Sunday, 27 July 2014

Are the Greens the only party willing to talk honestly about taxes?

People with wealth of over £3million should pay a wealth tax of between 1% and 2% according to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. This would raise between £21.5billiion and £43billion annually.

Wealthy people, Bennett told the BBC on Thursday, can afford to pay more and it is in their interests to do so, she said ‘we’re not talking about dinner ladies who have paid their whole lives into a pension pot. It’s people who have very large assets; frankly we’re talking about people who can afford it.’

If support of imposing a wealth tax the Greens cite the fact that the UK is the seventh most unequal nation in the OECD, with Bennett saying that ‘inequality is a problem we have to tackle.’ They also point to the use of a similar tax in countries such as France, Norway and the Netherlands.

The new tax would, along with the introduction of a living wage and company- wide pay ratios, Bennett said, be part of a ‘range of measures’ the party would implement to ‘address persistent inequality.’

Ms Bennett concluded by saying that at a time when there was a resources boom at one end of society and a cost of living crisis at the other ‘the time has come to introduce a tax on wealth to ensure the richest pay their fair share back to society.’

The art of taxation, so the old saying goes, lies in so plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing. In practice that means governments tend to talk tough about clamping down of corporations and wealthy individuals who duck their taxes and then do nothing.

Certainly no government, either of the left or the right, so far as such distinctions still apply would dare these days to suggest taxing the rich more for fear of being consumed by a whirlwind of hissing, feathers and flapping. The thing is though the conventional wisdom on tax just doesn’t ring true anymore, public and politicians alike know this to be true; but the latter lack the guts to admit it.

This makes what Natalie Bennett said genuinely radical, there has always been a shortage of out of the box thinking in politics, but just lately anyone capable of even attempting it has been an endangered species. The right wing press, if they pass comment at all and they tend to ignore the Greens, will no doubt portray this as a bellow of ‘soak the rich’ coming from the far left; it is nothing of the sort.

What Natalie Bennett has done is have the courage to speak openly about something most people have known for years, the current tax system doesn’t work because proportionally the riches people pay the least and the government colludes with them in doing so in the name of free enterprise.

It wasn’t always like this, once upon a time the rich saw their good fortune as coming with responsibilities, motivated by a mix of paternalism and philanthropy they routinely put back into the society that had helped to generate their wealth. Then along came the welfare state and it all went to pot, not, as the right would have it because it made the poor less enterprising; but because it made the rich less reliable.

All of a sudden tax became a burden to be dodged rather than a chance to put something back into society. Just look at the world it has given us, not, I fear, a paradise or justly rewarded striving so much as a cramped and ill at ease place where the lines are growing outside the food banks and the rich hide within gated communities.

Public and politicians alike know we can’t go on like this, something has to change or something is going to give with nasty consequences. Nobody, including the Green Party, is talking about taxing the rich ‘until the pips squeak’, even if they paid an extra 2% in tax every year someone with assets worth over £3million would still be comfortably off.

More to the point the extra revenue could be used to preserve and improve public services, meaning the impact of deep generational poverty and ill health could be addressed, making ours a fairer and safer society in which to live.

The media might not be impressed by what Natalie Bennett has to say, not yet anyway, in time they might just have to sit up and take notice. After the European elections the big story was how well Ukip had done, nobody noticed the Greens coming in quietly in fourth place, they should have done though.

All across the country the Green Party is quietly growing in strength, taking some council seats and coming second and third in others, it is a young party with a youthful and active membership at a time when the mainstream parties are looking ever more old, tired and out of touch.

The thing about young people and young parties is that they aren’t tied to the old ways of thinking; when it comes to sorting out our complicated and unfair tax system that is no bad thing.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Just putting more women in the cabinet won't change politics nearly enough

This week David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet, casting several of his ministers into outer darkness and welcoming new faces to the top table, several of which happened to belong to women.

Cue miles of news footage of the likes of Dominic Grieve, David Willets and Ken Clarke among others trooping out of Downing Street trying hard not to look like they were about to go home and kick the cat.

There was also plenty of footage of Nicky Morgan, Liz Truss and Esther McVey marching in the opposite direction faces aglow with anticipation, as the Daily Mail made snide comments about their choice of handbag.

All this was accompanied by an increasingly dour debate over whether or not this meant the end for ‘male, stale and pale’ politicians. I’d say not, even after this so called great leap forward only five out of twenty two cabinet ministers are female; if the sisterhood are storming the citadel they’re doing it in slow motion.

Two big beasts caught a bullet when the herd was culled with William Hague moving from Foreign Secretary to being Leader of the Commons and announcing that he intends to stand down as an MP at the next election, Michael Gove has been moved from being Education Secretary to be the Chief Whip, both events providing more of a surprise than anyone watching might have expected.

The sad truth about reshuffles is that they tend to be more about image than substance, particularly when like this one they come when an election is less than a year away.

The decision by William Hague to bring the curtain down on his political career when he is still, by political standards, a relatively young man prompted much chin stroking over what might have been. If only he hadn’t worn that baseball cap, hadn’t had to face the supernova of charisma that was Tony Blair in his pomp over the despatch box things could have been so different.

It is hard not to imagine a chorus line of geography teachers kicking up their sandals and singing ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ as Michael Gove gets dragged off the stage with a big hook. Hyperactive, obsessed with picking fights with the teaching unions and a fool for any initiative likely to garner a headline he was ultimately too divisive a figure to remain in post any longer. His successor Nicky Morgan would do well to learn by his example and try working with rather than battling against the ‘blob’.

The big story, of course, was David Cameron’s finally coming good (almost) on his promise to ensure a fifth of his cabinet was female, pinstriped paleness is out and all things pastel coloured and progressive is in.

Anything that makes politics less of a club for public schoolboys has to be a good thing, well up to a point anyway. Unfortunately the sense of righteous vindication emanating from Citizen Dave over his own modernity suggests that nothing has really changes, under the progressive veneer political business will go on as usual.

The problem lies in the selection process for MPs of either gender, which is biased towards favouring flinty eyed careerists adept at playing tricksy Westminster games but with little experience of life outside the bubble.

We need more female members of parliament; whether they make it to cabinet level or not; come to that we need more black, disabled and working class MPs too. Having parliament look more like the people it represents isn’t enough though; not nearly enough.

It must contain people who represent to broad sweep of life experience, from academic policy makers to people who have had to make their way using their wits alone. That is the one sure way of ensuring parliament will always do its job through the prism of focusing on the most important of its roles, protecting the rights and liberties that keep us free.

I would be glad if after the next election parliament never mind the cabinet formed by whoever wins is less male, pale and stale than it was before; I’d like it to be less remote, insular and complacent too.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Britain needs the right to strike

Stoke on a sunny Thursday morning in early July, the day when public sector workers across the country went on strike over pay, pensions and working conditions.

The town is a somewhat shabby collection of discount stores, charity shops and empty units; over to the left of where I’m standing they’re building a new hall of residence for students at the nearby Staffordshire university and outside the Wetherspoons at the end of London Road a handful of early drinkers are smoking cigarettes.

This is the sort of place in which the ‘hard working families’ Francis Maude and David Cameron have spent the run-up to the strike saying will be hit hardest by it live; despite the brave talk of recovery from the PM and the man who gave him his first job in politics many of them are struggling to make ends meet. As shoppers amble around me enjoying the sunlight it is hard to discern much sign of the chaotic standstill right wing politicians and their nervous bedfellows at the BBC predicted the strike would cause.

By the time I arrive in Kingsway, the broad tarmacked area outside the Civic Centre the crowd is slowly building. There are stalls representing the unions taking part, GMB, PCS, NUT and alphabet soup of protest; along with ones for the Socialist and Green parties and campaigns by the local branch of the People’s Assembly and people fighting to protect the NHS.

Over the next forty minutes or so the crowd grows to maybe two hundred strong with a distinct carnival atmosphere setting in. More or less everyone seems to know everyone else and old style embroidered union banners mix with shiny paper placards printed out the night before, a young woman wearing a top hat and frock coat wanders past and there are several people in t-shirts with the legend ‘Get Angry And Fight’ printed on them wandering around; subverting in the name of protest the somewhat patronising ‘slogan’ of the recession.

The age range of the participants is wider than often at such events with several families with young children present. One includes a small boy clutching proudly a handwritten placard reading ‘My Daddy is Worth More’, nice to see someone learning the habit of protest early.

Only slightly behind schedule Steve Jones of the North Staffs Trades Council takes to the podium to introduce the speakers, getting in the process a bigger laugh than he probably deserved by holding up a rather withered looks in twig and saying it is another unions branch that has fallen foul of the cuts.

First to speak is Clive Rushton of UNISON, the crowd gives one of the biggest cheers of the day when he addresses them as ‘comrades’, several other speakers will do the same with a similar response. There may be a message there for the handful of Labour councillors watching rather sheepishly from the side-lines, it might be time to embrace rather than hide their party’s working class roots.

He attacks the government for its unwillingness to negotiate with public sector unions and praises the work his members do providing essential services and says the strike is there chance to send a clear message that ‘enough is enough.’

Linda Goodwin of the NUT turns her fire on the demands placed on teachers by ever more stringent OFSTEAD inspections and attacks government plans for performance related pay for teachers as unsuitable since people in education work collaboratively; a sensible point that will probably be lost on busy, publicity chasing Michael Gove.

Colin Griffith of GMB gets another big cheer when he proclaims himself to be ‘working class and proud’, followed by some pantomime boos when he revisits memories of the damage done to heavy industry by the Tory governments of the 1980’s. This time, he says, they’ve got public services in their sights. To strong applause he calls for money to be clawed back from tax avoiders to be used to fund better public services.

Margaret Armstrong of UNITE is equally combative as she says their treatment of public sector workers demonstrates the values of this government, meaning they want to pay the people who deliver essential services poverty wages and then condemn them when they protest. It was time, she said, for working people to ‘pick up their heads, get off their knees and fight back.’

The final speaker of the day is Jason Hill, President of the Trades Council who launches into an impassioned attack on the ‘obscenity’ of the government’s approach to the economy, listing to rising cheers zero hours contracts, benefits reform and privatisation. Austerity, he says, isn’t the way to encourage growth; you do that by rebuilding public services and having a government that is unafraid to stand up for working people.

Then almost as soon as it began the whole thing is over, as the Birmingham Clarion Singers sing political songs old and new people are folding up trestle tables and rolling up banners. All of a sudden we have left behind the elevated plain of demonstration and returned to the everyday world of the school run, bills to pay and moss growing in the lawn.

The strike in Stoke or elsewhere didn’t bring the country grinding to a halt and drive the forces of the market back into the sea, it was never going to. What it did do was articulate the anger of public sector workers doing vital but unglamorous jobs at how they have been treated by the coalition and bubbling away behind their public discontent is that of the silently disgruntled majority who know that whatever the politicians say the recovery hasn’t begun for them.

The question is can a Labour Party so timidly unsure of what and who it represents that it didn’t dare associate itself with the strike offer them an alternative?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Spin shouldn't be allowed to scare the Scots out of independence

I am English, as were my parents and their parents before them; even Jacky Charlton couldn’t get me into anyone else’s team. As such I have mostly avoided expressing an opinion on whether or not Scotland should be independent from the rest of the UK.

Then I turned on the news one morning to hear that J K Rowling had been subjected to a ‘vicious’ attack on Twitter for saying she didn’t agree with the ‘yes’ campaign. My first reaction was that nothing in the silly, playground world of Twitter could ever be truly vicious; my second was that something seems to have gone seriously wrong with what should be one of the defining political debates of our age.

Actually both sides in the debate around independence seem to have spent much of their time behaving like the participants in a Twitter squabble.

The basic arguments seem to be, for the Yes campaign that a vote for independence will lead to the creation of a utopia where the sun always shines, services are delivered free of cost and everything is good all of the time. For the No campaign things are much bleaker, that foolishly cast vote in favour of independence will lead to the sun falling from the sky, perpetual winter and hard times all round.

Needless to say since negatives make for better headlines than positives the media has given a large, maybe unfairly so, section of its space over to various members of the three main parties telling the people of Scotland to keep a tight hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.

If I were a Scot this would make me inclined to vote for independence, largely because it is always better to be on the side of hope, at least it is if you want to world to be a place worth living in.

Independence, were Scotland to gain it in September, would be a difficult option for the Westminster establishment to come to terms with; but not one with which they couldn’t come to terms. Not least because whatever else they may be Alex Salmond and David Cameron are both first of all pragmatists.

Independence would bring problems relating to issues like currency, the new nation’s portion of the UK’s overall national debt and what to do about the oil. Thorny though they are these problems are open to be solved because it would be in the interests of both countries to do so quickly and cleanly.

Where independence could founder, possibly even before it has been achieved, is on those problems that are more intractable because they are linked to expectations. Under Alex Salmond and the SNP the Scots have enjoyed old style social democracy at a time when it is being consigned to the history books over the border.

Salmond is a shrewd man and has used the independence campaign to make the case for Scotland to follow the Scandinavian model with high levels of public services paid for by tax levels to match. This is probably the right choice for the Scots and may well be for the rest of the UK too, but it’s not an easy sell.

The No campaign are banking on most Scots not wanting the higher taxes and levels of state interference in their daily lives involved and aren’t above using scare stories to ram the point home. Even when at the far end of the spectrum these approach the absurd, suggesting that an independent Scotland would be like a miniature North Korea shut off by barbed wire and minefields from its more prosperous neighbour whilst the out of touch leadership cling to a discredited ideology.

Even if this is bonkers there is still the inconvenient fact that if the Yes campaign wins then Scotland will have to negotiate the problems experienced by any newly independent nation. Finding a place in the world, balancing the books and stopping the rosy post- independence glow fading too soon, the good news is that in Alex Salmond they might just have a leader with the guts and political nous to brazen things out in those first difficult years; even so it may be a close run thing.

The truth is it may be too close run; there is a real chance that as with the vote on AV in 2011 negativity could win the day. Not by having the best arguments, but by hammering all the wrong ones so fiercely the No campaign will turn off enough people to win by a narrow margin.

That is what politics has become in one of the most developed countries in the world as it bumbles its way into the second decade of the twenty first century. Not a battle of ideas because there are precious few ideas left, just the insistent whine of an establishment determined to hang onto power.

That’s tragic and dangerous because it holds back progress in favour of the order to which the people who have always held power have become accustomed. What follows on from this is the slow atrophying of our democracy as each government proves to be a little more remote than the last.

I hope that doesn’t happen this time and that the people of Scotland show us all the way by taking their courage in their hands and voting for independence. If they do and it works, as it will, then it will open the way for councils and communities across the country to crawl out from under the Westminster behemoth and demand politics on a more human scale.