Friday, 28 August 2009

Monday, 24 August 2009

Jamaica, Homophobia, and Hackney

I thought readers might be interested to see this intriguing article, by Diane Abbott MP in the Jamaica Observer.

In particular, the following passage slightly surprised me:

In any case, it is not difficult to imagine how a campaign on the subject of gay rights by the High Commission would be received by the Jamaican populace. Parliament is on its summer recess at the moment. But when I next see the foreign office minister appearing concerned, I will suggest that he meets with Jamaica nationals here in Britain to get a more nuanced view of attitudes to gay men and women in Jamaica. This is a delicate issue on which public opinion in Jamaica and Britain take widely differing views. There definitely needs to be more dialogue.

Of course, no one could object to dialogue over such an issue - that is how progress is made. And, certainly, an aggressive and condescending campaign on LGBT rights from the British state would not go down well in Jamaica - for many understandable reasons. We have a long history of preaching at other countries, often the ones we formerly colonised and oppressed.

However - 'this is a delicate issue on which public opinion in Jamaica and Britain take widely differing views'. Indeed, it is an issue on which people everywhere take widely differing views - some people are homophobes, and others are not. As my friend Peter Tatchell has pointed out, we can't turn a blind eye to prejudice and discrimination anywhere - because it is still prejudice and discrimination. By all means, lets be smart, strategic and enter into much needed dialogue and discussion - but lets not avoid difficult truths because they might be uncomfortable. Homophobia is unacceptable, wherever it occurs.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Citizens Income (or, Lib Dems and the truth #1)

ADDENDUM: Please treat the first bits of this post (before the links and primer) as a polemic. Fellow bloggers have pointed out that I made the mistake of accepting some of the Lib Dem assumptions on the cost of Citizens Income, whereas their figures are actually way out in both directions! The policy links and CI primer are still entirely accurate. The original Lib Dem extract that prompted this post was: "the Green Party are calling for central government payments to everyone - including millionaires - at a cost to the taxpayer of a whopping £188 billion a year."

Anyone who has been involved in UK politics for any length of time knows that the Liberal Democrats have a reputation for - how shall I put this - bending the truth. They rarely lie outright (well, only when they get desperate) - but instead rely on a subtle blend of insinuation and omission of salient facts to do the job. For example, the Lib Dem leaflet I experienced while a councillor in Oxford, which claimed that I 'VOTED AGAINST RENEWABLE ENERGY'. Yes, I did. I voted against a small amount of money for renewable energy which was in the Lib Dem budget, and for a very large amount of money for renewable energy which was in the Green budget...

So, imagine my lack of surprise when the Lib Dem pseudo-newspaper 'Hackney News' dropped through my letterbox today, complete with misleading attacks about Green Party policy (as well as the obligatory Lib Dem graph, which I will deal with in a later post, for those electoral geeks amongst you, dear readers). Apparently, we want to spend £188 billion on central government payouts to benefit millionaires.

Lets unpackage that for a moment, shall we?

The policy being referred to is the Citizens Income (which, by the by, was Lib Dem policy until their shift to the right in the mid 90s). This would guarantee every UK citizen a basic income, as of right - currently pegged at around £60 per week, to match Job Seeker's Allowance, with more for the elderly, those with special needs, lone parents, and so on. It would replace our current, insanely complex and confusing benefits system, and ensure a safety net for every member of our society.

It would indeed cost around £188 billion. Our current benefits system, which would be replaced, costs £186 billion. I am tempted to write a leaflet with the headline:


But that would be dishonest confusion-mongering of the worst sort, obviously.

And yes, the Citizens Income would be universal - that's the point. So, like current child benefit, some money would go to those in high tax brackets. But since the Green Party would at the same time be raising the highest tax brackets (particularly for those earning over £100,000 a year), the incomes of the rich would go down. And the incomes of the poor would go up. Voila, a sensible, radical and easily understandable policy.

Keith Angus, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hackney North & Stoke Newington, doesn't agree with a Citizens Income. That is totally fine. I'd love to have a debate with him about it, which is what a General Election campaign is all about. But please, please, please....lets not get into the game of misrepresenting each others positions. Lets try to talk like adults, and treat the voters like adults too? After all, its the only way a democracy can really work.

For those who are interested, here is the Green Party's Policy Pointer on a Citizens Income, as well as two pamphlets from the Citizens Income Trust. Alternatively, you could read the primer below...


What is Citizens’ Income?

Citizens’ Income (CI), also known as Basic Income, forms the main plank of the Green Party’s social security policy. Under this system, all UK citizens would receive a Citizens’ Income of around £60 a week, which would replace most existing benefits. CI would be a universal benefit, paid to everyone regardless of their income, or whether they are actively seeking work, or whether they live with a partner. It would work in the same way as child benefit, which is currently paid in respect of all children, not just those in needy families.

What’s wrong with the current system?

The current social security system is incredibly complicated, consisting of a huge raft of benefits (Jobseekers Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit, Incapacity Benefit, Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, State Pension, Pension Credit, Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, Child Benefit, to name but a few).

Each of these benefits has its own eligibility rules. Depending on which benefit you claim, you might have to show that you are unemployed but actively looking for work, or working more (or less) than a certain number of hours, or unable to work; or that you are above (or below) a certain age, or single, or a lone parent, or have income below a certain threshold, or savings below a certain threshold, or that you pay a certain amount for childcare.

Because the system is so complicated, it’s very expensive to administer. There are substantial costs associated with processing application forms, working out the correct benefit rates to pay, and snooping on claimants to check that they have told the truth on their forms. CPAG estimates the administration costs of child benefit as around 1% of total costs, compared with 3% for means-tested tax creditsi. Earlier estimates put the cost of Income Support as high as 11.8%.

Because it’s so complicated, most people don’t understand the system properly, and because the forms are so daunting, many people don’t claim the benefits to which they are entitled. The government’s own figures put the uptake of council tax benefit at under 70%, and the uptake of jobseekers allowance at under 60%.

Again because the system is so complicated, mistakes are often made in assessing people’s benefit entitlement. Not only do these errors cost money (at least £2 billion in the case of tax credits), they can also have catastrophic effects on people’s lives.

Because so many benefits are means-tested or work-tested, the current system reduces people’s incentives to work. Unemployment benefits which are withdrawn if people start working mean that people’s incentives to get a job are reduced (the unemployment trap); income-support benefits which are tapered off as earnings rise mean that people have less incentive to increase their earnings (the poverty trap). Tax credits, which are in-work benefits with generous tapers, have reduced the scale of both these problems – but not completely, and at great expense and with massive complexity.

What’s good about Citizens Income?

CI is simple. It’s cheap to administer. It ensures an almost universal uptake – everyone will get the benefits they’re entitled to. It completely eliminates the poverty and unemployment traps and improves people’s incentives to work, particularly the incentives of people on low incomes. Because it’s payable to everyone, it’s almost fraud-proof, and it encourages people to tell the truth about their circumstances. And it gives people the security of knowing that their basic needs will be provided for, even if they fall on hard times.

CI will replace most, but not all benefits. Which other benefits will remain?

Housing Benefit will remain. Some form of disability benefit will be retained indefinitely, to compensate disabled people for the extra costs they face. And a supplement will be paid to lone parents.

How much would we pay?
About £60 a week for adults, and £130 a week for pensioners (these rates are about the same as current rates of Income Support). £25 a week would be paid in respect of children.

Wouldn’t everyone just stop working, and the country grind to a halt?

A few people might possibly give up their jobs in return for £60 a week, but there are good reasons to believe there will not be a mass exodus from work. In the UK in 2008, average weekly earnings for full-time workers were £479. Even people on minimum wages earn about £240 for a 40-hour week. It’s inconceivable that most of these people would opt for a massive drop in their incomes just because they could get £60 a week for doing nothing.

Remember, too, that it already is possible to get about £60 a week for doing nothing. The current system requires claimants to be actively seeking work, but if a person is determined not to work, the system will usually (and quite rightly) continue paying some benefits rather than allowing people to starve. The fact that we don’t currently see many people doing this means it’s unlikely that many people will make this choice under CI.

Even if only a few people decide not to work, is that fair? Isn’t CI a scroungers’ charter?

We have a choice. We can either pretend (as the current government does) that if people don’t want a job we will let them die of starvation. And we can spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money snooping on claimants to try and catch out the few people who try and defraud the system.

Alternatively, we can acknowledge that the hallmark of a civilised society is that we do not allow our citizens to starve. We can introduce a cost-effective, fraud-proof system which guarantees a very basic livelihood to everyone, unconditionally – and which provides proper incentives to work for the vast majority of people who do want to.

How can it be right to pay a benefit to everyone, even people who don’t need it?

Restricting a benefit to poor people creates more problems than it solves. It creates a system where benefits are stigmatised, where the poverty and unemployment traps are inevitable, and where the government has to spend money to check that people aren’t defrauding the system. The rich will be paying much more under our progressive taxation system anyway - £60 a week will not offset their additional contribution to society.

How would we pay for CI?

We would abolish the tax-free income tax band: people would pay tax on all their earnings, not just earnings above a certain amount. We would also increase rates of income tax rates – modest increases for most people, and more substantial increases for those earning over £150,000.

Who will lose and who will gain?

People with no income from employment will be about as well off as they are now (but they will be able to work without losing any benefits, so can easily become better off). People with modest earnings will be better off, people on average incomes will be about as well off as they are now, and people on the highest incomes will be worse off. Couples (particularly couples where one partner does not have a job) will gain more under these reforms than single people.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Afghanistan - an ongoing crime

So - today Afghans go to the polls. Or, rather, those who are able to do so go to the polls. Some of them, probably not a majority, may even be uncoerced. Few of them will be voting for candidates who are untainted by monstrous war crimes, human rights abuses, and misogyny on a scale that boggles the mind.

Sometimes, it's easy for those of us who live in Britain to forget the ongoing nightmare that is the war in Afghanistan. It's not so easy for those who live there, and for those British troops who are charged with completing an impossible mission, devised by politicians who are driven by ego, greed, and the desire not to lose face. The disaster has been going on for so long, sometimes it almost fades from view for UK civilians. The first bit of political activism I did at University, eight years ago, was founding Oxford University Stop The War to organise demonstrations against the initial bombing. And it's still going on.

As this article, by the incredibly brave female Afghan MP Malalai Joya, points out, Afghan democracy is nothing but a myth - a collection of brutal warlords trading influence with each other, and spending aid money on anything but the people of the country.

After all, as Human Rights Watch recently pointed out, "President Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election". Anyone who watched Douglas Alexander's pitiful squirming on Newsnight yesterday evening will be well aware that the British government intends to do nothing whatsoever about the new law that allows Afghan men to rape and starve their wives at will, nor about Karzai's alliances with bona fide war criminals. All that matters is preserving face - after all, "we are winning".

For these reasons, and many more, I am honoured to have been asked to speak at Hackney Stop the War Coalition's Naming of the Dead ceremony on Saturday. The conflict has now claimed 204 British dead - and no one even seems to be counting the thousands of innocent civilians who have died. And for what?

I was proud to have proposed one of the motions that committed the Green Party to withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. We cannot solve terrorism by force, and this Labour government still hasn't learnt - despite thousands upon thousands of deaths. Shame on them.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Another Letter to the Gazette

Well, thus far, the Hackney Gazette don't seem to want to acknowledge my existence. Hopefully that might change in the next few weeks! They are, however, still giving a regular column to Diane Abbott. This would be fine, if she (or whoever writes it) didn't have a tendency to use turns of phrase that really grate.

This week, she decided to spend her column praising the achievements of 'her government' in early years education. This, I'm afraid, touches on a raw nerve for me. It's fine if Diane wants to stake out her territory as a 'rebel', and fight an election that way. It's fine, also, if she wants to move to the centre, and fight as a relative loyalist. What isn't fine, in my view, is to take all the credit for anything good that the Labour government has done, while completely disowning anything negative that has occured. Hence - the letter below. Perhaps a little cross, but I'm sure you get my point!

Dear Sir,

In Diane Abbott's latest column, she proudly refers to 'my government' when discussing the provision of early years education in Hackney. This is the same Diane Abbott who hastily denies any involvement with the Labour Government when it comes to the recession, the war, privatisation of our health service, refusal to nationalise the railways, and racist crackdowns on vulnerable asylum seekers, along with many other issues.

It can't be 'her government' when there are successes, and suddenly cease to have anything to do with her when discussion comes around to its disastrous overall record. Surely it would be better for Hackney North to have an MP who is less confused about what party they are in?

Yours sincerely,

Matt Sellwood
Green Party Parliamentary Candidate
Hackney North & Stoke Newington

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Diane Abbott and Gary McKinnon

As I've written about before, one of the major challenges of standing as a non-Labour candidate in Hackney North is that Diane Abbott has a strong reputation as a radical MP. In some ways, that is deserved - she is certainly not a generic Blairite or Brownite, that's for sure. However, much of her reputation seems to be based on her politics in the late 80s and early 90s - and the more research I do, the more examples I turn up of her voting in ways that one would never have expected, given her history.

I've already covered her recent, surprising vote against a transparent Iraq inquiry - and now there is this article in the Guardian, which points out her vote against the campaign towards a fair trial for Gary McKinnon. It's made worse because she has spoken out about the unfairness of the US-UK Extradition Treaty before, and yet when it comes to doing something about this test case, she votes with the government. Very odd.

Of course, I'm not saying that just because Gary McKinnon is clearly a confused person his actions should not be investigated. Just that they should be investigated in a court that is unbiased, and with proceedings that will not destroy his life, whether he is proven guilty or innocent.

So, I seem to be building up a list of things I would have done differently from Diane if I had been the MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington over the last couple of months. I would have voted for a transparent inquiry into Iraq, not against one. I would have voted for an immediate inquiry into the workings of the US-UK Extradition Treaty, not against one. I would have spoken out actively and strongly in support of the Vestas occupation. And your MP would have been campaigning in the borough against further privatisation of the NHS over the last couple of weeks - not being a member of the Party doing the privatising.

I suspect this list will get longer and longer over the next few months!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Vestas Occupation

Just a quick post, to make sure that people are aware of the absolutely crucial Save Vestas campaign, and the fact that the occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory is due to be ended by bailiffs any day now - unless the eviction is stopped by people power.

I cannot think of a more potent symbol of the utter bankruptcy of Labour in the face of corporate power than the only wind turbine factory in the UK closing.

Economically, environmentally, and politically, such a closure would be a disaster. The fact that workers are having to fight for their livelihoods in this case is a direct indictment of the utter failure of the Government to put in place a radical, comprehensive and well-funded strategy for dealing with climate change while creating jobs and supporting local economies. Billions can be found for the banks - and nothing for workers who are desperately trying to save a constructive, 21st century industry.

I've sent my own message of solidarity to the Vestas occupiers, emails of protest to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and a donation to those campaigning against closure. Not to be too party political about it, but as far as I can tell, Diane Abbott hasn't said a word....

Monday, 3 August 2009

New Labour's Thought Police

I'm not usually one for the hyperbole and overstatement that takes up space in so many political blogs. Right-wing bloggers castigate anyone who puts forward the scientically proven fact of climate change as a conspirator. Left-wing bloggers refer to the Labour Party as 'ZaNuLieBore' and so on. All a bit tiresome, really.

However - I really, honestly, think that the phrase 'thought police' is not an overreaction to this latest piece of genius from the Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas.

A few choice extracts:

New migrants who demonstrate an "active disregard for UK values", possibly including protesting at homecoming parades of troops from Afghanistan, could find their applications for a British passport blocked under new citizenship proposals published today.

But migrants who contribute to the "democratic life of the country" by canvassing for political parties could find the application process speeded up so that it takes one year instead of three.

The Home Office consultation paper proposes a new category of "probationary citizen" whose application for a British passport can be speeded up or slowed down depending on the points system.

What, exactly is a contribution to the "democratic life" of the country, Mr Woolas? Is it, in your mind, strangely similar to whatever you happen to agree with? Is it, perhaps, determined by whoever is in government at the time? Is this, in fact, a pitiful attempt to pick on the more vulnerable elements of our society, in order to get them to step into line and stop speaking their conscience?


Of course, it's worth saying that while the most ridiculous elements of what the Minister had to say have been rightly picked apart today, even more worrying is the underlying reasoning behind the entire proposal. A points system for immigrants, reducing people and human circumstance to their qualifications, education and wealth, should be abhorrent in any sensible society. People should not, must not, be measured simply by the opportunities they have had in life or the pound sterling contribution they might make to our national GDP. They should, instead, be viewed as human beings - people who may have made a thousand contributions to our society that cannot be measured by economics or the crude yardstick of the state.

For the record, if we were forced to have a points system, I'd view having the courage and committment to stand up and protest about what you believe in to be a positive attribute. It's no surprise that Mr Woolas, a time server of the lowest order, takes the opposite view.


This is just one extract from the interview itself. Has the Government decided to derogate from the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and not told anyone?

Interviewer: Are you effectively saying to people who want to have a British passport, you can have one and when you've got one, you can demonstrate as much as you like, but until then, don't?

Woolas: In essence, yes. In essence, we are saying that the test that applies to the citizen should be broader than the test that applies to the person who wants to be a citizen. I think that that's a fair point of view, that if you want to come to our country and settle, that you should show that adherence. And incidently, I think part of the mistake in this debate, in the public comment, is the assumption that the migrant doesn't accept that point of view. The vast majority, in my experience, do want to show that they are aspiring to intergrate and to support our way of life.

It appears Mr Woolas doesn't understand that the freedom to protest is part of 'our way of life'. Maybe he should leave the country.