Wednesday 24 October 2007

British Based Mining Companies Ripping Up the Developing World

I hosted a meeting tonight in the House of Commons on behalf of the London Mining Network on the eve of the Annual General Meeting in London of one of the largest mining companies in the world, BHPBilliton.

I doubt if many have even heard of the Network or Billiton but I hope that the work of the Network will become increasingly familiar because I was moved tonight by the information the Network patiently and quietly laid before all of us attending the meeting.

The Network is an alliance of organisations like the Colombia Solidarity Campaign and Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links, which are campaigning to draw attention to the impact the world's major mining companies are having on the environment and on the lives of people in the developing world.

The Network had brought to London the trade union representatives of workers at the British owned Cerrejon mine in Colombia. Since the summer 2006 the unionised workers at the mine have been supporting the local small farming communities whose land has been taken by the mining company and who are demanding a collective resettlement to land of equal agricultural worth. Billiton is one of the companies owning the mine and so the union reps will be presenting their arguments to the company's AGM tomorrow. They have other issues to raise including their low pay, long working hours and basic health and safety.

The Colombian miners were joined by representatives of indigenous communities in the Philippines whose land is under threat from a nickel mining project being promoted by Billiton in an area which has recently beeen proclaimed as a wildlife sanctuary as well as a protected forest. There has been massive opposition to this project with one local councillor being shot dead by a security guard. Friends of the Earth Philippines has been instrumental in exposing this large scale environmental and humanitarian threat and in mobilising opposition to the mining plan.

I wish the Colombians and Philippinos success at tomorrow's AGM. To reinforce their message I will be laying an Early Day Motion in Parliament in the new session after the Queen's speech on 6th November and I will be pressing the Government to ensure that legislation is brought forward so that British mining companies or any mining company trading from Britain know that they cannot act with impunity in their operations in the Developing World.

Monday 22 October 2007

Children's Homes - the Latest Target for Private Equity Firms

As a constituency MP and also someone who has worked in local government and for a time in social services I have taken an interest in care services. Most recently I have been raising concerns in my area about the care of the elderly. I have been particularly worried about what has happened to home care since it has been largely privatised and also residential care for the elderly which is now largely provided in private care homes.

However I don't know how but I missed it. Missed the fact that the role of looking after children taken into care by the state has largely been privatised over the last decade. In the Observer business section at the weekend I was shocked to read that 65% of children's homes are now in private hands. Earlier this month I discovered that fostering is now largely under the control of private fostering agencies.

With companies able to charge between £2000 and £4000 per child a week this sector of the welfare state has become an attractive opportunity for profitmaking by the private sector and in particular private equity companies which are always seeking new fields in which a lucrative profit can be made.

Recenty however one of the biggest players, Sedgemoor backed by the private equity company ECI, has gone into administration. This is only three years after its group gave a £20 million payout to its investors. Sedgemoor's childrens homes are now being sold off leading to uncertainties for the staff and for the future care arrangements of the children.

I don't know how we have allowed the care of the most vulnerable members of our society to be privatised and passed over to institutions whose main and overriding motivation is profitmaking.

The Chief Executive of the Adolescent and Children's Trust summed it all up for me when he said "Our concern with private equity firms moving into the sector is that their prime motivation is making a profit not the quality of service they provide. I think it is immoral to want to make money out of children living in care."

I couldn't agree more. I also think it is immoral for any Government to pursue policies which allow this to happen.

Friday 19 October 2007

If Brown needs a vision he needs to ignore Blair's warmongering and listen to the labour movement

Today was an eventful day in and around Parliament.

In Parliament, two private members' bills (the Temporary and Agency Workers Bill by Paul Farrelly MP and my Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill) were blocked by the Government. They are supported by every major trade union in the UK and by over 100 backbench Labour MPs. Still, the Government refuses to act. I am calling for the Government to bring forward legislation on both bills as part of the Queen's Speech.

Last night I spoke at a rally attended by over 500 people in the House of Commons to support the campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill where there was a real passion from the platform and the audience.

If the Government is looking for a vision, this would be a good start. If we are to reverse the inequality in our society, we need to empower people to fight for better pay, pensions and terms and conditions. I supported the open letter sent today to Gordon Brown calling for legislation to give agency workers equal treatment. The letter was signed by ten general secretaries and numerous Labour MPs.

Meanwhile outside Parliament, we witnessed the peace camp in Parliament Square again being harassed for peacefully protesting against the war and being the conscience of the building opposite. It's time the Mayor of London, Westminster Council, the Metropolitan Police and this Government started respecting the right to peacefully protest.

On the day when our ex-Prime Minister is fanning the flames of war with Iran (in a speech to a $1000 plate dinner in New York), I hope Gordon Brown has learned from the mistakes of his predecessor and it is still Government policy that an attack on Iran would be "inconceivable", as Jack Straw said earlier in the year.

Having unleashed bloodshed and mayhem in Iraq, a period of quiet reflection would be a more appropriate and welcome response from our ex-Leader.

Friday 12 October 2007

Government to Welcome Saudi King, Famed Dictator of Oppressive Regime.

Today I tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament protesting at the upcoming state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I tabled the motion because like many others I am angry that the Government will be paying the Saudi king a warm welcome while thousands of incarcerated Saudis face the most brutal forms of torture and the threat of public execution.

This is a dictatorship that allows no political parties, free elections, independent media or trade unions and deprives women and gays of their most basic rights.

The invitation to King Abdullah reflects the double standards of the British Government which talks about promoting human rights, but allows the economic interests of oil multinationals and the defence industry to dictate our foreign policy.

The full text of EDM 2102: State Visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reads as follows:
“That this House notes with concern the state visit of King Abdullah bin Abdul Azaz al Saud of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom on 30th October 2007; believes that Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive societies on earth, with no political parties, free elections, independent media or trade unions; views with alarm the systematic human rights abuses that exist within the Kingdom, such as the lack of basic rights for women, the practice of public beheadings and the repression of homosexuals; condemns the recent sale of 72 Eurofighters to such a barbaric regime; and calls upon the British Government to base its foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia on democracy and human rights rather than on narrow economic interests.”

Thursday 11 October 2007

Brwon Must Intervene to Resolve Postal Services Industrial Dispute

On Moday I spoke at a packed rally of postal workers in Central Hall Westminster alongside Billy Hayes General Secretary of CWU, Tony Benn and Mark Serwatka from PCS in support of the postal workers strike action. It is clear that the union has co-operated throughout in working to secure a settlement to this dispute on the basis of a modern, effective postal service. Indeed it is the union that has over a number of years proposed investment plans for the improvement and extension of services to ensure that Royal Mail remains an effficient and competitive community service.

I am increasingly convinced that the management of Royal Mail is aiming to force through as part of this dispute a casualisation of the workforce, resulting in lower pay, longer hours and an erosion of pensions and working conditions. Management has already taken a "you'll do as I tell you, what I tell you and when I tell you" attitude to the workforce resulting in a series of spontaneous unofficial strikes across the country.

The Government has introduced legislation allowing a creeping privatisation of postal services.The private sector is able to cherry pick the most profitable contracts and ultimately undermine this essential community service. The management's response to this pressure is to seek cuts in wages and conditions - a race to the bottom.

However, the current dispute isn't just about wages and working conditions, it is also about the future of the postal service itself.

The Government owns the Royal Mail. It is the sole shareholder. That is why the responsibility falls on Gordon Brown's shoulders to intervene to resolve this dispute.

Yesterday I tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons calling upon the Prime Minister to intervene. So far all he has done is call upon the CWU members to go back to work.

I think it is time the Prime Minister got to work on this issue. That is what leadership is all about.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

First Response to Pre Budget Report.

This is the first response to the Government's Pre Budget Report I put out yesterday afternoon and which appears on the New Statesman's online edition. A further article should appear on the Guardian's Comment is Free website early this morning. My overall theme is that I can't see what the Government's agenda is for the future except shadowing the Tories and continuing with the neo liberal consensus.

New Statesman Online Published 09 October 2007

Mixed reactions to Alistair Darling's first Pre-Budget Report from John McDonnell, Martin Salter, Jo Swinson, Derek Wall and Frank Field
We asked UK politicians with a variety of perspectives to react to Alistair Darling's first Pre-Budget Report

John McDonnell, former Labour leadership hopeful and MP for Hayes and Harlington
Electioneering for an election that never happened dominated both the Chancellor’s pre-budget statement and the Tories’ response. The knockabout farce that comprised the debate had less to do with real needs of our community and more to do with political positioning by the Government in response to the Tories' party conference policy announcements.
The good news is that after the vigorous campaign by trade unions and tax justice groups for the past two years to end the tax loopholes being exploited by private equity companies, the Government has at long last taken action. The bad news is that the Government has bottled it when it comes to addressing similar tax avoidance by mega rich non-domiciles. Instead of action after four years of a Treasury review the best the Chancellor can offer is yet another consultation with proposals to let the rich off the hook yet again..
Inequality is still the elephant in the room, and there was nothing in these statements which will effectively tackle poverty or reduce inequality.

Sunday 7 October 2007

General Election Fiasco: Squandering People's Goodwill.

Just for the record this is what I said yesterday as the general election story unfolded.

In the morning I sent out the following press release.

Later that afternoon when the BBC reported that Gordon Brown had briefed them that the election was off I sent out a response set out below.

You can see I just thought what a mess. Gordon Brown promised change but we are back to spin and a continuation of the same policies. As many of us predicted we are sleepwalking towards a Tory government if there isnt real change in both policies and also in the attitude towards democracy and how we govern. The only way forward is to demonstrate real change by withdrawing from Iraq, ending privatisation, tacking inequality and restoring civil liberties and rights, and reasserting democracy in both our party and in our country. If we do this people may start trusting a Labour government again

Press Release issued Saturday morning:

As time Labour MP, John McDonnell, Accuses Brown Team of Presenting the Tories with an Open Goal.

John McDonnell Labour MP and former candidate for the Labour leadership commented today that many in the Labour Party were losing patience at the inept handling of the election issue by the inexperienced Brown team, accusing them of squandering the peoples goodwill during the Brown honeymoon period and presenting the Tories with an open goal.

John said “As a result of weeks of inept tactical gameplaying by Brown's inexperienced team we have reached a point where the Prime Minister either calls an election in the face of volatile polls and unnecessarily risks a Labour Government or backs down and looks both opportunist and weak.Just when the weakness of the Tories could have been consolidated, the Prime Minister and his team of political testosterone-filled young men have presented the Tories with an open goal and offered them a chance of revival.Confidence in a leader and a government once lost are almost impossible to regain. The incompetent handling of the last few weeks by the Brown team has squandered the good will people felt towards Labour as a result of Tony Blair going.It is time to just get back to serving the people and governing the country.”

Press Release two issued Saturday afternoon:

Labour MP and former Labour Leadership Candidate, John McDonnell, describes the Prime Minister’s Election Climbdown as an utter Fiasco

John McDonnell MP said This climbdown is an utter fiasco. After weeks of political gameplaying by the inexperienced, testosterone fuelled young men in Browns team we have presented the Tories with an own goal, making a Labour leader look weak and re-associating the party with spin. The incompetent handling of the last few weeks has squandered the good will the people of this country felt towards Labour as a result of Tony Blair going. It is time to get back to serving the people and governing the country.

Saturday 6 October 2007

As We Wait for the PM's Decision on an Unnecessary Election, the Business of Privatising under Brown Goes on as Usual.

Whilst the media is all consumed with whether Gordon Brown is about to risk a Labour Government with an unnecessary election, government policy rolls on as usual.For those who supported Brown because they thought that there would be a change in direction two largely unnoticed stories of the policy roll out under Brown remind us that the business of New Labour neo liberal politics goes on as normal.

Yesterday RMT published an analysis of the tax avoidance being used to boost the profits of the privatised railway companies. The research exposed that the private rail industry profits from £1.3 billion in unpaid tax and that these companies are using deferred-tax loopholes to fund a leap in dividends to their shareholders. RMT revealed that nearly half of the £1.5 billion in dividends paid out in the last five years by nine private train operators and rolling-stock companies has been funded by unpaid tax, according to a detailed analysis for RMT by tax expert Richard Murphy of Tax Research.

Richard Murphy confirmed that almost £1.3 billion of deferred tax is owed by the biggest six train-operating companies (Tocs) and the three rolling-stock leasing companies (Roscos) - but this is tax that will most likely never be paid, and is effectively a hidden subsidy that dramatically increases cash profit levels.The report shows that the nine companies declared profits almost doubled from £435 million in 2002 to £810 million in 2006, but their declared tax charges remained almost constant at about £190 million a year throughout the period. The declared percentage rate fell from 43 per cent in 2002 to 24 per cent in 2006.

If people were also looking forward to Brown pulling back on the privatisation agenda they will also be disappointed to hear that Alan Johnson has announced this week that £70 billion worth of new contracts for the management and commissioning of NHS services are to be put out to the private sector.What this means in my area is that BUPA is being given half a million pound contract to vet whether a patient really needs the operation at the local hospital that their consultant has recommended. If BUPA says no they get a cut of the money saved from the operation not going ahead. And oh yes, if the patient is unhappy, then there is always a BUPA hospital on hand to offer the operation at a price. UNISON has expresed the union's concerns at this latest round of privatisation and profiteering from the NHS.

Who did the UNISON leadership insist on backing for Labour leader?

Of course, Gordon Brown, the architect of this policy. As someone once said "It's a funny old world." Not so funny though for the patients who will not receive their treatment and the UNISON members whose jobs are being privatised by this latest round of sell offs under Brown.

Friday 5 October 2007

Hypeing up an Early Election Just Presents the Tories with an Open Goal.

From early September through the TUC and on to the Labour Party conference it must have seemed to Gordon Brown, but more importantly to his acolytes, that they were infallible, could do no wrong when it came to political gameplaying. And why not? The polls told them so.

So what better than to hype up the possibility of an imminent general election to wrongfoot the Tories. When the political tetosterone filled young men surrounding Gordon Brown sped round the Labour party conference briefing the media on the potential dates for an election in November it must have seemed such fun.

Unfortunately some of them started believing their own propaganda on their omniscient political talent and became turboed up for an immediate election. As a result the prospect of a general election gained an almost unstoppable momentum of its own.

The next week was filled with a public relations strategy which was little more than a crude political painting by numbers. The headlong rush of policy announcement after policy announcement on everything from Crossrail to Adazi's health proposals was rather obvious. The Prime Minister's timely trip to Iraq during Tory Party conference risked being interpreted as political opportunism but was overshadowed by the bizarre spinning of the scale of the planned troop withdrawal which became reminiscent of dodgy dossier calculations.

The Tories reacted in the only way that they could -" Bring it on!"

As a result of this inept tactical posturing by Brown's inexperienced team we have reached a point where the Prime Minister either calls an election in the face of volatile polls and unecessarily risks a Labour Government or backs down and looks both opportunist and weak.

Just when the weakness of the Tories could have been consolidated the Prime Minister and his team of arrogant young men have presented them with an open goal and offered them a chance of revival.

Confidence in a leader and a government once lost are almost impossible to regain. The inept handling of the last few weeks by the Brown team has jeopardised the good will people felt towards Labour as a result of Tony Blair going.

It is time to just get back to serving the people and governing the country.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

New Routes for the Left Emerging

After the events at the TUC and the Labour Party conference it is time for the Left to take a hard nosed look at where we go from here. First of all we have to face up to the harsh realities of the new political world in which we are operating.

The historical path of the Left stems from working people coming together in the workplace and discovering their strength through solidarity. Nourished by socialist ideas they recognised that if they wanted to exercise power beyond the workplace they needed political representation and so the Labour party was born. Democratic party structures were established to develop the policy programmes to be implemented when power was achieved.

This week's vote to close down democratic decision making at the Labour party conference and Gordon Brown's first leader's speech demonstrated that the old strategy is largely over. The conference is now virtually irrelevant and its replacement, the National Policy Forum, is a behind closed doors exercise of centralised control of party policymaking.

Brown's speeches at both the TUC and Labour conference demonstrated decisively how much he fundamentally believes in the principles of neo liberalism - the dominance of the market, flexible labour and privatisation. Even if there was the potential to use what is left of the party's structures to attempt to influence him, it is clear that the overall political direction of the Brown government is non negotiable.

The Left has the difficult task of accepting and explaining to others that the old routes into the exercise of power and influence involving internal Labour Party mobilisations and manoeuvres have largely been closed down. We have to face up to the challenge of identifying and developing new routes into effective political activity.

The contradiction is that the more undemocratic the Labour Party becomes the more it cuts itself off from the real world at a time when new social movements are emerging. People may be increasingly giving up on political parties but they haven't given up on politics. They still want to challenge the injustices they meet in our society and they are devising a multitude of mechanisms to do so from indy media and climate camps to affinity groups organising direct action.

New social movements have mobilised on a vast array of issues ranging from climate change, asylum rights, to housing and arms sales. Many trade unions have also rediscovered their roots as social movements themselves in their new campaigns on everything from private equity to the exploitation of migrant workers. New alliances are being forged and where trade union leaderships have been incorporated as supporters of the status quo, rank and file activity within their unions is re-emerging and organising.

The difficult task for the Left now is to appreciate that new strategies, new coalitions of forces and above all else a new dynamism are needed to deal with the new political environment where the traditional routes have been so narrowed. The Left needs to open itself to co-operation with progressive campaigns within our community, learning from them, treating them with mutual respect, rejecting any patronising or sectarian approach, and where needed to serve as the catalyst to instigate and facilitate campaigning activity. Creativity is also needed to stimulate the analysis, debate and discussion of the ideas and principles which we may share in our wish to transform our society.

The main political parties are increasingly seen as irrelevant to the real world issues facing our communities resulting in declining participation rates and election turnouts and deepening scepticism. This doesn't mean people are apathetic. Far from it. There is a growing radical nature to our times and an opportunity for a period of exciting, frenetic activity capable of creating a climate of progressive hegemony which no government could immunise itself from no matter how ruthlessly it closes down democracy in its own party.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.