- Labour's bedroom tax gymnastics
There are many issues and principles I would heartily agree with veteran socialist Tony Benn on. And as Labour assembled in Brighton for its September 2013 UK conference, one of the most apt is his view of political 'signposts and weathervanes', which I heard him refer to in a recent interview.
Signposts being people in life and politics whose beliefs are firmly rooted in principles, for which they stand firm, refusing to bend to passing fads and opinion polls, pointing the way forward even when they are an isolated minority.
Such is the stench, the insult, attached to the term 'political weathervanes' that the Quebec National Assembly has banned its use since 2007! All the more reason to use it to describe New Labour, as I hope to demonstrate.
Weathervanes at Brighton
As New Labour approached the Brighton beaches for their annual showpiece conference, the winds of change in social opinion howled like a gale, blowing Ed Miliband and his wavering weathervanes into declarations that are the direct, literal opposite to what they previously said - and more importantly, often in total contradiction to what they did in government up until their replacement by the (unelected) Coalition in 2010.
Two prime cases of this dizzying, sickening display of opportunism are the statements by Miliband et al on the bedroom tax and the assaults on sick and disabled people and their benefits.
Ed Miliband has declared that a New Labour government, if elected in the 2015 Westminster elections, will scrap the bedroom tax. For good measure, he has even said this would be funded by closing loopholes on taxation of hedge funds (the bloated rich's betting scheme on our futures), tax loopholes surrounding the Tory "shares for selling your workplace rights" scheme, and tax scams in the construction industry.
Such a declaration is profoundly welcome, especially to the 660,000 households clobbered by this vicious assault on incomes that has caused worry, stress, upheaval for families forced to move, and in several tragic cases, suicide.
Why not a year ago?
But why now? Why did Miliband and Labour not make a similar, unequivocal declaration two weeks ago (4th September) when he was taunted to come out into the open by Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions? Why not six months ago when the brutal bedroom tax was implemented on April Fools Day?
That's where the weathervanes come in; the cynical, unprincipled calculations of what is opportune - as opposed to a firm, consistent, reliable stance based on clean principles. Opportunist politicians rely on people suffering short memories. Ed Miliband, Liam Byrne and the rest of New Labour would prefer we forget their recent past, including on benefit cuts and the bedroom tax. So let's remind ourselves of a few stubborn facts about their real record.
In simple, stark terms, it caps the amount of housing benefit available to tenants of private landlords to a local average rent for the poorest quality housing. So if you manage to rent a relatively decent house, the punishment is a shortfall in housing benefit payments. Labour ushered in a scheme that punishes private sector tenants, but refused absolutely to do anything about capping the level of rents charged by private landlords.
Hence the burgeoning bill of £23billion annual housing benefit pay-outs; a public subsidy to rent racketeers in the private sector, where rents are far, far higher than in the social sector - where the bedroom tax has hammered the poorest.
Labour's bedroom tax!
In that sense, Labour actually invented the bedroom tax. Indeed, the man who devised the detail of this devilish scheme - Lord 'Eleven-Spare-Bedrooms' Freud, was part of the Labour government up until 2009, prior to becoming Tory Minister for Welfare in the present Coalition. He was instrumental, under Gordon Brown's leadership, in launching repeated assaults on low-paid civil service workers, their jobs, and the services they deliver to many of the same people now brutalized by the bedroom tax.
Don't forget that amidst all the din of conference speeches by Miliband and others.
Blowing in the wind
And it gets worse! After initiating the attacks on benefits during their tenure in No 10 Downing St, starting with cuts to single parents' benefits in their first year of office (1997), Labour never lifted a finger to expose and mount a serious public campaign of opposition to the Tory/LibDem 2012 'Under Occupancy' legislation, better known as the bedroom tax, when it was being debated.
We didn't have the faintly absurd sight of Ed Miliband in shirt and tie mounting a soap box in Brighton town centre to denounce and declare future abolition of the bedroom room tax last year. Nor anywhere else, anytime since...until this incongruous spectacle was (literally) stage-managed for the September 2013 Labour conference.
No, it took a hurricane of opposition amongst working class people to shift these New Labour weathervanes in the right direction - in words, at least. In early 2013, as people awoke to the horrors the bedroom tax signifies, the overwhelming majority of Labour councillors, Labour MPs and MSPs conspicuously failed - indeed, refused - to back the demands for 'No Evictions', or for reclassification of rooms to avoid bedroom tax liability.
The first motion laid before any Scottish council with these demands was put by the Scottish Socialist Party's councillor Jim Bollan in West Dunbartonshire. He had the full backing of the SNP and independent councillors - but the proposal was voted down by the Labour majority. So much for their concern about the impact on 'ordinary families and vulnerable individuals'. Back in March, Labour Shadow Cabinet Minister Helen Goodman spelt out the Labour view on YouTube:
"In the short to medium term we need to reduce the housing benefit bill. A future Labour government would keep the bedroom tax, but it should only apply if people have been offered a place to live and turned it down."
Labour evasions and evictions
Liam Byrne, Labour's Work & Pensions Secretary, under questioning about a future Westminster Labour government abolishing the bedroom tax, repeatedly hid behind these words:
"We will have to measure the cost and judge the economic situation." On 5th September, Byrne repeated "To write a Manifesto commitment we've got to prove the money can be found to drop the bedroom tax."
As recently as July, Labour-run North Lanarkshire council issued an eviction notice to a severely disabled mother of three, for the princely sum of £248 in arrears! And initially they stubbornly refused to follow the example of many other councils - starting with those run by the SNP - in pledging no evictions for at least the first year, "provided tenants take all reasonable steps to avoid arrears". Other councils and a few housing associations had conceded this under the pressure of anti-bedroom tax campaigns.
It took the howling winds of protest by local tenants to force North Lanarkshire Labour into dropping their vicious eviction and to join those social landlords who have at least taken a faltering step in the right direction: "no evictions, provided..."
Don't switch TV channels!
As the pressure mounted, the situation with Labour veered between tragedy and farce.
On the night of 5th September, Labour's position on scrapping the bedroom tax depended on which Scottish TV channel you happened to switch on. On one side, Anas Sarwar, Deputy leader of Scottish Labour said "if we were in power tomorrow we would abolish the bedroom tax."
On the other side, his illustrious Scottish Leader Johann Lamont was simultaneously refusing to answer the question of abolition, not once but three times.
The next twenty four hours saw breathtaking verbal gymnastics from the Labour camp, with Sarwar 'explaining' some guff about his comments on Labour being in power "tomorrow" being entirely hypothetical!
And days later, Labour's Jackie Baillie got into a lather of claim and counter claim with Labour's UK headquarters after blurting out the assertion that Labour would scrap the bedroom tax if elected in 2015. UK Labour rebutted her assertion with the comment, "We are not writing our next manifesto today, and we will have to take a view of the fiscal position near the time".
Of course, Jackie Baillie also suffered a memory lapse on her West Dunbartonshire Labour colleagues' inglorious opposition to outlawing evictions in her own constituency, when the SSP had spearheaded that basic, interim measure of protection for the victims of Westminster's theft of benefits.
The long and winding road
Labour has thus travelled the long and winding road from inventing the bedroom tax; not vociferously exposing and resisting its introduction in the House of Commons a year ago; refusing an unequivocal 'No Evictions' policy in Labour councils; to starting evictions - and then, on the eve of their UK Labour conference, announcing that Labour councils will avoid evictions ("provided they are satisfied tenants have taken all reasonable steps to avoid arrears...") and that the newly militant Miliband will abolish it...in 2015...if elected.
Why? And why now?
There are several factors, none of which do any credit to Labour, none worthy of winning our trust in their willingness to stand up for the working class.
First and foremost, we should take courage and encouragement from this Labour U-turn, which is what it clearly is. It is the principled tenacity of those of us - tenants, trade unionists, community campaigners, socialists - who have exposed, fought and resisted the bedroom tax that has forced Miliband and Labour into eventually promising it's abolition. This proves that 'people power', working class solidarity, if organized and directed at those in positions of power, can win concessions. The same lesson applies to other mainstream parties that we have helped push into a similar stance, despite their various positions on the issue 6 or 12 months ago.
The LibDems are the yellow Tory props to the blue Tories in implementing this vicious tax on the poor - whereas they abandoned their own conference policy of a mansion tax on the wealthy.
But the organized pressure of tenants, trade unionists, anti-bedroom tax campaigns and socialists helped to pound the recent LibDem conference in Glasgow into passing a motion against the wishes of Clegg & Co, which denounces the bedroom tax, and calls for a moratorium and review - opening the door to a concerted bombardment of Clegg to put forward a motion in Westminster for abandonment of the bedroom tax. People power pays off, provided it's organized.
To their credit, the SNP (unlike Labour) has always said they oppose the bedroom tax. But initially, before the fury of working class people found organized expression through demos and demands on councils and the Scottish government, they tended to take the line "we have to wait for independence". That's the essence of Linda Fabiani's comment on BBC Sunday Politics on 3rd February: "Little can be done until the Scottish parliament has more powers."
Under pressure, the SNP were the first major party to declare "'no evictions, provided..." in all their local councils - although the SNP government of Hollywood has dismally failed to outlaw evictions across the nation, which would close the door to local Housing Associations chucking people on the streets. And since February/March, the SNP leadership has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax in an independent Scotland.
Labour spins on its axis
The positions adopted by both the SNP and LibDems are at least partial reflections of the demands from below, channeled by anti-bedroom tax campaigners, including the critical role played by the Scottish Socialist Party - who have been consistent throughout, not waiting for the hot winds of tenants' fury to point them in the right direction. The SSP have been signposts, not weathervanes. And the decisions of these parties have in turn been instrumental in spinning the Labour weathervanes round 180 degrees, from inventing the bedroom tax to pledging its abolition.
And not, in my opinion, purely for tactical electoral advantage on this one issue of the bedroom tax - though the upsurge of furious opposition to it has undoubtedly pummeled Labour into verbal abolitionism that was conspicuously absent for the previous 12 months! Nor is this belated somersault purely designed - as some commentators assert - to distract attention from the hair-raising revelations just published about the savage, self-centred civil war between rival egos in the Labour leadership of Blair and Brown, with methods that make Malcolm Tucker of 'The Thick of It' look like a mealy-mouthed English village vicar. Although, again, that will have been one factor in this panicky U-turn, with the spin doctors in overdrive. And whilst the precise timing is designed to boost Miliband's flagging reputation within Labour's own ranks - especially in the trade unions - as they hold their UK conference, I believe it is rooted in deeper, even more opportunist calculation.
Independence the target
This Labour volte face is also a cynical, desperate manouever by Labour's Unionists on the Scottish independence referendum.
For a few months, the people of Scotland began to grasp one of the stark choices they face: vote to remain in the UK and keep the hated bedroom tax, regardless of which combination of Tory, LibDem, Labour or UKIP wins in 2015; or vote for Scottish independence as a cast iron guarantee of the burial of the bedroom tax.
Labour and their Tory/LibDem cohorts in Better Together must have been having paroxysms at the prospect of that message sinking in. So Labour belatedly concedes to the winds of opposition and tries to channel them towards waiting for a Westminster Labour government in 2015.
Never trust a weathervane
Several questions arise. If it wasn't for the Referendum, and all that is at stake for the imperial arrogance of British capitalism, would Labour have even bothered to concede to 'public opinion' on the bedroom tax, after all their attempts to ignore it for the past year - and before that?
And the corollary to that question: if Labour were to con a majority into voting against independence next year, what guarantee is there that these Labour weathervanes wouldn't swing back round and find some 'economic' reason for keeping the bedroom tax after all - in the wake of Scots failing to seize the opportunity to rule their own country? After all they reneged - under Alistair Darling's chancellorship - on a promise to give pensioners an additional chill factor winter payment.
Labour hired ATOS!
Labour's attempts, this time through the aforementioned Liam Byrne, to win hearts and minds at their conference on the issue of ATOS is perhaps the most revealing warning not to trust the Labour weathervanes, even on the narrow issue of the bedroom tax, let alone the general issue of defending the living standards of the working class majority. And in turn, a warning of the dire consequences of continued Westminster rule! The Labour conference headlines are all about Liam Byrne denouncing ATOS, the French multinational paid to perform medical miracles on the scale of Lourdes - declaring sick, disabled and even dying people fit for work, thereby slashing their benefits.
He says they must be stripped of the contract. But before rushing off to rely on a UK Labour government to restore benefits and services, take a look behind the headlines.
Not a word from Byrne about scrapping the entire system that ATOS happens to administer on behalf of the government. And why would there be? It was the Labour government that invented this punitive scheme of attacks on the sick and disabled. It was the previous Labour government that awarded the privatized contract to ATOS back in 2008, well before the Tories took over their dirty work.
And it was the same rat, Liam Byrne, who reassured the baying reactionaries of the Daily Mail and Express that, to quote his phrase,
"Labour is not the party of shirkers. The clue is in the name."
Tough choices - for the working class!
And alongside the cheap demagogy against the hated ATOS, Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has used the same Labour conference to repeat his dire warnings that a Labour government would face "tough choices", would "stick with the Coalition's tight spending limits", with "iron discipline on spending control", that Labour "won't be able to reverse all the spending cuts and tax rises the Tories have pushed through", and "we will have to govern with less money. The next Labour government will have to make cuts too - they cannot magic the whole deficit away at a stroke".
All his own words and phrases, not mine!
Does that look like a vision worth voting for, or fighting for? So a Labour Westminster regime would still slash public sector jobs and pay; sacrifice public services on the altar of 'reducing the deficit'; demonize and further impoverish the sick, disabled and unemployed. With or without ATOS. With or without the specific measure called the bedroom tax.
Celebrate - but never forget!
So we should all celebrate the massive retreat by these hard-nosed capitalist apologists in New Labour which their belated pledge to scrap the obnoxious bedroom tax constitutes.
We should gain courage and strength from the fact our combined and relentless pressure - tenants, community activists, trade unionists and socialists combined - has not only forced the LibDem conference but now also the Labour leadership to promise abolition of this outrageous measure.
But we should also keep sober and vigilant in our celebrations, avoiding any political amnesia at the role of these parties.
Remember, the SSP has been steadfast and consistent in resisting, denouncing and seeking to dismantle the bedroom tax.
Remember, Labour invented it. The LibDems help the Tories impose it. Far from being an advert for waiting for a UK Labour government, the mind boggling somersaults of Labour on this issue is a warning that we need Scottish independence to elect and hold to account a government genuinely of the left. One that could tap into the enormous natural and human wealth of Scotland to build a welfare system worthy of this century.
Signposts to independence and socialism
Conclusions? Never trust a weathervane, especially a Labour one that has performed more twists and turns than Georgie Best at his peak. Instead, follow the signposts to independence and socialism.