Tuesday 31 March 2015

Tory – Lib Dem Coalition 2010 – 2015: A Record of Nastiness and Incompetence

The odious Tory/Lib Dem Coalition government has ended (for now at least), we look back on what this has meant for Britain.

The banks have been re-financed with tax payers money, and the good times in banking, if not for the rest us, are well and truly back. Hefty bonuses are once again the norm for those with their snouts in the trough, even at government owned banks, you wouldn't know that these people crashed our economy. Royal Mail sold off at a huge discount to city investors. All in it together? Risible really.

Welfare benefit sanctions up massively since 2010, cuts to benefits, including the bedroom tax, housing benefits, working tax credits, crisis loans, Independent Living Fund for the disabled and overall benefits allowed to fall as inflation rose. Food banks up by about 500% and suicides up massively for benefit claimants. Hundreds of millions of pounds wasted on IT in the botched attempt to introduce the Universal Credit benefit system.

Workfare schemes introduced which amount to little more than slave labour, benefiting big business with participants learning such valuable skills as stacking supermarket shelves. Temporary, part-time, zero hours and mainly lowly paid jobs 'created'. Public sector workers made redundant in their hundreds of thousands whilst those left have had below inflation wage increases (if any at all) and hikes in their pension contributions. All are considerably poorer than before the Coalition started mismanaging the economy.

On the other hand well paid advisory jobs in government for The Sun hacking crooks like Andy Coulson.

An unsuccessful attempt to privatise our forests and woods and the cruel and utterly ineffective badger cull that despite all the scientific evidence (and there is loads of it) saying it was at best pointless and at worse would increase the spread of bovine TB, duly proved the scientists entirely correct. Defra Secretary of State at the time Owen Paterson, claimed it would have worked out OK, if only the badgers hadn't moved the goal posts!

Vans dispatched by the Home Office to drive around areas where immigrants live to tell people to 'GO HOME' in a panicky response to UKIP gaining popularity.

University tuition fees increased to £9,000 per year for students, already burdened with debt, and despite the Lib Dems promising to abolish them altogether. Once the votes of students were bagged by the Lib Dems their policy was deemed to be too expensive.

Local government cut by around 40% leading to the closure of libraries, day centres, leisure centres, youth clubs and many other services. All under the cover of 'localism'. More freedom for local authorities to spend much less cash. At the same time a huge increase in school privatisations as many were turned into academies, run by crack pot religious individuals and wealthy business men, all funded by the tax payer.

No expense spared though when it came to bombing Libya, which has been a complete disaster as militant Islamists have taken over huge areas of the country, with plans to make it a base for attacking Europe. Thousands killed.

House building, other than for foreign millionaires who 'buy to leave' property in London, down. At the same time homelessness hugely on the rise, especially in London. Families on housing benefit evicted from their homes and sent to all parts of the country (well all parts that are cheap).

All this with wages falling, the NHS opened up to privatisation, Legal Aid cut, Corporation Tax reduced for big business to one of the lowest levels in the G8, inequality rising along with carbon emissions.

What a record. Are they ashamed? Hell no, they say they want to finish the job off. More likely finish the rest of us off. Kick them out.


Monday 30 March 2015

Parliament is Dissolved – A Step into the Unknown

Parliament was dissolved at midnight this morning and the general election campaign proper has begun, also known as the ‘short campaign’. Before the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister would have gone to Buckingham Palace to ask the queen to formally dissolve Parliament, but this is now unnecessary. The fact that Prime Minister Cameron still went to the Palace today is really only for the photo opportunity, there is no constitutional reason for him doing this.

MPs are not allowed to call themselves MPs anymore, they are candidates like any other candidates until they are re-elected or not on 7 May. Although the Prime Minister remains in post until a new government is formed..

So who is running the country for the 5 weeks (or perhaps longer, if we do not get a clear winner as looks likely)? Step forward the Civil Service. We have entered what is known as ‘purdah’ whereby the permanent Civil Service keeps the government running on a ‘business as usual’ basis, no new policies will be introduced.

Purdah is a Persian word, later adopted in northern India, meaning quite literally ‘curtain’. It was a practice where women were hidden so men could not see them, and kept separate or veiled in a burqa. What it means here for government, is that there is no openness of the workings of government, in Parliament etc.

It is undemocratic by nature but perfectly understandable whilst an election is taking place. Indeed Belgium didn’t have an elected government recently for over a year, and hardly anyone noticed, as things trundled along as normal. This probably reflects that policies don’t change much these days, with responsibility increasingly handed to technocrats, be it the EU commission or the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, for example.

The result of the election itself still looks to be extremely difficult to predict, except that it is more than likely that the Conservatives and Labour will not get an overall majority. If I’m to stick my neck out, I’ll say that Labour will win the most seats, although it wouldn’t surprise me if I’m wrong and the Tories win the most seats. But in the event of Labour winning the most seats, it is not clear what happens next.

By convention, the party that wins the most seats usually get first chance to create a majority by approaching other smaller parties and making an arrangement. But as in almost everything about the British constitution, it is not that clear what exactly needs to happen.

In 1974 Labour won a few seats more than the incumbent Tory government but Prime Minister Ted Heath (who had won more votes though not seats) tried to agree a coalition with the Liberals. Only when this wasn’t achieved did Heath resign. And 5 years ago, Gordon Brown tried to hang on when the Tories were short of a majority. My guess is something similar may happen again this time. The Tories will try to cobble together a majority with the Lib Dems and the DUP.

Another similarity with 1974 is that the minority Labour government called a second election in the autumn of that year, and it will not surprise me if we have two elections this year. Of course the aforementioned Fixed Term Parliament Act will need to be repealed first, but that is a minor problem.

So here we are at the start of a probable roller coaster ride which promises to be a psephological and constitutional feast, at least for the likes of election anoraks like me.       

Sunday 29 March 2015

General Election Target Seats - Greens

We have been using our General Election simulator to study the quality of lists made by parties regarding seats they aim to win in the election, with Labour and the Conservatives already investigated. This time we will look at the list of 12 "Campaigns to Watch" identified by the Green Party.

The Seats on the List
Unsurprisingly, the list features the current sole Green seat, Caroline Lucas' Brighton Pavilion, the retention of which has been repeatedly identified by Greens as the main priority for the party. The other 11 are presumably the seats where the party thinks it has the best chance of victory.

Below is a list of the 12 seats, with the win probabilities for the Greens and their main rivals. The final column ('GRE def') shows how far the Greens are from the favourite for that seat.
As with most other parties, it seems that seats held by the Lib Dems will be the ones most attainable, with Bristol West and Norwich South standing out as the best chances of a Green steal alongside the Labour-held York Central. The remaining 8 seats are all long shots, although with the recent "Green Surge" they certainly shouldn't be discounted just yet.

Speaking of the surge in Green support, we can compare the probabilities for the top four seats to those given in December when we unveiled the model:
Aside from Norwich South, we can see a decent increase in the chance of a Green win in each constituency, which is consistent with the party's rise in popularity across the country. If this rise increases, we might see the Greens move into very strong positions in these areas.

The Seats Not on the List
As with our analysis of the Labour hit-list, we can look at the probabilities of a Green win across all constituencies, and see whether there are some seats which the party has overlooked:
Those listed in green are ones not on the previous list. Three of these, (Lewisham Deptford, Cardiff Central and Hove), are in a similar range to the other long shots in our previous list. However, Hornsey & Wood Green, yet another Lib Dem seat, is marginally higher.

The collapse of Liberal Democrat support across the country has benefited almost every other party, and the Greens are no exception, with nearly all their best chances of adding to their total of MPs being in Lib Dem seats.

As with Labour, we find that our list of the best seats for the Greens to target is not quite the same as the one provided by the party. It won't be known how well the Greens would be doing in these overlooked constituencies had they chosen these in their list of key constituencies, but extra attention from the party would have been unlikely to have harmed their chances.

Written By Adrian Worton and first published at The Game is a Foot

Saturday 28 March 2015

Is Westminster Corrupt?


Here is the evidence:

The word “corruption” evolved from an old expression of rottenness, as of rotting fruit or flesh. It has extended its meaning to a lack of ethics, and has acquired a more specific meaning of the abuse of political power for personal gain, in the sense of "bribery and corruption".

"Westminster" covers both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the Civil Service, the whole place right through to the Remembrancer, the representative of the City of London who can whisper in the Speaker's ear.

At the outset we should remember that the will of the people is the sovereign power in Britain, and MPs and Lords are given office in order to serve the best interests of the people. That is their job. It should occupy all of their working hours. They should be adequately rewarded for the hard work that they do, but they should not seek to gain any other money by any other means, except outside of their working hours, when everything that should be done to help their constituents has been done.

So - is Westminster - the seat of power of the British state - pervasively corrupt? Is there an unusual lack of integrity, of ethical behaviour expected of responsible servants of the people?

This piece presents evidence from known corruption scandals, ongoing lobbying, political donations, directorships – and last but not least, the scandal of child sex abuse by VIPs, and it concludes that Westminster is indeed corrupt.

Looking at the history of the last quarter century, we find 15 instances where actions that may reasonably be characterised as being rotten practices, in the sense of being inconsistent with sound ethical standards, have been revealed. This averages at about one revelation every 18 months. Here they are:

  1. 1994 Cash for Questions: Lobbyist Ian Greer gave Tory MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith money. They asked questions on behalf of Mohammed Al-Fayed. Fayed's employees confirmed payments had been made, but Hamilton and Smith were cleared by the Downey report.In July of the same year, a 'sting' by The Sunday Times reported that Conservative MPs Graham Riddick and David Treddinick had accepted £1,000 cheques for agreeing to table a parliamentary question.
  2. 1997 Bernie Ecclestone gave Labour £1m, and in a possibly coincidental action Labour exempted motor racing from a ban on tobacco advertising.
  3. 1998 Cash for Access/"Lobbygate" ; Derek Draper, a lobbyist, was caught by Greg Palast, an Observer journalist, boasting how he could provide access to Labour ministers and create tax breaks for his clients.
  4. 2006 Jowellgate: Tessa Jowell's husband gave testimony for Sylvio Berlusconi, and possibly coincidentally indirectly received £350,000 from him.
  5. 2006 Cash for Honours : In a workaround to evade the rules that capped large political donations, loans were made totalling £14m to Labour and £16m to Conservatives. These lenders found themselves, possibly coincidentally, in receipt of peerages. The CPS found no evidence that a prior deal had been done.

    2015: A statistical survey finds that the connection between donations and nomination for a peerage is highly unlikely to be due to chance.
  6. 2007 Peter Watt knew about, but did not report, the fact that Labour received £630,000 from one individual through third parties, a workaround for the rule that stopped one individual from making large payments. The CPS decided that there was not enough evidence to prosecute.
  7. 2008: Michael Brown gave the LibDems a £2.4m donation, despite the fact that they had been warned about him. Brown is a convicted fraudster (to the tune of £36m), having jumped bail after being charged.The Electoral Commission exonerated the LibDems of any wrongdoing, and absolved them from having to give any of their funds to the people Michael Brown had defrauded.
  8. 2009 Cash for Influence scandal. Four Labour peers offered to amend legislation for bribes of up to £120,000 in a Sunday Times sting. The House of Lords suspended two for the peers for 6 months.
  9. 2009 MP expenses scandal. About 68 (10% of the total) MPs were found to have committed some kind of financial irregularity in their expenses claims. 4 MPs were jailed, three peers were suspended.
  10. 2010 Cash for Influence: another sting by Dispatches/Sunday Times team, who interviewed 9 MPs (1 Con, 8 Lab) who accepted offers of cash for influencing policy.
  11. 2011 Liam Fox allowed his relationship with Adam Werrity to blur the distinction between official and private life.
  12. 2012 Cash for Access scandal: Sarah Southern (lobbyist and Cameron aide) introduced Sunday Times journalists to Peter Cruddas, Conservative Party co-treasurer. He claimed "£200,000 to £250,000 is Premier League - things will open up for you - you can ask him [David Cameron, the PM] practically any question you want." Cruddas subsequently won a case of defamation and malicious falsehood against The Sunday Times.
  13. 2012 Jeremy Hunt was prepared to adjudicate Murdoch's bid for BSkyB, but had been having inappropriately close communication with Murdoch and his team.
  14. 2015 Malcolm Rifkind ex-Foreign Secretary, was caught in a sting by Ch4 journalists posing as a Chinese business seeking to buy influence in Government. He was willing to arrange this at a rate of £5-8,000 per half day.
  15. 2015 Jack Straw was caught in the same sting as Rifkind. Straw said he operated "under the radar". He had used his influence to change EU rules on behalf of a firm which paid him £60,000 a year. He also earned £12,500 pa for work carried out for the corrupt and repressive regime in Kazakhstan.

All of the above is evidence, in a range of clarity, that suggests that a culture of corruption, dodgy dealing, sleaze and amorality prevails in the Palace of Westminster.

Bear in mind that these are events which came to the light of day. It is reasonable to suppose that not every shady deal is discovered.

What is striking is that MPs do not learn from their mistakes, in that there are at least 6 stings in the list, but MPs continue to be caught out by undercover journalists. As Adam Ramsey, a green commentator said, “Like a toddler caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they just cannot see what the issue is”. This suggests that what we are recording here is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The second noteworthy point is that on six occasions, the judiciary and other regulating authorities exonerated the perpetrators, and in one case, even awarded them damages.

Over and above these 15 cases of overt corruption, there are four other modes in which the democratic process is overridden in Westminster: Lobbying, political donations, directorships and the protection of VIP child abusers.


We need to remind ourselves that in a democracy, the role of Parliament is supposed to be to represent the will and interests of the ordinary people of Britain, who are the ultimate source of political power and authority. If MPs and Peers are using their office to make deals that benefit themselves personally. This is a perversion of democracy. It is corrupt in the second, more specific sense of the word.

There is a culture of lobbying in Westminster where MPs and peers are entertained and fed at great expense by corporate lobbyists. They are listening not to the concerns of their constituents, but to the blandishments of highly paid professional persuaders working on behalf of big corporations, whose only duty is to maximise the profits of their shareholders.

There is also a “revolving door” that allows MPs and Ministers to take jobs with corporations, and corporations to embed their employees in Government offices. The nuclear industry is especially involved in this process.

The Coalition Government has produced the Lobbying Act which enshrines the idea of self-regulation of lobbyists This shows only that they have learned absolutely nothing from the MP expenses scandal, where self-regulation failed so catastrophically.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency rejects the Lobbying Act as a sham. They call for

A genuine lobbying register, as adopted by the US, Canada and other countries, would cover the whole of the lobbying industry and allow us to scrutinise:

• who is lobbying whom

• what they are seeking to influence

• and how much they are spending trying to do it.

Here is the draft Lobbying Transparency Bill

Support for this Bill must be a priority in the campaign to make Parliament fit for its original purpose of serving democracy.

Political donations

On top of lobbying, there is the matter of donations to political parties. In an effort to control the size of these donations, those over £5000 to a national political party, or £2000 to a local party, must be declared. We have seen how party fund raisers have repeatedly tried to circumvent this legislation by turning to loans.

The major parties are in hock to major donors, receiving millions from private individuals, corporations and in the case of the Labour party, from the unions.

It is naive to accept the protestations from donors and parties that there is no connection between donation and policy. They would say that, wouldn't they?

Clearly, in a democracy, it should be illegal for a party to take money in donations above a very strict limit, and the law should be applied with rigour. In that political parties are a necessary part of the democratic process, they should be modestly and reasonably out of taxation,

Several reviews and reports have been issued in an attempt to bring some kind of order to party funding.

Hayden Phillips' report proposed a £50K cap on donations, and an increase of party funding from the state.

The 2011 Committee on Standards in Public Life proposed a cap of £10K/donor/party/year, with more than that from Trades Unions if they accept an opt-in, a 15% reduction on allowable campaign spending, and public funding of £3 per Westminster vote, and £1.50 for other elections. They also suggested income tax relief for parties.

Therefore reform is on the way, but moving with glacial slowness, held up by an emotional reaction from tabloid newspaper editors. The idea that parties should be funded by the taxpayer calls forth derision, based on their disgust at the behaviour of MPs. What these tabloids need to grasp is that the corrupt behaviour of MPs is a result of the very system of private payments that they, the tabloids, are defending.


Here is a list of 10 Coalition Cabinet Ministers who have commercial interests in healthcare corporations. This is was during the time that the NHS is obliged to put its services out to private tender.

This is unacceptable. Not only is it wrong that Ministers should take on directorships that will take their attention away from governing the country, but also it is wrong that they should have an interest in companies who stand to benefit from their political decisions. In that these directorships and consultancies are a source of income, the MPs are using their office for personal gain.

We have found extensive evidence from 15 historic financial scandals, and from the way that Westminster is run through lobbying, political donations and directorships, that the system is corrupt, and that democracy is not well served.

But there is more.


Sexual Corruption

If corruption is the abuse of office for personal gain, then it is clear that some office holders use their position to satisfy their sexual urges. There are no less than 60 (sixty) instances where investigations of sexual abuse of children were blocked as soon as they began to get close to VIPs. 23 Politicians have questions to answer. 6 civil servants are under suspicion or are known beyond doubt to have abused children.

Given this evidence, it is reasonable to believe that the Establishment has a great deal to hide in the matter of child abuse by its own members. It does not want its crimes to be discovered.

David Cameron claimed that he would leave “no stone unturned” in his search for answers to child abuse, yet the Home Office made not one, but two wrong choices of a chair for the Inquiry into Child abuse. The choices were said in the press to be faulty because they were Establishment figures, but the central criticism brought by the survivors was that the two figures chosen to lead the Inquiry were close to two VIPs suspected of being complicit in abuse.

The first choice,Butler-Sloss, was sister to Robert Michael Havers. The second choice, Fiona Woolf, was friends with Sir Leon Brittan.

It is vital that the Establishment figures involved in child abuse must be brought to justice. Quite apart from the pain caused, and the fact that murder is implicated in some cases. to have abusers at the heart of Government is not acceptable. First, VIPs who take part in child sex lay themselves open to blackmail. Second, VIP child sexual abuse creates a criminal underworld at the heart of the State. This works against democratic values, because if decision makers are hiding secrets in one area, this will work against transparency in other areas.

Two simple policy changes are needed to discover who is trying to protect child abusers in high places. First, retired police officers need to be released from their obligations under the Official Secrets Act, so that they can tell investigating officers what they know. Second, the direction of investigations needs to be directed upwards, as in "Who ordered you to stop this investigation? Who was your superior?" These policy changes are developed here.

A Plague on All Your Houses?

A clear pattern is emerging. The common view that sceptics take of politicians, "They're all in it for themselves", is not that far off the truth. There are some decent MPs, and we should not dismiss the whole Parliamentary system by thinking that it is 100% corrupt. Parliament does not need to be destroyed and replaced by some unspecified other thing, it needs to be reformed.

Labour, Tories and LibDems all have a poor record when it comes to the kind of corruption we are taking about here. Ukip are not in a position to claim that they are clean.

The Green Party is relatively untarnished by the corruption in Westminster, if only because it has had no presence in Westminster, apart from Caroline Lucas, who has a reputation for integrity. Green MEPs, London Assembly members, and councillors have acquitted themselves well, although one early councillor was forced to resign on child pornography charges.

The Green Party is the only major party that gets the majority of its funding from its membership, though even they have received some large donations from rich individuals - £55K from the Goldsmith brothers, and £300K from the personal account of Vivienne Westwood. Regrettably, the Vivienne Westwood group has a legal tax avoidance arrangement in Luxembourg that has saved them £500K. Vivienne Westwood Limited paid £780,228 of taxes in 2013 and £1,250,858 of taxes in 2012.

In view of this, the Green Party is not in a position to take the moral high ground, but rather to work with honest politicians of every party to bring about policy changes that will put paid to the endemic corruption that infects Westminster.

The best way forward might well be to declare an amnesty. a six month period during which people can come forward and confess any corrupt acts that they may have committed. They should then make reparations proportionate and appropriate to their actions

Policy Changes

Here is a list of policy changes that need to be made regarding MP expenses, rules concerning probity, contact with corporations, and political donations.

  1. Legal penalties including dismissal from office for MPs and peers who make fraudulent expenses claims, or who tout for or receive money for questions or for access.
  2. Enactment of the Lobbying Transparency Bill
  3. Reform of political donations along the lines suggested by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
  4. MPs and peers are to either have an outright ban, or to be severely curtailed, on the number of hours that they can work outside of their Parliamentary duties.
  5. Release police witnesses to child sexual abuse from the constraints of the Official Secrets Act.
  6. Encourage police investigating sexual abuse by VIPs to ask witnesses which superior officers ordered investigations to be stopped, and follow this line of questioning up the chain of command.

These issues must be brought to centre stage in this 2015 General Election campaign.

Richard Lawson

Green Party Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Weston super Mare Constituency who blogs regularly at Mabinogogiblog

Friday 27 March 2015

Cassetteboy - Emperor's New Clothes Rap

A clever rap by Cassetteboy attacking the Tories and UKIP. The rich need to be looked after and blame all of our ill on immigrants.

Please share widely. 

Thursday 26 March 2015

Last day of parliament: grubby, squalid, nauseous, mean-spirited, underhand, spiteful

(not satire – it’s the Cameron government!)

Here are some of the strong words that were used in parliament today – by both Tory and Labour MPs – to describe David Cameron, Michael Gove and William Hague’s failed efforts to unseat the speaker John Bercow:

Grubby, squalid, nauseous, mean-spirited, humiliating, underhand, spiteful

Well yes.

But has it really taken all this time for MPs in the House of Commons to notice?

Because for some of us, all of those words sum up perfectly not just the last day, but the entire last 5 years of the Cameron/Clegg government.

Actually, two other words spring to my mind to describe Cameron’s actions today, which also happen to describe his government perfectly:


For a full explanation of the complicated constitutional “jiggery pokery” that went on today, here’s the Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour on the whole sorry spectacle:

Written By Tom Pride and first published at Pride's Purge 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Why we Greens Must Stick by our Anti-austerity Red Lines

Let’s be quite frank – austerity is a massive con. The financial crisis of 2008 has been used by the Coalition government to force through deep cuts to our public services, in the name of ‘balancing the books’. With help from a compliant mainstream media, the narrative has been established in political discourse that somehow we are to blame for allowing Labour to bankrupt the public finances. The wisdom of age is that government spending must be cut back so we can ‘live within our means’ and this goes virtually unchallenged, it is an established political fact.
And it goes unchallenged by Labour, probably because deep down they believe it to be true, and are fearful of making their financial credibility even worse in the popular imagination. No matter that the Tories and Lib Dems when in opposition both stated publicly that they would match Labour pound for pound on public spending, that was then, this is now.
Of course, Labour was complicit in overstretching the public finances with their Private Finance Initiatives and Public Private Partnerships which are incredibly good for corporations and incredibly bad for the public purse. Many NHS Trusts are in financial difficulties at present because of the exorbitant costs of these schemes, likened by some to buying a house on a credit card.
But more than this, Labour’s economic policies are to blame. Wages have been falling since 2003 and the only way that growth can be maintained in such circumstances is for credit to increase. This was manufactured by creating (or allowing) a housing bubble to develop, which as prices rise, allows homeowners to borrow against value of their homes and so raise spending, driving growth in the wider economy. Astonishingly, the Coalition, are attempting exactly the same trick now, having seemingly learnt nothing from the biggest recession that most people can remember.
This is not only unsustainable, but even in the Coalition’s own terms is failing to pay off the national debt as promised. It would probably be even worse had Chancellor Osborne not changed tack a bit in 2012 and more or less adopted Labour’s fiscal approach as set out by Alistair Darling at the 2010 general election. Not to worry though, the whole scam has achieved its primary objective, that is, the corporations and wealthy individuals have continued to get richer whilst the rest of us have got poorer.
Austerity is bound to be a key election issue, with the Coalition saying that Labour would once again bankrupt the country and put all the hard work (by us) at risk of being undone. The ‘job is only half done,’ more of the same is needed. Labour will argue that the government’s strategy has been a failure in removing the deficit and only their slower cuts will do the job. Labour doesn’t appear to have learnt any lessons from the recession either, because they want to carry on as normal, just like the coalition, with no other plan for growth other than raising private (our) debt.
The Green party is the only one of the larger parties to oppose austerity outright. This is a distinctive position for the party and naturally marks out a clear ‘green line’ between us and the rest. Crucially, we want to raise the minimum wage to the living wage, to create sustainable growth. The party’s recent spring conference voted for austerity to be a ‘red line’ in any negotiations with Labour post election. So, we campaign strongly on this issue at the general election, and let the voters decide.
There is a growing resistance to austerity economics right across Europe, and although some of these countries have suffered much more than the UK (Greece and Spain for example), we also have evidence of a fight back closer to home. The Scottish independence referendum last year blew the lid off the cosy austerity consensus amongst the big parties and their friends in the media. Even though the referendum was lost, that has been far from the end of the argument. The SNP are soaring in the polls on an anti-austerity agenda and may well end up as part of a governing arrangement with Labour. If the Greens can win a handful of seats, we too could be part of this arrangement.
But this is where it all gets difficult. Think about this scenario for a moment. Labour is short of an outright majority after the May election, but with the SNP and Greens (and Plaid Cymru) has enough MPs, even on a policy by policy basis, to form a government. They refuse to alter their budget plans but perhaps make some other concessions. If we don’t accept there will be a continuation of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition.
Will our MPs want to risk taking the blame for another 5 years of the Tories, perhaps including UKIP and the DUP in government too, when they could have kicked the Tories out?
Difficult though this would be, we must be brave, and if necessary allow the Tories in again. But at the same time we need to mobilise the party at large, and the general public where we can find support, and the trade unions. If we can build up enough public pressure on Labour, they can be forced to buckle, or take the blame themselves for another Tory government.
These are high stakes indeed, and a calculated risk, but any other course of action will throw away all the gains and momentum we have built up over the last year or so.
So I say this to our prospective MPs. Don’t make the same mistake as the Lib Dems. We are behind you, do not budge one inch on austerity, expose the con, there is another way. We will reap our reward electorally next time around, which could well be only months away if a minority government is formed. The chances of two general elections this year is high, let’s play a (slightly) longer game.     

Monday 23 March 2015

On the “naturalness” of the commons and the self-interested invention of the cult of Elinor Ostrom

Why so much sudden love for Ostrom? Did people really think before that the commons was impossible? Wasn’t the countryside full of communal lands and herds?

When you live in a community, you see how it’s the most natural and spontaneous thing in the world that everything is shared, that everything must strengthen everyone to work… and precisely because of that, it never seems like a big thing, it doesn’t seem to have a special value, it’s “spontaneous,” “normal.” But when you go to the everyday institutions of society — the businesses, the communities of neighbors, the administration — it’s hard to find an iota of everything that you take for granted, and you wonder if it really is as “natural” as it seemed to you.

But if we think about it a bit, that “naturalness” is quite present in our culture. All languages have a specific word for communal work: in Spanish, using the Asturian word, we call it “andecha;” in Portuguese, “mutirão;” in Euskera [Basque], “auzolan;” in Russian, “toloka;” in Finnish, “talkoot;” in Norwegian, “dugnad“…  And also for community property: the traditional peasant common lands and associations of fishers, or “procomún,” as it begins to be called in the fifteenth century in Spain, is equivalent to the Japanese “iriai,” or the English “commons.”

That’s because agricultural and hunting commons are the original form of ownership and work, long prior to State property and private property… and for the time being, the most persistent: commons institutions remained vigorous throughout the world up through the Middle Ages and resisted Modernity with relative strength until the “amortization” of nineteenth-century liberalism forced them to evolve into modern cooperativism. But don’t be fooled: even today, there are large European regions, like Galicia, where more of the 25% of the territory is made up of common lands. We have always been surrounded by the commons and by community values. Our culture kept more than just the formula for us.

If it wasn’t enough to observe the survival of large expanses of communal land and herds on all continents, it must be said that in all of our community experience we’ve never found a single case where problems arise because someone had consumption patterns such that endangered common resources. In community life, there are problems and conflicts, but in our experience, that’s not one of them, and if it does happen somewhere, it certainly isn’t frequent or relevant.

The “Tragedy of the Commons”

And “The Tragedy of the Commons” has a trap. It is a theoretical model created in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, (pictured below) an neo-Malthusian ecologist, a forerunner of what would later be called “degrowth,” obsessed with what he believed to be an “excess of population.” Hardin starts with a definition of the behavior of individuals according to which they would look only at their short-term interests, but would be blind both to the social result (which is to say, the impact their actions would have on the sum of individual results) and on their own total results over time. The model also means that the commons in question is not reproducible (with free software, this is not applicable, because it doesn’t run out when we use it more).

With these initial restrictions, according to which people would literally behave as if there was no tomorrow and there were no other people — surprise, surprise! — the result is that the shared resource runs out. The results were implicit in the conditions of the game, and the result is the one that was desired: the “demonstration” that the reality that surrounds us doesn’t exist, because it is

This is a very different path from the one followed by the classical economists and Marx himself. They had not used an abstract and self-reinforcing model, but had had to explain and model why existed commons in a good part of the arable lands in Europe and, above all, why the peasants didn’t want privatize them. The history of the nineteenth century in large countries like Russia, Spain or Italy is the story of governments like that of the Spanish minister Madoz, trying privatize the commons by force, with little success. It was a drama for the liberals of the times, who thought that without individual property rights, the countryside would never become technological, nor would enough labor flow to the cities to make industry viable. It was a theoretical problem for Marx, who was continuously asked by those in Russia what to do with the countless peasant commons there, and whether they could evolve “directly” to an economy of abundance without going through privatization.

But, by 1968, when Hardin writes “The Tragedy of the Commons,” the commons is no longer a political problem. It is simply a settled reality that economic theory could explain easily, without the need to include internal regulations or external, whether with game theory, modeling the commons as Nash equilibria, or even with neoclassical theory, including the way that would make Gary Becker famous, models of long-term rationality.

Only in the Anglo-Saxon world, where the nineteenth-century amortizations were really effective and put an end to common ownership of the land, could Hardin’s story come to be “common knowledge,” because by 1968, nobody in the USA or Great Britain co-existed with common lands and shared usage. But in reality, these were part of the everyday geography of millions of inhabitants where neither had the liberal revolution ever totally triumphed in its agrarian policies, nor had Soviet or Chinese socialism been imposed — a large area which included, on a continuum, places as disparate as Indochina, Galicia, Mexico, la Araucania [Chile], or South Africa.

The self-interested sanctification of Elinor Ostrom

However, in 2009 the Swedish Academy gave the Nobel Prize in Economics to a political scientist, Elinor Ostrom, for having “challenged conventional wisdom [sic] by demonstrating how local property can be managed by a local commons without regulation by central authority or privatization.” Ostrom soon became a sort of patron saint to all those in universities who were interested in the community experience in general and the commons in particular. The central idea they took from her work is that the management of the commons requires a complex set of norms and equilibria that remain “artificial,” products of a very sophisticated social construct.

This is true, but their political-academic claim is not disinterested: when a social organization is described as “artificial” and “sophisticated,” it is implicitly being argued that it is necessary to have “special,” academic, or “technical” knowledge to make it work. Ostrom thus became excuse to argue the guardianship of groups of theoreticians and academics over the social process, with their consequent industry of advanced degrees, courses, and seminars for training “specialists.”

Reality is stubborn

But 2009 was also the first real year of crisis in Europe. Millions of people were left without work. In countries like Greece, Spain or Portugal, thousands and thousands of families lost their houses.

Spontaneously, the social network — first, families, and then, communities — started to reorganize for survival. Hundreds of small “communes” appeared, houses that were shared between families that had been left without regular income, in which everything that that was obtained went into a common fund. Nobody needed design or certify a sophisticated set of rules. While it was a precarious response to an emergency situation, the “naturalness” of the process is noteworthy. The model already was there, in the cultural inheritance and in the traditions of the working classes.

And that’s really the key: the community is, in point of fact, a sophisticated cultural construction. And what’s more, so are the traditions of sharing that are profoundly embedded in popular culture.

When an egalitarian community is born, when we create a new commons to be shared, we’re not starting from zero. We are putting “into production” all that code, all that community rationality that we inherited from the learned reactions and way of managing common belongings in our families. That is why we experience it as “spontaneous,” why it feels “natural,” and why it appears again and again in such different environments all over the world. Our “rationality” is definitively not what Hardin and the neo-Malthusian theoreticians of degrowth attributed to us when they presented the irrational destruction of non-renewable resources as a product of our “nature” and not as the result of over-scaled corporations dedicated to looking for rents at all costs.

No, to understand the shared economy, to work together to manage the needs of all in a community economy, we don’t need great treaties or consultation with university technicians. We just need to go back home.

Written by David de Ugarte and first published at Las Indias in English

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish).

Sunday 22 March 2015

Murray Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionary

An interview with Debbie Bookchin on her father’s contributions to revolutionary theory and the adoption of his ideas by the Kurdish liberation movement.

Editor’s note: Below you will find an interview with Debbie Bookchin, daughter of the late Murray Bookchin, who passed away in 2006. Bookchin spent his life in revolutionary leftist circles, joining a communist youth organization at the age of nine and becoming a Trotskyist in his late thirties, before switching to anarchist thought and finally ending up identifying himself as a ‘communalist’ after developing the ideas of ‘libertarian municipalism’.

Bookchin was (and remains) as influential as he was controversial. His radical critiques of deep ecology and ‘lifestyle anarchism’ stirred up a number of heated debates that continue to this day. Now that his revolutionary ideas have been picked up by the Kurdish liberation movement, who are using Bookchin’s works to build a democratic, gender-equal and ecologically sustainable society in the heart of the Middle East, we are seeing a renewed interest in the life and thoughts of this great political thinker. 

Federico Venturini: Verso Books has just published The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, a collection of essays by your father Murray Bookchin. Could you tell us something about this book? Why did you decide to embark on this venture?

Debbie Bookchin: The creation of this book was inspired among other things by the ongoing political discussion about which direction the Left should take with respect to the question of organization. Our publisher, Verso, publishes the writings of both Slavoj Žižek and Simon Critchley. Briefly, Žižek advocates revolution with the power given to a centralized state – a rehashing of Marxist theory. Critchley, on the other hand, advocates social change that takes place in the interstices of society.

Murray felt that both of these solutions were inadequate responses to the question of how to develop radical forms of governance that are democratic and can fundamentally change society. We thought this collection of essays on decentralized democracy could offer an important third pole in this political debate. And we wanted to present them, along with some previously unpublished material, to a new generation of activists.

How did Bookchin arrive at the concept of decentralized democracy?

Murray had spent a lifetime studying revolutionary movements and in fact wrote an entire history of those movements in his four-volume work, The Third Revolution. This study reaffirmed his belief that revolutionary change could not be achieved through activities that remained within the margins of a society – for example, building alternative organizations like food co-ops and free schools, as Critichley proposes – or by creating a massive socialist state, an idea which has been completely discredited and could never gain any kind of widespread appeal.

Instead, he felt that we had to employ modes of organization that built on the best traditions of revolutionary movements – such as the Paris commune of 1871 and the collectives formed in 1936 revolutionary Spain – an overlooked tradition that enshrines decision-making at the municipal level in neighborhood assemblies that increasingly challenge the hegemony of the nation-state. And because he was an American, he was also looking for a way to build upon traditions that would appeal to an American public, such as the committees of the American Revolution or the New England town meeting style democracy that is still active in places like Vermont today. These are the ideas he discusses in the essays in this book.

Bookchin is known for his writings on ecology, hierarchy and capitalism — collected under the umbrella of what he called ‘social ecology’. How do the ideas in this book emerge from the concept of social ecology?

One of Murray’s central contributions to Left thought was his insistence, back in the early 1960s, that all ecological problems are social problems. Social ecology starts from this premise: that we will never properly address climate change, the poisoning of the earth with pesticides and the myriad of other ecological problems that are increasingly undermining the ecological stability of the planet, until we address underlying issues of domination and hierarchy. This includes domination based on gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, as well as class distinctions.

Eradicating those forms of oppression immediately raises the question of how to organize society in a fashion that maximizes freedom. So the ideas about popular assemblies presented in this book grow naturally out of the philosophy of social ecology. They address the question of how to advance revolutionary change that will achieve true freedom for individuals while still allowing for the social organization necessary to live harmoniously with each other and the natural world.

Popular assemblies are part of the renewed importance that Bookchin gives to municipal organization. When and why did Bookchin begin to focus on these issues?

Murray had begun thinking about these issues early on, in the 1960s. He addresses them even in 1968, in his essay, “The Forms of Freedom.” But this question, of political and social organization, especially consumed Murray in the last two decades of his life, when the essays we’ve collected here were written. When Murray saw the predicament of the alter-globalization movement and similar movements, he asserted that simply engaging in “festivals of the oppressed” failed to offer a structural framework within which to address deep-seated social and economic inequities.

He had spent more than three decades working within the anarchist tradition but had come to feel that anarchism didn’t deal adequately with the question of power and political organization. Instead, he advocated a localized, grassroots democratic social philosophy, which he called Communalism. He called the political expression of that idea Libertarian Municipalism. He believed that by developing and institutionalizing general assemblies on the local level we could re-empower ourselves as active citizens, charting the course of our communities and economies and confederating with other local assemblies.

He envisioned this self-government as becoming increasingly strong as it solidified into a “dual power,” that would challenge, and ultimately dismantle, the power of the nation-state. Murray occasionally used the term Communalism interchangeably with Libertarian Municipalism but generally he thought of Communalism as the umbrella political philosophy and Libertarian Municipalism as its political practice, which entails the running of candidates on the municipal level, municipalizing the economy and the like.

It seems that recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and the indignados movement resemble some of these ideas. What would Bookchin have thought of them and of developments like the Podemos phenomenon in Spain?

Murray would have been excited to see the Indignados movement, in part because of his admiration for 1936 revolutionary Spain, which informs his book The Spanish Anarchists. And he would have appreciated the impulses behind Occupy and the citizen revolts across the Mideast. But I think he would have anticipated many of the troubles that preoccupied Occupy. This includes the problems inherent in the use of consensus, and the mistaken belief by many within the Occupy movement that the act of creating protest encampments can be equated with the actual reclaiming of popular power, which Murray believed had to be institutionalized in local assemblies within communities in order to create a true political force.

I think it’s hard not to be excited by political events in Greece and Spain, where new, more democratic parties are coming to power. But Murray would have warned that these kinds of national parties are almost always forced to compromise their ideals to the point where they no longer represent significant change. He warned about that when the German Greens came to power in the early 1980s and he was proven correct. They started out calling themselves a “non-party party” but they ended up in a coalition with the conservative CDU (the Christian Democratic Union) in order to maintain power.

That is why he differentiates between “statecraft,” his name for traditional representative government, which never really invests power with the citizenry, and “politics,” a term that he wants to reclaim to signify directly democratic self-management by popular assemblies that are networked together to make decisions that affect larger regions. So that’s one reason why we’re happy about the publication of this book at this time; it directly speaks to the impulses of millions of people around the world who are demanding direct democracy instead of representative democracy, and helps point a way to achieving that goal.

As direct democracy has become a rallying cry, your father’s work has enjoyed a resurgence. But even before that, he was considered one of the most important anarchist and libertarian thinkers of the last century. What is it like to be his daughter?

I guess there’s more than one answer to that question. One is political—most of my adult life has been spent as an investigative journalist, but since my father died in 2006, I’ve felt increasingly that it’s my job to help project his ideas forward, that we are living in a time when the need for political change has never been greater, and that his work has a major contribution to make to the Left.

The other answer is more personal – I had an unusual childhood because of both of my parents’ activism and deep involvement with so many ideas. Murray was self-educated – he never went to college – so he taught himself everything from physics to philosophy and had an especially remarkable command of history. He had an innate desire to contextualize everything, and that made him very engaging to be around. And my mother, Bea, was a mathematician, and a dialectical thinker in her own right. Her intellect and sensibilities made her an important sounding board for him, which helped him elaborate ideas.

They were extremely close; even though they were only married for 12 years they continued to live together for decades, right up until the early 1990s. So there were endless discussions and strong intellectual and emotional bonds that made it a wonderfully vibrant home to be raised in. And because I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s it was also a very active time politically, so our house was full of interesting people all the time, which was great fun for a kid.

Ultimately, the thing I appreciate about both my parents is their tremendous love of ideas – their lifelong commitment to great ideas that at their root form the possibility for political transformation – and their desire to act on them.

Could you say something about what Murray was like as a person?

While it’s hard to believe when reading some of his polemics, Murray was immensely warm and caring to the people around him. He took a supportive interest in his students at the Institute for Social Ecology and he was a very social creature; he loved good company.

In many of his writings, especially in his earlier work, like the essays in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, and of course The Ecology of Freedom, but also in later pieces like Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, you can feel the intensity of his utopian vision, his belief that human beings deserve to live in societies that maximize creativity and freedom. As a person he was deeply moved by human suffering and very empathetic, even sentimental at times. At the same time, he was profoundly committed to rational thought and felt strongly that human beings had an obligation to create a rational society.

As with all thinkers that produce work that spans over decades, your father’s thinking modified with the passing of time. How do you explain this?

Murray was constantly studying, evaluating, and reassessing. He allowed his theories to evolve organically and dialectically and didn’t hold on to set theoretical doctrines, be they Marxist or anarchist. On the other hand, Murray wasn’t immune from making mistakes. So, for example, while I agreed with his critique of “lifestyle” anarchism (in his book Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm published in 1995), I think there were stylistic errors that made his tone more polarizing than it needed to be and that may have made it harder for some undecided anarchists to adopt his point of view.

But I think that now, twenty years later, his critique has stood the test of time not only with respect to “lifestyle” anarchism but anarchism per se and that Communalism can be seen, in a sense, as a logical progression that addresses organizational lacunae in anarchism. I hope that anarchists who read this new collection of essays will see Communalism as a natural outgrowth of anarchism and view Murray’s critique of the failures of anarchism in the context of his search for a potent instrument for revolutionary change.

Why do you think Murray adopted what some people viewed as a harsh tone in his book ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism’?

Murray had spent a lifetime explaining why the irrationalities of capitalism could only be countered by an organized social movement and here was a vocal group of anarchists dismissing that goal in favor of an individualist, anti-technology, primitivist politics, which Murray found as irrational as capitalism itself.

So, if his tone was unforgiving, it’s because he was desperately trying to rescue the social dimension of anarchism. Murray was also unsparing in his critique of deep ecology—for example in his adamant assertion, long before others dared to say so, that deep ecology was a fundamentally misanthropic, anti-rational political philosophy. There were many in the anarchist and the deep ecology movements who were unable to answer his criticisms of those ideologies. So some of these adversaries resorted to personal attacks.

In his book Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and the Crises of Our Times, Andy Price of Sheffield Hallam University in England does an excellent job of analyzing Murray’s critiques with respect to anarchism and deep ecology and unmasks the efforts to caricaturize him by some members of those movements. Price’s book is a very fine treatment of those issues, and also happens to serve as a great introduction to Murray’s ideas.

What do you view as Murray’s most important teaching?

The necessity of dialectical thinking – that to really know a thing you have to see it in its full development, not statically, not as it “is” but rather as it has the potential to “become.” That hierarchy and capitalism weren’t inevitable developments and that a legacy of freedom has always existed alongside the legacy of domination. That it’s our job as human beings capable of rational thought to try to develop an ethics and social structure that maximizes freedom.

What about his most relevant achievement?

On a very basic level, his introduction of ecology as a political category was extraordinary. He was fifty years ahead of his time in saying unequivocally that capitalism was incompatible with living in harmony with the natural world, a concept that key activists today such as Naomi Klein have taken up and popularized. He also was ahead of his time in critiquing the Left from a Leftist perspective, insisting that traditional Marxism, with it’s focus on the proletariat as a hegemonic class and its economic reductionism, had to be abandoned in favour of a more sweeping framework for social change.

But even more important, I think, was his desire to develop a unified social theory grounded in philosophy. In other words, he was searching for an objective foundation for an ethical society. That led him to immerse himself in history, anthropology, and even in biology and the sciences, all in the service of advancing the idea that mutual aid, complementarity, and other concepts that predominate in natural evolution point to the notion that human beings are capable of using their rationality to live in harmony with each other and the natural world—that we are capable of creating what he called “free nature.” And in this sense I would agree with you that he was one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century.

Recently Bookchin’s name has come up in connection with the Kurdish autonomy movement. Can you tell us a bit about his role in influencing Kurdish resistance and their social forms of organization?

Right now the Kurds in parts of Turkey and northern Syria are engaged in one of the most daring and innovative efforts in the world to employ directly democratic decision-making in their politics. Two years before Murray died in 2006, he was contacted by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish resistance. While they never had a chance to engage in a direct dialogue, Öcalan did undertake a serious study of Murray’s work, reading seminal books like The Ecology of Freedom and From Urbanization to Cities.

As a result, Öcalan abandoned his Marxist-Leninist approach to social revolution in favor of Murray’s non-statist, libertarian municipalist approach, adapting Murray’s ideas and developing his own into what he called Democratic Confederalism. We see these ideas at work now in many Kurdish communities in Turkey and in the Rojava region in northern Syria, including in Kobani, where Kurdish forces battled and ultimately drove out the Islamic State from the city after 134 days of fighting.

These towns are remarkable for instituting the kind of directly democratic councils that empower every member of the community regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion. They have embraced the principals of democratic decision-making, ecological stewardship, and equality and representation for ethnic minorities and for women, who now constitute 40 percent of every decision-making body. They’ve instituted freedom of speech and in many cases municipalized their economies. Importantly they view Kurdish autonomy as inseparable from creating a liberatory, non-capitalist society for all and have created their own autonomous zones which stand as a true challenge to the nation-state.

This kind of self-government is a model not just for the region but for the world. I wish Murray, who not only believed so strongly in the libertarian municipalist model, but also in the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, had lived long enough to see it.

In your introduction to the book, you point out that Murray’s influence has also been felt within the practices and politics of new social movements. What do you think is his legacy for social movements and what is your aim with respect to this new publication?

I think that features of Murray’s thought are evident in a wide range of current political and social theorizing, for example in the insightful work of theorists like David Harvey and Marina Sitrin. My co-editor Blair Taylor, a PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research in the Politics Department, specializes in the history of new social movements and has observed that these movements have already embraced many of Murray’s ideas, even if this was sometimes unknowingly. You see this in the use of affinity groups, spokes-councils, and other forms of directly democratic organizing; in the sensitivity to matters of domination and hierarchy; in the understanding of pre-figurative politics—that is that we must live the values in our movement that we want to achieve in a new society.

These are all concepts that Murray introduced in the 1970s. You see these ideas at work also in the transition towns movement and on the streets when protesters are asked by reporters: “What do you want?” and they respond, “Direct democracy.” I think that it’s exciting that his work is being discussed by people like David Harvey and David Graeber and rediscovered by a new generation. What I hope is that the social movements taking shape across the globe will consider using the ideas in this book as a way of reclaiming popular power on the municipal level, so that we can institutionalize the political change necessary to move us from the realm of protest to that of social transformation—to a self-managed society and a liberated future.

Interviewer Federico Venturini is an activist-researcher, working with social ecology and urban social movement. He is currently PhD candidate at the School of Geography, University of Leeds and member of Transnational Institute of Social Ecology

First published at ROARMAG