Right to Buy or Just Plain Wrong?

It was disappointing that, while Ed Miliband was prepared in the BBC leaders’ debate last night to oppose the new Tory wheeze to grant housing association tenants the right to buy, supposedly financed by further syphoning from the dwindling council housing stock, he was not prepared to condemn the original Tory rip-off or its continuation under Tory and Labour governments. A recent study found that a third of ex-council homes sold in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher are now owned by private landlords, many of them resident in off-shore tax havens. Another study found that in one London borough almost half of ex-council properties are now sub-let to tenants.  Anyone gullible enough to think that Tory politicians do not feather their own nests should reflect on the fact that Charles Gow, son of Mrs Thatcher’s Housing Minister who drove through the policy, now owns with his wife at least 40 ex-council houses. As Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB, said about this outcome: “You couldn’t make it up”.

Neither Labour nor the Tories has any coherent idea on how to address the housing crisis. While both speak about building more houses, both would lack the means to ensure this actually happens. Instead of direct public investment in housing, the government spent £35 billion in 2012-14 on Housing Benefit, a subsidy paid directly to landlords which ensures that house prices stay high. The cost of this support has risen a third under the coalition and will continue to rise as our kids increasingly find that the choice facing them is staying with Mum and Dad into middle age or renting in the private sector. Yet neither party has an alternative. Not so the Communists. Only we appear to be clear sighted enough to recognise that there is a need to de-couple people’s need for a secure home from their desire to invest and accumulate even when this accumulation tends to be at the expense of those who do not own their homes and tends to benefit the banks even more than the borrowers. What would communists do? Invest in council housing, albeit with more democratic control than has applied in the past – for example no more bedroom taxes! Our Economic Commission has called for the implementation of Land Value Tax, initially at a low level so that it simply replaced Council Tax, but with a view to raising the rate over time so that, in effect, land would become a socially owned asset. Communists would end the scandal of 80,000 young people experiencing homelessness every year when there are one million empty or second homes out there.

Impracticable? We don’t think so. Visionary? Unapologetically!

One Step Forward for Labour, One Step Back

Labour’s commitment to scrapping non-dom status should be welcomed as a modest step to reforming our not-fit-for-purpose tax system. As the Communist Party’s pamphlet From Each According to their Means argues, much more needs to be done including scrapping our dependent offshore tax havens, instigating a wealth tax and moving to Land Value Tax. The Tories’ hysterical response can only damage their own election prospects. Suggesting that Ed Balls, Labour’s right leaning shadow Chancellor, may have been over-ruled will only strengthen Labour;  and claiming that abolishing non-dom status will drive “thousands of rich people abroad” is a total own goal. As Danny Dorland argues in Inequality and the 1%, Britain cannot afford its super rich. They are not a national asset – they simply own assets and, in consequence, drive up their prices and distort our economy and politics. They are a drain on us all and, as Wilkinson and Puckett demonstrated in their excellent book, The Spirit Level, we would all be better off without them.

The Tories also scored an own goal this week with their claim that Labour would be prepared to enter into coalition with the SNP whose price would be scrapping Trident. The truth of the matter is that nuclear weapons are illegal, unaffordable and totally useless against any threats we face, now or in the foreseeable future. There is absolutely no mass support for them in England and Wales and open hostility to them in Scotland where they are based. Scottish voters are not stupid: they understand that they would all would be wiped out in a few minutes if a Westminster government even unleashed them. Anyone who values nuclear weapons above halting cuts to our welfare, education and health services is going to vote Tory or UKIP anyway. Yet, having been presented with this magnificent own goal, Labour retrieved it from their opponent’s net and booted it straight back into their own. ‘Of course we will upgrade Trident’ they brayed, ignoring its unaffordability, illegality and immorality – and their own prospects of being elected. New Labour lingers on, it seems.

Canvassers for the Communist Party will be out again this weekend and in the coming weeks in Croydon North and will be happy to discuss these and any other matters you wish to raise with them on the doorstep. Our canvassers are not like those of the big parties – we like talking politics, even with people who don’t necessarily agree with everything we stand for. Furthermore, unlike the big parties, we are rushing to secure a promise from you to vote for us. We don’t expect to win, but just think what a better place it would be if Ben Stevenson and the half dozen or so other Communist Party candidates standing in these elections were actually elected.

General Election: the starting gun is fired

What did you make of the “leaders” television debate last night? Communist Party campaigners will be on the streets this Saturday in Croydon North and elsewhere where we are standing asking what you think.  My immediate response was to take some encouragement from Miliband’s attacks on zero hours contracts and the need to strengthen tenants’ rights and pleasure from Cameron’s obvious discomfort at the entire process – he was clearly trying to ooze confidence but only managed, as usual, to ooze. The anti-austerity sense talked by the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru was also encouraging. Needless to say, the Sun, Times, Mail and Torygraph saw it all as a great triumph for Cameron, but the speed with which they posted up their headlines confirmed that these had already been dictated by their owners prior to the start of the debate. For how much longer must we put up with this affront to democracy? It should be unlawful not only for anyone not domiciled in the UK and paying UK taxes to own a newspaper but for any national newspaper to be structured in any way other than as a co-operative owned by the readers. There would, of course, still be right wing rags like the Daily Mail spouting nonsense, but at least it would be nonsense their dwindling readership came up with. The two most significant omissions from the debate for me were the failure of anyone to speak up for restoring trade union rights and the fact that only the Green mentioned global warming. So it will be five more years of fiddling while Rome burns – for ‘fiddling’ read carbon omissions, for ‘Rome’ read the world. Meanwhile, whoever ‘wins’, let’s hope Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite, sticks with his resolve  to hold unlawful strikes if the next government seeks to enforce a higher threshold on strike ballots.

Eduction, education, education

Ed Miliband’s announcement this week of some modest restrictions on the privatisation of the NHS was a welcome recognition that Labour has been listening both to their working class voters and to the advice and encouragement they are receiving from the left, especially from the Morning Star and the Communist Party. On education, however, Labour’s policies remain mired in Blairite conservatism. Tristam Hunt, Labour’s ineffectual shadow education secretary, is the son of Baron Hunt of Chesterton and has no experience of state education, having himself been privately educated. One of his contributions to the education debate has been to propose requiring public (i.e. private) schools to assist local state schools, thereby helping to perpetuate the myth of the superiority of the former and encouraging them to adopt an attitude of patronising condescension to the state sector. Hunt, as well as being the author of an indifferent biography of Fredrich Engels, was the author, along with the arch Blairite and self-promoter David Blunkett, of a report recommending the appointment of commissioners to be responsible for raising school standards, handling failing schools and for deciding on proposals for new schools. All this would do would be to conceal the hand of central government in education. What is really needed is: a return to democratically controlled education supervised and adequately funded by the local education authority; an end to free schools and academies; and at least an end to the privileged status of private schools. An even better solution for private schools would, however, be the transfer of all their assets to the local education authority – a modern day equivalent of the closure on the monasteries. After all, they claim to be charities. What could be more charitable than that?

As the student demonstrations in London on Wednesday confirmed, free higher education remains a legitimate demand by students and young people. And so it should be. Their parents enjoyed free higher education: why should their generation have to mortgage themselves for half a lifetime to enable universities to act like pseudo-businesses? Colleges and universities are inter-connected with the state and should be required to concentrate on what should be their role in a democratic state: providing open access to learning, education and research. Educating students from abroad for the fee income it generates has become a primary ‘business’ goal for them. While it could be a worthwhile secondary objective when these students come from under-privileged backgrounds and developing countries, thereby contribution to international development, it is not a legitimate objective when its purpose is to generate profit for the institution. Universities are no more businesses than are schools.  Labour should be listening to the students too.

Concert Review- Woody Guthrie “The Road to Peekskill.”

Congress House 18th March with Will Kaufman.

The downstairs hall at TUC’s Congress House was packed on 18th March with this special concert organised by South East Region TUC to pay tribute to the legendary US Communist folk troubadour Woody Guthrie. The songs were performed by Will Kaufman US born professor of American Literature at the University of Central Lancashire, England and author of an acclaimed book on Woody “Woody Guthrie, American Radical.”

Will’s own singing voice suits his subject matter well starting off with Woody’s most famous song “This Land is Your Land”. But this was not just a rehash of the most famous and most covered songs Woody recorded. For this was also a voyage, using talk and film, through Woody’s political development culminating in a song he wrote about the famous Peekskill concert in 1949. Woody came from a Southern racist family with a father who was possibly a member of the Klu Klux Klan and who may or may not have participated in a notorious lynching. Early on in his singing career Woody thought nothing of singing racist songs on radio shows until challenged by a letter from a young African-American man. Coming alongside his growing interest in the labour movement and his friendship with Blues singer Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly), his attitudes shifted radically. Another close friend was the Communist actor Will Geer, later Grandpa Walton in “The Waltons.”

The song “Deportees (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)” performed by Will was about a terrible plane crash killing Mexican farm labourers who the news stories described as being “just deportees”. The song has been covered by numerous artists including Dolly Parton and reflected Woody’s growing anger at injustice and racism.

The events at Peekskill took place in September 1949. There were two attempts to stage a concert with Paul Robeson at the town of Peekskill. The first was broken up by fascists assisted by the police. At the second Robeson managed to sing along with Pete Seeger but the attendees were attacked by fascist thugs as they came out. US author Howard Fast (Spartacus, Freedom Road)” was to comment “This is the Voice of Fascism not in Nazi Germany but here in America”. The chants shouted by the crowd aimed at black people and Jews would definitely bear this out. As SERTUC secretary Megan Dobney pointed out it was this concert where our comrade Mikki Doyle (later Women’s editor of the Morning star was blinded in one eye).

Although Will Kaufman identifies more with the anarcho-syndicalist IWW tradition he was happy to pay respect to the role US communists played in fighting racism and fascism in that period.  The concert ended with a plug for the “Stand UP to Racism” demonstration on 21st March with a performance of the song “All you Fascists are Bound to Lose” and then an encore of a recent song about Woody by Steve Earle “Christmas Time in Washington.” This was a great celebration of music and politics and a reminder how much Woody has inspired so many artists in both song and support for progressive politics.

Steven Johnson

WHY WE ARE STANDING

The Communist Party will be standing in a handful of constituencies across the country in the forthcoming general election, including Ben Stevenson’s candidacy in Croydon North. Why make the effort when this intervention is unlikely to influence the outcome?

The large Parties, the ones that will form, alone or in coalition, the next government, are, with the exception of the Greens, essentially election machines. They are under the control of their leaderships, have little internal democracy and exist to secure for these leaderships high office.  The leaderships are dependent on funding from commercial interests – i.e. ‘capital’ and thus, reflect the requirements of these interests – consciously by the more self-interested from amongst their ranks and unwittingly by a few mistaken idealists. This illustrates the function of ‘democracy’ under capitalism: to manage the system in the interests of capital while giving the impression that the ‘will of the people’ is being expressed. The Greens, on the other hand, are in a transitionary situation. They still reflect the interests of their members who are fired with idealistic intention. They seek to promote a number of important and progressive policies, especially the vital need to curb global warming – an issue the other big parties choose to ignore as it conflicts with the commercial interests on which they depend. The problem for the Greens is that idealism is not enough. As they grow, they will face a choice: either allow themselves to be penetrated by commercial interests; or fuse with the only significant counterbalance to those interests in capitalism – the organised working class. Meanwhile, attractive as many of their policies are, voters need to be careful that voting for them in particular constituencies does not let the despicable Tories in.

Where does the Communist Party fit into this political structure? Our sole purpose, as originally set out by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, is to provide leadership to the working class including the trade unions and that residual element within the Labour Party which retains an interest in representing ordinary working people. It is not to manage the capitalist system better. We are not interested in promoting our leadership, even our splendid candidate in Croydon North, Ben Stevenson, to positions of personal power within an unchanged system; and we distance ourselves from the tainted and conditional support so readily available from the capitalists. Nor are we interested in coalitions. The fate awaiting the benighted Lib-Dems demonstrates the price of joining a coalition as a junior partner and trading cabinet seats for election promises.

So, given this background, why are we standing? First, we are a democratic party and the members have decided that we should contest some seats. The intention is that, by this intervention, we will shift the debate leftward and strengthen the resolve of Labour candidates to support progressive policies such as stopping TTIP in its tracks, saving the NHS, abolishing the anti-trade union legislation, saving the environment and the other issues raised by Croydon TUC which I described in my blog last week. More important, however, for the Communist Party, unlike the other parties standing in this election, this is just the start of our campaign. The next government, whether it is the Tories, Labour, a coalition or even UKIP, will have no idea how to address the issues we face  other than by squeezing workers, their families, the unemployed, the sick and disadvantaged even harder than they have been doing for the last five years. Under the next government, even a majority Labour administration, inequality will continue to grow, the NHS will continue to disintegrate and our economic woes will continue to escalate. But the Communist Party will still be here: on the streets; speaking to you through the pages of the Morning Star; on the internet; in the trade unions; and. locally but not least, by helping to organise the Croydon Assembly which will reconvene at Ruskin House on 6 July. Watch this space!

FOR A PEOPLE’S BRITAIN

Croydon Communist Party met this week to agree the key election message for Ben Stevenson’s general election campaign in Croydon North:

 

For a people’s Britain, not a bankers’ Britain – the people of Croydon cannot afford capitalism

 

Ben Stevenson also became the first candidate to declare his support for the entire ten point programme endorsed this week by Croydon TUC. This calls on candidates to commit, if elected, to vote in parliament to:

 

  1. End cuts in public services, pensions and welfare and restore grants for students.
  1. Replace the minimum wage with a living wage – currently £9.15 per hour in London and £7.85 per hour elsewhere
  1. Take public utilities including railways back into public ownership.
  1. Cease the underfunding and back-door privatisation of the NHS.
  1. Repeal all anti-trade union legislation.
  1. Scrap Trident and oppose any more military adventures.
  1. Bring all state education, including academies and free schools, back under the democratic control of local authorities.
  1. Build council houses and reform the private sector with rent controls and security of tenure.
  1. Oppose TTIP.
  1. Pay for this programme by taxing the rich and clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion by businesses.

Pressure will now fall on other candidates in Croydon to declare where they stand on these issues. True progressives will, of course, have little difficulty in endorsing the entire programme, while the Tories, their doomed former collaborators the Lib Dems and the UKIP uber-Tories will recoil at the very thought of endorsing any of them. It will, however, be interesting to see if any of the Labour candidates have enough socialist principles left and independence of mind to endorse any of these policies. We shall have to wait and see.

WHAT’S AN MP WORTH?

Malcolm Rifkind, caught out last week trying to sell his services to a phoney Chinese business, had the effrontery to claim that he needed a second job as MPs were paid so poorly.  Like many other MPs, Mr Rifkind chooses to ignore the fact that the average wage of people lucky enough to have a full time job in the UK is only around £26,000 while MPs’ salaries are set to rise to £74,000, almost three times this amount. Furthermore, at a time when final salary occupational pension schemes in the UK have largely disappeared, MPs’ retirement pensions have recently been improved from 1/50 final salary per year of contribution to 1/40. Meanwhile, most of their constituents are expected to subsist on the state old age pension of £5,876 a year.

Michael Heseltine provided another explanation last week for why MPs need a second job. It wasn’t poverty, Lord Heseltine explained, it was because an MP’s job was not really full time! Given the length of the parliamentary recess, he may have a point here. But surely the remedy would be not to pay MPs during the recess. After all, there are lots of zero hour jobs out there. At the last count, 700,000 of their constituents were ‘benefitting’ from this readily available source of employment.

So what is an MP worth? Ignoring the obvious, cheap retort, it’s necessary to remind ourselves that, in one way, Lord Heseltine was right. Being an MP is not, or rather should not be, a job at all. Many MPs mistakenly think of themselves as part of a profession. How often do we hear them refer to themselves as having a ‘career’ as a parliamentarian. Being an MP isn’t a job, it isn’t a career – or at least it should not be. It is, or should be, for a limited time, to be the servant of those who elected them. MPs’  pay should therefore be sufficient to enable them to discharge this service – no more and no less. The average full time wage, £26,000 per year, can provide a useful yardstick for this. It would also give MPs an incentive, that they currently lack, to work to increase this average. Isn’t that what we pay them for?

Would candidates of a ‘suitable calibre’ come forward for election on such supposedly meagre terms? Of course they would! They might not want to hang around for 40 years to collect the (under this proposal much reduced) pension, but so much the better for that.

There is, however, one, possibly insurmountable problem to implementing such a sensible arrangement. Under our current , capitalist society there is a huge disparity in wealth and income. If MPs’ salaries were constrained to the industrial average, Parliament might revert to its profile at the beginning of the last century – stuffed with individuals with private wealth who don’t need any salary to be an MP.  There is, of course, a remedy for this. Get rid of capitalism.

Newspaper Ownership

The revelation of The Telegraph’s lack of coverage of HSBC’s illicit tax evasion business in Switzerland did not come as a surprise. The ownership of a national newspaper is attractive to multi-millionaires with assets to protect and other business interests to promote. Rupert Murdoch (Times, Sun) the Barclay Brothers (Telegraph), Lord Rothermere (Mail) and Richard Desmond (Express) don’t own their newspapers for philanthropic reasons or even for the profits they generate. They own them for the influence it gives – influence to protect their other commercial interests and to promote and project their political views. This projection isn’t even primarily at their readers. It is directed at the established political parties and the governments they form. This is clearly undemocratic. But what is to be done?

One solution would be to require every national newspaper to be owned by their readers on a one-member-one vote basis and to limit their dependency on commercial advertising. This is the model employed by the Morning Star and it works well. It has enabled the Morning Star to secure a readership well beyond that of card carrying members of the Communist Party. The Morning Star still faces a struggle for survival, largely as a consequence of being shunned by the other mass media, including the BBC. The model, nevertheless, has been shown to work and the resulting loyalty of its reads is far above that of any other national newspaper.

What of newspapers that don’t wish to re-structure as reader co-operatives or to limit their dependency on advertisers? Should they be shut down? Would that not be undemocratic?

In the internet age, the contribution made to democracy by large, privately owned newspapers is questionable. Shutting them down might well be justified in some situations – as it was, for example, in Cuba after the revolution, although the actual course of events there was more complex, having been triggered by an exodus of newspaper owners and editors to Miami and the election in their absence of new editors by newspaper workers. In less revolutionary times, the continued publication of newspapers not owned by readers could be tolerated if they were subject to a non-linear tax, not on the newspaper’s profits, which are often small or even negative, but on their annual revenue, circulation and advertising and losses. At least the benefits accruing to the owners would then be taxed and, if supplemented by a requirement that owners must themselves be resident and domiciled in the UK, at least some measure of fairness would be established. This idea is briefly discussed in the pamphlet From Each According to Their Means from the Economics Commission of the Communist Party that I mentioned last week, with a proposal for how the non-linear tax could be constructed dealt with in the supporting paper underpinning the pamphlet.

THE HOUSING CRISIS

House prices in Croydon in 2013 were 7.57 times average local earnings, more than twice the same affordability ratio in 1997. Yet the Bank of England has instructed banks to lend no more than 4.5 times annual salary. This means first time buyers in Croydon with average local earnings will have to save three times their annual salary to find the deposit. They will then face interest repayments that would consume more than half their pre-tax salary when interest rates exceed 11% – as they are likely to do when the government’s policy of quantitative easing ends.

Looking for a home in an adjacent borough won’t help. The affordability ratios in Sutton, Bromley and Merton are 8.56, 9.99 and 11.29 respectively – and their house prices tend to be higher.

The government’s solution is the Help-to-Buy scheme. This enables first time buyers to put down a deposit of ‘only’ 5% on homes costing up to £600,000. That’s great for wealthy first time buyers (and the banks) but not much use to the rest of us. In order to buy a two bedroom flat in Croydon costing, say, £220,000, an income of £49,000 and, even with the government scheme, a deposit of £11,000 is required. Meanwhile the Help-to-Buy scheme is helping to fuel mushrooming house prices.

What are the alternatives facing young people desperate for housing? There is little prospect of a council house: the stock is still being eroded by Right-to-Buy and waiting lists are long and have tough criteria that are tending to get tougher. In Croydon 5,015 were on the list at March 2014, a significant proportion of who were officially classified as homeless[1]. The despicable bedroom tax is symptomatic of the shortage of council houses. Then there is shared ownership and the private rented sector. The former is a useful compromise between renting and buying but monthly outgoings can be high. The latter is largely unregulated, expensive and offers almost no security of tenure. Finally, for those with secure family backgrounds, there is living with Mum and Dad. Currently a quarter of all 20 to 34 year old working adults in England – 1.97 million people – are living with their parents[2]. Hardly ideal!

Labour and the Tories continue to make claims about the number of affordable houses that will be built if they are elected, but the private sector makes more money from building larger and luxury homes. Their claims are spurious and, even if fulfilled, would not be sufficient to house our growing population. So how would Communists do things differently? As Marxists we see housing as something that should be cherished for its use value, not its exchange value. For us a house is a home, not a slice of capital on which to speculate in the hope of passing on some capital to our heirs. Our strategy as communists would therefore be to resume the building of council houses for those who want them, and for others who value a sense of ownership and security, we would seek to uncouple ownership from speculation, thereby make homes more affordable. This could be achieved by land nationalisation, but much the same effect could be achieved, at least initially, with a Land Value Tax (LVT). LVT ensures that the community at large benefits from increasing land values – the primary cause of increasing house prices. This is as it should be. The gains home owners accumulate don’t come out of thin air: they represent transfers of wealth from those who don’t own houses to those who do. If not eaten up in care home fees, these unearned gains end up as inherited wealth – inherited in many cases by the same people who couldn’t afford to buy their own home when they were younger.

If you wish to find out more about LVT, have a look at the pamphlet From Each According to their Means I mentioned last week[3] .

[1] Freedom of Information Request https://docs.google.com/document/d/1T1dlZ0QH2zhW5jyW1A4ZG1RS_RqhW5aIGVPhkoA-0n8/edit?pli=1

[2] http://england.shelter.org.uk/news/july_2014/

[3] Available for £2.50 including post from the Communist Party, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD, http://www.communist-party.org.uk