David Cameron at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference on 10 November. Photo: Getty
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Leader: David Cameron has no answers to the global crisis he describes

While highlighting dangers abroad, Cameron ignores those at home, including the long decline in living standards, the lack of investment and an overheated London property market.

Even before the damage from the last economic crisis has been repaired, the danger is growing of another. After briefly showing signs of recovery in 2013, the eurozone has slumped back into stagnation. Meanwhile, Japan has entered recession again, growth in China is slowing down and geopolitical threats proliferate.

David Cameron’s warning that “red lights are flashing on the dashboard of the global economy” was justified, even if his motives were primarily political. It is in the interests of the Conservatives for voters’ attention to be concentrated on this issue, rather than immigration, on which Ukip leads, and on the NHS, on which Labour does. By alerting the electorate that the storm has not passed, Mr Cameron aims to persuade them not to take a chance on the opposition at the general election. The hope is that a vote for Labour will appear too risky and that a vote for Ukip will appear too frivolous.

But if the Prime Minister’s jeremiad was politically astute it was also disingenuous. Having blamed the 2008 crisis on Labour’s profligacy, rather than global forces, he cannot now reasonably cite the same conditions as an alibi for the coming UK slowdown. While highlighting the dangers abroad, he ignores those at home, including the long decline in living standards, the lack of public and private investment and an overheated London property market.

Mr Cameron is correct to note the harm inflicted on Britain by the parlous state of the eurozone, our largest trading partner, but refuses to add that this results not from an absence of austerity (the policy he promotes for growth) but from a dangerous excess. As Mehdi Hasan writes on page 33, Europhiles should question their faith in an EU that has done so much to choke off demand in member states and so little to support it.

In these circumstances, voters in the UK and elsewhere are easily susceptible to populists and demagogues who seek to demonise immigrants. Politicians have spent a decade complaining that we do not talk about the issue. The truth is that many voters hear about little else. By too often reinforcing the myths about immigration, rather than challenging them, the two main parties jointly ensure that Ukip is the main beneficiary. No voter who heard Labour’s panicky pledge to ban migrants from claiming out-of-work benefits for two years after their arrival and to limit tax credits for those in employment would be reminded that migrants contribute considerably more in taxes than they receive in welfare payments. An OECD report last year, for instance, found that they make a net contribution to the UK of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn, because they are younger and more economically active than the population in general.

The truth, which almost no politician will dare utter, is that Britain will need more, rather than fewer, immigrants in the future to meet the challenge of an ageing population. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that should the UK maintain net migration of roughly 140,000 a year (significantly higher than the government’s target of “tens of thousands”), debt will rise to 99 per cent of GDP by 2062-2063. But should it cut net migration to zero, debt will reach 174 per cent.

The Conservatives never miss an opportunity to boast of their “long-term economic plan” and their commitment to balanced growth. But the gap between rhetoric and reality has seldom been greater. Fixated on their ideological commitment to achieve a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament, the Tories offer none of the innovative thinking required to remake the British economy for this new insecure era. After Mr Cameron’s cynical promise of £7bn of tax cuts, even their devotion to fiscal restraint is now questionable.

Rather than managing decline, both Britain and the eurozone need an ambitious programme for growth. In the absence of economic leadership, the world is likely to remain at best trapped in what Keynes called “the long, dragging conditions of semi-slump” and at worst caught in the rapids of another global crisis. 

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.