UKIP, the Tories and First Past the Post

Written by: Owen
- December 12, 2012

The Conservatives are doing relatively badly in the polls at the moment, while UKIP are doing pretty well. This isn’t new or shocking, and a lot could, and probably will, change before the next general election. But nothing’s certain. UKIP have been getting close to – and on occasion substantially ahead of – the Lib Dems in the polls for well over a year now. Depending on which poll you read, their support is currently at somewhere between 7 and 16% (albeit probably closer to the former), and that’s without them being mentioned explicitly in the questions which pollsters ask respondents, as the three main parties are.

If UKIP’s rise does turn out to be more than a flash in the pan, the effects on the political landscape could be…interesting, and not a little perverse. It’s been pretty likely for a while that the Lib Dems are facing heavy losses come 2015 or whenever the country next goes to polls – at current polling they’re set to lose over two thirds of their 57 seats. This isn’t because their popular support is actually as much as 70% down on the last election, of course – it’s because First Past the Post tends to be a de facto majoritarian system: parties with smaller shares of the popular vote tend to do disproportionately badly.

What this means, though, is that the Tories arguably have almost as much to be worried about as the Lib Dems. The Rotherham debacle aside, most of UKIP’s support comes from disaffected Conservatives. Anti-EU views can be found among people of many political hues (not least on this blog), but the party’s other policies (climate change denial, a desire to massively boost defence spending, a flat tax, and, most recently and prominently, its vociferous opposition to gay marriage) clearly places the party on the “Thatcher was a bit too much of a softie, wasn’t she?” wing of British politics. Realistically, there’s only one major party those votes are going to come from. And because of the quirks of FPTP, that could put a significant obstacle in the way of the Tories being able to hold on to power, let alone regain it if they do get kicked out of office.

In the two decades between the First and Second World Wars, the Conservatives were in power for all but 6 years – though much of this was as the majority partner in coalitions. There were five different prime ministers during this period: three (Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain) were Conservatives, and the other two (Lloyd George and Ramsay Macdonald) only held onto power thanks to Conservative support for at least some of their time in office. It’s not that the Conservatives were especially popular during this period – they weren’t. It’s that this was the point in history when Labour were in the process of overtaking the Liberals as the main centre-left party in the UK, as well as both parties suffering acrimonious splits at different points during this time. As a result, the votes of those who were opposed to the Conservatives were divided between two to three different groupings, so the Tories were able to hold on to a healthy share of Parliamentary seats at every election (they never had fewer than 250, and won a whopping 470 in 1931). And what happened to Labour and the Liberals back then could end up happening to the Tories in a few years. UKIP definitely aren’t going to supplant them as the major party of the right, but they could definitely steal enough votes from them to make it very difficult for them to get a majority in Parliament.

The real sting in the tail, though, is that this could only really ever happen under First Past the Post. If we had a different electoral system – like, say, the Alternative Vote which the Tories worked so hard to (successfully) block – there’d be much less danger of this happening. So it’s possible that the Tories’ rejection of AV could end up destroying their chances of keeping hold of power. Wouldn’t that be beautifully ironic?

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Let’s keep racism – and the public order act – off the terraces

Written by: Reuben - December 10, 2012

On Saturday a Swansea fan was arrested for allegedly directing a racial slur at a footballer on the opposing team. Meanwhile a few weeks back 2 west ham fans were arrested for alleged anti-Semitic chants at West Ham versus Tottenham.

In a sense I was not  surprised at all by latter. A few years back I found myself in the West Ham crowd when Tottenham came to upton park. I remember being shocked by the sheer umber of people making Hitler salutes and imitating the sound of gas chambers. Needless to say it was not the most comfortable experience for myself, and the two other Jewish guys I was with.

Nonetheless,we ought to be concerned by the application criminal law to terrace chants – particularly the public order act, under which the two hammers fans were arrested. After all the Public Order Act – which criminalizes that which causes “harrassment, alarm and distress”, could well be applied to a great many things sung and shouted on the terraces – a place where all participants understand that the normal rules of polite intercourse don’t apply.

This is not, for a moment, to suggest, that terrace racism is unproblematic, or that it is a probem that can be reduced to “impoliteness”. Yet the application of  public order legislation  to terrace chants clearly has the potential to go beyond policing racism. The increasing use of criminal law on the terraces is particularly odd given it is happening at a moment when hooliganism and football related violence is an a historic low.

The broader picture, here, is the increasing colonization of popular cultural spaces by the state. Pubs have been subjected to a host of regulations to make them function like beer-retailing coffee shops – not least the pub-killing smoking ban. And now football fans are faced increasingly with the prospect of having to account to a judge – upon pain of a potential  prison sentence for what they yell.

One potential problem  is the sheer in ability of Britain’s judicial authorities to grasp the real meaning of what gets chanted in the context of live football. It has of course normal for fans you have no intention of engaging in any physical altercation to engage in such chants of “Your going home in an ambulance”.

Let’s keep racism out of the terraces. But let’s keep the Public Order Act out of football too.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net

In defence of caring about discrimination

Written by: Owen
- December 5, 2012

It may not have happened yet, but yesterday’s news of Bristol University Christian Union’s sexist policy on women speakers makes one thing practically certain. As with every other time there’s a story in the news about bigotry (especially sexism), there’ll be someone, somewhere who’ll step forward to defend it. In fact, it’ll most likely be several people, most of whom will give every impression of believing that what they’re doing is really original. You could see it after the blocking of women bishops by the C of E, you could see it when an American shop started selling girls’ t-shirts reading “I’m too pretty for homework”, and I’m pretty sure you’ll see it with this story as well.

The apologists for bigotry don’t actually try to excuse the discrimination as such of course – the people who do this are frequently at pains to emphasise how tolerant and liberal they are personally. What they’ll do instead is emphasise the rights of people and organisations to be bigoted. You’ll often see freedom of speech being invoked, and maybe freedom of association or freedom of conscience for those who are feeling a bit more ambitious. (It would be a cheap shot to point out that these types of arguments tend to be made by people who are at least two out of white, relatively well-off and male, but it’s also true.) In the case of the Bristol Christian Union story, it’ll most likely take the form of someone saying something along the lines of “What’s the problem? It’s not anyone else’s business who a private organisation does or doesn’t invite to speak. If you don’t like their policy on women speakers, don’t join the Christian Union. If a student society wants to ban unmarried women from speaking at their events, so what?” You see, it’s not that bigotry is a good thing – oh heavens no – it’s just that if we do anything to try and prevent bigots from acting out their bigotry then, like, we’re sort of being bigoted as well, yeah?

The reason this is so stupid is categorically not because freedom of speech, of conscience, or of association don’t matter – they do, and of course they should remain protected in law. It’s stupid because it suggests that the moral judgements we make about organisations or other people – and the actions we take as a result – should both begin and end with what’s legal and what isn’t. Changing the law to force student societies not to have sexist policies on inviting speakers would unarguably be a terrible idea with unpleasant civil liberties implications, but it doesn’t follow that nothing should be done about it at all. It would be perfectly appropriate for other Bristol students to sign petitions against the Christian Union for example, or to hold (peaceful) protests outside any of their future talks, or even to campaign for Bristol Students’ Union to ban them from holding or advertising their talks on university property. None of this involves calling for laws which restrict anyone’s civil liberties. What it does involve is campaigning for a bigoted organisation to act in a less bigoted way – which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a good thing because bigotry is harmful. We’re not obliged to remain morally neutral about something just because having a law against it would be a bad idea.

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Leveson: (Probably) not the end of the world as we know it

Written by: Owen
- November 29, 2012

So, as expected, the Leveson Report is proving pretty unpopular in some circles. Most of the objections seem to centre round his lordship’s proposal that self-regulation of the press should now have “statutory underpinning”. This would mean that the way the chair and board of this body are to be chosen would be established in law, and newspapers which signed up to be members of the new proposed regulatory body would be legally compelled to comply with that body’s findings (such as paying any fines it levied). This, the stout-hearted defenders of free speech proclaim, cannot be allowed to stand. It’s state interference in the free press – the hallmark of tyrants. Sure, Lord Leveson explicitly suggests that current MPs and members of the government should be barred from sitting on the new regulatory body’s governing board, and yes, he also states that legislation should be passed which places “an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”, but that, apparently, isn’t the point. The real point, we’re told, is that, in the words of Index on Censorship,

…even ‘light’ statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.

Well, maybe. But it’s an odd argument, if you think about it for a moment. Enacting this reform wouldn’t in itself lead to censorship, the reasoning goes, but it puts us in a position where there could hypothetically be censorship at some unspecified point in the future. But if we’re now in a position where it’s possible that Lord Leveson’s reform proposals could be enacted, and enacting those proposals would make it possible for there to be censorship of the press, then it follows logically that we’re already in a position where there might be censorship at some point in the future. If it’s possible to get from point A (the way things are now) to point B (what Lord Leveson wants to happen), and it’s possible in turn to get from there to point C (Orwellian dystopia; all newspapers replaced by a British version of Pravda) then by the principle of transitivity it must already be possible to get from point A to point C. The idea that as things stand censorship is completely impossible but that enacting Leveson’s suggestions will alter this is simply incoherent. Or, to put it in less abstract terms: as things stand at present there’s nothing in principle to stop Parliament passing a law restricting press freedom whenever it feels like it. Sure, there might be other laws it has to repeal first (such as the one stating that the UK is a signatory to that pesky European Convention on Human Rights so hated by Conservatives and, er, the tabloid press) but it could happen. Passing laws that don’t actually censor the press does nothing to alter Parliament’s already-existing ability to pass laws that do precisely that, should it wish to.

What stops actual draconian press laws from being passed at the moment is that it’s politically impossible – if any government tried it, there would be a massive outcry (including, one would hope, from MPs). So perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps the worry is that passing these reforms will contribute to a political climate in the future where it’s easier for a government which is ill-disposed to the press to pass draconian laws restricting its ability to hold the powerful to account. This might be true, but it’s far from obvious that a regulatory body with “statutory underpinning” and a law requiring the government to uphold press freedom would necessarily be more illiberal than the present status quo. As yet I’ve seen no arguments setting out how Leveson’s reforms would have the effect of making actual state censorship more politically viable; it’s just baldly asserted as if it’s self-evident.

This is not to say I’m an unreserved supporter of the proposed reforms; the default presumption should always be against state interference in freedom of speech wherever possible, and Index on Censorship point out that the system of press regulation in Ireland – which heavily influenced Leveson’s suggestions, and doesn’t appear to have had any kind of chilling effect on the Irish mediadoes not legally require that newspapers sign up to it, while Lord Leveson’s proposals arguably do. Nick Davies’ worries which he outlines in the Guardian also seem valid. The widely-reported fact that the victims of phone-hacking and their families want the recommendations to be implemented in full should also not be given undue weight. That the McCanns have suffered greatly at the hands of the tabloid press and deserve recompense is beyond doubt, but it doesn’t follow that they should be the ones who decide how the press is regulated, any more than I would be personally allowed to decide the punishment of a criminal who murdered my loved-ones. If you’re personally affected, your ability to dispassionately consider all sides of an issue is obviously going to be somewhat impaired. It’s a shame too that Leveson says so little about media ownership. At present we have a highly oligopolistic national newspaper market with high barriers to entry (no new national daily paper has been launched in my lifetime), and some recognition of the damaging effect this can have on public life would have been welcome – a point which is well-articulated in the Green Party’s response to the report.

All in all, then, we should be wary of overstating the potential impact of Leveson. It’s highly unlikely to actually lead to state censorship of the press, but equally it won’t do anything to break the stranglehold of the likes of News International on the media market. The tabloids might behave themselves a bit better as far as phone-hacking and subjecting people they don’t like to trial by headline goes (and that at least would be welcome), but as earth-shattering, epoch-defining events go, this probably isn’t one.

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UK will crack down on its tax havens

Written by: Salman Shaheen
- November 23, 2012

This is an article I originally wrote for International Tax Review magazine. It’s big news for anyone concerned about rich individuals and big corporations hiding their money in tax havens at the expense of public services for Britain’s poor.

EXCLUSIVE: UK to impose son of FATCA on Crown Dependencies, despite government’s denials

A leaked government document seen by International Tax Review reveals that the UK is planning to impose its own version of the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) on its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. The move will deal an almost-fatal blow to tax evasion through the UK’s tax havens.

Responding to an International Development Committee report earlier this week, the government publicly rejected the need for a UK version of FATCA, which would require tax authorities to automatically exchange information relating to UK citizens or corporations.

In private, however, the government has already drafted FATCA legislation which it will impose on its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. These include some of the world’s most notorious tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The draft agreement, seen by International Tax Review, will require the automatic exchange of information for each reportable account of each reporting financial institution. That will include full details of all beneficial owners of the account, including those whose identities might otherwise be hidden by trusts or companies

It will also require the account number, name and identifying number of the reporting financial institution as provided when registering with the IRS for FATCA purposes, and the account balance or value as of the end of the relevant calendar year or other appropriate reporting period or, if the account was closed during such year, immediately before closure.

The move will come as a huge blow to tax havens and companies and individuals hiding money in them. But it is a coup for the Tax Justice Network (TJN), which has long been arguing for automatic information exchange.

“This is a requirement for full, open disclosure,” said the TJN’s Richard Murphy. “It looks through trusts, companies, who owns the assets. It’s full automatic information exchange.”

Murphy says the UK Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories will never be the same again and he has a simple piece of advice for anyone hiding money in these locations.

“The evidence is now clear: the writing is on the wall for secrecy in the UK’s tax havens,” he said. “There are now two options for those hiding their funds in these locations. The first is to own up now. That’s the wise option. It’s the only safe option. The alternative is to flee. My suspicion is that it’s already too late for that to work.”

Murphy says he understands that Jersey is strongly opposed to the legislation, but Guernsey and the Isle of Man are likely to “roll over and take it”.

Malcolm Couch, head of the income tax division at the Isle of Man Treasury would not comment on the prospect of a UK FATCA, but said that the Isle of Man has noticed that discussions on international tax cooperation have moved to a new place as it has become clear that FATCA will work.

“Discussions on automatic exchange of information have come to the fore,” Couch said. “The Isle of Man needs to determine its position appropriately as things move, but they are moving.”

The UK Treasury declined to comment, but said that it is assisting the Crown Dependancies and Overseas Territories in their response to FATCA.

International Tax Review expects an autumn announcement from the government, with the legislation coming into effect on January 1 2014.

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Follow Salman Shaheen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SalmanShaheen

Want higher pay? Join a union (or move to London): The public-private pay gap explained

Written by: Owen
- November 22, 2012

Hey, you know that rightwing hobby horse about public sector pay in the UK being too high because wages are generally higher than in the private sector? (Incidentally, if your response here is “but I thought rightwingers were meant to be against levelling down?” then you may have forgotten how the right argued that cutting public sector pensions was justified because private sector pensions were so much worse. Expediency much?) Well, a report (PDF) on the pay gap has just been published by the Office for National Statistics, and – surprise surprise – it turns out things aren’t as cut and dried as various conservative commentators would have you believe. I’ll confess I haven’t had time to read the full report, but there’s plenty of interesting stuff just in the summary.

One significant point is that it seems that one of the left’s standard go-to responses on this issue – that those posts which are still in the public sector tend to be skilled jobs (since lots of the poorly-paid unskilled workers such as cleaners have been outsourced) – doesn’t actually hold up. The ONS controlled for different types of occupation in their analysis, and still found that public sector pay was higher on average.

If you look at the numbers a bit more closely, though, the picture becomes quite a bit more complicated. First, one of the major factors that’s correlated with high wages isn’t being in the public sector – it’s working for a big employer. So, a job in a hospital or the Civil Service will probably pay better than working in a corner shop, but you’d also (statistically) benefit from working at the likes of Vodafone or GlaxoSmithKline – it’s just that a huge number of jobs in the private sector are with small employers, while that doesn’t apply in the public sector. If you don’t control for the size of the employer, the public-private pay gap is about 7.3%. If you do, that gap shrinks to around 2.2% – less than one third the size of the difference in the unadjusted model.

An average pay difference of 2.2% could still be argued to be significant. But it’s only an average. If you break things down regionally, the pay gap is actually the other way round in London (by a decidedly hefty 7.9%) and the South East. Sure, public sector pay is better than private elsewhere in the country, but public sector pay is generally decided at a national level, and it’s worth bearing in mind just how low average incomes tend to be in the rest of the country, especially compared to those for London and the Home Counties (those figures are admittedly a few years old, but they’re also pre-2008 financial crisis). Oh, and no, public sector pay isn’t holding back growth by stopping the private sector from hiring people in the regions where the gap is relatively high (as supporters of regional public sector pay argue) – if that were the case, unemployment would be very low. As it is, it’s over 6% in every region of the UK (and over 9% in the North East and North West). This is a labour demand problem, not a labour supply problem.

Finally, there’s my favourite bit (at the bottom of page 3 of the report, for those of you reading along at home):

The pay gap also varies at different points of the pay distribution. Using the model including organisation size, at the 5th percentile, public sector employees earned 11.2% more than private sector employees in 2011. At the 95th percentile, public sector workers earned 10.3% less than private sector workers. This indicates that the overall estimated pay gaps of 7.3% (excluding organisation size) and 2.2% (including organisation size) are heavily influenced by those at the lower end of the pay distribution.

…or, to put it more simply and less diplomatically, the lowest-paid workers in the public sector are paid a lot better than their counterparts in the private sector, while the exact opposite is true of the highest-paid. Which if anything you’d think would be a point in the public sector’s favour; “Public sector employers persist in paying slightly-above-subsistence wages” isn’t exactly the most damning of headline findings. Which is probably worth remembering next time the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the tabloids start moaning about public sector fat cats.

The reason for this difference, of course, might have quite a lot to do with a factor which the ONS mentions briefly but for some reason doesn’t explicitly include in its analysis: trade union membership. The report mentions that the pay premium from large employers might be partly because you’re more likely to be unionised in a big workplace, but doesn’t mention the vast difference in membership levels between the public and private sector. In 2008 59% of public sector workers were in unions, compared to only 16.1% of those in the private sector, and wages for unionised workers are massively higher than for those not in unions. (8% higher in the private sector, and a whopping 18% higher in the public sector, according to government estimates (PDF) – the public-private divide here might well be because unions have more clout in pay negotiations when their rates of union membership are higher).

So yes, public sector workers are slightly better paid on average. But it’s partly because big employers tend to pay better, partly because incomes are so low for the lowest-paid private sector workers and those outside of London and the South East, and definitely because if you’re in the public sector you’re a lot more likely to be in a union. Pretty simple really.

Update: True to form, the Telegraph has got a grossly misleading story on this which just leads with a simple unweighted average and fails to mention the regional variation, differences in the size of employer, or that the highest-paid in the private sector earn far more than those in the public sector. It’s almost like they have an agenda or something.

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Pawn your employment rights, Osborne tells workers

Written by: Reuben - October 8, 2012

At today’s Tory Party conference, George Osborne announced plans to make employment rights optional. Workers, henceforth, will be able to relinquish their right to sue for unfair dismissal, along with various other employment rights, in exchange for shares in their company.

It has long been recognized that certain rights ought to be inalienable. You cannot sell somebody your vote, or your kidney even if you wish to. Equally, a worker cannot voluntarily opt-out of the minimum wage. The latter makes sense, given the power disparity between bosses and workers. Any thing that a worker can do is also something that may potentially be compelled to do.

And this will inevitably be the case once workers are given the option of pawning their employment rights. Of course, when you start a new job, taking up your boss’ kind offer will be “optional”. Just as long as you carry on working through your probationary period, ignoring the heavy hints, and unofficial threats, that you might be thrown into unemployment at a time when there are five  jobseekers for every existing vacancy.

The affects of this policy will not merely be financial. For it will also make even more tyrannical the relationship that many employers enjoy with their workers. With union membership at a historic low, and statutory rights now to be sold off, bosses will be able to deal with their serfs exactly as they please.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net

Michael Meacher: Ed Miliband moving Labour in the right direction

Written by: Salman Shaheen
- October 1, 2012

With the Labour Party conference in full swing, socialists and trade unionists will be seizing on every word spoken from the podium, looking for signs of what kind of government Miliband might lead. But one Old Labour MP who was in government with Wilson and Callaghan, and again with Blair as Minister of State for the Environment, is optimistic that we may be about to see the first real Labour government since 1979.

Since 1979, Meacher, tells me, we have been ruled exclusively by Conservative policies – 18 years under Thatcher and “little Major”, and 13 years under Blair and Brown. And now again we have an aggressive Tory government.

“I think there’s just a glimmer of hope that we might have a genuine Labour government after 2015,” Meacher says. “Miliband is moving the party in the right direction.”

The problem for Miliband, Meacher says, is that he’s surrounded by Blairites because “Blair cloned the party in his own image”.

“And that’s one of Blair’s abiding achievements,” says Meacher. “Because it’s very difficult to move a party where the majority in it are in another camp. But I feel instinctively that’s what Miliband wants to do. It’s the best hope for Britain.”

So Miliband is moving the party to the left. And with talk of predistribution, repealing the NHS Bill, and a building programme to lift the country out of failed austerity, there are hopeful signs.

But with Unite leader Len McCluskey attacking Miliband for supporting the public sector pay freeze, and with Miliband declaring “there is no future for this party as one sectional interest of society”, it’s clear Blair’s project of entrenching Thatcherite values in the once workers’ party will not be unravelled overnight and the unions who allowed Ed to beat his brother will have to make their case louder and clearer than ever before if they are to save Labour from itself.

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The case against class solidarity with coppers

Written by: Salman Shaheen
- September 27, 2012

Reuben’s article made some very valid points, not least that Andrew Mitchell’s comments show just how radically out of touch the Tory elites running this country are from the vast majority of us. Should Mitchell be hung out to dry for his comments? Undoubtedly so. Is it a good thing that he has brought fresh shame to a government hit by a seemingly unprecedented amount of scandal only two years in? Yes. Does that mean we should be making common cause across the board with police simply because a lot of bobbies are working class? Probably not.

Reuben’s piece drew a great deal of very unfriendly fire from the left, some fair, some not. I don’t plan to deconstruct his arguments one by one, it’s a debate I’m not terribly interested in, precisely because while I loathe the coalition and everything it stands for, I find it difficult to work myself up to any great deal of sympathy with the police as an institution. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Guardian rightly says:

We are told that it was the worst possible moment for a minister to insult the police, just after the deaths of two brave policewomen in Manchester. But it was also just after the real story finally emerged at last about Hillsborough. On that appalling occasion, gross police incompetence aggravated the tragedy, and the police then behaved in an utterly despicably manner by blaming the victims for heir own deaths. This was done – need one add? – with the connivance of the Sun, a headline on whose front page reading THE TRUTH is in any circumstances beyond satire.

If Mitchell may seem a little rebarbative to some tastes, he would have to try hard to be more obnoxious than John Tully, who has demanded his resignation. Tully is chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, and thus represents that fine body who maintain law and order in our capital with such courtesy, efficiency and restraint. Just ask Jean Charles de Menezes or Ian Tomlinson.

Actually, you can’t ask them since they’re dead, at the hands of the Met, whose policy nowadays is often “Shoot first, ask questions later” – or better still, no questions asked at all.

Few worse things have happened in my lifetime than the deterioration of our police. We have lost the priceless legacy of Sir Robert Peel. Almost uniquely in Europe he gave us not a gun-toting paramilitary gendarmerie but “citizens in uniform”, an unarmed police force under civilian control. Now we have heavily armed police who often appear to be under no one’s control. Politicians bear a heavy responsibility for this, notably Thatcher, who assaulted unions and vested interests with the conspicuous exception of the police: she needed their support in sundry industrial conflicts.

It is worth remembering, for all our righteous rage against the ruling elites, that the police are, for the most part, their attack dogs when it comes to political matters. Yes, they do work that is socially necessary and yes they provide a vital service in preventing violent crime. But they are also perpetrators of violence. The killings of Tomlinson and de Menezes are striking examples. But there are subtler, more insideous forms of political violence. I asked one officer, for example, why the police deliberately underestimate numbers on demonstrations. His response was that it didn’t matter that they did this. But imagine if votes were deliberately not counted. It’s systematically denying people their democratic right to speak out against injustices on behalf of the government. And that’s not to mention the institutional racism, the kettlings of peaceful protesters and the outbursts of collective irresponsibility hidden behind numbers and uniforms that almost always go unpunished.

I would like to see  this culture change. I would like to see the left find common class cause with the police against a polarising government. I would like to see the fissures between the pigs and their dogs Reuben speaks of open up. But I doubt one stupid comment by an out of touch minister is going to provide that catalyist. For now, the police “know their fucking place”. And it’s on the side of an unjust system.

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The case for class solidarity with coppers

Written by: Reuben - September 23, 2012

Are they “workers in uniform” or merely the violent arm of the ruling class? So runs the old, interminable intra-left controversy about the exact position of the police within the social structure. By contrast Andrew Mitchell MP appears to have no such doubts about the class character of the constabulory. His recent outburst  demonstrated, with crystal clarity, his view  of the police as a collection of  lowly proles who should aspire to “learn their  fucking place”.

This is by no means the first moment of class tension between the coalition and the cops. As with other public sector employees, the government is getting ready to decimate the pay and conditions of rank and file officers. In an effort to prepare public opinion for such a move, it commissioned Tom Winsor –  the failed regulator of the railways, and former corporate lawyer – to write a damning report on the police. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report read like a shopping list of  the stereotypes that posh folk attribute to those whom they see as working class oiks. The Police apparently, are overweight, overpaid, stupid and lazy. What’s more, they are compromised by their “blue collar” working culture. In this instance too, it would appear that the current governing class are significantly less ambivelent about the class character of the police rank and file than us on the left.

Now I’m sure some of my readers will see the idea of class tension between the Tory government and the police as a kind of logical impossibility. After all aren’t they one of the special bodies of armed men? Isn’t it the police function to defend privelege and private property?  While this may be a fundamental truth, the specific relationship between the police and class society can also vary with the historical context. What made Andrew Mitchell’s outburst particularly illuminating is that it came so soon after the Hillsborough report revealed the extreme lengths to which a previous Tory government went to protect the police from criticism or reputational damage. That they did so should not to surprise us.  The 1970s and 1980s, after all, were decades of intense class struggle. Amidst ongoing strikes, and militant picket lines, the Thatcher government had depended on a strong, aggressive, and intensely loyal police force to push through its agenda. The power of the ruling class, in other words, depended very directly, upon the coercive capacity of the police.

The context in which Mr Mitchell made his recent remarks are, of course, very different. Unions strike a day at a time, the poll tax riots have given way to intensely stupid riots, and picket lines are typically rather placid affairs.  Amidst the mix of functions carried out by the police, their role in directly and coercively propping up the social order is now relatively less pronounced. Meanwhile, rank and file officers have been brought into conflict with the government by the kind of class war that the coalition are waging. Most significantly, this has revolved around a concerted effort, by both government and business leaders, to roll back entitlements and expectations, and to  narrow the breadth of people who benefit from decent living standards and economic security – a rather poisonous mixture of proletarianisation and casualisation that is affecting great swathes of employees. As a part of the public sector workforce that have, until now, been treated relatively well by the establishment, it is no surprise that the cops now find themselves point in the government’s cross-hairs.

Even with all of this said, I’m sure that many will congeal at the idea of class solidarity with the rank and file police. After all, aren’t these the folk who crack down on dissent and protect the government from protest. If you live in a safe area, and go on lots of demos, then this may be all you see the police do. In reality, the day to day work of most officers has less to do with policing dissent, and more to do with dealing with thuggery, robbery and domestic violence – crimes typically committed against the least well off. Yes the police do a lot which is useless and socially desctructive – busting people for drugs and breaking into squats. Yet like other public sector workers who facing redundancies, lower pay and less security, also do a great deal of work which is socially necessary and which will always be socially necessary (notwithstanding the view that all forms of criminally undesirable behaviour spring from some amorphous thing known as “alienation”,  and will therefore dissapear once the social structure is changed – if you actually believe this, then I laugh at you for being a fucktard.)

The police are facing the same kind of attacks – materially and ideologically – that millions of us are facing. It is no surprise that their union, the federation, are beginning to get oppositional. A fissure is opening up, and the case for class solidarity has never been clearer.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net