The NHS and Democracy

A well-attended meeting at Ruskin House last night (13 September 2018) called by Croydon TUC was left in no doubt that there has been a covert strategy, intensified since 2010, to dismantle the NHS and feed it to US-based health corporations. Addressed by Dr Bob Gill, a Sidcup GP, and Sandra Ash of Keep Our St Helier Hospital (KOSHH), we learned that attempts to close St Helier were just the first step in the closure of acute and other facilities across South London (including Croydon University Hospital where a new Chief Executive, Matthew Kershaw, may have been brought in to achieve this) and across the country as part of a fattening up process. This was made possible by the Health and Social Care Act 2012  which freed the government from statutory responsibility for providing a universal NHS care and by continued under-funding that is intended, in part, to weaken public support for the NHS by generating more, high profile failures.

The meeting was attended by Joy Prince and Patsy Cummings, two of our most progressive Labour councillors in Croydon, but the absence of other Labour councillors and our two Croydon Labour MPs, Steve Reed and Sarah Jones, was criticised from the floor of the meeting. Are our local Labour politicians unaware that Croydon TUC holds open meetings every second Thursday of the month at Ruskin House and has done so for many years? Is their unfamiliarity with how the Labour Movement functions and the nature of the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party an excuse for their dismal absence? We think not.

Earlier this week Chris Williamson MP, the campaigning Labour MP and Corbyn supporter, addressed another public meeting at Ruskin House. Its aim was to call for more democracy in the Labour Party. This is an internal matter for that party and not a matter into which we wish to intrude, but we do very much agree with the basic principles that Mr Williamson was expounding:

  •  MPs and councillors are responsible to, and accountable to, the parties that select and nominate them (OK, Tories are an exception), not to an amorphous electorate that voted for them on the basis of their party affiliation; and
  • being an MP or councillor is not a job for life and should not be treated by those fortunate enough to be selected and elected as a career.

As communists, we would, however, go much further than Mr Williamson and seek to establish real democracy, not the present sham of voting every four or five years to determine which members of the ruling class are to administer their system in our name. A Corbyn administration would be very welcome and might just be able to halt the dismantling of the NHS (if the Parliamentary Labour Party allows it to), but we need real, direct democracy where our votes and our views have continuing significance between elections.

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ART AS PORTABLE WEALTH

There is still a week left until the exhibition Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern ends on 9 September. It is highly recommended. Picasso was, after all, “one of ours” – a member of the Communist Party whose art is still loved and appreciated today by ordinary working people despite the not entirely unsuccessful attempt to de-politicise modern art with the cold war promotion of abstract expressionism.

Going round the exhibition, it is, however, noticeable how many of the exhibits are on loan from private collections. Artists, even successful ones who go on to join the Communist Party, have, of course, to earn a living and, under capitalism, that means selling their work in the first instance to dealers and wealthy patrons. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that so many end up on the walls, yacht bulkheads and bank vaults of the super-rich. According to Wealth X, the world’s 2,170 billionaires own collections worth $31 million, representing 0.5 per cent of their net wealth; and the world’s top ten billionaires hold a huge 18 per cent of their wealth in this way. Comrade Picasso’s contribution to this haul is likely to be significant.

The attractions of “art” to the super-rich (and to criminals) are obvious. Art, provided it is not replicable, can be used as portable wealth; is delightfully offshore and thus under the radar of tax authorities and the police; easily convertible into cash via the auction houses of the world; capable of significant tax free capital accumulation provided the pitfalls of changing public taste are anticipated; and a perfect security for loans for more productive capital investment. Add to this the political capital to be gained from occasional loans to public galleries and the creation private foundations and art really is the perfect investment for the super-rich.

What is to be done? It’s our tastes and our enthusiasms as ordinary people, i.e. as workers, that give works of art their exchange value. Without this their price would be minimal – no more than the value of the labour time it took to make them. There’s no easy solution – perhaps none at all in the context of our existing social system – but some alleviation of the problem would be achieved by

  • an international register of private wealth, open to inspection and maintained by the UN
  • the introduction in the UK of a wealth tax and the restoration of a compulsory inheritance tax – the current one is minimal and voluntary;
  • more education to train artists in our schools and colleges; and
  • more financial support for our art galleries.

Are these modest proposals too much to ask?

 

AFTER THE FALL

Writing in the London Review of Books earlier this month (Volume 40, number 13), John Lanchester reminds us how much the world has changed – and in some respects how little is different – ten years after the credit crunch and the beginning of the Great Recession.

Lanchester is one of our smarter contemporary thinkers. He’s the author of one of the best books on the credit crunch – Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay and the only novel i can recall about the resulting London property boom, Capital – you may have seen the television drama made from it even if you have not yet read the book. Although there is very little explicit Marxism in either book, Lanchester is one of the few contemporary writers who knows his Marx . This was apparent when he gave a talk to promote his book Capital to the London Review of Books – much of his talk was about the more famous book of this name.

Lanchester describes in the article the climate of intellectual over-confidence that preceded the crisis in 2007. He points out that most of the time, in conventional economic thinking, debt and credit don’t present a problem. Every credit is a debit, every debit is a credit. The problems arise when no one is sure who owns what. As he points out, on a global scale there are billions of pounds more credits than debits. Why? The rich have hidden their assets in off-shore tax havens to avoid paying tax.

Lanchester reminds us that, following the bail out of banks, no one has addressed the too big to fail problem. Furthermore, the risk of failing remains high. We have previously commented on how John Vickers fluffed the opportunity to ring fence banks’ more risky business from their socially useful activity of providing credit to businesses and consumers. Another problem Lanchester highlights is the failure to rein in shadow banking – all the things banks do but which are done by institutions that don’t have a formal banking licence.

Is another banking crisis on the way? Probably, but one thing is clear. Each new crisis in capitalism shows a different face, a different mix of problems. Into the mix sooner or later global warming is going to feature. This is why the Communist University in South London, CUiSL, is working on a discussion paper looking at how classical Marxist theories of crises and social revolution relate to this new threat. If you wish to see how this is progressing, and, even better, to join in, follow https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/.

Criminal Irresponsibility

Interviewed on the Today Programme today, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling sought to defend the government’s decision to push through parliamentary approval for Heathrow expansion without waiting for the Climate Change Committee to report later this week on the UK’s progress on meeting CO2 emission targets. His reasoning was that

  • By 2050 aircraft would be much more efficient, thus generating much less CO2.
  • CO2 emissions by aircraft were an international responsibility and don’t affect UK targets.

Both arguments demonstrate the government’s criminal irresponsibility in this area. Basic physics demonstrates that, after more than one hundred years of development of aviation, the scope for further efficiency savings is vanishingly small. Don’t take my word for it – refer to the late Professor David MacKay’s book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air which he generously published as a free book which you can download here. The proof you need is in Part 111, section C

The argument that aviation’s CO2 emissions are none of the government’s business is simply risible.

Global warming and its consequences, including both the need and the potential for social revolution, is the subject of a discussion paper being researched and drafted by the Communist University in South London. Go to https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/ to follow progress or, even better, to register your willingness to participate.

The Big Four: enough is enough

Financial crises are endemic to capitalism, but the misbehavior of banks and bankers contributed significantly to the 2007-8 financial crash and the period of austerity that still continues. The big accountancy firms also, however, contributed to the 2007-8 crash with their failure as auditors to see it coming. Like the banks, they too have not been asked to contribute to the cost of clearing up the mess they helped create. That fell on the shoulders of working people, while the Big Four accountancy firms, KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche and PriceWaterhouseCoopers have gone from strength to strength, tightening their monopoly of large company audits, and using this statutorily privileged position to leverage their consultancy services to the businesses they audit and then to government departments and public services, including the NHS. Now with the collapse of Carillion shortly after being given a clean bill of health by its auditor, KPMG, and with PriceWaterhouseCoopers benefitting from the collapse by being appointed manager of the liquidation, it’s time to say enough is enough.

In the best traditions of a Carry On film, the Big Four are advising governments on tax reforms while, as the Panama Papers revealed, they are advising their multinational clients on how to avoid taxes. According to Australian taxation expert George Rozvany, they are “the masterminds of multinational tax avoidance and the architects of tax schemes that cost governments and their taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion a year”. To make things worse, these huge firms don’t even publish their own accounts. They operate as partnerships and are exempt from having to do this. Absurd!

Once the solution might have been better regulation, but, as Professor Prem Sikka of Sheffield University has pointed out, their regulator, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), has been colonized by the Big Four and, while it is facing a “root and branch” review, don’t hold your breath. The professional accountancy bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales are dwarfed by the Big Four and don’t have resources or inclination to tangle with them. There was some hope that the EU’s European Audit Regulation and Directive, which took six years to agree, might have helped, but the Carillion collapse destroyed its credibility. The Markets and Competition Authority (the former Office of Fair Trading) is at last, apparently, showing some interest, but these days it’s a ‘one golf club player’ its single remedy for market failure being more competition.

We are beyond the point of more regulation. The remedy needed now is to give the entire audit function to the government’s auditor, the National Audit Office, providing them with the resources to start the job before the huge fees for statutory audit roll in and they become self-financing. Then the government and public services must stop employing the Big Four and other large accountancy and consultancy firms as advisers. They have already made a big enough mess of public services. Finally, the Big Four and other accountancy firms must be made to publish accounts with at least as much detail disclosed as we require of companies.

Too radical even for a Corbyn led Labour government? Perhaps, but this is what it will now take to cut out what has become a cancer at the heart of our government, public services and what remains of our industry.

National Character? The Shame that is Kensington and Chelsea

Some interesting statistics and comment by Ash at https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/05/14/londons-local-elections-2018-the-consequences-of-voting/:-

“Out of an electorate of 95,378 people, 37,835 voted, 39.7 per cent of the total. Across the 18 wards, a total of 100,429 votes were cast, and 52,211 of these were for Conservative candidates, 51.98 per cent of the total. That was down from the 57.8 per cent of votes the Conservatives had in the 2014 elections; but out of the 50 councillors elected, 36 are Conservative, 13 are Labour and 1 is Liberal Democrat. That’s an increase of a single Labour councillor since the 2014 elections at the expense of a single Conservative councillor. Significantly, 18,578 more votes were cast than in 2014, but the Conservative vote actually increased by 4,220, which means more people came out this time to make sure they got back into office against the threat that Labour would take the borough. By my reckoning, the 71 people (at least) that died in the Grenfell Tower fire have cost Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives 5.82 per cent of the vote, or 0.08 per cent for every identified corpse, the loss of whose life has equated to the loss of 0.014 per cent of a Conservative council seat.

 As ASH wrote back in July last year when we published our report on the Grenfell Tower fire, how we react to this man-made disaster could turn out to be worse than the chain of decisions and shirked responsibilities that caused it, and this vote by the people of Kensington and Chelsea is a stain on what’s left of our national character.”

As communists we struggle with the concept of “national character”, stained or otherwise. For us this disaster and its consequences can only be understood in class terms. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. There are no fixes, social democrat or other. The sooner we change the entire system the better.

CROYDON MAY DAY MARCH

As the coverage in the Morning Star on 2 May demonstrated, May Day is an important day for workers across the world but governments in the UK including, regrettably, Labour governments, have sought to de-politicise it by offering a Bank Holiday on the first Monday in May. Saturday, 5 May is therefore the first opportunity for many of us to celebrate May Day as it should be celebrated – an expression of our solidarity with all working people. The Croydon Communist Party will therefore be joining trade unionists and other progressive forces on the Croydon May Day March and Rally on Saturday, 5 May and encourages others to join us.

Marchers will assemble outside Marks & Spencer, North End Croydon at 12 Noon. We march off at 12.30 with flags and banners waving, led by the Schiehallian Pipe Band, and make our way up North End to the High Street and Coombe Road to rally at Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, CR0 1BD which also happens to be the HQ for the Communist Party and the office of Croydon CP. Speakers from 1.30 pm will include Ted Knight, Chair of the Croydon Assembly, Kevin O Brien Unison/Merton & Sutton TUC, Ellen Lebethe, Vice President NPC and Patsy Cummings (Croydon Labour Party).

 

ANOTHER BOURNE CONSPIRACY?

City AM is a free newspaper, available outside many railway stations in the Greater London area, targeted at City workers. It’s always worth a quick read to see what is currently agitating finance capital. On Tuesday, 3 April, the lead article was written by Ryan Bourne who occupies the Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

The Cato Institute is an immensely rich, right wing think tank based in Washington DC. It has been deeply compromised by its involvement in the denial of global warming. Professor Bourne wisely chose to refrain from improving our understanding of that particular problem; instead, he sought to improve our understanding of growing inequality. This, according to the Professor, is a myth: inequality is at its lowest level since 1987 and is currently declining. Really?

To support his case, Professor Bourne refers to an IFS study which he fails to cite. My guess is that he is referring to Fifty Years of Income Inequality . This concludes that inequality peaked in the mid-1980s (i.e. High Thatcherdom) and has not recovered significantly since. The study recognises that interpreting how income inequality has changed in the last 20 years depends on which years you include and exactly what measure of income you use. It appears to assess the situation as flat.

It’s undeniable that the IFS study does not provide much evidence of recent growth in inequality as measured by such statistics as the Gini Income Coefficient. Why is this when most of us can observe it with our own eyes? All it takes is a walk along Croydon High Street any afternoon. The reason is that such coefficients do not relect that

  • the social wage has been shredded by the austerity cuts since 2007 to health, education, social services and child support and the people at the bottom are being asked to bear too high a burden. We have replaced social security with food banks.
  • social mobility has been undermined by cuts to education and student support and attacks on trade unions. Become poor, stay poor.
  • the elite are sufficiently small in number and sufficiently adept for their income and wealth not to show up in Gini Coefficients

Interestingly, Professor Bourne concludes his article by saying that history shows that inequality only ever improves under communism, violent revolution, war or bubonic plague.

As bubonic plague, war and even violent revolution are best avoided (we much prefer peaceful revolution), it appears, against all the odds, that the Professor must agree with us on the need for communism! Either that or he’s actually dismayed at the prospect of the declining inequality he claims to detect. He cannot have it both ways. That’s impossible, even for a professor of public understanding of economics.

You Cannot Be Serious!

In December 2015 the government signed up to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), requiring net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 – a cut of 90 percent in the then prevailing level. If there is a new runway at Heathrow, aviation is projected to account for 50% of our carbon emissions by 2050. Does this make sense?

Global climate change is a class issue[i]. A world that ignores COP21 will be very different to the present one. The choices for the working class will not simply be between continued exploitation and social revolution. The risk of total subjugation and extinction could not then be ignored.

Aviation’s contribution to CO2 emission is also a class issue. As we pointed out on 29 October 2016, frequent flyers are predominately drawn from the wealthiest 10% of the population. 15% of the British population who fly three or more times a year account for 70% of all flights. More than half the UK population takes no flights at all.

The response of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport to Heathrow expansion which reported today is to call for tougher rules on night flights and a plea to keep costs to flyers down. They are silent on CO2 emission.

Have you noticed how the BBC invariably concludes reports of bad news for the government with an anodyne government rebuttal? Perhaps they will employ this one by a Department for Transport spokeswoman in response to the Select Committee’s report:

“Expansion [at Heathrow] will only proceed if it meets strict environmental obligations and offers a world-class package of compensation and mitigations for local communities.”

A more appropriate response to the Select Committee would be that of John McEnroe to a poor line decision:

“You cannot be serious”.

Footnote

[i] If you are interested in participating in research by the Communist University in South London into this, go to https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/

Looking to the future

The Labour Chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, has written to the top 25 pension funds to enquire about what they are doing to “safeguard people’s pensions from the financial risk of climate change”. Ms Creagh was reported in City AM on 5 March as saying that “a young person today may be 45 years away from retirement. Over that time scale climate change risks will inevitably grow”.

The lack of understanding implied by this statement is breath-taking. Setting aside the problem that personal pensions[i] , the kind subject to auto- enrolment that pension funds provide – represent poor value for money because of the level of management fees and other expenses and place all the risk on the employee, the issue here is a failure to understand the kind of risk that climate change brings.

Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) holds that there are two kinds of risk: systemic and unsystemic. As we all live on the one planet, the risk associated with climate change is systemic. It is born by everyone and is independent of any investment decision the individual may make. With systemic risk there are no hedges available, no clever portfolio strategies by which it can be reduced. Ms Creagh might just as well have written to the Met Office to ask about what steps they were taking to stop climate change.

The primary interest of pension funds is to flog their product. They need to attract and retain customers – and the government’s requirement for auto-enrolment ensures a steady stream of these. They market their product by stressing their skill at achieving a good investment return and, to a lesser extent, the level of their fees. MPT holds that the future return on investments is largely independent of investment skill and, perhaps somewhat optimistically, the return will follow the long run average – no more than around 5% per annum real rate of return[ii]. Funds that imply a higher return are either in the snake oil business or taking on more risk that the punter realises. Rock bottom management fees of 0.5% per annum still represent 10% of this anticipated future return. Many management fees and other hidden costs are significantly higher than 0.5% per annum.

The horizons of pension funds are also determined by MPT. At the heart of MPT is the concept of discounting the future. This too is done at the 5% per annum real rate of return. Thus a certain loss in 45 years of £1 is treated as equivalent a certain loss of only some 10 pence today. Even if the pension funds had any way of influencing global warming in 45 years time, this interest would only represent one tenth of their concern about a similar risk today.

We need a solution to global warming, but it isn’t going to come from pension funds – or, regrettably it seems, from Ms Creagh. The only way out of the crisis we face is through genuine democratic control – the kind that promotes the interests of all workers, living and unborn. It’s called Communism.

[i] The alternative is a defined benefit scheme provided by an employer, but they are fast disappearing and, in the case of university and college lecturers, under current attack.

[ii] The only exception is when insider information is exploited. This is only possible for crooks and the super-rich.