The Death of the ‘Labour Sabb’

This year, in the Guild of Students Officer elections, for the first time in a very long time there were no ‘Labour’ candidates. Something which has become quite a regularity at students unions across the country is the domination of particular sabbatical officers that are there to simply ‘Bring Labour values of collectivism to campus’. This is not an attack on previous Sabbs who were party members, it’s a critique on the idea of the ‘Labour Sabb’. Which is something that has bugged me greatly since joining the party, so here is a blog to have a good old rant about it…

In November, I attended the annual Labour Students Political Weekend. I thought i’d give it a go. What I will say is that the message I got from NOLS was a very narrow minded one. A one of a one size fits way of thinking, which couldn’t have highlighted how out of touch they are any better. ‘Let’s campaign for Ken in London’ was high on the agenda, while absolutely no mention was made to campaigning locally in other key elections happening this May, including Birmingham. ‘Let’s get as many of you elected onto the NUS and in Unions so you can be our puppets’ was also another common theme of the talks. Or one of my personal favourites, ‘Lets all pretend to talk to our Vice Chancellor and tell them they should pay cleaners more money, which they will then amazingly easily agree to’. The weekend really could have been summarised into those three snippets.

I believe that Labour Students attempt to have too much involvement in Union politics. It’s a well known fact that they ship supporters around the country to illegitimately boost support for their candidates (http://abercourier.com/2012/03/labour-troubles-tarnish-election-campaign/). They also offer training to their candidates and successful elects before they take office, to… well I imagine to tell them the policies to push onto their students. This is not what they should be doing! And this is not what the student movement is all about. Edd Bauer, current VPE at the Guild wrote during his time as EEO about this very issue on his blog, and I think he got it spot on. I’d definitely recommend giving it a read (http://edwardbauereeo.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/leaving-post.html)

I am currently a Labour member and supporter, and that’s fine. I have my ideological beliefs and i’ll never claim to not have them. There is no denying that we all have a position politically, because we all have an opinion. However, the problem arises when you push your party’s policies onto students. Abusing your position as an elected officer to ensure the party you support, and probably want to work for in future years gets a foot in with students on your campus. Sabbatical officers are not there to influence the students they represent. They are there to serve them. They are there to make the time that their students spend at their university as enjoyable as possible. I believe it is that simple.

As you may be aware, I was elected as Vice President (Activities & Development) in those very guild elections just a few short weeks ago. And next year, I will be tasked with helping every single student society at the Guild and I can’t wait to get started. Because it doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are, what matters is that you want to do something and celebrate what you love doing. That is why I ran for it and why I didn’t ever want to run as a ‘Labour Sabb’, because to do so would to betray what I believe is truly important in student politics. Yes, you guessed it, STUDENTS.

So this will be my 3rd and very last blog I post on BULSonline. My membership to the party expires in May and I will be letting it do so. I’m doing this because I simply have to be as neutral as possible. I represent BUCF as much as BULS and to do so whilst being a Labour party member I feel would be unprofessional. I have no idea if I will rejoin after my term in office, I guess it will depend on how the next year goes for the party and for Mr Miliband. And it will most certainly depend on whether the party (and it’s affiliated organisations) can stop being so narrow minded and unaware that a single solution will not solve all their problems.

The next year is crucial for us all, I’m just looking forward to the journey.

@OllieCosentino, Former BULS Secretary

A Free Web

@PalaeoNash 

Every so often there is a news story absurd enough to make cliched people ask: “Is it April 1st?” This week there was one, it was April 1st, but the story is depressingly real. I refer to government plans to extend the surveillance of our online lives.

While I believe in a strong state, and I certainly trust a democratic state more so that any private company, this represents another unnecessary intrusion into the private lives of us all. I believe that the internet must be totally free; that is as a true anarchy. A “crime” can only exist on the internet where is co-exists in reality (e.g. fraud). It must be a totally free place where ideas can be exchanged and where speech must be entirely free. While this naturally carries risks, I believe these can be better averted through user education rather than through cumbersome regulation. The internet can never be policed to protect the naïve or the over-sensitive from the troll, nor should it be. I realise that this probably sounds a little woolly or idealistic, but I will always favour the optimism of hope in humanity’s better instincts over the pessimistic urge to control and restrict us.

This isn’t just about our ability the watch daft videos of cats, to pointlessly argue the toss in comment sections, or to create weakly satirical memes. Consider how online communication is used to build campaigning and enable activism. Most organised protests will have Facebook events, with wildly optimistic “attending” lists. Debates over the injustices or otherwise of government policies will rage on page walls, or in twitter feeds. Last year saw the (perhaps over-hyped) power of online protest in deposing dictators. Fear those in positions of power who wish to curtail our online freedoms – they are a threat to democracy itself.

I am not talking only of the specific implications of these more recent proposals. They build gradually on the already extensive powers of our police and security forces. If implemented I imagine they will ultimately be another notch on the ratchet towards an authoritarian state. A future Prime Minister, trying to reduce these powers, would no doubt have their ear bent by senior security figures. They would supposedly be so useful in catching the genuine terrorists (who may in any case have been caught though traditional methods). Never mind the “inconvenience” to the ordinary citizen who by now has normalised having their online activity watched. I argue for a free internet, and against all efforts to regulate it, from a point of principle.

Remember ID cards. New Labour was at its worst in its authoritarian spasms. Remember the Tory manifesto of 2010: “Labour have subjectedBritain’s historic freedoms to unprecedented attack. They have trampled on liberties.” Now see that opportunism exposed as another incumbent government threatens the sacred privacy of the individual. To quote inhuman oxygen thief Chris Grayling in 2009 “Too many parts [of the government] have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that’s really got to change.” This same creature is now involved in the DWP’s outsourcing of databases to India, with the privacy of millions of innocent people being dependent on the integrity of the lowest bidder.

If the Tories believe in freedom it is merely the freedom for the powerful to enslave the rest of us. Labour have barely shed the worst of our authoritarian Blairite heritage. The Liberal Democrats are making very promising noises, but I don’t fancy placing too much faith in them any time soon. Who then will stand up for our online freedoms?

The Bankers’ Budget

Nobody would expect a fair budget from George Osborne. The Chancellor was never going to give a budget that benefitted the many over the few, or one that put the realities of everyday life above right-wing economic dogma. Expectations suitably adjusted, we can perhaps take small comfort from the 50p tax band “only” being cut to 45p. Ed Miliband gave a sterling speech in response, and I raise a glass to the intern who wrote the jokes. Professional hacks will be casting their own analysis; what follows is my personal take on some of the details.
 
The Chancellor’s big spin on this budget is that it “rewards work”.  We already know that under-18s are to endure a cut in the minimum wage. In the UK it is possible to work a 40-hour week and still live in poverty. The way to make work pay is, surprisingly enough, to actually make work pay, by implementing a proper living wage. Today we heard no commitment on improving the pay of the low paid. It would be naive to ever expect one from a Tory Chancellor. Increasing the income tax threshold seems reasonable, but not when even the poorest are still hit by VAT, and duty on fuel, alcohol and tobacco. What Osborne gives with one hand, he takes several times over with the other.
 
Projections for economic growth and for a fall in unemployment are welcomed.I only hope they hold true. As far as I am aware the budget made no specific commitments relating to the latter. I fear that further cuts to the Department of Work and Pensions will only result in more inhumane box-ticking and the harassment of the vulnerable. The Government – as ever – has put all its faith in the hands of the wonderful private sector.
 
On the 50p rate, the detail most comprehensively leaked, news was always going to be disappointing. Having endured two years of the government chaffing on about deficit reduction, one could at least have assumed that they intended to maximise tax revenue. Basic maths will tell anyone that a 50p rate will raise more by its presence than its absence (“Laffer Curve” / wishful thinking / pseudoscience aside). Osborne himself stated that the rate raised around £1 billion. To me a lot, to him “next to nothing”. Cutting it will cost £100m. That’s a lot of disabled children who will have to go without.
 
The moral case for the 50p rate is even more clear cut – there can be no reason why someone “earning” in excess of £150,000 per year needs a penny more. Greed can be the only motive, and the one which leads to tax evasion and avoidance. It will be argued that such non-payment means that the tax rate might as well be cut. Just apply this same rational to other crimes such as burglary and murder – “You’re never going to catch every criminal, might as well legalise it!” – to see what a fallacy it is.
 
Tax evasion is “morally repugnant” according to Osborne. It is hard to shake off that dirty feeling that comes from agreeing with him – especially given those are often my own words. Tax evasion, and avoidance, are both morally reprehensible. They are as much a theft from the community as your typical off-licence robbery, in scale perhaps more so. The problem is that Osborne is the last person I would expect to do anything about it. I fear that despite pledges to the contrary, he will be all talk and no trousers. Every spending decision taken thus far by the government has convinced me that it is a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
 
Miliband’s best line came when he challenged the government front bench to admit who among them personally benefit from the budget. Furthermore it is worth considering how many prominent Tory donors will also benefit. Such borderline conflict of interest makes a mockery of democracy – and will certainly not be reported in the Tory press. The headlines will trumpet crumbs from the rich men’s table, and ignore the widening inequality that will be a direct result of Osborne’s decisions.
 
Labour should commit to restoring the 50p band, and to actually getting serious on tax fraud, just as we should commit to renationalising the NHS. Anything less will be to continue to concede to the rightward drift of our national political discourse.
By Chris Nash

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is one of those days every year when we think of the role of the women who brought us into the world, and how much they have done and sacrificed for us and our welfare, from when we were a mere collection of cells, to now when we are studying for degrees (some would say our brain cells are perhaps not much more developed than when we were but a collection of cells in some respects). However much progress has been made (albeit painfully slowly) towards equal pay and representation for women in our society, women will always be pressurized to juggle their work and home lives to a greater extent than men.

What worries me is that this noble cause where women rightly have more of a choice in living their lives as they want to live them has created a culture and a mindset where those who choose – actively, rather than subjects of some false consciousness or religious pressure – to stay at home or only work part time to be with the kids as they come home from school, are targeted as a drain on society and the public purse. Housewives (sorry), homemakers, stay-at-home mums: whatever the word we use for them, their work is indeed that – work, which for example produces far more of a social good than the likes of bankers or estate agents or lawyers. Yet it is not categorised as such, and our society does not reward it, it penalizes it.

This is nothing to do with a woman being made to feel guilty for not pursuing her career – of course women should strive for the top echelons of the work pyramid, breaking the glass ceiling and entering the boardrooms; it is nothing to do with sexism – I firmly believe a ‘househusband’ can do the same job, and in our modern age with “all sorts of families” (Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993), including women with higher-paying jobs or same-sex parents, this is increasingly common. However there is a cultural bias against those women who choose to remain at home and work bloody hard to raise a family, often while holding down part-time or volunteering work, and this is reflected in our nation’s appallingly inadequate childcare arrangements.

In other countries – such as Germany with its stronger economy – there are subsidized childcare benefits, or help for mothers. Child tax credits and SureStart centres used to come close to this, but these are being slashed by the Coalition, which prefers to reward bankers, those earning above £150,000 a year, and potentially those who are married as opposed to all parents, co-habiting parents included. Mothers who decide to give up or put their careers on hold are penalised again later as they pick up their state pension, at a time when older people are living in fuel poverty, struggling to finish paying a mortgage and helping their children to get onto the housing ladder or with university tuition. They may even have to bring up another generation, as their children cannot afford childcare for their own sprogs so have to hand them over to the grandparents, who have no recognition or help from the state for helping bring up the politicians, doctors or teachers of tomorrow.

Nowadays, if you’re not contributing to economic growth or paying income tax, you effectively do not exist.  If you are doing your best to balance all of your commitments and bring up well rounded children you are ignored. It is about time mums who choose to stay at home for all or part of the time are recognised and treated with the respect they deserve by our policymakers.

Ageism – The Last Acceptable ‘-ism’?

Ageism is very different to the other ‘-isms’ we try to avoid in today’s supposedly enlightened, tolerant society. Most men will never be female and vice-versa, and we will never truly experience life as another race to the one we were born as. However, barring some sort of untimely death, we will all one day be old. Yet this is the group in society which is perhaps the most vulnerable and ignored.

It may be humorous, but some of the jokes around the notoriously ageist BBC’s choice of old-time crooner Engelbert Humperdinck to represent the UK at Eurovision have masked some alarming underlying currents of ageism and ridicule which are common in today’s media and discourse but usually pass unnoticed. Some of them have been about dementia and Alzheimer’s. There has also been serious criticism that he has been chosen, arguing that he should get out of the way and allow young talent to fluorish. People in the public eye who dare to continue in their career beyond 65 get sniffed at, despite still having the energy and drive to continue working. Why should he crawl into some care home and age quietly, with no fuss?

This brings us onto the more unnerving aspects of ageism in today’s society. The care system in England is a disgrace. Almost on a weekly basis there are reports of neglect and abuse in care homes up and down the country, with some staff accusing patients of “attention seeking” for desperately needing help to relieve themselves, children and grandchildren never visiting them, and pensioners still at home never getting out of bed because if they did they would freeze, as they cannot afford to put the heating on and pay the bills to the six main lecherous price-fixing gas companies (who are the real drain on our society). Meanwhile people are forced to sell their homes or inheritances to pay for their parents’ care because they receive little or no help from the government. Never mind inheritance tax, what about the low and middle income people who receive nothing from their parents because they have to give it to a private organisation which may or may not treat their loved ones with dignity and respect?

The state machine also picks on the elderly because they are vulnerable, in the same way that they pick on the young, the unemployed and the disabled. While the heads of top banks avoid paying tax altogether or manipulate it so they only pay the lower corporation tax, and Osborne no doubt prepares to justify lowering the 50p top rate in the Budget, ordinary retired pensioners are being routinely harassed to pay back money handed to them by mistake, without having it explained to them that it doesn’t have to be in a lump sum. I know a 93-year-old lady who took the trouble to write a letter asking why her winter fuel allowance was being slashed, and all she got back was a letter saying there is no money left and why doesn’t she ‘go online’ to find out more. Now there are many tech-savvy elderly people out there, but I don’t know many nonagenarians who served in the war who have a Gmail account and Facebook profile.

We live in ‘tough times’, as they keep ramming down our throats, and money doesn’t grow on trees. Yet times were harder in the 1940s austerity period and they managed to establish the National Health Service. Instead of spending money on the implementation of the Health and Social Care Bill (a laughable title for the effective privatisation that awaits us), why not set some aside for the eventual creation of a National Care Service for the elderly, or at least a free service for the poorest old people? Andy Burnham called for one in 2010, and now sadly Labour, in its’ attempt to appear economically competent, has gone quiet on the proposal. Yet it can be done.

It’s about time the elderly who don’t need patronising were allowed to continue living their lives to the full, and it’s about time those who no longer can do so without help are treated like human beings, and not a burden on the public purse which should die quietly.

The Future of LGBT Labour

I joined the Labour Party in 2008. This was before I was prepared to accept my sexuality. I have now come to realise that it was joining the Labour Party, and learning of all of Labour’s achievements in Government in striving for sexual equality that helped me on my way in accepting myself. Being proudly gay and proudly a member of the Labour Party can and should be mutually reinforcing. I will always be thankful to Labour for this.

Whilst we can look back proudly on all Labour achieved in equality – and there is no need to list these here – ending legislative homophobia is not the same as ending homophobia engrained in society. Top-down measures can only work so far. Greater acceptance of homosexuality as being ‘equal but different’ to heterosexuality can only be achieved through increased exposure of what it is to be gay, i.e., being capable of loving someone of the same sex. At its most basic this can include couples walking down the street holding hands. Unfortunately, we are not yet at a stage where this simple statement of homosexuality is uncontroversial. There is still a need for gay couples to act as pioneers. I can speak from experience that some members of society are not ready to witness such sights.

Labour is at its best when fighting for the rights of minorities within society, championing the fundamental need for equality. However, whilst I am well aware that homophobia remains an issue, the greatest issue of inequality relates to income. The lack of equal opportunity in the world of work adversely affects women, the BME community and disabled people more than it does the LGBT community. With this in mind, the LGBT Labour needs to rally round and support those who also fall under the umbrella term ‘minority’. Liberation Campaigns and caucuses are vital in recognising and celebrating our differences (note the very discourse of the word ‘Pride’ in our annual Pride Marches, and the rightful presence of Labour at these marches), but our shared difficulties and experiences need to be at the forefront of our campaigns.

This is, I believe, should be the next step of LGBT Labour in Britain, standing up for the voiceless in society, speaking for those adversely affected by the Government’s draconian and ill-balanced cuts. Even if we do not self-define as members of a particular caucus, Labour needs to unite and continue the fight for equal opportunity for all.

By Dan Harrison, Outgoing BULS Chair

Ich bin ein Trot

In the past week the “progressive” mask of the Tory party has all but disintegrated. Once again, boggle-eyed theories of “the enemy within” have been aired. By now most people in the country will be aware of the morally repulsive government scheme that is workfare. Anyone with a heart and a social conscience will be opposing it.

According to Grayling and IDS though, we opponents are just a tiny “unrepresentative” bunch of extremist “trots”. Ah yes, “trots”, meaning trotskyists; because if you can’t counter an argument with logic, reason and facts, then why not descend into slurs, name-calling and ad homninum? I have used the term “trots” in the past to refer to left-wing opponents. It was wrong of me then, being both ignorant and a lazy and knee-jerk form of argument. All in all its use by the government signifies an intellectual unwillingness to engage in the issues.

Yet what can we expect from men who so clearly do not know the difference between right and wrong? Already they have lied through their teeth about the “voluntary” nature of workfare. Government documents are, even now, being fabricated or hidden from official websites. The DWP, as always, peddles its Orwellian propaganda. Everyone who has first hand experience of the Job Centre and these schemes knows that Grayling and IDS are open liars. When brave individuals like Cait Reilly have dared to stand up against workfare, they have been mercilessly slurred and slandered in the Tory press. Now there are threats of a heavy police presence at future workfare protests – presumably to intimidate the vulnerable into compliance.

I am against workfare because I believe in a fair days pay for a fair days work. I oppose businesses exploiting the free labour of the unemployed. I oppose the unemployed being punished for economic circumstances beyond their control. I oppose undermining the wages of paid employees by working for free. I oppose already rich individuals and shareholders profiting from forced and unpaid labour.

According to Grayling and IDS, all this makes me an “extremist” and a “trot”. This being so, all hail Comrade Trotsky!

By Chris Nash