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Some pledges for a better world

Salman Shaheen

As the election approaches, the argument for the dumbing down of television appears in the form of hollow sound bites and mildly amusing slogans. Whilst Tony Blair told voters in his 2001 election campaign, to the tune of the Cat Stevens original, that ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, the benefit of hindsight may leave us wondering just how deep subsequent wounds may be to the Iraqi civilians, British students, travellers, asylum seekers and many others.

So when New Labour start spinning the catchy slogans, it would be wise to remove those rose, and certainly not red, tinted glasses and take a closer look. This time around we’re offered the promise of ‘Britain forward, not backward’. And just to illustrate the fact that he has no reverse gear, Blair has made us six pledges, to ‘ensure a better life for you and your family’. But what lies behind the smiles and the spiel, the grins and gesticulations? Here I hope not simply to offer exposition and criticism, but provide an alternative: six pledges to ensure a better world.


Your family better off:

It would be a mistake to lay nothing but criticism at New Labour’s door. Since coming to power in 1997, the government has made a number of improvements, such as the minimum wage and working families tax credits, that have lived up to their pledge to ensure that many families are better off. Nevertheless Blair’s removal of clause four was the final nail in the coffin for a socialist Labour party, and it should come as little surprise that they have failed to close the increasingly large gap between rich and poor that was so greatly accentuated during the Thatcher years.

Short of smashing up the state and forcibly appropriating the means of production, which really does leave us yearning for a clause four, we’d have to look to progressive redistributive policies. It goes without saying that higher rates of income tax for top earners to fund further reaching welfare reforms, and a solid increase in the minimum wage would be welcome policies. Council tax needs to go the way of poll tax and be scrapped, to be replaced by progressive local income tax. But then even the Liberal Democrats could say that much! The real unfair tax is value added tax! VAT hits everyone indiscriminately, which may be of little consequence to those with higher incomes, but can mean a great deal to families struggling to survive on a minimum wage income. Socialist parties should make lower rates of VAT a priority in their policies on taxation. The tax on fuel is perhaps one of the most unfair taxes of all, drastically increasing the cost for working class families who need to commute to work and school on a daily basis. Whilst environmentalists are correct in pointing out the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions posed by having increasing numbers of cars on the roads, continually raising taxes on fuel is not the way to tackle this. Instead investing in green fuel sources and improving public transport, including re-nationalisation, is necessary. Perhaps then we may begin to close the gap between rich and poor.


Your child achieving more:

Tony Blair’s pledges to improve primary and secondary education are more than welcome. This pledge for achievement in education is, however, at odds with government policies on higher education, which threaten to break the backs of undergraduate students. Whilst New Labour wants to increase the number of people going on to university, the removal of student grants and the introduction of tuition fees, and soon top-up fees, are discouraging students from lower income backgrounds from applying to universities. As it stands students face leaving university over £9,000 in debt, and this could double with the introduction of top-up fees.

If government money can be found to launch an immoral and disastrous war and occupation in Iraq, then it can be found to increase funding for universities without placing an increasingly heavy burden upon students. All student fees should be scrapped and means-tested grants should be restored. The government must invest in the future of students at all levels, who may then in turn invest in the future of society as a whole. Moreover a more egalitarian policy on higher education, in encouraging working class students to go to university, is essential to promote social mobility and add some substance to the claim that Britain is a meritocracy.


Your children with the best start:

No doubt the best start for children is a laudable aim, but it is of little consequence if they end up being served with an anti social behaviour order. For those who live in areas high in crime, and who have experienced violent or abusive behaviour from young teenagers, it may be difficult to see any reason for opposing ASBOs. However they little more use than pain killers are to a terminally ill patient. They are a short term solution to a much wider problem.

If the government wishes to provide children from deprived backgrounds with the best start, and help them avoid an ASBO, then they would be wise to look to the conditions that breed youth crime. Tough on youth crime, tough on the causes of youth crime! Issues of deprivation need to be addressed. In the short term, more entertainment facilities need to be provided for young people, and comprehensive education in areas of greater poverty needs to be improved. In the long term, redistributive measures need to be taken to ensure a more egalitarian society with greater social mobility, so that all children are able to be provided with the best start possible.


Your family treated better and faster:

Will this be the result of the introduction of foundation hospitals? Only time can tell here, but it would be wise to approach this issue with caution. Whilst the government insists that foundation hospitals represent greater freedom and democracy, it wouldn’t be the first time those words have been used to legitimise decisions with terrible consequences. Whilst not directly opening the door to privatisation, foundation hospitals do potentially represent an uncomfortable precedent, and raise fears of a two-tear health service that would undermine aims to treat patients better and faster on a universal level.

Mussolini may have been a fascist, but at least he got the trains to run on time. That is one comparison at least that cannot be made between him and Thatcher! As the legacy of her government showed, privatisation and the rule of market forces does not necessarily equate to efficiency. Therefore we should resist the involvement of private capital in public services, the National Health Service especially! It is important to maintain and increase investment in healthcare, to reduce waiting lists and improve care, but this should remain publicly funded. All people, no matter what their income, should have equal access to the best health care available. And since not everyone can afford to go private, the public should be improved, most significantly in deprived areas where people have the poorest access to good healthcare.


Your community safer:

A pledge that, no doubt, would be welcomed by many, with promises to tackle crime, gangs and graffiti. But whose community does New Labour want to make safer? Certainly not those of the thousands of British traveller families. Is living in a house a prerequisite for being part of a community? In their quest to win over middle England’s middle classes, New Labour, like the Conservatives, are turning a blind eye to those who seek simply to find their own way of life. Since Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, presided over the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which removed the obligation of councils to provide legal caravan sites for travellers to stay, over 600 sites have been closed, leaving many travellers forced to squat on private land, much to the chagrin of landowners. Now Howard has threatened further attacks, this time against the Human Rights Act, to prevent travellers who own their own land from applying for retrospective planning permission for their caravans.

Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Yes, don’t vote Conservative! But is there any wonder that the defence of gypsies is not a popular electoral policy for any party when the media, the BNP and, most recently, Robert Kilroy-Silk, continue their campaign of hatred in an effort to demonise travellers, and paint them as tax evaders, squatters, freeloaders and criminals. Whilst this may hold some truth for a small minority, it is far removed from reality for the majority of Roma gypsies, Irish and new age travellers who are all tarred with the same brush. The left must begin to seriously champion the plight of these victimised communities, as it does for all oppressed minorities. If New Labour wants to make traveller communities safer, then they would be making a good start by reversing the damage done by the Criminal Justice Act, setting minimum quotas for council maintained caravan sites, allowing vehicles to rest on the sides of highways again, and promoting the rights of travellers to live an alternative lifestyle without being forced into council housing. This is a basic human right.


Your country's borders protected:

The government has pledged to protect Britain’s borders through tighter immigration controls and the introduction of compulsory identity cards. In doing so, however, it is playing into the hands of the fascists and, alongside the right-wing media, has whipped up a popular fervour, which is nothing short of legitimised racism, around the issue of asylum and immigration. Many of the ridiculous claims made by those seeking to attack immigrants for ‘sponging off the state’ or ‘stealing our jobs’ can be easily dispelled by a quick glance at the statistics published by the Commission for Racial Equality. Immigration is essentially a non-issue, blown out of all proportion by media agenda, and by political parties seeking to capitalise on it to score electoral points.

The left is right to turn aside populism in arguing for more relaxed policies on immigration. Opinion varies from calls for open borders, to milder pledges to defend and support asylum seekers. This should not be a source of division for us, and we should be united in making the call for an end to detentions and deportations, and in actively seeking to promote understanding and awareness about the truths of the issue. Perhaps the greatest challenge for us is to counter the lies of the tabloid press, which are succeeding in creating a climate of ignorance and open hostility towards immigration. Britain has an ageing population, and in the long-term we will need the benefits offered by immigrants searching for work here, to support an increasingly large dependent population and avoid a pensions crisis. Whilst the West continues to exploit the resources of the Third World and welcomes the appropriation of its wealth, governments are not willing to bear the human cost of their immoral economic and military misadventures. No government has ever sought to protect their country’s borders from the inflow of capital, so why restrict the movement of people? The government’s pledge is insular and myopic. We must begin to look beyond our own borders. Only then can we hope to take Britain, and the world, forward, not backward.



April 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism