Category Archives: UK politics

Milton Keynes protest against the bedroom tax: a photo report

Around 40 protesters held a demonstration against the governments plans for a ‘bedroom tax’ on Friday March 15 afternoon in Milton Keynes. These government plans are yet another blatant attack on the poor – an act of outright class warfare on the part of this government of millionaires. It was heartening to see such a response from people in Milton Keynes. There will be another protest against the ‘bedroom tax’ on Saturday March 30 in Bletchley from 11am outside the old Co-op on Queensway.

All photos © David Isaacson 2013

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Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Osborne’s budget: revenge of trickledown economics

George Osborne’s budget shows that we are not ‘all in it together’, writes Eddie Ford (first published in the Weekly Worker)

Budgets ain’t what they used to be. Once upon a time the chancellor and his colleagues were expected to maintain a state of strict purdah. Every chance meeting between a treasury official and a journalist had to be formally reported during the weeks before the statement. Hugh Dalton, the Labour chancellor, was forced to resign in 1947 because, whilst walking to the House of Commons to give the autumn budget address, he made an off-the-cuff remark to a journalist hinting at some of the tax changes to be made – which were then printed in the early edition of the evening papers before he even had time to complete his speech and while the stock markets were still open. Scandal. Dalton resigned.

Whether sadly or not, those days are almost certainly long gone. Pre-budget leaking is now a long established political pastime, almost an obligatory ritual. This year though the numbers of leaks was unprecedented. But the reason for that is fairly obvious: the scramble for credit within the coalition government, as Liberal Democrats and Tories both try to show their supporters they are fighting their corners. The Liberal Democrats want to prove that they are not Tories and the Tories want to prove that they are not Liberal Democrats. Also, when it comes to anything that might potentially impact upon the wealthy, the Tories find leaking a useful way of discovering what their backers think – not least those individuals who donate so generously to the Conservative Party.

Distorted

George Osborne’s budget was essentially one for the wealthy – hardly astonishing, given that over 20 cabinet members are millionaires. The basic assumption was that those at the top of society are the wealth-creators and hence need to be incentivised – lots of carrots – to encourage them to create yet more ‘wealth’ (ie, make larger profits and grow even richer). Given this grotesque premise, tax cuts – personal and corporate – are a vital necessity if we are to unleash a wave of entrepreneurship that will in turn create jobs for those languishing at the bottom.

Meanwhile, the working class and the poor find themselves at the wrong end of below-inflation increases to the minimum wage, less generous tax credits, regional differentials in public sector pay, and so on. In other words, the budget saw the unwelcome return – or revenge – of trickle-down economics. Not that it had ever gone away, of course.

The budget flagship, at least for the Tories, was the reduction in the top-rate of tax from 50p to 45p – so party time for Britain’s richest 300,000 households. Indeed, it would have been further reduced to 40p if Osborne had got his way – he told the treasury select committee on March 27 that he had not assigned a “special status” to the 45p rate, which would be kept under “review”. But the idea was blocked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the latter saying he would only accept a 40p rate if a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth more than £2 million was introduced – something rejected out of hand by the prime minister. Cameron likes to look after his buddies.

Osborne disingenuously argued that the 50p rate had “distorted” the economy by “encouraging” tax avoidance. Presumably the poor, downtrodden super-rich had no choice but to employ armies of extremely well remunerated accountants and financial advisers to exploit every tax loophole (but it hurt them to do so). Osborne surely missed an opportunity to develop this logic to its fullest extent and declare that from now onwards the rich would not have to pay any income tax at all. That way, no more ‘distortions’ would be introduced into the economy and the rich could finally enjoy guilt-free sleep.

Cutting the top rate of tax down to 45p, Osborne argued, would only cost the exchequer £100 million – given that the current rate “raises at most a fraction of what we were told” and, in fact, “may raise nothing at all”. But a recent HMRC report he referenced indicated that the 50p tax rate raised £1 billion in its first year (2010-11) – far less than the £2.6 billion originally predicted, admittedly, but this was mainly due to people ‘forestalling’; that is, being paid early ahead of the introduction of the 50p rate in April 2010 in order to avoid paying it. But “nothing at all”?

Further defending top-rate reduction before the treasury select committee, Osborne posited that “dynamic modelling” suggested the 45p rate was likely to lead to a smaller loss of revenue than retaining the current rate. His calculation is based on the economic model known as the Laffer Curve, which hypothesises that under a 0% rate no tax is paid and at 100% no tax is paid either because no-one will bother working: therefore the trick is to locate a midway point that will optimise income.

According to basic arithmetic, the cost of cutting the top rate will be £3 billion in the first year, rising to £4 billion by 2016-17. But Osborne would have us believe that the net cost would fall to just £100 million or so thanks to the extra revenue from wealthier people working harder and harder – by the sweat of their brow – and gratefully bringing ‘home’ their monies stashed away offshore now that we have a “competitive top rate of tax”. Voodoo economics, UK-style. Straining credibility even further, Osborne asserted that, taking into account such calculations, the rich (people like himself, for instance) would end up paying five times more tax as a result of all the measures taken in the budget. Naturally, the chancellor said that his budget was “unashamedly” pro-business and would help the country “earn its way in the world”.

Another major plank of the budget was the imposition of a 7% stamp duty on properties worth more than £2 million – with immediate effect. Currently the tax is levied at 5% for all properties over £1million. Additionally, the duty on residential properties over £2 million which were purchased via an offshore company would increase from a paltry 0.5% to 15% – leading some to describe it, approvingly or not, as a “workable” mansion tax. Yet, obviously, this new rate would only affect a small number of properties, owned by the likes of Sir Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr – or Russian oligarchs.

For example, the latest statistics from the Land Registry showed that in November 2011 there were 121 homes sold for more than £2 million in England and Wales – accounting for just 0.2% of the 57,967 homes sold that month. Under the current system, if all those people paid stamp duty – a highly unlikely eventuality – it would raise £142.2 million. At 7% it would raise to £198.8 million, an additional £56.8 million. Not exactly staggering amounts of money. In reality, it is extremely doubtful whether the treasury will be able to collect the extra stamp duty from the Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, bankers, private consultants, rock stars Hollywood actors, footballers, etc – famous for their creativity when it comes to avoiding tax.

And, of course, what the chancellor takes from the rich with one hand he gives back with another. Hence on page 63 of the red book he sneaked in an inheritance tax exemption for non-domiciled individuals. Presently, a taxpayer domiciled in the UK can transfer their entire £325,000 inheritance tax allowance to their spouse if they are also based in Britain. This figure is reduced to £55,000 if a UK taxpayer makes a transfer to a spouse who is not domiciled in the UK. Osborne said he would increase this, though has so far declined to set a figure.

‘Granny tax’

Just about the biggest budget fuss has been over the so-called ‘granny tax’. Citing the need to “simplify” pensions, Osborne intends to freeze age-related allowances (ie, the amount of income that is tax-free) for half of Britain’s pensioners by the end of the parliament. The treasury says this will bring an extra 230,000 into the income tax system, saving the government £1 billion by 2015.

Currently, the allowance is £8,105 for those under 65 (changing to £9,205 in the 2013-14 financial year), £10,500 for those aged 65 to 74, and £10,660 for those aged 75 and over. However, this ‘extra’ allowance is gradually withdrawn from those pensioners with a taxable income of between £24,000 and £29,000 – about 10% of all pensioners – and anyone with an income of more than £100,000 has all their personal allowance gradually withdrawn regardless of age.

Practically meaning that from now on anyone turning 65 after April 5 2013 will get the same personal allowance as the under-65s, but someone who turns 65 just before the same date will still get the £10,500 personal allowance. As for people on the basic state pension and pension credit (some 50% of all pensioners), they do not earn enough to pay income tax, so will be unaffected by the changes. They constitute about 50% of pensioners. Therefore that leaves a middle stratum of pensioners whose income is likely to be made up of a combination of state and private pensions, as well as some money in savings accounts – the near mythological decent, hard-working, ‘responsible’ pensioners who have ‘done the right thing’ all their lives. Prudently saved a bit each month and loyally voted Tory each election – possibly. This large grouping might well feel the tax goalposts have suddenly been moved, leaving them with less than they might have expected. The treasury’s own statistics show that, taking inflation into account, Osborne’s measures will leave 4.41 million people worse off by an average of £83 a year come 2013-14.

Under the budget we can see that we are not “all in this together” – always a cynical lie. While the top 10% of earners and the super-rich with their Mayfair pads will certainly gain, the poorest will lose the most. A living insult to the unemployed, disabled, poor pensioners and the 200,000 part-time workers, who are having their tax credits snatched away this April. That is when the qualification threshold is raised from 16 hours to 24 hours – at a time when the bosses are slashing employees’ hours due to the economic environment. Resulting in a grim situation where low-income families with parents in part-time work, more often than not because they could not find full-time employment, could lose nearly £4,000 per year. How are they in the same boat as Elton John or, for that matter, everyone sat round the cabinet table?

The entire budget is a monument to the government’s blatant failure to deliver its central promise. The coalition commitment to getting rid of the deficit within its first term was premised on a 2%-3% growth rate, but that now looks like a fantasy figure. The recession in the US and Europe, combined with the government’s own suicidal austerity programme, has seen government spending increase, as it forks out ever more money in the form of unemployment benefit, housing benefit, etc (even after the cuts in these areas).

Bluntly, it is almost a statistical fluke that the UK is not technically in recession. Outside of Osborne’s fiscal Alice in Wonderland, the prospects for the economy are bleak – something confirmed by figures published by the Office for National Statistics on March 28. The economy contracted by 0.3% between October and December last year, more than the 0.2% drop previously estimated by the ONS and other economists. That left growth for the year as a whole at just 0.7% – down on the 0.8% originally pencilled in. Furthermore, the ONS said real household disposable incomes in 2011 as a whole fell 1.2%, the biggest drop since 1977.

Not exactly a sign of roaring success, George.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk

Fresh attacks as unions retreat

The capitulation of many trade union leaderships, the further attacks on workers living standards that will result, and the rotten failure of lefts bureaucratic horse-trading demand we rebuild the rank and file, says Chris Strafford.

As chancellor George Osborne was unveiling his March 21 budget combining tax cuts for the rich with further austerity attacks on the majority, he did so in the knowledge that the unions leading the fight to defend public sector pensions have effectively shelved plans for another day of action.

The executive of the Public and Commercial Services Union, meeting on March 19, voted by a large majority not to strike on March 28, despite the 90.5% rejection of the government’s derisory pensions ‘offer’ and 72.4% vote for further action. While the 33% turnout was actually reasonable compared to similar ballots, several EC members, including comrades from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, argued that, in view of the earlier decisions by the National Union of Teachers and University and College Union to limit March 28 protest walkouts to London, it would be better not to test the loyalty of the large section of non-militant PCS members and to work instead for a national strike in April, when there is still a chance that Unite, together with the NUT, UCU and some smaller unions, will come on board. The membership of the NUT and UCU have both recently voted for further national action by convincing majorities.

The unified opposition to the pension reforms witnessed in the November 30 mass strike collapsed in disarray over the winter, with the Unison, GMB and TUC leaderships doing the capitalists’ work by caving in before the government’s proposed ‘heads of agreement’. In effect they have accepted the ‘principle’ that public sector workers must work longer and pay more in exchange for a reduced pension. That left the unions split between the capitulationists (Dave Prentis of Unison, Paul Kenny of the GMB, the TUC’s Brendan Barber et al) and the rejectionist unions (PCS, UCU, NUT). Speaking to 150 activists in Manchester at a Unite the Resistance rally on February 29, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka correctly characterised the surrender of Prentis, Kenny, etc as a “mistake of historic proportions”.

March 28 could have been an opportunity to instil confidence into other workers, persuading them to take action and pile pressure on the bureaucracies of Unite, Unison, GMB, etc to act. But there was also the danger that a damp squib could have led to further demoralisation and we would be left to fight hospital by hospital, school by school and region by region. Unless we do better than this our movement could take a beating my generation has never seen.

Clearly Serwotka was right – a divided trade union movement in retreat has opened the door to even harsher attacks. And now its seems that the government is preparing the destruction of national agreements, whereby the same pay rates, pensions and working conditions apply to every public sector worker across the country. Millions would be pitted against each other and the weakest and most poorly organised would be worst hit. This is intended to be part of the process of ‘rebalancing’ the economy. In other words, driving down of conditions and pay of the public sector to the level (or below) those suffered by many, often unorganised private sector workers.

Apparently the first workers to be hit by this ‘regional’ attack would be the 100,000 staff employed by the department for work and pensions, over 20,000 in the home office and 16,000 in the department of transport. For public sector workers this is yet another downward pressure on real wages. If you add to the increase in pension contributions and the threat of regional pay relatively high inflation, pay freezes and the increase in VAT, then living conditions are clearly going to take a nose-dive if the coalition gets its way. In this context trade union sectionalism will allow the capitalists to further play workers off against each other. Not simply on the basis of grade or longevity of service, as with the pensions dispute, but north v south, city v countryside and Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland v England.

As a member of Unison at Manchester Royal Infirmary commented to me, regional pay within healthcare will result in a further deterioration within understaffed, overworked and mismanaged hospitals. As union organisation is undermined yet again, the best healthcare workers will migrate to more highly paid areas and the Tories will have got what they wanted: good healthcare for rich areas only, with working class areas reduced to basic services. The impact on patients caused by the driving down of wages has a precedent. The privatisation and outsourcing of elderly care, resulting in the stagnation of wages has had a marked, negative effect on the provision of care and support for the elderly.

Trade union sectionalism already aids the divide-and-rule strategies of the capitalists. During the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85, it was clear that this was not simply a battle over conditions or the mines, but an attempt to break working class resistance. A resistance that coloured the political landscape in the post-war period of working class self-awareness and militancy. Yet the miners were defeated because they and their union were left to stand alone, as the spineless TUC leadership limited its ‘solidarity’ to tokenistic gestures, while other unions were bought off by Margaret Thatcher. This betrayal has been played out many times since.

It is therefore incumbent on us as a revolutionary left to consider alternative strategies within the unions. The broad left strategy first sponsored by the Stalinists, was later eagerly taken up by the likes of SPEW and the Socialist Workers Party. But this never-ending fight for union positions conducted by the few is nothing but a sick game of musical chairs between leftwing and rightwing bureaucrats for the top posts.

Where the trade union bureaucracy acts as an obstacle to action and resistance we must seek to go around it, as well as continuing to work through official structures in order to transform the unions. In my view the Occupy and Indignados movement has begun to help the revolutionary left relearn tactics we had long forgotten and the recent pickets against workfare managed to push back the employers and the government on key aspects, where they lost the argument nationally. These protests resulted from the organised left working with activists from campaigns such as UK Uncut. Occupations of public spaces, workplaces and symbols of capitalist dictatorship opened up a space for discussion in which thousands could consider the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. Their crisis and our resistance has taken a heavy toll on capitalist realism.

Within the trade unions and our workplaces we must begin to fight for policies that unite workers regardless of grade or union affiliation. We need to combat sectionalism by reviving the demand for industrial unions: one industry, one union. We have to stop playing the bureaucrats’ games – horse-trading for this or that position and giving left cover to the like of Unite’s Len McCluskey. The revolutionary left, though weak and disparate, could make a real start in beginning to organise the rank and file. The SWP’s Unite the Resistance and the Socialist Party’s National Shop Stewards Network are fake rank-and-file initiatives, whose real aim is to act as a front for and recruit to ‘the party’. We need to build real spaces and networks within which workers are able to organise campaigns and solidarity, bypassing the bureaucratic structures whenever necessary.

Iran: all options remain on the table

Rhetoric about Iran is all too reminiscent of the prelude to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, warns Ben Lewis (first published in the Weekly Worker)

On Monday February 20 parliament debated the prospect of military intervention against Iran. This against a background of increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the United States and Israel, as well as the recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The debate was initiated by Conservative MP John Baron, perhaps the only Tory MP who opposes an attack on Iran. His motion was simple and straightforward: “This house believes that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons; and calls upon the government to rule out the use of force against Iran and reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts.” Malcolm Rifkind, Tory chairman of the intelligence and security committee, moved an amendment that completely changed its content. The amendment deleted everything except “This house” and replaced the rest of Baron’s motion with: “… supports the government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia; and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table”.

It was perhaps no surprise that a cross-party consensus quickly formed around the Rifkind amendment, which was passed by an overwhelming majority of 285 to 6. Those who voted against the amendment were Labour MPs John McDonnell, Paul Flynn and Dennis Skinner; Jonathan Edwards of Plaid Cymru; Mark Durkan of the Social Democratic and Labour Party; and Baron himself.

That meant, of course, that an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs lined up for war. Michael McCann deserves particular mention: “diplomacy and sanctions should not be our only options – nothing should be ruled out”. Diane Abbott, who has often spoken out against war and occupation, voted for the Rifkind amendment: ie, in favour of “robust sanctions” and against clearly spelling out that military intervention was off the cards. But then Abbott is now one of Ed Miliband’s shadow ministers.

It would appear that we are now closer to some sort of strike against Iran than we have been for quite some time. Reinforcing the sense of urgency, Baron reminded us that, given “tough new sanctions, state-sponsored terrorism and naval forces in the Gulf”, this “may be the only opportunity” to debate Iran before an Israeli air-strike, perhaps even a “regional war”.

Baron’s speech in support of his motion criticised “yesterday’s failed policies” of “sanctions and sabre-rattling”. Contrary to the stated aims of those supporting them, he said, sanctions and threats of military action only had the effect of strengthening the regime, particularly the “hard-liners”. He also did a good job of pointing out the shortcoming of the IAEA’s report on Iran, highlighting that there is not a shred of “concrete evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Given the utter disaster that ensued following the questionable evidence concerning Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003, we should be very wary of another disastrous war, said Baron. His request to foreign secretary William Hague to say where the evidence of Iranian nuclear weaponry could be found in the IAEA report fell on deaf ears.

That said, his case was significantly weakened by the fact that he questioned whether Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had actually called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” – apparently, the complexities of Farsi might mean that he was simply calling for “regime change”. The problem with this kind of apologia for the theocracy’s impotent rhetoric is that it buys into the ‘logic’ of the warmongers in Israel, the US and the UK: if the mullahs do want Israel “wiped off the map”, they must be prepared to launch a nuclear strike on that country, which means they must be developing the ability to do so, which means other Middle East powers will rush to develop nuclear arms themselves, which means there will be a “second cold war”.

Anti-war case

As Hands Off the People of Iran supporter John McDonnell was able to point out, the notion that the current sabre-rattling results from Israeli fears of a nuclear holocaust is frankly absurd. While it is “open to doubt” that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, the issue “is really about nuclear capability – which is a threat only if one believes that nuclear weapons will be used”. And no-one does really believe that. If we are anxious about nuclear proliferation, he said, we have to “start with the root cause”, which is “Israel illegally gaining nuclear weapons”. The way forward had been spelt out by former British ambassador to Iran, Richard Dalton, said McDonnell, when he called for a “nuclear-free zone across the Middle East”. But that would mean facing up “the issue of Israel holding nuclear weapons”.

Comrade McDonnell pointed out that he is no friend of the regime: he has consistently tabled motions supporting campaigns like those of the Tehran bus workers and against the persecution of film director Jafar Panahi. But sanctions and the threat of military action “are strengthening the hard-liners in Iran and hurting the Iranian people, who are desperate to throw off the yoke of that theocracy”.

Sanctions represent “a siege of Iran”, which means we are “already at war by proxy”. As a result, Iran’s currency is collapsing, imports of grain are drying up and “people are becoming impoverished”. This is hardly “undermining the regime”. On the contrary, it is “hardening support for it by giving it the excuse that an external enemy is causing the impoverishment and hunger”.

Finally he referred to Israel’s “own domestic political agenda”: the “crisis atmosphere suits Netanyahu and the hawks who surround him”. Which was why there have been “covert military actions” carried out by organisations and individuals trained by Mossad. These acts “have prompted more terrorism around the world through Iran-sponsored attacks”, while the Israeli-sponsored “cyber-war” has “provoked even more retaliation”.

However, the eight-hour debate was dominated by the ratcheting up of threats. Labour MP Michael Mann was keen to draw on the example of Nazism and portray Ahmadinejad as the new Adolph Hitler. Apparently a recent conversation with one of his constituents who was present as the Nazis marched into Vienna had reminded him of Edmund Burke’s vacuous remark: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Absolutely sickening stuff.

With those on the ‘opposition’ benches going to such hawkish lengths, Rifkind’s case for leaving “all options open” sounded highly restrained by contrast. He made the rather odd point that if Baron’s motion were adopted then this would, paradoxically, increase the likelihood of military intervention against Iran. Why? Well, the Israelis would feel deserted by their allies and thus compelled to act unilaterally. At this point, John McDonnell intervened with a timely and well-aimed question: what sanctions would be imposed on Israel, were this to happen?

None, of course. In fact an Israeli strike might not be such a bad thing: “The Israelis acted unilaterally against Iraq when they removed the Osirak reactor, and both the western world and the Arab world breathed a huge sign of relief. It would ultimately depend on how successful the Israelis could be, and that is a separate question.”

That said, for the most part both Rifkind and foreign secretary William Hague were particularly keen on stressing two things: that the US was the “key country” in thinking about these questions (ie, the US will ultimately decide, and Britain will follow its lead) and that they would, of course, prefer a “peaceful” solution based on sanctions and “dialogue”: ie, negotiations with a pistol pointed at the head of those on the Iranian side of the table. After all, diplomacy requires “carrots and sticks”.

Rifkind stated that if it did come down to US-sanctioned military action, the “adverse consequences” would only be “relatively temporary”, with “short to medium-term” effects for a “few days, weeks or possibly even months”. The alternative, however, was the “permanent” prospect of an Iranian state with nuclear weapons. The circumstances under which such ‘pre-emptive’ military action might take place were, of course, a “military question” that should not be discussed in parliament.

According to Hague, “Our quarrel emphatically is not with the Iranian people” – although it is fine to wreck their lives through sanctions, it seems. No, “we want them to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as we do and to live dignified lives in a prosperous society”. But “the Iranian government’s current policies endanger the interests of the Iranian people themselves, as well as undermining global security”.

This government celebrated the Arab spring a year ago by sending a delegation of British arms dealers around the Middle East – led by the prime minister – so they could ply their wares to a series of dictators. David Cameron showed himself more than willing to continue selling rubber bullets, tear gas and heavy arms to Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen immediately after his visit to Egypt in February 2011. Weapons to be used against those fighting for some sort of “dignified” existence in the face of “appalling” abuses of their human rights.

Behind all the delusional, self-righteous crap, though, lies an undeniable drive to war. Labour rebel Paul Flynn made the obvious point that the debate and the rhetoric deployed by the politicians has a distinct feeling of 2003 about it. This should be of enormous concern to all of us committed to any notion of democracy and progress in the Middle East and beyond. Almost 10 years on, and after the trail of death and destruction in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, our rulers are now contemplating a repeat.

We must do our utmost to oppose any such intervention. What is more, we must highlight the real motives behind the rhetoric: the US, through its main regional ally, Israel, is attempting to regain full control over a region that is going through extremely rapid change. We need the biggest, most militant and most daring show of opposition to their project. At all times we must expose the duplicitous lies of ‘our’ leaders and strengthen the force that can stop wars and a further descent into barbarity: the international working class movement.

ben.lewis@weeklyworker.org.uk

The Iron Lady: Tory glee and political fantasy

David Douglass reviews ‘The Iron Lady’ (director: Phyllida Lloyd, 2011), out on general release. First published in the Weekly Worker.

After huge hype – advanced publicity, huge billboard and bus adverts, gushing acquaintances of Margaret Thatcher on breakfast TV, a Jeremy Vine phone-in, Thatcher’s face haunting us everywhere again and Meryl Streep being canvassed for another Oscar basically for just taking on the role – The iron lady is crushingly disappointing. Politics has only a walk-on part in the film. As Streep herself has said, “It’s an imagined story of who she might be – probably not accurate” (Women’s hour January 6). Got it in one. In fact that could be a one-line review of the film.

Thatcher is an all too real character, but she is located in an entirely fictional world. The writer has taken the character and imagined what it must be like for Thatcher in ill health, with dementia; imagined how her memories might haunt her, how her past plays out in her mind.

This fictional reconstruction of her life starts with an old women in a mac – a traditional working class housewife, headscarf on her head – having popped out for some milk to the corner shop, ignored and unrecognised. As well she might be, for this is meant to be Margaret Thatcher. Then we see flashbacks to a lower middle class shop-owner’s daughter, hard at work delving out measures of sugar and lard in a working class community. Her dad, though the Tory leader of Grantham town council, has a distinct working class accent and talks homely home truths of thrift and enterprise.

This is in stark contrast to her adoption of aristocratic diction and haughty mannerisms at Oxford University, though the makers do not explain it. Here we see a bright, young, attractive thing, flirting and dancing, fussing with her make-up. Is any of that real? One suspects little of it relates to anything other than the writer’s attempt to invent a ‘rags to riches’, ‘I’ve come from the streets’ narrative. Indeed the film has Thatcher telling her Oxbridge colleagues in the cabinet how she came from the bottom and understands the masses because she has been one of them! Even if that were true – and it isn’t – can anyone imagine Thatcher claiming that heritage after aspiring so hard to bump the queen from the throne and take her place? I recall the comment of HRH as to why she felt uncomfortable in Maggie’s presence: “I never know which of us is supposed to curtsey,” she is said to have responded.

The upper class followers of Thatcher who have made much of her “unique fashion sense” and “style” do not see this simply as the uniform of the rich Tory women faithful – the only “unique” thing about it is that it at once identifies the lady with would-be aristocrats and petty royalty: all neatly styled hair, pearls and conservative twin sets.

Having set out her ‘struggle to the top’, the makers hope to have won the audience to the side of Thatcher when it comes to her political trajectories. Director Phyllida Lloyd admits: “The whole story is told from her point of view” – and justified accordingly. Although, to be more accurate, it is probably what she imagines her point of view might be – this film makes no claims of actual biography, and especially none of political analysis. Jeremy Vine was at pains to convince us that, while we might not like Thatcher, we ‘have to admire her principles’ and the fact she was ideologically driven – it didn’t wash and the phone-in was swamped with callers expressing their outright hatred of her and her political legacy.

The film’s attempts at humour involve, strong put-downs of ‘the men’, whether the long suffering Denis (who is much stronger and independently willed in this film that in reality), her cabinet colleagues or the US ambassador. The portrayal of her assertiveness and dry wit drew irritating laughter from a small section of the Newcastle preview audience who watched The iron lady with me. I wanted to go over and slap them for being too stupid to realise that such dialogue is totally invented. While she did in reality get her gob round some memorable phrases – “the enemy within” and “U-turn if you want to: the lady is not for turning” – these remarks were not among them. A scriptwriter wrote them and put them into the fictional mouth of the character.

So, other than this being a hard-working girl from the lower classes who makes it to the top through her own effort, what is the other conclusion the film is urging us to draw? The view is very strongly pushed that Thatcher is a feminist. Streep in her Women’s hour interview expresses the view that no other advocate of her politics attracts anything like the hatred she does, and this can only be because it was a women advancing them, not a man. It takes the female presenter to remind her that Thatcher was an anti-feminist.

All of Thatcher’s rhetoric regarding women was connected to their role as mothers, housekeepers and shoppers, not as economists, politicians or activists, and the effect of her policies has been fiercely anti-women – especially anti the aspirations of working class women and girls. Yet still the film persists in trying to paint that picture. We are shown the Thatcher-eye view of her entering parliament as a lone woman in an exclusive male club – as if a number of strong women, especially working class Labour women, had not been there before her, or were not still slogging it out in those chambers. One expects that this whole caricature is aimed at the US audience, who will not know this is sheer invention.

When it comes to the actual political aspects of the film, we might be surprised to find she has the leadership of the Tory Party thrust upon her unwilling self! Not the fierce and relentless faction fight she in fact waged against Ted Heath – a fight to replace him and his ‘one nation Toryism’ with herself and naked class war. We are reliably informed that neither she nor Keith Joseph voted in the ‘Who rules Britain?’ election because they wanted to bring Heath down.

In the portrayal of the mass working class opposition, I can find no fault. It is clearly presented that her policies were being violently rammed down our throats and that they were characterised by injustice and inequality. I do not know if this part of the film was made by different folk from those who made the first part, but it certainly feels like it – the whole thing ends up as a kind of ‘push me, pull me’ weld of two conflicting measures of the woman and her policies.

The chronology of events is strangely chopped and changed, much in the style that the BBC famously cut and reversed footage of the Orgreave picket and police clashes. In that piece of historic reconstruction, a fierce police and cavalry charge into placid pickets, who then retaliate with missiles (lumps of clay actually, though they looked like half-bricks on the TV news), is reversed to show the hapless police officers coming under attack by brick-throwing pickets and forced to retaliate. In the film, we have the miners’ strike of 1984-85 taking place before the 1982 Falklands war. Why? Because otherwise we would have the Falklands ‘achievement’ and the crest of the nationalist wave first, followed by the tyranny of the state’s response to the miners, and then the mass poll tax movement and riot. This would have suggested a brief period of popularity, followed by decline, mounting opposition and state repression. It would have made the counter-image of Thatcher as a stubborn fanatic too strong. So we have the episodes jumbled up: first the miners’ strike, then the Falklands victory, then the poll tax.

Even then we would still have got a strongly repellent portrayal of a rightwing zealot if the whole film had not been dominated by all that fictional, sentimental pap. The first two-thirds of the film are meant to nail this image in our heads so deeply that it cannot be dislodged by her manic egotism. This ploy does not actually succeed – although grandees of the Tory establishment have wet themselves with glee to see Maggie’s face everywhere: this film is the greatest propaganda coup for the Conservative Party they could ever dream of. And The iron lady is supposed to cement her reputation as some super-visionary politician etched into the national character, to be honoured with a state funeral.

Margaret Thatcher’s actual legacy is not shown in this rewrite of history. That legacy can be seen in the desolation, poverty and hopelessness of working class Britain. In the end of productive manufacturing, of trade union strength, of solidarity and of visions of a fairer, socialist alternative to greed and ‘dog eat dog’. In the rise of money capital, in finance speculation and in the gradual replacement of industrial bricks and mortar with a house of cards. Those abandoned, traditional, working class communities – the north, the valleys, Scotland and the inner cities – would make a suitable final scene for this film, rather than the long dead ghost of Denis walking out on Thatcher, leaving her finally totally alone.

Depressingly tedious, The iron lady is a missed opportunity, which hopefully someone more inspired will revisit in the not too distant future.

November 30: Milton Keynes rally in support of striking workers

Join the rally in support of workers striking to defend their pensions.

Assemble: 12 noon outside MK Council’s Civic Offices, Silbury Blvd, CMK on November 30th. Bring placards, banners, and something to make a noise.

We will also be visiting workers on their picket lines in the morning of November 30th. If you want to come along too then please get in touch.

You can also download leaflets and a poster for the rally to give to friends, family and workmates.

A regulator with teeth: are you crazy?

There is no ahistorical code of ‘press ethics’ which can come out of this farrago, writes James Turley (first published in the Weekly Worker)

What is going to replace the Press Complaints Commission?


Talk about a hostage to fortune – as soon as this writer detects a “momentary let-up” in the phone-hacking saga,[1] we get a new crop of developments.

Another senior News International figure, former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner, has now been taken into police custody. Meanwhile, even with parliament in recess, Ed Miliband continues to needle at the government for full disclosure of its meetings with News International big-wigs, having offered such disclosure on the part of the Labour Party. The political calculation is clear – Murdoch and co will have spent a lot more time over the past couple of years with Cameron and his allies than Labour figures. (Starry-eyed hacks used to suggest Blair had a kind of ‘political alchemy’ – but you cannot get more alchemical than turning the humiliation of media ostracism into a political advantage.)

And after the carnage in Scotland Yard a couple of weeks ago, it is now the turn of another dubious institution to see heads roll. Baroness Buscombe, the odious Tory peer who heads up the Press Complaints Commission, has been pressured into announcing that she will not seek to extend her contract, and in all probability will leave her post in the autumn. The PCC’s role in the phone-hacking affair has been frankly embarrassing: it even went so far as to chide The Guardian for its irresponsible victimisation of the NotW. Let us say that subsequent events have not shown this stance in a very positive light.

A crisis of the PCC is an inevitable result – that it has not already been comprehensively tampered with, or even abolished in favour of statutory regulation, has in part to do with the more spectacular events (the decapitation of the Metropolitan Police, the Murdochs facing cross-examination by parliament) and the Westminster summer holiday. Buscombe may well be the last establishment mediocrity to chair this craven creature of the media barons.

Its obsolescence is highlighted on another front by the vindication in court of Christopher Jefferies, the idiosyncratic landlord repackaged by the gutter press as the psychopathic murderer of architect Joanna Yeates. The press routinely gets away with doing such numbers on the perpetrators of high-profile crimes. The problem in this case was that, er, he did not actually do it. Jefferies has just won libel damages from practically the entire tabloid press – including the Mail and Express. On top of that, The Sun and Daily Mirror were found guilty of contempt of court, and levied (rather pathetic) fines.

There is much to say about this remarkable case – if ever libel law did not act just as a means for the powerful to silence opposition, it was surely here – but, for present purposes, what is of note is that it was the criminal and civil law that stood up to the Fleet Street lynch-mob, and certainly not the PCC. Given that it is controlled by the people who make money out of such stories, how could it? In a sense, poor old Peta Buscombe is to be pitied; she has only administered her institution in the manner in which it has operated since its creation. Alas for her, this cosy arrangement has been shot to pieces by events.

The bottom line of all this chaos is that it has put a question on everyone’s lips: what is the future of press regulation? Numerous answers are proposed – David Cameron and other politicians have called, at one end of the scale, for statutory regulation, by Ofcom or some new body; others propose a new, more muscular model of self-regulation, which would entail a new PCC-type body with the ability to levy fines and otherwise discipline its members. Popular among news organisations is the ‘lope on more or less as before’ strategy, on the basis that it is the least unpalatable of all the choices.

In fact, there are fundamental problems with all the so-called ‘options’ on offer here. Statutory regulation simply hands a great swathe of powers gift-wrapped to the state. The implications are pretty ominous; we need only cast our minds back to the BBC’s battle with Blair over the death of David Kelly, which led to the corporation’s humiliation and exacerbated its tendencies towards cosiness with the establishment. Given all that we have learned about the close personal links between the media barons and the political elite, meanwhile, it is naive to imagine that this will put an end to the power of the former.

The National Union of Journalists leadership seems to favour the second option: a “self-regulatory body [which] should provide for serious penalties for media organisations which broke the code … as well as offering a reliable mechanism to deal with complaints from the public.”[2] NUJ president Donnacha DeLong has expressed admiration for the ‘Irish model’, which broadly conforms to this idea. The union is also keen to push its own members’ code of conduct as the basis for beefed-up ‘self-regulation’.

In reality, this is a miserable compromise. We should not forget that the PCC itself was the result of a previous attempt to give self-regulation of the press some bite; the Irish Press Council itself is a somewhat more nightmarish version, with equal representation given to various establishment notables – former ambassadors, political bureaucrats, lawyers and the like – and the industry itself (with one poxy seat for the unions). If the PCC had had equivalent power in the last five years, remember, it would not have punished Murdoch, but the investigators into phone-hacking!

That leaves the favoured option of the barons – ‘keep calm and carry on’. In fact, ironically enough, this is truly the least worst of the possibilities – no further power is accrued to the state. Seeing as the PCC is obviously little more than a mechanism for the press money-men to, as the vernacular puts it, cover their asses, it is in fact preferable that it should not have any real power to discipline dissenting journalism – which, as The Guardian investigation has shown, is the closest the press gets to self-regulation anyway.

Yet the status quo ante is utterly discredited for good reason. On the left, we should not be satisfied with a ‘return to normalcy’ in any form, which would mean the return to the cosy lash-up between the political, bureaucratic and media elites that has subverted what passes for democracy for generations.

The reason these answers fall short is that they are answers to the wrong question. When the bourgeois establishment asks what to do about press regulation, it is in reality asking how it can manage this crisis in a way that does not threaten – or, ideally, strengthens – the ruling class’s ideological hegemony. By adopting the given form of the debate, the NUJ – and, implicitly, those organised left forces in the NUJ which have manifestly failed to challenge that form – is in fact absorbed into a fundamentally bourgeois discourse, which is rigged in favour of bourgeois outcomes.

Our question is the inverse of the bourgeois one – how can we make sure that the ruling class does end up the weaker for all this? What is the working class approach towards the press? Clearly, the NUJ – despite its political naivety – has a role to play here. While its argument that a strong NUJ chapel in Wapping might have prevented the disastrous abuses of the Wade-Coulson era is quite overblown, there is nonetheless the potential for a conscious collective life among journalists that could set the terms of the trade in its professional form. That the union has at least ‘seized the day’ and made itself a real presence in the phone-hacking affair is an encouraging start.

Yet to truly weaken the hold of the bourgeoisie on the press and media more generally, it is necessary both to attack politically that hold at its root and to build up the political presence of our own side. The former means breaking up the media oligopolies and destroying the advertising cartels that prop them up; the latter means having our own media and journalistic practice completely separate from that of the bourgeoisie.

Posed by both tasks is the party question – we need a political organisation that can fight for fundamental change in the state and economy in order to challenge the Murdochs of this world in a fundamental way. We also need an organised political division of labour in order to develop our own press into something of a genuinely mass scale and readership. The labour movement in this country once had the Daily Herald – European social democracy in its highest phase published in almost every language to many millions of readers. The Herald was the largest-circulation paper in the world at its peak. In the dissemination of ideas, and the development of a distinct cultural life, the organised working class has potential power without equal.

Codes of conduct of the NUJ-style 10 commandments variety are ultimately of limited use here. We communists have no problem with hacking David Cameron’s phone – provided that something politically useful results from this ‘crime’, rather than cheap tittle-tattle. Trotsky put it best in Their morals and ours – the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are themselves justified. Let the masses judge whether their press fulfils this maxim – not judges, bureaucrats or the flunkies of bourgeois press barons.

Put another way, there is no ahistorical code of ‘press ethics’ which can come out of this farrago – but there is a communist ethic, of unflinching and ruthless war on exploitation and oppression, which has quite as many applications in the newsroom as on the barricades. We are not out to restore the honour of the press, or faith in parliament, but to transform both institutions beyond recognition.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Notes

  1. ‘Politics of press freedom’ Weekly Worker July 28.
  2. www.nujppr.org.uk/site/page.php?category=news&id=5125&msg=NEWS&finds=0