Friday, 29 May 2015

Tories Open Pandora's Box

The Tories believed they were going to lose the last election. They were not alone. Despite all the spin, in many ways they did lose. The Liberal-Tory government from 2010 to 2015 had a majority of around 80, but that majority has now fallen to just 12. They only need to lose six seats before they are in a minority, and already the narrowness of the majority has caused them to drop the flagship of their manifesto, scrapping the Human Rights Act. In order to scrape together even the votes they did get at the election, the Tories were forced to open Pandora's Box.

Inside the box, they found a range of parcels labelled Greed, Envy, Fear and so on, and inside these parcels they found policies for tax cuts, for benefit cuts, for attacks on trades unions and human rights, and on immigration controls, withdrawal from Europe and national division. The passions let loose from the box threaten chaos, and strife, but one parcel remained in the box that the Tories did not take out, and which has been left for Labour. It is a parcel labelled Hope.

In fact, the policies of Hope that can be picked up by Labour, themselves in many ways are made possible by the policies that the Tories have themselves announced. For example, the Tories have now committed the country to an EU referendum. Labour is right – and the media simply look carping to be suggesting that Labour has made a U-Turn on the issue – to say that now it is to happen, they will not waste time opposing it, but will concentrate on making the case for staying in Europe. They should do so, but they should make a clear distinction between a socialist case for Europe, and the kind of reforms that we seek, in the interests of all Europe's workers, and the narrow national interests of British capital that the Tories seek to promote. Rather than the dismal backward looking, and defensive case that the Tories seek to promote, based on greed, fear and envy, Labour should promote a positive case for taking Europe forward, based on Hope, and a confidence in the ability of workers across the continent to create a better future for themselves together.

But, the biggest gift the Tories have given is in relation to their policy on the Right to Buy. The Tories announced in the election campaign that they would extend the Right to Buy from Council Houses to the private property of the Housing Associations. In other words, they would tell private owners of property that they must sell it to other stakeholders – their tenants. For more than a century, Liberals and Tories have raised the spectre against socialism, that it would confiscate private property. It was a powerful ideological threat in their hands. Now the Tories have thrown it away, by themselves announcing that private property is no longer sacrosanct in their eyes, and is open for confiscation.

Its now quite clear that if the Tories support the confiscation of the private property of the Housing Associations, forcing them to sell at huge discounts to tenants, then this same right must also be extended to all private tenants, or else the fundamental requirement of natural justice is infringed that all should be treated equally. There are far more tenants of individual private landlords than there are tenants of Housing Associations, and in general, the former are in a better position to be able to buy their properties than the latter, whilst in general facing higher rents, and, therefore, a greater need to own.

Labour had proposed introducing rent caps to address this problem, but its now clear that the solution that has to be promoted, is the extension of the Right To Buy to all private tenants, at the same 70% discounts that the Tories have introduced for Housing Association property. Labour should commit itself to supporting Tenants and Residents Associations along with the Co-operative Housing Federation to a campaign for the Right to Buy to be extended to all private tenants, and they should work towards such a right to buy for private tenants to be organised by the TRA's and Co-operative Housing Federation, which could provide tenants with access to all the legal and financial support they require.

The basis upon which the Tories have argued for the Right to Buy being extended to Housing Association property makes this immediately possible. The Tories have ignored the fact that these properties are owned by private organisations rather than the state, and said that the goal of individuals owning the property they live in overrides it. That must then apply equally to tenants living in other privately rented property, who must be given the same right. Labour does not have to just promise such a right from a future Labour government; it should begin immediately to actively campaign for such a right now, and should commit itself to amending the Tories Right to Buy proposals, to provide all private tenants with the same right.

But, the Tories argument does not just apply to the home you live in. Their desire for people to own the home they live in, and to be able to buy it on the cheap should also apply to the business you work in. Labour, in its commitment to promote the aspiration of workers that the Blairites have been so keen to base themselves upon, must apply that aspiration to your place of work, at least as much as your place of abode. After all, without a secure job, over which you feel you have some control of your future, it is difficult to feel that you have the required security of income to even consider the risk of home ownership.

Labour should use the Tories own arguments in this respect to argue for a Workers Right to Buy the companies they work in, and to do so with the same kind of discounts that the Tories are proposing for the Right to Buy Housing Association properties. After all, just as tenants have paid rents to landlords for many years, thereby compensating them for their costs, so workers have produced profits in the companies they work for, for decades, that have been appropriated by the company owners, which have more than compensated them for any capital they advanced to start those companies.

Labour should promote the idea of legislation for a Workers Right to Buy their company. This would mean that workers in every company would have a right to ballot, as to whether they wished to buy it. If sufficient workers in the company were able to raise the funds required to buy, they should then have a legal right to do so, whether the current owners wished to sell or not. As with the Right to Buy houses, workers should be able to buy these companies at a significant discount. Labour should suggest that workers could buy these companies at a 70% discount to their current asset value.

This would avoid the problem experienced with nationalisation, and with the Lassallean forms of state aided co-operatives, because it would require first and foremost that the workers in the firm wanted to take it over, and were prepared to run it themselves. But, it has the advantage over current co-operative arrangements in that often workers only get to take over businesses that are already bust, and usually then lack the capital required to run them efficiently. This way, workers would have an incentive to vote to take over the most efficient, most profitable companies first, and by obtaining them under a Right to Buy discount, would thereby provide themselves with a greater level of capital with which to run the business.

Of course, these limitation only apply so long as a Tory government is in office. The choice of a 70% discount for the right to buy houses or businesses, is a purely arbitrary figure chosen by the Tories. Labour should commit itself to going way beyond those limitations, in order to enable ordinary working people to fulfil their aspirations. Labour should commit itself to introducing a Right to Buy for private tenants to buy their homes, and for workers to buy their businesses with a 99% discount. That would enable them to fulfil their aspirations to have secure employment over which they have control, and security in their home.

But, the Tories have introduced other measures that would facilitate workers in achieving this right to buy. They introduced the right of workers to cash in their pension funds, rather than have to take an annuity. This right should also be extended to the state pension.

The current state pension is £6000 p.a. If we take a current interest rate of 2%, that means the capitalised value of this pension is £300,000. In other words, this is the notional capital sum that the state must hold in your pension pot, so as to be able to pay a pension of £6,000, i.e. 2% interest on £300,000 is £6,000. Put another way, if the average worker is employed for 50 years, for each year they have contributed, their pension pot will have increased by £6,000. If workers had a right to cash in their state pension pot, therefore, they should have the right to £6,000 for each year they have contributed.

For many workers that would amount to a considerable sum, which could then be used as the capital required to buy their companies, especially at a 99% discount to current asset values. That would be even more possible if workers had the right to control the £800 billion of funds in their company pension funds.

The Tories in search of policies to cadge quick electoral support, have opened a Pandora's Box, that provides Labour and Socialists with the means to argue for a real transfer of wealth and power in favour of working people. The Tories, of course, have no such intention, but that is no reason for workers to limit themselves to the Tories narrow aspirations.

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