Friday 29 November 2013

NPower's sickening job cuts announcements

NPower are owned by RWE, and German energy company who recently announced the axing of nearly 7,000 jobs across Europe. This despite make a profit of over 9 BILLION Euros last year.

In Britain, NPower made record profits last year, yet managed to announce an impending increase in domestic rates of up to 11%. Now, as part of the RWE 'restructuring' over 1460 jobs are to go, mostly in the North East, with 400 jobs alone going in my city, Sunderland.

Nothing shows the madness of Capitalism more than this: Record profits for NPower are resulting in increased fuel bills for ordinary people and massive job cuts for its staff.  Absolutely unbelievable.

I despise the way the 'big 6' energy firms have treated the people of this country, but my real anger is for a government that has done nothing to prevent this horrendous situation. Nearly 35,000 deaths last year were reported of people who couldn't heat their homes properly - heaven knows what the situation will be this coming year.

I will be changing from NPower over the coming months, and there needs to be some consumer fightback against these job cuts (announced just before Christmas for maximum evil points) but this cannot be left to the consumers to battle out against these energy companies.

Energy is too important to be left in the hands of these greedy and immoral private sector giants. Again I say - let us rebuild the case for renationalisation of energy supply and production. History must condemn the likes of NPower to the dustbin of failed privatisations. We cannot waste anymore energy on these bloodsuckers.

Why does Bob Crow drink herbal tea?

There has been a nasty attack on RMT General Secretary Bob Crow over the last few days, over the fact that he still lives in the same council house that he has always lived in, despite earning nearly £140,000 each year. I defend his right to stay in his home, and despise the attacks on him in the right wing press and by people who have probably never set foot in a council house.

This is simply an attack on Bob Crow because of his politics. He is part of 'the awkward squad' of union officials who over the last 10 years have been overwhelmingly elected by their unions to defend public sector ownership and the rights of working people. He is just a rare case who lives out his private life in concordance with this public life. 

Thatcherism has been so successful at destroying the public goodwill towards social housing that very few people understand Bob's argument. He understands that council housing, under Housing Minister Bevan especially, was a plan that 'Working people, Doctors and Clergymen' (Bevan's noninclusive language, not mine) should live side by side. It was an attempt to do away with class division, not just be a way to house the poor and those who service the rich. It was an attempt to replace the dependency on vicious private landlords who grew rich off the poor, and not force everyone into 'private ownership'.

Bob Crow chooses not to be tempted to buy his home, or to invest in property. Most of his wages goes on social causes. (Like the Uruguayan President Mujica who gives 90% of his wages to good causes) Crow is not 'taking the house of someone who is more needy' but is articulating the rights of his members to affordable and secure housing. It is Tory and Labour policy over the last 30 years that has stolen the homes of the most needy. 

I was brought up in council housing, and my mum, sister and her child still live in them. The Tory council in her town now plan to demolish their homes (and those of 300 families who live on the estate) to make way for a private development and force them to be rehoused in another development many miles away from where my mum earns her keep as a cleaner (meaning she will lose her job because she won't be able to cycle to work anymore, and there isn't a bus route)

The way people in Council housing have been treated is beyond belief. They are not cattle to be moved in and out of housing on a whim - these houses are their homes. Our homes should be secure and affordable. Bob Crow is not the problem, national policy is. The debate is never that rich people should be forced to give up their second homes because of the national housing crisis - instead we have the 'bedroom tax' that forces people out of their homes (often the most vulnerable and many being elderly or disabled) and now an attack on an individual who chooses to stick to the notion that a council house is not just a hand out from the state, but a hard fought for right for all people, regardless of income.

Bob Crow is a communist. He believes that things like housing, education, transport should be held in common. Though he is a pronounced atheist, he shares his lifestyle with the early Christians who (described in the earliest history of life after Jesus, the book of Acts) shared all they had in common and ensured that those in need were provided for. I think he should be applauded for his standing up for common ownership, and the right of all people to live on a place that they and their children can call 'home'.

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PS - Why does Bob Crow drink herbal tea? Because 'All Propertea is theft!'

Monday 18 November 2013

No wonder the The Co-op Bank got in such a mess...

The news of The former Chairman of the Co-op's staggering fall from grace came as a huge shock to me personally - as I knew Paul Flowers back in my Bradford days. He was a local Labour Councillor and the Methodist Minister up the road at Great Horton, and had even had me up to preach in his Church. Over the last 5 years though, he had become increasingly elusive, and I had given up calling him an ally in any progressive Bradford campaigns I was involved in .

I knew that he was working with the co-operative group, but I had no idea he had risen to the rank of Chairman! As far as I know, he didn't have a background in banking at all, so it is of no surprise that he allowed such poor oversight of the banking activities of the Co-op.

The last time I had seen him, he was being picked up in a 'work related' chauffeur driven limousine, which at the time made me furious about how my co-operative money was being spent!

It is such a shame, as Paul used to be a great Methodist minister, with a particular concern for asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups. He had overcome some serious homophobia from neighbouring churches following his appointment, and in the early days was usually affable and helpful when you went to him in his role as a local councillor.

But he was always far too full of his own self importance, and his famous dinner parties were always occasions for him to boast of his connections and his travels. He was a classic champagne socialist, though it was increasingly hard to work out what was socialist in his activities and outlook.

I liked Paul, despite him publicly chastising me when I stood for the Green party against corrupt members of the local Labour mafia. If he has genuinely learnt something from this experience, then I sincerely believe he will go on to be a good minister again.

Hedonists need to curb their desires for self gratification, especially when it comes at the expense of the trust that others have placed in them. Having heard the stories of drug taking and excessive partying, I am now even more aghast at what happen to the centre of the Co-op Bank, as it began to act as if it were owned by an elite, and not by its members.

This story may have been one of personal tragedy for Paul Flowers, but it has also been a historic catastrophe for all of us dedicated to the co-operative cause.

Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth of Shame

David Cameron's feeble criticism of the Sri Lankan Government during the the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo packed virtually no weight at all. Though his visit to the North of the country at least allowed many families to show the world pictures of the 'disappeared'. He would have been more credible if he had stayed away, like many other commonwealth heads.

Instead, he turned up, wined and dined with a man responsible for the death of at least 40,000 people during 2009, a government which has since overseen countless incidences of torture and disappearances of Tamil activists.

The problem for Cameron was this: if our government accepts that Sri Lanka's government is a vicious, war mongering one, full of war criminals and those who have broken International laws on human rights - then it has to explain why Britain supplied it with many of the weapons that enabled it to conduct such massacres during the bloody civil war. Britain has also happily continued to arm the country, despite widespread evidence of continued human rights abuses long after the end of the 30 year conflict.

The weakness of our Governments position was made evident by the Sri Lankan Presidents rebuff. 'People in Glass houses...'

When a vicious genocidal leader can so easily get the last word in, you really should stop and have a little think about your own moral position.

The commonwealth has always been unable to restrain its members, and simply looks like an irrelevant organisation, harking back to a non-existent better time in it history. If it really wanted to become relevant to the planet's future, it could encourage it's members to renounce weapons of mass destruction, and build a unified, ecological moral force for good.

If it really wanted to tackle issues of 'equity and inclusion' (apparently one of the themes of the conference) , it could even think about it's own name, and begin going down the path of democratic socialism, finally learning to hold its own wealth in common...

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Gravity of the situation

Alfonso Cuaron tells a masterly tale in the superb film 'Gravity' released this week. I don't want to give away too many spoilers, but this is a film about life, death, faith, fate, science, hope and that ultimately, in space, no one can hear you scream. There are no aliens in this one, just the horror of when you are faced with your own imminent extinction.

The story is essentially about Dr Ryan Stone, a mission specialist on a NASA shuttle craft, and how she copes with a series of catastrophic incidents which leave her chances of survival 'barely possible' (some would argue 'barely plausible' but I think you have to let Alfonso tell the story!)

She is aided by Matt Kowalski, on his last mission in space, his guidance and humour help her keep it together when every possible ray of hope is disintegrating.

She has used her work and space as a way of coping with the death of her 4 year old daughter, who tripped and fell and died. Now she has to work out whether she still has the will to live.

Whilst the effects do drive the film, (and they are spectacular) it is the emotional tale that makes the film so powerful and compelling. In a way, it completes a trilogy begun with Cuaron's other films 'Y Tu Mama Tambien' and continued in 'Children of Men', that examines the theme of death, and hope amidst terrible odds. These are all films in which at the end, you the viewer, come out of the cinema wanting to live for every last second.

Cuaron is sparse in the story telling, and yet issues of faith and prayer come to the surface, with references to Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism carefully woven into the story. But from womb to tomb - this is a story about life and whether we decide to live or die, or let the past close us down.

The themes of sacrifice and indeed resurrection will please the Christian audience - but I think this is a film which has set its aim even higher than one particular belief system. Whether you have a faith or not, you will leave the cinema being thankful for every gulp of air that you take - and that is film making at its very, very best.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Re-nationalise Britain's energy supply now!

Fuel poverty no longer affects the few. 25% of the population are digging into savings to pay bills. 1 in 6 are having to take out loans to pay the big 6 energy companies. The current situation is clearly unsustainable an immoral.

Gas and electricity should never have been handed over to the private sector. They are national assets and an essential part of our daily survival. There is no real domestic 'market' for energy - we all need heating, light and ways to cook our food. The big 6 companies can get away with murder, and make a fortune at the same time.

Murder is an accurate description. With combined gas and electricity bills soaring by up to 12% - hard pushed families, and especially the elderly, will simply turn the fires off even during the harshest of Winters. Thousands may die this year as a result of the cold, and the companies responsible will get away scot-free, as will the government that is failing to hold them to account. The Tory solution? 'Switch accounts' - 'more competition.' All policies that simply end up giving more money into the hands of the private sector vultures running our energy supplies.

Despite giving away record dividends to their shareholders, and bumping up executive salaries, the company's chief executives all came out last week and blamed government policies for the massive recent increases, arguing that it is the 'green levees' that are at fault. The Tories response was to agree, and ditch much needed ways of forcing the suppliers to go green. At the same time, the government are offering guaranteed energy prices to the Nuclear power suppliers at twice the current rate - ensuring bills will soar while the tax payers will be doubly hit.

Labour are trying to capitalise on the issue, but are weakly offering an energy price freeze during the first two years in office, a policy obviously leading to increases in bills prior o the elections and big price hikes after the two year period.

There is one obvious solution. We need to renationalise energy production, distribution and supply (in a similar way to the French and Chinese governments, whose state owned companies we will be paying to build our new nuclear power stations!)

Common ownership of essential resources (Power, Water, Transport) is obvious in many other parts of the world. In the UK, the elites control of the political parties, the media and the gradual acquisition of education, means that such obvious solutions like nationalisation are almost entirely taken out of the equation.

Renationalisation of energy is credible, possible and crucial for the well being of the British population. We have to start building the case now, and force the national parties to begin to take the idea seriously. We simply cannot afford to let them get away with it.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The Co-op - the end of an ethical era

It's been a terrible month for those of us who have been part of the Co-operative Bank since it's move to ethical banking policies in 1992. Way back then, I had been part of the LAMB campaign, (Lloyd's and Midlands Boycott) trying to get people out of the banks most involved with indebted 'third world' nations.

The trouble was, all of the banks had dodgy connections - so it was hard to argue for people to 'ethically' boycott a bank, and open a new account with one that had connections with the arms trade or something equally dubious.

At a senior level, efforts were being made to convince the Co-op bank to go further than simply being the bank that trade unions used, to one that adopted a serious ethical stance to investments.

When they launched the Ethical banking policy, we were ready. We passed a motion through the Bradford university student's union, and became the first student union in the country to completely boycott our previous bank (Lloyd's) and embrace the Co-op. I was then invited to work with the Co-op, going around the country with a staff member of the bank, explaining to other unions why they should follow suit. Over the next 2 years, over 40 student unions followed suit - and the Co-op's ethical stance had proven to be a huge success story for the bank.

In Bradford, it had the confidence to open a new branch, in a beautiful building by Alfred Waterhouse (he designed the Natural History Museum) as hundreds of students closed their bank accounts with the big four, and switched to ethical banking. This was replicated throughout the country and the bank went from strength to strength. It was owned by its members, so all profit went back into  movement.

For nearly 2 decades, being a part of the co-operative bank was something to be proud of, a truly ethical alternative to banking greed.

Then it all went horribly wrong. The view from insiders is that as the banking arm grew, managers were brought in who did not hold the values of those who had worked in the Co-op for years. Greed and more commercial interests were beginning to take hold. Then, the Co-op bank took over 'Britania' building society, trying to expand its market into mortgages. Somebody had not done the research, and the Co-op took on the Britania's vast mount of toxic debt. It was only the ill-fated decision to try and buy the Lloyd's bank branches that exposed the whole sorry mess and led to the self destruction of the Co-op. A £1.5 Billion gaping hole made them susceptible to a 'rescue' takeover.

Now two US 'Hedge funds' rule the roost, one, 'Aurelius Capital Management' are connected to 'vulture funds' trying to force debt repayments from Argentina and the second, 'Silver Point Capital' are connected to the gambling and the automobile industry (and, more sinisterly, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!) Not quite the ethical corporates you would want owning 70% of the Co-op bank.

I think that there is no saving the Co-op, it will never return to being a mutual bank, owned by its members. It will be run in the interests of its investors. We can (and should) fight to keep it's 'ethical banking' values but in truth perhaps it is time to start looking elsewhere for an ethical place to invest our savings. A little in a local credit union goes a long way, and I recommend putting some in 'Shared Interest', which loans to fair trade companies in the global South.  We are looking at other mutuals, like the Nationwide, and perhaps even 'Triodos bank' might be worth investigating. But I can't help but be furious at the people who have gambled away the easiest and most ethical way to Bank in the history of British banking. It is a sad week indeed, and the loss will be felt for years to come.