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David Cameron Welcomes Lady Thatcher To Downing Street As a teenager in London in the mid-90s, everyone I knew was anti-Tory. It was the fag-end of the John Major era, and amidst a sea of sex and corruption scandals the Tories had saved some of the most damaging measures for last, privatising the industries Thatcher hadn’t dared to: electricity, railway and prisons, and continually stigmatising single mothers, gays and lesbians and the ‘undeserving poor’. Though we were too young to remember the mass unemployment, miners strike and poll tax from the Thatcher years, the memories were fresh enough in the minds of our parents to impart to us a strongly anti-Tory outlook. The signs of public sector degradation were pretty apparent even to teenagers – parks and schools were all seriously run down after years of underfunding and libraries and sports centres were opening for fewer days each year. It was a mark of decency, of normality to oppose a tired, malicious government that was totally out of step with the growing trend towards social liberalism. To admit to being a conservative was a minor taboo – tantamount to admitting that you were well off and everyone’s else could go to hell. In our school mock election I think the Tories received about 8 votes out of 900 – and I suspect the affiliations of our parents were only slightly less one sided.

It’s not that everyone was pro-Labour – as early as 1994-95 Tony Blair was being accused of selling out, and Liberal Democrats were already gaining in popularity. The situation was simply this – there was broad body of people who knew that, above all, we had to get the Tories out – and while this wouldn’t in itself change the world, nothing could start to improve until we’d taken this basic first step. This culminated in the 1997 election, as the concerted effort deprived so many hated moralisers, privatisers and destroyers of public services of their seats. It was a victory of pragmatism over utopianism – with extensive tactical voting boosting the non-Conservative parties, and left wing voters backing a Labour leadership which they already knew had rejected socialist values. The priority was to kick out the Tories – everything else was secondary.

This anti-Tory instinct was forgotten during the 13 years of Labour rule, as Blair seemed invincible and the Conservatives unelectable, so many of us focussed on criticising the government’s failings. During that period I voted for a range of parties that seemed to be to Labour’s left, from the now defunct Socialist Alliance, to the now surging Greens to the now right-wing Liberal Democrats. It was safe to do so – there was no danger of the Tories winning under the successive leaderships of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. By the time of the Gordon Brown government from 2007 we deluded ourselves into thinking this was still the case – we could continue to kick Labour without fear – perhaps the fresh-faced Nick Clegg would win a large amount of seats and help push Labour to the left. We were lulled into a false sense of security by the new style of Tory leadership emanating from David Cameron – posing with huskies, hugging hoodies and pledging a centrist conservatism alongside an acceptance of contemporary social liberalism. In pre-crash 2006-7 it felt like a liberal Conservative government under Cameron wouldn’t be so drastically different from a right wing Labour government under Blair and Brown.

With our anti-Tory instincts rusty, alongside a younger generation who had grown up only knowing Labour governments, we sleep-walked into a Tory led administration. But while our attention had been on Labour’s failings, George Osbourne had spotted an opportunity to ditch the soft liberalism of the Tory modernisers in favour of a return to Thatcherism red in tooth and claw. He had successfully turned the focus of the political debate from how to rebuild the economy to a focus on the debt that had been incurred as a result of bailing out the banks. This allowed him, once in office, to launch an enormous programme of cuts to public spending and welfare, cutting the safety net from the poorest and the most vulnerable. The ‘nasty party’ was back with a vengeance.

This only occurred because we took our eye off the ball. Thinking that centre-left governments had become inevitable we failed to focus on the threat from the unreconstructed right. But the Tory threat is once again all too real, and if the Conservatives can win power again they will obliterate what is left of the welfare state, slash services for the poorest, bankrupt local councils and maintain only those public services which are useful to the upper-middle classes. Britain will become an ever more mean-spirited, hostile, inward looking country – pandering to xenophobia and anti-poor bigotry while the wealth of the super rich remain untouched. There are many ways by which we may, if we’re not careful, allow them to do this. By failing to vote. By voting for the Liberal Democrats, a party once to the left of Labour, but now determined to ally with the Conservatives in another hung parliament. By treating voting as an expression of ethical purity rather than tactics and voting Green in Labour-Tory marginals. By pompously declaring that we cannot bring ourselves to vote for Labour, however good our reasons may be. In the end it’s very simple. In every constituency, vote to make sure a Conservative or a Conservative ally cannot win. It’s the golden rule of British politics that we forget at our peril – whatever you do, keep the Tories out.

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Free – A Manifesto

Also Published on Huffington Post UK

1. Free is good. We should make as many things as possible free.

2. Making more things free will make us more free – because we need access to resources in order for freedom to mean anything.

3. Everyone will feel more free because of the lack of gates/checkouts and the reduction of the use of money will free our minds from having to constantly think about money.

4. There will be a stronger sense of community as we will all be able to share a wider range of social spaces and meet there as equals.

5. So free is better for everyone, not just those with less resources.

6. Free means: paid for out of general taxation and free at the point of use. View full article »

Also Published on the Huffington Post UK

Whatever the make up of the next government – one thing is for certain – it will need to find more revenue. All parties are committed to deficit reduction, and as services and benefits have already been cut to the bone, the only way is to increase taxes on those who can afford it most. Raising taxes is always politically tricky – here’s how to pull it off:

1. Focus on the richest – the top 10% in either income or accumulated wealth. Don’t put up taxes for anyone else – you need as many allies as you can get.

2. Clearly explain what the top 10% means – the top 10% of households have at least £967,000 worth of wealth, in pension funds, property and possessions (compared to total wealth in the bottom 10% of households of £13,000. The top 10% of earners make at least £53,040 a year. Just because someone doesn’t ‘feel rich’ doesn’t mean they aren’t.

3. Point out that most people are not rich – only 19% of taxpayers pay higher rate income tax (meaning than they earn more than £41,000. The average UK income is £26,500. If you’re lucky enough to own your own home (36% of us don’t), the average house price is £250,000. The idea that someone earning £60,000 and living in a £600,000 house is ‘ordinary’ in wealth terms is laughable.

3. Don’t be waylaid by sob stories – many people will come forward to say they are not really rich / are on ‘ordinary salaries’ / have worked hard / deserve a break. Stick to the facts – these are people with substantial disposable wealth and when the country needs additional funds it is better to raise them from increasing taxes on this group than by cutting spending on the poor, cutting services for everyone or increasing public borrowing. View full article »

Also Published in Huffington Post UK

There aren’t many things that all politicians agree on, but on housing there is a clear consensus: we need to build more of it. They compete to out do one another; Boris Johnson’s London Plan has a target of 42,000 new houses per annum in the capital while Ed Miliband has pledged to build 200,000 nationally each year by 2020. Most of these are likely to be in the areas of most demand – London and its surrounding commuter belt. Writing this week in the Evening Standard Miliband laid out a series of measures he would use to increase house building in the capital, including forcing local authorities to build more, and compulsory purchase of unused land.

Everyone is trying to respond to the boom in house prices that makes London and much of the south-east increasingly unaffordable. The orthodox solution is the one offered by the politicians – increase supply. Prices are rising due to high demand; the only way to bring down prices is to build more. Suppose this is correct. Hundreds of thousands of people wish to live in London because of her booming economy and abundant job opportunities, so we build housing to accommodate them. How far do we go? Do we fill up every available site with the highest density accommodation possible, forcing us all into increasingly tiny dwellings? As it stands there is probably enough demand to replace every park, library and school playground in London with tower blocks. Do we really want to turn London into Hong Kong? Even if we manage to protect our existing parks and public spaces, surely as London’s population increases we will need to create more of them – we’ll need more libraries, schools and community centres and they can’t all be on the tenth floor of a new development. View full article »

Also Published at Huffington Post UK

The picture has got a lot clearer. Following Ed Balls weekend announcement, all the main parties will go into the next election promising a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament. The Conservatives are pledging to do so by 2018-19, though on George Osborne’s past record this will probably be pushed back a few years, with another ‘rolling target’. Labour has said it will reach a budget surplus on current spending (excluding investment) by 2020. The Liberal Democrats plans, as usual, are in line with Osborne’s, but will be, in some unspecified way, ‘more fair’.

All parties hope that economic recovery will do most of the work for them. The more people in employment the greater the tax receipts and the lower the benefits bill. A bit more inflation wouldn’t hurt either, decreasing the real cost of the national debt. Despite all this, there will probably need to be further savings/tax rises – and there will be increasing pressure on all the parties as we move towards May 2015 to spell out how they plan to do this. George Osborne has suggested he will balance the books purely by cutting spending. This is implausible – social security has already been cut savagely, leading to increased poverty and homelessness. Spending in non ring-fenced government departments has also been cut to the bone – it’s hard to see how areas like local authority spending, justice and higher education can suffer further deep cuts without suffering disastrous consequences. Labour has put forward a few revenue-raising ideas, the most recent being a 50% tax rate for earnings in excess of £150,000 per year. Despite the howls from the super-rich and their defenders in the press this is perfectly sensible (and could even kick in at £100,000). Remember that the top rate was 60% for the first 9 years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The 50% tax is likely to raise considerably more than the Conservatives are suggesting – tax receipts from the previous 50% rate were distorted by the short time it was in place, as high earners organised their affairs to take bonuses and earnings in the years before and after it kicked in. But even if the rate raises the £10bn Ed Balls has suggested, this won’t be enough to plug the fiscal hole.

So we need to look at other options. The most promising area is the assortment of tax exemptions that cost the government large amounts of money and mostly subsidise the wealthiest. View full article »

Also Published on Huffington Post UK 

The start of 2014 has been marked by the announcement of yet another assault on Welfare spending – a planned £12bn in cuts targeting the very poorest. The ground for this has been laid by a relentless campaign to distinguish between ‘them’ – the people on benefits, and ‘us’ – the people who pay taxes. This is illustrated clearly by Channel 4’s divisive Benefits Street. It’s clear that tinkering around the edges, promising to reverse one cut or another, is not going to cut the mustard. We need a wholly new approach – a basic income for every adult.

The idea of a basic income is not new – some version of it has been advocated by thinkers as diverse as Martin Luther King, Bertrand Russell and Milton Friedman, and has proponents from across the political spectrum, from Socialists to Free Marketeers. Versions of it have been implemented in AlaskaIran and Brazil, with recent trials in villages in India and Namibia. The idea is simple – every adult receives an equal amount each month, tax-free, regardless of income or circumstances. Unlike benefits, which are withdrawn as you earn more, creating a ‘benefits trap’ where accepting a job can leave you worse off, the basic income would be guaranteed, making sure work always pays. There are a host of other advantages: currently unpaid work such as bringing up children and looking after elderly relatives would be financially recognised by society. Part-time work would be more viable, for those that want a little more time to study, pursue new interests, or spend more time with their children. Students would have less debt, people would be able to refuse unpleasant jobs (or demand a higher wage for them) and vulnerable people would no longer be stigmatised as ‘benefit claimants’. A basic income would also fund a whole range of socially beneficial activities that are not currently rewarded such as voluntary work and local community activism. View full article »

Who’s Afraid of Rent Controls?

rent controlRenting is London is out of control. This is well known to most people – especially those who are unfortunate enough to be tenants themselves.There are a range of issues, short contracts, expensive estate agent charges, poor maintenance etc. But the biggest issue is simply price, the extortionate cost of renting in London that makes it impossible for many to remain in the city especially as the government and the mayor require housing associations which want to build any new sub-market housing to increase rents on both the new and existing properties towards a laughingly titled ‘affordable rent’ of 80% of market value. As a result London is becoming less of a mixed city, and increasingly a playground for the wealthy, which threatens to destroy everything about London which makes it great. So what can be done?

The most obvious solution, one that would be supported by the vast majority of the renting population is rent capping. By this I mean not only a cap on the rate of increase the landlords can charge to existing tenants (although that would be a start) but a legal maximum that landlords could charge for their properties. The rate would probably differ across the city – it would be set by councils who would categorise properties along similar lines to council tax bands. Such a policy is in operation in many countries across the world such as Holland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark as well as in some American cities such as New York and Washington D.C. Introducing such a policy in London (one of the least regulated rental markets in the developed world) could be transformative, making life easier for renters and their dependents, ensuring London remains a mixed city. View full article »

On Tactical Republicanism

I’ve always been an apathetic republican. I don’t like the hereditary principle, but overthrowing it has never been a political priority for me. When said leader seems to have only symbolic power, it just seems low on the list of key issues after, say, housing, low wages, unemployment, climate change etc. I reckon most of the population feels similarly. If they were designing a system they wouldn’t start from here, but given where we are they can’t see why they should bother getting excited about republicanism; they feel the current setup is eccentric, but basically inoffensive. As a result republican campaigners fail to get much traction – they are seen as cranks pursuing a faintly irrelevant cause, or worse, people who have a personal animus against the queen, almost universally seen as a nice old lady doing her best for the country.

The trouble with this state of affairs is that it rests on the assumption that the monarchy has no real power and the queen is only a symbolic head of state. This is not the case. The monarchy still holds a range of powers – which are rarely used, but the threat of them constitutes power regardless. There are a whole range of royal powers which are no longer held by the monarch but which allow the prime minister to act in a dictatorial manner, bypassing parliament. And the role of head of state means that in a crisis situation or a political vacuum, power would ultimate rest with the monarch. View full article »

The Case For Tax

Remarkably, tax has reappeared on the political agenda. Following the direct action activities of UK Uncut, popular attention is now being focussed on tax evasion by large corporations, something with the government is now pledging to address.  Even more surprisingly, there have been some Conservative thinkers that have been suggesting that certain taxes could be raised, namely wealth taxes on assets rather than earning. All this is in striking contrast to the New Labour era, when any raising of income tax was taboo, and increases in spending had to be funded largely by growth and debt (including PFI). But this new mood has not extended to any discussion of taxation in general, and why it might be necessary. It is still often viewed as a bad thing, or an unfortunate necessity. On a recent edition of Newsnight in which MPs were asked what the point of tax was, the answers given were distinctly underwhelming, each falling back on some version of ‘we need tax to fund public services’.  Such confusion and obfuscation is typical of the current debate around tax—while everyone wants more of it on ‘the rich’ and less on themselves, philosophical explanations for taxation are rarely articulated. We need to go beyond this and investigate the differing rationales for taxation, the different ideologies that they spring from, and the position on private property that each ideology ultimately relies upon.

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It has been all too common to hear journalists and columnists writing off Occupy London as ‘anti—capitalist’. ‘If they don’t like capitalism’ they say in almost—unison ‘ why don’t they just move to North Korea?’ The assumption is clear: there are only two choices. Either you have capitalism, exactly as we currently have it, or you have complete state control of the entire economy and a communist state. This is lunacy. There are many ways to organise society and the economy, and to suggest that there is only a simple binary choice is disingenuous nonsense. Even the most neo—liberal state has some services provided by the state, and the most socialist countries have always had markets of some kind. We a really faced with a series of spectrums, of state control/market and egalitarian/libertarian, and a range of choices that fit into no easy ideological boxes. There are many changes we could make to make our society more stable, more equal and more sustainable without reinventing the wheel. Here are 10 suggestions for change that don’t depend on global revolution.

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