Branch Meeting in April: debate on EU Referendum

The Croydon Branch met at Ruskin House at 7 pm on Thursday, 21 April, our usual third Thursday of the month. The Political Discussion this month centred on the EU Referendum.

Disappointment was expressed at the poor quality of the coverage of the debate in the mass media. This was partly due to the Government’s “project fear” strategy”. This employed the argument that the decision should be based on “facts”, much like its Gradgrindian policy for education. Yet the Government‘s official pamphlet failed the provide any “facts” on Exit despite the cost to taxpayers of £9.3 million, just opinion. The subsequent Treasury report purporting to show, as a ‘fact’, that every household would be £4,500 worse off by 2030 was equally specious. Yet the official Exit campaign could offer little response that was not xenophobic or racist.

In the view of the meeting, the political issues that needed to discussed were

  • The balance of class interests in the UK and the EU and whether these would be improved by Exit.
  • The lack of democracy in the EU.
  • Whether the UK by exiting could ameliorate the consequences of likely future EU collapse, whether triggered by the instability of its external and internal borders or by the inevitable collapse of the Euro.
  • Whether leaving would enable the UK to block TTIP – this question was subsequently answered in the affirmative by Cameron when he persuaded President Obama to say that the UK would ”go to the back of the Queue” (SIC) in any trade negotiations with the USA after we left. TTIP is the only pending negotiation!
  • How best to show solidarity with the workers in the EU, especially those in Greece currently subject to fierce attack and likely soon to endure worse.
  • The consequences of the UK as a whole voting to leave but Scotland voting to stay. Would the breakup of the UK be too high a price for workers in the UK to pay?

Fortunately, branch members on Croydon TUC have succeeded in persuading Croydon TUC to hold a debate in May where these issues will be raised and discussed. Watch this website for more details when known.

The other date to note is the Croydon May Day march on Saturday 30 April. Assemble at noon outside Marks & Spencer, North End for speeches and then a march to Ruskin House led by a pipe band. Comrades were encouraged to attend and help staff the Party stall at Ruskin House afterwards.

New Tactics?

The Peoples Assembly is to be congratulated on organising the London march and demonstration against austerity yesterday. The effectiveness of weekend marches in bringing about the social change that we so desperately need is, however, coming into question.

A weekend demonstration and march almost brought down the government in February 2003 and almost halted the invasion of Iraq. The forces of reaction do not, however, stand still in the face of a successful tactic. The government has leaned to counter weekend demonstrations and marches by simply ignoring them, by levying charges on the organisers in the form of traffic management orders, policing costs and mandatory insurance, and by limiting the media coverage they receive. Such adaptive behaviour by the forces of reaction is nothing new. For example, the building of barricades in Paris was almost the trigger in 1848 for another French Revolution, but as Engels pointed out in his 1885 Preface to Marx’s paper on the Class Struggles in France, the army learned how to smash through barricades with cannon and go round them by ruthlessly smashing their way through adjacent houses. When this happened, the soldiers no longer saw behind the barricades “the people,” but rather a gang of rebels and agitators. The spell was broken, and building barricades ceased to be an effective strategy for pursuing social revolution.

This is not to say that weekend demonstrations and marches serve no purpose. Despite the obstacles put in their way, Croydon TUC will be organising its annual May Day March through North End to Ruskin House on Saturday, 30 April. On Sunday, 1 May, trade unionists across London will assemble at Clerkenwell Green and march to Trafalgar Square. These events are worth supporting. New tactics are, however, also required. The Croydon Assembly, an initiative by Croydon TUC to reach out to communities and organisations in the area and draw them into discussion, debate and action is one example. Another is the initiative by French workers and students to Rise up at Night or Nuit debout and occupy public spaces to debate and discuss, melting away in the day and returning the following evening. Reminiscent of the tactics adopted by Occupy, but possibly harder for the authorities to counter, could this be the next way forward?

DODGY DAVE

Revelations that David Cameron “has done nothing wrong” by avoiding tax are reminiscent of the debacle at the end of the last Tory government. Tories, Dodgy Dave included, think everyone is out to feather their own nests and really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Taxation policy has played a significant part in bringing us to our current state and it’s abundantly clear that the current tax system in this country is deeply dysfunctional as successive governments shift the tax “burden” from those most able to pay tax to those least able to pay. As the late Ken Gill said: “You pay tax and you buy civilisation.” Most people, but not, it appears, Tory politicians understand that taxes are a price we pay for a decent society.

Even under capitalism it is possible to devise a tax structure that does not place the entire burden of taxation on ordinary working people and their families, but it requires an unapologetically class-based analysis such as that employed by the Party’s Economics Commission in arriving at the Party Pamphlet From each According to their Means, available from the Communist Party Shop or from Communist Party, Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD, (020) 8686-1659.

The criteria employed by the Economics Commission were that taxes should be redistributive, capable of promoting “social justice,” reflective of the ability to pay, simple to understand, predictable, unavoidable, compatible with each other, objective to assess, transparent and free from interference by those hostile to the interests of the working class, including Tories, parliamentary lobbyists, senior civil servants and the judiciary.

The detailed proposals, included:

  • Tackling the estimated £120 billion lost to Britain through tax avoidance and evasion via introduction of a robust, general anti-avoidance rule which actually “does what it says on the tin” and which includes serious financial or other penalties for those found to have broken the law — giving HMRC the resources it needs to do the job properly along with an end to its current big business-friendly mode of operation; and radical proposals to clamp down on tax havens and the transnational corporations that use them.
  • Unilateral action to end the special tax status of all tax havens under British control
  • Restoration of corporation tax to between 30 per cent and 40 per cent, linked to restoration of a form of advance corporation tax to reduce the incentive for corporations to pursue tax avoidance strategies and windfall taxes on corporations’ recent super-profits.
  • Introduction of new 60 per cent rate of tax for earned income over £60,000 a year, and a 70 per cent rate for unearned income over £60,000 a year.
  • Innovative proposals for the abolition of all current property taxes and replacement with a land value tax (LVT), with the aim of shifting the burden of taxation away from earned income and reducing the scope for tax evasion. This would return to society the value of land that society itself creates and help tackle the evident social injustice generated by the concentration of land ownership in the hands of small elite.
  • Tackling the growing gap between rich and poor with the introduction of an annual wealth tax of 2 per cent and higher rates for the “mega rich,” ending “non-resident” and “non-domiciled” exemption from British income and wealth taxes; and steps to prevent capital flight by implementation of robust exchange controls.
  • Reforming current environmental taxation — which has an important role to play in changing behaviour as well as raising revenue, with the aim of promoting sustainable economic development — by moving to a “tax-and-dividend” approach for addressing the problem of global warming — with Britain acting unilaterally, if necessary, by way of example, with the introduction of standardised carbon tariffs on imports.
  • Support for a financial transaction tax (Tobin tax) on trade in currencies to give Britain greater control of its economic policy and introduction of a financial activities tax (a levy on banks’ profits and remuneration packages).

Now those really would give Dodgy Dave some sleepless nights.

ARE THE TORIES EVIL?

The emotive question whether Tories are actually evil was posed by Rafael Behr in the Guardian Opinion Column on 30 March. Good question! While acknowledging that one doesn’t have to stray far along the spectrum of left opinion to encounter this view, Mr Behr was inclined to dismiss the proposition. In his view crackpot conspiracy theories are increasingly shaping our view of governments and policies. But we do not need to resort to conspiracy theories to conclude that some Tory policies are intended to benefit only a tiny minority of the population and to damage the rest. If your personal morality leads you to conclude that those responsible are evil, so be it. Aneurin Bevan’s famous comment that Tories are “lower than vermin” comes to mind. Communists, however, tend to take a more objective and less personalised view. We see a struggle between classes in which the venality or otherwise of Tories is largely irrelevant.

A prime example of a Tory policy that is intended to benefit a tiny minority is the government’s flagship policy, Austerity. This is the policy of cutting expenditure on public services and social welfare in order to reduce government borrowing by 2020 to the level prevailing before the 2007 banking crisis. Austerity will result in a national economy by 2020 in which government spending on social services and welfare will be comparable to that in the US economy – a society where the poor get by on charity and food banks and where services such as health and education are provided to those who can afford them by profit driven corporations. Furthermore, this state of affairs is intended to be permanent. There is no government commitment to restore public services and amenities after government borrowing has been reduced to the 2007 level. What we get in 2020 is what, according to Tory intentions, we will be stuck with.

The lack of opposition to Austerity can be explained by a docile capitalist controlled media (including the BBC) and the residual, malign influence of New Labour on the Parliamentary Labour Party. Both accept the Thatcherite mantra There is No Alternative. Government borrowing needs to be reduced, but cuts in public services and social welfare is not the way to go about it. Proper taxation of corporations and scrapping Trident would go a long way to doing it.

Labour controlled local authorities have also been slow to blame the Tory government for the cuts to their services they are being forced to make, preferring to differentiate themselves from their local Tory opponents by claiming that their cuts are (slightly) more humane than those their opponents. This strategy has been criticised by the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn and his criticism has been picked up by, amongst others Croydon TUC who will be sending a delegation to discuss the matter with Croydon Council Leader Tony Newman on Tuesday. We welcome this initiative by Croydon TUC and wish them well.

No More Mr Nice Guy

The Tory government, having secured the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate, is hell bent on making irrevocable changes to our society by the time of the next general election. These changes are intended to permanently disadvantage working people and their families and to secure their continued exploitation. They include

  • Handing over every school and the council owned land on which they stand to Multi Academy Trusts run by unaccountable and profit hungry businesses.
  • A Trade Union Bill which puts insuperable legal barriers in the way of industrial action and which will make most strikes impossible or illegal. One feature, the requirement of pickets to give their names to the police, is a step along the road to a fascist state.
  • Cuts to disability and welfare payments – don’t trust them not to go further despite the reassurances following the Budget fiasco
  • Underfunding of social services and resort to food banks
  • A Trade Union Bill which is also intended to slash trade union funding for the Labour Party while turning a blind eye to corporate funding of the Tory Party
  • Dismantling the NHS
  • A commitment to sign up to TTIP
  • Undermining social housing and an end to secure, affordable housing, whether to buy or to rent
  • Education cuts and crippling student loans
  • Cuts to arts funding and library closures
  • intimidation of the BBC
  • An abject failure to address global warming – the greenest government ever? I think not.

The aim of the last New Labour government under Blair and Brown was to halt the direction set by the previous Tory administrations under Thatcher and Major but not to roll their policies back. This was a critical mistake and the Tories have duly taken full advantage of it. What is there for them to lose? Our aim next time should be not only to roll back the Tories’ policies but this time to go further. We need to oppose every Tory advance with one for ordinary working people which will hurt the Tories and their modest number of supporters. Simply by way of illustration, here are some of the policies we could promote now in opposition to theirs:

  • Education – public schools to be nationalised and turned into comprehensives
  • Trade unions – a requirement for every employee to be in a union
  • Welfare payments – a living wage for all
  • Social services – public servants, not charities, to provide comprehensive social care
  • Party funding – a total ban on corporate donations and corporate lobbying
  • NHS – a tax on private health care
  • TTIP – a free trade area with Cuba and Venezuela
  • Social housing – a huge, high quality council housing programme
  • Arts funding – a public theatre, library and art gallery in every town and a tax on ownership of works of art not open to the public
  • BBC – national newspapers to be published only by co-operatives owned by their readers
  • Global warming – a ban on flying and other conspicuous carbon consumption by wealthy individuals unless they can demonstrate real need.

Perhaps then the Tories will understand that Newton’s Third Law of Motion applies to societies as well as to inanimate bodies: for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. We’ve had enough and we are pushing back: no more Mr Nice Guy.

Croydon Communists Respond to the Education White Paper

At the branch meeting last night (17 March) Croydon Communist Party condemned the Education White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere published earlier that day. In the view of the meeting the White Paper heralded the end of local democratic control of education – indeed essentially the end of any democratic control over education as every state school is to be handed over to unaccountable multi-academy trusts (MATs) by 2020. Parent governors are to be abolished and the land owned by local authorities surrendered to the Secretary of State so that it can be leased to MATs. The White Paper offered no changes to the way in which MATs are to be regulated and to the level of fees and salaries they can extract from public funds.

The role of local authorities in education is to be confined to three areas:

 

  1. Ensuring every child has a school place
  2. Ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met
  3. Acting as champions for all parents and families

 

The first duty is to be discharged by enabling so called free schools to open – but quite how local authorities can do this is unclear. Also unclear is how the other two duties can be discharged in the absence of any influence or power over MATs.

 

While the objective of the White Paper was clear enough, the meeting identified a number of contradictions indicating confused thinking at the Department of Education and in the mind of its Minister, Nicky Morgan. While proclaiming that it was not for the government to impose teaching methods (apparently reversing twenty years of politicians telling teachers how to teach), the highly questionable phonics method of teaching reading was endorsed. Similarly, on the contentious issue of religion in education, the government commits itself in the White Paper to work with the Churches and “relevant faith bodies”, whatever they are, to ensure that the religious character and ethos of Church and faith schools is protected. Thus for both curriculum and staffing academies will be allowed to “innovate”, i.e. employ priests to the exclusion of others and promulgate such views as creationism, without central interference.

There was only one reference to teaching unions in the White Paper: they are asked to work with others to identify and challenge the “culture” in and beyond schools which leads to “unnecessary workload”. It is not “culture” that led to unnecessary workload, it was government imposition of Ofsted and the National Curriculum. The role of teaching unions was not mentioned elsewhere in the White Paper, but here can be little doubt that a major objective of the paper is to break the influence of teachers’ unions in education. The meeting gave them every encouragement and support to resist the White Paper and committed the branch to do likewise.

Croydon Assembly Saturday 19 March

Historically, democratic assemblies of workers such as the Paris Commune and the Russian soviets, built in the old society, played an essential role in the attempt to build a new one. This role was both to provide a bridge to the new society and the democratic framework on which democracy in the new society could be built. This is not an easy task: the Paris Commune lasted a mere 71 days, the USSR ‘only’ 74 years. Next time the democracy in the new society we build must be even more robust.

It is asking a lot of Croydon TUC and its outreach initiative, the Croydon Assembly, to provide this bridging role, but they currently represent one of the best ways of doing this. The Croydon Assembly will reconvene on Saturday, 19 March at Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD, 11 am to 4 pm, and it deserves our support.

Confirmed speakers include Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the FBU, Philipa Harvey, President of the NUT and Dr Philip Howard from the BMA General Council. The main focus will, however, be the launch of the Croydon Assembly Manifesto, a democratically drafted document reflecting previous meetings of the Assembly and now presented to a wider public.

Entry is free and it is possible to register in advance at Eventbrite. Advance registration is, however, not essential. The important thing is to be there and join in.

The Property Ladder

Walking around Croydon it’s obvious that there are a lot of home extensions being built by owner occupiers. This is hardly surprising. Homes are seen by owner occupiers as a form of saving – often their primary form – and a recent report by LSE Professor Paul Cheshire forecasts that house prices will double by 2030. This would represent a tax free return on investment of 4.6 per cent a year. It could be even higher: according to the Office of National Statistics house prices have grown on average by 8.75% per annum over the past 47 years. That is much higher than the return on bank deposits and comparable with long run returns on equity investment – especially so as tax is paid on interest, dividends and capital gains on shares but not on your primary home.

Many extensions have the effect of shifting what in many cases would be affordable homes for first time buyers into a more expensive category. They do, however, represent a great investment opportunity for owner occupiers already fortunate enough to be on the so called ‘property ladder’. Not only will the new investment increase in value in line with the original investment but there is also an immediate tax free capital gain to be enjoyed. As rule of thumb, it’s generally thought that £20,000 of building work, providing it’s not totally unsuitable, should add more than £50,000 in property value.

What’s going on here? There are a number of economic and socio-political forces at play. First, we need to ask what is the source of this exceptional high return to owner occupiers. The answer is straightforward: it is a transfer from those who don’t own homes to those who do. Many in the fortunate latter group think it’s an entitlement justified by their hard work paying off their mortgage and they have a right to pass it on to their kids. The fact that these kids may themselves be unable to get on the “property ladder”, or, on the other hand, may already be much better off than those without homes is overlooked. Also overlooked is the risk that predatory care home operators lie in wait for owner occupiers with every intention of appropriating the bulk of their investment. There is also the consideration that banks do very nicely in providing mortgage finance. Banks are essential to modern capitalism and, as the government’s austerity programme demonstrates, nothing must stand in the way of their profits.

Another interesting question is what is the source of the capital gain when an extension is built. According to neo-classical economic theory – the type they teach in universities, award Nobel Prizes for and regurgitate on the BBC and in the capitalist press – market should respond to eliminate all such predictable gains. They call this ‘arbitrage theory’. Marxist economist, on the other hand, recognise that building workers, like every other worker in productive industries, sell their labour for less than the value it creates. It’s this surplus value that accounts for the average capital gain on building extensions. If building workers were to received the full value of the labour power they sold to owner occupiers, on average there would be no capital gain from building extensions. But then if all workers could do this, capitalism would grind to a halt nd we would be forced to begin constructing a socialist society in which, initially, operate on the principle of from each according to their means to each according to their work*.

The underlying issue here is that, according to neo-classical economic theory, value is created when a commodity (including a house) is sold, or merely revalued in a market. Value is created out of thin air in the form of a “consumer surplus” because the seller and buyer have different subjective valuations. Marxist economists, on the other hand, take a more objective view. They consider that value cannot, on average, be created by exchange or shifting market prices. Exchange is a zero sum game – the buyer’s gain is the seller’s loss and vice versa. These are two fundamentally different ways of looking at how markets work in capitalist societies. It’s a theme we hope to explore when the Communist University in South London is relaunched shortly. Watch this space for news of this development.

* Only under a fully developed communist society would we attain the position of to each according to their need

The EU Referendum and TTIP

There is a progressive case for voting to leave the EU at the referendum in June and the Communist Party backs it. It relates to recognising what the EU is really about. The treaties creating the Union are bereft of aims to enhance democracy and promote the interests of working people. They are concerned about granting businesses four Fundamental Freedom, the freedom to:

provide services;

establish new businesses;

move capital; and

move labour

within the Union. Nothing of comparable importance attaches to workers’ rights, nor is there much emphasis on improving democracy across and within the EU. In consequence the European Parliament is toothless and is likely to remain so and there is no pressure on national governments to democratise what remains of their powers or to devolve them to local government. Thus the scandal of media ownership, corrupt representative democracy and the absence of workplace democracy in the UK has continued unchallenged and unabated.

In a thoughtful piece by John Hendy QC The terrible tale of the EU and Trade Union Rights   he describes the limited scope of social measures in EU treaties and what little they do for trade unionists in particular and workers in general. The Community Social Charter for the Rights of Workers adopted in 1989 proclaimed, amongst other things, the right to freedom of association, to negotiate and conclude collective agreements, and a right to resort to collective action including the right to strike. Mrs Thatcher duly called it a “Marxist Charter” (as if!) and, after much bitter opposition, it was afforded no more status than that of a “solemn proclamation”. A Social Charter Action Programme was subsequently adopted which led to modest Directives on workplace safety, work equipment, personal protective equipment , VDUs, manual handling, proof of the employment contract, posted workers, pregnant workers, young workers, and working time. The Maastricht Treaty in 1992, gave greater prominence to what was called the Social Chapter to which the UK Tory government promptly secured an opt-out. Amongst other things the Social Chapter provided for European level collective agreements between the “social partners” to be enforced as EU law. In fact very few such agreements have ever been reached because of resistance by employers. By the time Labour was elected and the UK opted back in again only four Directives had been adopted under the Social Chapter: on European Works Councils, parental leave, part-time work and burden of proof. The Treaties underpinning the EU were tweaked by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2000. As John Hendy concludes, they gave the illusion of a greater social dimension but little of substance.

This is thin gruel for those of us seeking more power and a better deal for ordinary working people. But we are nevertheless confronted with two problems in voting Out at the forthcoming referendum. The first is the right wing element dominating the Out campaign. A more unsavoury bunch than Nigel Farrage, Ian Duncan-Smith and Boris Johnson would be hard to find, and their appeal to latent racism is difficult to stomach. The second is that a vote to leave the EU would probably lead to the break up of Great Britain if, as seems likely, the Scots and possibly the Welsh voted to stay. It would surely have been much better for the referendum to have required unanimity across England, Scotland and Wales and for the referendum in Northern Ireland to have been about whether to remain an appendage of Great Britain (whatever the result of the other referendums) or to join the Republic.

All, however, is not lost for the progressive Out campaign. There is no need yet to throw our lot in with the Corbyn Labour leadership and accept that the potential loss of jobs means that we must stay in the EU and campaign inside it for reform. As appealing as that that may appear to some, it won’t halt the EU’s continuing secret negotiations with the USA over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment (TTIP). The impact of this could be worse that those predicted if we leave. TTIP will cost at least one million UK jobs, undermine our most treasured public services and lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in food, environmental and labour standards. For the first time, huge US corporations will be able to sue the UK government over democratically enacted laws. A vote to leave the EU should enable us to escape TTIP, although a Tory government might still try to sign the UK (or just England) up to it. With a barrage of scare stories expected such as the headline in the Observer today (“Brexit would spark decade of ‘economic limbo’ claims top Tory”), perhaps the best response would be a slogan along the lines No Vote for In if it means a vote for TTIP. Let the In Campaign chew on that.

Report on Branch Meeting on 18 February 2016

Prompted by the finding in the ONS English Housing Survey 2013-2014, that house ownership in England had declined to 1989 levels, the Croydon Communist Party at its branch meeting yesterday (18 February) discussed the housing crisis. It concluded that home ownership would continue to decline, as would the provision of secure, rented accommodation. The Tory government’s Starter Home Initiative under which the private sector would be ‘encouraged’ to build 200,000 supposedly affordable homes (costing up to £450,000 in London up to £250,000 elsewhere) would only make matters worse. Not only were young workers now expected to live with their parents or rent for the rest of their lives (generation rent), they were to be left to the tender mercies of unregulated private landlords whose primary concern was property speculation.

In discussing solutions, there was support for regulating private landlords to ensure they offered secure tenures and fixed long term rents. The tax breaks they received should be curtailed. If these measures brought property prices tumbling down, including those of owner occupiers, so be it – provided home occupancy rights were protected rather than the interests of mortgage providers. This would require  curtailing the rights of mortgage providers to evict. Such a housing strategy would succeed provided it was accompanied by an extensive programme of building high quality social housing for rent, preferably democratically accountable council housing. Some of this might be acquired ready built from the private sector, but a large building programme would also be called for. This would generate jobs and boost incomes. It was suggested that high rise should have a significant role in such a programme, but it had to be amenity rich and well maintained. As the rush by the affluent to buy expensive high rise apartments in Central Croydon demonstrated, the problem with high rise in the past had not been the height, it had been the lack of amenities and maintenance and the misuse of such property for social segregation and dumping.