The Rothschilds – Capitalism, Nationalism and Conspiracy Theories


Jews and musicals go together like fish and chips, tea and cake, bread and butter. The list of  Jewish musical theatre composers is pretty comprehensive: the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown to name a few. Cole Porter, one of the handful of non-Jews amongst the writers of golden age musicals, realised that he would need a change of approach after some initial Broadway disappointments: from now on, he told his dinner companions, “I’ll write Jewish tunes”.

But Jewish writers preferred to remain behind the scenes rather than put Jewish characters on the stage. As Andrea Most demonstrates in her book Theatrical Liberalism, Jewish writers preferred to examine their identity issues through shows that dealt with notions of ‘performance’ in everyday life (particularly through ‘backstage musicals’), rather than write explicitly Jewish narratives and characters.

That all changed in the 1960s. Most famously, due to the blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof (1964), but also in more obscure examples such as Harold Rome’s South African comedy The Zulu and the Zayde (1965) and Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey, set on a communal farm in Israel’s Negev desert (1961) . These were cultural products of what has become known as the white ethnic revival, the 1960s movement in which European immigrant groups who had previously been desperate to assimilate into a generic ‘whiteness’ began to rediscover, and emphasise their own particular identities. For American Jews, this movement led to the ‘do it yourself’ Judaism of the Chavurah (grassroots services) movement and the Jewish Catalogue (a popular A-Z of Jewish practices), a newfound interest in the Klezmer music that had been seen as passé in the post-war years, and a burgeoning sense of Jewish pride, which exploded after Israel’s rapid victory in the 1967 war.

The Rothschilds/Rothschild and sons, is a product of this era and this milieu. Opening in 1970, and written by the Bock and Harnick team who gained such success in adapting Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Milkman into Fiddler on the Roof, the Rothschilds ran on Broadway for a respectable (but not outstanding) five hundred and five performances. While it took little effort to gain audience sympathy for the residents of Anatevka, constantly persecuted and ultimately expelled by the Czar, telling the story of how a major international banking dynasty gained its name is a little more challenging. The show gives us the back story — how Meyer Rothschild is trapped in the ghetto of Frankfurt, and works to order to liberate himself and his family.  As such it’s an explicitly political musical — and a pretty hard hitting one. This is all the more so in the recent revival, based on a 2015 off-Broadway production, which condenses the show into a single 2 hour act, and dismissing with such trivialities as Nathan Rothschild love affair with Hannah Cohen (who is described as an ‘English Jewish Joan of Arc’ — sounds like she deserves her own show) and keeps the family’s attempt to emancipate themselves centre stage. Mayer cannot only do so much on his own, therefore he hopes for sons (‘Sons extend a man’s vision / sons extend a man’s reach’), of which his wife Gutel gives birth to 5. In real life the couple also gave birth to five daughters — had the musical included them it might have been less of a kosher sausage fest. As it stands Gutel is the one female character, and she gets little to do beyond supporting and fretting over Mayer’s increasingly chutzpedik schemes.

The show is politically hard hitting in how it shows the Rothschilds overcoming their oppression. They do so not by classic musical theatre techniques of showing your enemies your humanity, or, better still, convincing them of it through a blistering song-and-dance routine. No, Meyer and his sons gain their freedom (and the freedom of all the Jews of Frankfurt) through the raw and unapologetic use of power. Initially Meyer builds up a business by befriending Prince William of Hesse, and in time, Rothschild and sons are appointed the Prince’s representatives as he lends money to the King of Denmark. When Hesse is overthrown by Napoleon, the Rothschilds decide try to collect the court’s debts, and the sons are sent to various countries to do this — the Rothschild  international banking business is born. (That fact that Napoleon was actually the great emancipator of European Jews is entirely glossed over). Years later, having built up the business extensively, Nathan Rothschild, living it up in London (portrayed as a safe haven, clearly a stand in for America) facilitates a loan to the British government to help them win their war with France, on the condition Prince Metternich, of the Austrian empire, liberates the Jewish ghettos. After the war, Metternich reneges on his pledge — at which point Meyer dies having failed in his dream of seeing freedom (‘This Moses wants to see the promised land / In my own lifetime’). The Rothschilds, at great financial risk to themselves, take the fight to the prince by undercutting his Peace bonds with bargain basement bonds of their own (keep up at the back). The Prince, facing financial ruin, gives into the Rothschilds’ demands — the liberation of all the ghettos and the sole right to issue state bonds in the future. The family is victorious and Western Europe’s Jews are liberated.

Politically, there’s a lot going on here. ‘The Rothschilds’ are high on the list of every conspiracy theory fantasist who wants to tell you WHO IS REALLY RUNNING THE WORLD. Though the idea is antisemitic nonsense, this show doesn’t do much to dent the conspiracy theory, there’s even a disturbing moment at the end where a conspiracy leaflet is produced and the sons laugh it off, seeing it as useful if it makes people fear them. The Rothschilds – and implicitly Jews – learn that the only way to overcome their oppression is through strength, because hatred will be a constant through history. I want to suggest that all of this is a dramatisation of Jewish nationalism — expressed in its purest form in the theories of Meir Kahane. Founder of the Jewish Defence League, Kahane was a Jewish terrorist and founder of the extreme racist organisation, Kach, that was banned by the Israeli government in 1988. For Kahane, what mattered most was Jewish survival in what he saw as an unremittingly hostile world. Kahane focussed not on Jewish piety or spirituality, but  on Jewish pride, to be found in unity and strength, and in ethnic continuity. As scholar Shaul Magid puts it: “Kahane’s worldview is gnostic; the world is an endless battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Evil needs to be eradicated; it can never be redeemed”. This entails a particular view of antisemitism, primordialist rather than constructivist. ‘They’ will always hate ‘us’—so there is no point appealing to their sense of morality, the only answer is to be strong so they cannot kill us. Every enemy is another Hitler – we have to kill them before they kill us.

This philosophy was relatively new when the Rothschilds opened in 1970. As such, the show would have seemed fresh and contemporary — and appealed to the new philosophy of Jewish national pride which was taking the diaspora by storm. But now, when the dualist view of them and us, the essentialisation of hatred and the validation of strength have become the central outlook of mainstream Jewish life, particularly in Israel, the Rothschilds feels more like propaganda for ethno-nationalism. As such, I think we should take its message with a significant pinch of salt. Antisemitism is not a single dark force surging through history – Prince Mitternich is not a predecessor of Hitler and the Palestinians are not the descendants of either. Sometimes we need strength but sometimes we need kindness, humility and justice. Meyer Rothschild plaintively sings: In my own lifetime / I want to see our efforts blessed / In my own lifetime / I want to see the walls come down and then I’ll rest. It’s a noble sentiment, but not one to be interpreted in a narrow fashion. Let’s dedicate all our efforts to bringing down the walls — all of them. For everyone.

Not Gonna Give Up My Centrism – The Politics of Hamilton

It’s a strange thing, nationalism. While most nationalisms have elements in common (take out the words and national anthems sound pretty much the same) watching propaganda for another country is rather disconcerting. You get all the sound and fury, speeches and parades, but, lacking any connection, you don’t really care about it. I’m sure that if I was American I’d find the stories of the war of independence, the actions of the founding fathers and the creation of the US constitution deeply meaningful and I would consider the importance of these stories to be self evident. Hamilton the musical proceeds on this basis. Its eponymous hero is important because he is a founding father with a low historical profile, best known for appearing on the ten dollar bill. This doesn’t seem enough — lots of people are written out of history. What did he stand for? Why do we need to remember him now? The opening number makes a lot of his humble background: ‘How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’. This classic musical theatre trope, that anyone can make it if they work hard enough can rise to the top is an American version of the Protestant work ethic, and the large body of evidence against it does nothing to dent its popularity. ‘If you keep your goal in sight / You can climb to any height / Everybody’s got the right to their dreams’ as Sondheim’s Assassins sing. As they prepare to kill the president.

But surely Hamilton wants to do something specific? Presumably this will be clarified in the obligatory ‘I want’ song, traditionally placed second in the running order? Not really. All we really learn here is that Alexander Hamilton is  ‘just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot’. Good to know. Of course, like the other founding fathers he believes in gaining freedom from the British monarchy. Who can disagree? I wish we Britons could do the same. If the whole show was about this (rather than just the first half) it would be a straight up anti-imperial yarn, but there wouldn’t be much of a specific role for Hamilton per se. His specific moment turns up in act two – Hamilton,  as the first Treasury Secretary, takes the decision to take on state’s debt and create a strong centralised financial system. So perhaps this show is not really about immigrants rising to the top and actually a celebration of capitalism? Should the I want number not have been — ‘I dream of creating a federal central bank so we can continue to borrow at favourable interest rates’? Gordon Brown would certainly approve.  When Jefferson calls for the US to aid post revolutionary France as it fights the British (‘now is the time to stand/Stand with our brothers / as they fight against tyranny’) Hamilton retorts: ‘If we try to fight in every revolution in the world / We never stop. Where do we draw the line?’ Are we really supposed to be on Hamilton’s side here? Jefferson’s vision of helping revolutionaries around the world seems a lot more inspiring than prudent financial management.

Of course the show isn’t really about the eighteenth-century. Hamilton premiered in 2015 and is steeped in the politics of the Obama administration. Like Obama, Hamilton is fundamentally liberal — focussing on individual advancement whilst being relaxed about structural inequality. The show’s most celebrated move is to have the founding fathers portrayed by actors of colour, and the use of hip-hop is integral to that. (Strangely this approach doesn’t extend to casting across gender — the female performers are all limited to falling in love with Hamilton, rather than getting to fight the British or set up a new government). The racial inversion is fundamentally a liberal approach, rather than a radical one. It’s designed to make everyone feel good about the (white) national story by reading people of colour into it without changing it’s fundamentals. Much like Obama’s presidency. Actors of colour in Hamilton never play actual characters of colour, because most of them would have been slaves, and Hamilton totally avoids the issue of slavery. Why sadden the tone? It’s not as if the subjugation of millions of people is a major part of the American story. Earlier drafts of the show included a third rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson, in which the latter defends slavery as ‘the price we paid / for the southern states to participate / in our little escapade’. Hamilton condemns slavery but Madison forces him to concede that ‘if we support emancipation / every single slave owner will demand compensation’. Miranda ended up cutting the number saying:

While, yeah, Hamilton was anti-slavery and never owned slaves, between choosing his financial plan and going all in on opposition to slavery, he chose his financial plan. So it was tough to justify keeping that rap battle in the show, because none of them did enough.

Miranda’s honesty is admirable but it leaves a moral vacuum at the heart of the musical. If no-one of the protagonists did enough to end slavery, then maybe put that in the show, portray them as flawed politicians rather than heroes. Or tell the story from someone else’s perspective — an abolitionist campaigner and/or a slave. But then, would that have brought in white liberal audiences in such huge numbers?

But who am I, living in Britain, to criticise the glorious American independence narrative? A British equivalent is hard to imagine, as British monarchs don’t really strive for anything, they just, er, inherit it. We’d have to go back to the days of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century and the I want song would become ‘I want to show everyone that my lineage gives me a better claim to the crown than that ludicrous pretender in Lancaster’ . We can’t do anti-imperial tales because, embarrassingly, we were the empire. Cecil Rhodes maxim of ‘the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race’ is unlikely to lead to a West End hit.   Perhaps we could instead produce Owain! — a celebration of Owain Glynwyr’s Welsh revolt against the evil English.

Hamilton’s ongoing success is partly down to (mis)fortune; the election of Trump in November has cast the Obama administration, and anything associated with it, in a Kennedy-esque glow. For your ticket price you not only get a great show but also 3 hours of pretending the 2016 election result never happened. It’s a lot like the Clinton campaign — say lots of nice things about fairness and responsible government without dealing with the underlying structures of discrimination and inequality. Which is perhaps why Hamilton is so beloved by Blairites and other centrists that are baffled by why their oh so sensible politics aren’t popular like they used to be. The words of the closing song ‘He took our country from bankruptcy to prosperity / I hate to admit it, but he doesn’t get enough credit for all the credit he gave us’ are the elegiac cry of every third-wayer — why aren’t they more grateful? Hamilton could do with being a bit less Blairite and a little more like the socialist from Vermont. With a few Lin Manuel Miranda songs behind him, Bernie definitely would have won.

Putting Ourselves First In This Election

First Published in the Huffington Post

This election isn’t about the things it’s supposed to be about. It’s not about leaders, parties, candidates, rallies. It’s not about wall to wall news coverage, interviews, speeches and gaffes. It’s not about them. It’s about us. Specifically what we, the electorate, think of ourselves. Do we have self-respect? Do we care for ourselves? Or do we have such low self esteem that we’re willing to accept the worst? Are we, as a society, so depressed that we think things can’t be any better than they are now?

The current government has contempt for the British people. Firstly, it called an unnecessary election simply because it thought it could win a bigger majority. Secondly, the Prime Minister has refused to engage in televised debates. She considers them unnecessary – she is ahead so why take the risk? Thirdly, the Conservatives are determined to announce as few policies as possible. Trust us, they say. Only we can deliver strong and stable leadership. We will make the right choices, no need to worry yourselves with difficult questions about policy.

If the polls are correct we are fine with all this. We are fine with being taken for granted, of being laughed at. If the Conservatives can behave like this and be elected with a enlarged majority why would they be anything other than contemptuous of the British people

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The Tories Could Lose This Election – Here’s How

First Published in the Huffington Post

The 2017 election is already being described as a fait accompli. An enhanced Conservative majority is widely seen as inevitable. It’s not. It’s true that a Labour majority is almost impossible; it’s been incredibly unlikely ever since the SNP’s dominance over Scotland became cemented, and Labour’s weak polling position only confirms that improbability. But that doesn’t mean a Tory majority is inevitable: a hung parliament, out of which a non-Conservative government might arise, is a definite possibility. It would require all or most of the following factors to occur: Continue reading

A Progressive Alliance Is The Only Way To Defeat The Conservatives

First Published in the Huffington Post

A progressive alliance is gradually creeping onto the agenda. Some kind of electoral pact between progressive parties (generally understand as Labour, Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Lib Dems) has been proposed by the new leadership of the Green party, important figures in Labour and by a range of think tanks and media commentators. It’s not hard to fathom why; without some kind of pact the Conservatives seem a dead cert to win the next general election. Even if Labour’s current infighting ends, and its polling position recovers somewhat, the boundary changes that the Tories have pushed through make it far easier for them to win, as safe Labour seats are abolished in far greater number than safe Conservative ones. Labour tribalists dream of another 1997 style comeback in which it wins back hundreds of seats, but the idea of any party again receiving more than 40% of the vote seems implausible in our current era of multi-party politics. Continue reading

Time To Put Labour NEC Reform On The Agenda

First Published in the Huffington Post

In 2014 Labour had a democratic overhaul. Out went the electoral college – an awkward child of the early 1980s – and in came a genuine one member one vote system, in which the votes of ordinary members, MPs and trade union members all counted equally. But other Labour institutions have not kept pace and many remain unwieldy, murky and insufficiently democratic.

Most important of these is the NEC, Labour’s ruling body. Its makeup has echoes of the old electoral college, giving allocated representation to members, trade unionists and elected representatives (MPs, MEPs and councillors). But the proportions are unbalanced – Labour members directly elect only 6 out the 33 seats. This is not fit for purpose in a 21st century organisation that claims to be democratic. Members expect their votes to make a difference, but the recent NEC elections in which the Momentum/CLGA slate was totally victorious will make little difference to the overall balance of the NEC. Although the left/pro-Corbyn side gains 2 seats, this is partially offset by the fact that in the MPs section, Dennis Skinner is stepping down and will be replaced by the anti-Corbyn George Howarth. The ‘new NEC’ will look very similar to the old one. Continue reading

How Labour Can Stay Together (Just)

First Published in the Huffington Post

The current political crisis is, in essence, a crisis of democracy. The EU referendum represented a rare opportunity for people to radically change the country?-?and people grabbed it with both hands. The opportunity to make a difference was more important than the cause in question. There were precursors of this for anyone who wanted to see them: the Scottish referendum, the collapse in support for both main parties in favour of the Ukip, the SNP and the Greens in 2010 and 2015, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn last summer, against the wishes of the entire media and political establishment. The referendum was a release mechanism – real choice had been denied for so long, and this was one of the few elections in which every vote really counted.

But if the crisis is one of democracy the solution has to be more democracy, not less. The Conservatives have failed to recognise this: crowning Theresa May is effective in the short term but is ultimately a mistake, just as it was a mistake for Labour to crown Gordon Brown in 2007 without a contest. The right wing Labour party machine also fails to understand the logic of the moment – excluding 150,000 of new voters from voting, as well as reportedly excluding up to 50,000 registered supporters. Had Corbyn’s opponents on the NEC not imposed these anti-democratic rule but instead allowed time for all sides to recruit, the party would surely have 1 million members by now. But too many in all parties see their membership as a problem to be managed, and seek to give members as little power as possible.

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Jeremy Corbyn Is Exposing Britain’s Lack of Democracy

First Published in the Huffington Post

The election of Jeremy Corbyn has been seen as a swing to the left in the Labour party – as a majority of members and registered supporters put the nails in the coffin of the New Labour project. But it may have as much to do with a call for greater democracy – something that the British political establishment has long been deeply suspicious of.

Although many politicians describe democracy as a central ‘British value’, democracy arrived relatively late in Britain, long after the culture and institutions of the state were well established. Only in 1918 did working class men and women over 30 get the vote, and only in 1928 was a complete franchise granted, with votes for all men and women over 21 (lowered to 18 in 1969). But Britain’s democratic revolution remained unfinished – retaining a range of undemocratic institutions: a hereditary monarch – who is head of the armed forces (thus theoretically able lead a coup against parliament in a crisis), a House of Lords with substantial powers to delay legislation and a civil service which constitutes a permanent unelected strand that is highly influential in the running of the country.

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The Left Needs an Alternative Candidate in Case Corbyn Falls

First Published in the Huffington Post

Despite their dominance of the headlines for the last 24 hours, the Labour plotters have a key weakness. They know that they can only remove Jeremy Corbyn if he chooses to resign. The normal course of action in any parliamentary coup is to force a leadership election. But that would assume you have an alternate leader who could win. In fact the opposite is the case – there is an array of rival candidates for the position – Tom Watson, Angela Eagle, Dan Jarvis etc. – and the likelihood is that Labour members would once again elect Corbyn by a huge margin. So as long as Jeremy Corbyn sticks to his guns and doesn’t stand down, it is very unlikely that he can be toppled, however many shadow ministers resign.

The issue is the same as it has been since last summer — the Parliamentary party and the membership are now entirely at odds with one another. A split is beginning to feel inevitable – if Corbyn is forced out there is strong a chance that he will form a new party based around Momentum, taking perhaps 20-30 MPs, several unions, and a sizeable portion of the membership. If Corbyn wins a second leadership contest then a much larger group of MPs, with fewer Unions and members, will leave and form something new. Either way, Labour as a broad based party will be finished. In some ways this could be positive. In the long run, having people with radically different views in the same party will always be chaotic, and will require ever more torturous gymnastics, such as those Ed Miliband was forced to perform. In two separate parties, each could put their case in a clear and principled way, and let the electorate choose which vision they prefer. Continue reading

What Happens to EU Citizens Living in the UK If We Leave?

First Published in the Huffington Post

The Referendum debate has involved two sides talking across each other. The Leave campaign focusses on its strongest card – immigration. It promises a utopian dream – ‘control of our borders’ – and this dream may be enough to lead them to victory. In contrast the Remain campaign focusses single-mindedly on the economy: the risk of economic disaster in the event of Britain leaving the UK. It’s as if there’s a tacit agreement that immigration is a negative and only by ignoring it, or in more recent days, kowtowing to anti-immigrant sentiment, can Remain have a chance of victory.

Amongst all this, one group of people has been largely ignored – the EU citizens already living here. There are estimated to be around 3 million EU passport holders living in Britain – around 5% of the UK population. This may come as a surprise as most are totally integrated into British life. It is likely that almost everyone in Britain knows someone in this position: they are friends, lovers, employers, colleagues, fellow-students, teachers of our children, academics, businesspeople, nurses and doctors. We’re not talking about those who come for a short time to earn money and then return home. I’m referring to people who have made their lives here, found love, had children, settled into jobs, bought houses. Most of these people can’t vote in the referendum – thanks to our bizarre rules, a French citizen living in the UK for 20 years cannot vote but an Australian here for 3 months can. So those friends and colleagues who are EU citizens are relying on us to protect them. If the vote is to leave, these people would no longer have a guaranteed right to remain in the UK and many could be forced to leave. Continue reading

None of the Labour Leadership Candidates Can Win a General Election – That’s Why We Should Back Jeremy Corbyn

First Published in the Huffington Post

Admitting to supporting Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race is to accept your own insanity. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. We are antediluvian leftists, idiots who refuse to acknowledge reality, ideologues willing to consign the Labour party to permanent opposition for the sake of misplaced idealism.

Needless to say, we Corbyn supporters see things a little differently. Firstly, Corbyn isn’t a Marxist revolutionary, or even that left wing by international and historical standards. He believes in a return to the values and policies of the post war consensus, accepted by both Labour and Conservative governments from 1945 to 1979. In this sense he is something of a small ‘c’ conservative – wanting a return to the welfare state Thatcher dismantled. When pushed in a recent interview to say what he would renationalise Corbyn mentioned the railways and electricity companies – if that’s a Marxist position than Thatcher was a Marxist, as they were in state hands for the entirety of her premiership. Pushed to say what his ideal top rate of tax would be he suggested 60% for the very highest earners – which was Thatcher’s top rate from 1979-1988. Does Corbyn’s website call for armed revolution and hanging the rich? No, it calls for reasonable things like: ‘An economy which works for all’, points out that ‘Government should not be the property of a closed elite’ circle and suggests that ‘we must act in the long term interest of the planet rather than the short-term interests of corporate profits’. Hardly Leninist. Continue reading

To Win Again Labour Needs Proportional Representation

First Published in the Huffington Post

It is looking extremely hard for Labour to win in 2020. To do so it would need to do the impossible – move in two directions at the same time.

Taking a right turn, as represented by Liz Kendall, would win votes from Tory voters and probably win back a number of seats in the south of the country. However, it would effectively give up on any attempt to win back seats in Scotland, whose voters voted overwhelmingly for a left of centre, anti-austerity party. But this would not be the limit of the losses – Ukip came second in 120 seats, of which many were Labour seats in the north and midlands. A lot of these could go Ukip if Labour take its traditional voters for granted and tacks right. So a Kendall leadership would lead, at best, to the losses and gains balancing out, but could easily lead to a net reduction in seats.

 Taking a left turn, as represented by Jeremy Corbyn, would result in the opposite scenario. Labour would likely take back a number of seats in Scotland and hold off the UKIP threat in the northern heartlands. But it would lose some Labour-Tory marginals, and would be unlikely to win too many seats back from the Conservatives. So once again, the result would be likely to be similar to this election; not the wipeout that the press imagine would take place under Corbyn, but not the transformative victory envisaged by the left either. Continue reading

Remember the Golden Rule of British Politics – Whatever You Do Keep the Tories Out

David Cameron Welcomes Lady Thatcher To Downing Street As a teenager in London in the mid-90s, everyone I knew was anti-Tory. It was the fag-end of the John Major era, and amidst a sea of sex and corruption scandals the Tories had saved some of the most damaging measures for last, privatising the industries Thatcher hadn’t dared to: electricity, railway and prisons, and continually stigmatising single mothers, gays and lesbians and the ‘undeserving poor’. Though we were too young to remember the mass unemployment, miners strike and poll tax from the Thatcher years, the memories were fresh enough in the minds of our parents to impart to us a strongly anti-Tory outlook. The signs of public sector degradation were pretty apparent even to teenagers – parks and schools were all seriously run down after years of underfunding and libraries and sports centres were opening for fewer days each year. It was a mark of decency, of normality to oppose a tired, malicious government that was totally out of step with the growing trend towards social liberalism. To admit to being a conservative was a minor taboo – tantamount to admitting that you were well off and everyone’s else could go to hell. In our school mock election I think the Tories received about 8 votes out of 900 – and I suspect the affiliations of our parents were only slightly less one sided.

It’s not that everyone was pro-Labour – as early as 1994-95 Tony Blair was being accused of selling out, and Liberal Democrats were already gaining in popularity. The situation was simply this – there was broad body of people who knew that, above all, we had to get the Tories out – and while this wouldn’t in itself change the world, nothing could start to improve until we’d taken this basic first step. This culminated in the 1997 election, as the concerted effort deprived so many hated moralisers, privatisers and destroyers of public services of their seats. It was a victory of pragmatism over utopianism – with extensive tactical voting boosting the non-Conservative parties, and left wing voters backing a Labour leadership which they already knew had rejected socialist values. The priority was to kick out the Tories – everything else was secondary. Continue reading

This Is Not the Time for the Left to Abandon Labour

First Published in the Huffington Post

For many on the Left, the Labour party is beyond the pale. Damned as having sold out, and seen as no different from the Tories, many see the idea of voting Labour as an assault on their integrity. Instead they will either vote Green, SNP/Plaid Cymru, or not vote at all. We should start by admitting that this view is not ridiculous. Labour, from 1994 onwards, spent 16 years appeasing the wealthy and they media allies and telling them that the Party posed no risk to the Neo-Liberal status quo. Where they did good work (creating Tax Credits, building the Sure Start early years programme, renovation of social housing) they failed to talk about it enough, leaving mainstream political discourse firmly stuck on the right. New Labour deliberately took the left for granted, believing it had nowhere else to go, instead focussing on Conservative inclined voters in marginal constituencies. While that approach won Labour 3 elections, its share of the vote gradually dwindled from the landslide inducing 43.2% in 1997 to 35.2% in 2005 and then to 29% in 2010.  Continue reading

What Natalie Should Have Said – How to Fund the Green Party’s Citizen’s Income Policy


Natalie Bennett’s recent interview with Andrew Neil was the sort that politicians try to avoid. Neil, one of the UK’s best political journalists, understands the detail of policy and asks difficult questions about how it is to be implemented. This was no exception – Neil began by acknowledging that the Greens now had a range of other policies that went beyond the environment – before tearing into them, and demanding to know how they would be paid for. While some have described the interview as a ‘car crash’, Bennett actually did pretty well – giving clearer and less evasive answers than most politicians, and showing a grasp of detail that is rare for a leader of a small party.  Continue reading

How to Vote Green – While Keeping the Tories Out


First Published in the Huffington Post

At long last the media is covering the Green Party. While calling it a surge may be a little premature, today’s poll showing them on 8% (once again above the Liberal Democrats) is highly newsworthy. As someone very much on the left of British politics I consider this a cause for celebration. The Greens are achieving the recent period of success not by clinging to the centre ground or by focussing purely on environmental issues. On the contrary it is their promotion of an explicitly left wing and anti-austerity agenda that has brought their recent success, as they have been able to stake out ground vacated by the unceasing neo-liberalism of the other parties (including UKIP). There has long been a need for a populist but credible party to the left of Labour – throughout the Blair and Brown years, New Labour wooed centre right voters in the knowledge that the party had no competition on its left flank. Just as UKIP has forced the Conservatives to pay attention to its core voters the Greens are showing Labour that what it views as it’s traditional vote can no longer be taken for granted.  Continue reading

Free – A Manifesto

Also Published on Huffington Post UK

1. Free is good. We should make as many things as possible free.

2. Making more things free will make us more free – because we need access to resources in order for freedom to mean anything.

3. Everyone will feel more free because of the lack of gates/checkouts and the reduction of the use of money will free our minds from having to constantly think about money.

4. There will be a stronger sense of community as we will all be able to share a wider range of social spaces and meet there as equals.

5. So free is better for everyone, not just those with less resources.

6. Free means: paid for out of general taxation and free at the point of use. Continue reading

How to Tax the Rich – in 10 Easy Steps

Also Published on the Huffington Post UK

Whatever the make up of the next government – one thing is for certain – it will need to find more revenue. All parties are committed to deficit reduction, and as services and benefits have already been cut to the bone, the only way is to increase taxes on those who can afford it most. Raising taxes is always politically tricky – here’s how to pull it off:

1. Focus on the richest – the top 10% in either income or accumulated wealth. Don’t put up taxes for anyone else – you need as many allies as you can get.

2. Clearly explain what the top 10% means – the top 10% of households have at least £967,000 worth of wealth, in pension funds, property and possessions (compared to total wealth in the bottom 10% of households of £13,000. The top 10% of earners make at least £53,040 a year. Just because someone doesn’t ‘feel rich’ doesn’t mean they aren’t.

3. Point out that most people are not rich – only 19% of taxpayers pay higher rate income tax (meaning than they earn more than £41,000. The average UK income is £26,500. If you’re lucky enough to own your own home (36% of us don’t), the average house price is £250,000. The idea that someone earning £60,000 and living in a £600,000 house is ‘ordinary’ in wealth terms is laughable.

3. Don’t be waylaid by sob stories – many people will come forward to say they are not really rich / are on ‘ordinary salaries’ / have worked hard / deserve a break. Stick to the facts – these are people with substantial disposable wealth and when the country needs additional funds it is better to raise them from increasing taxes on this group than by cutting spending on the poor, cutting services for everyone or increasing public borrowing. Continue reading

Do We Really Need to Build More Houses?

Also Published in Huffington Post UK

There aren’t many things that all politicians agree on, but on housing there is a clear consensus: we need to build more of it. They compete to out do one another; Boris Johnson’s London Plan has a target of 42,000 new houses per annum in the capital while Ed Miliband has pledged to build 200,000 nationally each year by 2020. Most of these are likely to be in the areas of most demand – London and its surrounding commuter belt. Writing this week in the Evening Standard Miliband laid out a series of measures he would use to increase house building in the capital, including forcing local authorities to build more, and compulsory purchase of unused land.

Everyone is trying to respond to the boom in house prices that makes London and much of the south-east increasingly unaffordable. The orthodox solution is the one offered by the politicians – increase supply. Prices are rising due to high demand; the only way to bring down prices is to build more. Suppose this is correct. Hundreds of thousands of people wish to live in London because of her booming economy and abundant job opportunities, so we build housing to accommodate them. How far do we go? Do we fill up every available site with the highest density accommodation possible, forcing us all into increasingly tiny dwellings? As it stands there is probably enough demand to replace every park, library and school playground in London with tower blocks. Do we really want to turn London into Hong Kong? Even if we manage to protect our existing parks and public spaces, surely as London’s population increases we will need to create more of them – we’ll need more libraries, schools and community centres and they can’t all be on the tenth floor of a new development. Continue reading

Scrap Pension Relief – Help Cut the Deficit and Increase the State Pension

Also Published at Huffington Post UK

The picture has got a lot clearer. Following Ed Balls weekend announcement, all the main parties will go into the next election promising a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament. The Conservatives are pledging to do so by 2018-19, though on George Osborne’s past record this will probably be pushed back a few years, with another ‘rolling target’. Labour has said it will reach a budget surplus on current spending (excluding investment) by 2020. The Liberal Democrats plans, as usual, are in line with Osborne’s, but will be, in some unspecified way, ‘more fair’.

All parties hope that economic recovery will do most of the work for them. The more people in employment the greater the tax receipts and the lower the benefits bill. A bit more inflation wouldn’t hurt either, decreasing the real cost of the national debt. Despite all this, there will probably need to be further savings/tax rises – and there will be increasing pressure on all the parties as we move towards May 2015 to spell out how they plan to do this. George Osborne has suggested he will balance the books purely by cutting spending. This is implausible – social security has already been cut savagely, leading to increased poverty and homelessness. Spending in non ring-fenced government departments has also been cut to the bone – it’s hard to see how areas like local authority spending, justice and higher education can suffer further deep cuts without suffering disastrous consequences. Labour has put forward a few revenue-raising ideas, the most recent being a 50% tax rate for earnings in excess of £150,000 per year. Despite the howls from the super-rich and their defenders in the press this is perfectly sensible (and could even kick in at £100,000). Remember that the top rate was 60% for the first 9 years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The 50% tax is likely to raise considerably more than the Conservatives are suggesting – tax receipts from the previous 50% rate were distorted by the short time it was in place, as high earners organised their affairs to take bonuses and earnings in the years before and after it kicked in. But even if the rate raises the £10bn Ed Balls has suggested, this won’t be enough to plug the fiscal hole.

So we need to look at other options. The most promising area is the assortment of tax exemptions that cost the government large amounts of money and mostly subsidise the wealthiest. Continue reading

Free Money for All – The Only Way Forward on Welfare

Also Published on Huffington Post UK 

The start of 2014 has been marked by the announcement of yet another assault on Welfare spending – a planned £12bn in cuts targeting the very poorest. The ground for this has been laid by a relentless campaign to distinguish between ‘them’ – the people on benefits, and ‘us’ – the people who pay taxes. This is illustrated clearly by Channel 4’s divisive Benefits Street. It’s clear that tinkering around the edges, promising to reverse one cut or another, is not going to cut the mustard. We need a wholly new approach – a basic income for every adult.

The idea of a basic income is not new – some version of it has been advocated by thinkers as diverse as Martin Luther King, Bertrand Russell and Milton Friedman, and has proponents from across the political spectrum, from Socialists to Free Marketeers. Versions of it have been implemented in AlaskaIran and Brazil, with recent trials in villages in India and Namibia. The idea is simple – every adult receives an equal amount each month, tax-free, regardless of income or circumstances. Unlike benefits, which are withdrawn as you earn more, creating a ‘benefits trap’ where accepting a job can leave you worse off, the basic income would be guaranteed, making sure work always pays. There are a host of other advantages: currently unpaid work such as bringing up children and looking after elderly relatives would be financially recognised by society. Part-time work would be more viable, for those that want a little more time to study, pursue new interests, or spend more time with their children. Students would have less debt, people would be able to refuse unpleasant jobs (or demand a higher wage for them) and vulnerable people would no longer be stigmatised as ‘benefit claimants’. A basic income would also fund a whole range of socially beneficial activities that are not currently rewarded such as voluntary work and local community activism. Continue reading

Who’s Afraid of Rent Controls?

rent controlRenting is London is out of control. This is well known to most people – especially those who are unfortunate enough to be tenants themselves.There are a range of issues, short contracts, expensive estate agent charges, poor maintenance etc. But the biggest issue is simply price, the extortionate cost of renting in London that makes it impossible for many to remain in the city especially as the government and the mayor require housing associations which want to build any new sub-market housing to increase rents on both the new and existing properties towards a laughingly titled ‘affordable rent’ of 80% of market value. As a result London is becoming less of a mixed city, and increasingly a playground for the wealthy, which threatens to destroy everything about London which makes it great. So what can be done?

The most obvious solution, one that would be supported by the vast majority of the renting population is rent capping. By this I mean not only a cap on the rate of increase the landlords can charge to existing tenants (although that would be a start) but a legal maximum that landlords could charge for their properties. The rate would probably differ across the city – it would be set by councils who would categorise properties along similar lines to council tax bands. Such a policy is in operation in many countries across the world such as Holland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark as well as in some American cities such as New York and Washington D.C. Introducing such a policy in London (one of the least regulated rental markets in the developed world) could be transformative, making life easier for renters and their dependents, ensuring London remains a mixed city. Continue reading

On Tactical Republicanism

I’ve always been an apathetic republican. I don’t like the hereditary principle, but overthrowing it has never been a political priority for me. When said leader seems to have only symbolic power, it just seems low on the list of key issues after, say, housing, low wages, unemployment, climate change etc. I reckon most of the population feels similarly. If they were designing a system they wouldn’t start from here, but given where we are they can’t see why they should bother getting excited about republicanism; they feel the current setup is eccentric, but basically inoffensive. As a result republican campaigners fail to get much traction – they are seen as cranks pursuing a faintly irrelevant cause, or worse, people who have a personal animus against the queen, almost universally seen as a nice old lady doing her best for the country.

The trouble with this state of affairs is that it rests on the assumption that the monarchy has no real power and the queen is only a symbolic head of state. This is not the case. The monarchy still holds a range of powers – which are rarely used, but the threat of them constitutes power regardless. There are a whole range of royal powers which are no longer held by the monarch but which allow the prime minister to act in a dictatorial manner, bypassing parliament. And the role of head of state means that in a crisis situation or a political vacuum, power would ultimate rest with the monarch. Continue reading

The Case For Tax

Remarkably, tax has reappeared on the political agenda. Following the direct action activities of UK Uncut, popular attention is now being focussed on tax evasion by large corporations, something with the government is now pledging to address.  Even more surprisingly, there have been some Conservative thinkers that have been suggesting that certain taxes could be raised, namely wealth taxes on assets rather than earning. All this is in striking contrast to the New Labour era, when any raising of income tax was taboo, and increases in spending had to be funded largely by growth and debt (including PFI). But this new mood has not extended to any discussion of taxation in general, and why it might be necessary. It is still often viewed as a bad thing, or an unfortunate necessity. On a recent edition of Newsnight in which MPs were asked what the point of tax was, the answers given were distinctly underwhelming, each falling back on some version of ‘we need tax to fund public services’.  Such confusion and obfuscation is typical of the current debate around tax—while everyone wants more of it on ‘the rich’ and less on themselves, philosophical explanations for taxation are rarely articulated. We need to go beyond this and investigate the differing rationales for taxation, the different ideologies that they spring from, and the position on private property that each ideology ultimately relies upon.

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Ten (Non—Revolutionary) Ideas for Change

It has been all too common to hear journalists and columnists writing off Occupy London as ‘anti—capitalist’. ‘If they don’t like capitalism’ they say in almost—unison ‘ why don’t they just move to North Korea?’ The assumption is clear: there are only two choices. Either you have capitalism, exactly as we currently have it, or you have complete state control of the entire economy and a communist state. This is lunacy. There are many ways to organise society and the economy, and to suggest that there is only a simple binary choice is disingenuous nonsense. Even the most neo—liberal state has some services provided by the state, and the most socialist countries have always had markets of some kind. We a really faced with a series of spectrums, of state control/market and egalitarian/libertarian, and a range of choices that fit into no easy ideological boxes. There are many changes we could make to make our society more stable, more equal and more sustainable without reinventing the wheel. Here are 10 suggestions for change that don’t depend on global revolution.

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