Monday, 20 January 2014

Let's Establish a People's Parliament.

This is an article of mine that was published today in the Guardian's Comment is Free section.

The 2015 election debate is in the gutter. Time for the People's Parliament

The media and main political parties are serving us up rubbish, so we are opening up parliament's rooms for truly public debate

There are meeting rooms in parliament. Let's use them and bring some real politics to the place.'
Are we really going to allow the debate in the runup to the general election be dominated by the bigotry of Ukip against migrants, the vile hounding of anyone on benefits by the Tories, and the timidity of many in the Labour leadership about saying anything of purpose and principle?

Benefits Street is just the latest example of the poison pouring daily out of our televisions, radio phone-ins and papers like the Sun and Mail – poison that is dictating the electoral agenda of the political strategists of the main parties, and manipulating the fears and insecurity of people in order to smokescreen the corporate kleptocracy that we inhabit.

It degrades and demeans us all if we allow this politics to dominate and go unchallenged. Anyone with any claim to decency has a responsibility now to stand up against this debased politics.

One way of taking a stand is to positively determine to engage in real politics and cut through the crap served up to us by this coalition of the craven.

With months to go before the next election we should be entering a period of intense debate about the state of the country and the politics we want. This hasn't taken off yet, and usually the last place to look for this is in parliament itself, with its sterile knockabout politics.

So how do we liven up the political debate in the runup to the election, while also giving it some depth?

When I was part of the left that took control of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, I was worried at how lacking in radicalism the incoming Labour group on the GLC actually was. So, in order to generate the ideas needed to stimulate and sustain a radical administration, we decided to throw open the doors of County Hall to anyone who wanted to convene a meeting to generate support for a policy or a campaign.

We turned it into a People's County Hall where meeting rooms became the forums for groups across the capital to debate and promote an idea for the future of London. The concept really took off, and virtually every day groups were meeting to develop their ideas into policies. You could open a committee room door at County Hall and bump into a group of people arguing about anything from bus fares policy to community arts and policing. There were heated arguments, hilarious moments when high-flown theoretical analysis imploded, and also examples of magnificent creativity.

This was politics at its rumbustious, exhausting, enjoyable – and at times infuriating – best. Isn't that the sort of feverish political debate we need to influence the period in which party manifestos are being formulated?

Just like at the GLC's County Hall, there are meeting rooms in parliament. Let's use them and bring some real politics to the place. Let's make the place a People's Parliament.

Since I first suggested this, lots of people have responded with proposals on what to discuss and who to talk to. So over the next couple of months we're making a start by hosting a number of gatherings in parliament on a wide range of issues that people have suggested.

People are posing hard case questions. After Russell Brand's proclamation of the no-vote strategy, people want to know what sort of democracy we need then. In the week we are about to see the return of bankers' obscene bonuses, and people are asking how they have got away with it and how we can wrest control of our economy from these tax-evading looters. As the prime minister gives his full backing to fracking while homes are still being dried out from the floods, people are asking what will it take to wake people up again to climate change fears.

The aim is to break through the defeatism that is overpowering even those political parties, movements and individuals that have traditionally stood up for change.

The discussions are open to anyone. Check out the information on the website, or on Twitter: @pplparliament. Come and have a say.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Poor Law Mentality Raises Its Ugly Head

There has been a lot of comment in the media about the programme "Benefits Street." This show was just another in a long line of interventions by the media at the behest of politicians aimed at hounding people on beneifits. Last year when the Mail and Express launched yet another attack on poor people and there was a threat to remove certain benefits from people, I wrote the following article for the Citizen, which is a journal produced by the Scottish Campaign for Socialisim. It is just as releveant nearly a year on in response to the latest assault on the poor embodied in "Benefits Street."  

The Poor Law Mentality Raises Its Ugly Head

John McDonnell MP
When recessions begin to bite and unemployment and poverty mount, there has to be someone or something to blame. Initially it’s anyone or anything other than the real culprits or the real causes.
For three centuries the philosophy of the Poor Law has been drilled into the working class psyche. This dictates that unemployment and poverty are personal failings. It’s not the economic system that’s at fault or the distribution of wealth or power in society. There must be something lacking in the individual if he or she can’t support themselves and their family.
Poor Law morality determines that if people are poor because they are physically or mentally incapable of supporting themselves; they are to be pitied and become the grateful recipients of charity. On the other hand, if they are physically able and not working, they must be consciously avoiding work and therefore have to be chided, sanctioned and forced into employment.
Cast doubt on the assertion that poverty is a personal failing, then the whole question arises that if it’s not the individual to blame it may be the system.
This is exactly the collective thought process that British society went through during the last great capitalist economic crisis which caused the decade-long depression of the 1930s and produced the Second World War.
Two iconic scenes from Ken Loach’s recent film, “The Spirit of 45,” capture the discussions amongst the air raid wardens resting on their bunks between raids and troops returning from war, as they decide that it’s not the individual but the system that needs changing if the scourges of the pre-war unemployment and poverty are to be beaten.
This generation struggled to throw off the Poor Law ideological burden of personal guilt for poverty. After the experience of mass unemployment in the 30s, people understood better that the precarious existence they lived was caused by a system that held them in insecurity and limited their own and their children’s chances in life.
The catch phrase of the time of “Never Again” reflected the determination of working class people to secure change and never to return to the poverty and deprivation of the 1930s. The expression “We are all in this together,” stolen by the present day Tories, reflected not only the social solidarity of the times but also, more importantly, an understanding of the need to move forward to a new future collectively.
The Welfare State was created to reflect this collective approach. The Attlee Government ensured that nobody was to be excluded from universal access to the benefits of the Welfare State. In this way society would be bound together in a joint venture to improve the
quality of life for everyone.
This universal inclusivity secured much greater support and afforded much greater protection for this new social settlement for the future than if any class or group was excluded or singled out.
The Fabian Society’s report “The Solidarity Society” was published in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of the Minority Report that was written by Beatrice Webb to the 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Law. The Fabian report explains just why this concept of universalism was so central a foundation stone of the new welfare state. It cites three factors.
The first is that universal institutions are an expression of the core ideal of social equality and express our common membership of society and equality of status. Universal institutions do not differentiate between people whilst targeting and means testing make it all too easy for the disadvantaged to be stigmatised and treated as the undeserving.
The second is that empirically and possibly counter-intuitively, universal benefits are generally more effective at getting the help to where it is needed and overcoming problems of low take up. Apart from the administrative simplicity of distributing universal benefits, targeting divides the population into recipients and non recipients and helps create a perception that it is not respectable to claim benefits. The result, for example, is that that one third of pensioners do not claim the pension credit they are entitled to and one half do not claim their council tax benefit.
The third factor is that universalism shapes the support for the welfare policies. Targeting leads to segregation and a sense of “them and us.” The more a benefit is targeted, the more it becomes associated with a stigmatised group and the more its popular legitimacy is undermined. Whilst the wider coverage of a universal benefit can tap into middle class self interest as a source of support for the welfare state and align the interests of middle income groups with those on lower incomes.
The mass support for a universal welfare state was so deep that it outlasted the Attlee government and meant that no Conservative Government for three decades felt able to challenge it.
It also meant that Thatcher, and every neo-liberal since, came to understand that a frontal assault on the welfare state would not succeed because it would be met with opposition from a wide coalition of supporters from across society and most classes. Instead an incremental chipping away at the universal nature of the welfare state might enable a reactionary government to divide and rule.
This has been the exact policy of the neo-liberals in government over the last three decades pursued either consciously by Conservatives governments or, if we are being charitable, unwittingly by New Labour’s Blair and Brown. It’s worth recalling that means testing was extended by the Blair and Brown administrations with a vengeance and the concept of deserving and undeserving poor began to creep back into public policy under them.
An economic crisis makes it that much easier for right wing governments to dismantle the universality of the welfare state with the beguiling argument that the fewer resources available need to be spent on the poorest. This line of thought then leads almost seamlessly to a conclusion that these scarce resources must also be targeted at the most deserving.
With often the best of intentions, Labour politicians become drawn into the debate about the rationing of resources and invidiously into distinguishing between those in need and those that deserve assistance.
It is then that we discover the Poor Law morality of blaming poverty on the individual and not the system is quite shockingly not far beneath the surface. The irony is that there is no reason for Labour to even be drawn into this debate. There is no shortage of resources in
Britain, the seventh richest country in the world. Consequently there is no reason why anyone should live in poverty in our country and there is no insurmountable barrier or lack of a mechanism for mobilising these resources to provide for a fully funded welfare state, providing and distributing its services and benefits on a universal basis.
The introduction of a few simple mechanisms for redistributing wealth and raising the resources to invest to create jobs in our economy would largely obviate the need for much of this unnecessary debate between universalism and targeting. It only appears relevant when there is an apparent shortage of resources. All socialists should keep repeating “there is no shortage of resources.”
If this sounds unrealistic, then simply note that when the banks needed the equivalent of a large welfare benefit payment, the Bank of England and the Government found £1.3 trillion virtually instantly .
There is a standard checklist of how to raise these resources that includes amongst many others tackling tax evasion and avoidance, and introducing a wealth tax, a financial transaction tax on speculation and a land valuation tax.
As our people experience the ravages of the bedroom tax, the new council tax poll tax, the Atos led assault on benefits and the increasing use of benefit sanctions, it is the ideal time for Labour to commit itself not just to reverse these iniquitous attacks but also to a return to a welfare state in which we are all genuinely in this together.
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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Please Help this Appeal

Two local families have approached me to support the fundraising campaign they have launched to raise funds to pay for the care of Matilda Duncan, a little girl with cerebral palsy. Please help if you can.

The following appeal appeared in the national press. I am happy to support it and reprint it here. 

"Can you help get Matilda walking? Girl who can't use her legs launches £25,000 appeal for her best friend

  • Casey Burke, four, has helped launch a drive to raise money so her friend Matilda Duncan can have a pioneering operation
  • Both girls suffer from cerebral palsy and were born prematurely
  • Pioneering spinal operation will be carried out on the NHS - but Matilda's family must raise £25,000 to pay for pre and post operative care
  • Casey is asking for 25,000 people to each pledge £1 to pay for treatment
  • Visit to donate to the fund"

Thursday, 9 January 2014

1 in every 59 Hillingdon Households Under Repossession Threat

I have expressed my worries about the threat of repossession that is looming over the heads of so  many of my constituents as the housing charity Shelter has revealed that Hillingdon is on the national top 20 areas for court actions by mortgage companies and landlords seeking to repossess their properties.

Nationally 1 in every 105 households in England are at risk of eviction or repossession, according to new statistics released by Shelter.

The charity has identified hotspots up and down the country where people face the highest likelihood of losing their home, as part of its emergency fundraising appeal to help homeless children this Christmas. 

The research, based on recorded court proceedings, found that the London borough of Newham has the highest risk of repossession or eviction in the country. Here as many as 1 in every 35 homes are at risk.

The research highlights the extent of the capital’s housing crisis, with London boroughs –where affordable housing is in particularly short supply – dominating the top twenty.

The Shelter report identifies that on the latest figures there were 1694 court claims by mortgage companies and landlords in Hillingdon issued between October 2012 and 30th September 2013. This is one in every 59 households in the area.

These figures are truly shocking and demonstrate how the economic recession has hit local families really hard. It is devastating that so many local families are faced with the threat of losing the very roof over their heads. As the chief executive of the housing charity, Campbell Robb, said it is a frightening reminder that homelessness can happen to anyone. 

·         Table showing the 30 local authorities with the highest rate of possession claims:


Rank (national)
Local Authority
Number of mortgage and landlord possession claims
Rate of mortgage and landlord possession claims – 1 in x households
1 in 105
1 in 35
Barking and Dagenham
1 in 36
1 in 37
1 in 38
1 in 40
1 in 40
1 in 46
1 in 46
1 in 48
Waltham Forest
1 in 49
1 in 50
Tower Hamlets
1 in 51
1 in 52
1 in 54
1 in 58
1 in 59
Nottingham UA
East Midlands
1 in 60
Luton UA
East of England
1 in 60
1 in 61
North West
1 in 61
1 in 62
Peterborough UA
East of England
1 in 63
Newcastle upon Tyne
North East
1 in 63
West Midlands
1 in 63
Hammersmith and Fulham
1 in 63
North West
1 in 64
North West
1 in 65
Slough UA
South East
1 in 65
East of England
1 in 65
South Tyneside
North East
1 in 69


·         Figures are based on possession claims issued in county courts between 1 October 2012 and 30 September 2013 (Ministry of Justice), compared with the number of households in the area (Census 2011).


·         A possession claim is the first stage in a process which can end with the loss of a home.


·         Children in temporary accommodation figures for Britain compiled from: 

·         The England figure published by the DCLG

·         The Scotland figure published by the Scottish Government

·         The Wales figure, estimated by applying an average number of children in a homeless household (derived from information published by the Welsh Government) to the number of households with children in TA in Wales (also published by the Welsh Government).




Saturday, 4 January 2014

Weekly Show with Kaashif Awan on Hayes FM on Monday

I will be doing my weekly show with Kaashif Awan on Hayes FM this coming Monday (6th January) between 10am and 12 noon. You can listen to Hayes FM on 91.8 FM locally and on the internet.

Kash and I will be discussing the week ahead in Parliament. It's the first day back with a debate on new legislation to regulate the Water Supply industry and a possible ministerial statement on the Government's proposals to tackle abuses in cosmetic surgery. Possible further statements are expected on the deteriorating situation in Syria and its impact on Iraq. Coming up later in the week are also debates on housing and the control of gambling machines in bookies.

We will also be talking about some of the local stories in our area. Plans are already under way for the campaign locally and across London to deal with the renewed threat of the 3rd runway. Local concerns have also been expressed about the plans by Crossrail to demolish and replace Hayes Station and some residents have been up in arms about the litter build up on our streets over Christmas holidays. Skateboarders have also voiced their criticisms of the new skate park constructed by the council who it seems failed to follow the advice of the skateboarders themselves. More positively we want to promote the service to assist local residents recycle food waste introduced by council.

Hayes FM is in need of many more volunteers to assist this community radio station. If you are interested in any aspect of the work of the station from presenting, production, news research, music and drama performance or assisting with the administration and fund raising, please just contact me. Full training will be provided on all these roles to volunteers by Hayes FM.