An Englishman’s Home is… beyond his wildest dreams

For some reason, going back into the mists of time, the British people have an obsession with private home ownership, even though most of us should technically never be able to afford one without borrowing. In Continental Europe, people are far more satisfied to rent, either from private landlords or more ‘trustworthy’ institutions – maybe there is some correlation between these statistics and the lower levels of stress and dissatisfaction there compared to the UK.

Nevertheless, we are where we are, and there is no going back on the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 however much we might want to reverse it (indeed, many of us may actually agree with it, being as it was extremely popular with the low paid, who for the first time had a stake in their council homes and some sense of freedom, however delusional). What we have now is a housing crisis coming at the worst possible time, during a dire economic climate caused by sub-prime mortgages themselves.

Tensions over housing and its’ availability have an effect on many areas of life, including levels of antagonism towards immigrants, the environment, growth, inequality in our cities, personal debt, and of course the Daily Mail and Daily Express front pages. We need to deal with this timebomb if we are to stem a rise in far-right politics and avoid a lost generation of young people. However, worryingly this government is going about it completely the wrong way.

Not only has it made squatting illegal when there are more empty properties than there are homeless people in this country, but it has appallingly placed a cap on housing benefit, effectively pricing the poor out of our capital city and entire swathes of the country – those parts of the country which have job vacancies. The government is slashing the public sector and saddling young people who go to university with ever higher debt, meaning their chances of even being able to look forward to putting down a deposit are negligible.

What our housing market needs is a Keynesian-style investment in house building and construction; not only would this lower house prices for first-time buyers, but it would also ease tensions in the community and increase demand in the economy generally, leading to growth and the beginning of the end of the deficit that the ConDems love to remind us about so much. As a bonus, it would even lead to a return of Location Location Location to our TV screens. Gordon Brown’s plan before the proverbial shit hit the fan in 2007 was to build 3 million new homes – we need this sort of commitment now, coupled with a healthy proliferation of 1940s-inspired New Towns (hopefully better designed than the likes of Milton Keynes) and more social housing. Today’s announcement from Cameron and Clegg about guaranteeing 95% mortgages may look like a repetition of exactly what went wrong in the first place, but should not be dismissed entirely, as it is the taxpayer, not the banks, helping first-time buyers, and there is real potential for an increase in demand as a result.

However it goes nowhere near far enough. If we can’t get people to fall out of love with the owner-occupier dream, then we need to build, build, build, spending more money in the short term to get us out of the mess in the long term.


US update

Well the GOP has seen the very first primary to secure its nomination for President in 2012. And it seems to be developing in to a three horse race between Rick Perry, the Texas governor who recently organised a prayer rally to stem America’s decline (instead of helping America by simply getting on with his job as governor and fixing the problems himself). Mitt Romney the former Governor and second choice candidate to McCain in 2008. And Michelle Bachmann the Representative who wants a Federal Ban on Gay Marriages, the phasing out of social security and Medicare, supports the teaching of creationism in schools in science lessons and refused to compromise an inch during the debt ceiling rise fiasco (this in turn played a large part in America’s credit downgrade).

Now this is where I am glad to live in a country where the likes of Gideon Osborne, David Cameron and even Tony Blair are considered right wing, each of which have nothing on the GOP Presidential hopefuls. Don’t get me wrong, this will be an interesting race, each of the front runners have their own unique strengths. Bachmann is the darling of the Tea Party and can easily whip up widespread Republican grass-root support, Romney is seasoned campaigner after running for the Republican nomination in 2008 and Perry has enormous experience as Texas governor.

Bachmann’s win in Iowa was certainly far from solid, most of the voters in the straw poll were relatively undecided as Perry’s recent arrival will mean Bachmann and Perry will battle it out for the Tea Party and right of the Republican party while Romney takes the relatively moderates.

The GOP would be wise to choose Romney as their candidate for President, as the least Tea Party like front runner he is the one truly capable of capturing the all important swing moderate voters. But with the rise of Bachmann, Palin and Beck amongst the American right, that outcome doesn’t seem certain, which is comforting news for Obama.


Why Turn Blue When Just ‘Labour’ Will Do?

As Ed Miliband gathers opinions and considers the future policy direction of the Labour party as part of the Policy Review, there has been much debate recently about whether or not to pursue ‘Blue Labour’, as proposed by the academic and Labour peer Maurice Glasman. Blue Labour, a response to ‘Red Toryism’, aims to put co-operatives and the community at the heart of the lives of ordinary British people, and is a rebuttal of New Labour’s strangling embrace of neo-liberalism, which left swathes of grassroots Labour supporters feeling alienated and ignored by the party leadership.

Glasman has a point, for throughout the history of the ‘people’s party’ there has been a split between liberals, state socialists and those who favour co-operatives and more local organisation – many Labour MPs today are also members of the Co-operative Party, and since its inception at the turn of the twentieth century the Labour movement has been associated with local organisation and mobilisation.

Martin Pugh in his 2009 book “Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party” argues persuasively that the real dilemma for Labour through its history has not been attracting liberal support, but attracting hard-working but low-paid voters from the temptations of the Conservatives: many ordinary working class communities share the Tories’ patriotism; love of the armed forces (many of them have close relatives or friends serving in Afghanistan); desire for home ownership and a tough stance on law and order – why did so many vote for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, read the Daily Mail, and in a few cases drift to more extreme parties through fear of their jobs because of immigration and globalisation? Pugh stresses that when Labour came into being many voters were torn between it and the Tories because of these economic concerns, plus social beliefs like temperance or the role of the Church in schools.

Where Glasman takes the wrong path, in my view, is in his attempt to respond to Cameron’s Big Society by mimicking it and advocating a further retrenchment of the state, along with a return to a 1950s-style focus on the family, the flag, and feminism being almost unheard-of. That’s not ‘Blue Labour’, that’s just conservatism. If we as social democrats want to see equality of provision across the board, we need to expose the Big Society for what it is: a cover for cuts dreamt up by Steve Hilton when the Tories needed to be seen to be shedding the aura of Thatcherism.

If Labour is to win elections again without ditching our principles – to do so would be an insult to people like the families of those killed in Norway – we need to ‘re-connect with the grassroots,’ to use the spin-doctors jargon, by addressing, or at the very least appreciating, the legitimate concerns of the hard-working folk who keep the economy growing and keep money coming into the Exchequer. Instead of Big Society initiatives, we need to take the lead on key issues like housing, providing ample employment for deprived communities and young people generally, and not simply dismissing people’s concerns about migration and welfare dependency. That does not mean leaving the EU, saying we should only have British jobs for British workers, or undertaking humiliating fit-for-work tests like those currently going on under Iain Duncan Smith. It just means listening to those too well-off to be on benefits but on low wages, as well as staying true to  proud values like tolerance. If we go some way to pointing out these worries in opposition, whilst criticising the Con-Dems’ unfair cuts, the sought-after swing voters will follow, and we may just wake up to find ourselves in government again.

Meeting terror and violence with more democracy

Flowers are placed at the Utvika campsite where victims were evacuated to from Utoeya Island (background) during Friday's shooting massacre, July 24, 2011. REUTERS/Sindre Thoresen Lonnes

“We meet terror and violence with more democracy,” are the words of Eskil Pedersen, leader of the Worker’s Youth League (UAF), the youth-wing of Norway’s Labour party, the governing party and our sister party, upon leaving the island of Utoeya. Given what he and the around 200 other UAF members endured during those fateful and horrific hours on the island can only give you hope in humanity’s ability to better itself and strive for a better world.

This has been a test for the very fabric of Norway which has always prided itself upon, openness, freedom of expression, their feeling of safety, tolerance and equality. The stories and witness accounts of Breivik shooting teenagers in the tents they fled in to. Teenagers attempting to swim away from the island. And Breivik checking the bodies for signs of life of those who decided to play dead for two hours. This shows nothing less than the very worst of humanity. Breivik was fuelled by hate and intolerance for progressive politics and multiculturalism so much so to murder 95 innocent victims with a bombing in Oslo and a horrific shooting spree.

But Pedersen’s words I hope are the ones that truly endure in Norway’s darkest hour. For when presented with the worst humanity can throw at us we must always emulate the very best in our ability to do good.


About time we looked across the Atlantic

So we have the first line up of candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Johnson, Karger, Martin, McMillan, Paul, Pawlenty, Romney, Santorum and Sharkey (yes that is the official line up, but some of the candidates are ahem, professional wrestlers). And the one thing you can notice about the line-up is that the Republicans have in fact lurched to the right (thank you Tea Party). As much as here on BULS we are no fans of the Conservative party, we are hugely glad that the right in this country has nothing on the USA Republican/Tea Party right.

Now Bachmann is presented as a competent version of Palin, but then you remember she’s increasingly becoming a darling of the Tea Party, which automatically negates that theory. What’s her answer to aid the economy? Close down the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She regarded homosexuals in 2004 as “It’s a very sad life. It’s part of Satan, I think, to say that this is gay. It’s anything but gay.”, a “disorder” and a “sexual dysfunction”. She wishes to repeal all healthcare legislation, she has called for investigations into fellow congressional politicians to see if they are “anti-American” and she has accused Obama of wanting to set up youth indoctrination camps for teenagers. Wow, she makes Gideon Osborne look like a hard-left socialist. On a personal note, I endorse Bachmann for the Republican nomination, simply because Obama could not possibly lose if she is nominated.

Briefly skipping onto the other candidates we have Herman Cain who said he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his Cabinet and Rick Santorum who thinks the best solution to providing jobs to 14 million unemployed Americans is to repeal healthcare and drill for oil. It’s also good to note that the current front-runner for the nomination, Mitt Romney, ran against McCain for the Republican nomination back in 2008 and lost while McCain ran for the Republican nomination against Bush in 2000 and lost. So logically, the current front-runner for the Republican nomination is a third choice equivalent of George W. Bush Jr.

God help the Republican party in the next few years.


Green and pleasant land

In my capacity as BULS’ tweeter in cheif I have started following Nick Griffin, and my suspicions about him have been confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. The BNP is “bewildered” by its responsibilities in Europe. Nick himself delights in causing trouble, but is singularly slippery on facts. He expects others to listen, but does not reply to others who comment or engage in any kind of conversation with anyone on twitter. Perhaps inevitable when 90% of the population hate his guts.

He also usefully reminded me that yesterday was Trafalgar Day, and started me thinking about patriotism in its many guises. Being in Germany I find it a very interesting topic, because I sometimes feel as though I am experiencing more than homesickness for my friends and family – an actual longing for England itself.

Where does this feeling come from? Why do I  leap to defend the weather or cuisine when I know it is better in other countries? Why do I seek to protect the concept of Britishness against jokes and slander? I’m poud of our liberties, I’m grateful for our relative economic security and safety from attack. I love the infrastructure and the accents, the music and the telly, the literature and the arts. But Germany’s not bad either. I could have been born here, and lived a very similar life. I wouldn’t be disappointed with Australia or Greece. As the late Linda Smith observed, most people who are proud of being British are taking credit for something they took  no part in forming. No one alive now was alive to invent Britain. Most patriots were born and live here, so to call themselves British is not an achievement.

Nick Griffin’s attacks on foreigners in Britain and Brussels seek to include people like me, who want to feel proud and superior, who can define themselves as British if nothing else, who get excited by history and intrigued by ancestry. But it’s too easy. Patriotism is a luxury we don’t need. Defending the things that Britain does well individually is brilliant. But this concept of there being something more, an essence that runs through all of us and through the place itself is crazy. We see it taken to extremes world-wide, with broad hysteria on immigration, globalisation and EU integration. With MSPs preaching independence at all costs, with the Tea Party movement’s covert xenophobia, with the PKK committing violence in the name of the as-yet-unrecognised Kurdistan, with neo-Nazis in Berlin.

The British media heaps scorn with alacrity on any politician appearing to be less than delighted about their homeland. In the case of Gisela Stuart I more than once had to talk round voters who were unwilling to “let the Germans in” by electing her. Clegg was vilified for his foreign wife and europhile credentials. We have an unhealthy obsession with this second-hand pride.

The human race is entitled to liberty, good health and financial stability. It is not entitled to patriotism.


Merkel’s mistake

In an end to the cosy “Multi-Kulti” rhetoric of recent years Angela Merkel has made the sudden announcement that it doesn’t work. That multiculturalism in Germany has failed, both in terms of community cohesion and economic reality. Her comments come on the back of statements made by her partner in the coalition, the leader of the CSU which specifically represents South Germany, who focussed on cultural purity and the higher birth rates among of immigrants. The comments seem to have been well received, with many Germans (up to 30%) agreeing that the country is “overrun” with immigrants.

In Berlin I’ve seen multiculturalism working. I’ve seen international art on the streets and in galleries, different cultures participating in sports together, learning and teaching together, eating together. Berlin has always thrived from being a real metropolis. Nothing that this city does well comes from cultural “purity” or homogeneity. It’s built on contrasts and mixing. Easteners, Westeners, Danes, Poles, Turks, Italian, Canadians all contribute.

It’s hard for a German Chancellor to make comments on immigration without being accused of holding far-right sentiments by the international community. Merkel is probably trying to reclaim the rhetoric from the real neo-Nazis in a way that our politicians so obviously failed to do before the election of Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons. Sarkozy and Obama have both been able to go much further because they haven’t got the terrible historical reputation that Germany has. The legacy of history can be seen as a blessing in this context, because it acts as a very potent check and balance against racism in the national consciousness.