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

Businesses don’t vote!

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded this week that PWC, otherwise known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, was guilty of promoting tax avoidance schemes on an “industrial scale”. The seriousness of this finding is difficult to over-estimate:  PWC is one of our ‘Big Four’ business consultancy, accountancy and auditing firms. Their businesses have been constructed on the back of statutory audit, essentially a monopoly granted by government to ensure the truthfulness and fairness of the published accounts. Audited accounts are the bedrock on which business is taxed, albeit after a multiplicity of adjustments required by our tax legislation.

The PAC’s finding is a timely one, coming at time when the Tory press had been railing against Miliband’s modest criticism of tax avoidance by big business. These press attacks, claiming that (horror of horrors), Labour is ‘anti-business’ have been made to look pretty silly. Miliband’s response, that Labour will move within six months of being elected against tax havens in Crown dependencies, is welcome. Perhaps he has been reading the recent discussion document from the Economics Commission of the Communist Party on how our tax regime should be reformed[1]. If so, he will now know how to respond to the malign influence of PWC and the other ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms in the UK. The Commission proposed:

  • A ban on the revolving door between HM Revenue and Customs and these firms and on them working on government tax policy
  • An end to secondments between the Civil Service and the Big Four
  • A ban on government contracts going to any firm that devises aggressive tax avoidance strategies – no more running with the hare and the hounds.
  • Legislation to abolish limited liability partnerships, the form employed by the Big Four to conceal what they are up to.
  • Complete separation between the auditing and consultancy businesses – divestment, not token walls
  • A statutory requirement to publish accounts to the same level of disclosure required of companies

Endorsing these recommendations would be seen as a declaration of war on the Big Four and would trigger a further onslaught on Labour in the Tory press. But perhaps Labour is at last waking up to the fact that, short of capitulation to a Tory agenda, they are going to receive such an onslaught whatever they promise. Most encouraging of all, perhaps it has at last dawned on Labour that businesses don’t vote – people do.

.

[1] From Each According to their Means, £2.50 including postage from the Communist Party, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD  or from http://www.communist-party.org.uk/shop.html

DIGITAL DEMOCRACY

Earlier this week the Speaker’s Report on Digital Democracy was published. The report from a group of MPs led by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, was prompted by falling voter turnout and recognition that Parliament and MPs are held largely in contempt by the public. This threatens parliamentary democracy and something needs to be done if we are not to lose our hard won democratic rights. The recommendations in the report are, however, an inadequate response.

This is not to say that the report does not contain some sensible proposals. Parliament’s procedures and customs are more suited to a public school or Oxbridge debating society than to a modern elected chamber. Such arcane practices as putting on a top hat to attract the speaker’s attention and the bear fight that is Prime Minister’s Question Time may provide a comfort blanket for the many MPs who imbibed their politics in these arenas, but they don’t belong in a modern elected chamber. Certainly, MPs should, as the report recommends, be able to vote electronically – provided they have bothered to attend the preceding debate and are present in the chamber at the time. Being herded like sheep through lobbies by the oh so appropriately named ‘whips’ belongs to the nineteenth century, not the twenty first. Of course, as the report recommends, Parliament should be more transparent to the public. Ordinary voters in parliamentary (and local government) elections should, as the report recommends, of course be provided with an electronic voting facility – but only if the widespread abuse currently attaching to postal voting is first eliminated and steps are taken to ensure such practices are not take up with e-voting. All these reforms are all quite possible, but not when political parties are funded by rich individuals and unaccountable businesses and when the regulator is the present rather feeble Electoral Commission. But, even in their entirety, they are not enough.

 There are several reasons why Parliament and MPs are held in contempt by a large proportion of the public: -

 a. The first past the post voting system is unfit for purpose. Most voters cannot cast a meaningful vote, i.e. one that will make a difference. The rejection by referendum of one inadequate alternative does not make first past the post acceptable.

 b. MPs are not representative of the people they are supposed to represent. Their earnings are a significant multiple of voters’ average earnings; their pension entitlement is much better than that of the average voter; and many of them have second jobs and well paid sinecures. Furthermore, most MPs are either drawn from the upper middle class, with professional qualifications or business backgrounds and Oxbridge educations, or they are upwardly mobile careerists from local government.

 c. the MPs’ expenses scandal. The public was sickened by the ‘we were only following the rules’ defences put forward by so many greedy MPs caught with their hands in the public till.

We must be on guard against attempts to undermine parliamentary democracy. Certainly the current system leaves plenty of scope for improvement, and these improvements will be supported by communists. But the siren calls for more power to be given to the establishment – judges, political appointees, spooks and the ubiquitous “Crown” – must be resisted. Such democratic rights as we have secured by struggle must not be thrown away. Communists recognise, however, that parliamentary democracy, under which we have a choice every few years to choose between two parties with similar policies, and perhaps a string of smaller parties with little hope of forming a government, is an inadequate expression of democracy – rule by the people. We need democracy throughout our society: in our local government, where adequate funding and a return to the Committee System is a prerequisite; in the workplace, where electronic voting for strike ballots would help level the playing field between unions and employers; and we certainly need to oppose the Tory proposal, if elected, to count abstentions in strike ballots as votes against striking. Most significantly, however, as communists we have a vision for a real, participative democracy in which ordinary working people discuss and debate and then take decisions without being bullied or misled by the rich and powerful and their servants.

BIG PHARMA

The threat to the NHS is not confined to the way it is being slowly privatised by the Tories and their Lib-Dem stooges – a process which was shamefully initiated by the last Labour Government and about which Labour remains largely silent in the run up to the General Election. The other threat is of even longer standing and relates to the way the big pharmaceutical companies, Big Pharma, operate. This was illustrated this week by two news items. First, it was announced that NHS England is to delay the introduction of Sofobuvir, a drug that can save the lives of people infected by the hepatitis C virus because the manufacturer, Gilead, is charging too much. In the US Sofobuvir costs $1,000 a pill. Gilead want to charge the NHS a still exorbitant £35,000 for a twelve week course or £75,000 for the 24 week course many patients will require.

The other news item is the report from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) that the price of life-saving vaccines has skyrocketed leaving some countries struggling to fully immunise children. MSF say there has been a 68-fold increase in prices between 2001 and 2014 and it  accuses Big Pharma of overcharging, especially developing countries.

When accused of over-charging, the response by Big Pharma is always the same: they say that their pricing reflects the cost of research and manufacture. These businesses are, however, almost completely opaque organisations, depend on states to afford them extended patents, research what is most profitable and spread this highly secret research, and their manufacturing and marketing, internationally, enabling them to play off one country against another and to take full advantage of tax havens. Essentially they charge whatever they can get away with.

A partial remedy would be provided by the tax reforms and more transparent accounting called for in a recent discussion pamphlet from the Communist Party From Each According to Their Means[i].Reform of the tax system and more transparent accounting would, however, not be a complete remedy. Capital will always find a way to secure its own interests, whether by buying the politicians or by outright deception. What’s wrong with the pharmaceutical industry is what’s wrong with capitalism as a whole: it’s run without consideration for the wider good and to benefit a small group of shareholders, especially those with significant amounts of capital at their disposal. It is not run in the interests of people who need the products and services generated, whether they be poor people in developing countries or the working people in developed countries like the UK.

The complete remedy is a democratic society in which investment, including pharmaceutical research, is organised and planned in order to meet the needs of ordinary working people, not the interests of the capitalist class – essentially the 1%. What’s this system called?  Socialism! Or, as we prefer to call it when it has been fully developed, Communism.

[i] Available from the Communist Party, Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD. £2.50 including postage.