Thatcher – One thing to thank her for

I was in two minds whether to contribute to the expected rush of articles and blogs on the death of Mrs Thatcher. I have certainly resisted the temptation of instant tweets or Facebook posts. However, a tweet from Ian Lavery MP (Wansbeck) persuaded me that we should all record our experiences and thoughts about this woman. He ‘tweeted’ that it would be “cowardly” not to comment.

I grew up in the 1980s with parents who were far from political at the start of the decade, but who ended the decade as two of the most active members of the local Labour Party – candidates at every local election, branch and GC officers, conference delegates and so on. It was in this environment of the late 1980s, on a council estate in Tory Harrogate, surrounded by boxes of Labour Links, crumpled rosettes, ‘knocking up’ pads and canvass cards that my own interest in politics and specifically socialism developed. Once of my earliest Labour Party memories is of my sister and I hand-writing thousands of envelopes for the free mailing in the 1987 general election. I was only 6!

It pains me to say it but Mrs Thatcher did have one positive effect on my family and I – she politicised my parents (both of whom used that political passion to read, study, return to college and qualify as teachers), which was instrumental in making my own politics what it is today.

History has a habit of ignoring the facts, as I can see from my Twitter feed or Facebook timeline. I will not be celebrating the death of Mrs Thatcher, not because I look back with rose-tinted glasses like so many do, but because of what she made me. She made me compassionate about fellow humans, something that she was not. Going with my parents on protests and rallies in the late 1980s, seeing the effect the Poll Tax or rising rents and fuel bills had on my family convinced me that this Thatcherism as it was being named did not work. Even at that early age I could see that this wasn’t fair. Watching news reports about the homeless, visiting London in 1988 and seeing (for the first time) rough-sleepers, watching the unending greed in the City, reading about good communities in the north being decimated in the name of Thatcherism; all these things made me realise that what should shape politics is compassion. The reverse of Thatcherism – that there are enough resources in this world for all of us to have a decent standard of living.

Watching John Gummer pay tribute just now on BBC News; he stated that “even more people would have been worse off” if it wasn’t for Thatcherism – thereby accepting that Thatcherism did make SOME people worse off (presumably the millions and their families who lost their jobs in our industries). How can it be that this goes unchallenged? Thatcher taught me that any ideology that makes SOME people worse off is wrong – instead we need an ideology that gives EVERYONE a decent home, a decent job, a decent education and decent protections.

So tonight, I am not celebrating. I have never celebrated the death of anyone, in fact I feel distinctly uncomfortable when the world celebrates the death of ‘terrorists’ or ‘brutal dictators’. Instead, I shall remember the harsh reality of the 1980s and today – the facts of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy; huge inequality. I will be hoping, more than I have hoped for anything, that the true legacy of Mrs Thatcher can be a Labour government in 2015 which is proud of ideology (just as she was), but an ideology that is built on compassion and socialism. As a compassionate human being I have never celebrated the death of anyone no matter how lacking in compassion they were in life.

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Shouting down Labour MPs will not stop the Bedroom Tax

Yesterday I joined hundreds of others at the Bedroom Tax protest in Newcastle, at what I was hoping would be a broad based coalition of people who oppose this vicious tax and that could send a message to Westminster (to all political parties) whilst also engage with members of the public who may not be aware of what is being done in their name.

I was delighted that two good Labour MPs, Chi Onwurah (Newcastle Central) and Ian Mearns (Gateshead) would be speaking from the platform, along with speakers from a cross-section of socialist groups, tenants groups and people directly affected by the Bedroom Tax.

Sadly, the protest was spoiled for me by two or three vocal anti-Labour campaigners who tried to drown out Chi Onwurah and Ian Mearns and demand that Labour be excluded from the rally.

Those who know me and know my politics, will know that I am a passionate defender of the Labour Party and what we should stand for but at the same time I have been a harsh critic of the direction we have taken in recent years. Indeed I have some sympathy for the frustrations of comrades on the left who despair at the failure of the Labour leadership to come out emphatically and commit to repeal the Bedroom Tax if we form the government after 2015.

However, attacking good socialists like Chi Onwurah and Ian Mearns is not going to help bring down this government. Ian in particular is a champion of the Left within the party. If we had more Labour MPs like Chi and Ian, and other like Grahame Morris, Ian Lavery, Jon Trickett etc, then I am sure a commitment to repeal the Bedroom Tax would have already been made.

Further, there was a much bigger concern yesterday. As anyone who has knocked on doors, spoken to friends and neighbours about the Tax, or discussed it at the local pub or club will know – many people are either not aware or are ignorant of the sheer viciousness and unfairness of the Tax. Events like yesterday in Newcastle are a great way to raise awareness and educate Having speakers shouted at just puts off a lot of people who might otherwise be ‘non-political’.

I acknowledge that there is a need for the Labour leadership to come out tougher on the Bedroom Tax and on social security generally and I accept the argument for councils to pledge not to evict tenants caught in the Tory trap. Shouting demands to good MPs who oppose the Tax will not achieve anything, except to alienate some and divide the left.

Events like yesterday should be open to all who oppose the Bedroom Tax and want to see it repealed. Of course there will be people like me who want to see councils go further in protecting tenants in the face of Tory attacks. There will also be those who want a campaign of non-payment. Whatever our responses to the Tax, we should celebrate that Labour MPs want to nail their colours to the mast and publicly state their opposition to it.

Of course it would help if the Labour Party leadership recognised the inconsistencies of campaigning against the Tax now, but being reluctant to pledge to repeal it. But, the place to make that argument is within the Labour Party – join, get involved and make sure your MP is demanding Labour repeal the Tax.

North Korea – just ignore them!

Watching news reports from South Korea it appears that we in the West are more concerned about the recent posturing by the North Korean leadership than South Koreans who would be first in the line of fire. As the US (and bit-part player the UK) ratchet up the rhetoric, perhaps the best strategy would be to just ignore the threats?

North Korea has a relatively new leader, who could be using this opportunity to buy valuable credits for future negotiations over aid. By talking up war, and then backing down at the inevitable talks to avert war, the North Korean leader can play the tough leader at home and the level-headed negotiator abroad.

Further, the relationship with China is not what it once was. North Korea can no longer rely on the silence of China, even less the support of China. This is not the 1980s or 1990s. China is increasingly looking to establish itself as a major rival to the hegemony of the US, and a noisy neighbour in North Korea will not help it fulfil its global objectives.

Finally, is North Korea really a threat to the US or the UK? I suppose the reality is that nobody really knows, but sensible analysis would land on the side of North Korea not being a threat. The country has been isolated for decades, increasingly so since the collapse of the USSR and the more recent cooling of relations with China. Despite a large army, North Korea would lack the capacity and might to conduct a modern war, especially against the US. It very much reminds me of the events that led to the invasion of Iraq ten years ago; we were constantly told that Iraq had WMDs and that it represent a real and immediate threat. We then watched US and UK forces invade with relative ease, against an Iraqi army that was inferior.

Every response from the US and UK will be met with more extreme threats and grandstanding from North Korea. In my view the best response would be to ignore the threats, and continue with quiet diplomacy about the wider issues of peace and poverty on the Korean peninsula.

Zero-hours Britain: A return to the nineteenth century

Labour Exchange QueueWhen my partner and I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne last year, one of the first attractions we visited was the excellent Discovery Museum. We were particularly interested in an exhibition which charted the social history of Tyneside. One display stood out; that which described the effect of the 1920s and 1930s recession on families who were reliant on the docks for work. The panel described how hundreds of men, desperate for work, would queue up at the dock gates from the early hours until the dock supervisor decided how many labourers he needed that day. The remainder were sent home with no work for that day.

Having being sheltered by the relative security and stability of working in a unionised workplace for 13 years, where changes to terms and conditions were generally negotiated and I always knew from one month to the next what my pay would be, I encountered ‘zero-hours’ contracts for the first time last year. I had taken redundancy and enrolled on a full-time degree course as a mature student.

The first eye-opener for us was when we started to look for work for my partner, who had a long employment history with an exclusive independent hotel. I had naively thought that similar jobs would always be available. I could not have been more wrong. Several applications and interviews, which were attended at great expense, passed. Finally my partner found what appeared to be the perfect job; Housekeeper for a national hotel chain. The advert offered full-time hours and we thought working for a national chain would provide security and better conditions than working for a smaller, independent hotel. A national chain may even recognise a Trade Union!

A few days after my partner started her new job when she brought home her employment contract. She was concerned as the opening paragraph informed her that she was employed as “an occasional worker”, despite the position being clearly advertised as full-time and being told at both interviews (both of which included a return train journey of 200 miles) that she would be working 35 hours a week. We were both incredibly distressed. My partner had only joined me in Newcastle on the basis that she had secured full-time hours, and now we were left with no way of knowing how much she would earn from one month to the next. It soon became only too clear what the reality of ‘zero-hours’ meant. Far from being an option to assist workers who need flexible hours, or to cover genuinely ‘occasional’ workers, these contracts were applied to all hotel staff.

With my student loan and my partner working for the minimum wage, we had a very tight budget to stick to. However this was planned based on her having 35 hours’ work, anything less would have a serious impact on our monthly budget. After the first two weeks it became clear that we had no ability whatsoever to budget. Some weeks my partner was given four days’ work, other weeks just two days. On one Saturday she arrived at work (after a journey involving two buses and lasting about forty-five minutes) to be told they had no work for her that day, and none for the following week. Even if we could speculate as to what her income would be it was pointless trying to access tax credits as she is only 24 and is considered too young to receive support from the state.

A further, and often ignored, problem of zero-hours was that her shifts were not planned until the Friday before the week started on Monday, presumably as the hotel wanted to confirm exact guest numbers before rostering staff. This meant we were also unable to plan spending anytime together, we could not plan to visit friends and family in our home town as we never knew from one week to the next which days my partner would be working. Essentially she was totally beholden to her employer. What could she do? In my previous workplace the Trade Union would have taken up the case and almost certainly would have secured permanent rights for her and the other staff, particularly as the job advert had explicitly stated the post was full-time. However with no Trade Union to speak on her behalf she would have been a lone voice, coupled with having no employment rights for the first two years would probably have been sacked.

How have we allowed this to happen in the twenty-first century? Wasn’t this exactly the conditions in the nineteenth century that led Liberal pioneers to push for reform of the relationship between employer and worker and later the birth of the Labour Party to achieve parliamentary representation for the very same people who today are being exploited by zero-hours contracts? We hear much from all three political parties about the need ‘for work to pay’, yet hundreds of thousands of workers are being exploited in this way. Unable to budget, unable to forecast, unable to plan family and social time off work, and unable to complain or speak out for genuine fear of being sacked with no right to seek redress at an Employment Tribunal. Those who can, will rely on the state to top-up their incomes, but for most state assistance will be out of reach. Yet at the same time governments can report lower unemployment and higher employment, while ignoring the plight of these zero-hour workers who are fast becoming akin to the Victorian underclass.

Labour MPs are rightly starting to speak out about zero-hours contracts, but Trade Unions and Labour must come together to ensure that a future Labour government commits to outlaw them except in very specific, short term cases (such as bank nursing, or supply teachers, where the worker has made a conscious decision to work on an ad-hoc basis). Labour made great inroads into the scandal of agency workers being used as de-facto full-time workers so that employers could circumvent employment rights, and Labour must do the same with zero-hours contracts.