made by Dame Theresa and her gang to further disadvantage the trade unions – they received precious little from the EU but even that could be threatened – and to enter into trade deals that favour big business, not workers. If these can be resisted, opportunities will arise for genuine democracy at home and real internationalism abroad.

Socialism isn’t “what a Labour Government does” (Herbert Morrison) any more than communism is “Soviet power plus electrification” (Lenin). It’s a society were, eventually, each receives according to their need. Let’s make 2017 the year when we take significant steps towards this.

All the best for the New Year from Croydon Communist Party.

Debate and the future of CUiSL

The BBC’s news coverage is practically indistinguishable from that of the capitalist press, and even its topical comedy output is full of jibes about Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed “unelectability” , so it is gratifying when a programme that questions, however modestly, the capitalist status quo occasionally slips through. A recent example was a 30 minute programme on Tuesday, 14 December when the self-styled “Global Philosopher” Professor Michael Sandel asked Do Those on Top Deserve Their Success?

Professor Sandel is no Marxist, but he does share with us the approach Question Everything. It is not Professor Sandel’s method to provide answers: rather, he poses questions to a worldwide, selected audience, albeit a predominately middle class one, and examines their responses. This programme was essentially an exploration of whether we should be aiming for a society in which there is equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Capitalism cannot, of course, provide either, but to facilitate debate, the Professor hypothesised a society in which everyone started equally and then asked whether his audience whether they would prefer a meritocracy or a lottocracy, the former, being a society in which a minority ‘won’ through ability and effort and the latter being one where chance determined success.

The Professor’s hypotheses, stated and unstated, were flawed. We cannot have a society in which everyone starts with the same chance of success unless inherited wealth is banished. This obvious point was left unstated, probably because it is incompatible with all class-based societies, including capitalism. Another unstated assumption was that society must inevitably be based on competition between individuals. Again, while this is an implicit assumption under capitalism, it is not the way in which we will organise society under socialism. As Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Program , in the transitionary period it will be from each according to their ability to each according to their work and, under full communism, to each according to their need.

If we overlook the failure to state awkward assumptions, the discussion in this programme was the type of probing debate that the Communist University of South London was supporting last year. CUiSL took a breather in 2016 but is considering if and how it might be re-activated in 2017. One possibility is a return to student presentations followed by debate; but another possibility is to conduct some collective research into a specific issue. One that has been suggested is the economics of the housing crisis and how to address it. If you have views on these or other possibilities, please email them to cuisl@communist-party.org.uk .

Things must change

Another Croydon Assembly was held on Saturday, 20 November at Ruskin House, Croydon. After brief introductions by Ted Knight and ex NUT President Philipa Harvey and an entertaining warm up by Attila the Stockbroker, the Assembly broke up into discussion groups addressing housing, health, education, welfare and the economy – all from the perspective of democracy and how we can make our voices heard. It was a successful day – most participants leaving energised, enthused and determined that things must change.

If the day had one shortcoming,  it was a familiar one: a failure to discuss how to address CO2 emission and global warming. Whether discussed or not, the problem, however, continues to grow. A report by the Stockholm Environment Institute has now concluded that effects of Arctic warming will cause uncontrollable climate change at a global level. With temperatures in the Arctic currently 20C above what would be expected at this time of year and sea ice at its lowest recorded level, this is no longer just a problem for polar bears. It’s going to affect us, our children nd future generations.

How can such a significant issue consistently escape the attention of well-meaning progressives everywhere? One explanation proffered by Alex Randall in Red Pepper is that the centre-left’s arguments on global warming have focussed on the wrong issues: the impact on terrorism, migration and, on the positive side, the opportunities presented for Keynsian job creation. By doing this they have convinced no one and left the way open for the climate deniers, including President Elect Trump, to prosper.

Another explanation, and one that surfaces from time to time in the Croydon Environment Forum, is that global warming is simply too big an issue for any local group to have any impact. Better to concentrate on street cleaning and similar mundane issues more clearly under the control of the local authority.

As communists, we sympathise with the first explanation and reject the second. Part of the problem, as we see it, is that the centre-left fails to recognise that a profit driven (capitalist) society is incapable of addressing the problem. Karl Marx, writing in the nineteenth century, predicted from historical evidence that capitalism would only be overturned and replaced by socialism when the growth in the economy it facilitated became impeded by some fundamental constraint it was incapable of surmounting. Although it took two world wars, capitalism has shown remarkable resilience in overcoming all the constraints it has faced until now. In the 21st century it’s becoming increasingly clear that CO2 emission is first constraint it is incapable of surmounting. The solution – the only solution – is for us to replace capitalism before it destroys us.

 

The Sleeping Poodle

It is the role of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to monitor overall progress against carbon budgets and the 2050 target. It is the nation’s watchdog to confirm that the UK meets its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, as set out in the Climate Change Act. ‘Watchdog’ is, however, a generous metaphor. A sleeping, toothless poodle would be more appropriate. The CCC was sidelined when Howard Davies, the bungling former head of the Financial Services Authority, produced his report recommending Heathrow expansion (see earlier comment). The CCC continued to doze while the government accepted Mr Davies’s recommendation, believing itself to be inhibited from examining “specific projects”, including even Heathrow expansion. It has, however, finally woken up to the fact that the Heathrow expansion is incompatible with the 2050 target. It has now belatedly called on the government to “publish a strategic policy framework for UK aviation emissions”. More of a whimper than a snarl!

The CCC refers to the need for the government to address “strategic options and innovation priorities to pursue deeper cuts in aviation emissions” but they must know that no such options or innovations exist other than restricting demand for flying. As David MacKay demonstrated in   Chapter 5 of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air , after 100 years of aviation development, the theoretical efficiency limits for hydro-carbon based aviation are being approached. There are, essentially, no more efficiency savings to be secured. If the CCC doesn’t understand this, it’s time they stood down.

Capitalists don’t, of course, like interfering in any market capable of generating huge profits. They are also not very keen on restricting the “freedom of choice” of the rich and powerful – the people responsible for the great majority of flights. On the whole, they come clean about such motives. They are less transparent when it comes to their willingness to tolerate a large proportion of the world’s population being exterminated by global warming so that the super-rich can survive and thrive. When this is appreciated, so is the understanding that halting global warming and replacing capitalism with communism are synonymous.

What’s the difference between a socialist and a communist?

Party Congress, a biennial event at which delegates from every branch, district and nation meet to agree party policy and strategy and to elect a new Executive Committee which, in turn, will elect Party Officers, including the General Secretary, will be held later this month. It’s therefore an appropriate time to reflect on why we are communists and what is the difference, if any, between a communist and a socialist.

In the popular mind, the distinction is one of degree. Socialists want a significant degree of public ownership and greater equality of outcome – although some would settle for mere equality of opportunity. Communists, on the other hand, are commonly thought to want to abolish all private property and achieve total equality. There is also a commonly held view that communists want a society modelled on that of the former USSR and former socialist states in Eastern Europe. There may be elements of truth in all these distinctions, but they are, nevertheless, mistaken. The principal distinction between a socialist and a communist is that anyone can call themselves a socialist, but to call yourself a communist you need to be a member of a communist party.

Communist parties differ from other parties in that they are subject to democratic centralism, which means they arrive at decisions and policies after unrestricted internal discussion and debate and then unite to promote these policies and implement them. Communist parties reach their decisions by applying the ideas of Karl Marx as developed by others Marxists such as Lenin and Gramsci. These ideas can be described in one hyphenated word: Marxism-Leninism.

Does Marxism-Leninism mean that we are striving to replicate the former USSR and Socialist countries of Eastern Europe? No. We recognise that, while the USSR achieved much, it failed in the end to build socialism. Lessons must be learnt from these failures, and no one is keener to discover them than communist parties. Next time we must do it better – more democracy, greater efficiency, deeper humanity and more effective connection with working people.

This emphasis on communist parties begs the question – what is a communist party? The much loved and missed Tony Benn was fond of pointing out that there were too many socialist parties and not enough socialists. Regrettably, this is also true of communist parties. Only one party in Britain can trace its origins back the formation of the British Section of the Communist International in 1920. This section became the Communist Party of Great Britain and, in 1991, the Communist Party of Britain. Now known simply as the Communist Party or CP (generally preferred to CPB), we do not recruit in Northern Ireland, leaving that to our sister party, the Communist Party of Ireland. There are, however, four or five other parties and small groups in Britain calling themselves communist parties – the New Communist Party, the Communist Party of Scotland, CPB-ML, CPGB-ML etc. Without wishing to disrespect individuals who are members of these groups – some are sound Marxist who engage constructively with the wider labour and trade union movement – overall they lack substance, legitimacy and, as reference to Solidnet, will confirm, recognition by the international movement of communist and workers parties[i]. This lack of legitimacy is especially true of the so called Communist Party of Great Britain, a grouplet that high-jacked the party name dropped in 1991 in order to defeat an attempt at that time to dissolve the party and close our newspaper, the Morning Star. This attempt failed and the group behind it has long since dissipated, but the consequence, loss of the use of our original name, continues, only partially ameliorated by the fact that we retain its exclusive use for electoral purposes, having registered it with the Electoral Commission.

No review of communism in Britain, however brief, would be complete without reference to the other revolutionary Marxist tradition present in the UK. This derives, however tortuously, from Trotsky’s Fourth International founded in 1938 rather than directly from the British Section of the Communist International formed in 1920. While also suffering from an excess of minor parties and grouplets, it is represented by two quite significant parties, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). We share much Marxist theory with these parties but, given the history of conflict between us and a resulting lack of trust, it is hardly surprising that it is not always easy to work with them; and these difficulties can be exacerbated by their employment of “entryism” whereby membership is concealed in order to enter social democratic parties and coalitions. This practice was encouraged by Trotsky but abjured by communists who point to the advice in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto that communists should not hide their membership of the party. Despite these differences, we have, however, in recent years managed to work successfully with them in certain narrow areas, particularly opposition to the EU and it is to be hoped that these tentative links will grow in future.

The above reflections are personal ones and don’t necessarily reflect the CP’s formal policy or official history. If your views differ from mine, you are invited to comment accordingly.

[i] With one minor exception – the small New Communist Party has secured some limited recognition internationally.

Heathrow – an irrational decision

The UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), which the governments of the world, including ours, signed up to in December, requires net zero emissions by the second half of this century for the target ceiling for global warming of 1.5 degrees centigrade to be met. It means that by 2050 the UK government has to cut its carbon emissions by 90 percent.

Project yourself forward to 2050. If the new runway at Heathrow goes ahead, aviation will (on current projections) account for 50% of our carbon emissions by 2050. How will you or your children feel about living in a country where the availability of gas and oil to heat your home is a tenth of the current level, where electricity is available for only a few hours a day unless it is expensively provided by nuclear power plants for which there are no credible plans to store safely the radioactive waste for thousands of years? Will this situation be tolerable when 50% of the available hydrocarbons are being guzzled by an affluent 1% taking multiple leisure flights every year?

Clearly, even disregarding the adverse environmental effects on the inhabitants of West London, the plan to expand Heathrow is irrational. This should leave it vulnerable to judicial review. This route will be explored, and we wish those who pursue it well, but the CP has little confidence in our judges to decide such matters. However unconsciously, they reflect the interests of the class from which they are drawn and whose ideas they have imbibed. As has been demonstrated time and time again, the rights of capital and property always prevail over the rights of workers.

As we commented on 12 December when COP 21 was announced, a low carbon future is both essential and attainable, but whether it can be delivered without dismantling capitalism first is quite another matter