What we need: unity against austerity

The spectre of austerity haunts Europe. It poses no doubt an existential, as well as an economic, political and social threat. The take-up across the continent of impoverishment as an economic policy became a recipe for failure, as much of the trade these countries did between each other broke down. The seams of society are on the verge of breaking, as the economic situation puts many in poverty, thus straining the bonds of solidarity, and feeds long-forsaken tensions, many of which nationalistic. Incumbent governments everywhere around Europe are being voted out, and their replacements are briefed against their aspirations for alternative.

There is an image of unavoidability that is projected in a deliberate attempt to suppress calls for change. But this suppression is increasingly explicit and unacceptable to a silent majority of Europeans whose aspirations to a decent standard of living are being frustrated. As it becomes clear that the European Union, with Angela Merkel as its leading figure, are directly antagonistic to those aspirations, and actively and explicitly defeating them, diffidence and even suspicion against the European project becomes an increasingly popular sentiment.

A unity against austerity is required to give voice to this silent majority. This unity should come from all sectors of civil society – from political parties and independent citizens. It should come from all sectors of the political spectrum – from the far-left, to the center-left parties of the social democratic tradition, and even including those on the right such as old Christian Democrats who recognize that impoverishment is no solution to this crisis.

This coalition, which some might call a Popular Front, must be as broad as possible. But it must also be firm in its rejection of austerity, of any sort or dimension, anywhere in Europe, and it must be unmoveable in its commitment to an effective welfare state. There is no point in mobilizing against Austerity just to betray the hopes of those we have inspired. In Italy, the lack of cohesiveness of Bersani’s electoral coalition and his own indecisive positions regarding austerity delivered an electoral performance that was far weaker than expected and to post-electoral difficulties in forming a government. Likewise, with Hollande, who flip-flopped on a number of issues, such as the fiscal compact treaty, that severely limited the budgetary discretion of governments, effectively turning his back on all those who had placed hopes on him for a different Europe.

These failed attempts are however evidence that there is some movement toward mobilization. Our mission is none other than to defeat austerity and rescue the future for the 99%. In my home country of Portugal, this is the direction of movement for many leading figures of the Left. Recently, the founding father of Portuguese Democracy, and former President and Prime Minister, Mário Soares, brought together all three major parties to the left of center in a great meeting on ‘defeating Austerity’. While the meeting was powerful, none of the parties made themselves represented by frontbenchers. Meanwhile, Seguro, the Leader of the Opposition, actively considers partnering with the austerity-addicted Right in future governments.

In the Portuguese Right too, much criticism has been made of the Portuguese government’s masochistic lust for pursuing austerity far beyond the troika’s demands. The coalition that holds up the government is fragile, and there is an army of politicians from the right-wing coalition who are standing up and vochally opposing austerity. But many have focused their criticisms not on the government they support but rather on the troika – who manages the bailout. In a recent column Pedro Marques Lopes, an influential liberal commentator who has turned increasingly to the left, wrote that these politicians know that their words are to no avail, and that the government will not change its policy. Marques Lopes criticizes them justly for simply lacking the guts to be any clearer in their criticisms of government policy. While unity of action is getting closer, it is still far away, and will remain so as far as unity of purpose remains disparate.

The biggest threat for anti-austerity unity, in Portugal and indeed across Europe, is the discourse of ‘fiscal credibility’. This spiel, that has infested the Labour Party and a number of other center-left parties across Europe, says that we cannot commit to stopping austerity as we will need to continue to cut down the deficit. Suffice to say it should make any respectable left-wing activist livid. First, because we all know it means further privatisation and dismantlement of vital public services. But second, and most importantly, because we know its self-defeating. No country has ever reduced their debt by throwing itself down an abyss of poverty. There is no phrase more accurate to describe austerity than economic suicide, no matter how much ‘lite’ or protracted the austerity is.

More than ever, we need in Europe citizens with the courage to stand up against this false discourse of ‘fiscal credibility’ and reclaim the term for the fight against austerity. The time demands of us that we put aside our differences. This historical moment demands unity of action and unity of purpose. But will Europe and the Europeans rise up to the challenge of its time?

A UKIP surge?

“A bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” said David Cameron in 2006, when asked his thoughts on the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

Seven years later, David Cameron’s Conservative Party has suffered local election defeats, amid a surge for a party, which is, in essence anti-European and anti-immigration. UKIP has polled on average of 26 per cent where they stood candidates and they came second in the South Shields Parliamentary by-election; this will undoubtedly, be the biggest story of Thursday’s local elections.

We have seen just this week the extent to which the media have been pushing UKIP, with stories about candidates with anti-Semitic views, believing that homosexuality can be cured through exercise and images of members pictured doing Nazi salutes.  These images speak volumes about the type of party UKIP are. With their anti-immigration, anti-European stance, it is fair to say that the people voting for them in places like Essex, Norfolk and Lincolnshire are choosing a clear set of policies on these issues.  It would be right to say therefore, that UKIP are more than just a protest party and this is more than just an anti-political election.

The changes to the political landscape where by UKIP is able to pick up seats in key marginal constituencies shows that immigration is an issue on the doorstep.  The concern then has to be that UKIP will be able to play a role in setting the political agenda on immigration thus allowing the Conservative Party’s scapegoating of immigrants from Easter Europe and other places to continue.

On Europe, UKIP voters clearly would like to see a new relationship with the European Union.  This means that we need to have a proper and balanced conversation about this as we now build towards the European Elections of May 2014.

I have written before about how the spin and rhetoric around Labour’s policy ideas on immigration and the need not to pander to the right wing press.  We should be making the positive case for immigration, telling the voting public about the benefits it brings, economically, social and culturally.  It is imperative, that now more than ever before, as we see voters turning to UKIP that we develop a coherent set of policies which allow everyone to share in the benefits of immigration whilst making sure that we have a clear and concise message for the doorstep.  One thing is for sure is that if the Labour Party continues its current messages around immigration we won’t win the argument on the doorstep.

Next Wednesday, Next Generation Labour will be holding a meeting at this crucial time to further discuss the Conservative scapegoating of immigrants with the backdrop of these local election results.  Further information about the meeting can be found here.

New EU Health Regulations – improving patients’ rights or more NHS privatisation in disguise?

It is appalling that the recent NHS privatisation regulations have now been passed, despite a broad-based and vigorous campaign against them.

The Regulations, made under Section 75 of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, essentially require all NHS services to be put out to competition unless there is only one provider capable of delivering them.

As Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, has pointed out, with these changes the legal framework for a publicly provided, publicly managed, publicly planned and democratically accountable health service has been removed.

At a UK level, the only solution to this situation now is for an incoming Labour Government to reverse comprehensively the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and associated secondary legislation. But we must also go further and seek to re-examine and eliminate the purchaser / provider split wherever we can and in whatever timescale is feasible.

Against this background it remains important in the meantime that we are vigilant about European Union legislation that can impact negatively on our public services, health included.

To give one current example, the Department of Health is currently consulting until 24 May on the draft NHS (Cross-Border Health Care) Regulations 2013.

Although health services are largely excluded from EU competence, there have been moves for many years to try and open up the single market approach to healthcare provision, and to let in more competition by private providers based in other member states.

EU citizens already can obtain European Health Insurance Cards to ensure they can get urgent medical treatment when in another member state. So far, so good.

And the new draft Cross-Border Health Care Regulations are aiming to bring into force a 2011 EU Directive that gives patients ostensibly reasonable sounding rights to access planned healthcare treatment in other European countries.

But in reality, the Regulations do little more for patients than clarify rights in existing EU legislation and case law. They certainly do not address the problems of widening health inequalities within the EU, and the fact that those from poorer countries will still not be enabled to access much needed specialist treatment elsewhere.

And buried in the impact assessment accompanying these official regulations (at p.23), there is a section explaining the real drivers. This section emphasises the potential for increasing competition amongst UK and EU healthcare providers and diversifying income streams for domestic private providers.

It is vital that Labour and other concerned campaigners lobby to get the regulations changed so that the Directive is brought into effect in the least damaging way possible. One option would be to argue that prior authorisation procedures should have the highest possible safeguards against funding private treatment overseas and it should not be authorised unless the NHS is incapable of providing the required treatment.

In the longer term, these regulations illustrate yet again that Labour and Socialist MEPs must work together to change the basis of the EU attitude on public services to one of solidarity and fair access for citizens and not as a market for companies to make profits.

Lucy Anderson is a Labour MEP candidate for London and a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum Health and Care Commission