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Challenging capitalism

A wide consensus for renationalisation of utilities is a signal to Labour, writes JEREMY CORBYN

Westminster Bridge in the shadow of Parliament was blocked by hundreds of People's Assembly protesters last night with police consent.

A parallel crowd met in Trafalgar Square and went to Downing Street to send a similar message for the Prime Minister.

A ceremonial bonfire of electricity and gas bills in the middle of the bridge came days after the six giant energy companies were summoned in front of MPs to explain their massive profits, corporate pay levels and future predictions following Ed Miliband's announcement of a freeze on bills should Labour wins the next election.

The political atmosphere is certainly changing very fast.

On the one hand Russell Brand was allocated a lengthy interview on Newsnight and proceeds calls for some unspecific form of revolution.

Then last weekend there was a choice of three significant events all addressing political alternatives to the government's austerity programme.

The 21st Century Marxism event at the Marx Memorial Library and neighbouring venues presented an opportunity for a in-depth analysis of the poverty created as a result of market forces being applied to the British economy.

Union-backed think tank Class also held a large conference at TUC Congress House which looked at political and economic alternatives to what is happening at the present time.

And at nearby London University a student assembly against austerity brought together crowds of people currently in education but who are worried about job opportunities and debt levels when they graduate.

Opinion polls regularly show that an overwhelming majority of people believe that utilities monopolies such as gas, water, electricity, post and railways should be publicly owned. The campaign to bring them back is gathering momentum.

The logic of doing so is beyond question.

Without exception, the major electricity, gas, water and railway infrastructures of Britain were built through public investment since the end of WWII and were all privatised at knock-down prices for the benefit of greedy asset-strippers by the Thatcher and Major-led Tory governments.

We've all been paying the price ever since with only a pretence of competition between energy providers.

Enormous profits are being dragged out of the water industry by hedge funds that pretend to be providing a quality water service.

The limited regulation contained in the privatisation legislation is clearly ineffective in protecting the consumer. It's high time to move public ownership firmly to the centre of the political agenda.

Labour should commit itself to taking Royal Mail back into public ownership and ensuring that rip-offs are not subsidised by the taxpayers of Britain.

So far Ed Miliband has launched a campaign aimed at the cost of living. It's quite clear that, during a period of so-called austerity, prices are rising in line with the more accurate retail price index and not the consumer price index favoured by government when calculating benefits and government expenditure.

While Miliband's campaign is welcome and helps to expose the political and social agenda of the coalition, Ed Balls's acceptance that an incoming Labour government would try to work within the spending levels set by the outgoing Tory government is no recipe for electoral success, much less a redistribution of wealth.

There seems to me to be a public thirst for a far more radical social and economic agenda - one that addresses the housing crisis faced by so many people and the employment crisis, particularly of young people.

A significant number of the latter group are being stripped of benefits for allegedly not being active enough in looking for work.

Figures released yesterday show that nearly a million people have lost benefits altogether by the application of this formula.

A great example of the way in which a free-market economy seeks to invest little and exploit a great deal can be found in the behaviour of the payday loan companies led by Wonga, but with many others not far behind.

When being interviewed at the House of Commons business select committee a representative of Wonga, Harry Raine, seemed to think it important to say: "We don't accept our charges are extortionate or that we are a rapacious organisation."

An extraordinary comment.

This weekend the Labour Against Austerity conference will be held at Birkbeck College, supported by a number of unions including Unite.

This will be an opportunity for Labour Party members and affiliated unions to play a serious part in trying to redefine economic policy to make sure an incoming government is committed to ending the austerity programme and instead to develop an economy based on reducing inequality and investing in housing and necessary infrastructure as being the motive for regeneration.

 

When the Olympic games were awarded to London there was concern about the behaviour of contractors and the costs of building all of the facilities.

The excellent influence of Ken Livingstone as mayor at the time ensured that there was union representation and proper health and safety conditions on all Olympic sites.

It was a poignant moment when Danny Boyle's brilliant opening ceremony welcomed a huge phalanx of construction workers into the stadium to thank them for their efforts.

In stark contrast Qatar, which has been awarded the 2022 football World Cup, has a very different approach to employment conditions and the safety of its workers.

Most of them lack status, having had their passports withheld. This turns them into slave workers. There have been and continue to be many casualties resulting from dangerous working practices.

Following a protest outside the Qatar embassy by the Nepalese community - acting in solidarity with many other migrant construction workers - I tabled the following parliamentary motion.

"This House expresses its deep concern at reports of the ill treatment of migrant workers in Qatar on construction projects in preparation for the World Cup in 2022; calls on the government of Qatar to guarantee all International Labour Organisation conditions, including the right to join and be represented by an independent trade union for all migrant workers, and enable an independent investigation into reports of slave conditions, withholding of passports and due wages by employers; and further calls on the Government to make urgent representations to the government of Qatar."

The London-based artist Sabash Thebe summed the situation up.

"I find it hard to believe that in the 21st century people are living in such conditions and not even receiving a paycheque for their work," he said. "It's disgusting.

"This is not just about Nepali workers - there are Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, people from many different countries working on building sites in Qatar. We must speak out for them too."

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