Monthly Archives: May 2014

European Elections

By winning the European election outright UKIP have certainly come of age, and they can now justifiably claim to be serious contenders for government rather than just fringe players picking up protest votes. The reaction to UKIP’s victory has been predictable, with the usual allegations of racism and personal attacks on Nigel Farage and other UKIP members, being bolstered with various allegations of corruption and incompetence. It’s also amusing that over the last few weeks the media has done its utmost to attack Farage and UKIP to try and bring them down, but since that policy backfired so terribly, UKIP’s opponents are now claiming all the publicity they got gave them an unfair advantage. They can’t have it both ways!

Critics of UKIP fall broadly into two camps: Labour/Conservative supporters who are absolutely terrified that their decades of political dominance is about to end; and radicals on the Left who see in UKIP (and the other European right wing parties who did so well in the elections), some kind of rerun of 1930’s Fascism which can only end in disaster. The Labour/Conservative axis deserve everything they get, because it’s their Free Market Capitalist policies which caused the economic crisis in the first place, and their adherence to the corrupt first-past-the-post voting system which has led to such widespread voter discontent with the existing political classes. The sooner those two parties are gone the better.

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Marine le Pen’s Front National won France’s European election vote. Picture © Jérémy Jännick

For the rest, there are undoubted parallels with the 1930’s, but we shouldn’t get too carried away  – the world is a very, very different place now from what it was then. Fundamentally what has happened is that for the last 70 years people have been terrified of Nationalism, as the last time  Europe went on a Nationalist frenzy we had two World Wars and tens of millions of people died. In the intervening period the EU has basically been a  political project to try and stop such things ever happening again, and Nationalist tendencies have largely been suppressed in favour of ‘Europeanism’. But you can’t force change on people against their will, eventually things revert to type, and now the pendulum is swinging back and people are losing their fear of openly expressing pride in their country. Nationalism is returning, and whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant: it’s a fact and we’re all going to have to work with it.

It’s very difficult to predict where all this will end up, but I for one don’t believe it’s true that pride in your country means you have to be racist, and nor do I believe that war is the inevitable consequence of Nationalist movements. What is clear is that the EU has become an out-of-control Free Market Capitalist project, and issues of uncontrolled immigration are just one of the many problems it has caused for its member states. With the rapid rise of Eurosceptic Nationalist parties the EU is going to have to reform itself pretty quickly, otherwise it will soon be breaking up. Likewise the political elites around Europe, who for so long have done what they like regardless of public opinion, are also going to have to change their ways otherwise they too will soon be swept away.

Right wing parties like UKIP may not be the answer (and in the case of UKIP specifically, their support of Free Market Capitalism means they most definitely aren’t the answer) but for now they’re the ones making all the running in bringing political change, and unless and until any other political groups can get their act together, it’ll be the Nationalist parties that continue to lead the charge in bringing down our rotten and corrupt political system.

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Business Destroys Nature

Further evidence of the way in which the corrupt pursuit of profit destroys all in its path  was provided this week, with the announcement that Natural England (the government body charged with protecting the countryside), is planning to allow the unlimited destruction of Robin, Starling and Wagtail nests*. This may seem a rather bizarre thing for a conservation agency to allow, but further investigation reveals the sordid chain of events that led to this decision.

Officially destruction of nests will happen if they pose a ‘hazard’ (though I’m sure most people would struggle to think of circumstances when Robin’s nests would be considered dangerous). However the effect of this legislation will be that anyone will be allowed to destroy any of the nests of these birds with legal impunity. So why has this decision been made, and more importantly, who stands to benefit from it? Well for starters, the construction and housebuilding industries will benefit massively.

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The Starling: numbers are falling, and with this legislation they’ll be falling even more. Picture © Airwolfhound

Currently builders have to halt their building work if birds’ nests are discovered, and cannot restart until the birds have finished breeding. With this legislation they will just be able to destroy any nests that get in their way, whenever they want – how very convenient for them! Which leads us to ask  how it is that such  legislation has managed to get passed by a body which is supposed to protect the environment, not destroy it? Could it possibly be anything to do with the fact that the construction industry has donated millions of pounds to the Tory Party over the last few years?* Or is that just a coincidence? More tellingly, it’s highly suspicious that the recently-appointed chairman of Natural England, Andrew Sells*, is himself an industrialist, with a strong background in the housebuilding industry, and a record of giving large donations to the Tory Party?* Or maybe that’s just a coincidence too. In the murky world where politics and business now merge, it’s impossible to know who pulled which strings where, but when the ruling party is being funded by corporations, and government bodies that are supposed to protect nature do just the opposite, it can only point to further evidence that our parliamentary processes have been utterly corrupted by the power of money.

Nature is under severe threat from the pursuit of profit all over the the globe, and with this bit of legislation, Starlings, Robins and Wagtails in the UK are under a bit more pressure too. What a lovely world we are creating for ourselves.

* Refs: Nest Destruction: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/18/bird-killing-call-robin-starling-mallard-splits-conservationists Construction Industry Tory Party Donations: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/hands-off-our-land/8754027/Conservatives-given-millions-by-property-developers.html Andrew Sells Chairs Natural England: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/dec/06/andrew-sells-natural-england Andrew Sells Tory Party Donations: http://searchthemoney.com/associate/3164

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AstraZeneca

The ongoing takeover battle for British Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca shows the inherent contradictions in Free-Market Capitalist thinking, and in particular the conflict between what is good for the people, and what is good for the massive corporations that bestride our planet.

Free Market theory is unequivocal – you let businesses do what they want, and competition will ensure they generate vast wealth which will benefit us all. Except of course it doesn’t work that way, which is why the government is in such a quandary over whether to let the takeover by Pfizer go ahead.

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If the takeover goes ahead none of AstraZeneca’s operations will be safe. Picture © Erik031

It is obvious to everyone that the only thing that matters to Pfizer is making money for themselves, and that they will stop at nothing to achieve that. If it benefits them financially then you can guarantee that jobs will be lost, research operations will be closed down or moved abroad, communities will be destroyed, and a major part of the British Pharmaceutical industry decimated. The British government also knows full-well that any guarantee it gets from Pfizer in advance of the takeover won’t be worth the paper it’s written on*.  Just as with the takeover of Cadburys by Kraft a few years ago, once the deal is complete they will go ahead and do whatever they want. (And in any case what is the use of a ‘five year’ guarantee – what Pfizer are currently offering – compared to the decades it has taken to build AstraZeneca into the company it is today).

In addition, Pfizer’s promise to move its headquarters to the UK for tax purposes (as the UK currently has lower corporation tax than the US) will of course only last until another country undercuts our rate of tax, at which point they will be off. (This is the so-called ‘race to the bottom’, where countries compete to offer the lowest tax rate to businesses: with the only winners being the corporations who play countries off against each other, and the losers being ordinary people who see their public services relentlessly cut as a result of the lost tax-revenue).

So the politicians stutter and prevaricate, unable to admit that the  economic philosophy  they sell to us is fundamentally flawed, while business leaders rub their hands in glee at the prospect of yet more wealth being transferred into their greedy hands from the impoverished masses . Until we have a political system that truly speaks for the interests of ordinary people, and an economic system that shares wealth equitably, takeovers like this will continue, and the increasing division of our  society between the haves and the have-nots will only get worse.

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27403777

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Nigerian Abductions

The news that the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram had abducted 276 schoolgirls broke into the  mainstream media this week, with Western leaders falling over themselves to condemn this atrocity and with it Islamic Fundamentalism. However it is worth taking a step back and looking at the wider picture, and in particular just what it is that makes large numbers of people support or even join such an outfit.

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Ordinary people in Nigeria suffer massive environmental damage caused by Western Oil companies, but share little of the wealth. Picture © Chebyshev1983

Nigeria is an incredibly rich country, with huge oil reserves that make it the 11th largest oil producer in the world. It is also growing at over 7% per annum  and has just overtaken South Africa to be the largest economy in Africa. However it is also a country riddled with corruption, where a wealthy elite keep most of the riches for themselves, leaving the vast majority of the people in poverty (over 60% of the population live on less than $1 per day).  The Northern provinces of Yobe and Borno*, where Boko Harem has come from, are particularly deprived. As well as widespread poverty, the internal Nigerian security services are notorious for their extreme violence and the brutal way they deal with any dissent*.

So, vast swathes of the Nigerian population are angry and dispossessed, with little opportunity to change things for the better under their brutal and corrupt government. Against that backdrop it should come as no surprise that many of them turn to desperate measures, and the more impressionable of them (particularly the younger ones who see no hope for their future) fall under the influence of charismatic but violent zealots.

And how  does the West react in the face of all this wrongdoing? No surprise, the lure of money means we’re more than happy to put all our beliefs in human rights to one side, as our oil companies fall over themselves to operate there, and so continue to prop up the regime. In addition, our oil companies have a terrible reputation in Nigeria for causing  widespread environmental damage*; so as well as helping their government steal their oil, we’re also wrecking their ecosystem as well. It’s hardly any wonder that with the West so heavily involved in the abuse of their country, the Islamists see us as being guilty by association, and their hatred of their government also becomes hatred of the West and our values.

Now if all this sounds familiar then let’s turn to another, much more infamous fundamentalist Muslim group. A country incredibly rich in oil, with a wealthy elite that does little to improve the lot of its citizens, and which rules with brutal and repressive force. The West, lured by the attraction of untold wealth, is more than happy to put all its basic principles aside and ignore human rights issues, instead doing everything it can to trade with and prop up this regime. Eventually some of the people of this country get so fed up with the corruption they turn to Islamic Fundamentalism, and their hatred of their government transfers into hatred of the Western Governments that support it. The country of course is Saudi Arabia, and the group is Al Quaeda.

Now no-one can support rape, murder, torture, kidnappings and all the other dreadful aspects of extreme religious fundamentalism. But it is also incredibly naive to think that all those things exist in isolation, are simply the product of a few evil minds, or spring spontaneously out of nothing. If you treat people badly they will become desperate, and will eventually start behaving badly themselves. They will then target anyone they hold responsible for their lot, and unfortunately the West is knee-deep in the corruption and brutality that they are forced to endure. Which takes us all the way back to Free-Market Capitalism. Our behaviour in those regions is the result of a blind belief in the power of the ‘market’ and the lure of profit. Human rights have no value in such a system and so are ignored wherever possible. The end result is 276 innocent girls being kidnapped – and until we in the West can see the extent to which we and our economic systems are complicit in such behaviour,  atrocities like that will continue to plague us all.

*Refs: Poverty:  http://www.nigeriancurrent.com/ck88-news/poverty-is-cause-of-insurgency-in-yobe-borno-senator-lawan Police Brutality: http://saharareporters.com/press-release/increasing-spates-police-killings-brutality-and-abusenigerian-government-must-end-impu Environmental Damage: http://www.globalissues.org/article/86/nigeria-and-oil

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Rent Controls

Since Ed Milliband’s statement last week on housing, the issue of Rent Controls has returned to public debate. Those who seem to think that Free-Market economics should be used to run everything have inevitably risen up with a vengeance, and accused the Labour Party of following a Socialist agenda more akin to the government of Venezuela. This is of course poppycock.

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Germany: Where Rent Controls contribute to a superbly managed housing market. Picture © Doris Antony

There are many different ways that Rent Controls can be implemented, and a discussion of what works and what doesn’t work  is too complicated to go into here. However in principle, the idea that a central arbitration body should objectively decide whether a certain level of rent is fair or not, is clearly a very good way to do things. Far better than the system we have now, where an uncontrolled market means rents rise faster than incomes, and ordinary people can be made homeless just on the whim of some greedy landlord. It’s also worth remembering that for every argument or example put forward by the anti-‘s of how it can’t work, there is just as potent  an argument or example of how it can. It’s also worth noting that they always avoid mentioning Germany, which has got one of the most stable, fair and affordable housing markets in Europe, and which has Rent Control!

Fundamentally the arguments about Rent Control are not about the practicality and workability of the policy. They are an ideological battle-ground between those who blindly believe in Free-Market economics at all costs, and those who believe some level of government intervention is required, if the wealthy and the privileged aren’t to be allowed to systematically exploit the poor and the disadvantaged.

Rent Control can be badly implemented, and there are examples of that, but if done properly it can ensure ordinary people have affordable secure tenancies, while giving landlords sufficient return to justify their efforts and encourage investment. Also, and highly significantly, the constraint on rising rents also acts as a constraint on rising house prices, which means that homes stay more affordable for those who want to buy. It also stops house price bubbles, the like of which was a significant factor in the recent financial crisis. In summary, do we treat homes as a basic human need, which should be fairly available to all, or are they just a means of financial investment for property speculators and buy-to-let landlords? If you think the former then Rent Controls are the way to go.

For a fuller account of how Rent Controls could be implemented here, read this excellent article in the New Statesman:

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/02/we-need-rent-controls-solve-londons-housing-crisis

And for a very detailed comparison of the German and British housing markets, and how Germany has been successfully employing Rent Control for decades, read here:

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/06/how-germany-achieved-stable-and-affordable-housing.html

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