Labour’s recession is far from over

The big story of the past week, along with the preceeding resignations by Blairite ministers trying to topple Brown?

Millions of Labour supporters stayed home; two fascists won seats in the European parliament on a reduced turnout. Yes, their vote fell, but they won seats because of the low turnout.

I won’t give you the obligatory post dedicated to how and why they made a breakthrough. Oxygen of publicity and whatnot.

So, Brown’s clinging on, having ceded more power to Lord Mandelson, who is now virtually deputy Prime Minister – and unelected, like many in the reshuffled Labour cabinet. Having faced down the parliamentary party in a stage-managed meeting, Brown’s hoping that an economic recovery will save his premiership.

Darling, in situ as Chancellor, despite rumours the PM wanted to replace him with Ed Balls, warns against complacency in seeing “green shoots” of recovery. As well he might, he knows how much government spending will have to be directed towards those made unemployed. Oh, and the banks – mostly owned by the public these days – they aren’t lending to our manufacturing base…

Mandelson, negotiating with the new owner of Vauxhall, is unable to guarantee jobs will stay in the UK. So much has been devoted to bailing out the banks, there’s not much room for manuoevre – not unless there’s another radical change in approach.

A senior Tory let slip that they intend to cut spending by 10% on all but health, education, and international aid, if they win the next election. To Labour’s cries of “Tory cuts!” – the nearest they get to a class analysis of Her Majesty’s Opposition – the reply comes, from both the Tories and the corporate press, that Labour is committed to 7% spending cuts across the board.

As Ann Pettifor has pointed out, to cut spending in the next few years will be a disaster for an economic recovery:

As things stand, any fragile signs of economic recovery will quickly be crushed by the failure of government to intervene and spend at an appropriate level. Instead, government cutbacks will impact with considerable force on the fragile economy, and will hurt the middle and working classes. As the year proceeds many will discover the true, and often pitiful value of their pensions, and will be hurt by cuts in services and job losses in the public sector. This will hamper recovery and deepen, if that is possible, the alienation of British voters from the Labour government.

And don’t forget, this is the woman who was writing about the debtonation before it began.

She continues in the same article to outline the blades which may slice through any “green shoots”:

Foreign direct investment could fall globally by 45% this year, according to the same report, and corporate profits will decline by 20-25%. Global trade is down 25%, and the EIU predicts trade will be down by 10-15% by year end – the worst figure since 1945.

In April this year, consumer prices turned negative in the US, the UK, Germany and Japan. This may be good news for consumers, and may help lower food prices for the poor, but it is not good for the economy as a whole. Businesses cannot profit from negative prices, so they are bankrupted and lay off employees. The rocketing numbers of unemployed (whose plight is seldom taken seriously by orthodox economists) will cut back on borrowing and shopping and may even default on loans. This is not good news for the productive sector of the economy, and it’s very bad news for the banking sector. Banks have still not fully de-leveraged the debts on their balance sheets. Now, thanks to rising unemployment, non-performing loans are “set to rise sharply around the world over the next 12-18 months” according to the EIU. This is very scary, if one considers that there are still $600tn of liabilities in the form of derivatives on balance sheets out there – backed up by a mere $38tn of so-called credit default swaps (in reality a form of insurance on derivatives).

More banking trouble, in other words…

Pettifor concludes:

Nothing has been done to restructure the global economy and limit financial imbalances – including Anglo-American deficits and the Chinese surplus. Indeed these matters were not even discussed at the last G20 summit. Big, reckless money continues to be made from currency speculation, just when the global economy requires currency stability.

We – employees, consumers, investors and borrowers – have been misled and fooled by the economics profession and finance sector for years before this crisis. As a result of our gullibility, we lost $60tn of wealth in the past year. We would be wise now to dismiss their vain efforts at confidence-boosting, and instead rest our judgments on the real world economic outlook.

Back to politics, word is that Balls and Darling are split on how to present the supposedly “inevitable” cuts in public spending.

Hardly confidence boosting!

As far as this modest blogger can tell, the debate isn’t on what to cut, but on when to admit the cuts are coming.

In the leadership challenge that never was, the unions didn’t bark – despite the looming cuts and failure to aid the car industry. For sure, a change of leader – even to someone more in touch with the needs of ordinary people – would bring forth a general election at the worst possible time. With MPs expenses hanging in the air, Labour voters are unlikely to show up at polling stations and register support for the party any time soon.

For the Labour grassroots, there’s no difficulty in choosing between Trident, PFIs, the Afghan war, ID cards – or investing in a new generation of social housing, a Green New Deal, and helping workers to stay in their jobs. However, there’s no means by which the party’s grassroots can influence policy; even the parliamentary party has a tough time defeating unpopular measures, like Royal Mail privatisation, which hasn’t yet been ditched.

According to opinion polling, most voters agree Labour has abandoned its traditional supporters and believe that the Tories are most interested in helping out the rich. So what gives with the BNP victories, then? Well, it’s worth remembering that the Green vote was up – they campaigned on job creation through a Green New Deal to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries, all very practical. But if your main themes are not echoed in the media, it’s difficult to get ahead. The upcoming by-election in Norwich could see the Greens win their first MP, should the support be forthcoming.

In the meantime, I’m wondering exactly where this announcement by John McDonnell will lead:

If we go beyond November without real change visibly under way, what hope is left of Labour not only remaining in government but also surviving as an effective political force at all?At that stage the only responsible act in the long-term interests of our movement would be to offer a real change in political direction by mounting a challenge to the political leadership of the party and letting the members of the party decide. Let me give notice now that this is the path I will take. If this route is blocked again by MPs failing to nominate, then the alternative is Labour MPs making it clear at the next election that they stand on a policy platform of real change as “change candidates”.

Of course, they will be standing as Labour candidates but binding together as a slate of candidates committed within Labour to advocating a change programme, setting out the policy programme they will be advocating as a group and supporting in parliament if elected. Only in this way can we demonstrate to the supporters that want to come home to Labour that there is the hope and prospect of change.

I can’t see a policy debate being tolerated, not without the capitalist media emptying another bucket of shit over the heads of New Labour and calling for a Cameron coronation. Hence the talk of the Blairites toppling Brown without recourse to either the PLP, the members, or the unions – with the Cabinet nominating one of its ranks to become party leader and PM.

So, the question is, will McDonnell and co. defect to form a new workers’ party? If not, will parties like the Greens back this new “change candidates”?

Myners strike – words of wisdom from City insider turned govt advisor

Yet another reject from the square mile has made it into government, take note!

Says Paul, who joined Labour because it was more “left wing” than the Liberals:

The capacity for soundly managed banks and markets to support the generation of wealth in the economy could never be matched by the public sector. That is why the government has a policy of supporting a return to an effective commercial banking sector, rather than nationalisation.

Ah, no comrade. The reason is that New Labour is committed to securing the power and wealth of the super-rich, as opposed to using the country’s wealth to re-invest in productive activities…

If Gordon Brown had really wanted to abolish the boom and bust of the capitalist economic cycle, he would have expropriated the banks years ago – not merely part-nationalise them by buying worthless shares.

As it stands, turbo-capitalism of the sort backed by New Labour has destroyed the manufacturing base of this country and damaged the social fabric of the country with mass unemployment. Many were bought off with the promise of a “housing ladder” to climb out of the working class, but now this bubble has burst along with the dream of a “popular capitalism”

The relentless pursuit of profit for the few has brought misery for the many. Now it has brought chaos for those who benefit the most – and they’ve called in the government, which has stepped in with wads of borrowed money which we will have to pay back in years to come (with interest!).

But never fear, we have utopians like Paul Myners in government. Men who can imagine a time when capitalism serves the many not the few. How fortunate he is to have such dreams – the rest of us must bear the reality of the recession: indebtedness, mass unemployment, and a rise in homelessness and crime.

Homelessness increasing as banks theaten repossession – even if you’re paying the mortgage!

The News Line reports that the recession is driving up homelessness:

Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, yesterday warned of a potential surge in homelessness in 2009 as it opened the doors of Crisis Christmas to hundreds of homeless people.

Following official figures showing record unemployment levels, a YouGov survey on behalf of Crisis has revealed that 41% of adults in Britain know somebody who has lost their job due to the economic downturn.

Unemployment is hitting home with almost one in ten (9%) of people with a mortgage or rent repayment already struggling to pay the rent or mortgage.

In addition, a third of those surveyed (32.4%) believed they would lose their home within three months of losing their main form of income – leading to fears of a surge in homelessness in the New Year.

The survey also reveals that the poorest are the most vulnerable to the impact of the economic downturn, with more than three times as many people with lower incomes struggling to pay the rent and mortgage compared to more affluent groups in Britain.

Poorer people are also more concerned about losing their jobs and homes.

The findings were announced on the day that Crisis is opening nine temporary centres across London to hundreds of people who are already homeless and vulnerably housed.

The centres provide vital companionship, hot meals and shelter as well as services including housing, job advice, health checks, training and further education opportunities.

Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: ‘These figures are a stark warning for 2009.

‘Today we open the doors of Crisis Christmas to hundreds of homeless people in London – some of the most vulnerable and deprived people in our society.

‘The economic downturn is hitting the poorest the hardest.

‘Many are struggling to keep their homes.

‘The situation is only made worse by pressure on jobs, with unemployment levels set to reach two million by the end of the year.

‘Our fear is that as the recession bites in the New Year we are going to see more people in the same situation as those relying on our Christmas centres today, whilst those already at the bottom of the pile are going to be further away from the help and support they need to put their lives back together.’

Even if you are in employment and can afford to pay the mortgage, you could still be repossessed, as The Times reports:

Homeowners who have not missed a single mortgage payment could still be threatened with repossession by lenders who use an emergency clause to demand that the entire loan is repaid at short notice.

Peter and Marian Addyman, who live in St Leonards, East Sussex, received a letter this month from NatWest – part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is majority-owned by the Government – insisting that they repay a £226,000 mortgage within 30 days or face repossession.

The couple, who have never failed to make a mortgage repayment, bought their new-build five-bedroom property for £250,000 in 2004. When their initial mortgage deal expired at the beginning of the year, they took out an interest-only tracker loan at 0.04 per cent above the Bank of England base rate.

Their local MP, Michael Foster, who has twice written to the bank to request an explanation, said of the mortgage: “The bank are obviously not making any money out of it but they agreed it.”

The Council of Mortgage Lenders said that the clause allowing lenders to demand that a mortgage be repaid at short notice existed in the small print of almost every mortgage in Britain, although it was meant to cover only exceptional circumstances. This month a judge supported the right of lenders to repossess properties at will under a law dating back to 1925.

Since the government owns a majority of RBS, ministers should get involved to ensure this doesn’t set a precedent for the banks. It must be tempting for banks to recapitalise via repossession, thus avoiding total nationalisation and concerted regulation.

Back to the News Line for what to do about the homelessness crisis:

In the next year a million people will lose their jobs, and hundreds of thousands of them will be unable to make their mortgage or rent payments. They will end up on the streets.

What is required is an emergency plan to house the homeless.

Under the Labour government, Labour Councils are actually demolishing council estates and selling the land to developers for speculative building aimed at the very rich.

It has reached the stage where almost the entire housing stock has been sold off, and where council tenants are being threatened with eviction by councils in Camberwell and other places, because they will not leave their council homes.

The sales of council estates, or their demolition by councils must be halted at once.

Likewise, all empty properties must be requisitioned and taken over to house the homeless.

As well there must be a programme of public works to build a million new council homes, both to house the homeless and to provide hundreds of thousands of young workers with jobs and the opportunity to learn trades and master skills at trade union rates of pay.

This is the way forward to begin to solve the housing crisis.

Is progressive taxation is back on the agenda?

The Compass group has welcomed the Pre-Budget Report with as much optimism as the Chancellor’s asessment of the depth of the recession:

Neal Lawson chair of Compass said: “Today’s Pre-Budget Report marks a move away from the Neo-Liberal/free market economic consensus pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments of the past 30 years – but this should not just be a blip before normal service, in the shape of speculative consumer capitalism, is resumed – the government needs to make this a turning point that leads to the moral transformation of our society”.

Jon Cruddas MP said: “This is exactly the kind of measure that we’ve been advocating for a while now and it’s good news for people like my constituents in Dagenham. This should be the first stage in re-balancing the tax system so it’s fairer for middle and low income earners, as well as kick-starting the economy in the short term. When the new US administration takes office then we have the chance to move in to another phase – an international crackdown on corporate tax evasion. Meanwhile, Cameron is now retreating from New Conservatism into orthodox Thatcherite economics and we have to expose that.”

Gavin Hayes General Secretary of Compass said: “A financial crisis that was in part caused by the excesses and risky behaviour of those at the top should not be allowed to unnecessarily hurt the rest of us, so today’s announcement on reducing VAT, whilst at the same time announcing plans to increase the tax burden on the super-rich should both be welcomed, it is absolutely right for government to limit the impact of the recession by using pragmatic and sensible measures such as these.”

As Richard Murphy points out, cutting VAT by such a small amount isn’t likely to impact upon retail prices for consumers:

On an item costing £4.99 the VAT saving will be under 11p. Can you see anyone shifting that price to £4.89?

On £500 (VAT inclusive price) the saving is £10.60. That’s neither here or there: if you are going to spend £500 then £10.60 or so will not change the decision. Other influences are much stronger.

So at low price points this is a boost for the retailer who will take much of the gain. I really do not expect them to pass this on. At high price points I doubt the impact.

Either way the saving goes to marginal jobs in the UK, and Woolworths won’t be saved by this, whilst cheap imports are the only likely sector to see a boost. The business to business sector will see none at all: VAT does not impact them.

But it’s more than that: this might fuel deflation, which we can ill afford. So it’s a mistake.

VAT is regressive, but not as badly as some taxes (e.g. council tax) so the poorest who need help will not benefit most.

John McDonnell MP, chair of the Left Economics Advisory Panel said of the tax changes:

“The introduction of a higher rate of tax for high earners is long overdue but the Government’s proposals are hardly a revolution, and delaying them until after the next election is pointless. The higher rate should be the start of creating a fair tax reform agenda, redistributing wealth from the super rich in order to take the low paid out of taxation altogether.

“The Government should also move immediately to tackle the large scale tax avoidance by the corporate sector, introducing legislation to outlaw tax havens, mirroring the Obama bill in Congress. The public revulsion over City bonuses and bank executive salaries has opened the way for radical tax reform. Government must seize the moment.”

The Public and Commercial Services Union warns of the impact of so-called “efficiency savings” and points out that billions of pounds in taxes go uncollected:

Commenting, Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: “Further efficiency savings of £5 billion should not be a prelude to yet more job cuts, office closures and privatisation.

“Key public services, such as justice, welfare and tax are already struggling to cope against a backdrop of massive job cuts and office closures.

“Whilst the promise of additional funds for jobcentres is welcome, the government needs to reverse its job cuts programme across civil and public services to safeguard their delivery.

“Whilst the promise of additional funds for jobcentres is welcome, the government needs to reverse its job cuts programme across civil and public services to safeguard their delivery.

“For example the government should be looking at tackling the £21.5 billion worth of uncollected tax and £25 billion lost through tax evasion, by putting more resources into HMRC to claw back the billions in lost revenue, which could be ploughed into public services and stimulate the economy.”

The Morning Star‘s editorial is critical of the direction of travel signalled by the Pre-Budget Report, not so much a return to Real Labour but a continuation of Blue Labour:

Out of his own mouth
(Monday 24 November 2008)

CHANCELLOR Alistair Darling condemned himself out of his own mouth when he said that the central objective of his unambitious pre-budget report was to support firms and businesses going through difficult times.

That is why he opted for a cut of two-and-a-half percentage points on VAT, which will be absorbed into business income rather than find its way into lower prices.

Working people, especially those wondering how long they will be in a job, are unlikely to run out on a spending spree on the basis of a VAT cut.

And, if Mr Darling really wished to spark economic activity, he should have helped those on the lowest incomes whose extra cash would certainly have increased demand.

Those robbed when Gordon Brown abolished the 10 per cent tax rate should be compensated by being lifted out of income tax liability entirely.

State pensioners, whose living standards have been eroded every year since the Tories abolished the link with wages, those working for a totally inadequate minimum wage and others forced to exist on the jobseeker’s allowance pittance should receive a boost in their income.

It is pathetic that the Chancellor should be posing the possibility of no more than a 5 per cent increase to 45 per cent for tax on annual incomes over £150,000 and then only on condition that Labour wins the next general election.

This proposal will not bring any additional income to the Treasury in the life of this government. It’s not even of sufficient scale to encourage the electorate to vote Labour in the hope that it will switch the burden of taxation from working people to the rich.

Government failure to tackle the spiriting away of potential tax revenues of at least £25 billion a year through overseas tax avoidance centres, mainly in British crown territories, emphasises once more its priorities.

The bulk of taxation should fall on the shoulders of those able to pay rather than those too poor to afford avoidance schemes.

And the government should also lift the cap on National Insurance contributions, which is a hidden tax benefit for the better-paid, and introduce a wealth tax.

But the government must not restrict itself simply to measures calculated to increase demand.

It has a responsibility to intervene actively in the economy, especially since the banks have been quick to accept cheaper Bank of England lending and government investment but have not passed benefits on to small businesses seeking to weather the recession.

The government must put substance behind its much-vaunted commitments to environmental issues and to higher employment levels.

Financing at least 100,000 new council homes a year and a nationwide programme of renovating and insulating existing local authority properties could begin to tackle the housing crisis, improve energy efficiency and cut fuel bills.

Similarly, a crash programme of expanding the railways would not only improve the transportation network but increase demand for steel, concrete etc, safeguarding jobs in these industries as well as construction.

Unless the government adopts an economic programme with social justice at its heart, its cosmetic measures will simply prop up big business and ensure that costs of the recession will be paid for by workers.

Not lending? Time to nationalise the banks!

The chair of the Treasury Select Committee has been waving a big stick at the bankers in the form of naming and shaming:

Demand for full-scale nationalisation of more banks could also grow if loans were not made, John McFall said.

The Chair of the Left Economics Advisory Panel, John McDonnell MP says this demand should be heeded:

“Despite all Government attempts to stimulate the economy, all the evidence points to failure. The billions in bailouts have done little to increase lending, and we are witnessing a startling rise in home repossessions.

“The Government now needs to be more forthright and move towards the full nationalisation of the banking sector to be run in the interests of the British people.

“We can’t afford any more dithering by the Bank of England. We need an immediate and substantial cut in interest rates. It is now time for the Government to take back control from the dithering Bank of England.”

On that startling rise in repossessions, housing charity Shelter reports:

New figures released by the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) show that repossessions have risen 12% to 11,300 in the third quarter of the year from July to September.

This means that there have already been more repossessions in 2008 than 2007, and CML director Michael Coogan is still predicting 45,000 reposessions by the end of the year as the economic situation worsens.

The figures also show that the number of borrowers in mortgage arrears was up 8% on the previous quarter to 168,000.

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