We Must Not Surrender to Child Poverty

This was published by Plaid Cymru Aberystwyth, 14 April 2017.

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Campaigning on an estate in Penparcau, I hear families talking, clearing dishes, watching television and putting children to bed.  There are shrieks and laughter from children seeking to squeeze a little more life from the day. I suddenly remember the damning fact that more than a third of children in Penparcau live in poverty.  I feel anger that so many children have been failed by our political and economic leaderships – their lives diminished, stolen, plunged onto a – more than likely – trajectory of life-long deprivation.

Incumbent politicians prefer that failure remains invisible, and for the most part, child poverty is shuffled out of view.  We are only made to face the terrible truth when the yearly headlines reappear: “A quarter of UK children in poverty,” “200,000 Welsh children in poverty.” Each time, the headlines are met with the same excuses and obfuscations.

Since 1999, the successive governments under Welsh Labour have publicized their flagship policy to end child poverty by 2020.

Yet, by the end of 2016 – and after campaigning on “eradicating” child poverty in the May elections to the National Assembly – Labour announced it will fail to meet its target.

First and foremost, the Labour government blamed its failure squarely on the austerity policies and welfare reforms of the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition and the current Conservative governments.  Labour, taking a page from Plaid Cymru, also blamed the limited powers available for the National Assembly.  Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant said:

“The Welsh Government does not hold the primary policy and fiscal levers, especially in terms of the welfare system, needed to enable us to deliver the significant changes needed.” (“No end to child poverty by 2020, Welsh Government says,” BBC, 13 December 2016)

With its belated complaint about a lack of powers, it may at first sight seem Labour had finally begun to recognise what Plaid Cymru has known all along: the urgency for an adequate constitutional settlement.  But, that is certainly not the case.  Indeed, Labour has surrendered to child poverty and to the “business as usual” which is its cause.  Sargeant said:

“The issues we face can therefore only be tackled through new ways of working. Within a context of stretched resources and reducing budgets, we need to focus our efforts where we can have most impact with the levers we have available.” (BBC, 13 December 2016)

It is clear we must acknowledge the reality of what is and what is not “available”.  Yet, Plaid Cymru contends we can do much more with what is available (like banning Zero Hours contracts, for example), and that we can, and must, continuously fight to increase what is “available” – in terms of funding and powers.

Instead of declaring a state of emergency, for instance, over palpable threats to the human rights of Welsh children, and demanding more powers for Wales, Labour acquiesced to pre-ordained failure by accepting a toxic status quo where one in three children will continue to live in poverty.  Or, in their own words, Labour could have demanded the “primary policy and fiscal levers” for Wales in order to confront the unnecessary stain of child poverty.

Yet, it has long been clear that Labour is not inclined to demand more powers for Wales. Indeed, it was only Plaid Cymru, during its One Wales coalition with Labour in 2007, which prompted the 2011 Referendum which gave the National Assembly primary legislative competence.  From this perspective, Labour’s original promise to eradicate child poverty was either an opportunistic lie or a terrible naivety.

The consequence of Labour’s reluctance to demand more powers – reflective of the ambivalence about devolution that has haunted it for decades – is that, on their own criteria, they will always fail to meet their objectives.  They do not have the powers, but they do not want them either – and thus, Labour will always make promises it cannot keep.

In response to this blatant self-contradiction, those of us unwilling to surrender to child poverty must clearly lay out our desire to achieve the “primary policy and fiscal levers” which will allow us to realistically confront the endemic challenge we face.

Such an augmentation of a Welsh centre of gravity becomes even more important in the wake of Brexit.  Indeed, one could very easily ask: if the UK does not wish to be ruled from Brussels, then why on earth would Wales wish to be ruled from London?  Should we not take back control?  Brexit necessitates a re-balancing of not only the UK single market, but also of the centres of constitutional power and responsibility within the UK.

Assuming for the moment that the UK will remain intact – a prospect that with each day seems to recede from view – it will be necessary to fulfil the ambitions of devolution through the establishment of home rule across the “family of nations”.  London-rule, on its own, will never solve the problem of child poverty in Wales (or Northern Ireland).  Yet, a robust Welsh government could solve this problem, and many others, if it had the “primary policy and fiscal levers”.  Yet, given its past performance, it is highly unlikely that the Labour party will ever lead such a government.

Nevertheless, I will argue that home rule would be good for all the parties in Wales – if prosperity and self-governance is in fact our common goal.  With home rule, Wales would have the powers to enact its own unique solutions to the challenges of child poverty, criminal justice, and socio-economic development, to name a few.

There are those of course who fear that home rule is merely a Trojan Horse for independence.  If we look closely at this suggestion, however, they seem to be openly admitting that they would rather have Wales powerless and poor than to prosper through self-government.

We could however imagine the exact opposite of their fear.  Indeed, it is possible that if Wales enjoyed home rule within an authentic “family of nations,” it may have little incentive to leave such an arrangement.

In reality, independence is always a possibility – regardless of home rule – and the proponents of Welsh independence are currently enjoying a significant surge in support in the wake of Brexit.  In this way, the conflation of home rule and independence is a red herring.

At the end of the day, the question of Welsh independence will be decided by the Welsh people.  Home rule however is a different question – it concerns more immediate issues of practical self-governance and social well-being, of the fulfilment of the rights and aspirations of the Welsh people within the UK.  Home rule speaks to the urgency to build a better life for a people who have learned from centuries of experience that Wales does best when it controls its own affairs.

We must approach our situation simultaneously from two perspectives – firstly, we must work to get the maximum from the current system to best advantage at all levels of government, and secondly, we must work for the fulfilment of the devolutionary potential in the promotion of Welsh social, political, economic and cultural democracy.

We cannot surrender to child poverty – nor can we surrender to a political and economic order which makes us hop on one leg to gain our supper.

In this dangerous moment of history, it is more important than ever to have trustworthy hands at every level of government, hands that will support not only local communities but also the national interests of Wales – of her vulnerable pensioners, hard-pressed families, disabled, youth and children.

Under the guiding idea of home rule, we can build a Wales in which the fundamental rights of Welsh citizens are respected.  We must work to build the alternative, one that will allow us to truly eradicate child poverty and many other social challenges.

 

 

 

Squat to own – Sadiq Khan must think bigger to solve the housing crisis

In his campaign for London mayor, Sadiq Khan stated repeatedly that his greatest challenge would be the housing crisis. What we have experienced instead is a disappointing dearth in the mix of tactics to confront property speculation and skyrocketing rents.

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Previous generations responded to their own housing crises with massive social housing projects, housing benefit, rent control, cooperatives – and squatting. Already back-tracking on slightly more radical policies such as rent control, Khan’s central initiative has been Homes for Londoners, a private-public partnership to encourage investment in additional housing capacity. But, while Khan has criticised investors for regarding residential assets in London as “gold bricks for investment,” his own policies in fact capitulate to the speculative property market by offering “affordable homes” as just another investment brand.

Khan recently stated that he would be friendly with business as mayor of London.  Yet, as a public official, his remit extends beyond the narrow interests of business toward those of the wider community.  If his rapport with the market is to surrender to its logic, Khan will merely perpetuate the root cause of the housing crisis.  In line with the neo-liberal mantra, the “free market” is not meant to efficiently allocate housing as a social need, but to generate revenues and maintain property values.

The housing crisis, in this way, would seem to be a matter of perspective.  For landlords and investors, there is in fact no crisis at all, but record profits and expanding opportunities for investment.  The crisis exists only for end-users, housing consumers in a seller’s market – where supply is maintained in artificial scarcity.  Bound by this logic, Khan’s Homes for Londoners will provide little incentive for a shift in investment behaviour – and will therefore not solve the housing crisis.

A credible housing strategy – indeed, a housing revolution – must deploy a mix of tactics and must transform the logic of housing provision through public investment, regulation, and cooperatives.  Yet, as we have seen, Khan has not challenged the pre-eminence of the market – even though in housing allocation, it has so clearly failed. In the face of the contradiction between property as a residential asset and housing as a social necessity, Khan must challenge the market by expanding his range of options to deliver on his promises to London.

To read the rest of the article, please visit: Squat to own – Sadiq Khan must think bigger to solve the housing crisis.

After Brexit – Envisioning New British Landscapes

Among its myriad effects, Brexit threatens a radical shakeup of UK agriculture with the withdrawal of billions of pounds of EU subsidies. There is considerable anxiety in the agricultural community as most farmers rely on some form of income support from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Without a policy of smooth transition, the transformation of agriculture will lead to a radical shift in land values as many farmers lose their holdings to the international market.

The fall of the CAP opens up the ominous possibility of the corporate countryside, the brave new world of high intensity agribusiness, accelerated road building, suburban residential and retail commercial developments, airports and tourist facilities. In an era of cheap land and perhaps negative interest rates – not to mention the housing crisis – development will proceed apace as the integrity of the countryside is forever altered.

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Contrary to this nightmare scenario, the current CAP policy favoured stability, and in recent decades, environmental criteria and objectives, linked through cross-compliance to farming subsidies. Activities such as crop diversification, pesticide control, wildlife corridors have been central to the Pillar I requirements for EU subsidies. Such activities are still in place across the UK and indicate an alternative path for the British countryside, other than the corporate takeover of rural Britain.

It is ironic that British scholars and scientists have been central to the articulation of EU environmental law and policy, the most developed body of such law in the world. Indeed, given the high level of public education in the UK on environmental issues, especially of such issues as climate change, it would be difficult, and in fact, counter-productive, to walk away from such a longstanding commitment to the environment.

Confronted however by the forced choice between economic development and the environment, many may tolerate the incremental destruction of the rural landscape. But, we must be clear that this is a false choice and that a better approach to the countryside is possible than a passive drift toward the wasteland. To get a glimpse of the nightmare scenario, we need only consider the American (formerly rural) landscape of suburbs, retail malls, theme parks, landfills and industrial farms.

Nevertheless, Britain differs from the Americans since they have already created their wasteland. The UK still stands at the crossroads, not having taken the plunge toward overdevelopment and corporate agriculture.  Indeed, while the UK will leave the EU, there is no good reason to simply surrender the countryside to the vast corporate monolith. Yet, such surrender will occur in the absence of political clarity, imagination and investment.

To read the rest of the article, please visit “After Brexit – New British Landscapes”.

 

Little Britain – UK plunges into the deep end of the international market

The central motif for the Leave campaign’s agitation for Brexit was that of sovereignty.

As the story went, membership of the European Union entailed a loss of sovereignty in diverse fields, from agriculture, fishing, and domestic economic policy to immigration management, foreign policy, and international trade.

The narrative continued with promises of an independent and resurgent (“Hopeful”) Britain, one, with a hint of nostalgia, that can stand on its own two feet on the world stage.

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The audience was also tantalised with the prospect of a bonfire of EU regulations and the end of the allegedly remote rule of an “unaccountable” Brussels.

There were finally re-assurances that new trade deals would be negotiated, through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and that Britain could position itself globally (not merely in relation to the EU) as a multi-lateral trading partner.  With the elimination of EU regulations, the UK would have the competitive advantage of a ‘flexible’ economy.

There are many problems with this story, not the least being the very meaning of the word sovereignty.  Indeed, in many senses, Brexit substantially reduces the sovereignty of the UK.  Not only will the new everyday situation be a more costly version of business-as-usual, but Britain itself will also exist in a more dangerous environment of risk.

To read the rest of the article, please visit Little Britain.

The Tory Regime – A Government of Paralysis

The Tory Regime – A Government of Paralysis

James Luchte

Divided Kingdom

Nearly two months after the Queen’s Speech, it has become all too clear that the Tory government is already in a state of paralysis. Central precepts of the Queen’s Speech have already been quietly abandoned.

The political earthquake of 2015 reverberated with the rise of multi-party politics in the UK, the decimation of the Labour Party in Scotland, the failure of Austerity Labour to reach disaffected Tories in England and the disillusion of the vast majority of the electorate with status quo politics. This disillusion was given expression in a fragmentation of voting demographics, which, due to the current voting system, was not reflected in the representational pattern in Parliament.

What we have been left with is a Conservative government with a slim majority. Yet, it is not the slim majority (obtained with a rather small percentage of the popular vote), that is the cause of the paralysis of the Tory government. The paralysis lies instead in the internal divisions within the Conservative Party itself.

To read the rest of the article, please visit The Tory Regime: A Government of Paralysis.

The Tory Regime: A Truth Event