Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jeremy Corbyn on UK Labour's Housing Policy

Jeremy Corbyn has described the “chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower” as a monument to a failed economic and housing system in the UK as he set out Labour plans for city-wide rent controls and a crackdown on gentrification projects. Pn17.
The Labour leader used his speech to his party’s first annual conference since stripping Theresa May of a parliamentary majority to deliver his long-held ideological vision for Britain, declaring the neoliberal economic model “forged by Margaret Thatcher many years ago” as broken.
Corbyn said his views, once seen as on the fringes of the Labour party, now represented the centre ground, which he said had shifted from where “establishment pundits” claimed it to be. “This is the real centre of gravity of British politics. We are now the political mainstream,” he said, contrasting Labour’s enthusiasm with a Tory party he claimed was “bereft of ideas and energy”.

In a deliberate break from the economic policies of Tony Blair, Corbyn promised more state intervention in housing and utilities and said he was ready to increase taxes on big business, in a 75-minute address to a sometimes rapturous audience in Brighton.
The Labour leader emerged into the hall to chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” from cheering delegates, some of whom waved red scarves above their heads. “It is quite infectious. Let’s make sure the whole country is infected with the same thing,” he said of the enthusiasm in the hall. 
Corbyn reserved his most detailed proposals in the speech for housing. He promised that a Labour government would ensure tenants on estates being redeveloped would be allowed to return to them once they were rebuilt. 
Councils would also have to win ballots of local residents before being allowed to embark on regeneration projects. Land held by developers but not used would be taxed, Corbyn added.
He promised that cities would be given the power to control rents, and his advisers indicated that he wanted to go further than a pre-election promise to limit rent rises to the inflation rate. “Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections,” Corbyn said. 
Labour sources said the party would be looking at models of rent control in cities across the world as part of a review, and said the property market was “dysfunctional”.
Corbyn said: “We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers and have the power to compulsorily purchase. As Ed Miliband said: use it or lose it. Families need homes. No social cleansing. No jacking up rents. No exorbitant ground rents. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower,” he added, quoting the poet and novelist Ben Okri.
Corbyn’s clear shift to the left and promise to rein in free markets came as Theresa May prepared to make a spirited defence of capitalism in a speech on Thursday to mark 20 years since Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, made the Bank of England independent.

The prime minister, who began her professional life at the bank in 1977, was expected to say: “A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.”
Labour sources said Corbyn’s vision was not about dismantling capitalism, but about rebalancing the economy with more state involvement.
The speech drew widespread criticism from business groups, who said they were opposed to more state intervention and felt Labour was not representing their interests, even though some of the policies such as rent control and utility nationalisation appear popular with the public. 
The CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn said there were “few warm words” from the Labour leader. “Repeated rhetoric on the sins of a handful of businesses does little to reassure anxious entrepreneurs and investors about the UK’s future as a great place to do business.”
Corbyn argued that the election result had forced the Tories to drop policies including the so-called dementia tax, plans to means-test the winter fuel allowance, proposals for more grammar schools and the prospect of fox-hunting being brought back in. “They seem to be cherry-picking Labour policies instead, including on Brexit,” he said.
“I say to the prime minister: you’re welcome. But go the whole hog – end austerity, abolish tuition fees, scrap the public sector pay cap.”
He argued that the Labour party was ready for government and sought to contrast it with the state of the Conservative government, mocking May’s election slogan by saying: “They are not strong and they are definitely not stable. They are hanging on by their fingertips.”
Corbyn also attacked the media in the speech, saying they were “under instruction from their tax-exile owners to destroy the Labour party”. He said one paper had devoted 14-pages to attacking Labour, and the party’s vote had gone up by 14 points. “Never have so many trees died in vain,” he said, adding provocatively: “Here is a message to the Daily Mail editor: next time make it 28 pages.”

Play Video
 Boos as Corbyn mentions Daily Mail in conference speech – video

He said Diane Abbott had borne the brunt of much of the abuse – a line that prompted the audience to rise in standing ovation and sing happy birthday to the shadow home secretary. “She suffered intolerable misogynist and racist abuse,” he said. In a nod to the party rule change on abuse passed on Tuesday, he went on: “There can never ever be any excuse for any abuse of anyone, we are not having it, not accepting it, not allowing it.”
However, Corbyn was criticised by some commentators on social media for failing to explicitly mention antisemitism after controversy over comments made at a fringe event.
The Labour leader’s heaviest attack on the Tory government came over Brexit as he accused them of having a “hopelessly inept negotiating team” and putting “posturing for personal advantage” over the national interest.
After a week in which Boris Johnson was accused of undermining the prime minister and chancellor before and after a critical speech in Florence, Corbyn said: “Never has the national interest been so ill-served on such a vital issue. If there were no other reason for the Tories to go, their self-interested Brexit bungling would be reason enough.”
Facing pressure from his own party on Brexit over calls to remain permanently in the European Economic Area and maintain free movement, Corbyn promised Labour’s approach would guarantee “unimpeded access to the single market”. He promised an approach to Brexit “that puts our economy first, not fake immigration targets that fan the flames of fear”.
And he promised: “We will do politics differently. And the vital word there is ‘we’. Not just leaders saying things are different, but everyone having the chance to shape our democracy”. He said Labour would make “business accountable to the public, and politicians truly accountable to those we serve”.

There was a limited number of new policy proposals, including a promise to change the organ donation law and warnings of fines for big companies that failed to complete gender audits. Several policies from the party’s 2017 election manifesto were repeated, including a pledge to nationalise the water industry.
But there was a backlash from business. Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce claimed there were concerns with both main political parties, “with one flirting with fantasy economics while the other engages in an unedifying playground bust-up”.
Stephen Martin, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that while business leaders weren’t expecting praise they would be disappointed to hear nothing positive about companies “large and small, that form the bedrock of our economy”.
The Conservatives claimed that the cost of enacting all of Labour’s pledges had now spiralled to £312bn. Damian Green, the first secretary of state, said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s speech summed up the problem with Labour: lots of big promises, but no explanation of how they would deliver them.”

Since you’re here …

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What to Do About Poverty and Destitution in Fiji

 This is an article I wrote 20 years ago that was intended for publication in The Fiji Times. The statistics are dated but the theme and possible solutions are as valid now as they were then. And they are just as relevant to New Zealand. Croz Pn16.

"Change" was a term also used in last week's NZ election. Pn16
(Unused article prepared for the Fiji Times, based around my presentation. Journalist attended instead, and wrote a very unbalanced article which caused a backlash from the Wesleyan church.)

Asking how many poor people there are in Fiji is like asking how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. If we accept that there are angels, any number could be the correct answer, but we would have no way of knowing if our guess was correct. Angels are not a daily-sighting in Fiji. Sadly, the same cannot be said for poverty.

The UNDP/Government of Fiji Poverty Report published in 1997 said ten percent of the population did not have enough money to meet basic food needs; 26 percent could not afford basic general needs; and a further 33 percent could easily slip into poverty. This was the situation at the time of the 1990-91 Household Income and Expenditure Survey. This week Pratap Chand (Fiji Times, 24 July) says poverty has doubled in two years and over half the population now live on incomes below the poverty line. He may be right; he may be wrong, but either way the figure doesn't really matter. Most informed people know that there is poverty in Fiji; that it affects the lives of many people; and the Bureau of Statistics Household survey now underway will almost certainly show the situation has got worse. But whether 20, 40 or 60 percent of the population is poor is really of less importance than working out plans to reduce - and, over time, eliminate poverty. No one wants to be poor, and no normal person wants others to live in poverty.

What is needed are answers, and an understanding of the things which prevent us from seeing them. No one person has all the answers. But these are my ideas on the sort of things we should be looking at.

Correct answers come from asking the right questions. If we're wrong on what causes poverty, we'll be wrong on how to eliminate it. Most of the beggars we see in the street are women, elderly or disabled. These people are not poor. They are destitutes. Nothing we or they do will make them less old or less disabled. They will never be able to fully support themselves. Destitutes need "safety net" support such as that provided by the Government's Poverty Alleviation Fund, but far more of it. No one in an urban area should need to live on $7 a week, the minimum amount of support. The maximum for families is $36, less half the UNDP poverty line.

The poor are not destitutes. Most poor people are employed, but the income they receive is barely enough to survive. Some say people are poor because they are lazy but poverty is no more linked laziness than hard work is to wealth. Many people work hard and never become wealthy. Others say people are poor because they are uneducated or unskilled. But these are consequences of poverty, not its causes.

Over-simplified causes result in the over-simplification of solutions. Projects like improving rural water supply will make healthier poor people but they will still be poor. Economic growth and more foreign investment may produce more jobs but unless wages are increased, the new workers will still be poor. A thousand quick fix or band aid "solutions" like this have been tried. They have all failed to eliminate, or even significantly reduce, poverty.

To end poverty we need to re-think what we want to do with our lives, and what sort of society we want to live in. Religious people could also ask about the purpose of life, and re-think their obligations to other people. Everyone should ask what it is in this society that keeps people poor, and what can be done about making changes. This may seem rather starry-eyed, but Fiji of all countries should know the social and financial costs of not asking such basic questions.

Government, of course, has a major role to play in ending poverty. It is not up to a vulagi like me to say what should be done, but I think a good start would be to appoint a Commissioner of Social Justice, or make poverty a central concern of the Human Rights Commissioner. One of their important jobs would be to examine all Government legislation to see whether it is pro- or anti-poor, and be the focus, or rallying point, for all pro-poor activity in Fiji.

In a capitalist society, poverty will not end without the co-operation of the Business sector and the wealthy. They need to see that one of the costs of doing nothing (or too little) about poverty is ever increasing levels of crime and violence. A recent New Zealand study found that each murder cost the taxpayer over $1 million. One wonders what the dollar cost would be in Fiji. One must also ask whether poverty played any part in Fiji's recent political troubles and how much money that cost the wealthy and the country.

Poverty will not end until there is some redistribution of wealth in society. The UNDP study found that 25 percent of the population received only five percent of incomes, and the top ten percent 35 percent of incomes. This is a very unequal distribution of wealth. No rich person wants to pay more taxes but they may be more prepared to do so if they can see how much poverty costs them (in tax, security, insurance, and peace of mind) and if they have some say in the way some of their taxes are used. Overseas, some businesses have formed "socially responsible" business associations. Government could reward socially responsible business people with public honours, and tax relief in some areas.
The poverty problem also needs a strong, vocal and active civil society. This means a media that is free and "socially aware", and an education system that prepares young people, not just to pass exams but, just as importantly, to be tolerant of other cultures. Religious and community leaders have a special responsibility. Reducing poverty should be a central issue of deep concern to them.

With the goodwill of government, business, civic leaders and opinion-makers, and an active Commission of Social Justice (or economic Human Rights) destitution in Fiji could end tomorrow, and poverty could be greatly reduced in the not too far distant future. Fiji has suffered much in the last few years. These wounds need to heal before the country can mount a full-scale attack on poverty. "Fiji the way the world should be" will not be achieved overnight. But with the problem faced and re-thought, and with the goodwill of those with power and influence, the elimination of destitution and extreme poverty is not an unrealistic goal.

Monday, September 25, 2017

New Zealand and Fiji: How Much Fairer They Could Be. This Blog is Changing its focus

Not to scale
Pn15. Fiji. My previous focus on the political situation in Fiji has now largely served its purpose, and I find myself increasingly out-of- date with everyday happenings.  I think some progress has been made since the elections but that many improvements are still needed in freedom of expression. Readers are particularly invited to comment on this broad area of remaining concern. 

Pacific and the world
 Occasional mention will also be made of other Pacific Island nations and territories -- and other countries when media and civil rights issues are raised.

New Zealand has just had an election that also raises media and civil rights concerns.  It is with these that the blog will mainly focus over the coming months. As always, informed comments will be welcomed and unfair personal attacks blocked.