An open letter to Natural England on the badger cull

This letter was sent to btb@naturalengland.org.uk concerning their eight-week extension to the badger culling “trials” in Gloucestershire. I’d encourage as many like-minded people as possible to send emails of their own.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Though I understand that this letter will in all likelihood be ignored, I had to write to express my concern and profound disgust that Natural England has agreed to an eight-week extension of the badger cull in Gloucestershire. As a biological science graduate with an interest in conservation issues, I hold Natural England’s attitude toward this issue and the science surrounding it in deep disdain.No one denies that bovine TB is a harmful disease with devastating effects on the UK’s agricultural sector. However, it is also undeniable that the balance of evidence is strongly against culling badgers as an effective method of TB control, and that this evidence is becoming ever more damning with the continued failure of the cull programme to achieve its stated aims.

The badger cull was originally justified as a six-week trial to determine the effectiveness of such a policy in reducing the badger population and controlling the spread of TB. Now that the six weeks have elapsed, and nothing close to the cull target of 70% of the population has been reached, surely it is time to deem the experiment a failure and consider other methods of TB control, such as vaccination of badgers or imposing tougher biosecurity controls on dairy farmers.

To extend the cull by eight weeks totally contradicts the idea that this was a trial period, and strongly suggests that the intention all along was to allow the slaughter of badgers to proceed regardless of the results. Moreover, it defies the advice of numerous experts in the field, who have repeatedly warned that the botched cull – and its extension – may result in the spread of bovine TB getting worse, not better.

Natural England has also failed to take into account the extremely worrying allegations that illegal methods of culling, such as gassing badger setts, have been practiced by those carrying out the cull. It seems that Natural England is totally blasé about these allegations, which are not only a gross violation of the law, but also an act tantamount to environmental vandalism. The correct course of action would have been to immediately suspend the cull until a proper police investigation was conducted, with prosecutions if necessary.

According to the organisation’s web site, Natural England is there to provide “practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone.”

In taking this decision, Natural England has ignored the overwhelming consensus of scientific evidence on this subject, and agreed to sacrifice part of “England’s natural wealth” – of which our wildlife is surely a part – for the benefit not of “everyone,” but of a small number of farmers and landowners who cannot be bothered to look after their livestock properly.

I urge Natural England to reconsider the decision, and to advise the government – with reasoning grounded in science, and a desire to safeguard England’s natural wealth, of course – that the emphasis on bovine TB control needs to move towards a vaccination programme and improved biosecurity on farms as quickly as possible.

Yours faithfully,
Andy Shaw

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Labour has its welfare policy backwards

The policy announcements of Labour’s new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, have attracted quite a bit of comment today for a number of reasons.

There are those, such as Owen Jones, who believe that Labour is effectively endorsing the “scrounger rhetoric” of the Tories, playing into their hands by allowing the Tories to set working-class people against one another. And there are others who have argued that, once you look beyond the headlines and examine the party’s policies in detail, that they are actually progressive, fair and far more workable than the disastrous Tory schemes that have already pitched thousands into poverty, and threaten to do the same to many more.

Both points have merit. The divide-and-rule tactics of the Tories have been clear for some time; Labour does itself no favours by endorsing them. And below the headlines, there are some positive grains to be found within the policies announced (or, more properly, reiterated, since there is little new here) today.

While it is true that the abolition of the hateful bedroom tax and an end to exploitative workfare schemes are welcome developments, I cannot endorse Labour’s policy of a “jobs guarantee” after two years of unemployment, with punitive sanctions for those who do not comply.

The reason is straightforward. Throughout their time in office, the Tories have demonstrated a lack of joined-up thinking, seemingly failing to realise that their assault on working people’s living standards will inevitably impact the amount of money they spend on goods and services, harming the economy – which is one of the key reasons why the UK’s recovery has been so sluggish.

Labour’s welfare policy demonstrates the same lack of coherent thought. It is not enough to say that we will guarantee a job for everyone who has been out of work for two years. We should not need to say this.

What we should be doing, instead, is to focus all of our energies on creating full employment as our central economic aim. There would be no need to “create jobs” for the long-term unemployed, because these jobs would have already created themselves, in an environment where job creation is the top priority.

Reducing unemployment to almost nothing is a noble aim for many reasons; it would improve purchasing power and lower the welfare bill, to name just two. It is wrong for welfare policies to punish those who are unemployed simply because of a lack of jobs in the economy; full employment would remove this contradiction, and the “carrot and stick” approach to welfare endorsed by all major parties would carry some moral weight.

The jobs guarantee smacks of the sort of wishy-washy tinkering around the edges that promises “real change” without ever actually delivering it. Rather than endorsing the Tories’ economic approach – that unemployment is just something we have to live with, even “a price worth paying,” as it was once infamously said – we should be challenging it, with radical ideas of our own.

Then, and only then, can we start the discussion on how best to deal with the “workshy.”

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What Will Labour Do For Me? A four-point plan

It’s conference season again. The Labour Party goes to Manchester in a buoyant mood, with the major polling companies registering double-digit leads, the government lurching from one disaster to another, and the sniping from the party’s hard right unusually quiet, for the moment.

Doubts still linger over whether Ed Miliband is the right person to lead Labour into the next election. Increasingly, however, those doubts centre around his effectiveness and assertiveness as an opponent of the government, rather than whether he passes various tests of ideological purity – mostly posed by the party’s right.

One key concern is that Ed speaks in the language of the policy wonk, the focus group, rather than the voter. Terms like “responsible capitalism” and “predistribution” are all very well, and signal a welcome change in Labour’s ideological direction, but they don’t speak to ordinary voters.

What Labour needs to do now is to solidify its opinion poll lead, by telling voters what, exactly, a Labour government will do for them. How do these noble theoretical ideas translate into the reality of government? How, moreover, do we win back voters on low incomes, feeling the squeeze of a financial crisis they didn’t cause and are now paying for?

There are some simple, achievable aims Labour can set out, to directly improve the lot of these people, with some modest policy proposals. Here are four of the most important – answering that most significant of questions; What will Labour do for us?

1. A Labour government will increase your salary.
We will do this by ensuring the national minimum wage is maintained at the level of a Living Wage.

2. A Labour government will reduce your tax bill.
We will do this by replacing council tax with a local land value tax, ending the unfair and outdated system of banding.

3. A Labour government will reduce your rent.
We will do this by introducing rent controls for all landlords, with increases in rents restricted to the rate of inflation.

4. A Labour government will reduce your bills.
We will do this by bringing energy providers back into public ownership, ending profiteering in the energy sector.

These four policies are straightforward enough, and speak to voters by directly stating how they will improve their lives.

Not all voters will be impacted by the introduction of a Living Wage, and homeowners won’t be affected by rent controls. But those on low incomes and private renters are voters we need to target; furthermore, a more progressive form of local government financing and reduced energy prices are policies that can have a broader appeal.

And even if the precise policies are ones that Labour can’t or won’t deliver, the premise is clear: we need to start speaking to voters, directly, about what a future Labour government can do for them.

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Labour and the Lib Dems can work together on wealth taxation

Nick Clegg has been in the news this week, rallying the troops ahead of the party conference season with his proposals for a wealth tax.

The Conservative response so far has been predictable, with George Osborne warning that taxing the rich too heavily would drive “wealth creators” overseas, and Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin dismissing the proposal as the “politics of envy.”

But what of Labour’s response? So far, the Labour line has been to focus on Clegg’s hypocrisy – he, after all, backed a budget which is gifting top rate taxpayers an income tax cut – without commenting on the principles of a wealth tax.

No doubt Labour are worried about getting bogged down in “class war” rhetoric from the Tory side, even though – as I’ve already said in previous posts – the Tories are transparently engaging in a class war of their own. But the party should be bold enough to support the idea of a wealth tax, and mature enough to recognise areas where it can work with one of the coalition parties.

My Labour (and Labour Left) comrade Darrell Goodliffe puts a convincing case that Labour should not work too closely with the Liberal Democrats, certainly not until the results of the next general election are known; I see his point, but as Darrell concedes, in specific cases where the parties can come together, and it is politically possible to do so, we should not dismiss the possibility altogether.

In the case of a wealth tax, it would be a simple matter for a Labour MP to submit an amendment of this kind to the next budget’s Finance Bill – an amendment that, with the support of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, should have enough votes to clear the Commons (it should be possible to persuade the nationalist parties to at least abstain). Thus a wealth tax could be introduced without Tory support, which is not likely to be forthcoming.

One issue with this is the precise form a wealth tax would take, which would require a period of negotiation between the two parties. The Lib Dem proposal for a “mansion tax” (quietly canned just before the last budget) might be a reasonable starting point. How Tory MPs would react to their coalition partners openly negotiating with the Opposition might pose another stumbling block, but perhaps some of them could be brought to the negotiating table too, to engineer a solution acceptable to all parties, and which does not require too much parliamentary skullduggery to pass.

The other major problem is the usual one, when it comes to the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular – are they sincere? Or is this another phony Lib Dem “initiative,” like Lords reform and the pupil premium, which sounds good at conference time, but will end up going nowhere?

One thing is for certain, though – Labour won’t find out if they continue to sit on the sidelines, carping unnoticed while the coalition parties pretend to be Government and Opposition at the same time.

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The welfare state is too important for Labour to stand by

Of the numerous initiatives spearheaded by the coalition government since they took office, few have been as controversial as the Welfare Reform Bill, currently making its way through Parliament with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith at the helm.

We all know the story. Duncan Smith, during his ill-fated tenure as Conservative Party leader, visited the notorious Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. Seeing the scars of unemployment, addiction and crime littered across the area, Duncan Smith decided he didn’t like poor people very much and vowed to spend the rest of his political career making their lives even more miserable.

That’s not exactly how Duncan Smith tells it, of course. In his version, his crusade is a moral one, determined to rid society of the scourge of “welfare dependency” and other buzzwords designed to entrench the prejudice that poverty and deprivation are entirely the fault of the poor and deprived. But, when the unemployed are forced to stack shelves in Poundland for free, and cancer patients told that they will be means-tested for their benefits – despite opposition from the House of Lords, the government has vowed to maintain this policy – it is difficult to ascribe the realignment of the British welfare state to such noble-sounding motives.

The welfare state is one of the minefields of British politics, largely because of the prejudice whipped up by the tabloid media about “benefit scroungers,” aided and abetted by the government. It has been suggested that this is increasingly being coupled to the Victorian rhetoric of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor – but when even the disabled are being treated as though they are responsible for their inability to work, one wonders whether anyone qualifies as “deserving” in the eyes of this government any more.

Shamefully, Labour has so far failed to stand up effectively to the assault on the welfare state. Part of this seems to be due to Liam Byrne, the party’s work and pensions spokesman, not liking the poor very much either. Writing for the Guardian on the anniversary of the Beveridge Report, which paved the way for the modern welfare system, Byrne argued for a “something for something” welfare culture in which those who displayed “for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society,” were rewarded, whereas the “idle” were ostracised and dismissed.

The major flaw in Byrne’s argument, apart from being a standard Blairite diatribe of promising “radical reform” which tends to be neither particularly reforming nor particularly radical, is that he misunderstands the nature of the welfare state. The welfare state is not, and has never been, about getting out what you put in – you get out what you need. We do not pay allowances to support the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled because they have somehow “earned” it. We do so because it is right.

Labour is terrified of arguing from this corner, of course, because it’s much easier to appear “tough” on benefit claimants than it is to actually be tough on the people and media outlets who peddle the hateful misinformation that causes the welfare state to bear such a stigma in the first place. Even when such misinformation has saddening real-world consequences – such as the shocking recent rise in disability hate crime – it is too difficult, it seems, for Labour to stand up and fight prejudice.

Without the heroic efforts of campaigners like The Broken of Britain, the attack on Britain’s welfare state would be practically unopposed. It was Internet activists and bloggers, not any political party, who came together to produce the Spartacus Report, which revealed the extent of opposition to reform of the Disability Living Allowance. While they can be justifiably proud of their achievements, it should be a matter of sincere regret for every Labour member that our party was not fighting alongside them.

And while those behind the Spartacus Report can point to great successes, such as the government’s defeat in the House of Lords over three critical aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill in recent weeks, they cannot oppose every aspect of this brutal and regressive legislation. That should be Labour’s job, and these campaigners should be able to rely on the Official Opposition in Parliament to listen, to support and to act. I implore the party leadership, and Liam Byrne in particular, to forget chasing swing voters for once – just do what’s right.

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Devo-max: So popular, nobody wants it

You might be forgiven for thinking that the recent wranglings over the Scottish independence referendum have played overwhelmingly into the hands of Alex Salmond and the SNP. After all, the UK Government’s plainly transparent concern trolling over the legality and decisiveness of any referendum held unilaterally by Holyrood has allowed the Nationalists to bang the usual drums of “Westminster domination,” with Salmond even suggesting that David Cameron’s intervention may persuade more Scots to back independence.

But we’ve also seen the mask slip a couple of times, and the deeply unpleasant, bullying core of nationalism force its way briefly to the fore. South of Scotland MSP Joan McAlpine this week branded opponents of independence “anti-Scottish,” provoking (predictably) widespread indignation. While Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and other leading SNP figures represent an outwardly tolerant, “friendly” nationalism – “civic nationalism,” as the SNP brand themselves – you don’t have to dig very far before you reach the kind of backward, bigoted attitudes held by their followers, and exemplified by McAlpine’s outburst.

Anyone who reads “below the line” on the Scotsman website, or any of the increasing number of news sites where readers can comment, has seen this sort of thing before. While the SNP leadership have always sought to distance themselves from the “cybernat” phenomenon, it’s increasingly clear that their attitudes are shared relatively high up the party hierarchy.

The SNP’s successes in recent elections have been ascribed to their effective presentation as a party that stands up for Scotland and Scots, eschewing the divisiveness of former years. Nationalism thrives on divisions, but the SNP have always been careful to place the dividing line between “us” – Scotland – and “them” – Westminster. If the ill-considered remarks of the likes of Joan McAlpine redraw that line between “us” – Scots who back independence – and “them” – Scots who don’t – then it could be much more difficult for the Nationalists to gain the kind of electoral traction that saw them win a landslide victory in May’s Holyrood elections.

The other major obstacle in the road for the Nationalist juggernaut is the persistent polling evidence that Scottish voters, given the choice in a referendum, would vote to remain in the UK. Playing up the divisions between Holyrood and Westminster is but one way the SNP will attempt to win round enough Scots to secure a vote for separation, but it may not be sufficient.

The same polling evidence also suggests that what most Scots want is for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This is what Nationalists mean when they state that the “status quo” is untenable – most Scots are unhappy with the present arrangement, or at least would prefer something else. Never mind that the “status quo” is currently in a state of upheaval with the Scotland Bill currently making its way through Westminster, which proposes to devolve more powers to Holyrood, albeit not enough to placate the SNP administration.

Perhaps the holy grail in the quest for the perfect amount of Scottish autonomy is the much-referenced, never-quite-defined option known as “devo-max,” which may yet be included as a “third option” in the independence referendum. Loosely, devo-max seems to mean that all policy areas and powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. But quite how such a transition would work, or what arrangements would be hammered out between Scotland and the rest of the UK in this case, remain unexplained.

The reason the details of devo-max are not really explained are quite deliberate. The SNP suggests it is for the parties that oppose independence to elaborate fully on what devo-max would mean, arguing that it is not for the SNP to define its opponents’ political positions. The opposition, on the other hand, point out that it is the SNP’s referendum, and that the inclusion or exclusion of any options on the ballot paper should be a matter for the SNP government.

As an option that falls short of full independence but grants substantially more powers to Holyrood, it is easy to see why the non-nationalist parties are reticent about the idea of fully defining devo-max. It would still be perfectly possible for Alex Salmond to run Scotland as his own personal fiefdom under a devo-max arrangement, with the other parties being marginalised still further. While nationalists argue that it is not for them to define the positions of other parties, opponents argue that it is not for them, either, to define potential “consolation prizes” for Salmond and the SNP.

The overriding concern about the referendum debate is that it is being framed within the context of party politics, and all the mud-slinging and point-scoring that goes with it. Nobody – not even the SNP, despite their protestations to the contrary – is interested in conducting this debate in the interests, and for the benefit, of the Scottish people. If devo-max is a viable third option it is for all parties to come together and agree what it means and what it would entail, and present it as an honest possibility for inclusion in the referendum.

If the SNP’s preferred referendum date of autumn 2014 is accepted, there are two-and-a-half years before the Scottish people vote on their future. Plenty of time, then, for all sides to set aside their differences and agree a coherent set of options. A shame they seem pathologically incapable of doing so.

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Time for Labour to get serious about class

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week raised a few eyebrows, signalling as it did a new-ish direction of travel for the party. While Miliband spent the rest of the week trying to persuade everyone that his speech did not represent a shift to the left, it was obvious to most that it represented an attempt to move away from the New Labour orthodoxy that has dominated the party for the last decade and a half.

The Guardian described Miliband’s conversion as one to “ethical socialism,” something which – for obvious reasons – I’m quite happy with, but there remains a lot to be done before we can claim, in the words of Neil Kinnock, that we’ve “got our party back.”

Welfare reform remains one major issue, with Labour’s perceived failure to defend those suffering from benefit cuts still looming large. Miliband was confronted over this by disability activists at his “Q&A” session; his answers were unconvincing, though happily he agreed to discuss their concerns with them in more detail.

On the other few issues where concrete (though non-binding) policy suggestions have been made, such as on tuition fees and press reform, the proposals seem half-hearted, almost deliberately trying to please everybody and therefore pleasing no one. Labour’s strategy is obviously to try and regain economic credibility, and while this has to be an important strand of our approach going forward, it cannot be the only strand.

There are a number of conflicting views over the direction the Labour Party should take in the future. The debate so far has been dominated by one voice – that of Progress, whose Purple Book has recently been published, containing a largely Blairite vision for the future of the party. The Blairite thesis is that elections are won by attracting swing voters, and to do that Labour needs to adopt “radical” centrist policies that will appeal to suburban middle England above all else.

It is ironic that, having been so keen to dispense with the history and traditions of the labour movement when they rose to the top of the Labour Party, Blairites have failed to acknowledge that they themselves are now part of that history. The four million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2005 – compared to just a million lost between 2005 and 2010 – are strong evidence that what worked for the party in 1997 is unlikely to do so again.

Other strands of thought in Labour are the so-called “blue” and “red” camps, both of whom recognise that in chasing “swing” voters, what Labour did – what it was bound to do – was alienate its core voters. Blue Labour, which started out as a formal project but was abruptly killed off after its founding father Maurice Glasman made some ill-advised remarks on immigration, propose economically left-wing and socially conservative policies to win over the white working classes, traditionally Labour voters who have recently turned to far-right parties or – more commonly – stopped voting at all.

As Owen Jones points out in his book Chavs, the problem with targeting policies towards the “white working classes” is that, by defining voters according to their race rather than their class, we miss the point of what we are trying to achieve. Only a class-based approach can correctly define the problems our core vote face, and assign appropriate solutions.

As an opposition party and as a socialist party, Labour should be standing up for those worst affected by the actions of the Tory-led government, which are overwhelmingly the working class. This is the approach Red Labour should be taking – to speak in the language of class, to highlight the destruction being wreaked on that level of society by a government that neither understands nor cares about its impact on them.

Since the New Labour era, Labour has been afraid to speak in such terms. For one thing, as Jones spells out throughout his book, working class pride has been persistently eroded over the decades, so that the “right” thing for working class people is to be “aspirational,” which means to want to lift themselves out of the working class. Labour must work – and work hard – to restore this pride, and to provide a meaningful sense of what it means to be working class.

For another, Labour are terrified of being accused by the Tories and the right-wing media of “waging class warfare” if they dare to speak or act in such terms. But for those accusations, I say this: We have a government led by a Cabinet of millionaires, who are cutting the public services disproportionately relied on by those of lower incomes. They preside over an economy where the costs of living rocket and wages stagnate, and yet they want to make it more difficult for workers to stand up for their rights. They blame the unemployed for being out of work, and treat the sick and disabled as if they are responsible for their own illness. They punish ordinary people with VAT hikes, while simultaneously treating their rich friends to corporation tax giveaways.

And they want to talk about class warfare? I say, bring it on.

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