What does Inequality Look Like? 

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Bryan Gould, was a Labour  MP, and now lives in New Zealand.

What does inequality look like? In a society where the gap between rich and poor has widened significantly, what evidence of that gap would one expect to see?
A dramatic and painful answer to that question was provided to us this week with the shocking image of the burning London tower block. If we ever wanted evidence of how – even in a society that is relatively affluent – the poor can be disregarded while the rich pursue their own interests, this was it.
The “towering inferno” occurred in one of London’s most affluent boroughs. While around 120 poor families were crammed into Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block, most of the borough comprises leafy suburbs and million-pound houses.
The borough’s elected local authority apparently saw it as its first priority to lift property values in the borough and, as a necessary step to that end, to corral the poor into limited locations, getting them off the streets, out of sight and out of mind. The residents of Grenfell Tower, it seems, sensed that this was the case – a perception borne out when the concerns they repeatedly expressed about the safety of the tower block were ignored.
We all saw the consequence of that neglect. It is already clear, even before the necessary inquiries into the tragedy have been set up, that the building was unsafe and had been from the moment that the first tenants had taken up residence.
There were, it seems, no fires sprinklers. The fire alarms were inadequate. The building design made no attempt to inhibit an outbreak of fire and on the contrary ensured that flames would spread rapidly. Worst of all, it seems that the cladding attached to the building when it was refurbished a little time ago was of “limited combustibility” – and we now know that any degree of combustibility was too much.
These manifestations – literally of “care-lessness” – reflect an order of priorities that should have no place in a civilised society. The local authority seems to have been more concerned with saving the ratepayers money, avoiding “unnecessary” regulation, and promoting the interest of the wealthy in seeing property values rise, rather than in providing a safe living environment for those who could not afford to buy their own homes.
We might have hoped that the democratic process would have ensured that the interests of the poor could not have been so easily swept under the carpet. But, sadly, the western world offers many instances of how democracy can be diverted to serve the interests of the already powerful. In Donald Trump’s America, for example, the President is celebrating his “achievement” in denying health care to 23 million Americans so that he can deliver billions of dollars in tax relief to big corporates.
In New Zealand, we like to think that we are spared such excesses. We know, because we read about it, that there are people who are homeless – living in cars and garages – and that there are many children growing up in poverty, suffering ill-health and inadequate education as a result.
We read about it, but it fails to make an impact on us, because our own lives are relatively comfortable. It is someone else’s problem – the government’s – and when we cast our votes to elect a government, we are more concerned with how much tax we pay than about the cold, damp rooms, the overcrowding, the wheezing lungs and the empty tummies.
Thankfully, these attitudes do not produce by way of consequence – or have not done so far – anything remotely as dramatic as a flaming tower block. We do not, after all, have many tower blocks available to test out degrees of combustibility – or culpability.
But the damage we do to ourselves – as a society and to its individual members – can be just as serious as the fire at Grenfell Tower. The flames that engulfed so many were a demonstration – cinematic in its power and intensity – of what inequality can mean. We have persuaded ourselves that we can live with the less dramatic but no less lasting penalties that we choose in effect to impose on our fellow citizens.
We may not force them to jump out of burning windows. We simply condemn them to a lifetime of disadvantage.
Bryan Gould 16 June 2017

Who Are the Labour Ideologues Now?

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Whatever the outcome of the Labour Party leadership contest, it is clear that there is a huge gulf between the grassroots and a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  Many MPs are left looking shaken and bewildered by the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn.  However, they shouldn’t be so shocked.  As far back as 2007, Jon Cruddas topped the first round of voting for the deputy leader.

‘There’s much more life in the party than I thought,’ says Cruddas. ‘When I started I thought the party had been hollowed out. But the result shows that the ‘virtual’ politics practised at the centre, the politics of positioning and messaging, was out of touch with the party.’

 

The history of the Labour Party and of the UK would have been very different if Bryan Gould had been elected leader instead of John Smith and the transatlanticists like Blair and Brown.  In the re-posted piece that follows, Bryan Gould sums up the consequences of the Labour Party capitulating to the economics of Margaret Thatcher. 

Who Are the Ideologues Now? (UK)

By Bryan Gould – 3 August 2015

It is a truism of today’s political analysis that, over the three or four decades since the so-called “free-market” revolution swept across the western world, the centre of political gravity has moved substantially rightwards.  Most of those of middle age or younger will have grown up, after all, in a world where it has been widely accepted that markets are infallible, that government spending is wasteful and a drag on economic development, that running a country is just like running a business, that we all benefit if the rich get richer, and that private profit justifiably overrides all other considerations.

So insidious and comprehensive has been the advance of this orthodoxy that even those who choose to question or oppose it are hard put to understand how complete has been its victory.  As we see from the current plight of the Labour Party, political leaders who seek to offer alternatives are disarmed and enfeebled, without realising it, by their experience of growing up within its confines.  They are, in any case, urged – on electoral grounds and even by their friends – to accept the new reality; and that reality, of course, keeps on moving inexorably rightwards.

This re-definition of the political landscape has meant that what would once have been regarded as the extreme outer edge of what is politically possible is now the new centre ground.  Any divergence from this central position is, by definition therefore, literally eccentric; and any move away from “free-market” orthodoxy is condemned as either a return to the past or an irrational lurch leftwards.

These definitions of centrality and divergence have the further advantage, for their proponents, of confirming a long-held public perception.  In the days when the political left was prepared to challenge existing power structures, they were undoubtedly helped by their development of an ideology of sorts that allowed them to ground their objections to orthodox policies in some loosely defined analytical framework.  The consequent identification of the left as the doctrinaire element in the political spectrum seems, however, to have inhibited today’s leaders of the left, if the current contest for the Labour Party leadership is any guide, from straying too far from orthodoxy for fear of appearing too ideologically driven.

The right, by contrast, was usually seen as pragmatic and concerned solely with what would work.  Politicians of the right still seek to prolong that advantage by clothing their steady move rightwards in the language of experiment and exploration of what is possible, rather than of ideology.  They have also learned to proceed stealthily, one small step at a time, with the intention of concealing from the public that each new step is in reality a further development of a highly ideological agenda.

That may, however, be about to change.  As the tide of ‘free-market” orthodoxy has reached its high-water mark and appears to be receding (at least in most parts of the western world other than the euro zone), it is more and more likely to leave exposed to public view those new policy initiatives that seem to have little to do with common sense and practicality and to reflect much more clearly what are doctrinaire preoccupations.

Those preoccupations are becoming increasingly apparent.  The priority accorded to the drive for private profit, for example, has led to well-publicised failings in delivering what were once public services, epitomised by the misfortunes of Serco – an international firm operating, among other things, as a private manager of prisons and under pressure for its failures in a range of countries.

Privately owned academy schools, an idea that has now been shown even in Sweden, its country of origin, to produce disastrous results in terms of educational standards, will nevertheless no doubt continue to be supported by enthusiasts on the ground that business people are best placed to decide educational priorities for our children.

And what about the wacky idea, now being contemplated by New Zealand’s right-wing government, of financing the delivery of social services to some of the most vulnerable, including the mentally ill, by selling bonds to private investors who will then look to make a profit from their “investment”?

What links all of these and many other similar ideas is that they have little to do with what will work and best serve the interests of society and its citizens.  They are instead all statements of ideologically driven preference – in each case, a preference for private provision, not because it works better, but because it is a faithful rendition of “free-market” theory.

It seems, in other words, that the usual view of the left as doctrinaire and the right as pragmatic is in course of changing.  It is now the right that espouses the ideological approach and that will go on doing so for as long as it is not held to account and its bluff is not called.  It is the left (when it can make up its mind and, like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, reclaim its courage) that has the opportunity to offer new alternatives to free-market orthodoxy – alternatives that are not the product of doctrine, but that are simply sensible and practical and likely to produce better outcomes.  Isn’t it time that Labour’s leaders caught up with this new reality?

 

What Labour Can Learn from the Corbyn Leadership Campaign

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What Labour Can Learn from the Corbyn Leadership Campaign

by Bryan Gould

First posted 6th September 2015

No one, surely, could begrudge Jeremy Corbyn the odd chuckle or two when he contemplates, in his private moments, the consternation he has caused by his unlikely candidature for the Labour party leadership. It is not just the discomfort of his opponents, though that is sufficient cause no doubt for a little schadenfreude, but the fact that so many expectations have been confounded by someone who has been for so long dismissed as a nonentity, a fringe figure and a relic of the past.

It may be that the sweetness of his achievements so far will be as good as it gets and that the “sanity” narrowly defined by his opponents will in due course be restored. It may even be that, in his heart of hearts, he would be secretly relieved if that turns out to be the case. It would be true to his self-image and temperament that he should see himself as the catalyst for change, rather than as bearing the responsibility for putting it into practice.

But, as the possibility of a Corbyn leadership looms ever larger, it is the reaction of his opponents that is truly instructive. That reaction has developed from incredulity, then on to alarm and indignation, and finally to resentment and anger. How could someone as ill-fitted for the task, as unworthy of consideration, as out of touch with political reality, possibly be on the threshold of walking off with the party’s leadership and challenging for the role of Prime Minister?

These reactions are typical of those who feel that an impostor and an interloper has cheated them of an inheritance that is rightfully theirs. Those in the party who have steadfastly trodden the middle way, who have shown their superiority, by recognising “political realities”, over those who do not have to bear parliamentary responsibilities, have long grown accustomed to deciding the party’s fortunes.

For them, Ed Miliband was bad enough, but could, in the end, be restrained. With his defeat, they now want what they have lost returned to them. When the attempt is made to deny them that birthright, they want to vent their anger at the perpetrator by unmasking him and showing just how misled his supporters have been.

So, the “mainstream” stance on Corbyn is to focus on his lack of experience, on the skeletons in his cupboard, on his supposed inability to win a general election. And when those who have the votes and the power to decide seem unmoved by these considerations, there is nothing left but to impugn the bona fides of the voters themselves.

The Corbyn phenomenon is to be explained, it seems, because those tens of thousands of newly enthused actual and potential Labour voters who have joined the party – an unfamiliar sight, after all – are, in reality, “entryists” whose real purpose is to destroy the party and make further Tory victories inevitable.

There must surely be a more rational and constructive approach than this negativity, whatever the outcome of the leadership election. With or without a Corbyn leadership, is it not worthwhile to ask why so many people were ready to support him – not, in other words, what is it that disqualifies him as a leader but rather, what did he do and say that attracted so many to his cause?

We don’t need to look far for the answer. Jeremy Corbyn dared to suggest, along with the IMF, that austerity is an inappropriate and destructive response to austerity, that government has the responsibility to use its power and resources to strengthen the economy and share its fruits more equitably, that the OECD is right to say that inequality is not the price we must pay for economic success but a major obstacle to it, that – as the Global Financial Crisis demonstrated – the market is not infallible and self-correcting, that the drive for private profit is not a guarantor of efficiency, that we must cherish our most important resources by raising the health and education levels of ordinary people, that we are all better off if burdens and opportunities are fairly shared and if every shoulder is put to the wheel.

These may be unwelcome or unacceptable ideas in some quarters, but surely not in the Labour party? As far as we can tell, they are ideas that, however frightening they may seem to Labour’s power-brokers, have appealed to a significant part of the electorate who have not hitherto found much about Labour to enthuse them.

They are ideas that deny the mantra that “there is no alternative”, that challenge the voters to think about better ways of doing things, that look forward to new hope that a healthier, more inclusive, society and economy are within our reach.

If we were not so keen to condemn him, if we would look at what his candidature has achieved, could the Labour party as a whole – with or without a Corbyn leadership – not learn and benefit?

 

Do the Germans Realise the Damage They Have Done to Themselves and Europe?

Do the Germans Realise the Damage They Have Done to Themselves and Europe? Bryan Gould

From Bryan Gould

The Wehrmacht had a crack at it – but that attempt ended in disastrous failure 70 years ago. The long-held dream of German hegemony throughout Europe is, however, back on the agenda and closer than ever to realisation.

The Greek crisis threw up many sub-plots – many of them of great significance of course to the Greeks themselves. But the real story of the Greek crisis is one of much wider import. It has stripped bare to the public gaze just where the pan-European project is really heading.

What we have witnessed over recent months is a painful lesson being handed out to the Greeks – but even more importantly to the rest of Europe. Opinions may differ as to how responsible the Greeks may be for their own plight but what is now clear is that being part of “Europe” does not allow for any back-sliding if events move against you.

So, the Greeks – having already being forced to accept over several years the most destructive of austerity packages – have not only been compelled to accept yet another instalment but have also been stripped of their powers of self-government and of democracy itself.

The bail-out deal forced through the Greek parliament at the behest of European creditors makes absolutely no sense in economic terms. Even the IMF agrees that it makes it impossible for the Greeks to produce the resources needed just to service, let alone repay, their debts; and that is both totally unreasonable and lacking in reason, not only for the Greeks but for the creditors themselves.

But it is the geo-political consequences that are most worthy of note. The Greeks have been treated with scarcely concealed contempt. They have been deliberately and ruthlessly humiliated. The wishes of the Greek people and of their elected government have been over-ridden by external forces who have no concern for their welfare.

The Greeks have suffered this fate, not because they are uniquely culpable, but “pour encourager les autres”. The message has been deliberately designed for the rest of Europe. It is addressed to all those other small and medium-sized members of the euro zone who have suffered under the austerity regime forced upon them. The message is stark – there is no escape.

Any country that might contemplate, as an alternative to euro-austerity, the reclamation of the powers of self-government and monetary sovereignty will be ruthlessly cut adrift. Even the Greeks, benighted as they are, could not brave that fate. The euro-zone is quite evidently a straitjacket, centrally applied and disciplined, whose rules over-ride democracy and the interests of ordinary people.

And who or what, exactly, runs this arrangement from which there is no exit? It is German economic power. The troika of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission may look comfortingly like a European or even international authority, but the levers of power are actually moved by the German government.

One of the most significant aspects of this unfolding landscape is the extent to which the Franco-German duumvirate, which we used to think actually called the shots, has been left in ruins. The Germans have felt no inhibition or compunction in letting it be seen that it is their view that must prevail. It is a measure of growing German confidence that they could quite publicly reject the preference of their erstwhile partners for a softer approach, and focus instead on giving overt priority to what they see as German interests.

The mailed fist is now clearly visible. Any country in the euro zone that steps out of line will find itself forced back, with its own government and parliament sidelined and left impotent. There can be no debate. There can be no alternative to austerity; neo-classical economic policy and continued stagnation at best is, by decree of the German government, the only option.

The German goal is to establish German hegemony across the whole European economy by ensuring that the policies framed in Berlin are adopted and applied across the continent. They have not found it necessary to fire a shot. But the way forward is not without its risks and casualties.

Any misapprehension about how Germany sees its role in the new Europe has now been dispelled. German ambitions will henceforth be looked at much less tolerantly, and will meet increasingly strong headwinds. Angela Merkel’s confidence that she no longer needs to dissemble about those ambitions will certainly be put to the test.

More importantly, the European ideal has been seriously compromised. A Europe revealed as simply a vehicle for German power is a very different entity from the force for peace and unity which has been sold to us so far.

Europe over many centuries has faced the problem of restraining whichever was the dominant power of the time. They have usually succeeded, one way or another. That is unlikely to change. The Greeks will not be the only ones to pay a price for their bail-out. Europe’s future, too, is now more clouded and uncertain.

Bryan Gould