Archive | April, 2013

Tony Blair and our desperate news cycle

30 Apr

By Chris Hansell

Photo by Chatham House, London

Photo by Chatham House, London

First of all let me say that I have no personal investment in the nooks and crannies of party politics. I’m not a member of a political party and have never voted for a major party and never intend to. The last general election, the first time I was old enough to vote in one, saw me vote Green because I was dragged to the polling station by a far less pessimistic friend.

Several weeks ago, as part of the New Statesman’s 100th anniversary edition, former Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a guest column implying that risks abound should Ed Miliband’s labour shift to the left. The piece, however Mr Blair intended it, was jumped upon by every news outlet imaginable. This was a story that could easily clog up air time or column inches.

Eventually Mr Blair gets down to brass tax: ‘where should progressive politics position itself’? This would be a good question if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘progressive politics’ is often more about what is in fashion from month to month than tackling serious problems.

In any case our former leader’s conclusion is that ‘the guiding principle should be that we are the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger’. This misstates the choice in front of Ed MIliband. Blind anger can lead to hate, but in the case if Britain today there is every reason to be angry. The state of the economy, excessive rents, a narrowly avoided triple dip recession and higher unemployment are the reality of Britain’s current economic policy.

The one area in which Mr Blair hits the nail on the head is in his assessment of the true causes of the financial crisis from 2007 onward. Left leaning commentators should be pointing this out – the New Statesman’s own twitter feed advertised it as ‘the bit the Tories don’t want you to read’ and this is probably a good analysis.

His points about the comparative levels of debt before and after 1997 are ones that perhaps Ed Miliband should be making more noise about. The deficit was caused by the subprime mortgage disaster and bailing out the banks, not an overspend on the part of the coalition’s predecessors.

 The Telegraph’s Tory in Labour clothing, Dan Hodges, used Blair’s column to take a nice stab at Ed Miliband and labour. ‘The terms of political debate are indeed being subtly redefined, with Labour being nudged the wrong side of them’ he says. Whether this is the case is unclear, but given the state of recent opinion polls it is at least worth scrutinising much more.

Most papers focused heavily on building a narrative out of Mr Blair’s column and the Labour party’s subsequent statement. If they are to be believed it is a war of words between Labour past and Labour present. The newspapers need to fill column inches, but journalists and politicians can sometimes trap themselves in a bubble. This is what has happened here.

Dan Hodges talk that ‘the Tories are locking down issue after issue’ is entrenched in the same bubble. It is the same bubble that causes columnists to spew election strategy voodoo like the 35 Per Cent strategy. From inside it makes sense, but to the average person on the street, who might be unemployed, underpaid or overcharged on rent, we might as well be speaking a different language.

And really this is the problem. The political media’s attempts to string out a narrative when ultimately we have very little reason to care about the opinions of a former prime minister who led the country into two disastrous wars and did nothing to temper financial markets is a little embarrassing. It doesn’t matter what Blair thinks.


The ‘bedroom tax’ and the poor

2 Apr

By Chris Hansell

A protest against the bedroom tax in Durham

photo by Byzantine_K

On Easter Monday one of the coalition’s most controversial policy changes came into force, dragging huge numbers of the population back into a harsh reality.

The ‘bedroom tax’ is not a tax per say. It will however reduce the amount of housing benefit received by claimants if they have one or more spare rooms. It has been one of the most divisive policies in long time, and has even led labour MP Frank Field to call for direct action against it.

In what has been a remarkably unsurprising move by the Chancellor the changes will affect some of the poorest people in our society – housing benefit is intended for people on low incomes. The new cuts will only affect people living in council housing or housing association properties.

A recent article on the BBC website points out ‘the government estimates that more than 660,000 claimants will be affected, with an average loss of £14 a week’. With February seeing a rise in the Consumer Price Index of 2.8% from its level a year earlier losing £14 a week for some families could be a disaster.

Putting aside the fact that those with spare rooms not claiming housing benefit remain free to leave them empty and gathering dust, those who are affected are asked to seek smaller accommodation. This is where the cruelty of this policy truly shows itself. Those seeking somewhere with fewer bedrooms face a chronic shortage of social housing.

In London in particular housing projects seem focused on replacing housing deemed dreary and derelict with playboy pads for the wealthy. The Guardian’s Anna Minton talked in a column this week of the situation in Brixton. Minton says ‘A combination of high rents and housing benefit cuts ensuring places such as Brixton will no longer be affordable to those on low incomes.’

For Minton it appears that housing policy in London has become about building homes for tax exiles, like the Strata building and its future siblings.

The problem of unaffordable housing keeps coming up. Last year controversy surrounded whether certain London boroughs intended to send those seeking housing in their area as far away as Stoke or Derby due to the absence of any affordable local accommodation.

The most depressing part is the rhetoric coming from parts of the media.

‘The first rule of political propaganda is that if you repeat a plausible slogan enough times, and that goes unchallenged, it will eventually be widely believed’. These are the words of the Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover, and I find it extremely difficult to ignore the irony of this statement. Mr Glover is of course talking about the bedroom tax, but his words could just as easily be used to describe how the mail has demonised people on benefits.

Searching the word ‘scroungers’ on the mail’s website currently brings up 176 articles.

Mr Glover’s assertion that the bedroom tax is ‘essentially voluntary’ misses the point that in many cases there simply isn’t the social housing available for those with spare rooms to move into smaller properties.

Meanwhile the top rate of income tax will be slashed from 50p to 45p in April, saving some of the wealthiest people in Britain up to £40,000. Corporation tax will also start a steady decline this year, starting at 28% now and falling to 20% by 2015. According to the Guardian this will cost the UK £800 million a year from 2016 onward.

Glad to see we live in a fair society.

The bedroom tax is just another example of where the priorities of this government lie. The ‘nasty party’ is alive and well and knows exactly who it wants to look after.

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