Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Ed Miliband's ambiton to break grip of Thatcherism will bring down on him a barrage of abuse

If Ed Miliband fulfils his ambition, he will be one of this country’s great prime ministers. He wants to bring an end to a period of over thirty years when politicians – Labour as well as Tory - have operated in thrall to the ideas of Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. 

Miliband believes that there are more important things to a society than protecting big business and the rich. He knows that the idea that wealth always “trickles-down” is a myth. He knows that, whereas the Crash of 2008 has squeezed the middle and pushed the poor into penury and food banks, the rich have hardly been affected. He knows that any Cameron recovery will be primarily to the benefit of the rich - "they used to say a tide would lift all boats, now it only lifts the yachts."  He rejects the creed that selfishness is good. He wants to return the country to the decent values embodied by Clement Atlee’s post-war government, where the power of government, which had helped win the war, was used to help win the peace by creating the NHS and a more equal society.

For this noble ambition Miliband will face a barrage of abuse. The rich will fight him viciously with all the power at their disposal; too often they use abuse rather than reasoned argument. The press, mostly owned by billionaires andedited by millionaires, will attack Miliband remorselessly. The country’s leading business people, who have done so well over the last thirty years, will try and blackmail the country by threatening economic Armageddon if Miliband has the temerity to try and put the interests of the country above their interests. And the Tory attack dog, Lynton Crosby, will relish the job of trying to bury Miliband under a stinking heap of abuse. 

Will Miliband survive and win? There is a good chance that he will. He is known for his Zen-like calm. The accusation that he is weak has always smacked of wishful thinking. (The Tories tried to undermine Tony Blair initially with the same tag and the nickname “Bambi”.)  Miliband is clearly a very strong politician. He has kept his party united and he has taken on his elder brother, Murdoch and the unions. He is now taking on the biggest target in British politics for generations. I wish him luck.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Bedroom tax - what is happening and who is to blame?

The bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy) is a bullying and pointless attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is causing widespread misery and is unlikely to produce any financial savings. The government ignored warnings before introducing the policy and seems, shamefully, to be closing its ears to criticisms now. 

The bedroom tax was introduced on 1 April 2013, without any pilots beforehand. It applies to working age people in social housing (properties owned by the council or a housing association or similar body) who receive housing benefit. It affects about 660,000 claimants of working age, almost two thirds of whom 420,000 (63%) have a disability. As these numbers do not include the claimants’ children, it is likely that at least a million people are directly affected.

Under the policy, if a claimant has one “spare bedroom” they lose 14% of their housing benefit. If two or more, they lose 25%. So, if the rent on a property was £100 per week and there was one “spare bedroom”, £14 per week would be deducted from housing benefit and this amount would then have to be paid from the claimant’s own pocket. 

The government has always presented the policy as if the claimant has a choice about having an extra bedroom. However, in reality, as the government was repeatedly warned, there are not enough smaller properties. Many people cannot move; for them this is effectively a large benefit cut. 

David Orr of the National Housing Federation has said: "Housing associations are working flat-out to help their tenants cope with the changes, but they can't magic one-bedroom houses out of thin air. People are trapped.”

Those who have managed to move have often been forced to break their family, school and community support networks.

There are plenty of reports of severe hardship and even suicide as a result of this policy.

The policy has only been in place for a few months and it has already been reported that some 50,000 people affected by the tax have fallen behind on their rent and face the prospect of eviction. In the worst affected area, Barrow in Cumbria, 74% are in arrears. The pay day lenders will be doing good business.

It seems likely that all this hardship will be to no purpose as the policy will not produce any savings. If tenants are forced out of social housing they will either end up in expensive temporary accommodation or will have to rent in the private sector, where rents are considerably higher than in social housing. Housing benefit will then have to fund these higher rents. In addition, many of the tenants’ current properties have had adaptations installed by councils because of their disabilities and these will need to be carried out again at a new property.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady has said: “The bedroom tax is not saving money. Instead it is pushing up rent arrears which will force councils to waste more cash on evictions, debt collection and emergency support for homeless families.”  

David Orr, following the latest figures on rent arrears, said: - What more proof do politicians need that the bedroom tax is an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families? There is no other option but to repeal."

Who is to blame for this unfair, ill-planned disaster? First, the Tory politicians whose ideologically-driven idea it was. Secondly, all the MPs, Tory and Lib Dem, who trooped through the lobby in support. And thirdly, the media, which is always so keen to claim that it plays a vital role in holding the government to account but which never seems very concerned when it is the poor that the government is abusing.

As for Labour, if they do not pledge to repeal the bedroom tax, it will be reasonable to ask what on earth is the point of the party.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Schopenhauer, Shapps and we should teach our children how powerful trick us

We should teach in our schools how people use tricks to make bad arguments appear to be good ones. This would be the first step to create a citizenry which is able to spot when the powerful - such as politicians, the media and advertisers - are tricking them. This would enable our children to lead happier lives and is an essential step to create a properly functioning democracy.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote an essay about tricks used in arguments in 1830. He listed 37 different stratagems that people use before describing what he called the “Last Stratagem”. 

The Last Stratagem is used by people who are desperate and have no better arguments to use. It is the stratagem that Grant Shapps used to counter the criticisms of Raquel Rolnik about the bedroom tax. 

The Last Stratagem is “to become personal, insulting, rude…It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself, and in some way attacking his person…in becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack to his person, by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character. It is an appeal from the virtues of the intellect to the virtues of the body, or to mere animalism.”

Schopenhauer notes that that the Last Stratagem requires no great skill. “This is a very popular trick, because everyone is able to carry it into effect.”

Rolnik’s argument that the bedroom tax was causing severe and unjustifiable suffering to some of the most vulnerable in society was backed up by evidence. Shapps may have effectively destroyed it by using Schopenhauer’s Last Stratagem. He will be pleased that, by use of this trick, he has “won”. 

Of course, the real losers will be the desperate people – many disabled, carers and children - whose plight Rolnik was highlighting.

If we did have a citizenry who had been taught to recognise Shapps’ trick for what it is, then he would not have been able to use it because it would have been met with widespread derision. He would have had to use proper arguments, such as some relevant facts. 

It would be perfectly possible to teach our children to recognise when people – including the powerful – are tricking them. What is lacking is the political will to do so. Perhaps, the powerful do not want a citizenry able to spot their bad arguments?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Shapps and the press are an absolute disgrace over UN and bedroom tax

On 11 September, the UN Special Rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik presented her preliminary findings following her investigation into the UK’s housing policies and programs. She recommended that the “so-called bedroom tax be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals.” 

Since then, Rolnik and her investigation have been subject to attack from the government and from the press. The Tory Party chairman, Grant Shapps, has accused her of bias and said the report was “an absolute disgrace” and that he is complaining to the UN Secretary General. He dismissed Rolnik as “a woman from Brazil, a country that has 50 million people in inadequate housing”.
The Sun headlined a story “Copacabarney and attacked Rolnik as a “Brazilian leftie”. The Express said she was a ““disgraceful” UN meddler.” The Times was less personal but declared that it was an abuse for the UN “to muddle themselves” in the issue at all (paywall. 12 September leader).

The Mail, on 11 September, used a quote from Tory MP Stewart Jackson in its headline to describe Rolnik as a “loopy Brazilian leftie”. The next day, its headline was stronger still and now read like a parody, “Raquel Rolnik: a dabbler in witchcraft who offered an animal sacrifice to Marx.”

Shapps and the papers all fail to consider whether Rolnik’s actual findings were true. As far as that is concerned the fact that she is Brazilian or from a centre-left party or from the UN is completely irrelevant.

What Rolnik has had to say is disturbing. “In only a few months of (the bedroom tax’s) implementation, the serious impacts on very vulnerable people have already been felt and the fear of future impacts are a source of great stress and anxiety. Of the many testimonies I have heard, let me say that I have been deeply touched by persons with physical and mental disabilities who have felt targeted instead of protected…of the many people who are increasingly having to choose between food and paying the penalty.” She has said that some people were crying when they spoke to her and saying “I have nowhere to go”, “I will commit suicide.” 

Rolnik criticises the government for introducing thepolicy without first piloting it. “It’s so clear that the government didn’t really assess the impact on lives when it took the decision.” One major flaw in the policy is the shortage of available properties for those hit by the tax to downsize to. 

There is plenty of evidence to support Rolnik’s account of the devastating effect of the bedroom tax on some of the most vulnerable in society.

Heléna Herklots Chief Executive of Carers UK has said: “This policy is having a shocking impact on families already struggling to care for seriously ill or disabled loved ones. Carers, whose contribution is often warmly praised by ministers, are being made to feel like they are being punished.
“These are carers who need an extra room just to get few hours of sleep as they care 24/7 for a disabled child, or who are unable to share with a partner because of serious illness.
“Our research exposes the devastating impact on those affected: carers being left unable to pay electricity bills and cutting back on meals to ensure the people they care for have enough to eat. Families coping with impact of conditions like cancer or a stroke, or caring for a severely disabled child, now face eviction.”

To borrow Shapps’ phrase, it is “an absolute disgrace” that the most vulnerable people in the sixth richest country in the world can be treated like this.

Rosnik is well qualified to pass judgement on a country’s housing policy. She is a professor who has written books on the issues and has decades of experience as an architect and urban planner. She was an urban planning minister and has been in her current role with the UN since 2008.

Rolnik also spoke to a range of people directly affected by the bedroom tax. If Shapps and the papers wanted to find out the truth about the impact of the bedroom tax on vulnerable people, then they should also speak to some of them. However, rather than do that, they try and destroy Rolnik’s message not by addressing directly what she says but by character assassination. In the words of Shapps again, it’s “an absolute disgrace.”

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Russia's attitude over Syria is significantly affected by West's deception over Libya

David Cameron has attacked Russia for pledging to use its UN veto against limited military action against Syria. However, a significant reason for the Russian position is that they are convinced that Cameron himself, together with Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, deceived them at the UN two years ago over Libya. 

In March 2011, the US, Britain and France sought a resolution at the UN to authorise NATO intervention against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. They justified such an intervention as a purely humanitarian response to the threat that Gaddafi would carry out a Srebrenica-style massacre in Benghazi. 

The final UN resolution authorised member states to: -
 “…take all necessary measures protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”

The US, UK and France persuaded Russia and China not to use their vetoes on the grounds that the Resolution only authorised a limited humanitarian intervention, such as a no-fly zone and limited airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces threatening Benghazi. The same argument was used to persuade India, Germany and Brazil also to abstain.

However, it very soon became clear that the Western powers intended to use their overwhelming airpower to support one side in a civil war and to bring about regime change. They argued that this was allowed under the UN Resolution by stretching the meaning of the words “all necessary measures” far beyond what Russia and China had understood them to mean when they were persuaded to abstain. 

The highly respected defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has commented that the “Resolution was contorted out of all recognition from the protection of civilians to, in effect, outright regime change.”

Vladimir Putin has denounced the US, British and French action as "a crude violation of the UN Resolution" and  “a complete scandal and a complete affront to the international community.”  The fact that Putin himself is known for his brutal methods and lack of respect for human rights should not change the force of his criticism.

In 2012, RUSI published a report on the British involvement in Libyan conflict.  The title itself was telling, "Short War, Long Shadow." RUSI noted that the way the Western powers behaved over the Resolution “left a sour taste in the mouths of powers like China, Russia and India…”  

In the report RUSI worried that a legacy of the Libya conflict would be that China and Russia would presume that “the model in future was actually regime change rather than the protection of civilians and so would use their vetoes more frequently.”

In 2013, the US and France are once again talking of launching a “limited” attack. It is not surprising that some countries do not trust them not to misuse any limited authorisation to go far wider, as they did in Libya.  It was at the very least naïve to think that the West could be seen to trick Russia and China and others and that there would not be any consequences.