ROTTEN TO THE CORE AND OVER-RIPE FOR CHANGE: Corporate Power and Wealth in Austerity Britain

In recent weeks the Con-Lib Dem government has suffered several set-backs which have seriously affected their poll ratings. George Osborne’s budget, the highlights of which were the reduction to 45p in the pound of the 50p income tax rate for those earning more than £150.000, and freezing the tax threshold for pensioners, did nothing to improve the Chancellor’s popularity.  Encouragement of panic-buying of fuel as a political ploy to outmaneuver the tanker-drivers’ union, Unite, by playing on fears of a strike over the Easter break, backfired when it led to chaos at filling stations and traffic jams. For the first time in many years, almost all the press, including Murdoch’s titles, turned on the government. Then there was the “cash for access” scandal.

The Tory party treasurer, self-made multi-millionaire Peter Cruddas, was secretly filmed by a Sunday Times Insight Team posing as foreign businessmen, boasting that he could gain them access to the prime minister. For the “premier league” payment of £250.000 they would be invited to dinner at Downing Street and have the chance to influence policy. When told that they were based in an offshore tax haven, which would make their payments illegal under British election law, Cruddas told them that there were ways of getting round this. Needless to say, when the story hit the headlines, Cruddas was forced to resign and Cameron claimed, to universal disbelief, that cash could not buy access to him or his government. If further proof were needed that nothing has changed in the shabby practices and hypocrisy of the power elites who govern Britain, this story provided it. As in the case of “cash for honours” that took what was left of the gilt from Blair’s New Labour administration, first came the exposure, then the frantic attempts to conceal or deny the wrongdoing. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of this story has been the involvement of Rupert Murdoch. If anyone doubted that the Sunday Times story carried his imprimatur such doubts were expelled by the old man’s gleeful tweets to his 200,000 twitter followers. Cameron, he tweeted, should have “followed history and flogged some seats in the Lords, if they still have value.” This would “follow the precedent of centuries.” Then, with chutzpah which even by his standards was astounding, he concluded that Cameron must re-establish trust, because “without trust, democracy and order will go.” For the Godfather, forced by unwelcome events to pretend a humility that doesn’t suit his character, this small revenge upon those who have jilted him must be rather sweet. It may convince him that he can still influence political events, in this instance by upsetting the apple cart. In a less publicized part of the Insight Team’s exposure, Cruddas claims that Cameron is secretly happy at the prospect of  Scottish independence and the break-up of the Union, publicly opposing it on expedient grounds. Indeed, he may think that, rid of Scotland where the Tories have only one MP, their future dominance of an English parliament at Westminster would be secure.

A week or so of such mishaps and bad headlines as these resulted in Labour gaining a ten point lead in the opinion polls. This was very welcome to them as the party seemed to have made little impact against the government. This, despite a flat-lining economy, passage through parliament of the deeply unpopular health and social welfare bill and the obvious fact that the cuts imposed in the name of “deficit reduction” were falling most heavily on the poorest sections of society. Then came the bombshell of the Bradford West by-election. Before attempting to evaluate this astonishing event, it is worth considering the wider political background, both nationally and internationally, against which it occurred.

It suits the interests of the power elites to treat the population as an infinitely manipulable mass; consumers to whom policies and concepts have to be sold. Leading politicians need to be effective PR people, like David Cameron.  In the past this sort of thing was called “propaganda”, and some governments, usually fascist, actually had ministers of propaganda. At least they did not resort to dissimulation to describe what they were doing, though what they were doing amounted to systematic lying. Now, instead of ministers of propaganda, we have “directors of communications”. It sounds better - more democratic. The present government has tried to persuade as many people as possible that:

  1. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 which led to the £multi-billion bail-out of the banks at taxpayers’ expense, necessitates the imposition of many years of extreme austerity in order to eliminate the deficit.
  2. It is perfectly acceptable for the recapitalized banks to return to “business as usual”.
  3.  Despite the fact that the cuts are hitting the poorest hardest, and that bankers and top FTSE executives are paying themselves mega-bonuses and salaries, “we” are somehow “all in this together”.
  4. The pain “we” are all supposed to be suffering is in the “national interest” and therefore should be accepted with fortitude and without protest. Strikes and resistance “hold the country to ransom” and are “against the public interest.”   
  5. We should all try to compensate for the loss of public services that are being decimated by the cuts, the libraries that are being closed and charities whose funding has been withdrawn, by volunteering to work unpaid to build a “big society”.    
  6. Despite the fact that the invasion of Iraq was illegal in international law and was a disaster resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 176 British soldiers, it was supported by both Labour and Tories politicians as necessary in “the war against terror.” 
  7. The war in Afghanistan is justified as in Britain’s national interest. The invasion of Afghanistan, resulting in an 11 year war which is obviously un-winnable, has so far led to the deaths of thousands of Afghanis and over 400 British military personnel. Justifications for the war have included: (a) To destroy al Qaida’s base and kill or capture Osama Bin Laden (b) Regime change: get rid of the Taliban (c) Stamp out the heroin trade (d) Support a transition to democracy in Afghanistan, and “make our streets safe from terrorism.”

A sizeable part of the British media is engaged in an operation to fool all of the people all of the time. Even those sections that are supposed to be “balanced” and “objective” usually accept without argument the most dogmatically asserted of the government’s claims, to which the Labour opposition also subscribes, – such as the claim that the deficit must be eliminated over one or two parliaments and that severe cuts in public spending are necessary to reduce it. But there are signs that in growing numbers people are not being fooled.

The scandal around phone-hacking eventually blew up into a full-scale crisis for the Murdoch Empire. This is still running and a lot more unsavoury matter is sure to emerge. And the government is deeply mired in it. Consider some of the facts that have emerged and how the cumulative effects have impacted on the government, particularly on David Cameron.

He, like Blair before him, was keen to get as close as possible to Murdoch. He appointed Andy Coulson (former editor of the News of the World) as his director of communications. It was clear to anyone not willfully blind that this man was a devious charlatan. The fact that Cameron defended him as a close friend tells us much about the prime minister. Similarly, his friendship with Rebekah Brooks shows the same predilection for brutally ambitious people of very dubious character. These are the people Cameron chooses as friends and political associates, and it is the political association that is crucial. They have both been arrested by the Metropolitan Police and are at present on bail.  The former treasurer and deputy chairman of the Tory party, Baron Ashcroft, is the 37th richest man in Britain with a personal fortune of £1.1 billion. A close friend of Foreign Secretary William Hague, he did not pay tax in the UK on his overseas earnings. His main business operations are in the Commonwealth country of Belize, where he admits that his interests have been ”exempt from certain taxes for 30 years.”  Now comes the Cruddas affair, just the latest in a line of scandals revealing the close association between the political elite and their super-rich friends and associates, many of whose operations seem to be clearly criminal.

 New Labour was locked into the same type of associations. Blair was (and is) notoriously prone to associate with the wealthiest and most powerful people. He has now joined their ranks. Miliband’s failure to break decisively with New Labour’s tarnished heritage is one factor in Labour’s inability to provide a serious opposition to the Tory–led coalition. There is widespread and growing dissatisfaction with all three of the biggest mainstream political parties in Britain. Amongst young people, particularly young working class people from all ethnic backgrounds, there is anger and resentment about lack of jobs and opportunities, about the prohibitive cost of higher education – in short, about a future without hope. And this is the crisis - for which the Westminster political establishment has neither solution nor comprehension - that exploded at the Bradford West by-election.

There has been a lot of commentary on George Galloway’s sensational victory at Bradford West. Much of it has been hot air; much, tendentious. It has been argued that this was a one-off result, that it was due entirely to unscrupulous pandering to the Muslim electorate. Galloway has been attacked from both left and right. He has over the years made many enemies, and, indeed, there is much in his political career that is, to say the least, less than admirable. But let us look at what happened.

Bradford West was considered a safe Labour seat. The Labour majority was more than 5.000. In the by-election, 18.341 votes were cast for Galloway; 8.201 for the Labour candidate, Hussain. The coalition parties, Tory and Lib Dem polled 4.251 votes, a mere 13%. Galloway’s majority was over 10.000. He polled more than all the other candidates combined, taking a larger share of the vote than in any by-election since 1945. Cutting through all the excuses and all the sour grapes from his opponents, the most telling comment was made by Guardian economics columnist, Larry Elliott, who, referring to Galloway’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, commented that the result was “not really about the failed war against the Taliban; it is about the failed war against poverty.” Youth unemployment in Bradford is twice Britain’s national average, which puts it over 40%. Incomes in Bradford are lower than the average of the UK and the EU. The Labour council has implemented £67 million of cuts in the city and slashed over 1000 jobs.

Although Galaway’s larger-than-life personality was obviously a factor in this result, it cannot satisfactorily explain the scale of his victory. While it would be rash to rush to conclusions that could turn out to be wrong, something very serious may be stirring in the most deprived regions of Britain, particularly amongst the young. Surprisingly, it seems that very large numbers of Muslim women who have never voted before, turned out to vote for Galloway. It remains to be seen whether the Respect party, or other marginal groups will be able to repeat results like this. Until now, groups to the left of the Labour party have, with very few exceptions, when they have chosen to contest elections, failed to make any impact at all. This may now be changing. If it is, it will be a very welcome. The sooner the sclerotic practice of Westminster parliamentary politics is shaken out of its complacency, the better.