Friday, 28 February 2014

Elections and Voting

When I turned 18 I was excited to cast my vote for the first time. But, over the years, my excitement has withered until I only vote because women chained themselves to railing, threw themselves under horses and were imprisoned in the fight to win me the vote and I feel that - given the lengths they went to - I really ought to be able to get off my backside and walk into my local polling station. However, I understand from many news reports that many adults share my apathy and most 18 year-olds fail to feel any excitement about being able to vote, with a majority not bothering to put their cross on a ballot paper. This all got me to thinking, why does voting now seem like such a chore.

For me, the answer is simple - no party is actually offering me the things I want. In fact, in many ways, I can see little difference between the main parties! So, what would I like a party to advocate?


Social Security

I want every adult to be given a sum of money each week. We can discuss how much, but it should be enough for somebody to live on, and the minimum income a person gets whether they are working, retired or on the dole. We can also discuss at what age a person becomes an adult. But I want everyone to be free to spend that money as they choose. If a person wants to live in a palace, eating gruel or live on caviare in a shack then that should, in my opinion, be their choice. I do not believe that, just because a person is out of work, they are incapable of making decisions for themselves to the point that they have to be told what money they can spend on their housing and what on day-to-day living expenses. If a person has a job then they are free to spend their wages as they choose - they can even spend it all on cigarettes, alcohol and in the bookies! While we might feel such choices are foolish (and I'm not arguing otherwise) we don't suggest stopping wage-earners doing these things. But, somehow, when a person is out of work, some people feel we should control how they spend their money. I disagree - social security is meant to be a safety net for working people who currently don't have a job, so lets treat people as responsible adults and let them decide how to spend their money, regardless of its source.

I also want the amount paid to be a flat sum of money - not more if a person is married, has children, or is disabled. That may sound harsh but I don't know of any workplace where people are paid differently because of their personal circumstances. In fact, along with campaigning for me to have the vote, many women (and men) have also worked hard to try and ensure I am paid the same as my male colleagues. (OK, I know we haven't entirely won that battle yet.) If we do agree that certain groups of people should be given more money then we also need to adjust income tax so they keep that extra money when they start work. I don't sign up to the idea that people deliberately have children so that they can get more dole money, or that people on the dole don't want to work, but I do accept that some people can get more money on the dole than they can ever hope to earn in unskilled jobs, which leaves them trapped in unemployment with all the health and social problems that can cause.


Income Tax

That neatly brings me on to income tax. I want the level at which people start paying income tax to be £100 a week more than the money they get on social security. That way, everybody who goes to work should be better off than those on the dole, despite having to pay for transport to work, for work clothes (whether that's smart office wear, or overalls) and, probably, extra for any meals they eat away from home.


At the other end of the pay scale, I believe there should be a limit to how much one person can earn in a single year - we can argue about how much is acceptable. Therefore, I want a 100% rate of income tax. I want there to be a point where we say - regardless of whether you are a banker, a leader of industry, a footballer, a pop star, a politician - that enough is enough and any earnings beyond that point are taken in tax.

I know somebody will say that this would mean good (sic) people would leave the country. Well, fine - let them go! There is research that shows high earners actually contribute less to society than those on modest or low wages. This is simply because, if all your money goes on day-to-day living, then you'll be spending it locally, on food, rent, local entertainment. But when people earn huge sums of money, they invest much of it, so it does nothing but earn more money and, when they do spend it, much of it will be spent outside the UK. The 'trickle down effect' is a myth, believed only by the very wealthy, and which can be seen to not work not only in the country as a whole but also in areas like football where the top level soaks up all the money, starving the grass-roots of funds in the process.


Working Hours

While we're on income, I want the minimum wage to be set so that everybody earns at least enough to pay the base rate income tax (as described above) when working a 40-hour week. Let's get away from this long-hours culture because it is damaging to the health of people who work the hours and limits the number of available jobs! If you have two people, both working sixty-hour weeks then, actually, I believe you should be employing three people all working only 40-hours a week. Henry Ford did carried out some research that showed long hours actually reduced productivity! So we'd all be better off with a shorter working week - more people would have work and they'd be more productive!

I also want people to have decent breaks between shifts. It's always annoyed me that, when the big shops went for Sunday opening, the 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign limited the shops' opening hours but did nothing about the shifts the employees can be asked to work. As far as I'm concerned, shops can open any hours they wish. If you want to keep Sunday special then you can simply not go shopping that day! But, lets make sure all employees (including shop workers, and people like nurses) have a decent break between shifts - I suggest 12 hours is reasonable. Also, shifts should not be more than 12 hours long, and should not be split. I used to know somebody who had to work split shifts, and they are a nightmare.

Zero-hour contracts should be illegal - if a person has a contract then it should include a set number of hours and an agreed salary. There are a number of industries that have always relied on casual labour, and they have worked by having a list of known contacts who can be called in at short notice. While this looks, superficially, like zero-hour contracts, the difference is that the employee is not limited to working for one employer and, if called when it's not convenient, can decline being called in. Zero-hour contracts impose limits on what 'employees' can do without giving them a salary so seem to me to be nothing more than exploitation.


Industry

That brings me on to another area where I want big changes - the general tone of our legal framework. Unfettered capitalism results in people and the environment being exploited for the benefit of business and the people who run it. Any company or business has only one purpose - to make money! While I am a loss to see any overall system that creates money like capitalism, if we are all to benefit, then it needs to be constrained by laws about the impact industry has on the environment and on employees and those who buy the goods or services the industry supplies. Things like the Fair Trade movement have shown that people are willing to pay a little more for goods that have been produced by people who are paid a fair price for the goods they sell, so lets make this the standard way of doing business.


NHS

I believe in the National Health Service. It is not that expensive - depending on the system you use, it is the  15th or 16th most expensive per person, but our life expectancy is better than the USA and Denmark who both spend more on health care than we do (and a lot more in the case of the USA). Yes, there are problems with the NHS, and it could be improved, but moving towards the American system of private health care is not the answer. So, while I support changes being made to the NHS, I want them to be made whilst ensuring health care is free at the point of delivery.

One of the areas I'd like to look at is the growing number of managers within the NHS - what do they all do, and what benefit do they deliver? I have heard some stories that suggest to me the NHS may be riddled with a culture where people are so frightened of being wrong that they don't make a decision, instead passing all decision making 'up the chain'. This kind of atmosphere seems to breed more and more layers of management because that makes it impossible to 'pin the blame' on any one person.

I also want to stop big business making a fortune by supplying goods and services to the NHS. Of course,  industry needs to make some money but, in some areas, the NHS is seen as a cash-cow to be exploited at every opportunity!


The Armed Forces

Another area that is seen by  some within industry as a cash-cow are the armed services. Again this is an area which I believe could benefit from reforms. But the biggest change I want to see is our armed forces only being used to defend the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories, or to act in keeping with our national obligations to the UN. It is time to stop sending our young men and women to die in countries where we have no business interfering, and it is definitely time to stop being the lap-dog of the USA. Wars cost a fortune both in the simple cost of building weapons, shipping them round the world and using them but also in the costs to individuals and their families when people are injured or killed. Plus, there are no winners in a war - only one side that loses less badly and, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm not sure we were on the side that lost less badly.


There is more I could say.... but this is already turning into an epic blog and the simple answer is nobody is actually standing for the things I want to vote for. All the main parties seem to be wedded to the idea of saving money, and the need for austerity, as if the budget of a country worked in the same way as a household budget. So I guess I'll have to go on helping the Greens to save their deposit!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Permenat Way

I'm a volunteer at the Colne Valley Railway, where I'm a member of the P/Way Team, helping to repair, maintain and even lay the track. I am so glad we don't have anything like the Dawlish Wall on our line!
Photos taken from Express & Echo.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

How do we stop it?

This evening I've been to see The Railway Man which - as Wikipedia will tell you - is the story of how one Japanese Prisoner of War - Eric Lomax - comes face to face with one of the guards who tortured him - Takashi Nagase. At the end, when the two men meet, Eric asks Takashi what he tells people about what he did. Takashi replies that they don't talk about it; Eric nods in agreement, "Neither do we." Because what we have here are two men who are both tormented by their memories of war both, as Eric's friend Finlay says of the two British officers, are unable to sleep or to love because of the torment their minds inflict on them.

There are no winners in war, but still it goes on.

In one scene in The Railway Man, Eric Lomax is shown being subjected to water boarding by Takashi Nagase. After the war, Japanese soldiers were tried and executed for water boarding, but the French used it in the Algerian war, the British used it during The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Americans used it on Al-Qaeda suspects in 2003 - despite being signatories to the United Nations Convention against Torture since 1988, a convention that specifically bans torture under any conditions.

The film does end with Eric Lomax forgiving Takashi Nagase. While another film I saw recently - Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom shows how Nelson Mandela came out of prison instructing his followers to act peacefully when it would have been just as easy to encourage them to rise up in an orgy of violence, especially as violence was erupting in many areas of the country. During his presidency, Nelson Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way to build peace between the various factions within South Africa who had spent so long perpetrating or being victims of gross human rights violations. But his beloved ANC is riven with factions and in-fighting while his family do battle with each other and the ANC over rights to his name and the country continues to add to its history of violence.

If even a man of Nelson Mandela statue cannot leave a legacy of peace in the country he loved, what hope is there for the rest of us, and what of those wars still waging across various parts of the world?

But it remains so pointless - as Neville Chamberlain said, at Kettering in 1938, "In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers." And still it goes on. Still young men (and now young women) are told - as Takashi Nagase was - that they will win, and they will have honour. Nobody mentions that they may die, as 160 million people did during the 20th century, or that they may return home with bodies permanently damaged or - like Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase - they may remain physically fit and healthy but so mentally scared it impacts the rest of their life.

It is madness, but how to stop it?

I was one of the million people who took to the streets of London in 2003, in an attempt to stop Tony Blair declaring war on Iraq. It made no difference. I support various charities who work either to campaign against war, or to try and pick up the pieces left behind by war. I sit up late at night, writing irate blogs about the futility of war.

But still it goes on.