Reporting the 28th British Social Attitudes Survey

By James

14 December 2011

Around this time last year, I commented on the publication of the British Social Attitudes Survey, noting that its findings were reported with a particular slant by much of the British mainstream media. With the publication of the 28th British Social Attitudes survey last week, we can see much of this same trend, with findings in support of certain right-wing policies being optimistically heralded as a “return to Victorian values” (in the words of the Telegraph). Nick Ferrari in the Sunday Express, for example, writes:

“Perhaps the penny has started to drop ... it seems more and more of you are realising the way forward is not the indulgent, costly, cradle-to-grave, stateknows-best mentality that has crippled this nation... fewer of you object to those who can afford private schools than ever before.”

While it may be true that fewer people object to private schools than ever before, it should also be mentioned that the majority (6 in 10) say they think that “the quality of education should be the same for all” while only four in ten think that it is right that education should be “better for those who can afford to pay”. Also, largely unreported is the fact that sixty per cent of those educated in state schools think there is “one law for the rich, and one for poor”. Indeed, the report’s authors mention specifically that private education is one area that echoes “traditional class differences rather than more modern manifestations of self-interest”.

If these right wing columnists seem to be adopting a self-congratulatory tone though, it is not merely a coincidence. With regard to support for welfare and redistribution, the British media has consistently emphasised 'scroungers' - those who manage to cheat the system in order to obtain material support which they do not need (rather than the much larger number of people who do not claim their entitlements) – which has effected support for welfare provision and social democratic policy in general. Given the scale and resources of this kind of political propaganda and the sustained nature of these populist appeals to anti-welfare sentiments, it is not insignificant that 43% of those polled in Scotland and 34% in England still agree that “the government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off”.

There are also some curious contradictions uncovered by the survey with regard to attitudes towards redistribution of wealth. As the survey notes, “an overwhelming majority support action to reduce child poverty, with most people seeing this as a task for central and local government”. However, this apparently does not equate with support for welfare and wealth redistribution and, in turn, the survey fails to ask respondents what action exactly they think central and local government should take to reduce child poverty.

Commenting on the survey, the editors of the Daily Mail can’t help wondering out loud: “Does Mr Cameron never reflect that if only he'd campaigned on a truly Conservative manifesto, he might have won an overall majority?” I dread to think what the editors of the Daily Mail mean by “a truly Conservative manifesto”. However, looking at the results of the survey in detail, I think it somewhat unlikely.

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‘Fried chicken’ still on the menu

By Jamie

04 December 2011

[Can Palestinians have a state?] 

"Semantics don’t matter. If Palestinian sovereignty is limited enough so that we feel safe, call it fried chicken."

- Then-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Director of Communications David Bar-Illan, 1996

"Our intention is to leave the situation as it is: autonomous management of civil affairs, and if they want to call it a state, let them call it that. If they want to call it an empire, by all means. We intend to keep what exists now and let them call it whatever they want. . . . Our approach is steadfastness, development, construction, strengthening, and so on. This is our approach and this is what we do as a government."

- Current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Deputy PM Moshe Ya'alon, 3 March 2011 [sub. req.]

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Clarkson and Unions: The Backlash is to be Welcomed

By David

02 December 2011

Clearly Jeremy Clarkson was joking. He doesn’t really think public sector employees should be “executed in front of their families” for taking industrial action over pensions cuts. Equally clearly, Clarkson was not satirising right-wing hostility to trade unions. No one thinks he is anything other than right wing, so it is reasonable to assume that his remarks were a highly exaggerated, jocular (and unfunny) expression of the real contempt for organised labour that is broadly shared by those of his political ilk.

The anti-unionism of the right grew in strength during the Thatcher era, and reached its dominant position in political discourse under New Labour, when Tony Blair boasted that Britain had the strictest anti-union laws in Europe. The practice of people on low and middle incomes organising democratically to ensure that they are treated decently by their employers is now viewed with reflexive hostility right across the political class in Westminster and Fleet Street. As a core element of the neoliberal consensus of the past 30 years, anti-unionism has become embedded in political language and assumptions. The bile rose easily to Clarkson’s lips for a reason. His joke did not materialise out of a vacuum. It occurred in a political context.

The decline in union membership since the 1980s has been accompanied by a widening gap between the share of growth that goes to labour and that which goes to profit. Without organised labour to defend people’s interests, Britain has become one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. This is bad for the economy as a whole, because it suppresses demand from ordinary consumers, because those at the bottom of the ladder are encouraged into unsustainable borrowing to keep up with the rest of society, and because a glut of wealth at the top feeds into irresponsible activity in the financial sector and an excess of influence and undemocratic power over government. Economic inequality is also closely related to higher levels of violence, drug abuse, mental health problems and teenage pregnancy, lower levels of child well-being, and similar deteriorations across a range of key social indicators. As the strength of employees has weakened relative to that of their employers, poverty, inequality, social dysfunction and financial crises have followed closely behind.

Against that background, perhaps you could extract some humour from the discourse and ideology of anti-unionism. But for that you would need some talent.

Now I think it would be a bit daft to actually prosecute Clarkson for his comments, and some transparently inauthentic apology from him would probably be just as cringe-inducing as the original interview. However, no-one should feel obliged to “shrug and change the channel” (as recommended in this truly vacuous piece of analysis), or to brush this off for fear of being accused of lacking a sense of humour. (The right has Roy “Chubby” Brown and Jim Davidson. The left has Bill Hicks. I suspect we’ll survive the charge of humourlessness).

Every individual, reflexive expression of anti-unionism reinforces a wider set of political assumptions whose real effect has been seriously damaging, and has helped bring us to a truly intimidating, fearful stage in our economic history. In that context, I’m as heartened by the severity of the backlash from ordinary people against Clarkson’s comments as I am by the strength of the action taken by organised labour across Britain earlier this week. If union-bashing were to go from being politically de rigueur to socially unacceptable, and if union membership and activism were to be rehabilitated as vital part of a decent, democratic society, then that would be a very healthy development indeed.

David Wearing is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London. He is a co-editor of New Left Project.

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The Coalition’s Black Tuesday

By David

30 November 2011

Tuesday 29 November 2011 was a black day for the Tory-Liberal coalition’s political fortunes. And of course, a far worse day for the rest of the country, as the implications of Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement begin to sink in.

The core aim of the government’s economic policy has been to eliminate by the end of this Parliament, in 2015, the structural part of the fiscal deficit (i.e. the part of the gap between the Treasury’s income and expenditure that will remain even when the economy returns to full health). Barely eighteen months into that five year plan, the body set up by the Chancellor himself to monitor fiscal performance is already predicting that the aim will not be achieved. Growth will continue to flatline next year and the year after, while unemployment will continue to rise until 2013. That’s if the Eurozone doesn’t implode.

Osborne’s timetable was political. He wanted to go into the 2015 election able to tell voters that the worst is behind us, the job of clearing up Labour’s mess is basically done, and celebrate with a round of tax cuts. Instead, he is now set to face the electorate with the message that after five years of brutal austerity and seven years of economic slump, the end is still not quite visible. He will do that that in the context of the Conservative Party’s long term decline as an electoral force. It has not won a general election convincingly for 24 years, it has not won a general election at all for 19 years, and it could not even win a majority last year, in the best political circumstances it is ever likely to enjoy. As things stand today, it is very difficult to see how the Tories can expect to win a majority in 2015, or how the Liberal Democrats could hope to win back their swathes of lost voters if another Clegg-Cameron coalition was in prospect.

Personally, I never thought it credible to suggest that, come the 2015 election, the public would forget five years of pain, or forgive the permanent damage done by the cuts, and rush out to vote Tory as if nothing had happened. But that was the strategy of the political genius George Osborne (one taken very seriously by the deep thinkers of Labour's right wing), and now it has probably gone.

The reason the coalition gave for imposing its particularly harsh brand of austerity was that if the structural deficit wasn’t set to be closed by 2015 then the bond markets would panic, and the cost of borrowing would soar. Yet the government is now predicted to borrow more than Labour would have done had it stayed in power, and there is no sign of a resulting sovereign debt crisis. Britain continues to borrow at low interest rates and over long periods of time. The justificatory logic for austerity has been exposed as a scaremongering lie.

It was claimed that a private sector boom would fill the gap left by the receding public sector, with jobs created by the former replacing jobs cut in the latter. But “expansionary fiscal contraction” has proved every bit as oxymoronic as it sounds. By taking an axe to the public sector, putting people in fear of their jobs and their livelihoods, Osborne has destroyed confidence in the economy and thus drastically reduced the level of demand that is there for the private sector to meet. Why, after all, would businesses expand and hire more staff if consumers are unwilling to spend money on goods and services? Fiscal contraction has resulted, not in private sector expansion, but in a deflationary death spiral.

Eighteen months ago, 47% of respondents told YouGov that they felt the government was handling the economy well, 25% said they were handling it badly, and 27% said “don’t know”. Today, the don’t knows count as only 8%. Thirty four per cent say the government is handling the economy well, and 57% say it is handling it badly.

Eighteen months ago, 49% of people said the way the government was cutting spending to reduce the deficit was good for the economy, 31% said it was bad, and 21% said “don’t know”. Today, 47% say it is bad for the economy, and 34% say it is good, and 19% don’t know.

Eighteen months ago, 37% of people said the way the government’s austerity measures were being imposed was fair, 33% said it was unfair, and 30% said “don’t know”. Today, 27% say it is fair, and 57% say it is unfair, and 16% don’t know.

Whether Labour can capitalise on all this is a separate question (the party's Blairite wing remains desperate to dump Ed Miliband's timid brand of social democracy and essentially embrace Osbornomics, even as it crashes and burns). What we do know is that Tory-Liberal austerity is failing the public, it is failing on its own terms, and it is bringing the coalition into severe disrepute.

Pretty much everyone to the left of David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Tony Blair argued from the start that austerity would not only cause immediate harm to those directly affected by cuts, tax rises and pay freezes, but also cause broader harm to the economy as a whole (perhaps even causing the government to miss its own arbitrary and wrongheaded fiscal targets) by removing demand while the economy was weak. After Black Tuesday, there can be no pleasure at all in saying “we told you so”. Notwithstanding their eventual political fate, it is not the Coalition and its most prominent supporters but the general public, today and in and generations to come, that will pay for this economic disaster made in Downing Street.

David Wearing is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London. He is a co-editor of New Left Project.

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Environment/Ecology contributor wanted

By Ed

28 November 2011

New Left Project is looking for someone to help us produce fairly regular content about environmental and ecological issues and green politics. This will include directly producing material through articles and interviews but also commissioning work from other writers.

If you are interested, email edwardnlewis@gmail.com for more details.

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A social-democratic response to the Eurocrisis

By Jamie

24 November 2011

I went to a talk last night, organised by the Cambridge University Labour Club, discussing European centre-left responses to the eurozone crisis, which yesterday spread to Germany. The panellists were Emma Reynolds MP, Labour shadow minister for Europe; Axelle Lemaire, a parliamentary candidate for the French Parti Socialiste; Carsten Sieling, SDP MP for Bremen, who had just flown in from working in the Bundestag's budget and financing committee; and Prof. Andrew Gamble, head of politics and international studies at Cambridge and author of, among other things, The Spectre at the Feast: Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession.

In their analysis of the crisis and its implications, Gamble's comments were the most interesting. We'll get to them below. But it was also useful to compare how the British, German and French centre-left currents are developing their responses. There was, as you might expect, a lot of overlap in their presentations. All expressed concern that the crisis would provoke a "populist" anti-Europe backlash. Emma Reynolds noted that the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders has started blaming Greeks as well Muslims for the Netherlands' problems. In this context Axelle Lemaire was keen to stress that the crisis was not a European one, but was a product of "national" policies: it is a debt crisis, not a 'euro crisis'. All agreed, too, that the centre-left parties needed to co-operate much more closely on developing a coordinated solution to the crisis. Reynolds noted that the centre-left currently leads only one EU government (Denmark). It is critical that this changes, she argued, because the European right is unable to resolve the crisis. Austerity, all three politicians agreed, couldn't work, because it kills growth. Reynolds and Lemaire also agreed that although austerity right now can't work, spending cuts will be needed at some point to deal with the deficit.

After each politician had made their fluffy opening remarks about the need for coordination and cooperation to develop a response to the crisis at a European level, it was interesting to see how quickly divisions emerged. The most obvious was fault-line was between the British MP and the representatives from France and Germany, centred on the role of finance. Both Lemaire and Sieling stressed the need for much stronger financial regulation, prohibition of some of the more exotic financial instruments that played a big role in causing the 2008 crisis, and instituting a financial transactions tax. Sieling pointed out that world GNP increased from $22bn in 1990 to $63bn in 2010, while over the same time period the market in derivatives increased from $2bn to $600bn – completely disconnected from any real-world productive activity. The relative size and profitability of the financial sector had, he said, to be shrunk. Lemaire agreed that the UK needed to reduce its dependency upon the City.

Throughout all this Reynolds was raising her eyes and when she talked, in turn, the French and German politicians whispered and giggled to each other. She emphasised the importance of the City to Britain's economy, and repeated the Labour leadership's position that a financial transactions tax imposed only at the EU level would simply lead to financial business fleeing to locations outside Europe. Sieling strongly disputed this point, arguing that according to the EC proposal all transactions involving a party located within the eurozone would be taxed, meaning that an EU-level financial transactions tax would only cause mass capital flight if Mercedes-Benz, the big banks, etc. decided to pack up and leave Europe. This isn't plausible, which is why even German conservatives have come out in support of the tax.

Lemaire also talked about the need to crack down on the shadow banking sector, which accounts for over half of all financial transactions, and tax havens, and criticised Britain for protecting several of the latter.

In terms of solving the short-term euro crisis, there seemed to broad agreement on the need for greater European integration. The German SPD favours the European Central Bank becoming the lender of last resort and issuing Eurobonds. Meanwhile Germany itself should stabilise public finance and reduce its deficits, not through austerity but by raising the income tax for higher earners and increasing corporation tax. The latter, he stressed, ought to happen in a co-ordinated fashion across Europe. Finally, the SPD is advocating a "Marshall Plan" for Europe's southern hemisphere, which needs investment to stabilise. Lemaire spoke favourably of a European "federalism", although she said that in the current climate that was a scary word, and so the political goal for now should be greater "integration".

Reynolds meanwhile criticised Cameron for trying to "face two ways" on Europe, attempting to have a say in shaping European institutions and policies while at the same time repatriating powers to placate the eurosceptics on his backbenches. It was notable however that she didn't use the same rhetoric about European integration and federalism that the German and French panellists did. This is partly because, she observed, the British public is quite eurosceptic: she cited polls showing that the British are broadly sympathetic to the (stated) goals of the EU, but are sceptical of its institutions. Indeed a recurrent theme of the discussion was the democratic deficit at the EU-level, and decisions being taken by technocrats rather than democratically accountable officials. Sieling frankly acknowledged that there is currently virtually no democracy at the EU-level and, along with Lemaire, argued that any centre-left response to the crisis would have to address these structural problems.

Andrew Gamble opened with: "As crises go, this one is really big." It's a crisis for the entire international economy. The euro can survive, he thinks, but the time is save it is rapidly running out. Politics and markets operate at different speeds, and the latter want a solution much faster than politics is able to deliver. Indeed the fundamental conflict at the heart of the crisis is that bond markets want what democratic politicians can't get their populations to accept.

We know, he stressed, how to resolve the crisis. Known technical solutions exist – he referred to George Soros' article for the Financial Times for some examples. But these require the ECB to act as lender of last resort for the eurozone, which is ruled out by treaties and opposed by Germany. This is a structural flaw in the euro: it is a monetary union without being a fiscal one. Markets are now testing ECB and German resolve to maintain the union, treating member states as if they had separate exchange rates, effectively pointing out de facto productivity rates differ enormously across the eurozone. Fiscal union would be the obvious way to resolve this problem. Without fiscal union the only option is austerity, which isn't a real option because there is no growth and people don't accept it, which is why it isn't working.

Euro countries therefore face an "existential choice". For Germany the dilemma is whether to rescue the euro with major treaty change, or allow it to collapse. Both options have huge implications, and significant costs. In Britain, Cameron has two coalitions to manage: with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, and with the eurosceptics inside his own party, who now amount to as much as a third of backbench MPs. Hence his current policy of trying to be out of the EU and in it at the same time. Currently the trajectory appears to point towards further British disengagement from Europe, which is itself contributing to the crisis insofar as a co-ordinated solution would be stronger with Britain's involvement. Disengagement from negotiations about how to resolve the crisis won't, however, spare Britain from the effects should the rescue fail.

The "easy" part – itself very difficult – is resolving the short-term crisis through the ECB. The "difficult" part will be establishing long-term institutions to prevent it happening again: a fiscal union and political integration. Gamble himself prefers this federalist option. He pointed out the US federal government spends about 20% of national income, compared to about 1% at the European federal level. This needs to be increased to at least 5-10% – but doing that will have enormous consequences for the nation state. Are nations ready for that? If not the eurozone should be dismantled and reconstituted on a different basis.

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‘The Riots’ @ The Tricycle Theatre

By Maeve

22 November 2011

 

Taking my seat to see ‘The Riots’ at the Tricycle Theatre on Saturday night, I was a bit trepidatious; it’s only been a few months since the riots after all.  But having seen some wonderful political theatre at the Tricycle before, including their series on Afghanistan (‘The Great Game’), ‘Deep Cut’ about the mysterious and unanswered deaths of four young soldiers, and their ‘Women, Power and Politics’ season, I put my trust in their hands.

‘The Riots’ is a verbatim play.  This is where the writer interviews people involved with the subject matter and uses their words verbatim in creating a script.  The actors try to mimic the person they are representing.  Verbatim plays can vary quite a lot, however.  Some have a proper narrative crafted out of the material; others like ‘The Riots’ are more like a documentary.

In the first half of the play, we hear about what actually happened in Tottenham that night, with reports from a youth worker, a member of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign, members of the police, and a few rioters.  It’s a great insight into how the riots kicked off, especially the news that the police basically did nothing to intervene at the very beginning of the disturbances, when they could have prevented it escalating.  There are some hilarious testimonies about the looters too, including how they went into MacDonalds and started cooking!

The second half of the play is analysis.  We hear from MPs, residents and the left’s best friend Owen Jones.  If you followed the riots coverage assiduously you’re probably not going to hear anything new.  What I found really interesting, however, was the way the material was cut together.  On the one hand, you had Diane Abbott arguing that youth service provision needs to be ring-fenced; on the other, Michael Gove thinks that what inner-city kids need are the scouts and cadets.  He couldn’t possibly look more out-of-touch - a stroke of genius!  There was fascinating input from a Hackney resident, describing the clean-up operation as an invasion by white people with new brooms.  And the court cases are interspersed throughout, displaying the harrowing human reality of draconian sentencing.  The first half of the play came across very balanced, in the second half, however, the play’s politics truly reveal themselves; it would be interesting to know if this was due to the writer’s predilections or something that occurred through the interviewing and writing process.

I doubt this play will live on in theatre history. It has its flaws: I would have liked to have heard more from the rioters themselves and to have had more women’s views (especially in Act One).  But as a document of a particular moment in time it is definitely worth seeing.  I would highly recommend it.

All of the interviewees were asked for three words to describe the rioters.  Surprisingly, across the political and cultural divide there was a lot of overlap.  Frustrated, angry, lost and opportunist came up time and again.  The last word, however, went to a man who lost his home above Carpet Right in Tottenham.  His take on the rioters?  ‘Just angry people.’

 

'The Riots' is on at the Tricycle Theatre until 10 December.

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‘We teach life, sir.’

By Jamie

18 November 2011

(h/t Tom)

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Rebel Music - Contributors Wanted!

By Alex

18 November 2011

Passionate about music and politics? NLP are looking for contributions to a piece on political music - we are asking readers to write 5 - 600 words on a favourite band/singer or album. If you would like to see your comments posted on NLP please send them to me at alexjamesdoherty@gmail.com with "Rebel Music" in the subject field. If we like your piece we will post it alongside others that currently include Norman Finkelstein on Paul Robeson and Alex Billet on The Clash's 'Sandanista' album. We'll leave it up to you to as to what you define as political - if you want to tease out the Gramscian subtext of Sade's oeuvre you're more than welcome, ruminations on more usual suspects will also be gratefully received. Thanks

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Media reform - your input needed

By Jamie

16 November 2011

Reclaim the Media

Following Hackgate and with the constant cuts being imposed on local media by huge corporate groups, we need to build new economic models for the media and build new forms of media - in print, broadcasting and online - that properly reflect the communities in which they're based.

This list, run by the National Union of Journalists, will discuss ideas such as co-operative ownership, community investment and other alternatives to major corporations or Russian multimillionaires owning and controlling the media.

The list will bring together journalists, interested activists and experts in alternative business models to help reclaim the media.

If you'd like a more democratic and adversarial media, join the discussion. And have a read of our articles on media reform.

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