Sunday, 22 September 2013

Battle lines in Britain

Time for the gloves to come off.

An electorate with little interest in politics doesn’t need complexities and sophistication. It needs clear, simple battle lines. So it’s a relief, as the British Labour Party starts its annual conference – with only one more to come before the next election – to see some clarity beginning to emerge from the main contenders.

Ed Miliband: drawing lines
Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, has denounced the government’s complacency in crowing over the anaemic economic recovery now taking place. As he points out, living standards have not fallen for so long since 1870.

Meanwhile, the government also likes to congratulate itself on falling unemployment, never mentioning that a million people have been excluded from the count of those out of work because they have zero-hour contracts: in other words, not technically unemployed, but tied to an employer who is under no obligation to give them any work or pay.

If there is some growth at last taking place again, it’s doing nothing to improve the position of the majority of society, and leaving the poorest way behind. As Miliband puts it, ‘the link between the growing wealth of the economy and family finances has been broken.’

That’s a message we need to hear repeated often and loud over the next twenty months leading up to the election.

The Tories are as aware of the potency of the argument, and are already hitting back. To Chris Grayling, Justice Minister under David Cameron, Labour merely want to clobber the rich.

‘So what do Labour want?’ he asks. ‘To penalise the wealth creators. Higher taxes for the rich. To pay for what Labour really desires – an ever bigger welfare state.’

Ah, yes. It’s true that Labour wants at least one increase in the welfare state. Miliband has pledged to do away with the ‘bedroom tax’, the reduction in benefit to anyone whose rent is being paid for out of the public purse. It seems that this initiative, now only six months old, has already pushed 50,000 people into arrears, leaving them facing eviction.

A great many of those people are disabled.

So Grayling’s statement is another helpful clarification of the battle lines. Miliband proposes to pay for repealing the bedroom tax by removing some tax advantages for hedge funds; by cracking down on practices in construction that deprive employees of security in order to reduce the employers
 tax liability; and by doing away with a government initiative to fund companies whose employees agree to give up hard-won, legal employment rights.

Presumably, Grayling feels that this is all part of Labour’s desire to victimise the rich. He, on the other hand, is voicing the government’s concern for those in the top 1% income bracket, who have seen their wealth grow under the Tories, while all around the rest of society watches its living standards fall.

Let’s not forget that ‘wealth creation’ under Grayling’s government has involved the handing out of those million zero-hour contracts, as well as creating an environment in which minimum wage legislation is ignored: the suggestion is that large numbers of workers are being paid under the minimum, but there have been only eight prosecutions under the act.

Again, Miliband has made it a key proposal to enforce payment of the minimum wage, and part of that initiative will involve giving the legislation some teeth.

‘At the moment, if you don’t pay the minimum wage,’ he points out, ‘the maximum fine is £5,000. If you engage in fly-tipping, the maximum fine is £50,000. That is ridiculous. If you engage in systematic abuse of the minimum wage, you should have a maximum fine of £50,000.’

No doubt Chris Grayling would regard the insistence that employers respect wage legislation as another form of clobbering the rich. Those who agree with him should vote for his party. I hope rather more of us will wonder whether an economy that can support more million-plus a year bankers than the rest of Europe put together, shouldn’t be able to pay £6.31 to its poorest workers (those million-a-year bankers are on a minimum of £800 an hour).

Anyone wondering that should be pleased that Miliband is offering an alternative home for their votes. And anyone who feels that the poorest in society, such as the victims of the bedroom tax, should at last be given a break, can surely not duck the responsibility of supporting him.

The lines are clear.

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