How not to police the tarpaulinrevolution#

October 20, 2014
How can a pizza box be deemed a piece of sleeping equipment?  This is the increasingly surreal manner in which the Metropolitan Police has interpreted the new laws introduced since the rise of the Occupy movement in 2011. It seems the more successful a protest becomes, the more restrictive they interpreted the law to police it. On Saturday tarpaulins were apparently OK, but twenty four hours later, they had become, as the police officers kept droning on like automatons, “items which can be used for sleeping”, never mind if they were ever intended for that purpose. Some activists are now calling this protest the 
How did the government respond to one of the most and successful protest movements of the last decade? By introducing legislation which bans the erecting of a tent in central London (though of course, exceptions are made for the spectators of royal events or those consumers with an addiction to the latest gadget from Cupertino). The new law, called the PCSR (Police, Community & Socialist Responsibility Act) was designed to replace the supposedly more restrictive SOCPA, which banned all unauthorised protests in the vicinity of Parliament and Whitehall.
It is precisely these anti-democratic laws that the occupation in Parliament Square is designed to challenge. The government thinks it can simply legislate out of existence those who inconveniently question the legitimacy of policies and priorities it has imposed on us. But they are wrong. For no law can deny our right to demand real democracy and to communicate our point to the British public in the most effective manner: that there are alternatives to the current corrupt and self-serving rule from Westminster.

Protest in a democratic society is the means by which those who are governed exercise the democratic right of free assembly in order to interrupt normality. Its purpose is precisely to inconvenience those who rule over us. The large set-piece demonstration is the traditional, but not the only way this right has been practiced in this country.

The right to protest is meaningless if that right is so constrained by laws as to make the exercise of that right  ineffective. Protests which can be safely ignored by those with power is not protest. What has changed in the past two decades is that the Westminster elite, now more than ever, feel they can get away with ignoring demonstrations that oppose their misrule. The largest demonstration in British history took place in London in February 2003 in order to stop Blair from invading Iraq.  One needs to ask how effective are all the demonstrations against austerity of the last five years been if those with power, the government and the media, simply ignore them?

Any movement campaigning to significantly extend democratic rights will find itself in a collision course with the state (if not the law also). Would women have the right to vote if they limited their actions by considerations of legality?

Democracy cannot simply be reduced to putting a cross on a ballot paper every four (or now five) years. Real democracy comes from the people –  it is what we do. It is not what government does to us.

We must, therefore, reject any attempt by the police or the local authority to dictate to us, by imposing unreasonable conditions, in the manner and form of our occupation,

Review of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

October 10, 2014

Naomi Klein’s book comes at an opportune moment. Last month saw climate justice demonstrations of close to half a million in New York and 40,000 London. It is a sign of a resurgent movement. A movement awakening following the disorientation created by the failed Copenhagen Climate talks in 2009.  Her well researched and written book attempts to explain this history. It doesn’t add anything new to the points that many climate justice activists have been making for years, but she puts together all these many insights.

One of the main questions the book attempts to answer is why after over twenty years of international climate negotiations, climate threatening emissions of carbon has continued its inexorable rise  and – if anything – the pace of emissions has actually accelerated over this period of time. She gives a number of reasons for this failure. First the entrenched power of fossil fuel interests who finance much of the denial of climate science,  and whose power most governments are not prepared to challenge

The second is one of timing. The international climate negotiations started in the early nineties, a time when the neoliberal ideology, free market triumphalism, deregulation and privatisation was at its strongest. The embrace of neoliberalism by the world’s elites meant that rather than introducing direct regulation to limit emissions, they would introduce ineffective market based measures such as carbon trading. She is unsparing in her criticism of the big green NGOs like the WWF who got co-opted by government and big business and ended up supporting ineffective measures such as carbon trading and “lite touch” regulation.

She correctly identifies who the real culprits are. And Naomi Klein is clear: the sort of change she wants to see won’t come about without a political struggle. A war against the corporate interests standing in the way of a solution. She puts forward a vision of a better society which flies against the logic of neoliberalism and austerity. And a strategy for realising it based building a grass roots movement, combining the issue of climate change with social justice by linking the many struggles, such as those opposing fracking and expansion of the carbon economy with issues such as fuel poverty, the demand for jobs in renewable energy with democratic public ownership of key industries such as energy and transport. What she sees as the vanguard of the struggle for climate justice movement are the struggles of indigenous communities, such as Canada’s First Nations, who is waging a struggle against the environmentally devastating expansion of tar sands in  Canada

One big element missing from her analysis is any discussion about class. In particular, working class agency. And where she talks of the working class it’s like she’s talking about another oppressed group. But not talking about class and embracing the language of privilege theory introduces problems with her analysis. This isn’t an abstract point: workers have used their collective power to protect the environment, one famous example being the “Green Bans” introduced by Australian building workers to protect the green spaces around Sydney in the early seventies. Her vision is not realisable without working class self organisation.

She describes the American ruling class as “middle aged white men”. This might be demographically true, but it does not tell us anything about their real class interests. Added to that, the ruling class is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan itself. The richest man resident in Britain, Laksmi Mittal, is Indian and owns over half of Europe’s steel industry. The notion of climate debt, the ecological debt owed by the industrial North to the global South doesn’t take into account the fact that countries are split on class lines. A worker in Britain has more in common with a worker in India than either has with their own ruling class. Solidarity would be a better notion than climate debt

One other problem is that she fails to see the contradictory nature of technological  and scientific progress under capitalism. She is rightly critical of the reductionist and empiricist thinking of people like Francis Bacon, the first exponent if the scientific method, and James Watt, the inventor of the high pressure steam engine. But without the scientific method there would be no climate science, and although Jame Watt’s invention would make possible the dark satanic mills of 19th century Britain, it would also ensure that clean water could be pumped to those very same cities, dramatically reducing infant mortality. She borrows from a variety of sources, including many Marxist writers, but her style is eclectic and not as coherent as it could be. It is the quality of her journalism rather than her philosophy which is the main strength of the book. But don’t let these minor quibbles put you off this book, read it alongside  Jonathan Neale’s excellent Stop Global Warming – Change the World, which will fill in the gaps missing in her analysis.

A call to action – the case for occupying Parliament Square

October 8, 2014

Our political system is increasingly unable to deal with the consequences of a social crisis it helped to create. Record numbers of people in the UK are homeless, while many more struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Record numbers are relying on food banks to feed their families. Record numbers are facing fuel poverty as energy prices rise eight times faster than wages.

Nobody voted to be made homeless, hungry or unemployed.

So how did the government get away with it?

The problem is bigger than the Tories and their austerity program. The problem is with our whole democratic system.

That is why, this October, the Occupy movement is making democracy the heart of its campaign. We want to live in a genuine democracy free from corporate influence. And we want to invite all the movements that have been resisting the cuts to join us.

Below are details of the ambitions of the Occupation itself, and a detailed analysis of the problems with our current democratic system. Please keep reading for more information, or:

Join us on October 17th in Parliament Square, to campaign for a better democracy.

The Occupation

This action has the potential to ignite a movement for democratic change in this country.

It means the opportunity to establish a huge People’s Assembly for democracy, and to produce a statement of demands as the outcome of a democratic forum, open to amendment, modification, and addition.

Inspired by the Chartists six points, it could include a list of demands as straightforward as:

  1. Give electors the right to recall their MP and all elected representatives by petition.
  1. Prohibit MPs and Lords from voting on any bills in which they have a vested financial interest.
  1. Ban all confidentiality clauses in government contracts
  1. End the revolving door between big business and government.
  1. Remove the Remembrancer from Parliament.
  1. Cap the salaries of MPs and Ministers at the National average wage.

Obviously a set of democratic demands on their own cannot undo the harm inflicted by the massive transfer of wealth and power away from the majority over the past 30 years. No system of constitutional checks and balances can undo that. But if we want to fight to redress this harm, and prevent more in future, then we will need the tools to enable us to stand up to corporate power.

The problem with Parliament

How is it possible that a government can make major policy decisions, such as privatise the NHS, triple tuition fees, or introduce the Bedroom Tax without any mandate from the voters? None of these policies were put before the voting public by the governing parties, indeed, in the case of tuition fees, it was a guarantee of the opposite that was presented to us.

The imposition of austerity in Britain is clearly devastating, but its democratic illegitimacy is often overlooked by campaigners and commentators. Austerity is not the sole or even the main problem. The problem is a parliamentary democracy that has allowed the government to get away with the largest assault on our individual and collective well being since the Second World War. It is this system that allowed the party leaders, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, to stitch up an austerity program which has no democratic mandate. One can argue that coalition governments are sometimes inevitable, but if that is the case then it is even more important that our MPs and Lords are able to hold the government to account, acting as a democratic check on what the government does. Our MPs, irrespective of whether their party is in the governing coalition or not, should be there to defend us from the government. In this they have failed us.

The usual response from the defenders of the status quo is that an MP can always be voted out in a general election, but this state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory, and highlights one of the key problems with the representative system of parliamentary democracy. Some decisions are irreversible, such as voting for war. In the case of the NHS, the contracts signed with private companies are protected by clauses which would make the government liable for untold sums if they attempted to reverse the decision. In any case, the EU is currently supporting a secret trade deal with North America (TTIP), which would put such decisions in the hands of unaccountable arbitration panels that would have the power to override any law made in a national parliament.

MPs are elected on the basis of the promises they and their party make to the voting public. If these promises are broken there is little in the way of redress. This means that, once elected, the party leader is free to ignore the promises he or she made to the voters. This is unacceptable.

Not like us

Why do the vast majority of MPs put loyalty to their party leaders ahead of the promises they make to their electors? Maybe because the decision to enter Parliament for most MPs is a career decision, and voting against the decisions of the party leader can be a very bad career move. The career culture gives an MPs an incentive to go back on the promises that got them elected.

One of the causes of this is that MPs today are increasingly unlike the people they represent. This is particularly true for government ministers. They are drawn from an increasingly narrow social spectrum: MPs are much more likely to have a relative who has served as a politician, they are more likely to be from better off backgrounds, and most of the cabinet were educated at public schools (the leaders of all three main parties, including Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, went to Oxford.) Too many have limited experience of work outside the Westminster Village. Most of the current cabinet (and shadow cabinet) worked as ministerial aides, party researchers or as lobbyists. They see themselves as different from the people they represent. While most people have seen their wages stagnate since the recession, MPs awarded themselves an 11% pay rise. Only ten MPs saw fit to oppose this increase.

One of the quickest routes to a peerage is to become a donor to one of the main political parties. The going rate seems to be about £1.4 million. And many peers are former MPs who have served their time in the House of Commons. The furious response from many conservative MPs at the planned cap on the number of peers, which Cameron soon abandoned, would indicate that the Lords is seen as a reward for putting the interests of the party leader above anything else.

The expenses scandal revealed a sense of entitlement from our elected representatives that is completely divorced from the realities of their constituents, who are struggling to pay the rent, the fuel bills or feed their families.Are we all in this together? Apparently not, as far as many MPs are concerned.

People power versus the lobby

The privatisation of the NHS went through despite an enormous campaign of letter writing, petitioning and demonstrating by individuals, trade unions, national campaigning groups, and local hospital campaigns. This mass campaign had public opinion on its side, but the effort was unfortunately more than matched by the lobbying power of the health insurance industry and management consultants who stood to gain from privatisation. The vastly greater lobbying resources of corporations can make MPs immune to the democratic pressure of campaigns like the anti-privatization one.

Added to this are the direct and indirect financial interests of Lords and MPs who stand to gain from NHS privatisation.

Direct:

145 Lords and 70 MPs have declared recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare. The fact that they have to declare these interests does not make it any more acceptable that they are there.

Indirect:

Those who were involved in steering complex privatisation legislation can look forward to careers as non-executive directors in the industries they have privatised, or as consultants to the merchant banks who invest in such industries. Alternatively, they can trade on their political contacts and join a private hedge fund, such as the Carlyle Group, with a business model based on “access capitalism”.

The recent lobbying and transparency act will further reduce our ability to hold MPs to account at election time; and it will do nothing to curtail the influence big business has on Parliament and government.

The tendency for Parliament to ignore mass movements is not unique to the current Coalition. On 15th February 2003 an estimated two million people demonstrated in London against Tony Blair’s plan to invade Iraq. Parliament chose to ignore the largest demonstration in British history and support Blair’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq. How many of those MPs would have voted for the invasion if they knew they could be subject to an immediate recall by their electors organised through such a mass movement?

In an apparent victory for the mass grassroots campaign against airport expansion, the incoming Coalition government promised not to support new runways in the south east, in contrast to the outgoing Labour government. But not long after the election, the PR and lobbying machine of the air travel industry moved into action to swing the debate in favour of airport expansion. It did not take long for the government to execute the quickest U-turn possible with an “independent” commission on airport expansion. It remains to be seen what choice the voter opposed to expansion will have if all the main parties end up supporting this supposedly independent commission. It remains to be seen how successful big business will be in bypassing democracy. They are waging a war of attrition. The ambition? To gradually wear down campaigners’ belief that they are capable of making a difference.

Lobbying beyond lobbying

Often big business doesn’t even need to bother with lobbying: Lord Browne is a government advisor to the Cabinet Office on business matters. He is also chairman of Cuadrilla, one of the main companies involved in Fracking in the UK. Some of the advisors at the Department of Energy and Climate Change drafting key government policies on the electricity “capacity market” are seconded from companies running gas fired power stations. Or we have examples like Lord Blencathra, who is offering “consultancy services” to the Cayman Islands government, presumably to preserve its status as a tax haven.

Britain’s most powerful rotten borough

One of the achievements of the Occupy movement in London was to shine a spotlight on the highly undemocratic influence the City of London has on the UK Parliament and government. The City of London Corporation is the UK’s last remaining rotten borough; its lobbying power is institutionalised in the office of the Remembrancer. He is present in both the House of Commons and the Lords. With a budget of £3.5 million and and staff of six lawyers, his role is to ensure that no legislation threatens the privileges of the City. From this position he has direct access to all government ministers and officials involved in shaping any legislation of interest to the City.

In 2008 City’s banks threatened to shut down the UK banking system if the government did not bail them out. This crisis presented the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown with the greatest opportunity to reform the City, but he blinked first and, in a panic, he shouldered UK taxpayers with £500 billion of liabilities. The bailout was hailed as a great example of Brown’s leadership. He did this without any approval from Parliament. But he could have nationalised the failing banks without compensation and limited the guarantees on deposits. During the banking crisis, there was no talk of austerity from the elites who benefited from this enormous transfer of wealth from the rich to poor. But once the banking system was safely bailed out the demand for austerity from the same elites became deafening.

Whitehall centralisation = corporate power grab

The shift in the balance of power in favour of big business is also present at the local level. In the Government’s drive to expand the fracking industry, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, has made it much more difficult for local communities to object to fracking applications in their area. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove can remove elected school governors and hand over control of schools to business. And this power grab from big business is manifest all over the planning system. Whether it’s the local pub being turned into a supermarket or the proliferation of betting shops on our high street, there is little local communities can do to resist these developments through the democratic process. In addition, Parliament has recently granted the Health Secretary the power to close hospitals without any community consultation.

Commercial confidentiality

In the case where local communities are resisting developer land grabs, or privatisation, they are often hamstrung by the commercial confidentiality clauses our elected representatives are allowed to sign with big business. This has become a major issue for campaigners resisting corporate led “regeneration” plans like the Heygate Estate. A similar problem surrounds the Private-Public Partnership deals in the public sector.

Passive, atomised and misinformed – is how they want us

Given the state of our democracy it should not be surprising that increasing numbers of people are so disenchanted with our system of democracy that they are no longer bothering to vote. Our media and political system has conspired to create a parliamentary democracy that represents an increasingly narrow spectrum of opinion: those of us who question the need for austerity are effectively disenfranchised when all the main parties accept the narrative of its necessity.

Why the government has – thus far – been able to get away with it is another question. Passive, atomised and misinformed is the way the government would like us to be. Our ability to resist power has been drastically compromised as a result of the transfer of power away from the majority that has taken place over the past thirty years.

Firstly, the public is badly mis-informed. The BBC described NHS privatisation as a “bill to give power to GPs”. The government and the media have tried hard to play one section of society suffering from austerity against another, be it demonising families on benefits or whipping up a wave of hysteria about Bulgarian or Romanian immigrants. Nobody elected Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, yet people like him hold an extraordinary amount of power over the public’s understanding of certain social issues. And the consequences of a hostile media campaign targeting any minority group can threaten someone’s actual physical security!

Local democracy continues to be emasculated as power is centralised in Whitehall.

The recent cuts in Legal Aid disempower us because they take away our ability to protect our rights through the courts and to fight miscarriages of justice. Would the Birmingham Six have been able to establish their innocence without Legal Aid? Would we have been able to uncover the extent of police spying or corporate collusion if climate activists had not been able to defend themselves with Legal Aid?

The best way for working people to defend their conditions of employment is through a trade union, but legislation introduced since the ‘80s has reduced the power of trade unions to defend their members.

And the democracy of the street, that is, our ability to protest, has been whittled down as successive laws restricting public assembly have been introduced. The police have become better at containing protest through tactics such as kettling. The main objective of the police is not to “facilitate” protest but to defeat protest through a strategy of boredom and fear. This was clearly evident with the student protests of late 2010.

The current laws on protest mean that the kind of protest witnessed recently at the Maidan in Kiev would illegal in Parliament Square. How can it be that in the Ukraine the right to protest is better protected than by the “Mother of Parliaments”?

In conclusion

It appears that the majority are not able to use the democratic process to improve, let alone protect, the basic necessities of life. And in turn, our increasing sense of powerlessness is mirrored by the increasing power of big business over our lives. It is time we took mass action to stop this.

It was our forebears, the Levellers, who first raised the demand for universal suffrage. The Chartist and the Suffragettes fought to extend the franchise by eliminating the property qualification and giving women the vote. Little could they imagine the extent to which corporate power has compromised the right for which they fought so bravely and sacrificed so much. Any movement campaigning for genuine democracy should draw inspiration from them and learn from their experience.

We want to bring alive a movement that is able to take action over the institutions that have power over us. The late Tony Benn had five questions of power:

1. What power do you have?

2. Where did you get it from?

3. To whom are you accountable?

4. In whose interest do you exercise it?

5. How can we get rid of you?

Of these the fifth is most important. Benn noted that those with power do not like democracy, and that is why every generation must struggle to win and keep it.

We need to start demanding answers.

Together we are powerful – get involved!

The Occupy

Austerity is not the sole or even the main problem. The problem is a parliamentary democracy that has allowed the government to get away with the largest assault on our individual and collective well being since the Second World War.

it appears that the majority are not able to use the democratic process to improve, let alone protect, the basic necessities of life. Our sense of powerlessness mirrors in an opposite way the increasing power big business has over our lives. It is time we took mass action to stop this.

It was our forebears, the Levellers, who first raised the demand for universal suffrage, the Chartist and the Suffragettes fought to extend the franchise by reducing the property qualification and giving women the vote. Little could they imagine the extent to which corporate power has subverted the vote for which they fought so bravely and sacrificed so much. Any movement campaigning for genuine democracy should draw inspiration from them and learn from their experience.

We want to bring alive a movement that is able to take action over the institutions that have power over us. The late Tony Benn had five questions of power.

1. What power do you have?

2. Where did you get it from?

3. To whom are you accountable?

4. In whose interest do you exercise it?

5. How can we get rid of you?

Of these the fifth is most important. The late Tony Benn noted that those with power do not like democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win and keep it. We need to demand answers from them.

Together we are powerful – get involved!

Defend our right to save people and planet

July 24, 2014

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the largest marches in defence of the right to protest and assemble freely in this country. The Criminal Justice Act was introduced by the Major government in order to clamp down on a fast growing anti-roads movement, but it also targeted other groups inclusing ravers, the Roma community and travellers by withdrawing the obligation of council to provide caravan pitches.

ScanCJA

Today much of this legislation has been superseded by even more draconian laws restricting the right to protest (or even freely assemble) with many more laws with names like SOCPA and PACE. Every government since the 80’s has introduced legislation which has restricted the right to protest in one form or another. That this change has gone hand-in-hand with a major transfer of wealth from the majority to a tiny wealthy elite is no coincidence. Inequality and protest mutually condition each other as the most unequal societies also tend to be the ones where police violence and the law combine to restrict or deter protest movements.

Today’s successors to the anti-roads movement of the 90s are the anti-fracking camps which are springing up all over the county and who are now exposed to all these laws

Most people do not take to protest lightly, it is very consuming  both in money and time and can put a  huge strain on family relationships. But when the normal democratic process itself fails, as it clearly has with the government imposition of fracking, the only recourse left for people is to take direct action, whether that be by taking to the streets, occupying land or taking industrial action. Even liberal defenders of the status quo would recognise that protest is an essential corrective to the defects of a democratic society. But it seems the only right to trespass this government is willing to enhance is the the fracking industry’s right to frack and other people’s land.

The best way to defend the right that the government and corporate elite would take away from us is by excercising those same rights on a massive scale. That applies whether it be striking, occupying or simply taking to the streets.

So there are two important dates you need to keep in your diary. The first is Reclaim the Power, an action camp to be held in Blackpool, which organised by climate justice activists in solidarity with the local groups opposing fracking in that part of the country. The second important event is Occupy Democracy, which will be held in Parliament Square. This important event is on the eve of a major anti-austerity march organised by the TUC, and it will mark the third anniversay of the Occupy movement. The purpose of Occupy Democracy is to launch a genuine democracy movement to campaign for a genuine democracy free from corporate influence. We did not vote for NHS privatisation, the trippling of student debt or the governments unjust spending cuts. These policies do not have the consent of the people. They have been imposed at the behest of a tiny corporate elite, which will gain financially from such policies

 

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