The rise of ‘British’ people power

A guest post by Adam Parsons

This weekend in central London, amidst the falling snow and crowds of Christmas shoppers, British protesters carried out their biggest day of mass action this year – the targeting of major high street retailers to highlight the issue of corporate tax dodging.

On the surface, the cause of the protests might seem nothing new; campaign groups have long pointed out how Britain loses an estimated £100 billion a year to tax dodging by multinational corporations, money that could double funding for the ailing National Health Service and finance poverty reduction programmes throughout the developing world. Many non-governmental organisations, such as the Tax Justice Network, have dedicated years of high-level research and advocacy work to the important field of tax and regulation, boldly declaring on their website homepage that “tax havens cause poverty” – a cause that is seldom discussed around most kitchen tables and widely ignored by most governments.

Yet on Saturday, hundreds of protesters braved the freezing weather and carried out 55 separate protests up and down the country in the name of corporate tax evasion, closing down several high street stores on the busiest shopping day of the year. For a British public renowned for its stiff upper lip and middle class respectability, there is no real precedent for hundreds of people storming through the commercial maelstrom of Oxford Street – without prior permission from police authorities, as in the usual city demonstrations – and chanting such slogans as “Pay Your Tax!”, or “Where Did All The Money Go? He Sent It Off To Monaco!”. In Brighton, some activists even glued themselves onto store windows as a way of stopping trading.

Contrary to what the establishment Daily Telegraph newspaper reported, the main victims of the protests were not the people trying to buy Christmas presents for their loved ones. As Jeremy Wight reported in Red Pepper, most shoppers weren’t at all annoyed with the tax protesters – in fact, many of them joined in the sit-down demonstrations and showed “a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity”, even ordinary ‘shoppers’ who had known nothing about the cause.

The obvious reason for this drastic change in public sentiment is the harsh austerity measures currently being pushed through by the UK coalition government. As expressed by UK Uncut, the umbrella group that has organised the nationwide protests which first began on December 4th; “If you’re angry that the government is cutting services for the poorest and most vulnerable whilst letting the rich avoid billions in tax, then please join us, even if you have never been on a protest before.” Tax justice is back on the agenda because people can clearly see the link with ‘austerity’, now that the government’s rhetoric on public sector cuts is being exposed as a confidence scam.

“We will not accept a cabinet of millionaires cutting services for the poorest and most vulnerable”, says a press release by UK Uncut. And clearly the public now ‘get’ the tragic irony of Sir Philip Green, the billionaire owner of the high street fashion empire Arcadia, avoiding paying £285 million in taxes to the public purse whilst advising the government on austerity measures and cuts within the civil service.

An emerging spirit of protest

But it could be that the UK tax protests have a far wider significance, and not only for British politics. Many commentators are already calling them the most valuable protests in Britain for years – a cause that could force the government to reign in the tax avoidance strategies of the super-rich, and lead to fewer public sector cuts and a more equal country. The energy that is galvanising the public on Britain’s high streets is the same energy that mobilised the previously inert student population to suddenly erupt in protest, almost overnight in November, against the market-driven privatisation strategy for university education. If the government wants to bring the market into education, say the student protestors, then we’ll “bring education into the market”.

So the same students occupying universities in protest against tuition fee hikes are organising outside Topshop and Vodafone, tied together with orange rope to symbolise the bondage of student debt, and educating the public about the impact of tax avoidance on public spending. According to openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett who attended Saturday’s protest on Oxford Street; “This is where UK Uncut links to the student protests which were never just about fees but against the imposition of a world without choice – except for what was on calculated offer from a financial system that is patently unjust and probably failing.” Under such a wide and inclusive banner, it was not out of place for a group of men dressed as Santa – under the name Santa’s Against Excessive Consumption – to join the protests, sing witty carol songs, and promote the message: “Santa’s Home Is Melting: Christmas Consumption Causes Climate Change”.

In the space of a few weeks, student riots have evolved into a nationwide movement characterised by intelligent, humorous and peaceful direct actions – from flashmobs and pamphleteers to slogan chanters and sit-down protesters – now mobilised via Twitter and Facebook and communicated across the globe. “After the long, drowsy years of apathy and inaction”, says the author Dan Hind, “debt and celebrity-worship are over. In Britain, as elsewhere, the public is back.”

The question that remains is not only how this new movement will continue to evolve in Britain, but whether it can connect with the popular protests in other countries through its fundamental call for equality and justice. As 2010 draws to a close, there is reason everywhere for much apathy and pessimism about the new year ahead – the continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the shift to the right by many national governments, a worsening financial climate leading to further job losses, the ongoing failure of global negotiations on climate change, the privatisation of public services and austerity measures in many countries, and the prospect of increasing poverty and inequality in both the Global North and South.

But at the same time, a cause for hope and optimism can be found in the changing form of anti-austerity protests across Europe. Eventually, the emerging spirit of protest in the United Kingdom must recognise the possibility of a united global public voice – one based on an inclusive and unified demand for governments to reorder their distorted priorities. Such a possibility of concerted international action for justice is no longer a pipe dream, as the web-based political movement Avaaz has been demonstrating for the past four years. Perhaps the sudden creation of a British protest movement at the end of 2010, based on a peaceful form of solidarity that is far more powerful than any call for revolution, is the latest indication of a worldwide public opinion in the making. Let’s hope so.

Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources. He can be contacted at adam(at)stwr.org.

This post was originally published  here. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Lib Dem luminaries should stay put

This week has seen a raft of luminaries, and even a genuine A-Lister in Colin Firth, announced their desertion from the Liberal Democrats. I think we do need to applaud anyone who makes a principled political stand – it does take a certain amount of courage. But it does leave me feeling a little sorry for the Lib Dems. And a little perplexed as to what these people were doing in the party in the first place.

Alongside Firth, the Lib Dems have seen Jeannette Winterson, fellow novelist Phillip Pullman, philosopher and sociologist Richard Sennett, and academic David Marquand retract their support for the party.

On the one hand, one does wonder what these people thought was going to happen at the general election, and whether they know anything about the UK’s (admittedly unwritten) constitution. A Tory victory without a majority was always likely, and in that context all MPs have a duty to the constitution to seek to form a stable government. There may be issues around the Lib Dems conduct in office but you do have to keep in mind they are a junior member of this coalition.

On the other hand, one also wonders whether they had actually given much consideration to who messrs Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Laws really are. Had they never read the Orange Book? David Laws indeed described his party’s short time in government with the Tories as an ‘oranging process going on at a rapid rate’. People think the Tories are cleansing their brand by getting into bed with the Lib Dems… equally, the Lib Dems are shedding their own image as a bunch of cuddly lefties, a la Charles Kennedy. This lot have always been in favour of small states and free markets; this is the return of classical liberalism to British politics.

I’m not criticising Clegg et al for believing what they believe (well, not today anyway) but rather the do-gooder tendency within the party’s base which never seemed to get what the new leadership intended to do.

That said, that doesn’t mean that these people should be deserting now. Political parties are by necessity broad churches – if they believe in what the party stands for, they should stay and fight to put things right, at least until they start invading places. By running for cover now just because their hands are getting dirty, they are only reinforcing the view that the Lib Dems aren’t really ready for the demands of high office – and as such, helping Clegg to justify why he got into bed with Cameron and Osborne.

The political economy of snow

Guest post by PencilCase

“Many schools and offices have been closed for a second day”, said the BBC correspondent, “so at least some people can enjoy the snow”; the implication being that he certainly wasn’t. Of course, he might simply have been expressing genuine sympathy for those people across the country who have been hit hard by the weather this week; those stranded in vehicles, or working for vital services that really can’t shut up shop when the snow starts to fall. However, if I was being a little more mischievous (and I am), I would suggest that our man in the field was just a little put out that he wasn’t one of the millions who could enjoy a day off from the daily grind to build a snow man, or curl up in front of the fire with a good book. Over the coming days and weeks, talk will be of infrastructure disabled, of man-hours lost and ‘lessons to be learned’. Such responses are indicative of a culture that has become drearily fixated with the pursuit of economic efficiency. From the boardroom to the classroom, we have become a nation of po-faced auditors, joylessly (and often counter-productively) assessing, reordering and restructuring every aspect of our little lives to eek out economies here, a smidgen of increased productivity there. To the earnest citizen of this drab, audit republic, there can be few things worse than snow; erratic, unplanned and unstoppable, it disrupts the predictable rhythms of modern commercial society, sending its solemn guardians into paroxysms of despair. But it will be fine. Everyone knows it will be fine. The snow will stop, the economy will not collapse, the sky will not fall in (though that, ironically, was sort of the problem in the first place).

Bound up with this relentless focus on efficiency is a puritanical and unyielding attitude towards work. We all know those people who never miss a day at the office, succumbing neither to illness nor inclement weather. Certainly, there is something to admire in their almost stoical attitude, in their desire, as Churchill would have phrased it, to ‘keep buggering on’. But one begins to wonder where this approach to life comes from and, sometimes, what purpose it really serves. During the summer, writing at the other end of the thermometer, writer and academic Joe Moran published a thoughtful article challenging our assumptions about the moral righteousness of hard work, cheekily celebrating the idle grasshopper in Aesop’s pious fable of the grasshopper and the ant. A timely piece, Moran hoped that the global financial crisis would provide an opportunity for developed nations to take stock, for people to reconsider what is truly valuable in life, and to perhaps place a little less emphasis on economic efficiency and material measures of prosperity and a little more on free time, family and friendship. And yet, as the UK coalition government began to spell out its plans for the coming age of austerity, “which requires us to put a price on everything”, Moran worried that already the opportunity had been lost, “now the ants are on the march again, all of them warning that the grasshoppers will die in penury”.

Earlier this month, the government announced its plans to start measuring the UK population’s happiness and to integrate its findings into the policy-making process. The idea has been met with derision by many who feel it is little more than an ill-timed gimmick; at best fatuous nonsense, at worst sinisterly Orwellian. But perhaps this is the first big political step to be taken in the UK towards a post-material conception of national prosperity, that looks beyond traditional, and somewhat crude, measures of performance such as GDP. Might we, at long last, be turning off the narrow road of efficiency, to stop and admire the view from a different perspective? Might future periods of heavy snowfall be met by serious acknowledgement, not just of the millions of working days lost, but also of the fun days had?

While the idea of better understanding national happiness and its policy potential is laudable, seen in the context of the government’s wider programme, the current plans seem superficial. Set amongst a familiar raft of neo-liberal policies and targets – public spending cuts, privatisation and consumption-based growth – the happiness indicator looks little more than a feeble concession to a more radical political economy. A genuine concern with human happiness and wellbeing leads us inevitably into a more profound discussion about the organisation and purpose of our economic life, about the reasons for pursuing ever more GDP growth and rising incomes when evidence shows that this does not make us happier beyond a certain point and when such growth, without doubt, causes massive environmental damage. A number of books published in recent years make a powerful case for a new politics of wellbeing, which present a direct challenge to the political economy of both Thatcher and New Labour. Madeleine Bunting’s excellent Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruining Our Lives urges a collectivist and interventionist approach to tackle the trend seen in recent years of longer working hours in Britain and the US, which, she argues compellingly, has done enormous damage to the quality of individual and family life. Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better is a more general argument for greater equality, but contains specific findings on the link between mental ill-health and inequality, with particularly profound implications for very unequal societies like the UK. What such works reveal, I think, is that the case for a new politics of wellbeing requires a radically new political economy that is the natural territory of the left, not the right. The global financial crisis undermined, in spectacular fashion, the credibility of the neo-liberal argument that, whatever the unpleasant social side effects they may cause, deregulated free markets offer the only plausible path towards lasting prosperity; an argument which has cowed the mainstream left for a generation. The time is ripe for a new paradigm to match the radicalism and vision of both post-war Keynesian social democracy and that of neo-liberalism itself, as its ideas and policies first began to break through in the 1970s. Unlike the last major ideological transition of the Thatcher-Regan years however, this time it is the left that holds the intellectual and moral high ground, bolstered by its traditions of collectivism, economic interventionism and its belief in the possibility of a better and fairer society.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to see where new and bold ideas might come from, and, more importantly, who might champion them. Obama promised much, but, for reasons not necessarily of his own making, he has proved anything but a new Roosevelt. In the UK, Ed Miliband made some interesting statements during his leadership campaign about the need for a new, less brutish, style of capitalism that would yield to the needs of people and planet, yet it is by no means assured that the Labour Party will agree on a radical, alternative policy agenda. But perhaps it is a mistake to look to one person, or one party, for inspiration and answers to all our problems. Solutions are likely not to come from one figure – either charismatic politician or bearded sage – but from numerous individuals, groups and organisations working doggedly for a better future. Take as some starting points, IPPR’s New Era Economics programme, the New Economics Foundation’s Great Transition project and the recent pamphlet published by the Citizen Ethics Network; all of which share an ambitious vision and some practical ideas for a different way of living. If you find yourself snowed in again over the next few weeks, take some time off and have a good read, because that office in-tray really can wait.

The City versus the people

By Daisy Blacklock of Dress to the Left

Here is some history that may surprise you. In 1191, the City of London – the mysterious stronghold of UK and international finance capitalism – declared itself a commune. Before that, the Norman Conquest took the British Isles with unbridled ferocity, yet William the Conqueror ‘came friendly’ to the City of London, allowing it to keep its freeholders, common law, its imperatives, and its language. And despite many attempts thereafter to rein in the City, none succeeded. Instead, in 1688, the Glorious Revolution consecrated the City’s freedom to lie “explicitly outside of national sovereignty, complete with its own customs, rights, assets, and privileges, from time immemorial.” It has lain outside regulation ever since.

These were just some of the revelations of “the peculiarity of the development of free-trade imperialism” that newly-elected Labour peer Dr Maurice Glasman shared with the economists and activists assembled at Monday night’s New Political Economy Network discussion. Ideology and frustrations ran high as the forum wondered whether the City of London could ever be regulated to work in the best interests of the UK populace, by strengthening the influence of democratic politics over the wielding of capital. But how do we go about this, when there is no faith left in the interventionary power of politics?

The potential for Ed Miliband’s next generation of Labour to show real governance over the City was completely absent from talks. Glasman was certainly sceptical. New Labour has too much to answer for, for accepting the domination of the City of London, and its interests, in the provision of financial services and growth policy. It is New Labour’s “lack of any effective democratic agenda” to rein in neo-liberal enthusiasm that has resulted in the “predatory and usurious nature of economic policy” that bodies such as Citizens UK and Compass have been campaigning against.

The bank bail-out – which by Glasman’s calculation is “the largest single transfer of wealth from poor to rich since the Norman conquest – gave greatest exposure to the overriding interests of capital over the people. “And that’s not including quantitative easing, along with the rest of the loans to and aids and subsidies to the financial sector.” Yet the promise of effective, public-interested banking reform, which was to make this transaction worthwhile, seems to have been all but forgotten. According to Costas Lapavitsas, Eurozone expert and Professor in economics at SOAS, both government and populace have undergone a process of ‘financialisation’ where profit-making from production has been replaced by profit-making through the mediation and circulation of capital, which has become the centre-point of the finance industry, and the key to its free-market instability.

There is much talk of re-regulating the banking sector, said Lapavitsas, and yet it was not the deregulation of the City that led to the economic crisis. On the contrary, “We’ve had regulation up to the eyeballs” in “market-conforming regulation” which assumes that financial institutions will regulate themselves if the emphasis of controls is placed on the “liability side of financial institutions’ balance sheets, particularly on the capital owned by the institution, and capital adequacy in particular.” This is how banks have expanded over the past few decades: by making most of their profits from mediating unstable capital transactions within the open market, unhindered. This has directly allowed for greedy and irresponsible banking practises, such as those regarding the mark-up of interest rates, where banks, able to borrow capital at 0.5%, are free to charge their borrowers up to 350% for crude financial gain.

This kind of regulation has failed, the crisis shows that this has failed dramatically, and yet it is still with us. It has actually been reaffirmed – and this is one of the striking things of the current period,” said Lapavitsas. If this continues, we will only experience further instability, and further crisis.

And yet resistance to the current order is limited. Even the ideological power of the most prolific protests to date, the student marches against tuition fee hikes and loss of EMA, are brushed-off as trivialities by the coalition. The overriding doctrine bleats that There is No Alternative, reinforced by the “We’re All In This Together” clause: the rhetorical implementation of stasis, seeking to leave us dumb-struck while the worst prevails.

Mike Rustin, Professor of Sociology at UEL and co-editor of Soundings, was struck by the public’s resignation. “The surprise for me is that all the damage that has been caused hasn’t produced a stronger sense that there’s something really the matter with the system. What we’ve learned in the last few months is that despite people’s interests having been badly shaken by what’s happened, they have not yet been detached from their underlying belief that in the end, this is the only system we’ve got. The banks and the financial sector have infiltrated themselves to a position where even quite radical people are deterred from backing intervention, which goes to show how the idea that the banks are actually necessary to the function of the system has even penetrated the minds of their deepest enemies. I now feel it will take the next crisis before that will be manifested.”

“That won’t be long”, said Glasman.

That the language surrounding the City is just as predatory as its practises, is extremely worrying for the future of democratic–political economy reform. In his book, Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, YouGov president Peter Kellner locates the shoots of British democratic thinking around the time of the Norman invasion. The entire lifeline of the democratic process has had the autonomy of the City at the very heart of how democracy itself has been shaped and understood, which is only too clear in its prevalent fear of ‘state intervention’, as if doing so would disrupt the ‘natural’ order of things, when in fact it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that its financial sector can be directed towards the common good.

With this degree of self-interest and resistance to reform at the centre of the country’s operations, this City heart thwarts the potential for top-down strengthening of British democracy. As one audience member pointed out, “Why do you think bankers earn so much money? For the same reason the butcher’s children always eat a lot of meat, because they have direct access to the creation of money…and yet we’ve absorbed this idea that to question that is to bring down the whole house of cards.”

The consensus at NPEN, was that the answer must come from us, the people, through emboldened citizenship. This means individuals with their own economic agency, uniting in a “common good” politics that bodies such as London Citizens, (and its national frontier) Citizens UK, the New Economic Foundation, the False Economy network, and Compass, strive for. Their unity of vision in campaigning goes towards establishing an “institutional body of good that isn’t a money good”, said Glasman, and we need to mobilise this story.

Empowerment has many arrowheads. Last month Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, announced that 115 companies in the capital had signed themselves up to Citizen UK’s “Living Wage” of £7.88 per hour. This is the rate calculated according to the cost of living that would enable families to pay for life’s essentials. Workers receiving the Living Wage stand to earn £78 more for a 40-hour week than their national minimum wage counterparts working at £5.93 an hour. “Poor people have to work very hard to live, and then they don’t have any reserves, said Glasman. “They need to confront power with the fact that they don’t have enough money to feed their children.”

CUK’s Money Mentor scheme also goes some way in pushing for community-based financial literacy, training up volunteers from schools, universities, and places of worship in the concepts of credit, debt, budgeting, and consumer choices, to pass on the knowledge in their community hubs. As a direct response to the economic crisis, it works to build confidence by making use of a familiar knowledge network. Compass’ anti-usury campaign to “End Legal Loan Sharking” entered Westminster debate on 9 November, laying bare the exploitation of society’s poorest through doorstep loans with staggering interest rates (and bailiffs) attached.  

London is the most ancient democratic city in Europe, said Glasman, and yet its citizens were powerless to assert their age-hold right to a politics of democratic citizenship in preventing the economic crisis.

“We need to expose the fact that in the City you have a place with a cathedral, with its own political institutions, and no people, representing only the interests of money, while the rest of us basically live in a shanty town called the Greater London Authority, which has no city status. The City of London should be controlled by the people, the citizens of London.”

The neo-liberalism of the past 30 years has eclipsed what Lapvitsas calls “market-negating regulation”, or “the Keynesian type of regulation which used to prevail in the ‘50s and ‘60s and much of the ‘70s”.

“Here you’ve got state intervention on the balance sheet, but most importantly, the state would also regulate price and quantity in the financial markets. It would set ceilings on interest rates, it would regulate quantities, and therefore it would affect the returns of financial institutions, enabling the state to direct the returns of financial institutions where the state wanted them to be. This would allow the state to direct the financial sector in ways that the state wanted it to be directed. This went out of the window.”

“The UK actually possesses public banks, but it doesn’t treat them in that way, and I think it’s a natural demand that the banks operating under public ownership should start operating like public banks. I’d argue very strongly, that they should operate along lines that make public interest and interest in the benefits for the great majority of people paramount in their activities.

“Credit should be advanced as a public utility; credit for small and medium businesses should be regulated differently from how private banks do it. I’m not talking about credit pro gratis; I’m talking about public principles in the management of credit for households and for others.”

The return of the Post Bank is one real way of achieving this, for localised banking that people understand, said Lindsay Mackie of the New Economics Foundation. Not only will the creation of the Post Bank provide an essential, accessible service for millions of people without bank accounts, says NEF, but it will give new purpose to a threatened Post Office network.

This is the moral economy needed for transformative top-down empowerment. But if we want a state that works for us, we’ve got to fight for it from the streets, and that means getting behind the student protestors in campaigning for a good society that works in our best and universal interests: not for the casino of free-and-easy capitalism. There is always an alternative, and we’ve got to show them that the pro-citizen one is the one we’re after. To quote Neil Lawson of Compass, “This is the thing we have to do relentlessly now to leverage this brilliant analysis and these brilliant ideas, and the moment of crisis.”

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