Europe Without Greece in Unthinkable

Labour Party

Speaking in the debate following Alexis Tsipras’ address to the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, Leader of the Socialist and Democrat Group, made it clear that Greece must not leave the European Union.

Despite the rare political firestorm which followed his speech, the Greek Prime Minister was generally in a relatively conciliatory mood. Once his ritual moan about the state of Greece – public debt at 180 per cent with increased poverty and unemployment – he conceded the need for reform

Tsipras demanded an agreement which would allow Greece to exit from its present crisis. He told the European Parliament that reform was required and that such reform should be credible and necessary.

Such realism was, indeed, sorely needed following the start of the Greek PM’s speech when he warned against Greek migrants leaving their country for other parts of Europe and referred to Greece as an “austerity laboratory”.

There were, inevitably, other references to the Greece’s financial and social state. Later on the Tsipras talked about the 7.2 billion euros disbursement and the requirement to pay back 17.5 billion euros. The past five years, he said, had been a huge burden on the Greek people

Yet there was a very real upside. As Gianni Pittella said in his intervention: “The conditions are there for an agreement this week”. Proposals from the Greek government had been submitted yesterday. While Greece rightly wants growth and sustainability, they now appear to be willing to enter constructive negotiations which will, hopefully, have at their heart restructuring the debt, support for Labour and measures against tax evasion. Jean-Claude Juncker has, in fact, showed considerable tenacity in moving Greece towards an agreement

Tsipras embraced the need to deal with tax evasion and corruption. Like a true Communist he blamed both what he called the oligarchs and, of course, previous Greek governments. In all fairness he does have a point if the statistic that 10 per cent of Greeks own 56 per cent of the national wealth is correct

Unsurprisingly Tsipras claimed that, following the referendum, the Greek government had a mandate from the Greek people. However, this is open to dispute. A hastily called plebiscite without time for all points of view to be heard may be not be a very democratic option according to Peter Kellner.

Unusually the European Parliament erupted in the debate after the Greek PM had spoken. Manfred Weber, Leader of the centre-right European People’s Party, accused Tsipras of not telling the truth to the Greek people and destroying confidence in Europe.

In the absence of the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) Leader British Conservative Sayed Kamall, his stand-in Mr Legutko said there was something rotten in the state of Greece with the European Union reaping the sour fruits of the original sin of currency union. Legutko’s contrived points only go to show that the ECR and the Tories  care more about their dogmatic views on the European Union than the need to find a workable settlement in Greece

As we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, life now is better than in 1952

Labour Party

Peter Kellner’s recent commentary on the polling YouGov has done for the Diamond Jubilee tells us that people show cheer towards the royals but pessimism as to whether life has really improved since 1952.

There appears to be some kind of collective nostalgia for the 1950s, which I believe is completely misguided. For a series of reasons, people choose to see the post-war years through glasses so tinted with rose they become totally opaque.

I was there. Born between Queen Elizabeth acceding to the throne in February 1952 and her coronation in June 1953, I attended primary school in from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. I suppose you could call these my formative years, and I have many memories of the way people lived then which I am very glad have changed for the better.

First and foremost, it was cold. The 1950s were still the era of the coal fire, which was fine for the room where the fire was lit. In cold weather going from one room to another could be like a trip to the arctic, as were the bedrooms. Heating upstairs was simply not done. We slept in the cold with extra blankets (duvets were still long into the future), bed-socks and even night-caps if you couldn’t bear tentacles like ice seeping through you.

While on the subject of cold, I remember icicles on the bedroom windows regularly in winter. At my primary school’s nineteenth century building the free school milk – one of the great benefits of the time – sometimes froze in the bottles as it was stored ready for us to drink at the morning break. The school lavatories also deserve a very dishonourable mention. Not only were they outside and therefore very cold for quite a lot of the year, they also lacked wash basins. As children at school, hygiene quite simply was not an option.

This takes me on to what I believe was the real scourge of the 1950s – poor health and illness. Killer diseases existed in large numbers. Children died of polio, and I remember seeing enough adults with disabilities caused by polio not to be surprised by them. Many serious illnesses for which there are now vaccinations were rife in the 1950s. I had whooping-cough, measles, mumps, rubella and, on one occasion, pneumonia. This was not unusual and I was not a specially sickly child.

These serious health problems should be looked at in conjunction with the low-level conditions which were suffered by very many people. Chronic bronchitis was everywhere as were other respiratory problems caused by the cold and the high levels of air pollution which caused smog. Small irritants such as chilblains brought on by the cold were universal. I challenge any young person to describe chilblains as they simply will not have seen them.

As if this were not enough, there were quite simply not the opportunities people have now. I was unusual in that my first trip to continental Europe was at the age of 11. Many never went abroad at all or did not manage it until their 20s or later. Neither was there the ability to travel in the UK we have now. Car ownership was much lower; my family did not have a car for some of the 1950s and early 60s. Although the train service was more comprehensive in terms of branch lines serving small places, it took a very long time to go any distance. The result was people stayed in their own areas, only venturing out for a summer holiday if they were lucky.

The YouGov poll shows people think Britain’s standing in the world was much higher in the post-war years that it is now. This is undoubtedly true, and maybe it’s this perceived loss of imperial power that is at the root of the problem. However, the huge advantages since the 1950s introduced almost exclusively by Labour governments – the National Health Service, the social security safety net, higher levels of equality in education and at the workplace, an improvement in the position of women – I believe outweigh the downside that Britain is no longer the world leader. We are still a world leader. I’d rather be slightly lower down the world pecking order and warm and healthy than right at the top with the risk of debilitating disease or worse.

More women at Davos but not enough standing in Oldham

Labour Party

It may well be that turn-out in today’s by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth will be the determining factor and respected leading pollster Peter Kellner has already made this point on LabourList. As they say, all we can do is wait, apart, that is, from encouraging people to vote Labour.

It may have escaped your notice that all the mainstream party candidates are men apart from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams. While entirely predictable, it’s a sure sign that party politics in the UK is still a very much a male preserve. Although I obviously want a Labour victory I would also hope to have seen more women on the ballot paper. 

Yet there in one organisation in the news today which is determined to see women playing their full part. According to the Guardian the World Economic Forum has introduced a gender quota demanding that its strategic partners, including Barclays, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, must bring along at least one woman in every group of five senior executives sent to next week’s high profile meeting at Davos in Switzerland. Since these strategic partners make up about 500 of the 2500 participants at Davos, this is a significant move in getting more women involved.

About time too. The annual Davos gathering has always been far too male dominated as indeed is the whole financial sector. Less than three percent of chief executives of the top 500 companies world-wide are female and only 15 percent of government and parliamentary positions are held by women. As far as the Davos meeting is concerned, between 2001 to 2005 the percentage of female attendees ranged from 15 percent to as little as nine percent.

 If the traditional and conservative world of finance is able to improve its gender balance, surely politics can do the same.