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.

Political Party Funding: seeking the level playing field

Having won the last general election with the support of only 24.3% of registered voters, the Tories are looking to cement their hold on power by cutting off off trade unions’ financial support for the Labour Party. Only the unelected and unrepresentative House of Lords now stands in the way of enacting the Trade Union Bill which will achieve this end.

The £30.2m that Labour has received from the unions following the general election is about what the Tories get from a handful of wealthy individuals: £27.9m, or 62 per cent of the party’s total. 61 donors gave more than £50,000 at one go, qualifying them to mingle  socially with Cameron and his chums. A further 141 donors clocked up £50,000 with multiple donations but apparently don’t qualify for an immediate opportunity to rub shoulders at the trough.

The Tory party’s biggest individual donor is Michael Farmer who has made eight donations totalling £2,191,392.42. This explains why he is a Tory Party co-treasurer. He is the founder of the hedge fund RK Capital Management. Hedge funds are financial institutions which speculate on behalf of the super-rich. Collectively, they are major backers of the Tory Party and help to explain why the Tories are so relaxed about the decline in manufacturing and happy to ignore the potential for another financial crash.

Companies make up 25 per cent of Tory donations. The biggest corporate donor is JCB Research which has donated a total £1.4m since the election. Prem Sikka, the principled and celebrated professor of accounting at Essex University, has described JCB Research as a “black box” due to its status as an unlimited company with minimal reporting requirements.

What can be done to reform the financing of political parties when we eventually turf out the Tories? Fairness dictates that corporate donations should only be allowed when the majority of shareholders entitled to vote in UK elections approve them. Furthermore, those who do not vote for the resolution should be excused from contributing. Many donating companies are, however, privately owned by wealthy individuals, not all of whom are located offshore for tax purposes. The proposed reform, although essential, would not necessarily significantly dent the 25% corporate share of Tory funding. What is needed is a cap on all donations of, say, £500 per annum, with union donations treated as donations by individual members unless the individual opts out. This would, of course, bring forth squeals of anguish from all the major political parties who have become dependent on handouts from the rich. There would inevitably follow a demand for public funding to replace the ‘lost’ income. Such demands have to be dismissed. Provided deposits for standing in elections are scrapped, political parties can and should operate, as does the Communist Party, by relying on the modest donations and hard work of their members and supporters. Then we really would have a level playing field.

The Future of the NHS and the role of the Independent Left

The news, suppressed until the Tory Party Conference had ended, that NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts have gone nearly a billion pounds in the red in just three months did not come as a surprise to the Communist Party and others such as Keep Our NHS Public who have been waiting for the figures. Make no mistake, the Tories intend to destroy the NHS and replace it with a US style private insurance based scheme, not stop at merely tendering out services. The outsourcing of Croydon University Hospital’s A&E service, now shambolically and expensively run by Virgin, is just the start. As a step to achieving their aim, the Tories, naively supported by the Lib Dems for the first five years, engaged in a programme of inadequate funding and enforced ‘efficiency savings’. But these alone will not enable them to bring their plans to fruition. For all their bluster, they know they lack enough support across the country to enforce a complete privatisation of the NHS. Not even the backing of the capitalist press and sympathetic coverage by a BBC cowed by the prospect of charter renewal will be enough to force it through. They need a TINA argument – There is No Alternative. They are looking for continued membership of the European Union and ratification of TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, to provide this.

From where will the opposition to the Tories’ plans come? Jeremy Corbyn deserves our support following his election as Labour Leader, especially in his struggle with a sullen Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – many Labour MPs resent the power exercised by new members and supporters in electing him and will seek to oust him as soon as they can. The NHS cannot, however, be saved by parliamentary opposition alone; nor should everyone on the independent left, especially those in the Communist Party, tear up their membership cards and pile into the forthcoming internal struggle inside the Labour Party. It will take time to clear out the PLP (assuming it can be done) and, meanwhile, we need to organise independently in the trade unions and trade union councils, support what’s left of our free press (the Morning Star and the internet) and campaign on the streets and in our community groups. Even more important than the next meeting of Croydon Constituency Labour Parties is the next public meeting of the Croydon Assembly. This is a genuine, bottom-up democratic initiative by Croydon TUC and will take place on Saturday 7 November at Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD. Confirmed speakers include John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, and Christine Blower, the NUT General Secretary. Such grass roots initiatives, conducted independently of the current struggle within the Labour Party, are essential if continued membership of the European Union on unsatisfactory terms and ratification of TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, both essential steps in the destruction of the NHS, are to be opposed. We cannot rely on an internally divided Labour Party to do this for us. We must do it ourselves.

New Labour Hubris

The Blairites were supposed to be masters of controlling democracy, having eliminated it first from their party conference, then from party policy making and finally with changes to the procedures for selection and de-selection of MPs. Local government democracy was supressed by the simple ploy of turning Labour councillors into full-time, relatively well paid employees, positions more suited to careerists rather than political activists. The influence of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) was so successfully marginalised within the Labour Party that most ordinary Labour Party members were unaware of its existence when its founder, Vladimir Derer, died last year. So what went wrong? The answer is surely hubris. They came to believe their own propaganda about a silent, middle class majority. Triangulate on them and all would be well. What they forgot was that the silent majority are just that – silent. They don’t participate in politics. Meanwhile, there is a large, progressive minority who do. People like us: people who go on marches against the war and against austerity; people who join Palestine Solidarity, CND, Cuba Solidarity etc. Even a growing number who are joining the Communist Party – although in our case we are not recommending our members to vote in the Labour Leadership election. We have a long standing and proud tradition against entryism. As Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto,

Communists fight for the attainment of immediate aims, for the enforcement of the current interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they also take care of the future of that movement…They labour everywhere for the union and agreement of democratic parties…Communist s disdain to conceal their views and aims…They openly declare that their ends can be obtained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.

 

Sound principles in 1848 and sound principles today.

That was not democracy

Whatever it is we have been experiencing over the last six weeks, it was not democracy. Democracy is rule by people. It requires the people to have free, unbiased and digestible information enabling them to engage in discussion and debate before reaching their decisions. What we have just experienced satisfies none of these criteria. It was nothing more than a quinquennial  circus, largely  paid for by big business and wealthy individuals with vested interests in the outcome. It fell well short of true democracy for the following reasons:

  1. Under our first-past-the post system, most voters are deprived of any influence over the outcome. In consequence, a significant proportion of voters have not registered to vote or, if they have, will not bother to vote.
  2. The winners will claim legitimacy even though the majority of the population have not have voted for them. This is in sharp contrast to Tory plans requiring workers to secure a majority of those who are entitled to vote in every workplace before industrial action can be taken.
  3. Voters will have no say in any deals stitched up after the election.
  4. Once elected, MPs will be insulated from and hence largely insensitive to the views of those who elected them.
  5. The reporting of the election has been dominated by privately owned mass media whose owners are neither UK voters nor UK taxpayers and by a BBC running scared of changes to its charter and license fee by the winners of the election. To make matters worse, most journalists in every media are unrepresentative of the nation to which they report, being predominately white, middle class and Oxbridge educated.
  6. The MPs we elect, whatever the result, will also be unrepresentative. Not only will they earn around three times the average wage, they will have more job security and much better pensions than most of those who elected them. They will be drawn predominately from professional and managerial backgrounds. Like journalists, they will be predominately men, privately educated, Oxbridge graduates. Many like the (hopefully outgoing) Prime Minister will come from wealthy backgrounds.
  7. It is impossible to have democracy at the national level unless it is underpinned by local government democracy. The latter has been gutted as Peter Latham describes in great detail in his excellent book[i].
  8. It is impossible to have democracy at the national level if it is denied us in the workplace. The anti-trade union legislation in place in the UK conflicts with international agreements freely entered into by previous governments. For more information on this illegality, refer to Union Rights…and Wrongs[ii]
  9. Power no longer lies with elected MPs. They are whipped into conformity by the political parties, and they can no longer legislate in a number of areas due the EU.
  10. The dominant political parties are financed by big business and wealthy individuals.

In the light of these shortcomings, don’t expect too much from the forthcoming election. Austerity must be opposed whoever wins, but this will be much harder if the Tories form the next government. A Labour government is a necessary but insufficient condition to oppose austerity. A vote for the Communists, when available, will help with this. But the real fight starts after the election. In Croydon this means building the Communist Party locally and supporting the Croydon TUC and its Croydon Assembly initiative on Saturday, 6 June.

[i] The State and Local Government by Peter Latham, Manifesto Press, 2011. £14.95 from the Communist Party

[ii] Union Rights…and Wrongs: the reform of Britain’s anti-union laws by John Hendy QC 2001. The Institute of Employment Rights.

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.

The Public Sector Strike on Thursday and Democracy

Croydon TUC received encouraging reports on Thursday that the national one day strike by public sector workers that day had been well supported in Croydon. We await more detailed reports from the unions involved (Unite, GMB, PCS, FBU, Unison and NUT), but it was clear from reporting by the BBC that the strike had been too big for them to ignore. Failing to report anything that might disturb the current cosy Westminster consensus has, of course, become the BBC’s default position of late as witnessed by their news blackout of the recent Peoples Assembly demo.

Labour, in the form of its leader Ed Miliband, failed to support the strike. No doubt he didn’t wish to upset that part of the electorate which reads the Daily Mail. Cameron’s response on the day of the strike itself was to proclaim that the Tory Party manifesto for the forthcoming general election will include further restrictions on trade union rights. In particular, it will call for a simple workplace majority in a postal ballot to be no longer sufficient to call a strike – a majority of everyone eligible to vote will be required, whether or not they actually vote.

No one, of course, expects a Tory Party manifesto to written by anyone outside a small cabal around The Great Leader. Unfortunately, following Blair’s ‘reforms’ to the Labour Party in the 1990s, we have come to expect the same from the Labour Party. Cameron’s announcement does, however, throw into sharp relief the limitations of parliamentary democracy – limitations which are growing ever more apparent.

At the last election only 65% of the electorate voted. This enabled the Tories to harvest 307 seats in parliament – enough to cobble together a coalition government for five years – with the consent of only 23.5% of the electorate. Yet this is the Party that is proposing that workplace ballots must secure 50% of their electorate before a strike can be called – or rather before the many other restrictions around calling a strike can be addressed.

While the hypocrisy behind Cameron’s proposal is breath-taking, it does draw attention to more fundamental issues about the nature of democracy under capitalism. The ultimate aim for communists is a state in which citizens rule themselves, rather than be ruled by a wealthy minority. Parliamentary democracy is a mere shadow of what we mean by ‘democracy’. In a parliament of 600+ seats, less than 100 are likely to be decisive in any one election in determining the outcome. In the 500 other seats, our votes will make no difference whatsoever to the overall outcome. Proportional representation can improve this situation slightly, but it cannot fix the system. The same can be said about better selection of candidates. More women, more workers and fewer lawyers and wealthy individuals with outside jobs would help, but it won’t fix the problem. To achieve the aim we have set ourselves, democracy must be local, participatory and spread across every institution of society, including the workplace and media such as the BBC and the venal, offshore-owned, capitalist press.

BRITISH VALUES

Following Ofsted investigation into Birmingham schools and the resulting undignified spat between Michael Gove and Theresa May, David Cameron was forced to intervene and explain what Gove meant by the “British Values” he wants to see taught in English and Welsh state funded schools. Apparently these “British Values” are freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.

This list is loaded with class implications and is worth picking apart. Taking them in order:

Freedom – a term always banded about by those on the right but never properly defined by them. They mean, of course, freedom for those with wealth and power to enjoy these with as few constraints as possible.

Tolerance – this means a relaxed view to the views of others provided they don’t impact on those with wealth and power. Ownership and control by the rich and powerful of the mass media does, of course, ensure that really dangerous views such as socialism can be not so much tolerated as safely ignored.

Respect for the Rule of Law – this means rigorously enforcing those laws that protect property and generally disregarding those laws which protect the rights of ordinary working people. To ensure this, the judiciary is drawn from the powerful and wealthy sections of society and can be relied on to protect their class’s interests.

Belief in personal and social responsibility – this means that ordinary working people should not anyway expect “rights” under the law. They must take personal responsibility for their own welfare, just like the rich and powerful do.

Respect for British institutions – this means we should not criticise or question those institutions that prop up the ruling class – the police, parliament, the army, royals etc. Such unquestioning respect need not, however, apply to those institutions that actually serve ordinary working people such as the NHS, our trade unions and those schools that have not yet been sold off to business interests.

It is quite easy to think of a more wholesome set of values. The list could include solidarity with fellow workers, opposition to sexism and racism and treating other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves. The problem with these from a Tory perspective is that they are not exclusively “British”. How strange then that Cameroon and his Tory chums appear to have overlooked that it would only take one more clumsy intervention from them in the debate in Scotland on independence and the term “British” will become an historic relic.

Martin Graham

CUiSL looks at the life and work of Ralph Miliband

On 5 November Dr Peter Latham gave a paper to the Communist University in South London on the life and work of Ralph Miliband. Peter drew on his experience as a former student of Ralph Miliband at the LSE in the 1960s and on his research for his book The State and Local Government (Manifesto Press – £14.95 – available at www.communist-party.org.uk). Go to http://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/ to read the paper.

TEN POLICIES FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT DEMOCRACY

In his talk to the Communist University in South London on 7 August, Dr Peter Latham, author of the book Local Government Democracy (Manifesto Press 2011) proposed ten policies to resuscitate local government democracy and assert working class interests. They were:

1)    Repeal of the Localism Act (except the provisions giving councils the right to return to the committee system and all councillors the right to make policy again in England and Wales, which should be an immediate campaigning priority for the Left).

2)    Abolition of US-style executive local government mayors and police and crime commissioners (PCCs). The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 – under which elections for 41 US-style PCCs with salaries between £65,000 and £100,000 per year depending on the scale of the police force area being overseen and regional pay variations) in England and Wales outside Greater London will be held in November 2012 – should be repealed because the abolition of police authorities is a centralising measure, which further downgrades the role of councillors. Turnout is also likely to be too low to give the bodies legitimacy. Moreover, elected PCC’s, according to West Yorkshire Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, with the power to hire and fire chief constables, set the police force’s budget and “strategic direction” could undermine operational independence and also “be the door that unlocks corruption”.

3)    Smaller councils, more councillors.England, Wales and Scotland now have fewer and larger ‘local’ authorities than any other Western advanced capitalist country.

4)    Direct provision by councils of locally administered services. Most public spending is now controlled by the unelected ‘quango state’ with local councillors responsible for only five per cent of the total public spending in their areas. In addition, where this is in accordance with the wishes and needs of their electors, local authorities should be able to expand their functions under the “general power of competence” to run many things now owned and controlled by the private sector, such as local industry, some types of retail and wholesale distribution and a broad range of cultural facilities.

5)    The ending of all forms of marketisation, privatisation and profiteering in central and local government. Over a third of local government services are already marketised and privatised. However, there is no evidence to support the claims of the dominant neoliberal wings of the three main parties that the marketisation and privatisation of public services is value for money, either for taxpayers or for the users of services.

6)    Abolition of the council tax, stamp duty land tax and national non-domestic rates to be replaced by a system of annual land value tax plus progressive taxation of income and wealth. In Britain — where 0.3 per cent of the adult population own 69 per cent of the land worth an estimated £5 trillion — a land value tax (LVT) instead of the regressive council tax, stamp duty land tax and national non-domestic rates levied at one per cent could raise £50 billion a year (i.e. twice the estimated amount raised by the council tax in 2009/10). Only freeholders and landlords, moreover, would pay LVT; and the owners of large estates would pay more because their acreage is greater than a semi and they often own valuable sites in town and city centres. In addition, LVT would avoid the main shortcomings of a local income tax (LIT): which would be more complex and costly to collect, especially if it included unearned income not covered by PAYE, due to so many people living in a local jurisdiction different from where they work; and LIT would also be inequitable because of the large difference between mean or average income in more affluent areas and in poor areas.

7)    Ending the City of London Corporation. The anomaly of the City of London – which is a tax haven for the super rich – and retaining the non-residential business vote – which was actually extended in 2002 – is a travesty of democracy that should be resolved by abolishing the City of London Corporation and reconstituting it as the 33rd London borough.

8)    All councillors should only receive the average backbench annual allowance. The replacement of the traditional committee system with the systems of leader-cabinet or US-style directly-elected mayors has created a brigade of full-time career politicians. The working class have been removed from this layer of local democracy; and the average salary for directly-elected US-style executive mayors is now over seven times that of the average backbench councillor’s allowance).

9)    The Single Transferable Voting (STV) System should be used for all elections.  The first-past-the-post system to elect councillors not only fails to reflect fairly the votes cast, but also discourages participation in local democracy. STV, used for the first time in the 2007 local government elections in Scotland, is preferable, and would enhance local democracy. Moreover, the Supplementary Vote system – currently used in mayoral elections and continued by the Localism Act 2011 – in which voters record their first and second choice, should be abolished: since a large number of voters may be denied any say in the second round, sometimes exceeding in number the eventual majority of the winning candidate.

10)   Short-term deposits by councils should only be in publicly owned banks

In addition, Dr Latham identified an alternative economic and political strategy (AEPS) as a  pre-condition for carrying out the above. The 2011 TUC adopted an Alternative Economic Strategy, although it did not contain the anti-privatisation and public ownership policies contained in the People’s Charter adopted by the TUC in 2009. In addition, the Communist Party has called for:

  • a two per cent wealth tax on the richest 10 per cent of the population who own 44 per cent of Britain’s wealth, including private pension wealth, estimated to be £9 trillion (revenue £78 billion a year);
  • a 20 per cent windfall tax on the super-profits of banking, energy, retail, arms and drug monopolies (revenue £16 billion);
    • a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on City transactions (revenue £20 billion a year);
    • ending tax dodging by the super-rich and big business (revenue £70 billion a year);
    • repayment of money owed by bailed-out banks (£131 billion).

Such measures, if implemented, would not only close the deficit within five years: but also enable expenditure on public services to be increased – not slashed. N.B. only 10% of the cuts have so far been made and more are in the pipeline.

Do you agree? Are there any policies Dr Latham overlooked? Let us know what you think. Dr Latham’s complete paper may be read at  http://communistuniversity.wordpress.com